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Gerd Lüdemann on the Resurrection of Jesus

One of the first books that I have re-read in thinking about how it is the man Jesus came to be thought of as God is Gerd Lüdemann’s, The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (2004). Lüdemann is an important and interesting scholar. He was professor of New Testament at Göttingen in Germany, and for a number of years split his time between there and Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. He is a major figure in scholarship, and is noteworthy for not being a Christian. He does not believe Jesus was literally, physically, raised from the dead, and he thinks that apart from belief in Jesus’ physical resurrection, it is not possible for a person to be Christian.

This book is written for people with a lot of background in New Testament studies. It is exegetically based, meaning that he goes into a detailed examination of key passages to uncover their literary meaning; but he is ultimately interested in historical questions of what really happened. To follow his exegesis (his interpretation) requires a good knowledge of how NT scholars argue their points: the book is aimed at other NT scholars and, say, graduate students in the field.

The basic historical conclusions that Lüdemann draws – based on a careful analysis of all the relevant passages and a consideration of the historical events that lie behind them – is this:

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o When Jesus was arrested and crucified his disciples fled. They did not go into hiding in Jerusalem – then went back home, to Galilee (where *else* would they go? They went home, to get out of Jerusalem!)

o Soon after, it was in Galilee (not in Jerusalem) that belief in the resurrection occurred. It occurred because Peter had a vision of Jesus that included auditory features (he thought he saw and heard him).

o This “vision” was induced by psychological factors. Peter felt terrifically guilty for having denied Jesus, and the “vision” he had brought forgiveness from his deep guilt.

o This vision was like other visions that people have (all the time): visions of dead loved ones; visions of the Virgin Mary. In these visions, of course the loved ones do not *really* come back to life from the dead, and the Virgin Mary does not *really* show up at Lourdes, etc. These are psychologically induced visions.

o Still, like other people who have visions, Peter took the vision to be real and assumed that Jesus was alive again, in heaven.

o Peter brought the other disciples together, and maintained with them that the end time was near, as Jesus had originally preached, and that the kingdom of God was soon to appear. The evidence? The resurrection of the dead had already begun. The evidence? Jesus had been raised. The evidence? He had appeared to Peter. All this is happening in Galilee.

o The vision was infectious, and the mission got underway.

o Even Jesus’ brothers were caught up in the excitement and James became a believer in Jesus.

o The other person who had a genuine vision of Jesus was much later, the apostle Paul, who too experienced a psychologically induced vision of Jesus. In this case, he found Jesus’ teaching of forgiveness and mercy appealing, even as he was violently persecuting the church as an enemy. But forgiveness won out and in a cataclysmic break from his past, Paul had a vision of the living Jesus, convincing him that Peter and the others were right: Jesus was still alive, and therefore had been raised from the dead.

o Some Christians thought that these visions showed that Jesus was spiritually exalted to heaven – not that his body had been physically raised from the dead.

o Others, including Peter and Paul, insisted that in fact Jesus had experienced a physical resurrection of the body, which had been transformed into an immortal body before being exalted to heaven.

o The implication was that the tomb was emptied before Jesus’ started to make his appearances (other Christians also claimed to see him, but it is hard to establish that any of the others actually had any visions – they may have simply been building on Peter’s original claim).

o But by this time it was too late to know whether the tomb was really empty. For several reasons:

 We don’t know how much after his death the vision to Peter came; Acts suggests that it was fifty days before the preaching began; if so, the body would have decomposed.

 No one knew where he was buried anyway (the story of Joseph of Arimathea may be a later account, not something that really happened; Jesus may have been buried in a common grave or somewhere no one knew.

 It is worth pointing out, Ludemann notes, that Christians in Jersualem appear to have placed ZERO emphasis on the location of the tomb. It was not until 326, according to Eusebius, was the alledged site of burial “rediscovered” under a temple dedicated to Venus. Life of Constantine 3.26-28.

And so, the short story: Chrsitianity started among Jesus’ followers in Galilee, sometime after his death, after Peter had a vision of Jesus that was psychologically induced.

So, to be clear, I’m not saying I agree with this entire reconstruction. But it’s very interesting, based on a detailed examination of all the evidence from the NT (and outside) by a skilled interpreter, and worth bearing in mind when trying to figure out what really happened both to Jesus’ body and to the followers of Jesus to make them believe it had been raised from the dead.[\private]

Paul’s View of Resurrection
The Resurrection as a Key to Early Understandings of Jesus



  1. Avatar
    JanLBoggess  October 5, 2012

    how does Lüdemann account for the psychological factors ? Ergot or just Freudian guilt? It seems to me that every agnostic professor (present company notwithstanding) have what they consider “the” answer to an unresolvable quandary. Faith not being an being a potential answer to comprehending things which may be beyond understanding. I’m not being a proponent for blindly believing just that given what we have to work with maybe we don’t have the simple solutions.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 6, 2012

      Yes, deep guilt. He speaks of deep psychological factors, but I don’t recall that he aligns himself with any particular school of psychological theory.

