Rudolf Bultmann: A Critique

Rudolf Bultmann is hardly noticed in Biblical scholarship these days. Modern holders of versions of his ideas (the Jesus Seminar, for example) have taken much of the limelight he once held, and while he was not the full father of modern Skeptical/liberal biblical exegesis, but we can give him credit for being the one who systematized and popularized it for the early 20th century.

That isn't to say he doesn't have his admirers today. A survey of positive literature shows that he has some, and a few get quite enthusiastic when talking about him, to the point that they will highlight even his most irrational moments and say, "You may of course disagree with Bultmann on this point, but isn't he a genius for thinking of this?" Defending the idea in question, though, never seems to be part of the package.

I would probably be called remiss if I didn't note that Bultmann was a brave soul in his own right. He took some big risks by standing up to Nazi attempts to make it so that only Aryans could be ministers--no one can doubt that he was in many ways a sincere man with strong principles that he bravely stood for.

With that said, Bultmann's bravery in no way proves that his ideology was correct, no more than Gandhi's bravery proves Hinduism. One admirer of Bultmann says that while it may be legitimate to criticize Bultmann for his theology and exegesis, and it inappropriate to say that he was not a Christian; if we do, "it is only fair that (the critic) should answer the question whether he himself has risked so much for Christianity as Bultmann has." [Hen.RB, 3]

All right...what's the chain of logic here? "Christian" is defined as someone who risks himself for the sake of principles associated with Christian faith, even if he happens to say that most of what has been held to be orthodox Christianity is mythological?

So where did Bultmann get his ideas, and therefore, what is the true genesis of those who now hold his views? His ideas grew out of a certain radical historical skepticism that was in fashion in the 18th and 19th centuries -- at a time when the same sort of people declared that the entire works of Tacitus and Pliny were wholesale forgeries. (Greco-Roman scholarship has grown beyond this sort of thing; liberal Biblical scholarship hasn't caught on to the joke yet!)

This Skepticism attributed to the Biblical writers "the language of the childhood of the race (of man)" and "ignorance of causes and consequently an attributing of all events to God." [Hen.RB, 7] Or perhaps the critics just read the texts too woodenly: There is no doubt that the Jews considered God to be sovereign, and this of course led to language of attribution, since even if God does nothing, His sovereignty is such that doing nothing is an expression of His power; yet the critics seem to think that the Jews believed that God dropped every raindrop personally.

And yes, sadly, a degree of bigotry was involved: One early writer who had a profound influence on Bultmann's thought "had a radical distrust of orientals as eyewitnesses," [Hen.RB, 9] and other writers implicitly assumed that the recorders of Biblical history were too biased to be trusted -- whereas they assumed themselves to be paragons of objectivity.

I won't say that Bultmann went as far as bigotry, for there is no evidence that I have seen of it; yet he did accept uncritically the thought of those who preceded him, and that was enough to lay the foundation for what became his methods of form criticism.

Philosophically, much of Bultmann's thought can be traced to a way of thinking called existentialism -- a very broad range of thought, one we won't bother explaining to any great extent, other than that it emphasized personal experiences and understandings. It is this way of thinking that ultimately led to the last two of the three Bultmaniann methods we shall discuss below.

We can close by looking at some samples of the ways in which Bultmann treated certain Biblical stories. We'll start with Mark 3:1-6:

And he entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand. And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him. And he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth. And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace. And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other. And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.

Bultmann writes, "...we have some editorial trimming in the concluding v. 6 which reveal a biographical interest otherwise alien to the conflict and didactic sayings, and which is not relevant to the main point of the story--the principle involved in healing on the Sabbath." [Bult.HST, 15]

Really, now? Why is this "alien" to the conflict and the sayings? Just because it represents a change in subject? Any such change could be labeled an "editorial trimming" by someone with a preconceived idea of floating literary forms. Bultmann never explains why the "biographical interest" is "alien"; he merely says that it is, with no logical explanation.

The implication of the story is that Jesus had at previous times healed on the Sabbath ("he entered again") and what we have here is something of an examining committee composed of Pharisees that came specifically to check out the reports ("they watched him"...why would they do this, unless they had been told that something was going on?).

