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Luís Rodrigues: An Interview with Gerd Lüdemann

L.R. - What are the main differences that you encounter today in the studies of Jesus and the New Testament in Europe and in the United States of America?

G.L. - In order to understand the situation in Europe, you must know that all the professors of New Testament have ties with the churches, so they're very much influenced - consciously or subconsciously - by what the churches proclaim. In the United States, you have evangelicals, you have fundamentalists, you have radicals, you find all sorts of things - anything goes - and so, I wouldn't dare describe the situation in the United States since there are so many different people.

L.R. - But Germany, for example, has a very rich tradition in the field of religious studies: I'm thinking of names like Reimarus, Albert Schweitzer, F.C. Baur, D.F. Strauss and many others.

G.L. - Yes, but as you also know, Friedrich Strauss was fired, he never occupied the chair of New Testament studies. Regarding F.C. Baur, he became professor of Dogmatics at a very early time, but, if he had written then what he later wrote, he would have never been appointed to a chair. His students - for example Edward Zeller - had to leave the theological faculty and taught classical philology. So, the German tradition is very rich but, many of those people who wrote interesting books which had a great influence in New Testament scholarship, did not become professors of New Testament. Another example in the 20th century is Albert Schweitzer, who's still read and quoted by everybody, but he was never a professor of New Testament. 19th century and 20th century are very different, but the current situation in Germany is very much stamped and influenced by the confessional theology - Catholic and Protestant.

L.R. - Do you think that happens only in Germany or in other countries in Europe?

G.L. - Well, Finland is different - but there, the churches are not as strong. France has very few faculties - one Protestant faculty in StrasbourgÉI would also make a difference between Catholic and Protestant faculties: the Catholic faculties are more under the influence of Rome. Concerning Germany, I would want to make this point: if you count the number of chairs in New Testament studies in comparison with other European countries, you'll be amazed how many New Testament chairs there are and how much money is spent on the studies of the New Testament in Germany, yet so little is coming out of that. I would say that some chairs with less money produce more productive stuff than many German chairs with a lot of money.

L.R. - In your opinion is it impossible for New Testament scholarship to develop something like The Jesus Seminar in Europe?

G.L. - Yes, because who would pay for that? Who would be interested in having that? In Germany the chairs of every New Testament professor have money. If you ask me about the possibility of a Jesus Seminar in Germany, you would have to talk about the moneyÑwho's funding it? So the question would be: would it be possible to raise enough money for the establishment of a Seminar? And I would say no. We wouldn't find the people's response to it, again because confessional theologians would devaluate it. They wouldn't want it.

L.R. - What about the book publishing business? Wouldn't there be a market for that kind of investigation - independently of any religious agenda?

G.L. - It's an interesting question. I was just thinking: who would be interested in that? Some books from the United States have been translated into German and are doing fairly well, such as the book by Crossan and also the books by Elaine Pagels. But these are projects of one or two books. When we talk about the Jesus Seminar, we would have to talk about sponsoring our lectures, etc. Again, I doubt we would find the money because the people who would be asked about it would be the New Testament professors who are not impressed or not inclined to support that sort of thing.

L.R. - Concerning the studies about the historical Jesus, according to the deliberations of the Jesus Seminar, 82% of the words assigned to Jesus, seem to be fictitious or unreliable. Do you rely on these numbers?

G.L. - No, I'm relying on my own studies. First of all, I'm a fellow of The Jesus Seminar and I published one book with them on a critique of the Pope's book of Jesus - called, "Eyes that See Not: The Pope Looks at Jesus". But back to your question, no, I'm relying on my own studies, but, when I became familiar with the Jesus Seminar, I liked their approach. It's the approach to distinguish between the redacted tradition and the historical kernel, which is in the best tradition of German scholarship of Rudolf Bultmann and David Friedrich Strauss, and I still like that approach. As you may know, they work with colors - each colour assigning a degree of authenticity to each individual statement made by Jesus. I didn't do it, but I did my own study. I looked at the same texts and arrived at similar results. The book has been published and it's called "Jesus After 2000 Years: What He Really Said and Did". So, I was surprised and glad to find these people in the United States having a similar agenda.

L.R. - So you conducted an independent investigation and the results were similar?

G.L. - Well, quite similar. The big difference is that the Jesus Seminar - or more correctly, the majority of the Jesus Seminar, that is to say 85 % of Fellows - thinks that Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet. So, Jesus did not predict the end of the world to be immanent. That, I think, belongs to Jesus. So I'm not in agreement with the main point of the Jesus Seminar, but I'm in agreement with the approachÑnamely, the way of looking at the material and also the skepticism concerning the reliability of the Gospels.

