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Rudolf Bultmann

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Rudolf Bultmann
Rudolf Bultmann Portrait.jpg
Rudolf Karl Bultmann

(1884-08-20)20 August 1884
Died30 July 1976(1976-07-30) (aged 91)
Helene Feldmann
(m. 1917; died 1973)
Academic background
Alma materUniversity of Marburg
ThesisDer Stil der paulinischen Predigt und die kynisch-stoische Diatribe[1] (1910)
Doctoral advisorJohannes Weiss
Academic work
School or traditionDialectical theology
InstitutionsUniversity of Marburg
Doctoral students

Rudolf Karl Bultmann (German: [ˈbʊltman]; 20 August 1884 – 30 July 1976) was a German Lutheran theologian and professor of the New Testament at the University of Marburg. He was one of the major figures of early-20th-century biblical studies. A prominent critic of liberal theology, Bultmann instead argued for an existentialist interpretation of the New Testament. His hermeneutical approach to the New Testament led him to be a proponent of dialectical theology.

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.[11] Bultmann argued that all that matters is the "thatness," not the "whatness" of Jesus,[a] i.e. only that Jesus existed, preached, and died by crucifixion matters, not what happened throughout his life.[12]

Bultmann relied on demythologization, an approach interpreting 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.[13]

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Bultmann was born on 20 August 1884 in Wiefelstede, Oldenburg, the son of Arthur Kennedy Bultmann, a Lutheran minister.[14] He did his Abitur at the Altes Gymnasium in the city of 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[4] from Marburg with a dissertation on the Epistles of St Paul written under the supervision of Johannes Weiss.[15] He also studied under Hermann Gunkel and Wilhelm Heitmüller.[16] After submitting a habilitation two years later, he became a lecturer on the New Testament at Marburg.

Bultmann married Helene Feldmann on 6 August 1917.[17] The couple had three daughters.[18] Bultmann's wife died in 1973.[17]

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. His doctoral students included Hans Jonas,[19] Ernst Käsemann,[20] Günther Bornkamm,[21] Helmut Koester,[22] and Ernst Fuchs. He also taught Hannah Arendt. From autumn 1944 until the end of the Second World War in 1945 he took into his family Uta Ranke-Heinemann, who had fled the bombs and destruction in Essen.

Bultmann became friends with Martin Heidegger who taught at Marburg for five years. Heidegger's views on existentialism had an influence on Bultmann's thinking.[23] What arose from this friendship was a "sort of comradery" grounded on an active and open dialogue between Bultmann and Heidegger from 1923 to 1928.[24] 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."[25]

He was critical of Nazism from the beginning and his career between 1933 and 1941 was marked by a series of struggles with Nazis regarding their influence upon the universities and the Protestant Church. As a Lutheran who held that the Church could not expect the Nazi State to be Christian, he did not directly denounce its anti-Semitism. But he objected to its claim to have authority over all aspects of German life including the universities and the Protestant church[26] and believed it was his responsibility to preach that it was unChristian, especially after Heidegger gave his pro-Nazi rectorial address in 1933.[27] He particularly rejected the Aryan paragraph that disenfranchised all people racially Jewish from civic organizations and many professions including clergy, entailing defrocking any Christian clergy with Jewish ancestry.[28] He stated that the Aryan paragraph was "incompatible with the essence of the Christian church",[29] since the church made no distinction between Jew and Gentile. He joined the Confessing Church,[30] a Protestant movement in Nazi Germany that arose in opposition to government-sponsored efforts to unify all Protestant churches into a single pro-Nazi Reich Church.[31][32]

Bultmann received many honors during and after his career, including honorary doctorates from many universities and elections to honorary societies.[33] In 1974, the Federal Republic granted him the highest level of the Order of Merit.

He died on 30 July 1976 in Marburg.[34]

Theological approaches

Bultmann's History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921) remains highly influential as a tool for biblical research, even among scholars[which?] 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."[35]

In 1941 Bultmann applied form criticism[b] 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[when?] 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 demythologize the New Testament; in particular he argued for replacing supernatural biblical interpretations with temporal and existential categorizations. His argument, in many ways, reflected a hermeneutical adaption of the existentialist thought of his colleague at the time, the philosopher Martin Heidegger. This approach led Bultmann to reject doctrines such as the pre-existence of Christ.[37] Bultmann believed his endeavors in this regard would make accessible to modern audiences — already immersed in science and technology — the significance (or existential quality) of Jesus' teachings. Bultmann thus thought of his endeavor of "demythologizing the New Testament proclamation" as fundamentally an evangelism 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.[38]

