Bultmann Offers a Controversial Interpretation of the Christian Scriptures

Rudolf Bultmann stripped the Christian Scriptures of their supernatural elements to present a Christian existentialist reading of the life and message of Jesus. His manifesto for this “demythologization” project and the first of his many works that pursued this goal was New Testament and Mythology.

Summary of Event

Academia’s systematic challenge to the literal truth of the Bible began when David Friedrich Strauss published Leben Jesu
Life of Jesus, The (Strauss) (1835; The Life of Jesus, 1836-1843). Other authors before Strauss had written biographies of Jesus, but Strauss was the first to use philosophical methods to seek the historical Jesus and question Christ’s divinity, miracles, and other supernatural qualities. Bruno Bauer Bauer, Bruno continued in a similar antimythological vein with Die Religion des Alten Testaments in der geschichtlichen Entwicklung ihrer Principien dargestellt (1838; the religion of the Old Testament presented in the historical development of its principles), Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte des Johannes (1840; critique of the Gospel of John), and Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte der Synoptiker (1841; critique of the Synoptic Gospels). New Testament and Mythology (Bultmann)
[kw]Bultmann Offers a Controversial Interpretation of the Christian Scriptures (1941)
[kw]Controversial Interpretation of the Christian Scriptures, Bultmann Offers a (1941)
[kw]Christian Scriptures, Bultmann Offers a Controversial Interpretation of the (1941)
[kw]Interpretation of the Christian Scriptures, Bultmann Offers a Controversial (1941)
New Testament and Mythology (Bultmann)
[g]Europe;1941: Bultmann Offers a Controversial Interpretation of the Christian Scriptures[00030]
[g]Germany;1941: Bultmann Offers a Controversial Interpretation of the Christian Scriptures[00030]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;1941: Bultmann Offers a Controversial Interpretation of the Christian Scriptures[00030]
[c]Philosophy;1941: Bultmann Offers a Controversial Interpretation of the Christian Scriptures[00030]
Bultmann, Rudolf
Barth, Karl
Heidegger, Martin
Jaspers, Karl
Tillich, Paul
Eckhart, Johannes
Gadamer, Hans-Georg
Bauer, Bruno
Gunkel, Hermann
Harnack, Adolf von
Ritschl, Albrecht
Strauss, David Friedrich

In the late nineteenth century, Albrecht Ritschl’s Die Christliche Lehre von der Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung
Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, The (Ritschl) (1870-1874; The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, 1872-1900) set the tone for liberal Protestant theology by emphasizing spiritual values grounded in historical fact and practical considerations. He relegated devotion, worship, and belief in dogma to secondary status. Inspired by Ritschl’s work, Adolf von Harnack’s Dogmengeschichte
History of Dogma (Harnack) (1885; History of Dogma, 1892-1900) and Wesen des Christentums
What Is Christianity? (Harnack) (1900; What Is Christianity?, 1901) stressed the need for each believer to understand Christianity objectively as part of all human history.

Hermann Gunkel’s Die Sagen der Genesis
Legends of Genesis (Gunkel) (1901; The Legends of Genesis, 1901) inaugurated the “higher criticism” of the Bible. Biblical criticism Gunkel parsed the book of Genesis into its component forms and reasoned that the form of each text would reveal the original religious purpose of the ancient Hebrews as they experienced their faith. Such textual analysis of Scripture soon evolved into several varieties: Form criticism followed Gunkel in trying to discover the life situations of small units of text, whether narratives, prayers, hymns, legal decrees, or genealogies. Historical criticism compared biblical texts with contemporary documents from other ancient cultures. Literary criticism was similar to the methods that scholars apply to modern novels and poems. Redaction criticism probed the editorial process by which the Bible was compiled.

Rudolf Bultmann studied under both Harnack and Gunkel at the University of Berlin between 1903 and 1906 and became adept in form criticism. As he began his own university career, Bultmann learned to seek, not the historical or theological data itself, but the significance of the data for both its own time and his. A key fact for Bultmann was that Christianity arose in a Hellenistic world. Without Greek influence, it would have been quite different. Accordingly, to prepare to reinterpret the Christian Scriptures Christian Scriptures , or New Testament, along form-critical lines, he immersed himself in the study of Greek intellectual and cultural movements that were contemporary with Christ, especially Gnosticism.

Bultmann taught at the University of Marburg from 1921 until he retired in 1951. Martin Heidegger was there from 1923 to 1928. Heidegger sought to reveal true being by examining, or “deconstructing,” the language in which the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers first expressed it. This strategy of dissecting words to determine what they originally meant would pervade literary Literary theory and social criticism in the late twentieth century. Evidence exists that Bultmann and Heidegger influenced each other in their early careers. In the 1930’s, Bultmann committed himself to the problem of reinterpreting the language of the New Testament in order to jettison the supernatural aspects of Jesus’ life and message (kerygma) and present the Gospels as a more realistic or believable set of stories Kerygmatic theology .

