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Searching the Gospels for evidence of historical events

The Evidence for Jesus, by James D.G. Dunn. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 113 pp. $9.95. Who was Jesus, and what was his message? Scholars have piled up mountains of research, particularly during the last century, attempting to answer these questions. Opinions run from accepting the Gospel accounts as verbatim reports of him to declaring that he never existed. Between these extremes, there is a group of mainstream scholars who have moved ``the quest of the historical Jesus'' in a variety of directions. Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, James Robinson, Ernst K"asemann, Norman Perrin, Howard Clark Kee, Stephen Neill, Raymond Brown, and a host of others agree that the man Jesus is a historical figure. They disagree on how much ``historical'' evidence for Jesus is contained in the Gospels.

Without training to distinguish between these more moderate views and radical, one-sided opinions, the person in the pew has become suspicious of New Testament scholarship. James D.G. Dunn, professor of divinity at the University of Durham, England, has produced a book that will help bridge the gap between the layman and the scholar. ``The Evidence for Jesus'' is the outcome of a series of lectures to an interfaith audience. Professor Dunn's direct approach to his subject exhibits a confidence gained from years of careful research coupled with thoughtful biblical and theological reflection.

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A chapter entitled ``The Gospels: Fact, Fiction or What?'' addresses the fundamental issue. Dunn shows that the Gospels are historical where history is important, for example, the teachings and healings of Jesus. Upon examination, the scholar finds that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are in such close agreement in these areas ``the likelihood [is] that we are confronted with a solid base of historical information.''

For the layman, Dunn opens a window into the world of the scholar. He shows how a gap of 30 to 40 years between Jesus and the written text, coupled with the problem of translation from one language to another, and the differing Gospel accounts, precludes an ``easy'' conclusion to the scholar's task. Quickly and skillfully he moves the reader from problem to solution by turning directly to the synoptic Gospel accounts. Through the use of Gospel parallels, the reader discovers that the details may differ but that the core of Jesus' teaching and practice are in agreement. Many and varied examples are offered as evidence that the meaning and substance of Jesus' original words have been faithfully transmitted, which was more important to the early Christians than verbal accuracy in the transmission.

The remaining chapters focus on three questions of critical concern to the Christian faith. Dunn responds with the same careful analysis of biblical evidence. In ``Did Jesus Claim to be the Son of God?'' the author helps the reader work through the problems confronted in the Gospel of John crucial to answering this question and concludes `` ... it was not the application of the title `Son of God' to Jesus which transformed Jesus from someone rather ordinary to someone unique ... it was the distinctiveness of Jesus which caused a rather more commonplace title to gain its note of exclusiveness. ... By its application to him `Son of God' came to signify the uniqueness which characterized Jesus' relationship to God.''

In ``What did the First Christians Believe about the Resurrection?'' Dunn makes a powerful case for the documentation of Jesus' resurrection soon after his death.

The final chapter discusses ``Earliest Christianity: One Church or Warring Sects?'' Here Dunn details the great variety within the early church. As New Testament documents show, ``Earliest Christianity was quite a diverse phenomenon ... what is written to these churches can speak all the more meaningfully and forcefully to us, because it is written to churches like ours.''

A skillfully and convincingly written book, free of jargon and personal persuasion, ``The Evidence for Jesus'' will be useful to lay persons and ministers, adult discussion groups and seminary students.

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