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Gerd Luedemann on the Resurrection: A Blast From the Past

Here is an interesting post on the resurrection of Jesus that I made almost exactly four years ago today.  It’s interesting because (a) I don’t remember writing it (and only vaguely remember having read the book) and (b) my own views ended up being very similar indeed (even though I don’t at all remember being influenced by the book!).   These are views not widely shared by my colleagues in the field of New Testament studies, as will seem obvious (since most of my colleagues are committed Christians who believe in the resurrection!).  In any event, here’s the post.  Happy reading!



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]

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  1. Avatar
    rburos  October 4, 2016

    It almost sounds like he’s mirroring Schweitzer by using the gospels as biography in a modern sense to reach his conclusion? Do you know how Crossan views Lüdemann’s hypothesis?

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    UCCLMrh  October 4, 2016

    I find it interesting that you and Lüdemann each create an extremely narrow rule separating Christians from non-Christians and then use it to exclude yourselves from Christianity. It is almost as if you somehow intuitively sense that you should not define yourself as being within Christianity, so you take up a narrow rule that “all Christians must believe in physical resurrection” or whatever, so you can declare that you are not a Christian. Not being a Christian is the goal, and making up a rule is the means. What do you think? Faced with similar dissonance, some others find a broader definition of “Christian” that lets them remain within the fold.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2016

      I actually have a very *broad* definition of what I think a Christian is or can be. But included in my definition is the sense that there is some kind of divine being in the world (“God”). And since I don’t think/believe there is, I don’t think I can rightly be called a Christian.

      • Avatar
        UCCLMrh  October 9, 2016

        In today’s column, you repeat an idea from “God’s Problem,” saying “the problem of theodicy is to explain how God can be just given the state of pain and misery in the world. In other words, given the amount of suffering that people experience, how can one explain that a good and loving God is in charge?” From the context, I am assuming that “in charge” means that God can intervene in human affairs and change outcomes. Is that your intent? When I commented that you have a narrow definition of Christian, that was my meaning. To be a Christian, do you have to believe that God can intervene in human affairs and change outcomes. I say no. You?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 10, 2016

          No, I don’t think that. I think you can be a Christian and believe in a God who does not intervene. And then you don’t have as big or a problem with theodicy.

          • Avatar
            UCCLMrh  October 10, 2016

            Thanks for this conversation. I appreciate it. Now I will think about this for a while.

          • Avatar
            llamensdor  October 14, 2016

            If God doesn’t intervene, what does he do–if anything? You gave up on belief in divinity when you saw all around you evil getting away with evil and the good being abandoned to suffering and destruction, Clearly, God stands by when horrible crimes, genocides and the like, are being inflicted on innocent men, women and children. Not mere handfuls, but millions tortured and slaughtered, Some religionistas claim all will be evened up in the afterlife when all will receive their just due. That’s a convenient copout–unprovable either way. Are you aware of any reasonable (not risible, reasonable) explanation believers give for God’s shocking failure to intervene when such catastrophes are in progress, other than he’ll make it all right in “extra innings.?”

          • Bart
            Bart  October 15, 2016

            Yes, of course believers have all sorts of explanations! Maybe some readers here can indicate how they make sense of it all!

    • gmdave449
      gmdave449  October 6, 2016

      It seems reasonable since in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15 Paul defines the core of gospel as being “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” and goes on to say in verse fourteen “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” This idea is echoed elsewhere; Romans 10:9 says “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” It think it’s fair to say if you don’t confess or believe those things the implication is you are not saved. It’s not as if Luedemann drew the line at belief in the resurrection because he had some kind of agenda; Paul himself states that this is the single fundamental belief of Christianity.

  3. Avatar
    rivercrowman  October 4, 2016

    Considering all that you’ve written in books and the blog it’s little wonder you don’t immediately recognize your work from four years ago. … I have most of your books, so I guess I don’t have any questions today.

  4. Avatar
    Boltonian  October 4, 2016

    Seems plausible. Vermes, in his book, ‘the Resurrection,’ suggests that the vivid spiritual experience (he doesn’t use the word, ‘vision’) that happened to one or more of the disciples following the death of Jesus, took place in Jerusalem rather than Galilee. Not sure why without re-reading the whole book.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  October 4, 2016

    “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.”