Bultmann’s little manifesto, Neues Testament und Mythologie: Das Problem der Entmythologisierung der neutestamentlichen Verkündigung (1941; New Testament and Mythology: The Task of Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation, 1953), sparked extensive controversy as soon as it was published. One commentator, Julius Schniewind, characterized the immediate reaction among German theologians as “a storm of indignant repudiation.” Several of these rebuttals and Bultmann’s counterrebuttal were collected and published as Kerygma und Mythos
Kerygma and Myth (Bultmann et al.) (1952; Kerygma and Myth, 1953). Bultmann’s book Das Evangelium des Johannes
Gospel of John, The (Bultmann) (1941; The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1971) contained a similar message. Bultmann simply saw no point in having any element of the supernatural in what was essentially each believer’s personal spiritual quest.

The English-speaking world first became aware of Bultmann’s demythologization project through his Theologie des Neuen Testaments
Theology of the New Testament (Bultmann) (1948-1953; Theology of the New Testament, 1951-1955). This was Bultmann’s most important book, not only for demythologization but also for kerygmatic (“message-centered”) theology in general. The first part examined Jesus’ message through the lens of Gnostic motifs and other contemporary cultural phenomena. The second, third, and fourth parts performed similar analyses of the respective theologies of Saint Paul, Saint John, and the early church communities.


Christian existentialism Existentialism;Christian theology was a major force in twentieth century thought. Its goal was to reinvent Christianity to focus on the faith experience of individual believers in ordinary life situations, rather than on doctrine, myth, miracles, church history, canon law, or any other aspect of religion that would not immediately resonate with modern rationality. It did not exclude mysticism but still asserted that anything supernatural would be within the heart of the believer, rather than in universal history or cosmology. Christian existentialists often cited Meister Eckhart’s belief that the soul of each human being is a “spark of the divine” and that each and every person thus contains all of God’s essence deep within him or her.

The two greatest exponents of Christian existentialism were Bultmann, who based his version on a naturalistic reinterpretation of the Christian Scriptures, and Paul Tillich, who based his on a philosophical reinterpretation of five centuries of Protestant theological tradition. Bultmann’s Das Urchristentum im Rahmen der antiken Religionen
Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting (Bultmann) (1949; Primitive Christianity in its Contemporary Setting, 1956) and Tillich’s The Courage to Be
Courage to Be, The (Tillich) (1952) were the main books of this movement.

Bultmann’s mission to supersede literal understandings of the supernatural events described in Scripture appealed to intellectuals, liberal thinkers, and progressive churchgoers but irked conservative believers—especially those who regarded the Bible as without internal error or contradiction. Bultmann, however, earned the respect of some conservative theologians, such as Karl Barth, who carried on a long and fruitful correspondence with him. Barth’s neo-orthodox theology of crisis had much in common with Christian existentialism’s emphasis on the subjective implications of Christ’s message, even if Barth and Bultmann could not agree on what that message was, on who Christ was, or on the nature of divinity.

Bultmann’s demythologization project influenced philosophy as well as theology. Unlike the theological response, the philosophical response to Bultmann was almost entirely affirmative. Karl Jaspers and Bultmann co-authored Die Frage der Entmythologisierung
Myth and Christianity (Jaspers and Bultmann) (1954; Myth and Christianity: An Inquiry into the Possibility of Religion Without Myth, 1958), and Hans-Georg Gadamer, Heidegger’s student, cited Bultmann favorably in his masterpiece of philosophical hermeneutics, Wahrheit und Methode (1960; Truth and Method, 1975). New Testament and Mythology (Bultmann)

Further Reading

  • Baird, William. The History of New Testament Research: From Jonathan Edwards to Rudolf Bultmann. Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Fortress, 2003. Endorses Bultmann’s early form-critical work, but disapproves of demythologization and criticizes Bultmann’s skepticism about Jesus.
  • Barth, Karl, and Rudolf Bultmann. Letters, 1922-1966. Edited by Bernd Jaspert and Geoffrey William Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1981. Insight into the lives and personalities of two giants of twentieth century theology.
  • Fergusson, David. Rudolf Bultmann. London: Continuum, 2000. Brief biographical appraisal of Bultmann’s writings.
  • Harrisville, Roy A., and Walter Sundberg. The Bible in Modern Culture: Theology and Historical-Critical Method from Spinoza to Käsemann. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995. Incisive chapter on Bultmann engages him with his predecessors and contemporaries.
  • Johnson, Roger A. The Origins of Demythologizing: Philosophy and Historiography in the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1974. Compares Enlightenment, Neo-Kantian, religionsgeschichtliche (history of religions), and existentialist conceptions of myth.
  • Livingston, James C. Modern Christian Thought from the Enlightenment to Vatican II. New York: Macmillan, 1971. An intellectual history that clearly places Bultmann and other thinkers in context relative to one another.
  • Miegge, Giovanni. Gospel and Myth in the Thought of Rudolf Bultmann. Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1960. Argues that Bultmann the existentialist is more valuable to Christian theology than Bultmann the demythologizer.
  • Ogden, Schubert Miles. Christ Without Myth: A Study Based on the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1991. Proposes several alternatives to Bultmann’s project of demythologization.

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