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Review of Jesus After 2000 Years (2006)

Doug Shaver

 

 Review: Gerd Lüdemann. 2001. Jesus After 2000 Years: What He Really Said and Did. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. 695 pp.

Reading Gerd Lüdemann's Jesus After 2000 Years is intellectual exercise--good for you, and for some people even enjoyable, but probably not the average person's idea of fun.

For the skeptical reader who is convinced that Christianity was founded by some misguided disciples of a charismatic rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth, Lüdemann offers a plausible sorting of fact from fiction. He suggests in his preface that he is summarizing the results of some 250 years of critical inquiry into the origins of Christianity for the benefit of "educated lay people" (p. vi).

He succeeds up to a point. A lay person well-read in recent New Testament scholarship can follow his argument, to be sure, but critiquing it is another matter. Much of what he says does represent a consensus among modern researchers. Few contemporary scholars outside of the evangelical apologetic community think that the Gospels contain more than trace elements of real history. But how does the interested layperson, absent specialized study, know while reading the Gospels just when he or she has come across a vestige of the historical Jesus? As Lüdemann himself acknowledges, "scholarly verdicts on what is authentic and what is inauthentic sometimes diverge widely" (p. 2). Jesus After 2000 Years is largely a presentation of Lüdemann's own verdict. Other scholars' verdicts are sometimes mentioned in passing, but without analysis of their advocates' justifications.

In fairness, Lüdemann hardly had enough space to do more than acknowledge the disagreements. The book's nearly 700 pages present Lüdemann's dissection of virtually every verse in the canonical Gospels plus the Gospel of Thomas, and a short chapter on apocryphal traditions is devoted to other documents. The latter include additional noncanonical works along with a few passages from the Pauline corpus.

(Actually, not quite all of it is strictly his. The chapter devoted to John's gospel was contributed by Frank Schleritt, and Martina Janssen did the one on apocryphal traditions. Since those two chapters appear stylistically indistinguishable from the other five, though, one suspects substantial editing by Lüdemann.)

One pericope at a time, Lüdemann identifies what he thinks the final author added (redaction), what he thinks the author added it to (tradition), and how much if any of the tradition he thinks was historically authentic. Where appropriate, he further breaks down the tradition into its core and accreted layers. This is a reference book, not (for most people) leisure reading. For an example, here is most of Lüdemann's exposition on Mark 3:1-6:

Redaction

In the Markan context the story further heightens the hostility between the Jewish authorities and Jesus. After the healing the authorities take the decision to kill Jesus, and succeed in doing so in Mark 14.15.

[1] 'Again' links the pericope with the context, as in 2.1 and 2.13.

[2] The sabbath theme picks up the previous pericope (2.23-28). Those watching Jesus are the Pharisees from 2.24.

[3] The fact that the sick man goes into the middle indicates that the issue is a human one (not one of the law)--as in 2.27.

[6] This verse is a redactional anticipation of the passion (cf. later Mark 8.31; 9.31; 10.33; 12.12; 14-15).

Tradition

The origin of the tradition is a miracle story. It has many parallels in terminology with the (punitive) miracle story told in I Kings 13.4-6, which depicts the withering and the healing of the ungodly hand of King Jeroboam. This miracle story was later developed into a controversy on the theme of the sabbath.

In the present version of the text the controversy has a coherent construction. 'But they were silent' (v. 4) and the healing (v. 5) formed the organic conclusion to the controversy, into which Mark probably introduced the Jewish leaders and their hostility to Jesus....

Historical

The controversy over whether it is allowed to heal on the sabbath never took place. For it is clearly shaped by the needs of the community. Nevertheless, underlying this story is the awareness that Jesus sometimes deliberately transgressed the sabbath commandment (cf. the principle in Mark 2.27).

Because of the parallelism with I Kings 13.4-6, the miracle story about the spontaneous healing of the withered hand is similarly secondary, quite apart from the fact that it would break the laws of nature (pp. 20-21).

