But you didn’t return, because your resurrection did not take place; it was only a pious wish. In fact, your body either rotted in the tomb – if indeed it was consigned to a tomb – or quickly disintegrated in a common pit. At least, given the dicey nature of the Passover context, it may have been spared the usual indignity of being devoured by vultures and jackals. But while belief in your resurrection and imminent return enabled your followers to overcome the shock of Good Friday, of what avail are such myths to thinking people today?
By Gerd Lüdemann
Emeritus Professor of the History and Literature of Early Christianity
Georg-August-University of Göttingen
Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt University
Dear Lord Jesus,
Permit me, please, to address you as I have since my childhood and as I have for years as a grace before meals (“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest”). For many years I also repeated every evening another prayer (“Lord Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me”) as a sort of verbal talisman, although I wasn’t entirely sure why I was doing so. But it is precisely for those reasons that the invocation “Lord Jesus” has left such a deep impression on me.
Largely out of habit I have continued to pray to you as Lord Jesus in times of confusion and anxiety, although I long ago knew that you were quite different from what my teachers and my pastor gave me to understand.
And of course it now seems strange to me to think of you as a person whom I can address, for I now recognize that you didn’t say or do most of the things the Bible attributes to you. More important yet, you aren’t at all like the person depicted by the Bible and the church tradition. You weren’t God’s son or free from sin, and had no notion that you had been sent to die for the sins of the world. And what was for me a particularly painful discovery, you didn’t institute the Eucharist that for years I celebrated every Sunday in your memory. And the bread I ate wasn’t your body, nor was the wine I drank your blood. My hope and longing, along with the reassurances of the servants of your church, stifled my doubts as to whether I really ought to play the cannibal and eat your flesh and drink your blood. After all, as a Jew you yourself were strictly forbidden to consume blood. But your pastors referred me to Luther’s declaration that the holy Eucharist is “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, appointed for us Christians by Christ himself to eat and drink as the bread and wine.”
But they laid false claim to you, for that’s not who you were. Like a magician you drove out people’s demons and saw in this the advent of the kingdom of God. You had, as it were, personal knowledge of the devil, and as your powers as a healer grew, you finally saw him fall like lightning from heaven. You seem to have expected that the existing world would soon collapse and give way to a new order of things—the kingdom of God. For a while you and your followers led an insecure itinerant life in the service of that kingdom, and you taught a remarkable code of behavior that interpreted the Law of Moses in the light of love, and daring parables that portray the kingdom through the actions of flawed protagonists in the course of everyday events.
But none of this had the desired result, for you too died, and in the prime of life. You were forced to drink the cup of death in a way that you may not have foreseen. Despite profound experiences of God, whom you called a father to be trusted, and from whom you expected almost everything, your hopes for the future died with you because they clashed with the brutal realities of human nature and Roman imperialism. On the cross you had to learn what it means to become a godforsaken victim. And if your understandably inspired followers had not had visionary experiences of your resurrection and proclaimed them as proof of an historical event, all your words and deeds would soon enough have blown away like leaves by the wind. Moreover, had they not promised your imminent return for judgment and the bestowal of eternal salvation, the whole structure of Christian thought would soon have collapsed.
But you didn’t return, because your resurrection did not take place; it was only a pious wish. In fact, your body either rotted in the tomb – if indeed it was consigned to a tomb – or quickly disintegrated in a common pit. At least, given the dicey nature of the Passover context, it may have been spared the usual indignity of being devoured by vultures and jackals. But while belief in your resurrection and imminent return enabled your followers to overcome the shock of Good Friday, of what avail are such myths to thinking people today? To be sure, many Christians still cling to belief in the resurrection, though many have long since abandoned its original meaning: conceding that your body was not revived, they prefer to talk of your “being with God.” And many bishops, educated church functionaries, and such Christian intellectuals as professors of theology insist on the confession of the resurrection, regardless of what may be understood by it. But such intellectual obfuscation is bound to come to grief, and therefore needs to be decisively exposed for what it is. No authentic religion can be built on projections, wishes, and visions, not even when such phenomena take on the power and authority of the Christian church, which proclaims you to be the Lord of the universe and future judge of all humankind. Of course, you are not the Lord of the universe, nor did you make any such pretense; rather, you proclaimed the future kingdom of God. What we got instead, as one witty cleric observed, was the church. Your hopes seem to have led you to offer exaggerated promises, for the messianic kingdom did not materialize; but far worse is the evident fact that those who elected themselves as your spokesmen have falsified your message and contradicted historical truth to further their personal aims and the power of the church.
