Sunday, September 9, 2007


(Gerd Ludemann is Germany's theological shock jock along with Uta Ranke- Heinemann and is best known for extreme rejection of the Resurrection. He has recently been criticizing Pope Benedict’s "Jesus of Nazareth" study both on his Homepage and a book rushed to press in Germany. I write here about Benedict's book and Ludemann’s rather odd critique of it)


Since I dissent from numbers of Pope Benedict’s strongly held views I was half reluctant to like his Jesus of Nazareth book. Actually, to my surprise, I mostly liked it for various reasons including it seemed like literature. I then learned many would tell me I had no right to like it. To do so suggests no proper relation to reason, to the modern, to scholarship and heaven knows what else. The implication is one is as good as an ignorant obscurantist to get anything from it! Objection in the line is most radically made by controversial German theologian, Gerd Ludemann. He entered an angry Blog article against Benedict's book on Gerd Ludemann’s Homepage at
the day after I finished my own reading. He has already had published (publishing can hurry if it pleases!) a whole book in Germany attacking the Pope’s approach to Jesus. I’ll consider Ludemann’s sometimes strange objections after mentioning my general impressions of Benedict’s offering first.


I read Pope Benedict’s best seller at record speed. One shouldn’t do this as you can get indigestion - some devout Catholics are even reading a page or two a day and working with that. Jesus of Nazareth is quasi meditative, packed full of insights including nuggets of scholarly information of the sort which evidently annoy scholars who feel Benedict scarcely has the right to take and use these bits unless he cares to buy into modern scholarly aims and attitudes, (or alternatively a fundamentalist literalism) wholesale. However Jesus of Nazareth is not a commentary on the gospels or a work of scholarship as such. It’s intended broadly to oppose doubt, clarify, and inspire. I see nothing wrong in that intention and even register some success for it. But Jesus of Nazareth is at points an attack on, or at least spirited response to, a modern line in biblical scholarship which Benedict believes has obscured understanding of Jesus by argument, wild speculation and academic theory less well founded than it is made superficially to appear. He wants us to “see” Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t come across as the work of a Pope and isn’t offered as such – its introduction says people are free to disagree; the author is simply expressing his own opinions. If you didn’t know it was the work of a pontiff you might almost imagine a type of Protestant had written it. It comes across as a rather German theological production which though in publishing terms it’s “high level popularization” could be difficult for some readers given the philosophical terms thrown around (like ontological ). It’s German too in being almost musical, symphonic, deftly interweaving its themes and this musicality and sensitivity to the symbolic belongs with an element of mysticism (and art) underlying the whole.

This study/portrait doesn’t begin at the beginning or end at the end - birth narratives and passion narratives are reserved for a second volume – but it takes in both Jesus’ ministry and teachings beginning at the baptism and seeks to bring out the mystery of Jesus with a gradual revelation of who and what he is. The last chapter is in fact called “Jesus Declares Himself”. Benedict is making the point, often obscured in modern rationalist scholarship, that the understanding Jesus is/was divine is plainly there in the synoptic gospels though not so overtly declared and theorized as in John’s gospel. However they contain I AM statements as at the stilling of the sea. A declaration like “Fear not it is I” is hiding the real words and their significance which is “Fear Not, I AM” namely Jesus is the same God who speaks to Moses from the bush. In any case, directly to forgive sins is the prerogative of God in Judaism so the Jesus who heals and forgives is declaring his status and the synoptic gospels regularly do this even if our translations and readings miss this point.

A novelty perhaps for Catholics but which made this Protestant reader feel at home was the easy familiarity with Old Testament/Hebrew sources and perspectives, the broad biblical sweeps. Goodbye the Jesus of plaster saint images, welcome the Jewish Jesus who emerges from a long prophetic tradition, and who will be “a second Moses” - a theme which is Benedict’s point of departure. This then develops towards the little stressed idea, though variously stated or implied by the gospels, that Jesus saw himself and came to be seen as living Torah (Law), living Word and Messiah as such.


Taking the pulse of this writing, I felt a certain spiritual power yet also something lacking. It has something to do with precisely Benedict’s contradictory, ambivalent attitude to the prophetic and which outside his book feeds his dismissive attitude towards the widespread charismatic phenomenon of churches as mentioned in my Mother Teresa article. Benedict wants Jesus to be the fulfillment of messianic prophecies and he endorses the original Christian vision which saw that fulfilment as giving maximum sense to existing scriptures. But he doesn’t want his prophets to have very precise prophetic ability either; they must not be like seers or “soothsayers” or else they are no better than the witch of Endor King Saul wrongly consulted.

