Friday, October 1, 2010

Taking time with James D.G. Dunn

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.

But for those of us who have had the opportunity to know Professor Dunn personally he is simply Jimmy. His influence is found not just in his writings but in the warm, genuine relationships that he cultivates with just about everyone he meets. Along with him is his wife Meta, who is just as warm and is quick to remember the name of your spouse or your children and some specific detail from when she last saw you.

Jimmy and Meta have been living in retirement for about seven years. They recently moved from Durham, where Jimmy was the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham. But this has not slowed them down. They keep a busy travel schedule and Jimmy is prolific as ever. Among his post-retirement projects is his three volume series Christianity in the Making.

I recently asked Jimmy if he would take a few moments to answer some questions about his career, New Testament scholarship and the future of the field. Here is what he had to say.

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.

You have been fairly prolific with contributions across the spectrum of NT studies. I wonder if there is any one contribution that stands out to you.

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.

You recently completed the second of your three volume series on Christianity in the Making as well as your thoughts on whether the first Christians worshipped Jesus. What is next for you?

I am working on volume 3 of Christianity in the Making which is tentatively entitled ‘A Contested Identity’.

A lot has changed in New Testament studies since you began your studies. Any thoughts on where you see the field going in the next 25 years?

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.

Thanks for your answers and the chance to get to know you a little bit better.


  1. John,

    thanks for this interview. My favorite part, "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." Well stated.

  2. John,

    Thank you for this wonderful conversation! What a great privilege and blessing to know Jimmy and Meta; both of them mentors in the best sense of the word. Glad you posted this interview.

  3. Fascinating interview… a couple of the comments will stick with me. Thanks for posting the interview.

  4. Thanks John ... good to see all the old connections - so where are Jimmy and Meta now?

  5. David,

    They have moved to the south of England to be closer to some of their children and grandchildren. I believe it is Chichester.

  6. Thanks a lot for this brief but informative interview. I like esp. Dr. Dunn's advice to aspiring NT scholars.
    Abraham M. Antony.

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