In 2001 a promising young scholar at Coe College (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) authored a phenomenal thesis in which he examined three different views of the resurrection of Jesus. The young scholar concluded that the results of the three scholars under examination, with respect to Jesus' resurrection, depended heavily on their presuppositional pool and their trajectory toward the subject matter. Gerd Luedemann, for instance, ever the modern materialist, concluded that the resurrection is not to be considered an historical event. Rather, the early testimony to the resurrection is the result of (primarily) the psychological states of Peter and Paul. Peter, because of his overwhelming grief, a grief that was both incited and curtailed by Jesus' untimely demise, thought he had seen Jesus. But this vision was a psychological manifestation that only corresponded to the reality of Peter's psyche. Combined with Peter's position in the early community, this psychological "vision" gave rise to a mass hysteria (which, according to Luedemann are well documented--one may wonder if they are equally as well documented as miracles), thus giving validity to Paul's statement in 1 Cor 15 that Jesus was seen by more than five hundred, but denying any actual referent to the mass vision outside of the workings of their collective psyche. Likewise, Saul, moved to violence against the early Christians because of his deep longing for their message of grace and mercy (that is, Saul, the self-loathing closet Christian) was overcome by a psychological break on the road to Damascus, under which he could no longer deny his true desire to receive the Christian gospel. The inertia of this constellation of psychological phenomena made the rise and spread of the proclamation of Jesus' resurrection inevitable. Luedemann maintains throughout that the actual resurrection of Jesus' body is a fiction. At the time he wrote his landmark volume on the subject in 1994, Luedemann argued that the non-historicity (read: unreality) of Jesus' resurrection does not require Christians to give up their Christian faith. He recanted of that theological position a few years after writing the book, now calling himself an agnostic secular humanist (source).
Luedemann has recently returned to that same grindstone. With the fresh title, The Resurrection of Christ (as opposed to his earlier Resurrection of Jesus), Luedemann signals a more theologically weighted examination of Jesus' resurrection. The bulk of the book is a revival of his earlier examination of the resurrection texts. Luedemann begins his exegetical study with Paul (1 Cor 15.1-11; 1 Cor 9.1; Gal 1.15-17a; Phil 3.8a; 2 Cor 4.6). Luedemann concedes that the appearance to Paul is an eyewitness account. But an account of what?
The verb used, ophthe, is the third person aorist passive of horan, to see. Luedemann mentions this to say that the term can mean "he appeared to" or "he was seen by." Luedemann interprets this to mean that the experience Paul had of the risen Jesus was a visionary experience, and since Paul relates his experience to those of Peter, et al., we can conclude that all of the earliest resurrection experiences are of a visionary nature. Moreover, since Paul had never seen Jesus while Jesus was alive, the Paul's vision is a primary experience, which I take to mean it is not derived from previous experience of Jesus.
Luedemann spends less time here to discuss the psychological dimension of the visionary experience than he did in his previous work, and that is troubling. Luedemann basically admits that visions could be considered windows to an objective reality (47), but asserts rather baldly that the experience was completely subjective. This he does on the basis of psychological phenomena. The example he gives of similar phenomena is the phenomenon of appearances of the Virgin Mary, about which he concludes, "But even if one ignores the problem of the Church's political agenda in maintaining the historicity of the Lourdes appearances, ecclesiastical sanction can never enter into the critical historian's deliberations. ...Once we understand that visions commonly arise from the frustrations, the hopes, and even yearning for power on the part of both individuals and groups, we are able to examine history as well as human motivation in a more revealing light" (49). That visionary experiences are in large part induced by power dynamics is further corroborated for Luedemann by the fact that Paul ordinarily raises the issue of his vision in the context of apostolic authority.
