Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus: Gerd Ludemann

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by Neil Godfrey

Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens
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Professor of History and Literature of Early Christianity at Georg-August-University Göttingen, and director of the Institute of Early Christian Studies, Dr Gerd Lüdemann, concludes an essay published in 2010 with this sentence:

In short, Paul cannot be considered a reliable witness to either the teachings, the life, or the historical existence of Jesus. (“Paul as Witness to the Historical Jesus” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating Jesus from Myth, p. 212)

So what is his reasoning or understanding of the letters of Paul that leads him to such a conclusion?

Earlier in the same essay Dr Lüdemann also wrote:

In short, while Paul is far from a systematic biographer, it is incorrect to say that the earthly Jesus did not matter to him. (p. 200)

Lüdemann argues that it makes no sense to speak of Paul’s view of “the historical Jesus”, since this concept is the product of a scholarly study of the texts. Rather, he speaks of Paul’s interest in “the earthly Jesus”.

Lüdemann interprets passages such as Galatians 4:4 (born of a woman) and Galatians 1:19 (James the Lord’s brother) as references to the earthly Jesus.

So I am posting this to present a different viewpoint on the question of Jesus’ historicity.

For Paul, Lüdemann explains, Jesus was of preeminent importance as the Risen One, yet it was as the Risen and Heavenly Lord and simultaneously as the one who humbled himself to become flesh and die that Jesus was upheld as “the main figure in the cosmic drama”.

Lüdemann notes that whenever he alludes to teachings by Jesus, Paul always refers to him as the Lord. But it is to be noted that while Paul may speak of Jesus as the authority in this way, Paul “can always claim for himself, as one commissioned by Christ, the mantle of present authority. Note, for example, 1 Cor. 7:40: “But I think that I have the spirit of God.”

Lüdemann discusses the various passages that Paul accounts of as words or instructions of the Lord, and argues why Jesus is unlikely to have said many of them. For example, the Lord’s supper commands to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus could scarcely have come from a righteous Jewish teacher, even with symbolic meaning. Further, this Last Supper is a cult observance that is not the Passover — for Paul Jesus was the Passover — as in the Synoptics.

Paul’s claim that the Lord ordered those who preach the gospel must make their living from the gospel (1 Cor. 9:14) serves Paul’s agenda in wanting to build up a strong case for supporting missionaries (though he himself refrains from the right). Paul asserts the missionaries’ right by appealing to reason and common sense (v.7), the Old Testament (v.9), universal religious practice (v.13), and the teaching of Jesus himself (v.14). Lüdemann believes this saying has in mind the one from Q, “the laborer deserves his hire” (Matt. 10:10/Luke 10:7). But Lüdemann also adds that

It presupposes a fully developed movement and seems to be a group invention. (p. 202)

The passage in Acts 20:35 where Paul is said to have quoted the words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”, appears to derive from Thucydides II, 97, 4, “to give rather than receive”, and where it appears again in 1 Clement 2:1 but not as a saying of Jesus.

Even passages exhorting nonresistance, and blessing one’s enemies (Rom. 12:17, 21) find no justification in being traced back to Jesus, since the advice to conquer evil by doing good was a maxim in Judaism.

Despite what I considered a very negative assessment of the likelihood of Paul quoting an earthly Jesus saying, Lüdemann concludes that Paul was familiar with some traditions about Jesus’ teaching. (Lüdemann discusses additional “allusions” in Paul to similar sayings by Jesus, but again it seems to me his conclusions are far from unequivocal.)

However, it goes without saying that Jesus’ ethic was ill suited to serve as a moral guide for the church in a Hellenistic society.

Hence Paul expresses disappointment that he does not have an instruction from the Lord for all marriage situations. The “command of the Lord” in 1 Cor. 7:10-11 cannot be from Jesus, Lüdemann reasons, because it addresses a Greco-Roman law allowing women to initiate a divorce, and not a Jewish custom.

Nevertheless, Lüdemann concedes the infrequency of Paul’s explicit and implicit references to the teachings of Jesus in Paul’s letters. How to account for this?

Were Paul’s readers already familiar with the life and teachings of Jesus?

Lüdemann gives reasons to reject this proposition.

Firstly, Paul assumes his readers are familiar with the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures, the Septuagint. Yet it is this familiarity that enables Paul to make regular use of these scriptures in his letters. He regularly and specifically cites them as his source of ethical teaching.

So why would he not also refer to the life and teaching of Jesus if his readers were as familiar with that as with the Scriptures?

