A Christmas message, or does it matter if the Bible is myth?

A Christmas message, or does it matter if the Bible is  myth?  Ask Rudolf Bultmann.

We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. 

Who wrote this about the wonder world of the New Testament?  One of the many aggressive atheists who contend with religion these days?  No, one of the most distinguished theologians of the twentieth-century, Rudolf Bultmann (1984, p 4).  The mythological world of the New Testament was the everyday world of men and women over two thousand years ago.  Demons were everywhere, and heaven and hell were real places.  Many Christians no longer believe in this magical world. The result is to question the relevance of the gospel.  Needed, says Bultmann (1984), is a demythologizing interpretation that retains the truth of the kerygma.  

What sense does it make to confess today ‘he descended into hell’ or ‘he ascended into heaven,’ if the confessor no longer shares the underlying mythical world picture of a three-story world?  (p 4)

What’s kerygma

Kerygma (κῆρυγμα) means preaching, and it refers to the message of the gospels.  Whatever that is, it’s not the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed; both refer to the three-story world.  For Bultmann (1984, p 12), the kerygma refers to God’s decisive act in Christ, above all his death and resurrection.  The question of course is why isn’t this just as mythical as a three-story world filled with angels and demons?

Bultmann argues that the message of the gospels will change in form depending on the world in which it lives.  In a mythical world, the gospel will use mythical themes.  In a scientific and technological world, we must depend more on faith.  Not about everything.  Christ was a real historical man who was crucified.  But about his resurrection faith is required. Demythologizing, says Bultmann (1984),

seeks to bring out the real intention of myth, namely, its intention to talk about human existence as grounded in and limited by a transcendent unworldly power, which is not visible to objectifying thinking. (p 99)

Now it gets complicated

It gets complicated because myth, while better understanding human limits, also objectifies.  Its stories are situated in time and place, and transcendent powers are often represented by gods who look, act, and think like more powerful people. 

Faith is concerned with a world that cannot be objectified or signified.

Demythologizing in the sense of existentialist interpretation seeks, in critically interpreting the mythical world picture of scripture, to bring out the point of its statements by freeing them from the conceptuality of objectifying thinking—the objectifying thinking of myth. (1984, p 102)

Bultmann still uses the word salvation, but his is really an existential view of religion, and he prefers the term authentic.  Belief is all about my experience now.  Religion isn’t about a faith community’s experience, or shared doctrine and belief.  And salvation isn’t about our final destination.  It’s about how we live our lives every day, recognizing that the salvific event is neither past nor future, but now.  This is how a world of faith can do the work once done by a world of myth. 

The advantage of this view is that faith, while somewhat more at home in a mythological world, is really about no world.  Faith requires the surrender of security, the abandonment of a world one can grab hold of.  Faith says that the kerygma is nevertheless true, even if everything around us says no.  Faith is the willingness to fall endlessly, in the belief that God will catch us.

The eschaton is now

Bultmann argues that the eschaton (the end of history, when Christ returns) has already happened.  Instead of waiting for the end of history, we should recognize that the end, by which I mean goal or purpose of history, has already happened with Christ’s death and resurrection.  “Paradoxically, the community of faith looks ahead to an event that has already happened.” (Congdon, p 147)

At Christmas season many of us celebrate and remember Christ’s birth.  But if one takes Bultmann seriously, then Christ’s birth was already the end (purpose) of history, the beginning and the end at the same time.  For me this makes Christmas a more solemn occasion, Christ’s birth was the gift of his death for humanity.  It is not Christ’s birth, but his death and resurrection that define Christianity.

The gospel is freedom from this world

 And what is the gospel?  In a word: freedom from this world.  The gospel has the power to grant freedom from the world. (Bultmann, 1960, p 156)

Bultmann’s focus on the de-objectified gospel encourages us to step back from the world, and all that it offers.  There is no security but God (Matthew 9:16-20). Certainly this is true from the perspective of eternity.  But in everyday life material security matters.  Religious people who work on behalf of the poor are doing God’s work.  I don’t think Bultmann has enough to say about this.  He is more worried about authenticity than community.      

Bultmann’s perspective is one from which we can distance ourselves from the world.  That is the greatest freedom: to have a place to be, a place to rest that doesn’t depend on our place in the world.  Christ’s inbreaking, the experience of kerygma, allows that freedom.  Perhaps it is the only perspective that does.  More broadly, a religious perspective is the only perspective that puts the world in its place.  And while it is not the only freedom (one’s daily bread comes first), it is the most important one. 