    From my reading up on this topic over the past few years now (including your own books, Dr. Ehrman), I would conclude that the cause and effect relationship was in the opposite direction. That is, Peter and the other disciples were already firmly convinced that the mass resurrection of the dead was imminent (within months, if not weeks or days). Moreover, they believed their executed leader was the Messiah foretold of in the Prophets. Therefore, if Jesus was the Messiah that would mean he is supposed to lead the vanguard of the coming mass resurrection of the dead saints (i.e. he was the “first fruits” of the resurrection).

    Now, since all the disciples believed that the Holy Spirit had come to them (as proclaimed in Joel), that would mean that they all had the divine gift of prophecy bestowed on them, so they should be able to communicate and commune with the the spirit world, including the exalted spirit of Jesus. So the disciples then actively sought to have “visions” — that is, it’s not like the thought of seeing visions of Jesus never occurred to them until they saw them, but, rather, they purposely tried to induce visions of Jesus — and, the human mind being as imperfect as it is, they probably did, in fact, come to see “visions” of the risen Jesus (whether in hallucinations or dreams).

    Meanwhile, since Jesus’ execution was completely unexpected, the disciples then began to scour the prophetic writings to find an explanation and, hopefully, a plan to go forward. That’s when they started using certain prophecies, such as Isaiah 53, to explain and retroactively justify Jesus’ unexpected death. It’s within the prophetic writing that the disciples began to put together the puzzle pieces of the post-Crucifixion narrative, such as Jesus being in the tomb three days before rising (cf. Jonah in the fish; also, Jesus, being a faithful Jew, and God doing no work on the Sabbath, Saturday was skipped over so that Jesus could rise on Sunday), when in all likelihood Jesus’ corpse was thrown into a mass grave. The explanations the disciples found in the sacred literature include Jesus being flogged with “stripes” and getting a crown of thorns (again, compare Isaiah 53).

    And now, it was only after all this that the disciples were then forced to rebut critics as to how they knew Jesus’ death and resurrection wasn’t fake. That is, how they knew, for a fact, that Jesus was dead and risen. And that’s when they started to concoct the story of Jesus being interred in a tomb (an honor rarely given to a lower class schlub like Jesus), which was, conveniently, donated by a wealthy ally amongst the Jerusalem elite (Joseph of Arimathea), and, finally, to quash all rumor and criticism that Jesus’ resurrection was faked, they added the detail of the women going to the tomb (why? to anoint the body, of course!), only to find it empty…with one…then two angels informing them that Jesus was, in fact, resurrected.

    This order of events is what’s called an inside out reconstruction of events. That is, you start out with a pre-conceived notion and then you “reconstruction” the details of those events in order to fill in the gaps and reinforce that belief, essentially making it bulletproof (which is why it’s so hard to convince fundies that it’s all a load of BS). Such an effective reconstruction is a result of several common biases in thinking — including the confirmation bias, the hindsight bias, and the self-fulling prophecy (which, in this case, is a literal self-fulfilling prophecy!)

  6. Avatar
    herculodge  October 4, 2016

    Were New Testament accounts of the Resurrection based on any interpretations of alleged Old Testament prophecies? I’m aware of general “prophecies” that could be open to wide interpretation, but I mean are there specific ones that might be more convincing than others?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2016

      The *idea* of a resurrection after three days is sometimes thought to be based on Hosea 6:3 or possibly the story of Jonah. The actual stories of the appearances — I don’t know that these are based on OT models, but I’d be happy for someone to come up with some ideas about it.

  7. Avatar
    JGonzalezGUS  October 4, 2016

    Thanks for (re-)posting this, Dr. Ehrman. I think I’m going to read some of Lüdemann’s books. By the way, you may have read this, but just in case: “http://wwwuser.gwdg.de/~gluedem/download/BETL249_Luedemann.pdf”.

    • Avatar
      turbopro  October 5, 2016

      If I may pls: thanks for that article. It is quite informative. Cheers.

