r m p




Gerd Lüdemann's  Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity

Translated by John Bowden

Westminster John Knox, 1996

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


 Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity


Diogenes, you can retire now. Here is that rarest of commodities for which you sought: an honest man. And even rarer, an honest theologian. As ever, Gerd Lüdemann in his latest book shows himself willing to undertake that sacrifice which Mircea Eliade said "the European philosopher is prepared to make to attain truth in and for itself: sacrifice of religious faith" (Yoga, Immortality and Freedom, p. 4). Without a trace of rancor, Lüdemann nonetheless rebukes the obsequiousness of even supposedly critical theologians and New Testament scholars who finally show their colors by parroting the ecclesiastical party line when things get tight. He is unafraid to aver that we can no longer honestly maintain the fictions of biblical infallibility and canonical authority, or the ventriloquism of making the Old Testament seem to predict Jesus. The truth is more important than the church, and the theologian must be willing to say what he or she thinks and, more importantly, to think what he or she thinks, and not what the Church allows him or her to think. Of course this means they must be heretics.

            Like Lüdemann's earlier books, this one is a feast of exhaustive erudition and judicious exegesis. Let Lüdemann near any text and I want to hear what he'll say about it. And yet it seems that Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity does not quite manage to fulfill the promise of its title. The book appears to be a collection of studies in New Testament introduction and early church history which, though hardly unconcerned with questions of theological dispute in primitive Christianity, deals with the theme in a secondary way. The sections on Jesus and especially Paul seem longer and more complete than they need to be for the sake of the issue at hand. The chapters on the Apostles Creed and the formation of the canon seem like appendices which should have been either considerably broadened or omitted. The chapter on Marcion is altogether too cursory (not that anything Lüdemann writes can really be called cursory!) and seems to me to suffer from paying scant attention to R. Joseph Hoffmann's Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity which I deem far more important than Lüdemann's mere footnote references would imply. Similarly, Lüdemann once refers to John Knox's brilliant Marcion and the New Testament but does not trouble to discuss its distinctive thesis on the great extent to which Marcion set the agenda for even the specifics of the emergent canon. More puzzling is the fact that the book neglects to profit from Lüdemann's own important previous research on Simon Magus ("The Acts of the Apostles and the Beginning of Simonian Gnosis," NTS 33, 1987, 420-426), and on Marcion and Valentinus in Rome ("Concerning the History of Earliest Christianity in Rome," JHC 2, 1995, 112-141). In a book on heretics, surely we ought to expect to find more about these figures and about various theories about them, especially Lüdemann's old friend Simon. Hermann Detering has recently shown how compelling F.C. Baur's thesis still is, that Simon Magus was a polemical alias for Paul himself. Even if Lüdemann rejects this theory, in a book with such a title does he not owe us some discussion of it?

            Having invoked Baur's shade, I find it surprising that, for all his refreshing forward-looking, Lüdemann remains tied to securely to the Odyssean mast of the consensus opinion on the authenticity of seven Pauline epistles (something I regard as a holdover from the numerology of Irenaeus and his congeners). His discussions of the pseudonymity of 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians and the Pastorals are excellent, but are the arguments of Baur against the authenticity of 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and Philemon to be passed over in silence? It is hard to regard the consensus opinion as aught else but the very kind of ecclesiastical "maximal conservatism" (James Barr) that Lüdemann elsewhere seeks to banish. Why does he share it? Winsome Munro was right: it seems to be taking us forever to reinvent the wheel.

            Indeed, the searching acuity of Lüdemann's own questions and observations open doors on paths he seemingly does not wish to venture down. For instance, while he denies that the shift from Colossians' local church ecclesiology to Ephesians' cosmic Christ/Church ecclesiology (itself well on the way to Valentinus' Church-aeon) could represent a development in the thinking of the historical Paul, and thus must represent two stages of development within Paulinism, it does not occur to him that the same judgment is more than merited in two other far more blatant cases he discusses. Accepting both 1 Thessalonians and Romans 9-11 as authentically Pauline, Lüdemann is forced to trace out a four-stage evolution of Paul's thought concerning the fate of Israel/Jews. Similarly, when it comes to the issue of individual eschatology, Lüdemann is sharp-eyed in tracing an evolution from 1 Thessalonians (most will survive to the Parousia) to 1 Corinthians 15 (some will survive to the Parousia) to 2 Corinthians (to hell with it; we'll meet Christ when we die). But in both cases, is not the solution of the Dutch Radicals more natural: that the letters are severally patchworks of earlier and later, left-wing and right-wing statements of Paulinism? These differences look less like progressive development than wild ricocheting.