Have a solemn Christmas.


Rudolf Bultmann, The New Testament and Mythology.  Fortress Press, 1984.

Rudolf Bultmann, This World and the Beyond: Marburg Sermons.  Scribners, 1960.

David Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to his Theology.  Cascade Books, 2015.

10 thoughts on “A Christmas message, or does it matter if the Bible is myth?”

  1. I will have to read this several more times as I am not familiar with Bultmann.Can we not say that mythos and logos are two separate ways of understanding? That three storey world can be a metaphor.I do find some of the images in the Bible very compelling like the Burning Bush, the still small voice, the story of Job.Maybe someone had an experience and stryggled to express it.
    In the New Testament I don’t find so many.I could have wished Jesus’s death was not real as it seemed so awful to me as a child.But agree with you about Community and feeding the poor and in general helping one another.Prayer may help us.God can probably manage without being worshipped!

  2. Katheryn, I find more of value in myth than Bultmann. Or at least I think I do; I’m not always quite clear what he’s saying. He seems to be looking for an experience that is without symbolic mediation. I don’t see how that’s possible. In any case, myth accommodates non-rational belief better than science. We still live by myths. They just look different. Nationalism is one, I suppose, and not an especially good one. Fred

  3. Yes,I have been reading a bit more about Bultmann.I am struck by the fact he was influenced by Heidegger,And I don’t need to say a lot about that.His attitudes were not ones I can share.You may think that is an ad hominem argument and so not good.But in such matters as this I believe it is sensible.
    I suppose what matters most to me is life experiences or religious experiences.So the Hebrew Bible attracts me.And I am not so concerned about whether Jesus was a historical figure or whether Mary was a virgin.Jesus means something to me,deeply rooted in my mind.These theologians are all trying to find ways to deal with the Enlightenment and science etc.
    Mythos can deal with what Logos cannot.Here I am like a cat telling a hen how to lay eggs.You are a philosopher I think.You know about that.Myths are stories which express what can’t be expressed in other ways.I find myself using words like sacred when I write poetry even when I am unsure rationally whether there is anything sacred in a religious sense.Friendship is sacred.Love is sacred.God language is used because we can’t talk about our lives easily without it.Yet I see the harm done by the Church and the notion people could be converted by force.
    The Jews did not seem to need to convert others.I am reading a book by Shawn Kelley andit seems to me some of the idead around in 1930 are coming round again.I am however an ignorant amateur so please correct me if I am wrong.I feel somewhat antipathetic to the Lutheran strand of Christianity though I am sure there is good there as well.
    Give me the Burning Bush and do not burn the books

  4. RB referred to the NT messianic myths of the Greek mystery religions (Mithra among the Roman Army very strong, Dionysus among the poor) events attributed to them appear in the NT, and in the way Germans before WW1 had transformed this mythic Jesus into a Salvation Warrrior, out to conquer the world. RB was a closeted member of Barth’s Confessing Church until his own brother was imprisoned for resisting Hitler. Thus began the continuing Quest for the actual Jesus beyond the Christ of Faith (RB’s point of departure from Heidegger). Keep up the good work!
    Ralph Garlin Clingan

    1. Thanks Ralph. Yes, Barth and Bultmann were very close (intellectually at least) for a while. I’m always suspicious of anyone who is influenced by Heidegger, but I think Bultmann found his own way. Sometimes I think that Bultmann is the most important theologian of the last century. Fred

  5. Thank you,I feel we should be living.Did Jesus not seem to say that all the rules and regulations were not needed?Compassion was the only thing that mattered
    I don’t know what the right balance is between theological debate and living the best life one can.But having had rather too much of the former,I am more interested in the latter.Or at least l’autre moi seems to be.Jesus is a very compelling person.I would like to see him. He must be here somehow

  6. Thank you.Did Jesus not seem to say that all the rules and regulations were not needed?Compassion was the only thing that mattered
    I don’t know what the right balance is between theological debate and living the best life one can.But having had rather too much of the former,I am more interested in the latter.Or at least l’autre moi seems to be.Jesus is a very compelling person.I would like to see him. He must be here somehow

  7. That bit about Condon saying, the end or purpose has already happened reminds me of Winnicott saying, the breakdown which is feared has already happened.
    I now realise I am totally unqualified to give my view on these matters and surely it cannot be neccessary for most of us.So I shall cease my untutored,ignorant explorations.
    Time past and time future…..the bird in the rose garden… ash on an old man’s sleeve ……..point to one end
    which is always present.
    In my end is my beginning

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