Bultmann saw theology in existential terms, and maintained that the New Testament was a radical text, worthy of understanding yet questioned in his time because of the prevailing Protestant conviction in a supernatural interpretation. 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".[39] 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."[40] 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 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."[41]

Bultmann carried form criticism so far as to call the historical value of the gospels into serious question.[16] Despite that, Bultmann was an outspoken opponent of the Christ myth theory. In his book Jesus and the Word, he wrote:

"Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community"[42]

Concerning the relationship between body, soul, and Spirit, he affirmed a monistic point of view.[43]

Legacy and criticism

Bultmann was an outstanding teacher, and he encouraged independence of mind among his students. The result was two major developments within the “Bultmann school.” In 1954 Ernst Käsemann raised “the question of the historical Jesus” (i.e., the question of the significance of knowledge of the historical Jesus for Christian faith), and a number of Bultmann’s pupils developed a position independent of their teacher’s on the matter. Then Ernst Fuchs and Gerhard Ebeling, building on Bultmann’s existentialist analysis, developed a method of interpreting the New Testament that emphasized the linguistic mode of human existence, giving birth to the so-called new hermeneutic. Bultmann himself took part in these discussions along with his pupils for as long as his health permitted, later living quietly in Marburg, where he died in 1976.[34]

Posthumously, Bultmann’s approach to the New Testament has been subject to increasing criticism, which has led modern scholars to overcome his theorems.[44] According to the theologian and historian of Christianity Larry Hurtado, Bultmann "approached the ancient Christian texts with a theological criterion, a particular formulation of justification by faith, which he used to judge whether the writings were valid or not."[45] John P. Meier believes that Bultmann had a "disconcerting way of solving problems with a few evasive sentences, his arguments do not hold up, despite having been handed down for generations."[46] Bart D. Ehrman, while agreeing with some of Bultmann's positions, underlines that "among our ranks there are no more form critics that agree with the theories of Bultmann, the pioneer of this interpretation".[47] According to Werner H. Kelber, "Today it is no exaggeration to claim that a whole spectrum of main assumptions underlying Bultmann's Synoptic Tradition must be considered suspect."[48]

Bultmann's skeptical approach to the New Testament has received criticism from conservative biblical scholars like Klaus Berger and Craig Blomberg.[49][50] Form criticism, in particular, has been challenged in recent years by Martin Hengel, Richard Bauckham and Brant J. Pitre, who have reasserted the traditional theory that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses.[51][52][53]

Selected works

  • Bultmann, Rudolf K. (1921). Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition. - German original
    • ——— (1976). History of the Synoptic Tradition. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco. ISBN 0-06-061172-3. (seminal work on form criticism)
  • ——— (1926). Jesus. - German original
  • ——— (1941). Neues Testament und Mythologie. - German original
  • ——— (1941). Das Evangelium des Johannes. - German original
  • ——— (1948). Theologie des Neuen Testaments. - German original
  • ——— (1949). Das Urchristentum im Rahmen der Antiken Religionen. - German original
  • ——— (1954). Die Frage der Entmythologisierung. - German original
  • ——— (1957). History and Eschatology: The Presence of Eternity (1954–55 Gifford Lectures). Edinburgh: University Press. ISBN 978-0-85224-103-5. OCLC 752549.
  • ——— (1958). Jesus Christ and Mythology (Cole lectures, Vanderbilt University, Kent Shaffer memorial lectures). Scribner Library (series) - Lyceum editions. Vol. SL73. New York & London: Scribner. ISBN 978-0-684-71727-2. OCLC 383108.


  1. ^ For a similar epistemological comparison, see haeccity and quiddity.
  2. ^ "Form criticism" in this instance is a tenet of Hegelian dialectics of which Bultmann applied to theology. The dialectic of Form and Content is explained by Hegel using an example of a book: a book's Form (whether or not it was handwritten, or a hardback copy, etc.), cannot neither determine nor influence its inner Content, yet, at the same time, that Content requires a form to be read.[36]



