Rudolf Karl Bultmann   1884-1976

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A giant among 20th c. NT scholars. The son of a German Lutheran pastor, Bultmann studied at Tübingen & Berlin before becoming a student of two eminent gospel scholars at Marburg:

  • Johannes Weiss, who focused modern attention on the importance of eschatology; &

  • Adolf Jülicher, who revolutionized the interpretation of Jesus' parables.

Both of these influences left an indelible mark on Bultmann's own research on the gospels. In 1921 he returned to Marburg as professor of NT, a position he held for the next 30 years, where he proceeded to produce a long string of ground-breaking books:

1921 - The History of the Synoptic Tradition (which is still the basic sourcebook on form criticism);

1925 - The Idea of Revelation in the NT (an analysis of biblical theology, whose thesis that "revelation is an act of God, an event not a supernatural communication of knowledge" launched the neo-Orthodox theological concept of word-event);

1926 - Jesus & the Word (an essay in historical theology, characterizing the focus of Jesus' message as a prophetic call to decision);

1941 - The Gospel of John: A Commentary (pioneering application of source criticism to the composition of the 4th gospel, in which he distinguished a Jewish "signs source" from gnostic discourses);

1941 - NT & Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the NT Message (a programmatic lecture calling NT interpreters to replace ancient cosmology with the existential philosophy of Bultmann's colleague, Martin Heidegger);

1948-53 - Theology of the NT (his monumental 2 volume history of the first century of Christian ideas from Jesus to Justin Martyr).

The impact of each of these works on biblical interpretation was evident for several decades after their publication. Each provoked long scholarly debates between Bultmann's disciples & critics.

Bultmann himself was that rare creative thinker who is always two steps ahead of his followers. Before others could digest his last book, he had moved on to other projects. He attracted a long line of top students, not only from the European continent but from England & the US, insuring his permanent impact on NT studies around the globe. But he was the type of teacher who encouraged innovative research by his students to correct his own theses. Thus, in 1954 (just three years after Bultmann retired) his disciple, Ernst Käsemann reopened the quest of the historical Jesus that Bultmann's form critical research had halted three decades earlier. Yet, to the end Bultmann himself maintained his conviction that the gospels were not history but theology in story form:

There is no historical-biographical interest in the Gospels, and that is why they have nothing to say about Jesus' human personality, his appearance and character, his origin, education and development....

...they do not tell of a much admired human personality, but of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Lord of the Church, and do so because they have grown out of Christian worship and remain tied to it. [The History of the Synoptic Tradition, (ET Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963), pp. 372-73].

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last revised 28 October 2021

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