Surely you are aware of the myriad crimes that have been committed in your name. The catalogue begins in the New Testament, where anti-Judaism is featured in every gospel, and one evangelist reports that you called your fellow Jews children of the devil because they did not believe in your divinity. It is especially infamous that this so-called purveyor of the good news placed these words of condemnation on your lips. And this hostility toward the Jews that continues throughout church history is certainly not a deviation from the original teachings of the church; rather it arose because you had been exalted to the role of ruler of the universe. From then on, effecting your will from heaven and on behalf of your omnipotent Father, you punished the “unbelieving” Jews for their lack of belief, their disobedience, and their supposed enmity toward you and your churches. This was not simply a mistake based on a misunderstanding of your preaching! No, for now that the Christian church can look back on its two-thousand-year history it is clear that things could not have been otherwise – that except for scriptural and doctrinal falsehoods the church’s very existence would have been both impossible and superfluous. And that is why today we cannot get down to the crucial business of proclaiming your “true message”: we cannot get rid of the accumulated sins and lies of the last 2000 years.
I feel great sympathy for your fellow Jews, who in our time have been able through historical research to rediscover you as their spiritual brother without adopting the church’s supernatural teachings about you. Nevertheless, I see no reason why I should become a Jew, for I am repelled by the jealous and intolerant God of the Hebrew Bible, who arbitrarily chose one small group of tribes as his elect people, and whom Christians then employed to dispossess the Jews of God’s vineyard. Such a God neither accepts the equality nor recognizes the universal rights of all people. Therefore I am firmly convinced that our Constitution, with articles protecting human dignity, personal liberty, equal rights, and freedom of belief, conscience, and opinion, affords a nobler protection to the life of all human beings than the combined scriptures of the Jewish and Christian religions. To be sure, many Christian leaders and theologians today are eager to emphasize that the aforementioned articles of our Constitution are of biblical origin; but I ask myself why it is that until the seventeenth century neither the church nor its theologians had developed any basic statement of rights applying to all individuals and why these principles, together with the notion of tolerance, had to be established by philosophers of the Enlightenment – often in the course of bitter conflict with the church.
You certainly have my deep sympathy, Lord Jesus, but because the time in which you lived is so different from that of today, I don’t imagine you can understand my situation. Perhaps you would have become pensive or even conflicted had you learned that heaven is not a place high above you, that the earth is a rather small rocky sphere circling the sun, and not the center of the whole universe. And probably you would have been very surprised to learn that we humans and the apes have common ancestors, that indeed all living beings are part of a development that began with primitive unicellular organisms. And surely you would be amazed to see that 2000 years after your death, your God had still not brought an end to the current age.
And it gets worse: your God did not create the world, as you and all pious Jews of your day assumed. Rather, the universe came into being through an evolutionary process that is now understood to have begun with a cosmic explosion we call the Big Bang. The image of the creator God developed by your predecessors betrayed a far too human perspective. Of course, the same can be said of the servants of your church today, even though they should know better; yet still every Sunday they confess your God as Creator of heaven and earth. I for one would prefer to say that the governance of the cosmos is a great mystery that cannot be solved but is worth investigating. Obviously, such a view of things is incompatible with the assumption of a creator God, and if you were to ask how I deal with the reality that you and your followers called and continue to call your God, I would tell you of an oft-repeated dream that has freed me from the superstition of this super-father.
Like Jacob, I struggled with God. He was strong and sought to drag me down into an abyss of paralysis, guilt, and anxiety. I recognized the chasm, for I recalled in a flash how much of my life had once been governed by these three emotions. I said to myself, “Never again”, and became strong as an ox. With one last, desperate effort I thrust my antagonist into the pit and at last became free.
