'The Great Deception'
Thoughts on the Resurrection spell career
suicide for one academic
By Rob Simbeck

photo by Eric England

erd Lüdemann is famous-or notorious, depending on one's predisposition-for saying what every liberal biblical scholar has heard and what a substantial number believe: that many of the claims of classical Christianity, including its cornerstone, the Resurrection, simply don't hold up in the face of modern historical research and post-Enlightenment sensibilities.

They are, to take it a step further-and Lüdemann always does-part of what he calls "The Great Deception."

Then he takes it dramatically and graphically further: "The body of Jesus," he has said many times, "rotted in the tomb, if it was not eaten before then by vultures and jackals."

He is acknowledged to be one of his generation's great intellects, a painstaking and accomplished biblical scholar and historian with an international reputation.

And that utterance alone was not enough to jeopardize his professorship at Göttingen University, a German institution long synonymous with the best of modern-day biblical scholarship.

But his statement that what passes for modern Protestant thought is "bankrupt" has embroiled him in a tempest that is beginning to spin little twisters across the West.

He maintains that theology as practiced by present-day Christian churches is as dead as Jesus when he was taken down from the cross.

"The hallowed precincts of church and theological tradition often stand directly opposed to the human sense of truth," he has said. "If no bridge can be built here, then all is up with the credibility of theology and the church, and for all their apparent splendor, both are heading for rigor mortis."

The Nature of Debate

What is needed, he says, is fearless and rigorous historical investigation, unencumbered by creed or edict and followed to its conclusion, no matter what the cost or consequence. Perhaps not surprisingly, Lutheran church officials in Germany decided a few years ago that a man with such views should not be instructing would-be ministers of the gospel. Since 1994, they, Lüdemann and the university have been involved in a complex dance of charges, public statements, court dates and faculty votes.

It was in 1994 that the scholar sent a copy of his forthcoming book, The Resurrection of Jesus-in which he argued that Christ's body was as mortal as anyone else's, and that Christ's appearances after the Crucifixion were hallucinatory or visionary-to Werner Harenberg, a journalist he knew had done work on similar subjects.

Harenberg's story in the Easter edition of Der Spiegel made Lüdemann a public figure, at least in Germany, and began the attacks to which he and his work have been subject since.

That year, the Protestant Council of Lower Saxony began calling for his removal from his university post. By 1998, his faculty colleagues were agreeing. The university renamed his chair, giving him dominion over a shadow department and taking an assistant from him. Lüdemann sued, and twice the German courts said the school had every right to do what it did.

Lüdemann considers himself a "non-theist," which he defines as one who "lives as if God does not exist and has no personal relationship to God. Yet he or she has an open mind and does not want to close the door for new discoveries."

For years now, his battle to teach as a non-theist in a Christian setting has been a rather remote matter, the stuff of university debate and the German-language press.

All that may be about to change.

The April issue of the journal Religion, which is to theology what Nature is to science, will feature a symposium on the Lüdemann case that will become the core of a book called Faith, Truth and Freedom: The Expulsion of Professor Gerd Lüdemann From the Theology Faculty of Göttingen University.

The dean of Göttingen and world-class academics from Europe and the U.S. will weigh in on what some see as a pivotal showdown over academic freedom and the very nature of theological inquiry.

Should this seem like a hermetic debate, of concern only to intellectuals and church officials, it is worth noting that academic theology often has profound real-world effects.

Martin Luther's objections to various church abuses, undertaken in an academic setting, helped set in motion events that forever changed the face of Western Christianity.

Luther overthrew tradition for the biblical text, although he saw instances where reason superseded the text. For Lüdemann, reason and historical research are paramount, overthrowing tradition, text and, ultimately, Christianity.

The Word

After stints at McMaster and Duke, the 32-year-old Lüdemann interviewed and was hired at Vanderbilt in 1979.

Already a rising star in the field, Lüdemann received an offer to teach at Göttingen shortly afterward, prompting Vanderbilt to give him tenure and name him associate professor. "Gerd and I became very close in those years," says H. Jackson Forstman, then-dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Göttingen eventually offered him another post in 1982, this time with a full professorship and an invitation to develop and head an institute.

His path was clear. He was 36, with a chance for a full professorship and all the perquisites at a world-class university.

"I was greatly distraught to lose him," says Forstman.

In the meantime, his output was plentiful and well-received internationally. His later work, on the Resurrection, heretics, and the virgin birth, moved him to the edges of liberal thought.

He was convinced, along with many liberal scholars, that much of what is attributed to Jesus in the New Testament involves later church doctrine put in his mouth by the writers of the gospels-a process Lüdemann calls "pious but unscrupulous."

Assessing that work, Gene TeSelle says, "It's good scholarship, and what he says is not essentially different from what most New Testament scholars are saying. He doesn't have any particularly different data or methods or necessarily even conclusions when you look at them one by one. It's that he finally puts it together in a different way, and he looks for the dramatic."

The drama increased with his output.

