Interview with Rachael Kohn
The Spirit of Things
April 4, 2004
Rachael Kohn: Gerd, as a scholar of the New Testament, and early Christianity, you stand firmly in the Protestant tradition of the historical critical analysis of the Bible. Now that field is associated with great names such as David Friedrich Strauss, Julius Wellhausen, and Joachim Jeremias. How would you explain or how would you describe the importance of that tradition?
Gerd Ludemann: The tradition is firmly rooted in the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment created a completely new world both in terms of cosmology and also what is known about antiquity. They didn’t believe what the sources said but they started to examine the value of the sources, and in the pursuit of examining the value of the sources, a completely new world emerged, both the world of antiquity and the modern world, and Enlightenment created a new standard of knowledge, and after that also of living.
Rachael Kohn: What was the impact in terms of the value of the New Testament as a revealed text?
Gerd Ludemann: The Reformation thought of the New Testament as the word of God, and Martin Luther made a difference between for example the letters of James and the letters of Paul, but still he trusted in the historical work of the New Testament. Historical criticism started its work and claimed that none of the authors that wrote the gospels, and those of the letters, are the authors that really wrote them, and that of course created a stir so that people were wondering whether one could trust the New Testament at all, and that was the crisis for the word of God.
Rachael Kohn: In terms of your own analysis of the New Testament, you too have been sifting it for authentic sayings, as opposed to the inauthentic sayings of Jesus.
Gerd Ludemann: Well indeed. First I examined the Resurrection of Jesus, because I was told by my church, and by the confession of the church, that the risen Lord is the Lord of the universe, and I wrote a book about the Resurrection, had to conclude that Jesus didn’t rise, that his body rotted away and that Resurrection meant the vision of the risen one, that is a vision, a dream. And nobody will trust his or her dream, so I had to abandon that approach of theology to trust in the risen one, and I turned to Jesus, and thought, Well, if he didn’t rise, there’s a possibility that the authority of Jesus’ words and deeds might be the basis of future faith.
So I was looking for a new way of believing or remaining a believer. And I had to conclude that roughly 85% of the words of Jesus actually go back to the community that made these words up and don’t go back to Jesus, which created another crisis. I had to ask Who was Jesus? Why should Jesus be the basis for my own religion? Because historical investigation showed that Jesus was a Jew and did not go to the Gentiles. So basically I had to decide either to follow Jesus and become a Jew or to respect Jesus as a Jew of his days and abandon Christianity, or at least traditional Christianity, and that’s what I did.
Rachael Kohn: Let’s look at some of the things which you did find in the text. For example, your work has often focused on the divergent sects in the early Christian period. What did you find there?
Gerd Ludemann: I found that the earliest form of Christianity was sort of Ebionite Christianity that later in the 2nd century was considered to be heretical.
Rachael Kohn: What do you mean by Ebionite?
Gerd Ludemann: Ebionite means that’s a translation of the Hebrew ebion,the poor, that’s an honorific title of the earliest community, so they were the poor that Jesus said ‘Blessed are the poor because you will get the Kingdom of Heaven’, or whatever. But that form of Christianity was unable to survive, at least to become the majority opinion. It was declared heretical and was living on in the various sects across the Jordan River.
Rachael Kohn: What was the form that did rise to ascendancy?
Gerd Ludemann: Well it was a very complicated process. First of all the original form of Christianity was replaced by a form of Jacobite or James Christianity, the brother of Jesus, can you imagine that, who didn’t believe in Jesus during his lifetime? Took over, because he was a brother of Jesus, and nobody can really explain his rise to power. At least he was more powerful than Peter, the first disciple of Jesus and he was more powerful and more influential than Paul, the real founder of Christianity, and that now answers your question, Paul was the one who organised the Gentile mission and a mixture of Gentile Christianity and Jewish Christianity then developed into the early Catholic church. It’s a complicated process, but I would say Paul, the founder of Christianity who brought things together and who thought it through. Paul, who didn’t know Jesus by the way.
Rachael Kohn: Now that combined Jewish and Pauline community is quite interesting for the reader of the New Testament, since it contains quite a degree of antipathy, hostility toward Jews.