Granted prophets are primarily preachers, declarers of justice and denouncers of evil not soothsayers, yet would anyone have ever believed them about the Messiah or anything over longer stretches of time if they hadn’t shown Elijah and Elisha-like some soothsayer style skills within their life times? Daniel,the most purely prophetic work of the Hebrew Bible is robbed of its prophetic power by Benedict in line with the modern liberal scholarship he otherwise critiques, (and whose skepticism about Daniel merely borrow and concurs with the pagan enemy of the Christians, Porphery). I have no idea when Daniel was composed but there are traits and features in it like, some Reich Aramaic phrases which betray at least some of it could have been written well before 200 BC and thus be outstandingly prophetic for detail. Frankly, why not? If Catholic seeress, Jeane Dixon, could certifiably forecast the death of Kennedy years ahead, why not Daniel the careers of Alexander the Great or Antiochus Epiphanes? But Benedict for once is the modernist here (though if there’s anything to the ancient St Malachy prophecy that Benedict is the last pope he can well be excused from wanting to hear too much prophecy of the would-be exact kind!).

From Benedict’s take on prophecy it follows the apocalyptic does not feature in his thought either so that the Jesus of his study is not a (failed) apocalyptic prophet in the style of much historical Jesus studies. It might seem that this wouldn’t matter too much but book and life agree at this point as shown only this month at Loretto where dressed in green to demonstrate Green sympathies Pope Benedict appealed to thousands of youth to save the planet “before it’s too late”. Too late? It’s good and helpful to go green, but what about divine sovereignty? Given any kind of apocalyptic/prophetic perspectives of the kind absent from the book Benedict should know that when the Messiah of prophecy he writes about returns God is praised because “He has destroyed those who would destroy the earth” (Rev 11:18), In other words while Christians might need to go green and start defending the environment they can’t strictly talk about things being “too late” since whatever evils afflict the planet it still belongs to the Creator who will act before it is too late.

Anyway, having limited the scope of prophetic and with it indirectly dismissed any charismatic disposition to inquire into “what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7) Benedict the author is free to regard Christianity’s post apostolic mission as engaging a vast, ongoing “exorcism” of the world. But it’s an exorcism not by the Spirit but by the divine gift of ratio (reason). By implication, however, this would then leave church and people in the hands of the reasoners, the Aquinases who deal doctrine by purely rational principle, even, we might feel, to producing a kind of new, inflexible Torah of reason that in its own way finishes by obscuring Benedict’s Jesus as Torah and “what the Spirit says to the churches” now. So in a sense paradoxically I think it’s reason keeps Benedict the pontiff traditional rather than modern and at times notoriously inflexible, though that isn’t the general feeling tone of his otherwise quite insightful and spiritual book. But it’s precisely the spirituality (and insufficiency of reason of a certain modern kind) is the rub, or at least for a lot of people among whom very vocally is Ludemann, the Lutheran theologian most distinguished for vehemently opposing belief in the resurrection.


Gerd’s 10 objections are linked to the 10 chapters of Benedict’s book but somewhat overlap. Indeed since they sometimes amount to saying the same thing different ways and what that is is at once trendy and debateable I won’t cover all objections in order or precisely. Basically, though, Ludemann believes the Pope doesn’t have the right (nor do any of us) to other than “non-metaphysical” analysis of the New Testament since post Enlightenment rationality forbids it as a kind of sin against “scientific” method. Ludemann protests the Pope, simply isn’t dealing with a “Jesus of History”, but a “Heavenly Lord” he’s confused with it, mixing levels of reality and ideas to the point of dishonest “manipulation” (Objection 1). The human search for objective truth simply cannot be squared with any notion of “inspiration” such as gets claimed for scriptures (Objection 9). Knowledge must always take precedence over “faith” (since “without faith it is impossible to please God” is a biblical dictum the religion is clearly not to be allowed breathing space) and plainly the story of Jesus is just not objective fact (Objection 10). In fact, any suggestion (such as Benedict makes, though Albert Schweitzer, famous for his historical Jesus quest also made it) that Jesus of history scholars can’t present us with an adequate portrait psychologically is not a mark against their work. It merely proves their point we don’t have the right combination of words and facts (yet or perhaps ever) to make such a portrait because the gospels are not “history”. (Objection 8).

It had been a claim of Benedict in Jesus of Nazareth that the modern sense of reality within whose parameters modern liberal theologians work, is simply too narrow. Which it is. It virtually assumes the position of what has been called “scientism” a sort of substitute faith in itself, which exists in denial of whole tracts of human experience like the symbolic and visionary that the likes of Jungian psychology has tried to reinstate as a matter of urgent therapy since society is getting psychologically strangled and spiritually starved by the prevalent excess of reason. I shall return to this matter presently as it’s rather crucial to the whole critique.

