Bultmann forgets about Christ

Bultmann forgets about Christ.  Rudolf Bultmann is probably the twentieth-century’s leading Protestant theologian, though some would give that title to Karl Barth.  It hardly matters.  The point is that Bultmann has been remarkably influential.

Perhaps his greatest influence has been on how to think about the kerygma (κήρυγμα),  the message of the gospels.  Bultmann is not subtle. 

We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modem medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.  (New Testament and Myth, loc 107)

Miracle healings, walking on water, lots of bread and fish, heaven as up there—all that is part of the myth. How to distinguish the myth from the message without adopting Thomas Jefferson’s Deism, in which God becomes a distant watchmaker, someone who created the world, and has since stepped away? *  How can kerygma still live?

Kerygma: the experience and the message

What remains is faith, and faith begins in wonder.  Not in miracles, but in the experience of the sublime, “the beginning of terror that we are still just able to bear.” (Rilke)  Kerygma is not just, or even primarily, about the message of the gospels.  It is an encounter with God.  Not with Christ, for Christ is a historical reality (Ladd, p 96). Kerygma is a pre-verbal encounter with the wholly other (Congdon, pp 23-24, 74).  It can happen in an encounter with beauty, or in the experience of being alive after a close encounter with death.  Boundary or limit experiences they are often called. 

The gospels and the wholly other

The gospels, says Bultmann, are built on myth.  Not just the raising of Lazarus, for example, but life after death, the resurrection, heaven and hell—all are mythical.  If so, then what’s left?  What’s left is an existential experience of the wholly other.  Bultmann’s is an existential reinterpretation of Christianity, one captured, Bultmann believes, by Martin Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, or being there. 

Heidegger’s existentialist analysis of human existence seems to be only a profane philosophical presentation of the New Testament view of who we are. (Bultmann, New Testament and Myth, loc 357-358)

A primordial experience of faith in the existence of God—this is the understanding Bultmann is seeking, an experience that is prior to words, and hence prior to myth.  Only rather than understanding, Bultmann seeks the experience itself.  This is the true kerygma, and its experience the true meaning of faith.

What’s left out

What’s left out is the teaching and example of Jesus Christ, the most important message of all, the greatest contribution of Christianity.  Bultmann doesn’t include Christ’s teaching and example because they are the message of the gospels, which he sees as a mythical interpretation (and misinterpretation) of the direct encounter with Christ.  Bultmann wrote a book about Jesus, but in its existentialist interpretation Jesus has “no so-called individual or social ethics . . . Jesus teaches no ethics at all” (1958, p 84).

For me, Christianity without the teachings and example of Christ misses the whole point.  Needed is not an immediate experience of Christ, the man who was also a God.  Desperately needed is an appreciation of his teachings, especially in a world in which they are increasingly alien.  But perhaps they always were.  Christ summarizes his teachings this way.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Christ elaborates in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). 

The great example for which Christ is remembered is his willingness to be crucified as ransom for humanity’s sins (Mark 10:45).  Bultmann is not impressed.

If we follow the objectifying representations of the New Testament, [Christ] is the sacrifice whose blood atones for our sin . . . . We can no longer accept this mythological interpretation in which notions of sacrifice are mixed together with a juristic theory of satisfaction. (Bultmann, New Testament and Myth, loc 504-506)

I think Christ’s great example, or at least the one we can live by, is not his acceptance of torture and death, but his preference for the poor, the outcast, and the despised, such as the widow who gives from all she has (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4), and the woman taken in adultery (John 11:3-8).  Jesus ate not with the wealthy, but in the homes of the poor and reviled, such as publicans and sinners.  Christ’s choice of dinner companions is historical, not mythological.    

I think a focus on kerygma is a great loss, as Christ is driven to the margins.  Bultmann, on the other hand, doesn’t want too much of the reality of Christ, for that would be the objectifying and humanizing the wholly other.   


Bultmann was trained within an intellectual setting that recognized the thoroughly eschatological nature of early Christianity but had no idea what to do with this insight theologically (Congdon, p 5).  Early Christians anticipated that the second coming of Christ was imminent, within the lifetime of many of them (Matthew 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27).  Obviously, this didn’t happen, so what shall we make of it?  Following Barth, Bultmann differentiates between the apocalyptic and eschatological (Congdon, p 7).  The apocalypse is mythical.  The eschaton, the final event in God’s plan, has already happened with the birth of Christ, and with it his insertion into history.  Instead of waiting for God, we should be remaking this world in terms of Christ’s teachings, so as to make the eschaton real.  But perhaps this last sentence is more me than Bultmann.