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      Gary  February 7, 2017

      Speaking as a physician, it is also possible that Peter and Paul were bipolar with occasional delusions and hallucinations in the manic phases of their illnesses. People who claim to see sheets full of animals floating in the air, in the middle of the day, while awake, and who are unsure if they have just taken an intergalactic space voyage to a “third heaven” where they received secret transmissions are NOT mentally healthy people. The fact that they also claimed to have seen dead people should NOT surprise anyone.

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    jasha  October 5, 2012

    Dr Ehrman,

    Thanks for posting this summary of a work that’s not very approachable for people like me. It had never been clear to my why the physical ressurection was so important (is that any more miraculous than Jesus “merely” persisting spiritually?) So for Peter (and maybe Paul) it was important because it was part of the general everyone-dead-comes-back-to-life eschatology. I’m guessing that is also what is being suggested in Matthew 27:52-53.

    But I’m still not at all clear on how this fits into the Jesus=God idea. If everyone is going to be brought back to life then it’s not that special a thing in itself, is it? I sure am looking forward to your next book!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 6, 2012

      Good question. Since a crucified man was the first to be brought back, there must have been something unusually special about him, his character, and his death before God. That got the ball rolling.

  3. Robertus
    Robertus  October 5, 2012

    “He does not believe Jesus was literally, physically, raised from the dead, and he thinks that apart from belief in Jesus’ physical resurrection, it is not possible for a person to be Christian.”

    Why doesn’t Lüdemann accept that Christians can merely believe in a spiritual resurrection of Jesus as opposed to a physical resurrection? I think this version of liberal Christianity has been around for a long time. Why do all Christians have to be fundamentalist?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 6, 2012

      I dont’ think he thinks Christians have to be fundamentalist. But he (if I’m understanding him rightly) thinks that it was precisely the physical resurrection that the earliest Christians (Paul, Gospel writers) insisted on. And on that I think he’s right.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  October 6, 2012

        But he says ‘apart from belief in Jesus’ physical resurrection, it is not possible for a person to be Christian’. Why does he not recognize as Christians, those who believe in a spiritual or even visionary resurrection of Jesus? Is there an implicit view that modern Christians must all believe exactly as Paul? I know fundamentalist Christians would certainly hold this view of scripture and Paul, but they are not the only kind of Christians.

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    Yentyl  October 5, 2012

    Poppycock. Many diverse paths I see here. One: Yeshua and the disciples had a place they met in Jerusalem. It was the festival of First Fruits. They would still have been in Jerusalem. Did Mary run 96.53 miles to the Galilee to tell them? We know (us believers) he wasn’t a vision because of Thomas doubting and the Lord Yeshua telling him to put his hands in his wounds. When Yeshua took Peter, James, and John up on the Mount of Transfiguration, he “morphed” into what he was going to become after resurrection. This goes back to Adam and Chava in the garden. This is what they looked like before God made them skin. The Bible doesn’t say the disciples “fled.” He’s filling in a lot of his own ideas that are not spoken about in the Word. We all can do that. It’s only his ideas, not the truth. He wanders all over the map, bouncing from Jerusalem to Galilee and back. Yeshua was the second Adam. You need to bounce back and forth from the story in the garden to his ministry. He came to redeem mankind and fulfill what Adam did not. Reconciliation back to the Father, tikkun. When Mary saw him in the garden and didn’t recognize him, she thought it was “the gardener.” Back to Adam, the gardener. When he died on “the tree,” we go back to Eden and the sin of eating the fruit from “the tree.” See Arthur Pink’s story of two trees. I love pictures of the Messiah in the Torah.


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      Attu  October 7, 2012

      If it was Sukkot where are the etrog, hadass and aravah?

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      DMiller5842  October 9, 2012

      So as a believer, do you think that Jesus was resurrected and transformed into a spiritual perfect body at that time? If so, how is it that the body still had wounds, which Thomas could see and touch? Also the resurrected Jesus ate food? Would a spiritual body need to eat?

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  October 9, 2012

        I’m not a believer, so I don’t think, personally, that Jesus actually was raised from the dead. My sense now is that John and Luke wanted to emphasize the continuity between the crucified and the resurrected one; Jesus “ate” apparently to show he really was a body still.

