Professor Helen Bond, former CSCO Director and now Head of the School of Divinity at Edinburgh, took her PhD at Durham under the supervision of J. D. G. (Jimmy) Dunn, who died on 26 June. Here she recalls her friendship with Dunn.
I first came across Jimmy Dunn long before I knew who he was. I grew up in Durham and the University held an annual ‘discovery day’ for local school-children to come and see what it would be like to study Theology for a day. As an A-level Religious Studies student I went along with my friend (it was a day off school!), and we felt very grown up as we chose our lectures and sat in the raked seating, notebooks at the ready. We’d gone to a talk on the historical reliability of the empty tomb narratives, and I remember being struck by the clarity with which the Scottish professor delivered his material. So clear and persuasive were his arguments that I’ve remembered them ever since. Needless to say, I realised much later that the sprightly lecturer was none other than Jimmy Dunn.
The second time I met Jimmy I knew exactly who he was. I’d just graduated from St Andrews university and was interested in working for a PhD. I turned up at Abbey House (the Theology Department at Durham) in the hope of chatting to people there about where I should go. Within minutes of meeting Jimmy, though, my mind was made up. Of course I knew that he was a giant amongst scholars; I’d read his work on Christology, unity and diversity in the New Testament, and the ‘new perspective’ on Paul. What impressed me much more, though, was his enthusiasm, his straight-forward way of talking, and his ready humour. He occupied an impressive study at the front of the building, lined with books from top to bottom, and papers strewn all over the desk. When he stood up, though, I remember being surprised at how small and slight he was – somehow I’d expected the great man to tower above me.
I never regretted my choice of supervisor. Jimmy was unfailingly positive and encouraging; after a session with him I would – quite literally – skip down the street to gather an armful of books for my next chapter. He met with me every two weeks at first, and impressed on me the need to start with primary literature (something I hope I’ve instilled in my own students). I hope, too, that I learnt the importance of clear communication from him; Jimmy’s works are remarkably jargon-free, even when expressing the most complicated of ideas – and I know my love of italics is something I got from him! Jimmy and his devoted wife Meta were always gracious and hospitable, inviting doctoral students to their home (Jimmy on punch duty). We were all to bring food from our native lands; but as a north-easterner with no real kitchen facilities in my first year, I brought ‘stottie cakes’ (a large flat bread roll with fillings). Seeing the lavish displays brought by others I felt rather embarrassed at my poor offering, but Jimmy took the sandwiches and proceeded to tell everyone about ‘stotties’ – by the end they sounded quite exotic.
Jimmy was good at keeping in touch with former students. He’d always greet us with a huge bear hug, hosted the ‘Dunn Reunion’ at the SBL, and sent out Christmas letters with news and updates on his work and his family. He always remembered my husband’s name (another Scotsman) and asked after my parents (who are about the same age as he was). I was happy to contribute to a festschrift for him along with other former students in 2009, and more recently I was flattered that Jimmy sent me the manuscript of his 3-volume Christianity in the Making for comment. Such was Jimmy’s amazing productivity that I remember Meta once saying she thought he’d been up in his study writing one book but he’d come down and announced that he’d actually finished two!
With Larry Hurtado’s death last November and now Jimmy’s, it does feel as though a generation of great scholars are leaving us. Thankfully we have their books, and just as importantly their legacies live on in the scores of students they’ve inspired, whether or not they’ve followed them into the academy. Jimmy was Chaplain to overseas students at Edinburgh University from 1968-70, reminding us that his influence will stretch far beyond his native Glasgow to far distant shores.