The first step in that endeavor is to know Christ’s teachings and study them.  Perhaps Bultmann assumes this is obvious.  If the gospels are mythological, then faith is all that remains.  However, faith is best understood not as an immediate experience of the divine, but a willingness to learn what Jesus taught. 


The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, generally referred to as Jefferson’s Bible, was a cut and paste job on the New Testament.  It excluded the miracles, the Trinity, most supernatural phenomena, the resurrection, and any reference to Jesus as divine.  What remains is often referred to as an instance of Deism, though that is not strictly correct, as hardly any deity remains. 


Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word.  Scribner, 1958.

Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology, and Other Basic Writings, edited and translated by Schubert Ogden.  Fortress Press, 1984.  Kindle edition.

David Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology.  Cascade Books (an imprint of Wipf and Stock), 2015.

Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.  Smithsonian Books, 2011.

George Eldon Ladd, “What Does Bultmann Understand by The Acts of God?” www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/5/5-3/BETS_5-3_91-97_Ladd.pdf

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, first elegy.  Translated by Edward Snow.  North Point Press, 2014.  Kindle edition.

10 thoughts on “Bultmann forgets about Christ”

  1. I think what you write makes a lot of sense.And for those who meditate ,it is the fruit of that which matters ie it should lead to following Christ’s teachings.The idea that we should use it personally to get close to God is alien to me.Similarly dwelling on one’s spiritual life is of no value in itself alone.
    Not that I would criticise people finding it calming oe helpful like music can be.Who am I to say that?

  2. Well at least it looks like Bultmann isn’t going to vote for a law against smoking in the park.

  3. Bultmann was and is a disaster. His treatment of the miracle narratives is both unsound and unthological. It contains neither any effective exegeis nor any hermeneutic. Each pericope is taken in isolation from the others.
    There are exactly three ‘Eucharistic’ miracle stories; they obtain in tandem with three other miracle narratives; the whole consisting in the form of a chiasmos. This catena, in combination with the story of the Eucharist itself, is morphologically – that is, logically and aesthetically – congruent with the P creation story of 7 Days.
    These two narratives of creation and salvation – those of ‘beginning AND end’; ‘first AND last’; the Alpha AND the Omega’ (emphasis added) – are indispensable to doctrines determinative of specifically Christian theology: namely, the triune nature of God; the imago Dei, and the incarnation.
    His treatment, and those of his protege(e)s of these six miracle narratives, are worthless at best.

      1. There are 5 miracle stories – call them ‘messianic’ to distinguish them from the ‘healing miracles’ – in what we think is the earliest gospel – Mark. Matthew follows suit. Luke has just three; so does John, if we include, as I argue we must, ‘the first of his signs’, The Transformation of WaterInto Wine. (John 2.1-11).

        In all four gospels the details are consistent; there is no variation in the important numerical details. The same applies to the chronology. The two combined as third and third last, since the “series” as a whole forms a chiasmos, namely Feeding 5,000, and Walking On The Sea, are thus the same in all three gospels. (Luke lacks the latter.) This is an extraordinary literary feature of the unanimity of the gospels.

        When we accept the first ‘sign’ from John (2.1-11) as part of this chain, we see that three of the signs concern feeding (unity) and the three with which they are paired concern identity. The three ‘Eucharistic miracles’ thus bear upon the Eucharist itself. This makes the series as a whole morphologically consonant with the P creation story. That text too is formally determined as consisting of three paired events, and one final unpaired event. (Their pairing, the dyadic contour of the creation story, also is logically redicible to the dialectic of identity : unity. I understand this in terms of the initial merism/inclusio, ‘the heavens and the earth’, which is the same in my hermeneutic as the formulation transcendence : immanence.)

        Sabbath and Eucharist in both cases stand apart from the hexads; both are remarkably centred upon religious observance, although this is not explicit in the Genesis story. Both too are galvanised about love and death. Also, the Sabbath is no more a creative fiat than the Eucharist is a miracle.

        These creation-salvation cycles demand to be taken together. There is no beginning without an end; so too, the miracle stories vital to the ‘kerygma’ do not obtain in a vacuum. They recur to the first and foremost of the two creation narratives. This answers perfectly questions until now either evaded or ignored, concerning the relations of the two canons – Tanakh and N.T. It is the promise of a truly biblical theology.

        The efforts of Bultmann and others who follow his lead, have ignored this, all the more ironically because of his thesis of a signs source as part of the original fourth gospel, which,for the record, like Raymond Brown and others, I do not believe. The sevenfold messianic series is the pedagogic backbone of the earliest gospel.