            If in The Resurrection of Jesus Lüdemann espoused essentially Renan's view of a Jesus risen into the sentiment of his disciples, this time around Lüdemann gravitates to the Liberal theological position of Albrecht Ritschl: only the historical Jesus can be the criterion for genuine Christianity. Lüdemann does not imagine that it is an easy thing to discern the exact outlines of the historical Jesus, though he seems to think E.P. Sanders has come pretty close to managing the feat. And yet I cannot help feeling that for all his attempts to distance himself from the anti-Judaism of Bultmann and the Post-Bultmannians (something which, in the similar case of Joachim Jeremias, it is Sanders's great merit to have definitively debunked), Lüdemann's Jesus is finally as much of a Protestant anachronism as that of Ebeling. His Jesus preaches a God supposedly unknown to Judaism and scandalizes the establishment with the allegedly startling platitude that God is love.

            And how can we any longer remain oblivious to the subtle self-deception of using the historical Jesus as a divining rod for true Christianity. Why is it not evident that the whole endeavor is a prime case of Derrida's "dangerous supplement"? Marxists posit a state of primitive communism to use in critiquing capitalism; feminists invoke a primordial matriarchy to damn patriarchy; certain modern movies romanticize the American Indians in order to lambaste industrial society. All are versions of the "noble savage" hypothesis, the attempt to oppose nature to culture in order to make culture look bad. But, as Derrida shows, all such attempts are dishonest (even if self-deceived), since we can now have no access to pure nature. What we call "nature," as in all the above examples, are selective and hypothetical reconstructions based on research (and, at least as often, ideology: the way we think things must have been). These hypothetical reconstructions are thus themselves products of culture, albeit perhaps counter-culture. Counter-culture is masquerading as nature. Every biblicist "restoration" movement is thus an innovation movement. And so with the historical Jesus. There may have been a historical Jesus, one who lived in the time of Tiberius Caesar, but for us there is no longer any historical Jesus, only selective reconstructions which may or may not be on target. We can never know. And the minute any one of them is invoked as the criterion by which true Christianity is to be judged, as in this book, it has forfeited its claim to be a historical hypothesis and has instead become a Christology.

            Lüdemann's option for Renan's version of the resurrection is perhaps significant. One wonders if it is chiefly residual Christian sentiment that, so to speak, causes him to answer D.F. Strauss's searching question, "Are we still Christians?" in the affirmative. For what is left? For Lüdemann Christianity is "a wisdom and an ethic" propounded by Jesus. This fits Lüdemann's claim that Jesus brought a religious insight so revolutionary that Marcion was almost right: it constituted the revelation of a hitherto unknown God. But do we not hear in these words the lingering echo of obsolete Christian triumphalism? Lüdemann appreciates Marcion of Sinope as one of the few genuine heirs of the message of Jesus. But, to hark back to the beginning of this review, what about his countryman Diogenes of Sinope? He and others previous to Jesus (as recent comparison of Jesus to the Cynics makes doubly clear) espoused many of the same ideals before Jesus. Only if, with Lüdemann, we continue to pretend that Jesus' teaching was in some way unique can we justify continuing to insist on pasting Jesus' label on the bottle. Lüdemann is keen in his perception that we must choose truth over the church. But then why risk idolatry by placing the name of Jesus on a par with the truth? Would it not be more consistent with the very ideals Lüdemann so admires in Jesus to follow instead the course recommended by Socrates: "Think not of Socrates but think of the truth"? Is it really so important to refine and reform (and thus to continue to belong to) Christianity? When it always seems to come down to that, we have to wonder where the ultimate loyalty is: to the truth or, after all, to the church? 



CopyrightŠ2005by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design