  8. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 4, 2016

    Where does the Bible say Peter had a vision of The resurrected Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2016

      1 Corinthians 15:5.

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  October 5, 2016

        Also in Luke 24:34
        saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”

        Never considered these as peter’s visions or dreams. Always taught Jesus was there w disciples in a physical body as narrated starting in vs 36.


        • Bart
          Bart  October 6, 2016

          Yes, a vision usually assumes the person is actually there physically.

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 4, 2016

    I’d like to see more emphasis being placed on the possibility that vivid *dreams* (rather than waking “visions”) convinced Peter and others that Jesus was, in some sense, “still alive.” I remember your having posted something, a while back, about studies that indicated dreams of that type occur frequently when people are mourning deceased loved ones.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2016

      It seems odd to us, but ancient people did not differentiate between sleeping dreams and waking visions, the way we do.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  October 5, 2016

        Actually, that explains a great deal.

  10. Avatar
    Tempo1936  October 4, 2016

    It is also interesting to note that Mark 15:43
    Joseph of Arimathea rolled the stone into place at the tomb. So the stone must not have been very large. But in mark 16 for the stone was “very large “. It got bigger overnight
    In Luke 24, the Women return the next day with spices to prepare Jesus’ body.
    If Jesus’ body had already been laid in a sealed tomb with a very large stone, why would the women think that the body should be prepared one day after his death ? Were they planning to roll the stone back?
    Of course, In John 19 Nicodemus prepares the body with 75 pounds of myrrh. I guess the women didn’t know about that.
    It’s surprising the second century editors didn’t create one seamless story.

  11. TWood
    TWood  October 4, 2016

    How would you reply to the following objections?

    1. It seems Mary Mag had a vision in Jerusalem not Galilee.

    2. Paul states he has personal knowledge of many more than Peter and himself who saw Jesus.

    3. The modern visions of Mary are usually due to people *expecting* to see her (neither Peter nor Paul had such an expectation).

    4. Does Paul not mention Jesus’ physical ascension in 1 Cor 15 (or anywhere else) indicate he didn’t have a good explanation for it? The obvious question is “after Jesus physically resurrected, where’d he go and how’d he get there?”

    5. In 1 Cor 15, aside from the timing, Paul doesn’t make a distinction between the nature of his vision of Jesus and the nature of the others’ visions of Jesus (like Peter’s for example). Did Paul believe Jesus physically appeared to him? (this seems significant since Paul equates his vision to Peter’s). In 2 Cor 12, Paul doesn’t know if a certain vision was physical or not… doesn’t Paul seem to blend what’s physical and spiritual? (cf. the gospels say Jesus can eat fish and appear in the middle of a locked room).

    • Avatar
      Kazibwe Edris  October 5, 2016

      “3. The modern visions of Mary are usually due to people *expecting* to see her (neither Peter nor Paul had such an expectation).”

      dr ehrman

      can this argument be used to prove that mark did not expect reunion?
      disciples forsook jesus and fled
      that later writers have peter hanging around the tomb

      “Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.”

      “Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.”

      implies they needed to give their audience a hint that their was expectation of reunion, but mark left all of this out, which implies he did not expect reunion?

  12. Avatar
    living42day  October 4, 2016

    So, what would memory theory say about your memories (or lack thereof) of Luedemann’s book and/or influence?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2016

      Yes, my regular experience confirms very well what memory researchers say!

  13. Avatar
    Jason  October 4, 2016

    Does the disciples’ belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus’s body add any weight to the idea that they saw heaven as a tangible city in the sky above Jerusalem, and are you re-examining Gerd’s book in the context of the history-of-the-afterlife book you’ve been thinking about?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2016

      Yes, both ideas are deeply embedded in an apocalypytic world view.

  14. Rick
    Rick  October 4, 2016

    Do you think this scenario fits well with the short ending of Mark?

  15. Avatar
    HawksJ  October 4, 2016


    So, your last paragraph begs the question: which points do you and don’t you agree with?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2016

      That’s what I was surprised about. I agree with most of them. And I used to agree with about none of them!