And what of the appearance to "more than five hundred of the brothers at one time"? This tradition may have some "genetic connection" with the Pentecost narrative of Acts 2.1-4, since in Rom 8.9-11 Spirit of God and Spirit of Christ are used interchangeably. So, it is to mass psychology that Luedemann turns to understand this historical nugget. Drawing parallels to mass visions of St. George on the walls of Jerusalem, Thomas Becket, and Savonarola after their deaths, Luedemann concludes, "Suffice it to say that in all the cases mentioned we are dealing not with historical facts, but psychological phenomena" (80-1). But this begs the question. How is it sufficient to say this? Do we really know that such visions were not objective visions? I'm not saying they were, but I'd like an explanation please. In the end, this appearance to more than five hundred must be understood as "a mass ecstasy that took place in the early community" (81).
We can make short shrift of Luedemann's treatment of the Gospel material. The Gospels suffer from two deficiencies: first, they are not eyewitness accounts; second, the tradition that may eventually lead to an eyewitness has passed through the community and theological expositors. In the end, only those pieces of the Gospel narratives that corroborate what we have already learned from Paul (namely, that Christ died and was buried, and then appeared to some of his followers) can be considered reliable. The bodily resurrection language and narratives in the Gospels were probably added later: "Their emphasis on the reality of the resurrected body of Jesus shows signs of secondary apologetic concern in the face of the docetic challenge, according to which Jesus only seems to have risen" (35).
This is merely a sampling, of course. But it points us to the heart of Luedemann's historical argument. According to Luedemann, the experience of the resurrection began with visionary experiences in the early community (Paul, Peter, a mass vision), which were of an ecstatic nature. This is what historical study can tell us. So far, so good. Where Luedemann takes a turn for the worse is when he starts filling in holes with psychology and drawing negative conclusions based on neutral evidence. Simply because there are possible analogies to the kind of visions the early Christians experienced does not mean that all such visions are therefore merely subjective visions. What's more, even if we can determine that the analogues are subjective, we cannot therefore prove that the Christophanies of the early Christians were therefore not objective visions. Gerd, Gerd, Gerd. Have you learned so little in ten years? Historical research cannot claim that such objective visions do not occur because there is nothing to which they correspond; rather, it can only claim its ignorance and indeterminacy of any such transcendent reality. Oh wait, he admits this: "[the suggestion of an objective vision] can be no more than an apologetic move, since by their very nature visions cannot be examined" (196). But then, ignorance of something does not disprove the thing, it merely leaves us with indeterminacy.
So what is the force at work in Luedemann's research that requires him to deny the possible objectivity of the early Christian visions? Let us consider one simple proposition of Luedemann's: "Christ resurrection faith is in a deep crisis that reflects not so much the results of natural science as conclusions based on historical criticism and sober insight" (203). This is mis-spoken. (I have kindly shied away from Luedemann's own language in his counter claim that the orthodox Christian proclamation of Jesus' resurrection as a falsification and self-deception.) It is the presuppositions, not the conclusions, of historical criticism and sober insight that have guaranteed to us that Jesus did not rise bodily from the grave. One look at the quotations Luedemann chooses to open his chapters should point us in this direction. They are virtually a litany of presuppositions. Whether he is quoting J. A. T. Robinson's Honest to God that "It will soon be as impossible for an intelligent, educated man or woman to believe in a god as it is now to believe that the earth is flat" (29) or Theodor Reik's Dogma and Compulsion ("Liberal Protestantism means the end of Christianity:--it is really an atheism covered with a thin layer of belief in God" ), all of them are building on or describing a world based on modern assumptions that the world is a closed system, and that since we lack any "empirical" data for God we cannot simply assume a god-of-the-gaps or a deus ex machina. In other words, behind Luedemann's "conclusions of historical criticism and sober insight" lie his a/theological assumptions regarding the nature of the universe.