Even after repeated experiences of this dream I made further attempts to separate the essence of your message from the time-conditioned features of your preaching. And I clung to your code of behavior and the principles underlying it, for I recognized that elements of your preaching of non-violence, love of enemy, and support of the indigent and the outcast remained valid. But I also knew that these ethical maxims had been developed by others before you, and for the most part were not unique. Moreover, they are tied to the expectation of the coming rule of your God, and that has proved an error. But above all, I now know that in attempting to attach myself to you and understand you as the central dynamic of my life, I was still unconsciously impelled by your Easter image and the Easter message that reflects the church’s dogma. And since any credence in that has long since collapsed, so has the sense of your authority over me.
Theologians will pay almost any price to avoid these conclusions, which follow from the collapse of the idea of a divine creator, from the hoax of your “resurrection,” and from the impossibility of basing a universal system of ethics on your preaching. They even think that they are honoring you and your memory by doing so. That’s how I behaved and believed for many years, but I now recognize that I was doing so for my personal benefit: to hang on to my faith, to conquer my anxiety, and to retain a degree of power and authority in the church sphere. But of course my attempts to define your “resurrection” as experiences of forgiveness, of eternity, and of life were doomed to failure, if only because these experiences can also be had apart from your person and your “resurrection,” and do not depend on the God you invoked. So I prefer from now on to develop a purely human view of religion without having to legitimate myself by the higher authority that theologians call God. Through many discussions with colleagues about the “resurrection” and its correct interpretation, I became painfully aware that these colleagues strove to remain “orthodox” theologians whatever the inward cost to their integrity, and repeatedly had recourse to another reality without explicitly acknowledging it in the discussion of specific texts. I can no longer accede to such tacit presuppositions and the self-delusions they promote.
So that’s where I stand, Lord Jesus; I can no longer bear the totally confused situation of theology, the church and the Bible. If only you could return to and remain in first century Galilee, you could once again become a charismatic exorcist and distinguished teacher, and we could again enter into a normal relationship with you, much as we have done with other normative figures of antiquity, like the Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates. Your exaltation above the level of humanity was too much to endure, for it derives from the hubristic fantasy of immortality and unreasonable longings that must at last be brought down to earth.
But if contrary to all my beliefs you really should return on the clouds of heaven, I look forward to getting to know you at last. And even though I no longer pray to you and no longer believe in your divine nature, I devoutly believe that I will have your sympathy and that despite the Bible and creed you will not annihilate me for my unbelief. But until then, when it comes to matters of religion, things between us have come to an end.
1 For the first edition of the “Letter to Jesus” see Gerd Lüdemann. The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did, (London: SCM Press, 1998 and Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1999), 1–9. The present version of the letter represents a thorough revision of that text.
Congrats for a very educated, brave and honest letter. There are millions who believe this. You may not think so but like a tsunami the tide is growing with all the energy of a tsunami. Bring in the new faith based on research and integrated and new visions.
Yeshua bin Yusuf is what he has always been...just that. If anything at all....??
There is no God but God.
#1 - robert halsey - 08/28/2012 - 15:34
I've read this letter before, and I understand most of what he's getting at, but I've never understood Ludemann's argument that Jesus didn't institute the Eucharist. How else do you account for the Eucharist, if not by Jesus words and actions?
We know that the Eucharist was an early Christian practice, since Paul refers to it in his letters, written only 20 years after Jesus' death. So how did the practice develop in a Church that was overwhelmingly Jewish? Ludemann could argue that the practice arose in Gentile Christianity, but it was nevertheless adopted by Jesus' Jewish followers. How did this happen, given the Jewish prohibition of eating flesh and drinking blood? If the Jews of Paul's day could practice the Eucharist, why couldn't the followers of Jesus, only 20 years earlier? Wouldn't it make sense that Jesus' disciples (Jews all) might have adopted the practice because of something Jesus did or said?
My 2 cents.
#2 - Thomas Peters - 08/29/2012 - 18:04
Mr. Peters, my understanding is that other Hellenistic mystery religions had rituals much like the Eucharist as well. If such rituals did indeed already exist in the Greek world, then the idea that Jesus re-invented it out of whole-cloth (especially as a Jew for whom drinking blood would be abhorrent, even metaphorically) is rather implausible.