Secondly, Paul himself twice sums up exactly what he had earlier delivered to his readers, so we do know what they were familiar with from previous encounters with Paul. Paul reminds them he taught them several things but not once is the life and teaching of Jesus included:

1 Corinthians 2:1-2

1 And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

1 Corinthians 15:3-5

3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.

Lüdemann writes:

One must record with some surprise the fact that Jesus’ teachings seem to play a less vital role in Paul’s religious and ethical instruction than does the Old Testament. (p. 211)


not once does Paul refer to Jesus as a teacher, to his words as teaching, or to Christians as disciples. In this regard it is of the greatest significance that when Paul cites “sayings of Jesus,” they are never so designated; rather, without a single exception, he attributes such sayings to “the Lord.”

So Lüdemann’s conclusion is this:

Paul thought that a person named Jesus had lived and that he now sat at the right hand of God in heaven. Yet he shows only a passing acquaintance with traditions related to life and nowhere an independent acquaintance with them. In short, Paul cannot be considered a reliable witness to either the teachings, the life, or the historical existence of Jesus.

So Dr Lüdemann’s reasoning is this. The earthly Jesus did matter to Paul, but this does not make Paul a reliable witness to the existence of Jesus. “Or, to put it bluntly, interest in Jesus’ historical existence does not prove his existence.”

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Neil Godfrey

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21 thoughts on “Paul as a Witness to the Historical Jesus: Gerd Ludemann”

  1. Lüdemann must be wrong, according to Dr. McG., who in his list of responses to mythicists writes:

    “#9. Take seriously the fact that Paul wrote letters to Christian communities. The letter part is important – writing materials were expensive, and Paul was not writing Gospels. The audience is also important – Paul wrote to people who already had enough knowledge about Jesus to share his belief in him as Messiah and Lord.”

    Paul could barely afford ink and paper, so he wrote several hundred words on Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David. The implication is this: “I’m not going to bore you all with this Jesus stuff, but let me tell you about Abraham.” Yeah, that’s it.

    Here’s an alternate idea. Maybe Paul couldn’t quote Jesus on salvation, because the extant tradition contradicted Paul’s own soteriology. Jesus’ message in the gospels (whether historically accurate or not) is to repent of your sins, follow the law, and love your neighbor. Jesus is said to have forgiven sins while on Earth. He didn’t say, “I’m sorry; I’d like to forgive you, but first I need to die an excruciating death to appease my Dad. Here’s a rain check.”

    Did the Jesus of the gospels have a problem with John the Baptist forgiving sins through confession and dunking? Nope.

    Did Jesus think that works justified a man? Yep. “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.” (Matt. 16:27)

    What are the options? Paul disagreed with the tradition, was unaware of the tradition, or the tradition did not yet exist. I think it’s worth considering the possibility that Paul disagreed with the extant tradition, since it would explain his utter silence on Jesus as a healer, exorcist, and teacher. Healing diseases and casting out demons were inextricably tied to the forgiveness of sin. And if Jesus was a teacher, then what did he teach? The central importance of keeping the Torah? That the Son of Man will judge humanity by our works? Paul rejected all of that.

    1. Exactly. Let’s see if we can rearrange this argument in some sort of syllogistic format:

      9. Take seriously the fact that Paul wrote letters to Christian communities. The letter part is important – writing materials were expensive, and Paul was not writing Gospels. The audience is also important – Paul wrote to people who already had enough knowledge about Jesus to share his belief in him as Messiah and Lord

      P1: Paul is writing letters and could not afford to waste ink on things his audience is already familiar about
      P2: His audience was already familiar with the Jesus story
      C: Therefore, Paul could not afford to write about the Jesus story

      What if we change P2 (and thus the conclusion)

      P1: Paul is writing letters and could not afford to waste ink on things his audience is already familiar about
      P2: His audience was already familiar with the stories and characters in the LXX
      C: Therefore, Paul could not afford to write about the stories and characters in the LXX

      This is a pretty good example of making your beliefs pay rent. The anticipated experience of the initial logic doesn’t match up with what corresponds in reality. So, the logic itself (McGrath’s original argument) must be faulty.

      1. Particularly damning for the McGrathian Maxim of Epistolary Frugality is what Neil cited above. More than once Paul “wastes ink” telling people what he had already told them.

        Further, when he addresses the church at Rome — a congregation he had never met — he rambles on for chapter after chapter and never feels the need to quote Jesus. How does the greatest apostle forget to quote the greatest teacher?

