Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity

By Gerd Ludermann
Louisville, KY : Westminster/John Knox (1996). 335 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
9.1 (Spring 1998) : 113-114

The author, professor of New Testament at the University of Göttingen and former professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, has struck upon a novel concept in early Christian studies. He argues from the concept that "the winners write the history," and therefore the version of Christianity which appeared after the apostolic age and what is known to us today is "something strange" (xvi). He attempts to show "Jesus as hardly anyone still knows him today" (ibid.).

This book, simply put, is a contrivance in terms of both history and theology. The author rejects every tenet of the Christian faith. He presents Jesus as, at best, an eccentric, whose cleansing of the temple at the end of His ministry was designed to clear the way for a new temple to be put into place by God (32). The resurrection is a "chain reaction" (34) begun by a vision of the remorseful Peter and reinforced by similar “ecstatic experiences" (35) of other of the disciples and finally Jesus' brother James. The author posits that after this "resurrection" the early Christians began to "create" the myth of a living Messiah who would return again.

The author also argues that the sources discussing Jesus are entirely "third hand" (61), none of which are the "products of eyewitnesses" (ibid). He acknowledges that we have "original documents in the truest sense" from Paul (ibid); however, he then goes on to declare only seven of the NT epistles of Paul to be authentic. He declares the book of Acts to be a fraud, containing only a few reliable traditions, but being neither chronologically accurate nor theologically representative of the teachings of either Paul or Jesus (62, 67).

From this point the author attempts to make the case that Paul was the first "heretic" in the church as he moved away from the central tenet of Christianity, the parousia or imminent return of Christ, to a more existential viewpoint whereby he wanted believers to "feel with him that through Jesus a veil has been removed from human eyes and that the golden sun of God's dawning is warming their hearts" (84). However, other Christians conspired against Paul's work and the author states,

Outwardly, Paul's life and work - like that of Jesus - ended in fiasco. His further plans to extend his mission to Spain were thwarted by Jewish Christian "brothers." He left behind almost nothing that lasted, and had not Luke painted an impressive portrait of him in Acts, and had not his various letters been kept from destruction by unknown helpers, the apostle to the Gentiles would have had no further history (103).

The untenable and honestly bizarre theories of the author in this book are almost too numerous to mention. The "non-authentic" letters of Paul, especially 2 Thessalonians, Colossians/Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles are said to be productions of various groups who sought to use Paul's name, but who had abandoned his central message. His discussion of the canon (193-208) and the relationship of the Christianity of the first two centuries to the modern era (209-17) are a continuation of the same theories and are equally untenable and unsupportable to anyone who regards the Scripture as the inerrant Word of God, Jesus as God, the resurrection as a real historical event, and the gospel as presented in Scripture.