Gerd Ludemann: Well it had to, because let’s try to make a case, a strong case for that. In Antioch the Christians or the Jewish Christians around Stephen, names like Philip come to our mind, formed a community of eight together with Gentiles because they believed that in Christ there’s new creation and all the differences overcome. So when they ate with Gentiles without caring what they ate, they sort of abandoned their Jewish mother religion, though if you had asked them they would have said, ‘f course, we are the true Jews, OK?’ So the other Jews, also James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, observed that and sent people, messengers, warning them not to do it. And Paul was part of that process of that group, and Paul was the one who thought it through and maintained or thought that Jews should eat with Gentiles. So he was the one who put a spin on it.
Rachael Kohn: Where then did the rather vicious critique of Jews emerge? Was it from Paul, or was it from Jesus himself?
Gerd Ludemann: Not from Jesus, no. He talked to Pharisees and they invited him. He may have had some enemies but he was pro-Jewish, he had no problems with the law, so Paul was the one, and Paul was dealing with his own pathology I think, with his own problems and formulated that what he was suffering from. There was his problem with the law that he thought that others would have.
Rachael Kohn: Well I guess it begs the question then Where do those texts in the Bible come from? How do we read them? How do you discern texts that are authentic from those that are inauthentic?
Gerd Ludemann: It depends. Let’s talk about the Gospels. There we have to make a decision, what is the earliest Gospel, and we have to determine that Matthew and Luke were using Mark, so we have to read them side by side and try to determine the tendencies of that tradition.
For example, anything that’s very hostile to Jews is most likely a product of the community after 70, OK? But something which is very offensive, something which a later community would never ascribe to Jesus is most likely going back to Jesus. When being with prostitutes for example, no Christian would have invented that. By a very cautious and careful study of the documents of the gospel, we most likely arrive at a judgement as to the development of the traditions, and to what Jesus really said and did. That’s the Gospels. When I go to Paul, we have 13 Pauline letters, we should read them side by side, study the language and result is that only 7 of these letters go back to Paul. All the others are using a very different language.
Now we have 7 authentic letters and now we have to get a sequence, a chronological sequence for these letters, and here scholarship has arrived at the solution that 1 Thessalonians is the earliest extant letter, and the last letter well it’s probably Romans. But in that case I’m not so sure. So it’s a great discovery which everybody who has some time to read can hope for, and the history of historical critical scholarship of the last 250 years is a very exciting one.
Rachael Kohn: Well indeed. Where is that scholarship being pushed ahead most? Is it still in Germany or has the laurel been passed to America and the Jesus Seminar?
Gerd Ludemann: Well my suspicion is that historical critical scholarship right now is not very active, because the churches have a hard time to live with it.
The people that I teach will not be good pastors unless they forget everything, most everything that I told them, because come on, the church, you think that the word of God is being preached and now somebody is learning in my cause, that most of what they preach about, Jesus really didn’t say, and I’ve seen no pastor who is telling his or her community when he says, or she says, ‘Jesus is not really Jesus, it’s Jesus made up by Early Christians’. So historical scholarship or straightforward critical historical scholarship, leads to confusion in the church, and there we have a big, big problem. For that reason, new ways of looking at texts are more sympathetic to churches. So I think historical critical scholarship is in a deep crisis right now.
Rachael Kohn: That’s interesting because the Jesus Seminar is very well known for its critical work on trying to discern the authentic sayings of Jesus. Bob Funk has been heading that ship, as it were, and they awarded you with a very special prize in 1999, the David Friedrich Strauss Medal; does that symbolise something of the merging of German scholarship with contemporary American scholarship in this regard?
Gerd Ludemann: Well I was very proud to be awarded that medal, but I’m also a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, but I hold a minority opinion.
Most of the Jesus Seminar fellows think that Jesus was not an apocalyptic teacher, so they think that Jesus was a great wisdom teacher, and that helps them to actually preach Jesus, because you can go to the pulpit and say Jesus was a great teacher. My opinion is, as a minority opinion but as a majority opinion among international scholars, that Jesus expected a Kingdom of God to happen during his own lifetime, and that he, well, he deceived himself. And I think somebody who deceived himself and deceived his disciples cannot be the basis of worship.
Rachael Kohn: Wasn’t that the view that Albert Schweitzer also wrote in his Life of Jesus?
