Tuesday 7 August 2007

The Pope's Jesus: Gerd Lüdemann and Benedict XVI

Gerd Lüdemann, Das Jesusbild des Papstes: Über Joseph Ratzingers kühnen Umgang mit den Quellen (Springe: zu Klampen Verlag, 2007), 157 pp. (review copy courtesy of zu Klampen)

Just months after Benedict XVI released Jesus of Nazareth, the New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann has produced this spirited book-length critique of “the Pope’s Jesus.” Lüdemann writes both as a post-Christian who is deeply sceptical about the claims of church doctrine, and as a rigorous advocate of the historical-critical method. A central contrast between Benedict and Lüdemann thus lies in their respective attitudes towards the biblical texts: while Benedict approaches the texts with basic trust and theological commitment, Lüdemann insists that it is “a blind alley” to privilege these texts and to assume that they are historically or theologically trustworthy (p. 23).

Indeed, for Lüdemann it is precisely the integrity of the texts that is at stake in all this. For instance, against Benedict’s overtly christological interpretation of Jesus’ parables, Lüdemann protests that, in this reading, the texts themselves are “bypassed” in the interests of church doctrine (p. 94).

Lüdemann is right to observe that Benedict’s work suffers from many historical flaws. Methodologically, Benedict tends to treat the gospel records like independent and reliable historical witnesses, so that his approach amounts to an implicit repudiation of the two document hypothesis (i.e. that Matthew and Luke used Mark and Q as sources) on which historical analysis rests. Lüdemann also observes that Benedict frequently cites Old Testament texts “as predictions of Christ,” even though this is historically illegitimate and “scientifically impossible” (p. 151).

Lüdemann’s longest chapter (pp. 95-120) is devoted to Benedict’s use of the Fourth Gospel, and it is here that some of the central problems in Benedict’s methodology are brought into view. Benedict privileges the Fourth Gospel and freely uses it as a source of historical information about Jesus, but he offers “no convincing arguments against the scholarly consensus that the Johannine discourses have nothing to do with what Jesus himself actually said” (p. 120). Of course, some scholars are more optimistic about identifying historically authentic layers in the Fourth Gospel; but it is nevertheless rather baffling to hear Benedict assert that “[t]he Jesus of the Fourth Gospel and the Jesus of the Synoptics is one and the same: the true ‘historical’ Jesus” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 111).

Such methodological shortcomings should be taken seriously in any evaluation of Benedict’s book. Indeed, the fact that Benedict presupposes the divine “inspiration” of the biblical texts is already a significant obstacle to historical understanding. Lüdemann is surely right to insist that the texts cannot be properly understood on the basis of any “supposed divine inspiration”: “Whoever has given a little finger to the historical-critical method must give the whole hand” (p. 151). Of course, I myself think it is still possible to confess the “inspiration” of the canon – but this confession should arise subsequently from an encounter with the witness of the texts, and should not be introduced as a methodological presupposition which guarantees the texts’ reliability in advance.

Lüdemann’s critique of Benedict’s historiography is thus of considerable value, since it helps to make explicit some of the basic methodological criteria of a properly “historical” study of Jesus.

But the acuteness of Lüdemann’s understanding of history is matched only by the heavy-handedness of his treatment of theology. He offers the bald assertion, for instance, that “whenever there is a contradiction between faith and knowledge, the latter has priority” (p. 151) – even though such a rigid dichotomy between “faith” and “knowledge” rests on assumptions that are simply foreign to much Christian scholarship. So too, the recurring complaint that Benedict’s real subject is not the Jesus of history but the Christ of faith imports assumptions about faith and history that are foreign to Benedict’s entire approach – foreign, indeed, to a good deal of contemporary biblical scholarship. To presuppose an irreconcilable gulf between Christian faith and secular historiography is simply to decide in advance that a distinctively Christian interpretation of the historical Jesus can never be legitimate.

In my view, this highlights the central shortcoming of Lüdemann’s critique: he is insufficiently sensitive to the possibility of genuine consonance and coherence between theology and history, faith and knowledge. The fact that (historical flaws notwithstanding) Benedict wants to identify Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of faith is simply inconceivable to Lüdemann, since his own assumptions drive an absolute wedge between the spheres of faith and history. But the fact that the gospel texts are also the canonical texts of a believing community – canonical precisely as historically conditioned texts! – demands something more than just the construction of narratives about the past.

This “something more” was Benedict’s aim in Jesus of Nazareth. Even if Benedict fails to give historical criticism its due, he is right to observe that the historical method itself has only a limited capacity to grasp the identity of Jesus. Of necessity, the historical method must interpret Jesus “in terms of the past, in terms of the predictable and the possible,” with the result that Jesus’ sheer uniqueness and singularity can easily be effaced (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 292).

Further, Benedict notes that historical criticism cannot perceive the canonical unity of the diverse biblical texts. He thus argues that the historical method must be supplemented by other methods of canonical or theological exegesis. The purpose of “canonical exegesis,” he argues, is not to contradict the findings of historical-critical interpretation, but to carry such interpretation forwards so that historiography is transposed into theology (pp. xviii-xix).

