Friday, 3 August 2012

Explosive stuff that evangelicals and liberals need to know about Gerd Luedemann - an extraodinary interview

It is probably fair to say that Prof Gerd Luedemann from Gottingen is currently the most controversial New Testament biblical scholar in Europe. He is famous for many things (i.e. being a member of the American Jesus Seminar with the likes of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg), but the two issues he is best known for is without a doubt his i) 1994 monograph in which he rejected the testimony of the empty tomb in the canonical gospels as unhistorical, arguing that Peter and Paul had hallucinations of the risen Jesus; and ii) his 1999 "Letter to Jesus" in which he kissed Christianity goodbye.

I was privileged to have an interview with Prof Luedemann (and his wife!) while attending a major conference on the resurrection in Europe. Believing in the bodily resurrection of Jesus as the best explanation for the available testimony, it might seem strange to some that the discussion we had was highly significant to me. Why was it significant? Luedemann is quite outspoken about his personal journey, the people who influenced him, those he disagrees with, and what he thinks of "liberal churches". Make sure to read his reflections on Hans Conzelmann, Andreas Lindemann, Rudolf Bultmann, John Dominic Crossan, and Marcus Borg! I hope to publish an article on the life and scholarship of Prof Luedemann at some stage. I will therefore only mention a few excerpts from our discussion. Please keep two things in mind while reading: i) Professor Luedemann is German, which may account for the sentence structure of some responses; ii) What is reported here cannot and should not be interpreted in isolation from Prof Luedemann's published work.

Mulder: Prof Luedemann, you used to believe in the resurrection, but that changed. Which books and professors had a major impact on your new interpretations?

Luedemann: For my first New Testament course seminar, I had Hans Conzelman as teacher, with Andreas Lindemann [picture right] as his assistant ... I found their exegesis very convincing ... it was like a philosophical presupposition which I liked, for I was memorising Voltaire in French [at the time]. And then I remember I had my doubts. And then I remember I talked to Lindemann about this [Jesus' resurrection], and he said it did not happen. So what do you do? I can still "see" him [Lindemann], he was only three years older than me. He said whenever he is preaching the gospel, or whenever the gospel is preached, nothing is present from the past. So you don't worry about history. It's there in the act of preaching.

Mulder: In the kerygma [preaching] like Bultmann?

Luedemann: Yes, he was a Bultmann student. I was never convinced by that. The moment the preacher preaches, the Word of God is there. I think you need some foundation there, not only faith. So that is what Lindemann told me. I was not convinced.

Mulder: I was fascinated after reading your work, and also AJM Wedderburn, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan.

Luedemann: Borg and Crossan are invited to speak to Christians, and they get high honorariums.

Mulder: Borg especially?

Luedemann: O yes. And I don't know how they can do it ... when we come to discussing things, then I come to realise that they're not really believers. They're just fooling around.

Mulder: Are they therefore being unethical? That could be the implication?

Luedemann: Well, the churches probably expect them to be like that.

Mulder: But the church also know that they're not really honest?

Luedemann: Well, liberal churches are like that. Maybe it is self deception. But look who is going there? They despise evangelicals ... [those] churches want these people with the double talk. They need it.

Mulder: So tell us what happened between 1994 and 1999. In your 1994 book you put forward the view that Jesus' body decomposed in a tomb and that Peter and Paul experienced hallucinations of the risen Jesus. In the same work you maintained that one can remain a Christian despite this. You based this insight on your appreciation for the Marburg systematics theologian Wilhelm Herrmann [picture left] who separated faith and history from each other [Herrmann was Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth's dogmatics professor]. And then in 1999 in your "Letter to Jesus", you famously said you cannot be a Christian any longer. So please tell us more about your five year existential experience of being a Christian [between 1994 and 1999], and how it eventually panned out.

Luedemann: Well, in 1994 the quotation from Herrmann was from a book in which he says that we can live with the little we really believe and not with the much that we have to believe ... I had these ideas. I was however never able to make a system of it, because I did not believe it.

Mulder: So why did you say it then? Why did you say "yes" for Christianity in 1994 despite your historical findings?

Luedemann: Look, I was a professor in Theology. There had to be a synthesis.

Mulder: So you pretended?

Luedemann: No. You end up with that [synthesis]. The only thing I enjoyed in that book was the things I said about DF Strauss that the tomb is full. And I learnt that from Conzelman. I visited him a lot.

Mulder: Did Conzelman say that in public?

Luedemann: In private.

Mulder: So Conzelman in private said the tomb was not empty, but in his academic and public work he would not say that?

Luedemann: Or he was undecided. You see, I had a good relationship with Conzelman. He died in 1989. He was sick for three years. I went to him once a week, and asked him all sorts of questions. He talked to me about Martin Hengel from Tuebigen. He would say to Hengel: "The grave is full!".

Mulder: Conzelman would say that to Hengel?

Luedemann: He would say that to him. And I immediately said he is right about that.

Mulder: So when did you lose your faith?

Luedemann: I probably never had faith.

Later on we had a very interesting discussion about Martin Hengel. Surprisingly, Luedemann conceded that he has respect for Hengel's historical work, and that they communicated by email before his death. Hengel is relatively well known for arguing for the historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus. What an extraordinary discussion we had!


Thomas Louw said...

Please post the follow up.
Enjoyed it.

Frederik Mulder said...

Peter Malik from Cambridge had this to say about this blog post on Facebook: now this is really interesting! Lüdemann's personal beliefs are definitely more consistent with his exegetical and historical conclusions. (I should add that this just corroborates the point why liberal churches [not just in the US] are in crisis; it's difficult to be convincing when one suffers from multiple personalities disorder.)

Frederik Mulder said...

Wow, 146 clicks on this post in 24 hours... Thank you Christopher Hays (Oxford)for your remarks on Facebook. One big shot scholar in England send me a very interesting email too. It is not possible to keep track of all the Facebook comments on different people's walls...

Frederik Mulder said...

Amazing, the most clicks ever in less than a week: 546!

Henrietta said...

Wonderful that so many people take note of this interesting but very sad posting: That Luedemann says that he probably "never had faith". My prayer is that he meet the Risen Christ sooner rather than later!!

Gary said...

Gerd was my teacher when I was a student at Vanderbilt University. I knew then (1979) he was heading to where he's now ended. He once confessed to me that Jesus's bones were moldering in a gave somewhere if the vultures hadn't picked them clean first. But yet he still clung to the church. Eventually, the truth overtook him, and if Gerd is anything, he's a honest person.