Gerd Ludemann: Exactly, and I think basically Albert Schweitzer is right, but that is creating a problem for the community of believers. I mean the mainstream Protestant churches, I’m not talking about the Unitarians, and the Jesus Seminar is teaching a different Jesus, they, or they, I mean I like the Jesus Seminar and I’m a member again, but their way of teaching or telling people what Jesus said makes it very easy to preach about Jesus because she didn’t commit self-deception, he was a great wisdom teacher.
Rachael Kohn: How else would you describe Jesus’ characteristics?
Gerd Ludemann: Well first of all please keep in mind he was unable to write, he was unable to read, he was a boy from the village of Galilee, a nature boy or something like that, OK? He was so much in touch with people that he was even unable to see that there’s some other intellects who would ask him some very embarrassing questions. See he was totally in his religion, a very original person, sympathetic, able to draw a great crowd, but who talked to God as his father, which would be a very strange way, because I would say whoever calls God his or her own father, cannot be taken seriously.
Rachael Kohn: Well many people seem to have.
Gerd Ludemann: It’s just so self-centred. I mean how in the world can you take it seriously that somebody called God, his or her own father? So he was self-centred, he had to be because he didn’t know enough about the great word, the wisdom, and he never talked to any philosopher who had studied logic.
Rachael Kohn: So the idea of him being a rabbi is not authentic?
Gerd Ludemann: No, he belonged to a low class, he was a carpenter and a very original prophetic person but again, he not only called God his father but he also thought to know the will of God. I wouldn’t call him a fanatic but it’s very strange that he knows exactly what God wanted, come on. Again, I’m just stunned and that just doesn’t allow me to regard him as my hero, as somebody who could tell me anything.
Rachael Kohn: What are the things that he didn’t do?
Gerd Ludemann: He didn’t go for example to Sepphoris, he could have got some education, he didn’t engage into serious dialogue with Pagans, Gentiles.
Rachael Kohn: Did he institute the Eucharist?
Gerd Ludemann: Well no, he didn’t institute the Eucharist because he was a Jew, a teacher, a storyteller, and as a Jew he of course would never think that somebody could drink blood or anything. And remember that he, according to the Gospels, instituted the Eucharist at a time when he wasn’t even dead. The Eucharist presupposes his death for us, so it’s all construction by the Early church. That’s very sad.
Rachael Kohn: Gerd, in your now famous book which I believe was published in 1998, in English called The Great Deception, it begins with 'A Letter to Jesus' in which you declare your loss of faith.
Gerd Ludemann: Oh yes, that was because of that very letter that I almost lost my job. The Church of Lower Saxony asked the government to fire me and the dispute is still going on at least I was removed from the Theological curriculum, and still belonging to the Theological faculty but have no academic rights whatsoever, so that very Letter to Jesus created a whole stir, and they thought of it as the public acknowledgement that I’m no longer a Christian, but they never defined what a Christian is, and in fact the press brought that up. So the press played a major role in the church taking me to, well, trying to fire me. And that’s now since 1998, it’s five years, and it’s still before the court, and we will see it will take another five years until the Supreme Court will render a final decision.
Rachael Kohn: Your situation has been compared to that of Hans Kung, who some years ago was removed from teaching theology at the Catholic university of Tubigen because of his views which were at variance with the Vatican. Is that comparison a valid one?
Gerd Ludemann: No, he settled with the church and the university, he did not take them to court. I didn’t settle, I will never settle because I’m a Protestant and I’m bringing, or trying to represent the best tradition of free Protestantism and Enlightenment, and so there’s a legacy, I’ve a legacy to fulfil.
He’s a Catholic, there’s no legacy to Enlightenment, he remains a Catholic, but I have a completely different view, but from a juridical, legal standpoint, it’s the same thing. The Catholic church objected to his teaching, which they can do. It’s the law that the church can veto and can withdraw an approval. The same was done to me for the first time to a Protestant Professor of Theology.
What happened to Kung is happening almost every year in Germany, when Professors get married, when they write something, we have eight or nine Professors of Catholic theology who are not so known as Kung is, but I’m the first Protestant Professor of Theology and hopefully the last who has difficulties.
Rachael Kohn: But Gerd, some would see it as perfectly sensible that a Christian theological faculty would remove someone who publicly declares a lack of faith in the Christian God.