V. 6 is far from "alien" to this context; it is a natural outcome of Jesus' actions. Mark does indeed place it in a standard sort of form, but this is what we would expect in a pre-literate society. The form says nothing about the genuineness of the story as a whole, or about v. 6, and this is where Bultmann's logic simply breaks down.

Now let's consider what Bultmann had to say about Mark 2:23-28:

And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the showbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.

Bultmann asserts that this passage is "the work of the Church," for "Jesus is questioned about the disciples' behaviour; why not about his own?" Hence, the logic is apparently, the church was justifying their own behavior, and in the process created this story out of whole cloth (again, rather than selecting it from an authentic witness, which is never an option for Bultmann), apparently forgetting that they left the door open to say that Jesus behaved always the way the Pharisees wanted, while his disciples didn't, and that they were therefore rogues from their master.

But what about other more practical options? That Jesus may not have picked grain himself because a) he wasn't hungry or b) one of his loyal disciples offered to do it for him (or maybe, some of them did it for the group) isn't even considered; natural variations in human behavior just aren't considered by Bultmann.

Of course, Bultmann does go on to point to parallel sorts of passages as evidence of churchly invention: Mark 2:18 "And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?"

This no more means that Jesus did not fast than it means that John or the Pharisees did not. A teacher was considered responsible for the behavior of his disciples, so that the implication is that the disciples behaved as they did because of what Jesus did (or did not) teach them.

Beyond that, since the church would be "inventing" this statement in the context of a time when the bridegroom was no longer with them (v. 20), and they would fast, why would they now need to excuse their past behavior in not fasting? Bultmann is simply drawing false conclusions without considering the context of such statements as a whole.

In may ask, why on earth would anyone want a Jesus without a Resurrection, or miraculous power, or godhood; one who never claimed to be Messiah, never predicted his passion? An admirer of Bultmann excuses this by saying that "such a portrait of Jesus may be inadequate but it is at least relevant." [Hen.RB, 43]

To which I say: It serves us no good purpose to remake God in our image and likeness. The theology of Rudolf Bultmann was based upon Bultmann's inability to come to terms with the truth and with a Jesus that strongly conflicted with his own worldview. The world does not decide what Jesus should be like, and our own personal issues do not dictate history and what is real.

Bultmann, who was so intent upon dismissing the NT records as offering an imputed myth, did no more than impose his own modern, soon-to-be-irrelevant myths upon the text. How much different is the Jesus Seminar?


Rudolf Bultmann Analyzes Serbo-Croatian Poetry

Proponents of Bultmannian psychoanalysis of the Biblical text are fond of comparing every word in the Synoptic Gospels and hypothesizing all manner of psychological motives for the differences. They also often claim that Mark, Luke and Matthew were ideological enemies that subtly altered words and phrases to attack each others' points of view.

It just so happens that normal variations in oral tradition are more prosaic explanations for such variables. But let's see what would have happened if Bultmann, rather than oral tradition specialist Albert Lord, had gotten to these two Serbocroation ballads first.

A Bultmannian Analysis of the Serbocroatian folk song,"The Captivity of Djulic Ibrahim"

There are two versions of this song, and by comparing them we can determine exactly what the two writers were thinking and how their communities hated each other. The first lines come from the "Type A" community and the second lines come from the "Type B" community:

  • One morning it had just dawned/One morning it had dawned

    What we see here is that the Type A community is full of precision-minded and detail-obsessed people. They saw a need to specify that it had "just" dawned. The persons in this community were obviously filled with rage and hated the B community for their lack of precision. We will see more examples of this as we progress.

  • In Zadar the cannon are booming/(same)
  • Two together, thirty at once/(no parallel)

    Once again the Type A community's obsession with numbers and details emerges. The A community obviously replaced the line below with this one to emphasize their concern for numbers and spit in the B community's eye. It is clear that B preceded A of course, since lack of precision always precedes precision in social development.

  • (no parallel)/The earth and the mountains tremble

    This is the original line, which the A community removed. The B community obviously held primitive ideas about geography and plate tectonics and a primitive superstition about mountain gods that the more scientific and precise A community disdained.

