Daniel J. Harrington
Image

Who was Jesus, and what did he say and do? Was Jesus really raised from the dead? Why and when did Christians begin to worship Jesus? These questions go to the roots of Christian faith. The three massive books discussed here provide pertinent information and interpretive options that Christians today need for dealing with them. All three books are scholarly, positive, constructive and generally orthodox in their theology, and those who read through them carefully will want to consult them again later as interest or need arises.

 

At first glance, James D. G. Dunn’s Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans, 1019p, $55; 0802839312) looks like another “Jesus book” in a long series of such publications. But Dunn has a fresh perspective that makes good sense out of Jesus and the Jesus tradition. His basic thesis is that “the Jesus tradition is Jesus remembered” and that this is as close as we will ever be able to reach back to him. The point is that what we know about Jesus comes from what the early witnesses said about him, and the most reasonable assumption is that the stable core of their testimony offers a reliable picture of what Jesus said and did.

Dunn adopts the hermeneutical perspective of critical realism (based on the work of Bernard Lonergan, S.J.) with its emphasis on the dialogic nature of inquiry, and stresses the role of oral transmission in the early stages of the Jesus tradition. He contends that the tradition process began during Jesus’ own mission, not after Easter. He regards the Synoptic Gospels as the most reliable sources for discovering the Jesus tradition and the person behind it, and so—eager to situate Jesus in the context of first-century Judaism—he focuses on the characteristic emphases and themes of the Jesus tradition.

After reviewing the quest for the historical Jesus and delineating his own approach, Dunn treats the mission of Jesus—beginning with the baptism of John, the kingdom of God, the audiences for Jesus’ message, the character of discipleship, to the question of Jesus’ self-understanding (who others thought Jesus was, how Jesus saw his role) and the climax of Jesus’ mission (his death and resurrection).

Dunn, professor of New Testament at the University of Durham in England, intends this book as the first installment in a three-volume project entitled “Christianity in the Making.” He has been a productive and incisive New Testament scholar for more than 30 years, and this undertaking is his attempt to put together the history of Christianity between A.D. 27 and 150.

Jesus Remembered is both original and synthetic. Dunn’s concept of a stable but flexible oral tradition, careful analyses of parallel texts in the Gospels (including John and Thomas) and cautious but reasonable historical judgments make his work infomative and often exciting reading. The thousands of footnotes provide lists of pertinent texts, philological information, impressive bibliographies and sharp judgments on the work of other scholars. He notes in conclusion that “through the Jesus tradition the would-be disciple still hears and encounters Jesus.”

Dunn’s critics will question his reliance on oral tradition (always a slippery concept), ease in moving from the Jesus tradition to Jesus (Jesus remembered is something between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the Gospels) and appeals to the “stable core” of the Jesus tradition (Is this only an appeal to the least common denominator?).

While Dunn leaves off with an eloquent case for regarding resurrection as a “metaphor,” the second book in this trilogy challenges us to move beyond that vague term. Nicholas Thomas Wright, well known as a prolific and persuasive writer, lecturer and preacher, is now the Anglican bishop of Durham. He has embarked on a five-volume project entitled “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” The first two volumes appeared under the titles The New Testament and the People of God (1992) and Jesus and the Victory of God (1996). In this newest installment, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 817p, $49; 0800636155), he argues that the only possible reason why early Christianity began and took the shape that it did is that Jesus’ tomb was really empty, that people really did meet Jesus as alive again and that the best historical explanation for these phenomena is that Jesus was indeed raised bodily from the dead.

After setting the scene with reference to beliefs about the afterlife in ancient paganism, the Old Testament and postbiblical Judaism, Wright deals with the theme of resurrection first in Paul’s writings outside the Corinthian correspondence and then in 1 and 2 Corinthians, as well as Paul’s own experience of the risen Jesus. Next he discusses resurrection in early Christianity apart from Paul’s writings—that is, in Gospel traditions outside the Easter narratives, noncanonical early Christian texts and hope in the person of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Then after treating general issues about the Easter texts in the four canonical Gospels, the author considers the distinctive perspective on Jesus’ resurrection in each Gospel: fear and trembling (Mark), earthquakes and angels (Matthew), burning hearts and broken bread (Luke) and new day and new tasks (John). He concludes with observations on Easter and history and on the risen Jesus as the Son of God.