It seems to me that historical Jesus research invites precisely such theological transposition. As scholars like Martin Hengel and Marinus de Jonge have demonstrated, we can ultimately make sense of Jesus’ mission only when we raise the question of Jesus’ unique relationship to the God whom he calls “Father.” Historiography reaches a limit here (since “God” can hardly be a historical datum), so that a theological interpretation of Jesus’ life and acts becomes indispensable.

In spite of the historical flaws in Benedict’s presentation, therefore, his central claim is of great importance – namely, the claim that Jesus must be understood in light of his unique relationship to God. The mystery of Jesus’ relation to the Father, Benedict writes, “is ever present and determines everything” in the Synoptic portraits of Jesus (p. 218); in the life and acts of this man, “God’s will is wholly done” (p. 150), so that the entire existence of Jesus must be understood as a “filial existence” vis-à-vis God (p. 7).

Since his own interpretation of Jesus can find no place for the question of God, Gerd Lüdemann must finally throw up his hands and protest that the Pope’s book “is steeped in a mystery that only faith can understand” (p. 149). In my view, however, this sense of “mystery” is the best – not the worst – aspect of Benedict’s book. After all, the gospel sources are themselves also “steeped in mystery.” They are steeped in the mystery of Jesus’ transparency to the will of God – the mystery that this same Jewish man who was put to death has now become the risen one whom the community proclaims as Lord and Christ.


Matt Jenson said...

Thanks for this, Ben. So helpful (as always!)...But I wonder about the statement that the confession of the canon's inspiration'should arise subsequently from an encounter with the witness of the texts, and should not be introduced as a methodological presupposition which guarantees the texts’ reliability in advance'. It seems to me that it's not quite so clear-cut, but is rather more circular. Encounter with the (witness of) the texts leads to a confession of the canon's inspiration, and that same confession leads to true encounter. Or you could start from the other end. I wonder whether you aren't giving 'history' too discrete of a sphere here?

Aric Clark said...

I actually think Ben was right on with his statement about inspiration. The text itself is a dead letter with no power whatsoever except to crush and kill. It is only through the Holy Spirit breathing in the believer who encounters the text that it becomes a witness to the Risen One, the son of the Living God. I strongly reject any view of inspiration which gives the Bible some kind of ontological power or authority as though it were a fourth person of the trinity.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I'm so glad that I am not limited to choosing "the pope's Jesus" or "Ludemann's Jesus."

CSPellot said...

Hola Mike,

Just curious as to whom your Jesus might be.


::aaron g:: said...

Excellent review, Ben.

Anonymous said...

Pope Benedict's book takes into account, but does not purport to be a contribution to, the "historical Jesus" literature, as the Pope rejects the limitations much of that literature imposes upon itself (for example its assumption that miracles cannot occur). I agree however that a weakness of the book is the way it leaves largely unadressed the claims that John's Gospel is unreliable. The Pope acknowledges that the quotes of Jesus in John's Gospel are not a "transcript" of what Jesus said and argues that they are not "poems" either, but he does not really say in what way they are or are not reliable.

Like the Pope, I trust the Gospels. For those of us who do, the Pope's book is an extraordinary tour de force -- rich in insight and powerfully argued (apart from my criticism about John's Gospel).

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Well, "C" I would say that "my Jesus" is the Risen Christ. My view of who the "pre-Easter Jesus" was (to borrow one of Borg's more helpful terms) is an amalgamation of judgments from several scholars--like most of us who are familiar with "historical Jesus" research. As far as I can judge these things, the amalgamated portrait I have of the pre-Easter Jesus is most thoroughly informed (in addition to my readings of the 4 canonical Gospels, especially the Synoptics) by John Howard Yoder, John P. Meier, R. Pinchas Lapide, Wm. Herzog II, Richard J. Cassidy, S.J., Craig A. Evans, James D. G. Dunn, E. P. Sanders, and N. T. Wright, Richard A. Horsley, Richard Hays, Walter Wink. Lesser influences have come from Marcus Borg, Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, Ben Witherington, and Peter Stuhlmacher. (Not all the above would consider themselves historical Jesus scholars). Also, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino's liberation christologies.

I am probably influenced by others in ways I cannot track, and I react strongly against the views (on the one hand) of John Dominic Crossan and Burton Mack and (on the other) of pictures of conservative evangelicals (of the anti-critical variety) and of the current pope. Sadly, negative reaction is also influence of a sort.

Whether the resulting view I have of the pre-Easter Jesus is coherent, I leave for others to judge.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an excellent review. Your idea about how the historical Jesus opens up to Christology is a great help.

Anonymous said...