L.R. - After surveying all documental evidence, what do you think most resembles the true message of Jesus?

G.L. - First, he talked in parables. He had a tendency towards the poor. He was an immoral hero. He surrounded himself with quite immoral people. Cynic-like Jewish teacher that what he was, he thought, with his teaching of repentance, that the end was immanent - which it wasn't. It didn't come.

L.R. - What are, in your opinion, the novelties brought by Pope Benedict VXI in his biography of Jesus? What do you think are its main flaws?

G.L. - I think that his main flaw is that he does not think it necessary to take into account the basic research of the last 200 years. So, if I may compare with the scientists, he's a scientist who still presupposes that the Earth is in the middle of the Universe.

L.R. - Do you think that any factual account of what happened or didn't happen with Jesus can change the strength of people's faith in Christianity? If not, isn't the «historical Jesus quest» an inconsequential project - mainly for the believers?

G.L. - Well, I think - and it's quite radical what I'm saying - that believers deceive themselves at this point. They think they have to do historical research and that's very good. But for me - and I'm not a believer - historical research is the death of faith. Whoever does historical research - that's my experience - will have to say: "I no longer believe". To give an example: historical researchers, work on God. They discover that God is a projection; they work on Jesus and discover that Jesus didn't say most of things that the Bible claims he said. And so, they take one stone after another from the house called "the church". By doing this they seem not to realize that have done away with the house. To say it again, I think that historical research and modern studies destroy religion. If I may say one more thing, liberals are deceiving themselves to a degree that they seem not to realize. Although, at the same time, I support the liberals. I think it's the only way to approach religion - by studying it historically - but I'm sorry to say that this research, as such, destroys religion.  

L.R. - Do you think that religion, reflecting a good or bad projection about God - as respectively Feuerbach and Freud have proposed - is then, nothing but a human pathology?

G.L. - Well, I'm an exegete. I'm talking to you about an experience. I have no theory of religion. But what it comes down to is this: when studying the Bible, we discover nothing but opinions of people about GodÑwhich they ascribed to God or whoever they want to. We never come across God or the Holy. We just come across the opinions of people. Then we tie them to the situation of their time and look at them from a new vantage point. We try and determine their agenda, what they wanted to do or what they wished had happenedÑitÕs wishful thinking. By arriving at these results, we deprive religion of its threat, of its capacity to destroy people. It's the language of people from the past, not the present and, thereby, our research is a critique of ideology. That I think it's very important. As such, historical scholarship is destroying religion. Having read the bible historically and critically, you can no longer read it piously, because you know if you do, you deceive yourself.

L.R. - But aren't there also exegetes who are pious?

G.L - Of course there are.

L.R. - And how do you think they cope with the situation?

G.L. - Well, in my opinion, I've written a book on the resurrection as a self-deceptionÑa pious self-deception, but still a deception. The pious exegetes wouldn't need their historical study to believe what they believe. I'm respectful of these colleagues, but I think they deceive themselves.

L.R. - What are your main contentions concerning the «resurrection of Jesus hypothesis»?

G.L. - It didn't happen. The resurrection didn't take place and it's rooted as a reflex of the various experiences of people. Analytical research of the sources has shown - and it's generally accepted - that at the beginning of the resurrection tradition, there was this experience; that people saw something, and they concluded from their vision that something happened. So, that's the sequence. That's my main argument against the historicity of the resurrection.

L.R. - So, you seem to believe that the disciples had hallucinations when they report sightings of Jesus; but in a culture overcrowded by prophets and reports of wondrous deeds - like those in the Old Testament - is the «hallucination hypothesis» really necessary to justify the beliefs of Christians?

G.L. - Well, I'm reading the stories, the texts about the resurrection we have in the New Testament, and I see that they are contradictory. On the one hand they describe the visionary experience - Paul says: "I saw, I saw, I saw, something appeared to me" - and this visionary experience then is connected in the Gospels with the discovery of an empty tomb. Thus, the historical character of the resurrection is defended, and that's a contradiction. I have to explain to myself how the rise and the resurrection belief came into existence and my answer was, to begin with, hallucination. Well, I now avoid hallucination. I describe it as a vision, a visionary experience. From that visionary experience, the disciples concluded that the resurrection had happened.

L.R. - How do you characterize the apparitions testified in places like Fátima in Portugal or Lourdes in France? Also visionary experiences?

G.L. - Yes, is an analogy. The whole Mariology is based in the same character and shows how powerful the visions can be, Fátima Medjugorje and all these visions of Mary. That shows how much our own mind has this visionary side. We dream at night and that's also a kind of visionary experience. It's a little bit suppressed by technology but it will always be there. The people in the 1st century had more access to it. But let me remind you that the critique of visions as reflecting reality was already conducted in Antiquity.