#3 - Paul D. - 08/30/2012 - 00:57
Ludemann doesn't seem to be arguing that Jesus borrowed from the mystery religions of the Greek/Roman world to create the Eucharist. Rather, he seems to be arguing that Jesus didn't institute the Eucharist at all. (Or at least that's my reading of the first few paragraphs of this letter -- I cold be wrong.)
In any case, I don't see how the existence of similar rituals in the mystery religions helps out Ludemann. Ludemann's argument is that its preposterous that Jesus would have instituted the ritual since a Jew would have been repelled at the idea of drinking blood. But it is nonetheless the fact that Jewish Christians (including Paul) were participating the Eucharist 20 years after Jesus' death. How did that happen? The idea that the early church copied the mystery religions runs aground on the fact that Paul was at pains to distinguish the church from pagan religion -- he wouldn't have copied them. I can't imagine that Jesus' disciples would have been any more receptive. In my mind, that leaves Jesus' words and actions as the likely source of the ritual.
I agree that it's strange that Jesus would come up with the Eucharist, given the Jewish prohibition on drinking blood, but I find no other plausible source for the ritual. The synoptics are in agreement on this point, and Paul's letter to the Corinthians makes an obvious reference to those accounts. In other words, the Eucharist was early in Christian history. On what basis does Ludemann conclude these accounts were wrong, other than his general distrust of early tradition?
#4 - Thomas Peters - 08/30/2012 - 18:02
Thomas Peters insists that the historical Jesus instituted the Eucharist. May I ask: What Eucharistic text are you talking about? Paul's? Mark's? Matthew's? Luke's? or John's?
One thing seems to be clear: According to the texts just listed (with the possible exception of John) the historical Jesus celebrated the first Eucharist with his disciples, and in it he distributed his blood and body to them and they ate his body and drank his blood symbolically, really or in whatever way.
Such rituals make sense only after Jesus' death because only then could the disciples benefit from his death. The Euchristic texts take on meaning when they are read in the light of the liturgical practices of the early churches.
P.S. I have published an essay on these and related questions, in: Toronto Journal of Theology 25/1, 2009, pp. 19–40. The article can be read online: gerdluedemann.de (American frontpage).
#5 - Gerd Lüdemann - 09/04/2012 - 03:06
I'm honored that you commented on my post.
I'll read the article you referenced and post again. In the meantime, I note two things:
(1) the argument you give here is not the same as the argument you give in your Letter to Jesus. In the Letter the argument seems to be that Jesus couldn't have instituted the Eucharist because it would have been abhorrent to Judaism. My argument is that this leaves the Eucharist unexplained, since Paul (who was a Jew) was participating in the Eucharist 20 years after Jesus' death. How did this happen, if it didn't stem from something early in the Jesus movement? Would the early disciples have instituted it on their own? This seems unlikely, in that they (like Paul) were Jews who would have found the idea abhorrent as well. And Paul wouldn't make it up, because he was at pains to separate the Church from pagan religion. Jesus may have been a Jew, but the Gospels at least depict him as deviating from Judaism on a variety of specifics. Accordingly, I think Jesus is the most likely source of the ritual.
(2) It's not apparent to me that the Eucharist wouldn't have been significant or useful to the disciples except after Jesus' death. The Gospel accounts of the last supper end with Jesus telling the disciples that he wouldn't drink wine with them again until after his death. They depict Jesus as knowing that he was going to die. This provides an explanation of the ritual: Jesus is saying "Remember this meal. This is the last time we're going to be together. Eat this bread as if its my body. Drink this wine as if it's my blood. Whenever you do this, remember me." This is as plausible a scenario as I can think of for the practice.
We can agree that the Gospel accounts are theologically more advanced than Paul, in that they expressly reference the idea of not drinking the wine again until the coming of the Kingdom, which is not an idea that occurs in I Cor 11:24-25. But Paul does have the idea of the "covenant," and he does stress the idea of remembrance. So the scenario I describe above seems to account for Paul. I don't see anything in Paul that would make me think that Paul, and not Jesus, is the source of the ritual.
Again, my 2 cents.