"I have come to the following conclusion," he wrote. "My previous faith, related to the biblical message, has become impossible, because its points of reference, above all the Resurrection of Jesus, have proved invalid and because the person of Jesus himself is insufficient as a foundation of faith once most of the New Testament statements about him have proved to be later interpretations by the community. Jesus deceived himself in expecting the kingdom of God. Instead, the church came; it recklessly changed the message of Jesus and in numerous cases turned it against the mother religion of Judaism."

The culmination of Lüdemann's mounting argument came with the 1998 publication of The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did. It includes his "Letter to Jesus," a dramatic farewell in which he combines post-Enlightenment knowledge with an outline of his own interior struggle as he sheds himself of his ties to Jesus.

Walking his talk

It has not been an easy road. Lüdemann is now teaching classes students have no reason to take-the area in which he teaches doesn't offer a major.

Lüdemann is paying the bulk of his own quite sizable legal costs, selling a life insurance policy to help do so. With the exception of his sister, no one in his family shares his views. He has long been the object of the animosity of the church. Friends and colleagues have sometimes been hostile to his approach, if not his reasoning.

"Gene TeSelle once told me that one has to be open for ambiguities," he says.

"I guess not when it comes to the question whether Jesus was raised from the dead in view of the many forgeries in the Bible."

Still, he did not set out on the course lightly. "He has agonized over it," says Vanderbilt Divinity New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine, who served as a confidante while Lüdemann researched and wrote The Great Deception (which he dedicated to her).

As for the volleys fired by the church, "They have contributed to my becoming more and more forthright and in some cases even offensive, if that is the right word," he says. "These reactions, which continue to the present day, have demonstrated that the Protestant church and its theology are bankrupt, which, in light of the biblical record, does not surprise me at all."

Despite the cost of the resulting attention, even his friends concede that Lüdemann seeks it out. Sevin says, "I think, yes, to some extent he enjoys or at least appreciates his notoriety, partly because that way he thinks he can start a discussion."

As for charges that he enjoys the notoriety, Lüdemann says, "If it means that, when approached by reporters etc., I frankly answer their questions, the answer is a definite yes. If it means that I regularly approach journalists and on purpose exaggerate things, the answer is no."

Academia's role

"If there are conclusions that you are institutionally forbidden from adopting at the cost of your career," says Jack Neusner (who put together the symposium), research professor of religion and theology at Bard College, "then you don't enjoy academic freedom, and the field you are studying doesn't belong in the academy."

"The problem is that, damn it, it's a state university," Knight says of the German institution. "The church can have a million confessionally driven seminaries [where a declaration of faith is essential] if it wants, but to place one inside a state university, where all other professors and students are expected to think freely, is like declaring a safe zone in the middle of a free-for-all. What is academic freedom if it doesn't apply to all? Does religion require special protections not afforded other fields of thought?"

"If the truth is not open-ended," says Robert Price, professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, an Amherst, N.Y. educational project affiliated with the Council for Secular Humanism, "it is hypocritical to pretend to search for it." He adds, "Great universities like Göttingen...seem enamored of becoming indoctrination mills, glorified Bible colleges."

The German university system, which mixes church and state, makes the matter more complicated than it might be in the United States.

"All I have claimed," counters Lüdemann, "is that the pursuit of theology as an academic discipline should not be tied to the confession [of faith], and that if it is, it is not a true academic discipline. As long as theology remains in the university, it has to research and inform, not reveal and preach..."

Nothing New

Vanderbilt Divinity professor Levine is not convinced there will be a great deal of fallout from the case in the United States. In their own books, former priest John Dominic Crossan and retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong make the points Lüdemann makes, and often reach wider audiences.

"Gerd's situation might have had a greater effect if he formally represented a particular denomination in a clerical manner rather than in an academic manner," Levine says. "Since he doesn't, it becomes easier, then, to dismiss him as one more peculiar academic."

"He did not invent this issue," says Knight. "It goes back to [German theologian Rudolf] Bultmann and others before him. But Gerd asked the question in a very radical form and stayed with it even in the face of church opposition. He is saying, 'If we say it among ourselves, why don't we say it out loud?' "

Yet this case is relevant to America, in that theologians here have found their jobs in jeopardy for the same reasons that Lüdemann has. "There have been many cases involving confessional schools," says Knight, "where a conservative church has seen to the firing of faculty members who don't hold to the party line. That has happened entirely too much in the last two decades in our own country for us to feel indifferent toward what is occurring now in a major European university."

Shea, who teaches at a Catholic institution, adds that such constraints, chilling though they are, should not be a surprise. "The university, after all, is the bastard child of the church and the Enlightenment, neither of which has proved hospitable to skepticism of its premises," he says.

The list of colleagues who disagree with Lüdemann's methods is long, even among those who are fond of him. Former Vanderbilt Divinity School Dean Joseph Hough, who calls him "one of my favorite dinner partners in Nashville," says he is "a fine historian but not much of a theologian," arguing, among other things, that he is "too much of a literalist."

"I don't think he's being very helpful or useful," Hough says. "Pushing a vote on whether Jesus' body rotted [as Lüdemann did at a meeting of the Jesus Seminar, a biannual theological summit]-to me that's sensationalism, which detracts from his own very considerable talents."