In general, readers who want to argue with Lüdemann will just have to do their own research first. He is presenting more of a credo than an apologetic. Rationalists will of course agree that miracles do not and never did happen; but it is not so obvious why, for example, granting that Sabbath observance was an issue for the early Christian community, we must infer that Jesus would have had nothing to say about it. In his introductory chapter, Lüdemann gives us only a bare outline of how he sorts authentic from inauthentic history in the Gospels. He lists five criteria by which he judges an assertion to be inauthentic or at least suspicious, and six by which he judges it authentic or probably so. A proper discussion of the criteria would require its own essay, but at least one point seems to me worth highlighting.

What he calls the criterion of offensiveness (which I usually hear Christian apologists refer to as the criterion of embarrassment) affirms that a reported saying or action is authentic if the early Church would have found it awkward to preserve in any account of the Church's origins. Lüdemann offers Jesus' baptism as a prime example. The Church supposedly would, if it could, have suppressed that story because it undermined claims of Jesus' divinity. But, the reasoning goes, the story could not be suppressed because it was true and everyone knew it was true.

What no apologist has ever explained to me is why the first Christians would have been any more embarrassed by anything in the Gospels than today's Christians are, and Lüdemann does not address the issue, either. The argument seems almost question-begging insofar as it assumes a direct historical connection between the patristic writers and Jesus' disciples.

An apologist might then object that today's Christians are not the ones being accused of inventing the stories--but the early Christian community at large did not invent them, either. For the stories to have survived and to have become regarded as authoritative, none of them had to be true. They had to be believed, but they did not have to be believed by all Christians, and they did not have to be believed as literal truth by anybody at the time of their creation. All that was required for their survival and canonization was for some Christian sect, at some early point in Christianity's history, to come to believe that the stories were true and then to win the subsequent doctrinal wars.

Just who was supposed to have told any of the Gospel authors, or any of their redactors, "You can't leave that out. It really happened, and everybody knows it really happened"? Lüdemann accepts a modified conventional dating of the Gospels, according to which Mark was written around 70 CE, Matthew and Luke around 90 and John soon after the turn of the century. Assuming that this was the case, we have no good reason to assume that even when Mark was written, there was anybody in any Christian community who would have known for a fact whether Jesus had or had not done or said any particular thing.

Lüdemann is no apologist for any Christian orthodoxy, and nothing he proposes in place of orthodoxy is prima facie implausible. In a brief final chapter, he presents his own sketch of Jesus' life, and much stranger stories have turned out to be true. Even so, there remains the problem of getting from "it could have happened this way" to "it did happen this way." Throughout the book, Lüdemann gives "could have happened" plenty of work, but "did happen" gets a workout, too. Concerning the parable of the prodigal son, for example, he says flatly: "The parable goes back to Jesus" (p. 365). He is noncommittal about whether two disciples actually thought they met him while on the road to Emmaus, but he affirms that the there-referenced appearance to Peter "is to be termed historical as a visionary event" (p. 412).

For the reader who wants to cut to the chase, Lüdemann considerately provides at the end of the book a list of references to "all the authentic sayings and actions of Jesus." To avoid duplications, he includes only the earliest attestation to each apparent fact: "Thus all the texts in Matthew and Luke which transcribe authentic passages from Mark are omitted" (p. 694). Nothing in John's gospel made the cut, but a few bits of Thomas's gospel did, and so did one passage from the apocryphal Letter of James found at Nag Hammadi.

The book has no other index. A reader who wonders, for instance, whether Jesus really was a prodigy as a 12-year-old needs to know that the story is told in Luke 2:41-52. (Lüdemann thinks the incident never happened.) This could be irritating to some readers, but one supposes that anyone who is that interested in the Gospels either has a Bible and concordance or else knows how to find an online Bible and use its search engine.

Lüdemann writes at a lay level appropriate for his stated purpose, but he assumes a well-informed readership. Anyone whose knowledge of Christian origins is limited to what he or she heard in Sunday school will be at a disadvantage, although not a hopeless one if he or she has a good dictionary handy. Those unfamiliar with Q will discern, if they read the introduction, that it was something Matthew and Luke used as a source for much of their material, but they will not learn much else about it. In particular, they will not learn why so many scholars feel so sure that Matthew and Luke must have had access to such a document.