    2. Why does Paul waste paper telling people that Jesus was ‘born of a woman’, when everybody knew Jesus had not been hatched from an egg?

      ‘Paul wrote to people who already had enough knowledge about Jesus to share his belief in him as Messiah and Lord’

      2 Corinthians 11
      For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.

      Paul neatly shafts McGrath’s claim that Paul could rely on his audience having the correct beliefs about Jesus.

      2 Corinthians 9
      There is no need for me to write to you about this service to the Lord’s people.

      Gosh, on the other hand, Paul agrees with McGrath that there is often no need for him to write something down.

      McGrath 1 – Carr 0. Shamefaced retreat of the mythicist, beaten by the logic of a McGrath.

      but wait a minute, Paul then goes on to write about it anyway….

      2 For I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians, telling them that since last year you in Achaia were ready to give; and your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action

      And in the previous chapter, Paul writes an expensive letter, wasting money, telling people what they themselves have done ‘And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so.’

      If Paul can write and tell the Corinthians what the Corinthians have done, why was it a waste of ink to tell the Corinthians what Jesus had done?

      The logic of a McGrath is hard to follow.

      1. So the life and teaching of Jesus was supposedly so well known it was too embarrassing for Paul to even make a point of referring to it, but later the gospels had to be written because the memory of Jesus’ life and teaching was about to be lost. So we can infer that the generation of readers of Paul’s epistles did not think to teach it to their children or others. Presumably they followed Paul’s example and simply assumed it was too well known to repeat to anyone.

        1. And when the gospels had to be written because the memory of Jesus life and teaching was about to be lost, the gospellers had to include everything embarrassing because it was too well known to be ignored.

      2. It’s easy enough. McGrath is very clear in his latest post:

        All that one has to do sometimes is come up with a story that people will want to believe, tell it persuasively, and it will spread and become accepted as “fact” in many circles.

        1. That quote reaffirms that irony is lost on some people. (So no-one would have any a priori reason to want to believe in a historical Jesus?)

          I’ve been thinking how the widespread acceptance of ad hoc explanations to cover the many problems raised by the historicist hypothesis seem to have been so rarely questioned by biblical scholars, so much so that they cease to even recognize that there are problems at all. Then when outsiders or “fringe insiders” do question and point to the vacuity of some of these ad hoc covers, it is almost inevitable that the defensive response is going to be insult or playing deaf.

          1. Neil: “…it is almost inevitable that the defensive response is going to be insult or playing deaf.”

            All joking aside, this is a real problem. McGrath’s “Menu of Responses” contains an item that he seems to think gives him license to ridicule:

            “#11. If the fact that pretty much every professional historian and scholar disagrees with you about the historicity of Jesus doesn’t concern you, then you are not giving this subject more serious consideration than the proponents of creationism and Intelligent Design give to biology and evolution.”

            Until very recently the dominant consensus in the field of medicine was that stomach ulcers were not caused by some microscopic pathogen. Before Marshall and Warren, it was “common knowledge” that no bacteria could live in the stomach, since the pH is pretty close to the inside of a car battery.

            Now there’s nothing wrong with the defenders of consensus to say, “You do realize that nobody agrees with you, and so the burden of proof is on you.” However, it is cheap and deleterious to the profession for those same defenders to call people names, make fun of their credentials, or compare them to flat-earthers and creationists.

            Oddly enough, I agree with a lot of McGrath’s scientific and political opinions. However, his behavior on this one subject — the weakness of the case for the historical Jesus — makes me hate to visit his site.

            It feels very much like I’m in the presence of a schoolyard bully whose dirty little sycophants cheer on with deep comments like, “You’re so right” and “Nice one,” while they pick their noses and giggle.

            When public intellectuals deliberately misstate the facts, make fun of people who disagree with them, and rest on arguments based chiefly on consensus and the other guy’s lack of esteemed credentials, they are doing a disservice to the public and sullying their own reputation.

            Quoting McGrath again:

            “#23. Please stop. You’ve said that before and now you’re just wasting my time.”

            1. His point #11 as you have quoted it is interesting, partly because it demonstrates once again McGrath’s ignorance of mythicist arguments. He has never admitted to reading the mythicist arguments by one author who can rightly say “my debt to traditional New Testament scholarship remains immense”. He has never bothered to take it seriously, has said often enough that mythicism should not be taken seriously, so clearly informing himself about it in a serious way is beyond him.

