Book Plunge: What Really Happened To Jesus?

Does Ludemann have a good argument against the resurrection? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

I recently finished Gerd Ludemann’s book, “What Really Happened To Jesus?” Ludemann has been called an atheistic NT scholar, though I understand there are some that question that. We can say he at least is not a conservative Christian at all since he denies the bodily resurrection. So what is there in this book?

To begin with, there are some statements that I was happy to take and add to my apologetics database as I think it’s important to see what scholars who are not Christian are saying about the historical facts concerning Jesus. Two such examples suffice. The first is on page 17:

The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward. It need not be discussed further here.

This is something important to mention since among internet atheists, this is itself often disputed. Note that Ludemann isn’t even taking seriously the claim that Jesus never existed. He’s bypassed it entirely.

Another claim that might surprise some people is found on page 81.

The only thing that we can certainly say to be historical is that there were resurrection appearances in Galilee (and in Jerusalem) soon after Jesus’s death. These appearances cannot be denied.

Yes. Even the appearances cannot be denied according to Ludemann. Of course, he does not think that they were appearances of the real risen Jesus. Instead, these would be hallucinations.

Before getting to that, there are a number of places I find Ludemann’s case straining to try to get something to fit. One such example is his looking at the appearance to the 500 described in 1 Cor. 15. Ludemann says on page 100 that:

The appearance to ‘more than 500’ as a historical phenomenon can plausibly be represented as mass ecstasy which took place in the early period of the community.

Ludemann says the likely event is the speaking in tongues in Acts 2. Is this really plausible? Are we to say people had this mass hysteria and this hysteria was enough to convince a number of the well-to-do (Since Meeks has argued that a reasonable number of early Christians were upper class) who weren’t even around at the time?

For one thing, I do not know of any case where speaking in tongues in church history was seen as an appearance of Christ. Further, at the Pentecost event, there were over 3,000 present since we know that many converted. One might say there is difficulty counting, but that does not mean that no one could tell the difference between 500 and 3,000, and a crowd for a Passover event in Jerusalem would surely be excessive.

Is Ludemann then saying this because he really thinks it’s accurate, or because the creed in 1 Cor. 15 can’t be denied and a mass appearance like that would be problematic, so we have to find some way to explain it!

I fear too often it is the conclusion that is driving the interpretation of evidence rather than the interpretation of evidence shaping the conclusion.

So what about Paul? Paul was prone to having visions.

The problem is the creed in 1 Cor. 15 doesn’t really allow that. For instance, while Paul did have visions at times, he does not treat the creed like that. These are appearances with a word used for normal every day sight. As N.T. Wright says on page 382 of “The Resurrection of the Son of God”,

The word heoraka, ‘I have seen’, is a normal word for ordinary sight. It does not imply that this was a subjective ‘vision’ or a private revelation; part of the point of it, as Newman stresses, is that it was a real seeing, not a ‘vision’ such as anyone in the church might have. The same is emphatically true of the other text from 1 Corinthians.

In fact, Paul adds that Christ appeared last of all to him, meaning that the time of appearances was at an end. Visions could still happen from time to time of course, but not appearances. Note Paul was writing this to a church that was also making much of experiences which would include visionary ones with the implication being that what the witnesses in the creed has differs in kind.

Ludemann says on page 103 concerning 1 Cor. 9:1 that

In my view it is certain that here the apostle is thinking of a vision of Jesus in his transformed spiritual resurrection corporeality. Otherwise it would be hard to understand how Paul could refer to ‘seeing’ (1 Cor. 15:4ff.) for the certainty of the bodily resurrection.

Yet how would this square with Ludemann speaking of Paul being one prone to visions yet at the same time Paul speaking of his case as a last of all sequence? Surely he would know that many in Corinth were having spiritual experiences as well! Paul’s testimony is that of claiming to have seen Christ risen himself just as much as anyone else did.

To explain why Paul would have such an experience, Ludemann has to have Paul experiencing guilt. Ludemann knows of interpretations that say that passages like Roman 7 are not biographical, but simply says his interpretation is not ruled out. Then we move on to psychology!

For all the talk we have about “God-of-the-Gaps”, most skeptics I meet when it comes to the appearances have a “psychology-of-the-gaps.” If you don’t know how to explain it, give a psychological disorder! You don’t have to understand psychology. You don’t have to study psychology. It just has to sound really good!

Psychology is difficult enough to do with the patient sitting right in front of someone and able to answer questions and ask questions. It’s far more difficult to do when the patient is dead, lived in an entirely different culture with a different way of thinking, and because of those two is incapable of interacting with you. It would be hard enough for a professional psychologist to do! (Consider Erik Erikson’s “Young Man Luther.”)

For Ludemann’s idea to work, Paul has to be thinking like a modern in our culture and struggling with guilt feelings. Paul must have secretly been wanting to be a Christian, but could not do it. Therefore, he started having a hatred for those who were and sought out to persecute them to contain his own inner hatred. On the road to Damascus, he reaches a breaking point and has a vision of Jesus.

The only problem is the theory is high on speculation and low on factual data.

Never mind all the problems there are with the hallucination idea, this is not the way we see Paul at all. If we think that we have biographical material in Romans 7, that biographical material is not about Paul’s life in persecution but Paul’s standing before the law. Note that we’re usually told the Jerusalem church, to which Paul would have been responding to the most, was supposed to be that of James which placed an emphasis supposedly on the Law. If they were really a Law-free community, whence comes this supposed dispute between James and Paul on the Law?

In the end, I will simply go with a solution that is not ad hoc and only depends on one other proposition that I think can be well-supported, “God exists.” The best interpretation then that explains all the data that Ludemann accepts is still that God raised Jesus from the dead. Nothing else I know of explains the rise of the early church when they should have not only not survived, but not even got started at all.

In Christ,
Nick Peters