Gerd Ludemann: I disagree. We have a theological faculty that is paid for by the State. The church is not paying a penny for this faculty. So I’m an employee of the State. The only reason for removing me would be I think if I informed the students incorrectly as to what the church believes.
I will always teach my students what the church believes on the basis of confession and introduce them to Christianity and I think you can compare to a situation of a non-Marxist teaching at a Marxist seminary. And I think a non-Marxist in some cases can be a better scholar on Marxism than a Marxist is. This has to do with education and scholarship, not with belief.
I think belief of a faith is something else. The only thing that people could accuse me of is that as a citizen of Germany, of democracy, I have an opinion about things, and when students ask me ‘Are you a believer for example? Do you believe that Jesus will come back at the end of time on the clouds of heaven?’ I have to say ‘No.’ ‘Do you believe that you will rise after death, will be with Jesus?’ I have to say ‘No.’ And the hypocrisy in all of this is that in most cases my colleagues and others would also deny Jesus coming back on the clouds of heaven etc. So I’m pretty certain that what I am doing is the right thing to do.
Rachael Kohn: But didn’t the man who invented virtually invented historical criticism of the Bible, Julius Wellhausen, change faculties in 1882 when he realised he didn’t want to train students to become ministers. Isn’t that option open to you?
Gerd Ludemann: That would have been open to me, though the philosophical faculty did not want me. In my case, the President of the University made his decision, he would have liked to transfer me to the Philosophical Faculty, but they for an unknown reason said No. So I was not faced with the possibility.
What I could have done is, I could have tried to become part of the Philosophical Faculty, that’s what people told me, and a former Bishop in fact, tried to talk me into it. But I declined to do so, because I’m a New Testament scholar and trained in that tradition. I want to be judged on the basis of my scholarly work, analysing the Gospels, analysing the Letters of Paul, that’s a great tradition, which is at stake here, and I want to remain what I was, in the place where I was called and what I can do.
So there’s no reason for me to go to the Philosophical Faculty because in the German system there are no Chairs of New Testament in the Philosophical Faculty. Wellhausen’s decision was his decision, and he remained a Christian person. He prayed after that, even. So Wellhausen is a special case, and that was his decision. I didn’t want to do it.
Rachael Kohn: Doesn’t this call into question the relationship between theology and scientific knowledge. Isn’t theology and the kind of historical criticisms that you’re doing, in some ways antithetical?
Gerd Ludemann: Yes I would say it excludes one another. There’s a dogmatic method and the historical method, and if you ask me I would wish that theology turn into a philosophy of religion, or leave the university. That would be my suggestion, and get all the empirical, historical departments of the Theological Faculty - Old Testament, New Testament, History of Religions -together to form a new curriculum, and Theology indeed if it is dogmatic Theology, meaning deducing from the dogmas of the church, certain truths, it has no legitimate place in the university. But the church will always try to keep it there, and it’s the political power of the church that will keep it there for some time to come.
Rachael Kohn: I think that this problem is somewhat solved or addressed in many Western universities with the establishment of Religious Studies Departments, which owe no allegiance to any particular church.
Gerd Ludemann: But there are no Religious Studies departments in Germany, or very few, and if there are Religious Studies Departments then the appointment of some of the Professors needs the agreement of the church. So we do not have that tradition, and one peculiar aspect of the German situation is that religion is taught at the schools.
Article 7 of our basic law says that religion has been taught on the basis of the confessions of the various churches, so we need teachers of religion. But now what happens is this: there’s Catholic religion at a school and Protestant religion, and if there are two departments, a Catholic faculty and a Protestant faculty in one place, as a Catholic you cannot take a course with the Protestants, and the Protestants are not allowed to take a course with the Catholics and getting credit for it. So the organisation and the power struggle of the church is responsible for this idiotic schizophrenic separating of studies that belong together. It’s a political game, and the less popular the church gets, the more they see to it that the teaching of religion is not combined.
Rachael Kohn: That’s very interesting because while you’re pointing to the loss of the faith as it were by the general population, didn’t you also mention to me earlier that there are almost 1,000 students studying Theology in this university?