L.R. - But not only in visions is religion grounded: we also have the stories of wondrous deeds. The deeds of Jesus are very similar to those made by «prophet type» figures - like Elijah or Ezekiel. Why are Jesus' deeds more distinctive? Why has he achieved a superlative status?

G.L. - He would not have this status if Paul hadn't planned, hadn't changed Christianity. I think that without Paul the message of Jesus would not have gone out. So, Christianity reached the gentiles through Paul, the message was spread and Jesus became such an important figure in our culture.

L.R. - So, you emphasize the role of Paul in the spread of Christianity.

G.L. - Of course. Jesus had no message for the gentiles, and as we all know, Jewish ChristianityÑthat is, the people who followed Jesus such as the Ebionites in the 2nd centuryÑwere made heretics. So, the expansion of Christianity is due to Paul and his followers. Without Paul, we would not know anything about Jesus.

L.R. - Some scholars say that, rather than Paul, the Hellenistic Jewish communities in the Diaspora were the «Horse of Troy» who allowed Christianity to enter in the pagan world. What is your response to that theory?

G.L. - Well, let's be precise with that point. I'm just working on an article about the first years of Christianity. Paul persecuted Christians in Damascus that had already opened up to the gentiles and had already made no difference between Jews and gentiles, slaves and freemen, males and females. So there was this radical breach of Christianity at the very beginning, but not in Jerusalem. These Christians whom Paul persecuted, knew very little about Jesus, and Paul himself knew very little about Jesus - only quoting words of Jesus in two places. So, that's Hellenistic Christianity and Paul gave that Hellenistic Greek speaking Christianity a twist and a direction. He was the one who organized it. He was the one who then connected it with the disciples in Jerusalem.

L.R. - Why has Paul talked so little about his personal experiences? We have few accounts of his persecutions, his conversion in the road to Damascus, etc.

G.L. - We have only seven authentic letters and we have them by accident, but he may have written other letters. He talks a lot about persecutions in Galatians, and in Galatians chapter 1 he already presupposes that people were talking about him; that the communities that he had persecuted were already thanking God that the one who persecuted them is now preaching the Gospel that he tried to destroy. So the legends and stories about Paul were already spreading and he talks about that. He also talks about his call at more than one place. I don't see that he doesn't speak about it much. He leaves enough information to be quite precise about what happened.

L.R. - Jesus seems a more pacifist prophet than the prophets of the Old Testament. At least he doesn't kill anyone like Elijah did in 1 Kings 18:40 for example. Why does he become - or is interpreted - as a more peaceful character than the prophets of the Old Testament? Were his followers the ones who made him so?

G.L. - As far as Jesus is concerned, he was a radical. The impression that he was peaceful is going back to the interpreters. It has nothing to do with Jesus. Number one, he left his family. He should have helped his mother. He left his family and his family tried to get him back and declared him to be out of his mind. He was radical. He himself said - and that's an authentic saying - "I'm not here to bring the peace; I bring the sword." He was, I almost say, hallucinating about his role at the end of world when the twelve tribes of Israel would be there and his twelve disciples would sit on the thrones and then judge the twelve tribes of IsraelÑand he probably had a special role in there. So somebody who's predicting the end of the world is not peaceful knows that peace is brought through power. I cannot disagree more with you when you say that Jesus was peaceful. He was not peaceful. That's wishful thinking.

L.R. - So, you see Jesus as someone who has more affinities with those kinds of aggressive groups like the Zealots?

G.L. - Yes. He was not a Zealot, but he was a Zealot type of guy. Someone who had cut the ties with his familyÉ

L.R. - In that context, the Jesus that some portray as belonging to an Essenic tradition of misanthropy is pure fiction?

G.L. - No, he was not an Essene. When you lift what is reliable, one of the most reliable items is that he was baptized by John the Baptist. So he made his way from there to Galilee, was part of that apocalyptic movement in Judaism and he knew exactly what God's will was. So, he felt himself inspired by God to tell the people what they should hear.

L.R. - What was the role of John the Baptist in the transformation of Jesus?

G.L. - The disciples of John the Baptist, some of them must have joined the Jesus movement, but some of them remained disciples of John. So, they were rivals. What John the Baptist did not get was a Paul. He didn't have a Paul which Jesus got. He lacked an interpreter of his message; therefore, he was not as influential as Jesus.

L.R. - When we talk about influence, that influence is often grounded on tradition. The place that is now known as the Holy Sepulchre - supposedly, the burial place of Jesus - was only chosen at the time of Constantine by his mother. Also, what the Church claims to be the bodily remains of Peter - although HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Pius_XII"Pope Pius XII stated that no one can be sure about that - are now in display at St. Peter's Basilica. A few centuries from now, nobody will remember the origins and the uncertainty in which these assertions were grounded. Doesn't tradition help to obliterate what is history and what is true?  