In his youth Ludemann was a fundamentalist, even a fundamentalist evangelist. In a sense he’s still a fundamentalist now and also an evangelist (if in service to strict “reason” and against traditional Christian belief) in a way the Pope is not – Benedict does go so far as to suggest scripture is generally inspired but not in its every word and this of course is a non-fundamentalist position many of us would endorse. He does however accept that Jesus is what the Bible is “about”, what and who its prophecies point to and explain. This infuriates Ludemann who makes this his Objection 6 and regards the Pope’s position an insult to Jews and Judaism besides.

There is where things get a trifle absurd and even fanatical on the Ludemann side. It is permissible to maintain the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible just don’t refer to Jesus but it's surely inadmissible to imply the prophecies don’t/shouldn’t deal in messianic prophecy and hence Christian Jews who founded Christianity effectively never had the right, which modern Christians inherit, to read the Bible in terms of Jesus as their fulfillment. If these scriptures wouldn’t be read in terms of Jesus then they would be read in terms of others as we know they were in the case of the would-be Messiah, Bar Kokhba and his rebellion. It’s true that in recent centuries a rationalized Judaism fights shy of prophecy feeling messianism is too difficult and historically troublesome, but if you want to understand Jesus, you read his times, times when prophecy counted. Moreover it was very much of his era and the prevalence of Greek philosophy that there was greater impulse to reduce the chaos (in western terms) of the Hebrew scriptures to the broad explanatory principles Christianity finally offered it. Jesus made sense and even so did his divinity.

Objection 7 is that it’s sheer nonsense to suggest Jesus was divine. Personal beliefs apart, actually it wasn’t and isn’t. If Ludemann thinks otherwise that’s because his scholarship is confined to a historical Jesus quest of a special type. If he even read (probably he has but dismisses) for example the Jewish scholarship of such as Daniel Boyarin in Borderlines (2004) he would be aware that from around 200 BC – 100 AD when the rabbis suppressed it (largely in reaction to Christian developments) there was a virtual “two powers in heaven” belief among Jews which made it easy to believe in a divine mediator or divine son which is the sort of theology ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls point to. I myself in Signs for a Messiah, pointed out how in the mystical wing of Judaism, the Kabbalistic which developed in medieval times but relied on much earlier traditions, there is a line of semi rabbi worship implying a sort of divinity in him.

Ludemann insists if we want to use modern scholarship we keep to its understanding of Jesus as a "teacher of righteousness" but nothing else. But is this a valid choice leading to proper understanding? Even refusing to accept Jesus' divinity, why not try to understand him socially and psychologically as a kind of guru, a mystical super-rabbi? His personality and much in the gospels is easier to absorb if once that is done. Choose pure reason if you will, but allow Jesus the kind of mentality found in India today or in New Age circles in the West where Reason is not first consideration and potentially spirits and magic prevail. The purely scholarly question should always be not does and should the individual personally believe Jesus was divine, but did and could he have believed he was in his particularly situation.

It is a positive of the Benedict’s Jesus portrait that he tries to re-establish John’s gospel as part of an authentic portrait of Jesus. Again Ludemann won’t allow this (Objection 2) and insists on a Q and 2 document origin for the synoptic gospels alone seen as sufficiently early or reliable to give us any species of fact. But really, what can we know or ever hope to know? Perhaps there were such documents and developments. But even the most scientific theories of gospel production are endlessly modified and in recent years starting with John Robinson’s The Priority of John, a case has been made that John’s gospel is in some areas more historically accurate and precise than the other gospels and perhaps earlier produced.


A degree of faith seems unavoidable for us all no matter what position we take. In her dramatic Afterword to her novel Christ the Lord, returned Catholic, Anne Rice, protests as artist and writer against the whole trend of modern New Testament criticism because it seems to overlook the most obvious facts (including issues around the Fall of Jerusalem) in favour of what seem like the prejudices of theologians who have no great love or respect for their main theme, Jesus, and have no sense of how writers write and literature is produced, which it isn’t via committee. Objections of Rice’s kind will have resonance to those of us who have engaged in creative work outside of the scholarly and it belong with the point Pope Benedict is trying to make by another route. Modern scholarship works in too narrow and unimaginative a frame, so full of details and arguments that Jesus gets simply lost. Or if I were to add a biblical verse (Mt.23:13) originally in condemnation of the Pharisees, “For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Mt.23:13)

I don’t know what purpose scholarship of Ludemann’s type is intended to serve because the quest of the “historical Jesus” is by now so changing and problematic it can perhaps only hope to finish like
The Jesus Seminar
with a few phrases deemed authentic. What, then, is the purpose of a life spent trying to discover this because if Jesus was so far less than was claimed or can be known is he really of importance? It does therefore seem that Ludemann’s role is that of reversed fundamentalist evangelist standing on the highways and byeways to point us away from the supposed terrible Jesus illusion we are hostage to. But this would only prove Benedict’s point that much modern biblical scholarship narrows our view, must be resisted and transcended and I think the book does that fairly well, restoring something of the original feeling around Jesus. For this the enterprise will be as much resented as admired.

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