There will be few students of the New Testament who have not heard of Professor James D.G. Dunn let alone read some of his numerous writings. In a career that has spanned some 40 years, Dunn has made a deep and lasting impression on the field of New Testament studies. Through his numerous books, articles and commentaries, he has helped a generation of students and scholars to rethink a host of issues including the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, the Theology of Paul the Apostle, and Jesus. He has also been one of the major forces behind the New Perspective on Paul adding his voice to those of E.P. Sanders and N.T. Wright.
Can you tell us about your background? Where did you grow up? How did you meet Meta?
I was born in Birmingham, UK, but when my father died (I was 10 months old) the family moved back to just outside Glasgow, where I grew up. I met Meta through the Scripture Union Fellowship, which used to meet in Glasgow every Saturday during term time.Your first degree was in economics. What made you decide to switch to theology?
In the 1950s-60s divinity was a second degree – couldn’t do it as a first degree – since it was vocational (training for ministry in the Church of Scotland). For my first degree I wanted to do something which helped me understand better how the world/society worked – hence Economics and Statistics.
When you first began writing your focus was on the Holy Spirit and then Jesus. Why did you turn to a focus on Paul that lasted for quite some time?
I focused on the Spirit since I had always been interested in revival, and news from California at the time I was choosing a topic pointed me to the phenomenon of neo-Pentecostalism and baptism in the Spirit as possible signs of revival. I was glad to have a subject which took me across the NT and did not require me to specialize too narrowly. I have always regarded myself as a NT generalist. But Paul is such a crucial figure in the NT and beginnings of Christianity, that when I got more deeply into him, as I already had in Baptism and Jesus and the Spirit I found that he posed such substantial questions about the Spirit, spirituality, why the new movement opened the gospel to Gentiles, etc. that I had to focus on him.
I enjoyed writing them all, and many are items I return to frequently to refresh my memory on the issue, the relevant documentation and on what I had said. Graham Stanton said several years ago that his favourite Dunn book was Jesus and the Spirit and I feel much the same. But I feel good about my several commentaries, Partings, Theology of Paul and the two volumes of Christianity in the Making.
I am working on volume 3 of Christianity in the Making which is tentatively entitled ‘A Contested Identity’.
The debate/tension between historical critical and other (narrative readings, etc) will continue, as also that between a theological approach to the text and a merely descriptive, sociological approach. Hengel and others swung the pendulum back towards a thorough setting of the text in historical context. But it needs others with a similar mastery of ancient sources and ability to mount coherent arguments to prevent the pendulum swinging too far back again. The real vitality of the discipline depends on a large proportion of the practitioners having a faith-informed and faith-seeking-understanding approach and able to communicate the importance of that dialogue to others.
What advice would you give to someone looking to follow a path towards becoming a New Testament scholar?
Ask questions which are important to you, questions which you want answers for. That way study of the text will always be fascinating, with questions opening new perspectives and posing further questions. I assume a good knowledge of the biblical languages, of course, and easy familiarity with original source material.