However, as already noted, for the sake of thoroughness in achieving his primary purpose, Lüdemann had to sacrifice much that might otherwise have been useful to some readers. Consequently, his secondary sources are practically anonymous to anyone but professional scholars. There is no bibliography, and quotations and paraphrases are attributed only to surnames:

Because of the abundance of texts to be discussed and the consequent need for brevity, in this account I have dispensed with explicit discussion of secondary literature and have only occasionally mentioned in brackets the names of scholars from whom particular interpretations derive. Here it seemed to me that titles of books did not need to be mentioned. They say nothing to lay people and specialists know them anyway (p. vii).

The specialists can speak for themselves, but I was slightly miffed at his assumption that no amateur like myself could have any need for or even interest in, for example, checking the context of Wellhausen's comment on the parable of the rich fool (p. 345) or seeing whether Lüdemann is fairly interpreting Luz regarding Matthew's listing of the 12 disciples (p. 165). In so reacting, however, I am surely in a very tiny minority (perhaps of only one), and I don't expect either Lüdemann or his publisher to lose any sleep over it.

Not quite so tiny is the minority of us who doubt that Jesus ever existed. Since the book was not written as a defense of historicity, it would be unfair to fault it for not being a good one. Nevertheless, an author who tries to sort fact from fiction in the Gospels has to beware of the implications of assuming that there is any fact to be found in them. Lüdemann's reconstruction of Jesus' life and teachings is coherent enough to be possible, but it still raises some questions to which I think mythicists have found better answers.

The best scientifically rational arguments I have seen for a historical Jesus prove at most that there must have been a charismatic rabbi in early first-century Palestine who attracted a band of disciples and was executed by Roman authorities, and whose disciples then formed a Jewish sect that evolved in due course, under Paul's influence, into a new gentile religion. Assuming that that much is true, I see nothing in the evidence justifying anything but guesswork beyond it. I would grant that Lüdemann and other fellows of the Jesus Seminar are making some very good, very well-informed guesses. If Jesus was real, one can easily enough believe that his message was something like what the Seminar thinks it was. But I have yet to see any justification for the kind of certainty that Lüdemann brings to some parts of Jesus After 2000 Years.

Lüdemann says, for instance, that there were in fact exactly twelve disciples and that all twelve (not eleven, since he thinks the story of Judas's betrayal was a later embellishment) had some kind of collective vision of Jesus after his death:

It is true that Jesus 'appeared' ... to the twelve (I Cor. 15.5).... They saw Jesus and on the basis of this founded a community which preached the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as the Messiah and/or the Son of Man among their Jewish contemporaries. That is the historical nucleus of the scene reported by Matthew (p. 256).

More specifically, Lüdemann is certain ("It is impossible to doubt," he says) that the disciples included two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, and James and John. He is also certain that they were, as the Gospel authors reported, fishermen by trade. Given a working hypothesis that the Gospels have some basis in fact, it would hardly be incredible if this were indeed part of the factual basis. Parsimony might even demand that we accept it as probably true. But impossible to doubt? With some effort, one could probably find a fundamentalist who was less adamant about the virgin birth.

Lüdemann often carries on this way despite his introductory warning that his conclusions are to be regarded as tentative:

[A]nyone who wants to get through to Jesus--not to Jesus as the early Christians have depicted him but to the man of Nazareth as he really was--must rigorously strip off everything that has come to lie round the words of Jesus, layer by layer--in the hope of thus reaching the bedrock of the authentic sayings of Jesus.

By using the term 'hope' I grant that such a reconstruction, like any scientific work, is always open to improvement. The image of bedrock at the same time makes it clear even in the most favourable instance only a high degree of approximation and not the absolutely final form can be achieved (p. 5).

Crediting Lüdemann with the ability to avoid contradicting himself, I suppose he intended his "impossible to doubt" to include an implicit qualification such as "considering all the evidence currently known." Of course, it would get tedious to read such a phrase every time Lüdemann declared something to be a historical fact about Jesus, but that is why English has words such as "seems" and "apparently."

