The Unholy in Holy Scripture

The Unholy in Holy Scripture - The Dark Side of the Bible by Gerd Lüdemann (SCM Press)

Reviewed by Alan Goss in Newsletter 26

In this book Gerd Lüdemann, Professor of New Testament at Gottingen University, approaches the bible from its dark, unknown, ugly suppressed side. In the Old Testament he analyses texts which reflect a quite different picture ... from the view that the Old Testament [as a whole] contains: the good news of God's mercy communicated to all men and women. The command to exterminate the Canaanites -- the slaughter of infants, children, indeed the whole population -- is extremely offensive, and how such acts can still have anything to do with the mercy of God (and indeed passed over so quickly by biblical theologians) must be seriously questioned.

In the New Testament the author follows individual investigations of texts which similarly indicate little of God's mercy. They relate to those passages which describe the unbelieving Jews of the time as enemies of God and exclude them from God's mercy on the spot.

Under the title 'Jesus and the Mercy of God', another chapter discusses how in view of this dark other side of the bible, it can be possible for us to go on being christians today. It commends resolute reflection on a reconstructed historical Jesus of Nazareth. To summarize:

i) Jesus' picture of God is not the figure of a vengeful jealous God, but one of a God who turns to men and women in mercy.
ii) Jesus' preaching is oriented on non-violence and on love of enemy. In so doing Jesus often deliberately became a law-breaker and had the courage to criticize openly.
iii) In his behaviour Jesus distances himself from the ruling classes and turns towards those who have no religious status: tax collector, prostitutes etc. -- those without any kind of claim.
iv) Jesus' fate, the cross, resulted from his unpopularity, his firm convictions, his unconventional behaviour.
(v) Jesus' expectation that God's kingdom would arrive in the forseeable future came to grief. To this degree he failed. Church circles falsified his message by preaching the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He lives on in the sense that his friends handed down his message.
(vi) Jesus is the criterion for any idea of God: even atheists can identify with him.

Jesus, understood in this way, is a purely human being -- he is not sinless, that is part of the christology of the early church. The churches must respect Jesus for what he really was and recognize the ... over-paintings of his preaching and person as later additions; these include around 85% of all the sayings of Jesus which have been handed down.

Lüdemann concludes that there are thousands of Christs, i.e. human pictures of a super-earthly Son of God, but only one Jesus. What has largely governed the preaching of the church in the last 2000 years has not been what this Jesus thought, wanted and did, but what was thought about him after his death and done in his name. But the divinized Christ has little to do with Jesus. Many christians increasingly suspect that this is true today, when they see churches internally evacuated of all substance and externally without any credibility.

John Bowden of the SCM, a friend of the author, provides an appendix to the book. His last two sentences provide both a rebuke and a challenge.

"The Christian tradition to which I belong has, among other things, a long and honourable history of engaging boldly with the current scientific, historical, philosophical, intellectual developments of the day, and once it ceases to do that, surely it becomes something other than it has been. But that may be happening."

Alan Goss