Gerd Ludemann: We had 1700 students in the ‘70s when I began, less in the ‘80s, and now it’s only 33%, much less study Theology. The number has dramatically decreased and the churches have lost members, and losing it all the time, but there are agreements or treaties between State and church, so the Theological faculty is receiving many favours from the State because of the power of the church. Again, we have Catholic and Protestant faculties, and it will not change unless the legal structure of this whole system is abolished, and one of my contributions will be to destabilise the system which makes serious scholarship impossible in the long run.
Rachael Kohn: Can you just tell me what is the state of your case at the moment?
Gerd Ludemann: I have lost the first instance but now I have more successful. I succeeded in being admitted to the next court; we have three different courts, a lower court, then the higher court and the supreme court, so it was quite difficult to convince the judges of the next higher court that the case needs to be reconsidered and they in fact have admitted that there may be a problem with their earlier decision of the other court. So it will probably take a while to get it through the three stages of legal system in Germany.
Rachael Kohn: Gerd, what has been the ramifications, what has been the impact for you of this punitive measure by the university? Because I read that there was some boycotts.
Gerd Ludemann: Well my doctorate students had to look for another Doctor or Father, so I could not help them to get their degree, and I lost half of my money that I had. I came to Gottingen in 1983 with a Chair in New Testament, and then turned an offer down from the University of Bonn in 1993, and my money, or what I had, was increased, I lost all of that. So I’m basically back to, well, to somebody who is helping me for a couple of hours, but they were unable to cut my salary, I’ve a full salary, which is good because I have a family of four children to get through grade school. But students are no longer coming to me because they get no credit from me and it’s not good for them to be associated with me.
The press has written about me and you can imagine once you have a certain reputation, nobody will be able remove that. What I have, I have senior students, people older than 55, with whom I’m working. We’re doing workshops and many are coming to these workshops, so my emphasis, since I have no students, no regular course, I have to offer regular courses, but most of these courses are just not happening or taking place because nobody’s coming, my emphasis is adult education and research. I’m doing a lot of books, but the impact is that I’m very isolated, I have very few people to talk to. I have no dialogue that’s going on. That’s a loneliness which is very bitter. Sometimes I don’t have to talk, I’m not talking, I’m condemned to be without speech. I’ve only my pen to write.
Rachael Kohn: If I can get back to your book The Great Deception, one of the strong points in it that you end on is the role of the church in promoting an anti-Jewish teaching, and that seems to be one of the bitterest pills really for you. And I was thinking about you as a German who also spends half the year, or quite frequently spends time in American universities. I wonder to what extent being a German who has to cope with the impact of the Holocaust in particular, Germany is one of the few countries in Europe that has very publicly dealt with, or addresses its role in the Holocaust. I wondered to what extent that shaped you and your work.
Gerd Ludemann: Well I learned about anti-Judaism in the New Testament not during my student days here at Gottingen, not even during my graduate studies in Gottingen, but in the United States when I was Research Assistant of W.D. Davies, and the reading E.P. Sanders' great book Paul and Palestinian Judaism helped me to get it into perspective and to see it, and also to reorganise my own work, because looking at anti-Judaism in the New Testament, has led me ultimately to the decision that the Early Church had to be anti-Jewish in order to survive, but that anti-Jewish Early Church defined what is Christian. And this anti-Judaism of the New Testament I think should make it impossible for anybody to call him or herself a Christian.
So that’s a problem, and as you said, German churches have acknowledged it, have addressed that problem, but they are still Christians, and they try to re-read the New Testament in a way in which we shouldn’t read it. And so they address it, but they worship and adore the same people, like Luther, who was an anti-Semite. So they are not drawing the consequence of all of that.
And secondly, the result of anti-Judaism should not be only public declaration but the result, the consequences should have been the creation of Jewish chairs within Theological faculties. But our legal system does not allow to create a Jewish Chair filled by a Jew, because the Professor has to be Christian, has to be baptised. Somebody from Israel who is an expert on Jesus could not get a Doctorate, not even a degree in the Theological faculty because he or she must be baptised. I would say that’s lip service which is being paid. The real thing which should ensure Jewish studies should have been the creation of Chairs, but that’s not possible.
Rachael Kohn: So what would you see is the future for Christianity? Is there one?
Gerd Ludemann: John Shelby Spong has written a book, either Christianity will change or it will die, that’s what I would say. It will die so, I am sceptical, it will not die, it will be the same, so I’m not so optimistic. I would say the main question would be Will there be a religion at all? My studies have demonstrated I think that religion cannot be based on history, not based on facts. Religion is based in something else, not the resurrection of Jesus, not in his death, it has to be based on something else that something else has to be re-addressed and has to be found.