G.L. - Well, tradition is important because tradition goes back to somebody's invention or somebody's opinion. The historian's job is to compare the traditions with one another to arrive at a judgment. So, I work on any tradition that is there because it helps me to find out what really happened.

L.R. - Yes, of course, but what I meant was the following: when the tradition becomes the transmission of something false, doesn't that undermine historical research?

G.L. - No, it doesn't undermine, because historical research, I hope, will remain free and independent. It's only historical research under the influence of the church and bound by the church that is dangerous.

L.R. - What about the transmission of historical facts filtered by the religious traditions? Can the historical research be transformed - or even, distorted - to serve the purposes of the religious tradition message? How does the historian deal with that fact?

G.L. - He or she just tries to convince people that it's untrue. Then the question of power comes in - and education also - and whether the countries have the luxury to pay for theological faculties where these traditions are critically looked at. I think our Western society will always support institutions that, at least, make it possible for people who want to be educated, to come closer to what really happened and emancipate them from these traditions.

L.R. - How do you see the role of television and the mass media in general concerning the transmission of the most accurate historical messages?

G.L. - Well, I would say I cannot give a general opinion. But my own experience in Germany tells me that churches are very influential and try to control programs. By law they have representatives in the various TV's and radio stations that are funded by the State. I will give one example: a colleague of mine, James Robinson, was approached to participate in a TV special on the Pope's Jesus book. He sent an email to the producer in which he said he was willing to participate although suggesting his German colleague - me, Gerd Ludemann, who had just written a book critical of the Pope - could also participate. They didn't give me the chance to become part of that program. They tried to keep me out and they were partly successful. But I'm optimistic. I share the vision of the Enlightenment that the truth will come out after all. If I'm not on the program, somebody else will tell them, will give them the information that they need.

L.R. - Do you have personal accounts of incidents with the church?

G.L. - Oh yes! I have incidents. In one incident, I was invited to be on a public TV program in Germany and somebody reported about my views. The Evangelical Institute heard about that and they complained to the president of the TV station and the producer had to change things and take me out. I have had lots of incidents, and that includes radio and TV. Concerning newspapers, there was a time people when wrote about me. I was very generous in giving information but then, some journalists - mostly sons of pastors - took revenge and wrote nasty things about me. Since then, I prefer to write essays - where nobody can misquote me - and send them to the newspapers. So, I have a long history.

L.R. - Do you still maintain hope and believe that through scholarly work you can transmit your message?

G.L. - Yes, and I basically believe that reason is stronger than faith. Reason is stronger than faith and we have to follow reason and by education, by educating people, we will get rid of religion.

L.R. - But religion can transform itself in more appealing New Age Spirituality movements. Don't these movements undermine reason also?

G.L. - I think that New Age Spirituality is almighty. Just like Jesus they know everything. They have access to the whole and, as far as I'm concerned, they're not humble enough.

L.R. - Do you see more danger in their message or in the traditional message of the church?

G.L. - Both. ThereÕs danger in all people who think that they know the whole universe - and New Age makes that claim. I think Ken Wilbur for example, talks like that. Christians also talk like thatÑlike they know exactly what God wants. I think they are overrating themselves and they are not humble enough. So I'm reluctant to follow them.

L.R. - But do you think people, when listening to them, expect to find someone humble?

G.L. - Yes, I know, they are looking for power. They want to be almighty like Christianity promises. Well I read these things and since I myself studied Christianity so intensely, have a tendency to be attracted by these promises which overcome death and everything. So, I've learned my lesson and have taken a 'down to Earth' approach. I'm delighted about the reason that I have to read things and to liberate myself from any religious claims that cannot be substantiated. So, that's my approach.

L.R. - Can rhetoric defeat reason?

G.L. - Oh, beware of rhetoric. I think we should stick to what we know. I'm grateful for what I have, for the years that I lived, and I'm grateful for the insight of knowledge that I have, and people before me had. That's my philosophy. I have given up on eternity and all the things religions promise.

L.R. - Don't you feel sad about that? I mean, one moment believing that eternity is achievable and, in a glimpse, all comes down to the conclusion that existence is finite and comprised to a few years of life. 

G.L. - It's a projection. It's a wishful thinking. It's false. We should go to what's true and stay away from falseness once we know about it. And I'm not sad now. I'm full. I'm full and I'm glad that I'm here on this Earth and hope that many, many people will have the same experience and enjoy life.

December 2008.

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