Review of The Resurrection of Christ (2008)

Matthew Green

 

 Review: Gerd Lüdemann. 2004. The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. 248 pp.

I am always pleased to read of people who have left the Christian faith and why they have left it. Of particular fascination are scholars who once considered themselves Christians but now have to stop thinking of themselves as such because sheer intellectual honesty demands it. This is what has happened to liberal theologian Gerd Lüdemann. A rising star in the field of New Testament theology, Lüdemann showed a lot of promise in his early career, even being made the director of an institute for early Christian studies in Germany. Lüdemann, however, has left the faith, like so many New Testament scholars these days. Almost all radical New Testament scholars and apostates were once former Christians, but have since renounced their evangelical past. Like his fellow apostates, Lüdemann believes that traditional Christian beliefs are no longer possible, but unlike many radical scholars that I am aware of, Lüdemann is here to tell why. For a number of years he has been explaining why it is no longer possible for any educated person to hold onto traditional Christian beliefs.

The Resurrection of Christ attempts to tackle the biggest miracle claim of all: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This popular-level book is actually an updated version of Lüdemann's earlier work What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach. Only this time, Lüdemann wants to be crystal clear. If we cannot believe that the Resurrection (as described in the canonical Gospels) really happened, then we cannot in good conscience call ourselves Christians. Lüdemann has acknowledged and rectified an earlier regret of his: his advocacy of the position that we could dispense with miracle claims such as the virgin birth, the miracle-working Jesus, and the Resurrection, and instead try to recover the historical Jesus for a modern age and see what he could tell our generation. The problem, though, is that without the Resurrection, we are being dishonest. The credibility of the Christian faith depends on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why Lüdemann is no longer a liberal. If you do away with miracles, you have nothing left of Christianity. Christianity is essentially a story a miraculous, revelatory God who stepped into human history, was born of a virgin, worked miracles, preached about the coming theocracy of God, was crucified, and rose from the dead. The Christian faith is miraculous through and through. Divorce the miraculous from Christianity and you have nothing. Lüdemann realizes this and so has renounced the notion that we can dispense with the miraculous and recover a historical Jesus whose teachings can form the basis of a modern Christianity.

Lüdemann begins with a fresh investigation of the historicity of the Resurrection. He examines the cold feet of liberal theologians like Hans Conzelmann, Rudolf Bultmann, and Willi Marxsen when discussing the resurrection of Christ (pg. 13). He proceeds to rebut the objections of liberal theologians that the resurrection of Christ can be an event of history and then proceeds to explain the rest of the book. In his next chapter, he surveys and makes a classification of various texts and their references to the resurrection of Christ beginning with 1st Corinthians 15, going through the canonical Gospels and ending with the Epistle of the Apostles. The meat of the book comes in chapters three and four. In chapter three, Lüdemann analyzes the Gospels for their burial and Resurrection stories. In chapter four, Lüdemann discusses the visionary origins of the Christian faith, a "self-deception," and analyzes the canonical Gospels for their references to the appearances of Jesus to his disciples. Lüdemann argues that the visions of Peter and Paul were what started Christianity. Peter was tormented by guilt and unable to mourn successfully, generating visions of Jesus, while Paul suffered from a "Christ complex."

Lüdemann engages in his usual textual criticism of examining the individual verses comprising these narratives and what he believes to be the traditions that various authors worked with, the editorial changes made by these authors, and then the final historical yields of his investigation. Chapter five asks the critical question--can we still be Christians? Lüdemann argues in the negative. We simply cannot do so.

The Resurrection of Christ has a number of positive and negative qualities, and I wish to give it the fairest assessment that I can. I'll start with the positives. It is good as a concise popular-level work for intelligent readers with at least a college-level education who want to understand why Lüdemann has rejected the Christian faith. He writes in a fairly simple prose that is not hard to understand, and is to be applauded both for his clarity and for having the courage to share his skeptical analysis with a popular audience despite the likelihood of academic condemnation. Lüdemann doesn't pull any punches, and seems willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. It's also pleasing to see him take on liberal theologians' timid refusal to address the historicity of the Resurrection; to an extent, liberal theology has become a damage-control, salvage operation which has retreated behind theologically empty statements in order to avoid taking further hits from historical criticism. Lüdemann argues that honesty demands that we subject theology to historical criticism. Unlike many such scholars, he is willing to explain why he no longer believes in the Resurrection. I am often left wondering why, for example, Michael Goulder ultimately abandoned the Christian faith. Did he detect any particular flaws in Christianity? These sorts of questions don't arise in the work of, say, Robert M. Price or Bart Ehrman, both of whom make it quite clear why they no longer consider Christianity intellectually credible. Lüdemann also writes in a very analytical fashion--more like a historian than a theologian--allowing his readers to see how he arrives at his conclusions.