              But we have seen he is quite unserious with respect to informing himself about history outside his own biblical enclave, too, being content with tossing out a one-liner from a colleague, addressing part of one book by Hobsbawm that he supposedly read, and recommending his readers take seriously the sources linked to a Wikipedia article not even being aware that at least one of those sources (relied on heavily for the Wikipedia article) is an obscure, antiquated Catholic apology for the place of the miraculous in history!

              He also is the worst kind of apologist for the historical Jesus that Albert Schweitzer complained about:

              Refutations were almost too prompt and numerous.

              For impartial observers it was all most instructive. . . . The mentality of many free-thinking theologians began to reveal a strange and bitter resemblance to that of the fathers who battled against heresy at that time. . . .

              As the polemical works . . . were on the whole written rather quickly and were intended to be within the intellectual grasp of a wide, in fact the widest possible, readership, their level of scholarship was not generally very distinguished, and sometimes, in view of the authority of the writer, remarkably low. . . .

              In the main the strategy of the debate has been to reveal the opponent’s mistakes . . . . only the most superficial and obvious aspects of the problem have in fact been considered. No attempt has been made to tackle the full extent of the question.

              The complexity of the problem is such that there are four main questions to be considereed: these concern the philosophy of religion, [i.e. preparing the way for even conceiving the possibility in theological thought of there being no historical Jesus – one can scarcely expect an open inquiry from one who at the outset refuses to admit the possibility of one possible conclusion] the history of religion, the history of doctrine and the history of literature.

              It is in the last three areas that the main arguments for mythicism today are grounded.

              But in Schweitzer’s view first must come the philosophical mind-preparation:

              . . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

              To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . . (p. 402 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.)

              Schweitzer could say that despite disagreeing with probably every most biblical scholars then and now. What would McGrath think of such a maverick line?

              The other (really risible) fact about McGrath’s attempt to compare the status of theology with biology is that the latter is grounded in observable, measurable, testable data and theology, well, is different.

              The changes and advances in biology are based on experimental results. It is not very difficult to see the fashions of theological studies — for which there is very little new data now than there was fifty years ago — changing with the winds of social and political movements.

              Another fundamental difference with biology is that theology really does, despite being able to count a few atheists and agnostics among its ranks, depend for its very existence upon answering the vested ideological and religious interests of those attached to a significant cultural institution. That’s not necessarily a bad thing per se, but not when the intellectual practitioners stoop to peddling their own ignorance and bigotry.

              As for #23, that reminds me how he speaks of the quotations I keep using, and my post discussing historiographical methods, as “tired repeats”. I would get tired of always being confronted with something I cannot, and refuse to even try to, answer, too. Not that the quotations are “one liners”. The reason he cannot address them is because they point to a depth of argument and understanding the nature of the evidence (see the last three of Schweitzer’s four main questions.)

              1. One once had to be a brave Swiss to question the historicity of William Tell, and one has to be a brave Jew in Israel to question Masada, and a brave abbot to question Juan Diego (see Evan’s comments below), and a little reckless with one’s academic tenure to question Jesus.

            2. I’ve just caught up with McGrath’s “menu of answers to mythicists“. The most instructive thing about the post is that it demonstrates for anyone who may still have had any doubts that he is only interested in pavlov-dog type exchanges. Use a buzz word in a statement or question and you are directed to #X.

              He could set it up as a voice-mail system.

              If only Schweitzer had been as smart!

        2. I have since caught up with the source of your quote, Evan. I had assumed it was directly in relation to mythicism. It is in fact in relation to something much more serious, and it sets back public understanding of the roots of racist myths by a generation or two. The quotation reduces the origins and spread of racist myths to faulty reasoning and slick marketing. What McGrath has failed to address is the significance of mindset and attitude shaped by psycho-social-economic factors that forms a ready seedbed for such irrational and unsupportable myths.

          There’s that trenchant them-us divide that they solidify. One notices the same defensiveness against “the other” among fundamentalist (or US conservative?) Christians, even perhaps among some theologians whenever they spot a mythicist.

  2. I should also point out the potential nuances in the word “interest” in the final sentence. It need not only be understood as meaning a curiosity about the life of Jesus, but as an agenda-driven need. Paul’s theology required a Jesus who descended and died. So his testimony is not dis-interested.

    That leaves open the question of the source of this doctrine. What is more likely? That it would emerge out of reflection on a corpse or on scriptures? So we come back to the question of history remembered or prophecy historicized.

    1. Neil, lately I have been reading what I can get my hands on regarding Juan Diego and the virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. Have you ever investigated this story for parallels to the HJ?

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