#6 - Thomas Peters - 09/05/2012 - 17:43
Thanks for your contribution. May I make three suggestions: a) Before asking whether Jesus instituted "the" Eucharist we must do a source-critical job and clarify the relationship between the different Eucharistic acccounts. Within the 20 years between Jesus' death and Paul's reference to his Eucharistic account a lot of things happened and many texts were changed as we know from the study of other texts (parables, miracles etc.)
b) Paul was converted to the Christianity he persecuted that is the community of Damascus. Its members taught him the basics of Christian faith, including the ritual of the Eucharist. This community included Jews and Gentiles. I doubt that "orthodox" Christians of Jerusalem would have liked to participate in these meals in which the union of the Lord with his followers was performed. In this type of the Eucharist I see an independent version of the Eucharist which benefitted from mystery religions.
c) In order to be able to explain the diverse character of Earliest Christianity we must reconstruct different communities (e.g. Jewish Christian Jerusalem community; Gentile Christian community) the more so since the Damascene community like their most influential pupil Paul did not know too many words of Jesus and did not seem to be very interested in them.
Be that as it may, your questions lead us to the riddles of Christian origins. Thank you.
#7 - Gerd Lüdemann - 09/06/2012 - 19:08
Dear Professor Ludemann: As the first and second centuries CE went on, and there was no messianic new age, and there was no parousia, one response of the Jesus movement could have been to say "Oops, wrong interpretation -- back to the synagogue we go". Instead, they became ever-more elaborate in their beliefs, leading to what we have today. Do you have any ideas on why they didn't simply re-integrate with the more prevalent approach to Judaism, instead of maintaining separation and creating a new religion?
#8 - Michael - 09/15/2012 - 13:57
For the following reasons a later re-integration of the the church with Judaism was likely impossible:
1) By the end of the first century the church had become predominantly Gentile Christian. 2) The theology of the four gospels was anti-Jewish (cf. the passion narratives) and seems to reflect the general attitude of large parts of the church in various places of the Roman Empire. 3) The work of Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles,
led against his will to a permanent separation of the church and Israel. Even worse, it destroyed the Tora. 4) The Christians and their leaders did not accept the Jewish charge (see Justin, Dialogue with Trypho) that they had misinterpreted Scripture. According to them the "non-believing" Jews had misinterpreted Scripture.
#9 - Gerd Luedemann - 09/18/2012 - 15:30
"Surely you are aware of the myriad crimes that have been committed in your name."
Of course he is not aware. If there is a man at the base of the myth, then he is dead and has been for 2000 years.
#10 - Richard - 11/02/2012 - 20:42
Thomas Peters wrote:
"Paul was at pains to distinguish the church from pagan religion -- he wouldn't have copied them."
Actually, Paul was at pains to distinguish the church from Judaism. That's why he abolished the Mosaic Law and used the word "Judaizers" as a pejorative. Also, Jews had no tradition of glossolalia. But it was a common practice among pagans. Yet there it is at Pentecost, being practiced by Palestinian Jews as a cornerstone of the faith. The Jewish god also does not impregnate women. But Hellenistic gods impregnated women on a regular basis. Similarly, the pagans worshiped several female virgin gods. That's how Mary got her virgin status. Christianity is a Hellenistic religion.
#11 - Jon Green - 10/15/2013 - 12:24
It's interesting to reflect on the number of world religions, not just Christianity, that are based, at least in part, upon miraculous, even fantastic, events that seem to defy nature. The ancient Maya had their concepts of the founding of the world; Jews their stories of the flood and the exodus from Egypt; Mormonism is based on the gold tablets found by Joseph Smith; etc. Perhaps there is something in the human psyche seeks such theological foundations? And seek gods that speak directly and appear physically to their subjects.
The modern world, not just the ancient, is filled with historical but unusual and rare events. These might wind up being attributed to the intervention of God - rather than to mere chance or to unexplained natural causes.
#12 - Doug Criner - 02/05/2014 - 19:46
My question to the religious:
Do you know of any God or gods that had not been created by human imagination?
#13 - Johann - 09/26/2015 - 09:10
@Doug: There is not a single incident of a miracle known to mankind. Of course there are rare events, people win the lottery. And if its you who wins its a rare event for you. There is unexplained/not understood phenomena (dark matter, the Riemann hypotheses, ...), but no miracles (luckily).
#14 - Frank G. - 07/11/2016 - 20:18