Rudolf Bultmann

Rudolf Bultmann
Born Rudolf Karl Bultmann
(1884-08-20)20 August 1884
Died 30 July 1976(1976-07-30) (aged 91)
Occupation Theologian

Theological work

Tradition or movement Dialectical Theology

Rudolf Karl Bultmann (German: [ˈbʊltman]; 20 August 1884 – 30 July 1976) was a German Lutheran theologian and professor of New Testament at the University of Marburg. He was one of the major figures of early 20th century biblical studies and a prominent voice in liberal Christianity.

Bultmann is known for his belief that the historical analysis of the New Testament is both futile and unnecessary, given that the earliest Christian literature showed little interest in specific locations.[1] Bultmann argued that all that matters is the "thatness", not the "whatness" of Jesus, i.e. only that Jesus existed, preached and died by crucifixion matters, not what happened throughout his life.[1][2][2]

Bultmann's approach relied on his concept of demythology, and interpreted the mythological elements in the New Testament existentially. Bultmann contended that only faith in the kerygma, or proclamation, of the New Testament was necessary for Christian faith, not any particular facts regarding the historical Jesus.[3]


Bultmann was born in Wiefelstede, Oldenburg, the son of Arthur Kennedy Bultmann, a Lutheran minister. He did his Abitur at the Altes Gymnasium in Oldenburg, and studied theology at Tübingen. After three terms, Bultmann went to the University of Berlin for two terms, and finally to Marburg for two more terms. He received his degree in 1910 from Marburg with a dissertation on the Epistles of St Paul. After submitting a Habilitation two years later, he became a lecturer on the New Testament at Marburg.

Bultmann married Helene Feldmann in 1917. The couple had three daughters.[4]

After brief lectureships at Breslau and Giessen, Bultmann returned to Marburg in 1921 as a full professor, and stayed there until his retirement in 1951. From autumn 1944 until the end of World War II in 1945 he took into his family Uta Ranke-Heinemann, who had fled the bombs and destruction in Essen.

Bultmann was a student of Hermann Gunkel, Johannes Weiss, and Wilhelm Heitmüller.[3] His students included Hans Jonas, Ernst Käsemann, Günther Bornkamm, Hannah Arendt and Helmut Koester.

He was a member of the Confessing Church[5] and critical towards National Socialism. He spoke out against the mistreatment of Jews, against nationalistic excesses and against the dismissal of non-Aryan Christian ministers. He did not, however, speak out against "the antiSemitic[sic] laws which had already been promulgated" and he was philosophically limited in his ability to "repudiate, in a comprehensive manner, the central tenets of Nazi racism and antiSemitism[sic]."[6]

Bultmann became friends with Martin Heidegger who taught at Marburg for five years, and Heidegger's views on existentialism had an influence on Bultmann's thinking.[7] However, Bultmann himself stated that his views could not simply be reduced to thinking in Heideggerian categories, in that "the New Testament is not a doctrine about our nature, about our authentic existence as human beings, but a proclamation of this liberating act of God."[8]

Theological approaches

Bultmann's History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921) remains highly influential as a tool for biblical research, even among scholars who reject his analyses of the conventional rhetorical pericopes (narrative units) which comprise the Gospels, and the historically-oriented principles of "form criticism" of which Bultmann was the most influential exponent.

According to Bultmann's definition, "[t]he aim of form-criticism [sic] is to determine the original form of a piece of narrative, a dominical saying or a parable. In the process we learn to distinguish secondary additions and forms, and these in turn lead to important results for the history of the tradition."[9]

In 1941 Bultmann applied form criticism to the Gospel of John, in which he distinguished the presence of a lost Signs Gospel on which John - alone of the evangelists - depended. His monograph, Das Evangelium des Johannes, highly controversial at the time, became a milestone in research into the historical Jesus. The same year his lecture New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Message called on interpreters to replace traditional supernaturalism (demythologize) with the temporal and existential categories of Bultmann's colleague, Martin Heidegger, rejecting doctrines such as the pre-existence of Christ.[10] Bultmann believed this endeavor would make accessible to modern audiences—already immersed in science and technology—the reality of Jesus' teachings. Bultmann thus understood the project of "demythologizing the New Testament proclamation" as an evangelical task, clarifying the kerygma, or gospel proclamation, by stripping it of elements of the first-century "mythical world picture" that had potential to alienate modern people from Christian faith:

"It is impossible to repristinate a past world picture by sheer resolve, especially a mythical world picture, now that all of our thinking is irrevocably formed by science. A blind acceptance of New Testament mythology would be simply arbitrariness; to make such acceptance a demand of faith would be to reduce faith to a work."[11]

Bultmann said about salvation and eternity: "As from now on there are only believers and unbelievers, so there are also now only saved and lost, those who have life and those who are in death."[12]

While Bultmann reinterpreted theological language in existential terms, he nonetheless maintained that the New Testament proclaimed a message more radical than any modern existentialism. In both the boasting of legalists "who are faithful to the law" and the boasting of the philosophers "who are proud of their wisdom", Bultmann finds a "basic human attitude" of "highhandedness that tries to bring within our own power even the submission that we know to be our authentic being".[13] Standing against all human high-handedness is the New Testament, "which claims that we can in no way free ourselves from our factual fallenness in the world but are freed from it only by an act of God ... the salvation occurrence that is realized in Christ."[14] Bultmann remained convinced that the narratives of the life of Jesus offered theology in story form, teaching lessons in the familiar language of myth. They were not to be excluded, but given explanation so they could be understood for today. Bultmann thought faith should become a present-day reality. To Bultmann, the people of the world appeared to be always in disappointment and turmoil. Faith must be a determined vital act of will, not a culling and extolling of "ancient proofs".

Bultmann carried form-criticism so far as to call the historical value of the gospels into serious question.[3] Some scholars criticized Bultmann and other critics for excessive skepticism regarding the historical reliability of the gospel narratives. The full impact of Bultmann was not felt until the English publication of Kerygma and Mythos (1948).

A conservative and confessing Lutheran theologian, Walter Kunneth (1901-1997), provided some insights on Bultmann in his Die Theologie der Auferstehung [Theology of the Resurrection] (1933).

Selected works

See also


  1. 1 2 Edwin Broadhead "Implicit Christology and the Historical Jesus" in the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus edited by Tom Holmen and Stanley E. Porter (Jan 12, 2011) ISBN 9004163727 pages 1170-1172
  2. 1 2 Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship by Marcus J. Borg (Aug 1, 1994) ISBN 1563380943 page 187
  3. 1 2 3 Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005, article Bultmann, Rudolf
  4. Meier, Holger (2012). Rudolf Bultmann und sein hermeneutischer Ansatz der Entmythologisierung als existentiale Interpretation [Rudopf Bultmann and his hermeneutic approach to de-mythologisation as existential interpretation] (in German). GRIN Verlag. p. 3. ISBN 978-3-656-09464-7. Retrieved 2012-02-13. Seit 1917 war Rudolf Bultmann, mit Helene (1892-1973), geb. Feldmann verheiratet und hatte mit ihr drei Töchter. [From 1917 Rudolf Bultmann was married to Helene née Feldman (1892-1973) and had three daughters with her.]
  5. Kelley, Shawn (2002). Racializing Jesus: Race, Ideology and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship. Routledge. p. 155. ISBN 0-415-15402-2.
  6. Kelley, Shawn (2002). Racializing Jesus: Race, Ideology and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship. Routledge. pp. 155–156. ISBN 0-415-15402-2.
  7. Theology As History and Hermeneutics by Laurence W. Wood (Mar 20, 2005) ISBN 0975543555 page 113
  8. Bultmann Unlocked by Tim Labron (Jan 13, 2011) ISBN 0567031535 pages 43-44
  9. Mournet, Terence C. (2005). Oral Tradition and Literary Dependency: Variability and Stability in the Synoptic Tradition and Q. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, ISSN 0340-9570. 195. Mohr Siebeck. p. 56. ISBN 9783161484544. Retrieved 2016-05-05.
  10. Rudolf Bultmann, "New Testament and Mythology," in Craig A. Evans (ed), The Historical Jesus: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Volume 1, Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-32751-2, p. 328.
  11. Bultmann, Rudolf. New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings. ed. Schubert M. Ogden. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984. pg 3
  12. Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John, p. 155
  13. Compare: Bultmann, Rudolf Karl (1985). Ogden, Schubert Miles, ed. New Testament and mythology and other basic writings. SCM Press Ltd. p. 28. Retrieved 2016-05-05. In the 'boasting' of Jews who are faithful to the law, just as in the boasting of Gnostics who are proud of their wisdom, it becomes clear that the basic human attitude is the highhandedness that tries to bring within our own power even the submission that we know to be our authentic being, and so finally ends in self-contradiction.
  14. ibid 26

Further reading

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