Nevertheless, Lüdemann's book does suffer from some serious shortcomings. Though he begins with a survey of Christian references to the Resurrection, he doesn't discuss Gospel genre. Genre is crucial, however, because it reflects on the historicity of what is narrated in the Gospels, and what the Gospel authors chose to report. Does Lüdemann accept the biographical genre theories of Charles Talbert and Richard Burridge? Does he think that the Gospels are midrashic, as Michael Goulder argues? Or are the Gospels just literary creations? Among the nonbiographical genre theories, Dennis MacDonald argues that Mark is an imitation of Homer's work. Robert Price argues that the Gospels are mythic hero stories. The late Alan Dundes argued that the Gospels are folklore. What the Gospel authors chose to narrate and how they went about narrating their stories depends on what genre they used. Did the Gospels authors believe that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, and that Jesus had a risen body of flesh? Or is the tomb story a symbolic fiction, perhaps midrashic in origin or a literary theme adopted from some other literature? If so, we can ask: Did the earliest generation of Christians believe that Jesus was really crucified, buried, and risen from the dead? Did the Gospel authors believe that Jesus had a risen body of flesh as a matter of historical fact? Or was this some kind of symbolic or literary creation? Did the earliest Christians believe that Jesus had a "spiritual resurrection," as argued by historian Richard Carrier? The question of Gospel genre is vital here; Christian apologists like William Lane Craig take the question of Gospel genre for granted and tend to assume that the Gospels are biographical in nature, historically inerrant, and minutely accurate accounts of Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

In addition, Lüdemann's textual criticism is not all that informed. For instance, on pp. 60-61, Lüdemann discusses the literary development of the burial narrative, arguing that there is a post-Markan tendency to transform a member of the hostile Sanhedrin into a Christian, and that in the Gospel stories the burial "increasingly bestows honor on Jesus." Lüdemann asks: "[D]id it perhaps serve to displace knowledge of an dishonorable burial? In other words, Mark's way of telling the story of Jesus' burial may have been a cover up." I disagree. In the synoptic Gospels, the burial story of Jesus is dishonorable through and through. There is no attempt to cover it up, but instead an attempt to dignify the dishonor and shame of the burial. Two elements of an honorable burial are missing--burial in a family tomb and ritual mourning. This is argued persuasively, in my opinion, by biblical scholar Byron McCane in his landmark study Roll Back the Stone. There may be increasing attempts to dignify an otherwise dishonorable burial, but none of the Gospels is bestowing honor on the burial.

A related problem is Lüdemann's suggestion that the conversion-vision of Peter was triggered by guilt (p. 166). The New Testament originated in what cultural anthropologists call an honor-shame society, where everything revolves around the acquisition of honor and the avoidance of shame, and where everything is seen as a challenge to one's honor or to that of one's group. Lüdemann's analysis of Peter's conversion crumbles because in this kind of society it is unlikely that individualized feelings of guilt even existed. Lüdemann does not engage with any of the insights of New Testament scholars of the Context Group, whose work is inspired by cross-cultural and psychological anthropology. Three excellent examples of such work are Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh's Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, their Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, and Malina and John Pilch's Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul. These commentaries provide an excellent basis for understanding how Christianity could've originated through a series of visions. Malina and Rohrbaugh argue that simultaneous shared visions among groups were commonplace altered states of consciousness in antiquity. Additionally, Malina's The New Testament World: Insights From Cultural Anthropology and The Social Gospel: The Kingdom of God in the Ancient Mediterranean give invaluable insights into the world of ancient Mediterranean cultures and offer clues as to how Christianity might've risen in the ancient world without any supernatural or divine causation.

Lüdemann also often makes assertions without attempting to back them up. In his analysis of Luke 24, for example, he recounts an appearance of Jesus to the eleven disciples in verses 36 through 43, writing of verse 39:

Jesus' invitation to the disciples to look at his hands and feet in order to recognize him constitutes a first demonstration of his resurrection; the invitation to touch him is the second. The risen Jesus is no ghost or spirit, but consists of flesh and blood. Such blunt realism must be seen as an attack on docetism, a challenge to those who disavow the bodily reality of Jesus both as a human being and as the 'Risen One' (pp. 108-109).

But how does Lüdemann know this? Though this is plausible, he supplies no evidence that Luke intended to convey an attack on docetism. If Lüdemann wants to be taken seriously on such points, he needs to back up these kinds of statements. But he routinely fails to do so.

