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Rudolf Karl Bultmann (August 20, 1884 – July 30, 1976) was a Germanmarker theologian of Lutheran background, who was for three decades professor of New Testament studies at the University of Marburgmarker. He defined an almost complete split between history and faith, writing that only the bare fact of Christ crucified was necessary for Christian faith.


Bultmann was born in Wiefelstedemarker, Oldenburg, the son of a Lutheran minister. He got an Abitur from the Altes Gymnasium in Oldenburgmarker. He studied theology at Tübingenmarker. After three terms, Bultmann went to the University of Berlinmarker for two terms, and finally to Marburgmarker 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. After brief lectureships at Breslaumarker and Giessenmarker, he returned to Marburg in 1921 as a full professor. He stayed there until his retirement in 1951. From autumn 1944 until the end of the war 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. Ernst Käsemann, Günther Bornkamm, Hannah Arendt and Helmut Koester were among his students.

He was a member of the Confessing Church 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 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.

Bultmann preached sermons at Marburg, addressing the university community during the war and post-war gloom. Bultmann's preaching fused rigor with pastoral passion, emphasizing both the suffering and the promise revealed in divine grace: "And is all that I have been saying a Christian sermon about the grace of God? Most surely; for the message of divine grace does not suggest that the cross will be spared us, but rather that the cross itself is grace; that God slays in order to make alive. And real genuine patience of disposition consists in this- in our readiness to hear, in the 'no' by which God negates our desires and our will, His secret 'yes.'"

Beliefs regarding Jesus

His History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921) is still highly regarded as an essential tool for gospel research, even by scholars who reject his analyses of the conventional rhetorical pericopes or narrative units of which the Gospels are assembled, and the historically-oriented principles called "form criticism," of which Bultmann has been the most influential exponent:

"The aim of form-criticism 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."

In 1941, he 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. This monograph, highly controversial at the time, is 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 with the temporal and existential categories of Bultmann's colleague, Martin Heidegger. 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"
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." Standing against all human highhandedness 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." Bultmann remained convinced the narratives of the life of Jesus were offering theology in story form. Lessons were taught 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."

He carried form-criticism so far as to call the historical value of the gospels into serious question. 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). The conservative and confessing Lutheran theologian, Walter Kunneth provided some interesting insights on Bultmann in his Die Theologie der Auferstehung.

Selected works

  • Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (1921, 1931)
    • History of the Synoptic Tradition, Harper San Francisco, 1976, ISBN 0-06-061172-3 (seminal work on form criticism)
  • Jesus (1926)
    • Jesus and the Word, New York, London, C. Scribner’s sons, 1934, online
    • Jesus Christ and Mythology, Prentice Hall, 1997, ISBN 0-02-305570-7
  • Neues Testament und Mythologie (1941)
    • The New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1984, ISBN 0-8006-2442-4
    • Kerygma and Myth by Rudolf Bultmann and Five Critics (1953) London: S.P.C.K., HarperCollins 2000 edition: ISBN 0-06-130080-2, online edition (contains the essay "The New Testament and Mythology" with critical analyses and Bultmann's response)
  • Das Evangelium des Johannes (1941)
    • The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, 1971, ISBN 0-664-20893-2
  • Theologie des Neuen Testaments (1948–53)
    • Theology of the New Testament: Complete in One Volume, Prentice Hall, 1970, ISBN 0-02-305580-4
  • Das Urchristentum im Rahmen der Antiken Religionen (1949)
  • Religion without Myth (coauthored with Karl Jaspers) (1954)
    • Myth & Christianity: An Inquiry Into The Possibility Of Religion Without Myth, translation 1958 by Noonday Press, Prometheus Books, 2005, ISBN 1-59102-291-6. In this dialogue with philosopher Jaspers, Jaspers first makes the case that Christianity can not be understood apart from its mythical framework, and that myth is necessary form of communication through symbol. Bultmann responds that modern scientific analysis of the text is required to separate the genuine from the miraculous claims, thereby revealing the true message.
  • History and Eschatology: The Presence of Eternity (1954–55 Gifford lectures), Harper, 1962 ,Greenwood Publishers, 1975: ISBN 0-8371-8123-2

Notes and references

Further readings

  • The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, and Roland E. Murphy, Prentice Hall 1990, update of 1968 edition, see John S. Kselman and Ronald D. Witherup, "Modern New Testament Criticism," sections II & III on Bultmann and reactions, pp. 1137-1142.
  • R. Bultmann, Existence and Faith. Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, edited and translated by S. M. Ogden, London, 1961, (Meridian Books in USA)
  • R. Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, translated by L. P. Smith and E. H. Lantero, London, 1952. Available online at [59124]
  • R. Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Writings, edited and translated by S. M. Ogden, London, 1984.
  • D. Fergusson, Bultmann, London, 1992.
  • Reginald H. Fuller, The Foundations of New Testament Christology, New York, 1965.
  • Edgar V. McKnight, What is Form Criticism (Guides to Biblical Scholarship, New Testament Series), Fortress Press, 1969.

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