Meticulous, balanced, readable; Jesus Remembered is the first volume of Dunn’s monumental three volume history of the first 120 years of Christianity; an attempt “to give an integrated description and analysis, both historical and theological, both social and literary of the first 120 or so years of Christianity” (p. 6). Dunn believes “There are three great questions for students of Christianity's beginnings: (1) What was it about Jesus which explains both the impact he made on his disciples and why he was crucified? (2) How and why did it come about that the movement which took off from Jesus did not after his death remain within first-century Judaism and became unacceptable to emerging rabbinic Judaism? (3) Was the Christianity which emerged in the second century as a predominately Gentile religion essentially the same as its first-century version or significantly different in character and kind?” (p 3).
Dunn accepts Kenneth Bailey’s concept of “Informal [Community] Controlled Oral Tradition” which holds that “the character and emphasis of the saying is retained through stable words and phrases, while the point is elaborated in ways the reteller judged appropriate to the occasion” (p. 234). Thus, “the basic argument of this book can be summed up in a number of propositions. (1) The only realistic objective for any ‘quest of the historical Jesus’ is Jesus remembered. (2) The Jesus tradition of the Gospels confirms that there was a concern within earliest Christianity to remember Jesus. (3) The Jesus tradition shows us how Jesus was remembered; its character strongly suggests again and again a tradition given its essential shape by regular use and reuse in oral mode. (4) This suggests in turn that that essential shape was given by the original and immediate impact made by Jesus as that was first put into words by and among those involved or eyewitnesses of what Jesus said and did. In that key sense, the Jesus tradition is Jesus remembered. And the Jesus thus remembered is Jesus, or as close as we will ever be able to reach back to him” (p. 335).
Part One of the book traces the several “quests for the historical Jesus” from the Renaissance to the present and lays out the hermeneutical principles underlying Dunn’s own quest. Part Two examines the sources for this undertaking. Part Three looks at the mission of Jesus. Part Four probes Jesus’ self-understanding, and Part Five investigates the climax of Jesus’ mission: his crucifixion, resurrection, and the memories of him preserved in the early Jesus tradition.
A specialist will not agree with all of Dunn’s conclusions—he stands in the British tradition of moderate scholarship—but he has surveyed the range of scholarly opinion carefully, noting those who agree with his positions as well as those who disagree. In the process, he has developed some new evidence and arguments for older positions. However, I find it a bit disturbing that in his discussion of the hypothetical Q source, Dunn fails to mention, except in a brief footnote, alternative theories such as the Farrar hypothesis championed most recently by Mark Goodacre, whom he acknowledges in his preface. And his dismissal of the Fourth Gospel as a historical source comparable to the Synoptics, simply because its portrayal of Jesus’ life and teaching is different from that of the Synoptics, clearly begs the question. Nevertheless, Dunn’s 1000+ page Jesus Remembered is a highly readable, carefully balanced, and meticulous study of the earliest Jesus traditions, one well worth taking the time to read and consider carefully.