  16. Avatar
    mjt  October 4, 2016

    The way that Ludemann interprets the fact (as in the ‘minimal facts argument) of the resurrection appearances is vastly different than what I imagine evangelicals have in mind when they state that ‘the disciples had experiences which they understood as Jesus rising from the dead.’

    I think that’s one of the main problems with the minimal facts argument–some of the facts, especially that one, are vague enough to be interpreted in various ways. And the interpretation Ludemann offers is much easier to explain than one that more closely corresponds to the gospel accounts.

  17. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  October 4, 2016

    Several things stand out to me after reading this:
    “Christians in Jerusalem appear to have placed ZERO emphasis on the location of the tomb…No one knew where he was buried anyway.” I have a hard time believing that Christians weren’t interested in knowing the location of Jesus’ tomb for lots of reasons.

    On whether the tomb was really empty–“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.” Jesus would have had skeletal remains!

    “Peter had a vision of Jesus that was psychologically induced.” Paul too, but there’s no explanation as to why he had a vision. I don’t completely understand the subject of visions,as in, the type where a person is fully awake and literally sees a dead person. I’ve had other kinds of interesting experiences, but not that one. I haven’t met anyone that has either.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2016

      Yes, there would have been skeletal remains. But in a mass tomb, you wouldn’t be able to identify whose skeleton belonged to whom!

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  October 5, 2016

        Right. What I meant was that Lüdemann implied there would have been no body (in a tomb is what I thought he meant in the first point) because it would have decomposed. The problem is that there would have been a skeleton. It’s not until the next point he states that Jesus could have been placed in a common grave. I’m not convinced of that so far. It makes more sense to me that Peter went to visit Jesus’ tomb and found it empty for whatever reason. Finding an empty tomb could certainly trigger a vision, not only for him but for others.

    • Rick
      Rick  October 7, 2016

      Pardon the double dip, but, what followers of Jesus would there have been in Jerusalem? Is there any evidence of a Jerusalem group of followers? I thought his ministry of just a few years had been just across Galilee? Perhaps all of the Tomb business is later invention once there had become a Jerusalem church that was arguing with other Jews?

  18. Avatar
    llamensdor  October 5, 2016

    I have had committed Christians say to me that unless I agreed that Jesus was (is) God that they would not wish to speak with me on any related subject. These are decent people, not (to my eyes) fanatics, but agreement that Jesus is divine is essential to any discussion. Others, not always the same people, state that if Jesus was not crucified and then resurrected (not always clearly defined) they could not be — would not be — Christians. I have always been puzzled when people assert that their belief in God is dependent on the bedrock assurance that Jesus was crucified, resurrected and now resides in heaven. I have always been puzzled that good people insist on limiting themselves and their religious beliefs in this manner. It seems to me that a person could believe that Jesus was sent by God to redeem the Jews and eventually the whole earth, that he preached belief in the one God and insisted on certain standards of conduct and a code of ethics, that he was arrested by the Romans, and crucified and died on the cross. What happened afterword might be in dispute, but resurrection would not be essential to revering him. Can you explain for me why belief in the resurrection is, for many, many people, the sine qua non of their Christian beliefs.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2016

      I think if Jesus died and stayed dead, for many Christians, then there was nothing about him in particular that would make you think he was the Savior, the Lord, or a divine being — and they may as well be Jews or something else.

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  October 5, 2016

        Paul clearly taught this
        1 Corinthians 15:14
        And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.

        The idea of Jesus’corpse rotting on the cross is repulsive to nearly everyone today when burials are so sanitized

  19. Avatar
    dragonfly  October 5, 2016

    I don’t see anything wrong with Luedemann’s overall view, but I get a bit cautious when someone starts trying to give the *reason why* Peter or Paul had a vision. I think all we can say is they had a vision and leave it at that.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  October 5, 2016


    • Avatar
      HawksJ  October 5, 2016

      Actually, all we can say is that somebody claimed that they had a vision.

  20. Avatar
    tcasto  October 5, 2016

    I’ve always thought that the story of Joseph of Arimathea was a stretch. It’s more likely that the body of a crucifixion victim would rot on the cross than be given any kind of burial. In the same category as Pilate giving any consideration to the wishes of the Jews.

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