"I don't agree with his approach to New Testament studies at all," adds Neusner. "I think that he has allowed historicism to run absolutely rampant. He thinks that historical facts are the centerpieces of a religious system and worldview, and I have taken the view that critical history has very little to say about religious reality."

Lüdemann, in fact, expresses frustration with the answers he got as he bounced his concerns off colleagues. "After 1994," he says, "I encountered increasing opposition from the official church bodies, and had strange conversations with colleagues, the upshot of which was that the questions that I raise regarding Jesus' death and non-resurrection, and the fact that much of the early gospel tradition does not go back to Jesus but to the interests of the early communities, had long been solved. When I asked how they had been solved, they fell silent or changed the subject. Thus I felt terribly lonely and continued my rocky journey, keeping always in mind that yes is yes and no is no. "

Still, at least a few of his peers are willing to offer their resounding support for his right to inquire, to challenge and to teach. It is upon such freedoms, after all, that Western culture prides itself. "I've been asked, 'Would you have tried to have him dismissed [if he had stayed at Vanderbilt and achieved this notoriety]?'" former Vanderbilt Divinity School dean Forstman says. "Absolutely not. You're going to take a lot of phone calls, and members of the board of trust and influential donors probably wouldn't be pleased with his presence on the faculty, but this is absolutely sacred to me. Freedom of speech is sacred to a university, and it's protected by tenure. Once a person has won tenure-and it is difficult to win it-I would not have dismissed him."

Hough is obviously somewhat impatient with his colleague, a man he nevertheless genuinely likes and calls "a delightful person" adding, " All religions change over time. They are human attempts to express, in the cultural forms available, the reality of the experience of faith. He's saying unless you believe things literally the way they did, that there's nothing left."

Still, Hough thinks it important for a voice like Lüdemann's to be part of the discussion. "I would gladly have Lüdemann as a colleague on a theological faculty," he says.

Then he pauses, and adds, "Of course, I wouldn't want everybody to be like him."

l Counterpoint
By Chaplain Christopher B. Platt

Earning a living as an historian is not an easy task. Gerd Lüdemann is a scholar and an historian with an international reputation. He is making a very good living. Controversy is not a liability when it comes to selling books, even if the controversy is only a modern telling of an ancient one. A writer who is controversial enough will sell books. They might even be featured on the cover of the Easter edition of Ace Weekly. "The body of Jesus rotted in the tomb, if it was not eaten before then by vultures and jackals." This is not a new opinion. The Resurrection of the body has been a point of contention for two thousand years.

Lüdemann, like his ultra-conservative right-wing Christian counterparts, claims that he alone possesses the inerrant Truth. Just as Oral Roberts had a revelation of a thousand foot tall Jesus, so Lüdemann had a vision of Jesus' decaying body.

Lüdemann, as a self-proclaimed agnostic, cannot legitimately claim to be a theologian. If a geography department did not hire a person who believed the world was balanced on the back of a turtle, would this be restraint of academic freedom? Gerd travels around bringing his "new and shocking" words to different Christian groups but he does not associate himself with these communities. Lüdemann states, "I got so engaged in the world of biblical studies that I decided that it sufficed." But, it does not suffice. Faith is not merely intellectual comprehension. St. Augustine stated that, "I believe in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe."

Lüdemann laments that "Jesus deceived himself in expecting the Kingdom of God. Instead, the church came." I guess that Gerd Lüdemann is disappointed. It is hard to face disappointment, especially from God. But throughout all human history God has disappointed. His ways are not ours.

Gerd Lüdemann "wants to get his point across no matter what the consequences." This resonates of the mentality of a dangerous religious crusade.

Lüdemann is a man of faith. His faith-blind, unswerving, and almost fanatical-is in his own intellectual abilities and logical positivism. He claims to be open to possibilities. But those possibilities must present themselves in accordance with his reductionist philosophy.

"The Protestant church and its theology are bankrupt." This bankruptcy seems to occur because they will not agree with Lüdemann who claims to possess the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. Jerry Falwell also claims to possess the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth, too.

Lüdemann has not "ignited an international controversy." Gnosticism denied the bodily resurrection a couple of thousand years ago. The finest Gnostics would very much agree with Lüdemann.

Academic freedom is less of an issue than Lüdemann's opinion that he is The Theologian who has discovered The Ultimate Truth. His Ultimate Truth is sometimes referred to as the materialism of modern nihilism.

I support Gerd Lüdemann's right to his own opinion, just as I support Pat Robertson's right to blather his opinion on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Their right to have an opinion does not cancel my right to examine it and form my own opinion.

Dennis Miller ends his "Rants" by stating: "But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong." If Lüdemann would only say the same thing, then he would really be telling the truth.

Other local members of the Christian community invited to respond to Lüdemann's assertions included Mark Weigt of Southland Christian Church, who returned a call for comment (but regrettably past deadline). Ken Klemme of the First United Methodist church declined comment, citing time constraints. Ace will gladly offer a forum for response in next week's Letters.