  1. ^ Bultmann 1910; Porter 2016, p. 58.
  2. ^ Congdon 2015b, p. 315; Wildman 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d Hobbs 1985, p. 63.
  4. ^ a b c Wildman 2018.
  5. ^ Congdon 2015a, p. 89; Dorrien 2003, p. 49; McKnight 2005, p. 271.
  6. ^ Jensen 2014, pp. 136–138.
  7. ^ Hobbs 1985, p. 63; Wildman 2018.
  8. ^ a b c Pagliarino 2018.
  9. ^ Geering, Lloyd (2013). "Theology before and after Bishop Robinson's Honest to God" (PDF). Sea of Faith Network. Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  10. ^ Monk 2011.
  11. ^ Broadhead 2011, pp. 1170–1172.
  12. ^ Borg 1994, p. 187; Broadhead 2011, pp. 1170–1172.
  13. ^ Bultmann 1991, pp. 94–95; Cross & Livingstone 2005, p. 252.
  14. ^ Dennison 2008, pp. 7, 14.
  15. ^ Porter 2016, p. 58; Watson & Hauser 1994, p. 104.
  16. ^ a b Cross & Livingstone 2005, p. 252.
  17. ^ a b Dennison 2008, p. 101.
  18. ^ Meier 2011, p. 3.
  19. ^ Jonas 1982, pp. 1–2; Markschies 2014, p. 23.
  20. ^ Zetterholm 2009, p. 78.
  21. ^ Schild 2016, p. 89.
  22. ^ Busse 2014, p. 44.
  23. ^ Wood 2005, p. 113.
  24. ^ Woodson 2018, p. 61.
  25. ^ Labron 2011, pp. 43–44.
  26. ^ Hammann 2013, kindle 6295.
  27. ^ Hammann 2013, kindle 6268.
  28. ^ Hammann 2013, kindle 6354.
  29. ^ Hammann 2013, kindle 6647.
  30. ^ Kelley 2002, p. 155.
  31. ^ "Germany". Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Archived from the original on 12 October 2013. Retrieved 29 December 2011. See drop-down essay on "Unification, World Wars, and Nazism"
  32. ^ Ericksen 2012, p. 28.
  33. ^ Hammann 2013, kindle 11731.
  34. ^ a b "Rudolf Bultmann | German theologian". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 7 September 2021.
  35. ^ Mournet 2005, p. 56.
  36. ^ Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1969). Miller, Arthur V. (ed.). The Science of Logic. London: George Allen & Unwin. p. 3 § 989. Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  37. ^ Bultmann 2004, p. 328.
  38. ^ Bultmann 1984, p. 3.
  39. ^ Bultmann 1984, p. 28.
  40. ^ Bultmann 1984, p. 26.
  41. ^ Bultmann 1971, p. 155.
  42. ^ Bultmann, Rudolf (1958). Jesus and the Word. Scribner. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-684-14390-3.
  43. ^ Martine C.L. Oldhoff (2018). The Soul in the Bible: Monism in Biblical Scholarship? Analysing Biblical Studies from a Systematic Point of View (PDF). p. 154.
  44. ^ Longenecker, Bruce W.; Parsons, Mikeal Carl (2014). Beyond Bultmann: Reckoning a New Testament Theology. Baylor University Press. ISBN 978-1-4813-0041-4.
  45. ^ Longenecker, Bruce W.; Parsons, Mikeal Carl (2014). Beyond Bultmann: Reckoning a New Testament Theology. Baylor University Press. ISBN 978-1-4813-0041-4.
  46. ^ Meier, John P. (1991). A Marginal Jew: Mentor, message, and miracles. Doubleday. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-385-46992-0.
  47. ^ Ehrman, Bart D. (20 March 2012). Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Harper Collins. p. 86. ISBN 978-0-06-208994-6.
  48. ^ Kelber, W. H. (1997). The Oral and Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 8.
  49. ^ Berger, Klaus (26 April 2013). Die Bibelfälscher: Wie wir um die Wahrheit betrogen werden (in German). Pattloch eBook. ISBN 978-3-629-32004-9.
  50. ^ Blomberg, Craig L. (6 May 2014). The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. InterVarsity Press. ISBN 978-0-8308-9809-1.
  51. ^ Richard, Bauckham (2017). Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2d ed. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-7431-3.
  52. ^ Hengel, Martin (2000). The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Collection and Origin of the Canonical Gospels. SCM Press. ISBN 978-0-334-02759-1.
  53. ^ Pitre, Brant (2 February 2016). The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ. Crown Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-7704-3549-3.
  54. ^ "Jesus and the Word - online". Archived from the original on 2 March 2007. Retrieved 11 April 2019.
  55. ^ "Kerygma and Myth: a theological debate". Retrieved 11 April 2019.


Further reading

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