For a time I was translating Gnostic texts and thought for a time that sort of new mysticism would be a way to allow one to be religious again without losing insights and without denying any scientific knowledge, but I’m trying to find it. So I’m looking for the something which could ground my faith or my view in religious matters. That’s I think important, so I’m not a pure rationalist, I’m something else, and I think religion under stood in terms of emotions or spirituality is something that we should address if we talk about the new religion.
Rachael Kohn: Isn’t that precisely what the Jesus Seminar has been trying to do in terms of grounding a future for Christianity and the sayings of Jesus for example?
Gerd Ludemann: But still I don’t know whether that’s what they wanted. You should ask them. But that’s would be still basing one’s faith on the sayings, on facts, on something which somebody said and not basing the faith in experience. I thin we have to talk about experience. I would say you could only base your life on something that you have experienced, and experience e has to do with the present, not with the past.
Rachael Kohn: Does religion necessarily leave its imprint in history? Can t ever absent itself from history? It always leaves a legacy, does it not, for the next generation.
Gerd Ludemann: When we talk about history we’re not only talking about two generations, we’re talking about millennia, and Christianity has certainly left its imprint, but today we’re living in an age where the world has become very small and the exchange of ideas is rapid etc., and our value system, at least my value system is based on certain ideas that we have from the Enlightenment and which is incorporated into most basic laws of Western democracies.
So that’s one of my bases in terms of value. I don’t need a religion to ensure that, that people are created equal and should have the same chance etc. I don’t need religion. So I trust that our political systems will keep the work on the basic values or the basic rights of men intact, so there’s an ongoing process, and for example, we are now talking about the Constitution for Europe, and you see, we have almost the same values, the same laws that are incorporated into the Constitution of the United States.
I don’t need a religion, I don’t even need God for that thing. What I need religion for is I think, and I must talk personally, fulfilling my desire to go back to my origins, where I’m coming from. That’s something that cannot be answered by ethics, that’s something emotional, spirituality, whatever, and I don’t think that that type of religion that I’m talking about doesn’t even need a church, and doesn’t want to leave an imprint, it’s my religion and we can talk about it I’m sure it will be addressed again and again, and I don’t care to leave an imprint for that to an institution. That time I think is over because our society is organised the way it is.
Rachael Kohn: Gerd Ludemann, finally, what is the future then for a New Testament scholar?
Gerd Ludemann: Investigating and testing the text again and again and mainly being in charge of keeping fundamentalism in check. It always wants to use the New Testament to be applied to the present, so I think that’s a very positive function that a New Testament scholar can do, keeping fundamentalism in check, and all of us have the desire to get new insights, we have new sources, new discoveries for example, the Gospel of Thomas, and we want to put the New Testament in perspective, and relate the New Testament documents through these newly discovered documents, so a New Testament scholar must and will interpret the New Testament and the new insights about the environment of the New Testament to the public audience, because they want to know.
Rachael Kohn: But certainly fundamentalists won’t be interested in reading your works or taking them seriously if you disown the fundamentals of the faith.
Gerd Ludemann: In my own family we have in America my son-in-law for example, is going to a church that has fundamental tendencies, or is fundamentalistic, and my policy as a father-in-law is to let him ask questions...That’s his decision and maybe fundamentalism is a reminder what Christianity once meant, because Paul also was a fundamentalist, and Martin Luther, all of them, believed literally in what the text said and something more than that. And from the 1st century, understanding of the Biblical text meant understanding and literally, but also adding some symbolic dimension to it.
For example, when Luke is telling his story about the ascension, Jesus is rising to the clouds, and is disappearing, and he thought that that happened. At the same time it has some symbolic, deeper, or more symbolic meaning which the fundamentalists don’t see. So our challenge as living in the post modern world is to recreating and changing what Christianity once taught, and that’s a big problem. So fundamentalists are a reminder of what Christians once believed. So that’s I think very useful.
Rachael Kohn: Gerd Ludemann, thank you so much for speaking to me on The Spirit of Things.
Gerd Ludemann: You’re very welcome, Rachael.