It's been a few years since I first read and critiqued Ludemann's book on the resurrection. At that time, however, I found Ludemann's work to be itself seriously flawed with naturalist assumptions. Although very ready to reject a 'faithful' reading of the gospels, he was nonetheless also very ready to import modern psychological frameworks into his work as a lens through which to interpret the texts. It is certainly not an 'objective historical account.'


Anonymous said...

Hi Ben, thanks. I like the way you appreciate Benedict XVI's book. It makes me want to read it. But I can't help but agree with Matt (and the Pope), that confession of the inspiration of Scripture requires that we subsequently approach the texts with certain presuppositions: in relation to the Gospels I think this includes that we will find them trustworthy in their depiction of Jesus, which I think means something for their historical reliability. I've had a crack at these writing about some of these things here by the way (fundy, and clearly imperfect, but still...)

Shane said...

I'm currently reading a text that has to do with Barth's understanding of history--and a worry that plagues me about this book has rearisen in Ben's post. Perhaps it is the case that the way the academic discipline of history developed during the 18th century involves a presupposition of naturalism in the vicious sense. But it seems to me that Barth and Ben both seem too ready to give up on the discipline. . . in other words, they accept the regnant self-image of scientific history, but simply place theology beyond its reach.

My inclination, however, is simply to argue with the historians qua historians what right they have to accept naturalism as a methodological presupposition of their discipline? Naturalism is a metaphysical position, not a 'historical' one. Hence we should not allow a person to pretend that her 'historical' research is neutral and impartial in its treatment of subjects which flout it's methodological presuppositions. It might well be the case that the resurrection of Jesus happened and that there will never be any way of proving that it happened in the way that one might 'prove' that caesar crossed the rubicon. Nevertheless, I think we should still hang on to the word 'historical' to describe the resurrection because if it was an event that happened within space and time, then it is an event within history.

The problem the naturalist historian would have (which, by the way, is the same problem i fear the pope might have) is that he is unable to revise his presuppositions in the light of contrary evidence. If you found a skeleton that could be positively identified as Jesus of Nazareth no number of proper presuppositions would save christianity. that's what it means to have a historical faith.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't anyone find it remarkably odd that there have been countless zillions of words spoken and written about "jesus" in the past (nearly) 2000 years.

And yet noone who wrote these words every actually met "jesus".

And yet there are more and more millions of words being generated every day---more than ever in fact.

Anonymous said...

John, I refer you to your namesake: "This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true." (John 21:24). There is one at least.

Unknown said...

For me the crucial point is the following: what role do we give the Holy Spirit?
Ludeman, obviously excludes Him, a priori.
Benedict, gentle to the Spirit, must approach the Gospels with basic trust and the Old Testament in the light of Christ's coming. Didn't the early christians do the same?

Matt Jenson said...

John, re: your point about all the words spent on Jesus without people having actually met him, I suppose I'm enough of a pietist to think and hope that believers HAVE met him. I also suppose that's where the opportunity and problem of speaking faithfully about the historical Jesus lies.

Anonymous said...

Aren't you missing the difference between scienta and sapientia? All of the "portraits" of Jesus compiled by so-called "scholars" are replete with footnotes and discussions of this or that theory about the relationship of this or that gospel. In the end, however, we find out a lot about the circumstances surrounding Jesus, but almost nothing about Jesus Himself. One must make a decision, take a stand (to quote Isaiah 7.9b) about one's worldview, and decide whether the historical-critical is determinative or merely helpful and whether faith is determinative or merely helpful.

In my case, the Pope's book is the product of saptientia, not mere scientia. As such, it is profound and illuminating and makes a difference in my life. It's the difference between many tiny facts and the simple truths of wisdom.


Shane said...


You shouldn't (even if you could) 'choose' your worldview. Partly because it's already given to you before you become reflective enough to make any kind of choice. But one would also wonder: what good would a christianity be if you had to decide a priori it were true? In such a "christianity" faith would mean nothing more than "ignoring contrary evidence."

Anonymous said...


Of course you choose your worldview, as soon as you become able to make rational decisions. Faith is taking a stand on one's worldview; it is not merely unthinking assent. It involves the intellect and the will. It is not mere pietism.


Shane said...


First, I didn't choose to be born an english-speaking American, a man, white, middle-class, protestant in the end of the 20th century, yet these factors are an indeniable influence on the way I look at the world about which I exercise no control whatsoever.

Second, to 'take a stand' for something one knows to be false or against something one knows to be true would be an act of cowardice--it's 'bad faith'. In the same way, to 'take a stand' about something one does not know but easily could is symptomatic of intellectual laziness and obfuscation. Let's not overplay the will's role in the assent of faith. I do not have faith because I took a stand, I was given faith by God through grace. Having believed, I can now attempt to understand.

Anonymous said...


Of course grace plays a part in faith, but so does intellect and will. The person is not absent from the process of faith and it is a process, not a one-time thing.


PresterJosh said...

I've posted an entry about this review over on my blog (presterjosh.blogspot.com), since it seemed a bit long for a comment here.

Anonymous said...

Excellent discussion!

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