Or we might point to the Troeltschian principle of analogy in historical criticism. If there is no possible analogue to which we might compare an event, we cannot consider it historical because as Luedemann says, quoting C. F. Evans, "we have no criteria for judging an event which is strictly without parallel" (15). The problem is, although we may not be able to claim historicity for an event without parallel, neither can we make a claim that the event is not historical. The best we can do is say it lies outside of the realm of historical inquiry--that is, it is a-historical. This is a point that Barth makes, and which Luedemann quotes: "It is sheer superstition to suppose that only things which are open to 'historical' verification can have happened in time. There may have been events that happened far more really in time than the kinds of things the 'historian' can prove. There are good grounds for supposing that the history of the resurrection of Jesus is a preeminent instance of such an event" (15 - from Church Dogmatics III/2, p. 446). He refutes Barth with Bultmann: "My question is, what does Barth understand by 'have taken place in history' and 'history'? What kind of events are those about which it can be said that 'they have really taken place as history in time far more certainly than everything which the "historian" can establish as such'?" (15) Luedemann would like to place an exclamation point at the end of Bultmann's reply. But that is hardly an answer. To put it most succinctly: weird shit happens. And while it may be granted that this is a bald claim, so is the claim that weird shit doesn't happen. If we really want to be equitable about the whole thing, Nietzche can speak against both parties and say, "You're both just asserting your will to power; neither of you is speaking any real truth."
From Nietzche, then, we learn that Luedemann's assumptions are really a/theological commitments: they are calculated a prioris. So is Christian faith in the resurrection as being real, but that's what makes faith trust. Maybe our trust is misplaced, maybe not. We trust that it's not. Luedemann trusts that it is.
But Luedemann is no pessimist, like Paul was. Luedemann says, "I neither adopt such a simplistic stance nor share such a pessimistic outlook. ...The resurrection of Jesus is not a historical event, and therefore he will not come again. But being solidly based on historical scholarship, that conclusion is quite liberating. It enables me to see that 'resurrection' must be seen metaphorically by applying it to this present life--in which we find ourselves, as it were, on a small raft adrift on a vast, dark ocean. An icy wind blows, and we on the raft are ultimately united only by the bond of the death that will come to all of us. Nor can we expect any compassion from the impersonal universe. Yet we may come to terms with the reality of such terrors by seeking a deeper foundation for life. We strive to create meaning in our lives by living in humility, wisdom, and love. Faith, understood as that which empowers life, is effective in every act of courage on the face of this earth. Once this happens I cross the threshold of a new existence. ...Like Bertrand Russell, I believe that when I die my body will rot, and my selfhood will vanish. And yet I know that genuine happiness is no less precious because it must come to an end.... Indeed, accepting my perishability gives rise to a truer Easter vision. Now freed from the undertow of fear and in defiance of the absurd, I can join myself to all humanity by striving in all things to give the best that is in me, and to dedicate my efforts to the welfare of my fellow-voyagers." Ah yes, Luedemann the optimist.
Is there not some self-delusion in defying the absurd? Defying the absurd may be as absurd as the absurd itself. In the end, maybe Luedemann is a little like Paul. I wonder, as courageous as Luedemann is to spit into the void and defy the absurd, does any of it matter? Why? Why strive for the good of humans? What meaning can be made out of human existence if we are battling an enemy that will eventually consume us? Eventually there will be no vestige of our race, no memory, no trace. Will any courage Luedemann can display now make any difference then? No. What an optimist.
If nothing else, we must praise Luedemann for his consistency. He began with atheistic presuppositions, and now he realizes he must come to atheistic conclusions. Well done. Honestly, though, Luedemann does have the consistency to follow his approach and conclusions to their logical end. Unlike a large number of NT scholars who, for one reason or another, abort their critical assumptions before their terminus, Luedemann takes the train to the last (or at least one possible final) stop on the line. Luedemann points to Hans von Campenhausen, who had already noticed the inconsitency of many scholars: "For them there remains only the somewhat awkward expedient of following the old Christians in their confession of the risen Lord instead of the Jews in what occasioned this confession [the accusation of the theft of Jesus' body]" (18). Also to his credit, we should point out that Luedemann styles himself an agnostic secular humanist these days. Though if he truly believes there is no god, he should style himself an atheist. If he is truly an agnostic, then perhaps he should leave his historical conclusions a little less determinate as well and have enough courage to not have an answer.