Wright defines resurrection as a new embodied life that follows whatever life after death there might be. With this clear and specific definition he is able to show that all the intimations of immortality from the Greco-Roman world that have been put forward to “explain” the resurrection of Jesus fail to do so. It also allows him to demonstrate how pivotal Dan 12:2-3 is in picking up earlier images about hope for Israel from the biblical prophets and in pointing forward to widespread belief in resurrection in various strands of postbiblical Judaism.

Paul’s letters from the early 50’s of the first century are the earliest complete documents in the New Testament. Wright calls upon them to illustrate how pervasive, at a very young stage in Christian history, were belief in Jesus’ resurrection and Christian hope for future embodied existence. For Paul and those whom he addressed, resurrection was more than a metaphor or a poetic way of speaking. Indeed, according to Wright, Paul’s firm convictions about resurrection came from his own experience of the risen Jesus having a transformed but still physical body.

While the Synoptic Gospels—apart from their Easter narratives—generally speak about resurrection in the context of Second Temple Judaism, in John and in almost all early Christian writings (besides some clearly gnostic works), the hope of resurrection remains constant into the third century, a hope based on the resurrection of Jesus. And in the development of Christology, Jesus’ resurrection vindicated or validated his messiahship and qualified him to be called Lord and described in terms usually applied to God.

In analyzing the empty tomb and appearance stories in each Gospel, Wright explains how the individual Evangelists shaped the traditions for their own theological purposes without destroying the underlying subject matter, and how they give every impression that they intended to refer to actual events that took place on the third day after Jesus’ death. Wright concludes that the combination of the empty tomb and the appearances of the living Jesus forms a set of circumstances—indeed the only set—that is itself both necessary and sufficient for the rise of early Christian belief.

The Resurrection of the Son of God provides a vigorous demonstration of what the New Testament says and does not say about the resurrection of Jesus and its significance for Christian life. Some critics contend that Wright “proves too much,” that he takes the biblical witness too literally and that he has an apologetic agenda. Whatever the merits of these critiques may be, he certainly does us the service of clarifying what the Scriptures teach about Jesus’ resurrection and explaining its central place in Christian existence.

While Wright highlights the pivotal role of Jesus’ resurrection in the early development of Christology and ends his book with a chapter on the risen Jesus as the Son of God, the third book in the trilogy takes up two questions that emerge where Wright leaves off: Did the earliest Christians worship Jesus? Did they regard him as divine? In Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 764p, $55; 0802860702), Larry W. Hurtado, professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, deals directly with these important and difficult issues in a comprehensive, learned and balanced way. He describes his work as a historical analysis of the beliefs and religious practices that constituted devotion to Jesus as a divine figure in earliest Christianity, and of the role of the figure of Jesus in the religious life and thought of the earliest Christians.

In treating the relevant sources from A.D. 30 to 170, Hurtado discusses devotion to Jesus in Paul’s letters and the traditions preserved in them; the Gospels (Q, Synoptics, John, other Jesus books); other canonical writings; “heretical” views (Valentinus, Marcion); and “proto-orthodox” Christianity. He argues that early Christians were proclaiming and worshiping Jesus, indeed living and dying for his sake, well before the doctrinal/credal developments of the second century.

There are three major theses in Hurtado’s work. First, devotion to Jesus (using terms, titles and concepts otherwise reserved for God) emerged very early in Christian history. In fact, it was there from the very beginning and reflects not so much a gradual development but rather an explosion. Second, there is no true analogy in the Jewish and Greco-Roman environment in the first century for the intensity and diversity of expression associated with early Christian devotion to Jesus. Third, this intense devotion to Jesus, which included reverencing him as divine, was offered and articulated within a firm stance of exclusivist monotheism.

In developing his case, Hurtado offers sound critical assessments of many contested issues pertaining to the New Testament and early Christian history. Although his critics may complain that he takes too benign a view of “proto-orthodoxy” and does not do justice to the more exotic strands within early Christianity, on the whole his positions seem true to the literary sources and historical data. His interpretations proceed more from a hermeneutic of reception or generosity than from a hermeneutic of suspicion that has become so prominent in other recent studies of these matters. Although intended as a historical analysis, Hurtado’s magnum opus not only has great relevance for theologians working on Christology, but also offers the general public what seems to me to be an accurate and stimulating account of what most early Christians understood and believed about Jesus, and how they experienced him in their worship.

There is no indication that Dunn, Wright and Hurtado coordinated their writings (they sometimes disagree with one another). Still, their books form a magnificent trilogy about the person of Jesus and his significance throughout Christian history.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., and general editor of New Testament Abstracts.

Recently in Culture