Lüdemann does not directly say why he is so sure about the twelve disciples, but it clearly has something to do with Paul's attestation of an appearance to "the twelve." If Jesus was real, then it is certainly reasonable to assume that Paul would have known how many disciples he had. Paul never met Jesus, but he would have met some of the disciples, including Peter, who would have told him how many of them there were. The problem, of course, is that according to Paul's own writings, they seem not to have told him anything else. Janssen hints at this in the chapter on apocryphal writings. (Lüdemann put the apparently relevant Pauline material there presumably because there was not enough of it for its own chapter.) According to Janssen:

However, opinions divide over how intensively Paul worked sayings of Jesus into his letters. One problem in Paul's use of sayings of the Lord is that he hardly ever uses the Jesus traditions with an explicit introduction (p. 650).

"Hardly ever"? How about "never"? Paul sometimes attributes to "the Lord" a notion reminiscent of Gospel material, but in no case does the context demand that it be construed as a reference to Jesus of Nazareth. Janssen comes close to admitting as much:

[S]imply on the basis of the agreements between Pauline ethics and the preaching of the historical Jesus it has been conjectured that Paul grounds himself more in the Jesus tradition than is recognizable at first sight. Scholars like Dungan begin by assuming that Paul knew many more sayings of the Lord than is generally accepted. The question of (hidden) sayings of the Lord in the letters of Paul remains largely open and is an important point in the difficult question of the continuity between Jesus and Paul (p. 650).

One must wonder how much continuity there really was if we must rely on conjectures and assumptions to establish it. Could it be that the "sayings of the Lord," understood as sayings of Jesus of Nazareth, are not hidden but are instead nonexistent?

As Janssen notes, Paul's obliviousness to the earthly Jesus is one big problem for anyone trying to account for Christianity's origins while assuming that there was an earthly Jesus. The other big problem is explaining how the first Christians--every one of them Jews, if there is a historical core to the Gospels--came to believe that Jesus was God incarnate.

Lüdemann does not explicitly concede that they did believe it. He suggests that the deification of the Christ might have been a gentile development:

What now followed [Paul's conversion] was an unparalleled confusion, out of which emerged a church of Jesus Christ consisting almost exclusively of Gentiles, who without delay branded Jesus' fellow-countrymen as deicides. The flood of bizarre interpretations which began with the 'resurrection' of Jesus was unstoppable. Everywhere the dams of reason, which had hitherto held religious fantasies of omnipotence partly in check, broke (p. 692).

There is no hint to be gotten from Paul's letters, though, that the deity of Jesus was a point of dispute between Jewish and gentile Christians of his day. It seems hardly debatable that by around 50 CE the Christian community in Jerusalem, led by Peter and James, believed in a divine Christ. And as mythicists feel compelled to ask, are we really to believe that any man could have had such an effect on the thinking of so many Jews? Lüdemann declines to confront this question. He summarizes the original Christian credo in formulaic terms that could mean almost anything, possibly but not necessarily including the notion that Jesus was God incarnate: "that Jesus had been raised from the dead and would come again on the clouds of heaven as Son of God, as Saviour, as Christ, as the Son of man" (p. 692).

Two thousand years of intellectual momentum, pervading secular as well as Church scholarship, will not be easily dissipated. Despite all that scientific rationalism has done to falsify so much of Christian tradition and dogma, it still seems very nearly self-evident that whatever else a person may think of Christianity, it must have gotten started somehow among the followers of a Jewish preacher who called himself Jesus. If the truth is otherwise, it apparently is going to take a while longer for most scholars even of Lüdemann's caliber to assimilate it.

It seems to me that even if there was, in some useful sense, a real Jesus, any resemblance between him and the Gospel Jesus is unlikely to be more than a coincidence. However, given the current state of scientifically reliable knowledge, it also seems to me that reasonable people can still disagree. It ought to strain no one's credulity that there is something like what Lüdemann calls a bedrock of authenticity in the Gospels. Where it is to be found might be more a matter of guesswork than historical science, but Lüdemann's guesses seem to be at least as good as anyone else's.


Copyright ©2006 Doug Shaver. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Doug Shaver. All rights reserved.

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