  • The governor of Zadar is rejoicing/(same)
  • He has captured the servant/He has captured the renegade

    An important political statement is being made here, as the A community clearly associates the word "renegade" with deviancy and thus uses the more humble and obedient "servant" to stress order in society.

  • Radojica/Radovan

    Obviously there was some floating tradition originally associated with a "Radovan" in the B story, which has been lost. The A community, troubled by the lack of precision, changed this into a repeat of the hero's name.

  • Radojica, the Turkish lackey/(same)
  • And thrown him into the cold prison/(same)
  • When Rako came into the prison/When Rako came into the dungeon

    A clear case of more sophisticated humanitarianism by the A community, which exchanges the more primitive "dungeon" with "prison" thus removing all hints of torture and ill treatment, replaced with a sense of justice and rehabilitation.

  • There he found thirty Turks/(same)
  • And among them Djulic Ibrahim/(same)
  • And next to him Velagic Selim/And by him Velagic Selim

    The "next to" is far more personable than the "by" and indicates the higher degree of humanity in the A community.

  • And his thirty-two comrades/(same)
  • Rako gave them greeting/Rako came in, and gave them greeting

    The B group here shows it's lack of intelligence, as it adds a redundant "came in" which is obvious from the context.

  • And the Turks returned it./And all returned it.

    A greater level of personablity shown by the A community, which identifies and humanizes persons by respecting their community identity, rather than depersonalizing them with a generic "all". Now we will see the same process in our analysis of "Marko Kraljevic and Musa the Highwayman":

  • (no parallel)/Oj! Dear God, thanks to you for all things!

    The B community has a more primitive religious view that requires them to add such statements to their stories. The A community is far more religiously sophisticated.

  • Musa the Albanian is drinking wine/Musa the highwayman is drinking wine

    Here again the B community shows itself to be more primitive, referring to Musa crudely as a "highwayman" whereas the more sophisticated A community humanizes Musa by referring to him in terms of his national identity.

  • In Istanbul in the white tavern/(same)
  • When Musa had had his fill of wine/When Musa had drunk his fill of wine

    Predictably the A community, more reserved, removes the word "drunk" which suggests inebriation. The more sophisticated A writer only has Musa drink his "fill" which implies moderation. Behind this lies a concern in the A community for overindulgence in alcohol.

  • Then, drunk, he began to speak/Then, drunk, he began to say:

    The more verbally sophisticated A community replaces "say" with "speak" as parts of its programme to correct the unsophisticated language of the B community, who it hates.

  • (no parallel)/"Dear God, thanks for all things!"

    See line 1 re religious sentiments.

  • "It is now nine years/"It is now nine years of days

    The "nine years of days" obviously represents a primitive timekeeping formula of the B community, corrected again by the A writer.

  • That I have been serving the sultan in Istanbul/(same)
  • I have not been paid a horse or arms/I have not been paid money or dinars

    The A writer again humanizes Musa by making him desirous of practical sustenance, as opposed to cash. The greed represented in the B version is a vice that is not tolerated in the A community.

  • Nor a coat, new or used/Nor clothes, new or used

    The A writer uses "coat" to remove the implication in the B version that not having clothes, Musa has been running around stark naked. Public nudity was apparently acceptable in the B community.

  • But by my firm faith/But by my firm faith, And may no mother have borne me, But a horse, some bedoiun mare,

    The A community was clearly offended by the implication of bestiality in the B version.

  • I shall withdraw to the level coastland/O, I shall withdraw to the level coastland

    The A community saw no need for the sort of pithy exclamations used by the B community and deleted it.

  • I shall close the landing places on the sea/(same)
  • And the roads in the coastland."/(same)

    In closing, we have clearly seen that there were two communities at odds with one another along lines of sophistication. The more precise and polite A community stood against the crude and obnoxious B community, and represented an evolutionary step forward for the Serbocroatians. B certainly is more primitive than, and therefore pre-dates, A.

    1. Bult.HST -- Bultmann, Rudolf. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
    2. Bult.JM -- Bultmann, Rudolf. Jesus Christ and Mythology. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.
    3. Hen.RB -- Henderson, Ian. Rudolf Bultmann. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1965.