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    Scott F  October 5, 2012

    I am really looking forward to this book! “Apocalyptic Prophet” takes us right up the brink but the real action proceeds AFTER the crucifixion.

    Thank you, Bart, for bringing this world of study and thought to those of us who only ever seem to encounter the bible through the words of its loudest – yet often least reflective – adherents.

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    laz  October 5, 2012

    a interesting explanation…..don’t buy it…..Certainly not historical information, more fiction then anything.

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    amorfati  October 5, 2012

    There are so many possible reconstructions, Bart; however, to include an *actual* resurrection in those list of possibilities—while a potentially educational mental exercise—is to shoot oneself in the foot historically, as you have rightly argued. The minutiae of the reconstruction are not as important as the fundamental underlying rejection of the story that it is not even feasible, let alone defensible—at least in good conscience.

    It is easy—and quite fascinating!—to learn and understand how this notion was believed by converts in the first century: how closely it tracked with mushrooming mystery-religious experiences advocating personal salvation; how much it lent to an apocalyptic rejection of Roman rule (to be addressed by the Romans themselves between 66—73 CE); the ways in which the Jesus movement was adapted to a general, Gentile approach (for a population boom to the faith that was sorely needed); and even its continuation through a development of history that cut itself off with all ties to Classical wisdom. What is *not* so easy to understand is how it can sincerely be maintained today. The number of intellectuals—let alone lay believers—who adopt this view borders on incomprehensible!

    Disproving the claims—contradictory or otherwise—of the evangelical writings of the New Testament is of little importance when assessing the claims of Christianity. As Nietzsche says, “What do I care about the contradictions in the ‘tradition’? How can one call saints’ legends ‘tradition’ in the first place? The biographies of saints are the most ambiguous kind of literature there is: to apply scientific methods to them, *in the absence of any other documents*, strikes me as doomed to failure from the start—mere scholarly idleness” (emphasis mine).

    All of this seams wafted at us from some kind of distant past—to use another Nietzsche-ism—and the more effectively we can expose how and why these beliefs took hold, the more we will be able to relegate them to a time past, a time no longer worthy of our faith and devotion, if still worthy of our intellectual exercises. Thank you, Bart, for championing this cause. I look forward to the new work.

    • Avatar
      donmax  October 7, 2012

      I very much enjoyed reading your comments. I’m also intrigued by your handle. AMORFATI. Conjures up someone either obese or amorphous. Which is it? Or, what?

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    DamianCyrocki  October 5, 2012

    I have read this book. Very interesting indeed. But what about the argument made by NT Wright that apostles knew the difference beetween vision and the physical event?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 6, 2012

      I would say that that is open to debate, both from the view of what apostles may or may not have “known” and from the view of what we actually know about visionary experiences. (ther’es a whol literature on that)

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    maxhirez  October 6, 2012

    Has Lüdemann to your knowledge weighed in on Tabor’s Talpiot conclusions? The family of Jesus emptying Joseph’s Tomb and relocating the body would seem to play into his narrative.

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    Xeronimo74  October 6, 2012

    Lüdemann’s reconstruction sounds reasonable and is probably very close to the actual truth of what happened.

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    SJB  October 6, 2012

    This discussion raises the issue so-called “ecstatic” or mystical experience. I wonder what the relationship was between the early apocalyptic Jesus movement and this sort of religious experience? Did Jesus encourage these sorts of experiences? I can see where a community that practiced this kind of thing would be predisposed to respond to the shock of their master’s death in just this fashion. Paul reports these kinds of experiences and his churches seem suffused with it.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 6, 2012

      yes, good question. Jesus had visions according to the Gospels (“I saw Satan falling from heaven”); Paul claims to have had visions (taken up to the third heaven); Acts says that Peter had visions (ch. 10); and so on. Next on my agenda is reading about visionary experiences in the modern world. Interesting stuff.

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    rbrtbaumgardner  October 6, 2012

    Hallucinations are common in mentally healthy people and more common when they are experiencing grief. Perhaps the story in Acts 10 of Peter’s vision of the animals suggests a tradition of his having visions apart from its theological/political purpose.

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      Jim Joyner  October 10, 2012

      Did their mental condition return to normal before they began developing their resurrection theology and searching for its proof-texts? What’s your view?

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  October 10, 2012

        I don’t think they went temporarily crazy; the scholarship on “visions” suggest that people in normal psychological states have them, and I think that was probalby the case with a couple of the disciples.