I also wish that Lüdemann had spent more time rebutting the arguments of Christian apologists who defend the resurrection of Christ. If one is going to debunk the Resurrection through historical and textual biblical criticism, shouldn't one also explain why the arguments of Christian apologists like William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, and Mike Licona do not work? Lüdemann does attempt to rebut a few arguments of Christian apologists, but these arguments tend to strike me as being unpersuasive and uninformed. For instance, Lüdemann critiques an argument about the hostile witnesses of the Jewish leadership who would've killed Christianity in its tracks had the tomb not been empty or had the body of Jesus been easily found (p. 181). But what of other apologetic arguments? Lüdemann is also silent about an alternative that would've allowed for an empty tomb and for the survival of Christianity due to visions and delusion: reburial. Indeed, Lüdemann writes that there are three reasons that he finds the hostile-witness argument unpersuasive:

  1. We don't know how long the disciples stayed in Galilee, or how long it was before they publicly appeared in Jerusalem; but if it is as long as Acts indicates, then the body of Jesus would've decayed beyond recognition.
  2. The place of burial was unknown.
  3. If the Jerusalem church ascribed any significance to the location of Jesus' burial, a tradition would've evolved out of it.

While the first reason is a good one, I would go even further and suggest that the Jewish leaders probably thought that rebutting resurrection stories was not worth the effort. Even if the body of Jesus had been found, what good would've it have done? Jesus' disciples might've been recalcitrant beyond any possible rebuttal. Paul says that if an angel were to appear with a false gospel, the Galatians were not to believe that angel. If something as miraculous as an angel preaching a gospel different from that of Paul was not to persuade them, why would possible disconfirmation of a body by more natural means persuade them? Even if the body had been perfectly preserved, why would that have been persuasive to Christians like Paul, who could've claimed that the Devil had colluded with the Jewish leadership to produce a counterfeit body to damage the faith of Christians.

Lüdemann's second reason would be acceptable had the final resting place been unknown, that is, had Jesus been temporarily buried in the tomb described by the Gospels but then subsequently reburied. Otherwise, everyone would know where Jesus had been buried because his burial place would have been a place of shame that people consciously avoided until it was no longer remembered as a place of shame. And this would require the complete decay of the flesh of Jesus' body, leaving only his bones behind. A similar point applies to Lüdemann's third reason: a tradition would indeed have evolved in which the burial location would be seen as a place of shame to be avoided due to Jesus' dishonorable burial, and this tradition would underlie the canonical Gospels.

Of course, the argument from hostile witnesses is not the only argument that Christians put forward. Craig has argued that any visionary theory of Christian origins lacks the explanatory power of the Resurrection. In particular, Craig thinks that the kinds of hypotheses proposed by Lüdemann fail to explain the following 'facts': (1) Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea; (2) the tomb was found empty; (3) there exists a diversity of appearances of the risen Jesus; (4) it was unthinkable to Jews that anyone would rise from the dead before the general resurrection; and (5) there is a legitimate distinction between visions and appearances. A related argument, made popular by Christian apologists like Josh McDowell, is the old martyrdom argument: people will die for a lie if they mistakenly think that it is true, but no one will die for a lie knowing that it is a lie. If the Resurrection happened, this old argument goes, the disciples knew it and died for something they knew to be the truth.

Unfortunately, Lüdemann does not address these apologetic arguments, though he could have done so in either a separate chapter or alongside the textual analysis in chapter three. Moreover, where he does respond to a Christian scholar advocating the historicity of the Resurrection--N. T. Wright--he chooses to rebut him by quoting Thomas Paine (p. 200). But Paine was no biblical scholar, and biblical scholarship has greatly evolved over the past 200 years since Paine wrote The Age of Reason. It would have been better for Lüdemann to cite similar conclusions from modern New Testament scholars who are aware of the latest cutting-edge research into New Testament criticism. Wright's work does need to be taken more seriously by liberal and skeptical New Testament scholars alike, and his arguments require rebuttal; but resorting to outdated, nonscholarly works does not help make the case that the Resurrection lacks any historical foundation.

Despite these shortcomings, Lüdemann offers a fresh translation and analysis of the texts he surveys, and competently takes on those who think that we can still be Christians despite the nonhistoricity of the resurrection of Christ. But a deeper and more in-depth analysis of Christian origins is needed, and tools for the job are available. Lüdemann's book is nevertheless a step in the right direction, and one can only hope that others will take up the mantle to provide a deeper historical investigation into the beliefs of the earliest Christians.


Copyright ©2008 Matthew Green. The electronic version is copyright ©2008 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Matthew Green. All rights reserved.

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