Analyzing Jesus’s Words

Robert M. Price

What Jesus Didn’t Say, by Gerd Lüdemann (Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-59815-030-8). IV + 133 pp. Paper, $18.00.

When the members of the Jesus Seminar finished sifting through the sayings and stories of the Gospels, their goal was to construct a database from which one might reconstruct the career and teaching of the historical Jesus. And after they finished that, there was some talk about focusing on the many texts and stories deemed probably or definitely inauthentic. Where did they come from? What can they tell us about the evolution of early Christianity, since it must be early Christians, not Jesus himself, who coined these sayings and spun these tales? What Jesus Didn’t Say by longtime Jesus Seminar Fellow Gerd Lüdemann is a first step toward that goal. The author aims to demonstrate not so much the criteria of authenticity in Jesus tradition but rather the criteria of inauthenticity. What do scholars look for as telltale signs of a post-Jesus fabrication?

For one thing, if a saying has the editorial fingerprints of one of the evangelists (Gospel writers) on it—e.g., his distinctive motifs and vocabulary not found in other Gospels—that’s a sure sign that a saying (or story) has at least been reworked by the evangelist if not created out of whole cloth. And even if it is just a matter of alteration, that is already enough to say that the finished product is spurious. It has been retooled and made to say something else, as when a politician claims he has been taken out of context and thus misrepresented. Again, compared to the basic Gospel scenario of Jesus as a wandering prophet and faith healer (assuming we can take that much for granted), it does not make sense for him to be warning his audience to be ready for persecution and to turn the other cheek when they are excommunicated, arrested, and martyred. All that presupposes a situation that could not then have existed, namely, one in which Christianity had separated off from Judaism and become an outlaw movement. Likewise, for Jesus to be explaining the significance of his death when the Gospels make clear even his disciples had no idea it would happen marks a saying as a piece of subsequent Christian preaching. If a saying presupposes the resurrection of Jesus (“All things have been delivered to me by my Father,” etc.), we must be dealing with the utterance of some Christian prophet, as when we read letters dictated by the son of God whose eyes are as a flame of fire in the first three chapters of the Book of Revelation. When sayings have Jesus adjudicate issues debated first in the early church but anachronistic for the earthly Jesus—e.g., the propriety of preaching to non-Jews, whether circumcision is incumbent, whether fasting ought to be continued, and especially when there are two or three different views ascribed to Jesus—well, we know we are dealing with people using him as a ventriloquist dummy to win an argument. If Jesus had actually settled the issue, why was it still being debated in the early church?

This is all very helpful for readers curious about the methods and results of Gospel critics. Lüdemann is, as always, admirably clear and sharp-eyed. His books are always goldmines of information and insight. It is a bit surprising, however, that he is not more critical than he is. For instance, I find it astonishing in view of the arguments of Walter Schmithals and Günter Klein, that Lüdemann still thinks Jesus appointed a body of twelve disciples. Surely that is a post-Easter development, since the twelve are never mentioned as such in any Jesus saying except in the nonhistorical John 6:70 and the Matthean redaction (20:28) of the Q saying preserved in Luke 22:30. Only Matthew specifies that the disciples will one day occupy twelve thrones. Lüdemann accepts the denials of Peter as historical, although I think Alfred Loisy was right in dismissing the story as pro-Paul, anti-Peter propaganda. Lüdemann thinks not, since Peter, the leader of the early Christians, would not have been besmirched in this fashion.

And here arises a broader issue. Lüdemann deals briefly with the generally accepted criteria of authenticity, and one of them is the “criterion of embarrassment” (or “offensiveness,” as he calls it). Something that would have embarrassed “the” early Christians, such as Jesus being baptized by John or the vilification of Simon Peter, must have been true, for who would have invented it? Here Lüdemann, like most supposed critics, remains stuck in the old orthodox paradigm whereby all the earliest Christians were one big happy family who were at one in matters of doctrine or practice. Of course, if you put it that way, he rejects it, and elsewhere he shows himself fully cognizant that the earliest Christians were a diverse and bickering lot (e.g., his discussion of the fasting sayings). But he is inconsistent, as elsewhere in his books on Paul and the early church in which he explicitly rejects the historical accuracy of the Book of Acts yet then, inexplicably, proceeds to use its basic picture of church history as his default model.

Speaking of offensiveness, Lüdemann accepts as authentic those parables and sayings in which “Jesus” uses rogues as heroes and examples, such as Luke’s Unjust Steward (16:1–7) with his shady but resourceful tactics. The idea seems to be that Jesus would have been hip, not pious and stuck up like subsequent Christian leaders. But this is like Joachim Jeremias (The Parables of Jesus) declaring that sayings that seem to be Greek translations from an Aramaic original must go back to Jesus. What? Was Jesus the only one who spoke Aramaic? And was he the only smart-ass in first-century Galilee?

Lüdemann’s book is very helpful, not to mention fascinating. One of the best parts is his scalpel dissection of the Farewell Discourses in John chapters 13 through 17, though you will need to refer to your Bible to keep up with him. Let me recommend that you read this and Bart Ehrman’s book Forged together. They are somewhat different approaches to spurious materials in the Bible, a topic that makes many people uncomfortable but probably not readers of this magazine.

Robert M. Price

Robert M. Price is the author of Beyond Born Again: The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, The Case Against ‘The Case for Christ,’ and other books. He is also the host of the podcasts The Bible Geek and The Human Bible.

What Jesus Didn’t Say, by Gerd Lüdemann (Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-59815-030-8). IV + 133 pp. Paper, $18.00. When the members of the Jesus Seminar finished sifting through the sayings and stories of the Gospels, their goal was to construct a database from which one might reconstruct the career and teaching of the historical …

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