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    Jim  October 6, 2012

    I’m a red-neck, KJV-thumping fundamentalist so naturally I do not agree with Professor Lüdemann’s assessment. Nevertheless I must concede that if you excise divinity from Jesus, Dr. Lüdemann’s historical reconstruction of events is very plausible (superior to “the almost but not quite dead yet” or “mass hypnosis” approaches) and is difficult to argue against. I suppose I need to get busy and start searching for divinity biomarkers.

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    ERHershman  October 7, 2012

    So, on Ludemann’s account, how do the stories of the women at the tomb found in the canonical gospels come to be told? As many scholars I’ve read have pointed out, having women, who were considered untrustworthy witnesses, as the first to see the risen Christ, was not exactly a way to get people to believe the stories. So why would the gospel writers tell the stories with the women in such a prominent place?

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    bobnaumann  October 7, 2012

    We can probably never know what actually happened on that Easter morning. The important thing is that, for whatever reason, his Disciples believed he was resurrected and believed it intensely enough to bet their lives on it.

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    Walid_  October 8, 2012

    I am waiting to read to this in professor Ehrman’s next book.
    I see he is not taking the argument head on, I quote: “So, to be clear, I’m not saying I agree with this entire reconstruction” end quote. People like me would say: “alright so do you think Doctor?” …
    and hence the waiting.

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    Jim Joyner  October 10, 2012

    I’m more than a little puzzled about why the members of the Palestinian Jesus Movement (PJM) would invent an empty tomb story. In Israel, during this period, there seems to be more than a little awareness of Greco-Roman culture; it’s not hard to imagine PJM was aware of “pagan” stories about empty tombs as a sign of someone’s apotheosis (Daniel A. Smith, Revisitng the Empty Tomb). So why would they invent and disseminate such a story to backfill the Jesus story as support for their Jewish conceptualization of a uniquely resurrected messiah?

    Also, I wonder how Enoch traditions influenced realization by the tiny PJM group of Jesus’ unique resurrection?

    I’m just having a hard time simply assuming these traumatized Kingdom believers swiftly conjured events with only the loosest of connections to the theological ideas of their master-teacher and the traditions (like Enoch, and Isaiah, and Zechariah, and John the Baptizer, etc) and their cultural context. To me, a critical look into the traditions could produce a reconstruction of terrorized outsiders-to-Jerusalemite society, way out of their element, sending women to sneak back to a temporary tomb only to be surprised by the absence of the corpse of their master-teacher. Forgeting the angels and lights and and fuzzy facial images, it seems plausible enough. At that point, they developed an uber-explanation of the event and resulting “visions” that was consistent with their instruction; their theology made them comfortable with the huge idea of conquering death despite the harsh reality of a gory crucifixion.

    Sorry, Dr. Ehrman, I’m trying to pay careful attention to your ideas (actually, Ludemann’s ideas in this case) but I’m struggling with the questions left unanswered.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 10, 2012

      Yes, it’s all complicated. But my view is that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection was very *closely* connected with Jesus’ preaching — not in the sense that he preached he would be raised (I don’t think that for a second!), but in the sense that he, and his disciples, proclaimed a Jewish apocalyptic message that at the end of this age there would be a (physical) resurrectoin of the dead. When the disciples had visions of Jesus (I’m sure some of them did — Peter, possibly Mary Magdalene) after his death, they *interpreted* them in light of what they believed, that the afterlife would be physical, and that lead them to think that he was physically raised from the dead. And that’s why they thought that, with him, the resurrection had started and that hte End of all things was very near indeed. The empty tomb stories hten are the natural consequence of that belief.

      • Avatar
        Jim Joyner  October 10, 2012

        Dr. Ehrman, I’m with you at every point above except the last point, sorry. I just don’t see why the empty tomb must be read back into the “real” events; it seems plausible to me that they were surprised by an empty tomb and it became part of their perception of the über-event they came to believe had taken place. I just need to stew on it a while. It’s important to me to be straight up to the extent possible for a person of faith.

        You certainly are an interesting person! Your writing style seems different than when you converse with someone (as above). Said another way, you’re writing style makes your message seem more dramatic, even off-putting; when I read your comments above I was struck by how “normal” you sound as a NT scholar. Trust me, I intend to share this observation in kindness and not as a (total) smart ass.

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    Machaon  September 21, 2018

    Lüdemann’s conclusions merely reflect his presuppositions.
    If one presumes that the resurrection and appearances of Jesus were not historical events, one must create a psychologised narrative for which there is zero primary source material.
    This, then, is just a Gospel of Lüdemann, created de novo two thousand years after events.
    It is an interesting account and worthy of consideration, but it has even less authority (given that it is two millenia late) than the Gospels themselves.
    It is less an evidence-based description of events, and more a modern narrative to rationalise Christianity away.

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