In Memoriam: James D. G. Dunn (Eerdword)

james g d dunn

“Everyone enjoyed the evening with you. We are growing accustomed to your face, a custom which grows by what it’s fed on.”

So wrote Bill Eerdmans Jr. to “Dear Jimmy” Dunn on December 4, 1996, following up on a dinner at the SBL meeting at New Orleans a couple of weeks earlier. Bill had written to Jimmy the preceding November 1: “Dear Jimmy: Will you have time for a snort? A midday repast away from the maddening crowd? Or haute Cajun cuisine at some exquisite jazz scene that just may be too much to bear? Both [Eerdmans editor] John [Simpson] and Anita [Eerdmans] are interested in all the above. How about Meta [Dunn, Jimmy’s wife]? We will be staying at the Marriott.”

Numerous letters and visits between Bill and Jimmy, including I don’t know how many meals, generated a valued web of friendships between various Eerdfolk and Jimmy and Meta. I see references to dinners in Prague, in Strasbourg. There were others.

Like many of you, we learned yesterday, June 26, of Jimmy’s death.

Today, June 27, I stopped into the Eerdmans offices to photograph our archive copies of Jimmy’s books and spend an hour or so browsing a thick paper file containing much correspondence, on paper, from the 1990s. Bill still liked sending paper letters by airmail (or, as he joked, pneumatic tube)—even when a wrist injury deprived him temporarily of the services of his faithful secretary, “thus forcing me to reveal my irredeemably sophomoric handwriting.” But nevertheless legible!

james dunn's books

Increasingly letters were faxed. In one exchange, Bill complains that one of Jimmy’s faxes was of too poor quality to be legible. Jimmy apparently then offered to email it, but Bill replied: “I don’t have an E-mail address. Someone has to stop this torrent of junk mail, so I guess it’s me. Après moi le déluge.” So Jimmy tried another fax. “Sorry,” says Bill’s reply of November 14, 1996, “but your fax of November 8 resent is worse than the first. You can either try it again or save it for New Orleans. . . . Are your garbled faxes designed to move me into E-mail?” Jimmy mailed the original document. 

The 1996 New Orleans meeting marked the first appearance at an SBL annual meeting of Jimmy’s NIGTC commentary on Colossians and Philemon, published the preceding March, the first of a remarkable run of major works published with Wm. B. Eerdmans. That fall Jimmy was wrapping up his work on The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Editor-in-Chief Jon Pott wrote to Jimmy on February 7, 1997 “to acknowledge that Paul just sailed into our waters.” It was published around a year later.

And correspondence was already thick regarding a large collaborative project called “Commentary 2000” that Jimmy was editing for Eerdmans with John Rogerson. This would become the one-volume Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, an award-winning volume published in 2003 and still in print. Later years would bring Jimmy’s magisterial Christianity in the Making trilogy, whose third volume was published in 2015, his last major work. Beyond that, within my tenure at Eerdmans, Jimmy completed his last book, Jesus according to the New Testament, a review, especially for laypeople, of the effect of Jesus on the various NT writers, in which he also wanted “to make clear that the story doesn’t stop with the NT” (email, October 19, 2017). 

letter from James to Bill Eerdmans

The whole global fellowship of biblical-studies folk has long since, as Bill wrote 24 years ago, become accustomed to Jimmy Dunn’s face. Dale Allison spoke simply, and I think for many, when he replied to me today, on learning of Jimmy’s death, “I learned much from him, and he always seemed so full of life.” We have missed Jimmy’s face at recent conventions, and now his absence will be even more acutely felt. But the story of his effects on us and those who will follow does not stop now.

James Ernest and James G. D. Dunn

I asked my predecessor, Jon Pott, if he could contribute a couple of words, and I think what he provided will make an apt conclusion to this little reminiscence: “Jimmy Dunn was simply one of the great figures in the Eerdmans New Testament program, not only as a highly imaginative and magisterial scholar in his own right, but as a guide to and—given his eminence—a magnet for the best in scholarship elsewhere. Beyond being an author, Jimmy was a devoted friend to the Eerdmans program and, we liked to think, its ethos, his serious commitment to the academy and the church never preventing a little personable fun along the way! So always a lot of affection for him in our corridors, along with great regard and what can now only be sad gratitude. A wonderful author and friend.”

May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Thanks be to God.  

James Ernest 
Vice President, Editor-in-Chief


Books by James. D. G. Dunn on the Eerdmans website.

James D. G. Gunn and a decade of EerdWord: 

Originally posted on the Eerdword blog.

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