        The methods of B. and his school presume that the texts in question are in the first instance historiographical – they are not; they are theological. They also depend presumptively, and blindly to the reality of ‘context’, on the analytical independence of each miracle narrative from the others of its kind.

        Concerning the first and immanent (read ‘feeding’, i.e. ‘Eucharistic) Christology, John 2.1-11: I enter here my rejection of two widely held and current exercises in source criticism/Traditionsgeschichte which posit the source of this narrative. These allege as its provenance, model or prototype, either some or another passage from the Tanakh or the Hellenic mythological traditions concerning Dionysos. The movement first engineered by Bultmann, ‘Entmythologisierung’ is approaching its centenary. The History Of The Synoptic Tradition first appeared in German in 1921, and the English translation of The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, fifty years later. His work set in train an ongoing method which has spawned consequences for Christian theology that are nothing short of diastrous: the wholesale neglect if not ridiculing of the miracle narratives. In the hands of some of its contemporary practitioners, who appear increasingly to be in danger of devolving into populist hacks, it has reached an apogee fortunately and shrilly sounding its own death knell. Bultmann reckons the relegation of the miracle stories to the level of myth to be a hermeneutic in itself. But we can see from the results it yielded in his commentary on John just how dubious is this claim. Its results, are costive in extremis, and will not pass muster as hermeneutical. Nor do I believe that his treatment of the miracle story is methodically exegetical.

        “This method of interpretation of the New Testament which tries to recover the deeper meaning behind the mythological conceptions I call de-mythologizing – an unsatisfactory word, to be sure. Its aim is not to eliminate the mythological statements but to interpret them. It is a method of hermeneutics. The meaning of this method will be best understood when we make clear the meaning of mythology in general.” (Bultmann, Rudolph, Karl, Jesus Christ And Mythology, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1958, p 18.)

        “Over and over again I hear the objection that de-mythologizing transforms Christian faith into philosophy. This objection arises from the fact that I call de-mythologizing an interpretation, an existentialist interpretation, and that I make use of conceptions developed especially by Martin Heidegger in existentialist philosophy.

        We can understand the problem best when we remember that de-mythologizing is an hermeneutic method, that is, a method of interpretation, of exegesis. “Hermeneutics” means the art of exegesis. (Ibid p 45).

        The source counted this as the first miracle. It is easy to see why it put it at the beginning of its collection; for it is an epiphany miracle. There are no analogies with it in the old tradition of Jesus-stories, and in comparison with them it appears strange an alien to us. There can be no doubt that the story has been taken over from heathen legend and ascribed to Jesus. In fact the motif of the story, the changing of the water into wine, is a typical motif of the Dionysus legend. In the legend, this miracle was the epiphany of the God, and was therefore dated on the day of the Dionysus Feast, that is on the night of the 5th to 6th of January. This relationship was still understood in the Early Church, which saw the Feast of Christ’s Baptism as his epiphany and celebrated it on the 6th January. Equally it held that the 6th of January was the date of the marriage at Cana.

        For the Evangelist, the meaning of the story is not contained simply in the miraculous event; this, or rather the narrative, is the symbol of something which occurs throughout the whole of Jesus’ ministry, that is, the revelation of the doca/ of Jesus. As understood by the Evangelist, this is not the power of the miracle worker, but the divinity of Jesus as the Revealer, and it becomes visible for faith in the reception of xa/riv and a)lh/qeia; his revelation of his doca/ is nothing more nor less than the revelation of the o/)noma of the Father (17.6). Of this the epiphany story can provide only a picture; and equally, the e)pi/steusan ei)v au)to\n (oi) maqhtai\ au)tou~), in the Evangelist’s view, can be no more than a symbolic representation of the faith which the Revealer arouses by his Word.” (Bultmann, Rudolph, The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Translated by G. R. Beasley-Murray, General Editor, R. W. N. Hoare, and J. K. Riches, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1971, p 118-119).

        The mention of ‘symbol of something’ and ‘symbolic representation’ point to what is lacking in Bultmann’s commentary; in short, a hermeneutic. (The treatment afforded the two miracles of loaves and fish in The History Of The Synoptic Tradition is equally perfunctory, and even more devoid of any real engagement with the text such as might be deemed ‘exegetical’. Each is dispensed with in a single paragraph, and in total, they occupy less than a single page.) A more recent example of ‘demythologization’ – a term almost as sequipedalian, orotund and unpronounceable as the original German, ‘Entmythologisierung’ – by one of his protegées, Uta Ranke-Heinemann, follows faithfully in the footsteps of her mentor, but it fares no better. Page after page of her caustic iconclasm becomes trite and tiring, and is even more facile:

        “Plainly put, in the legend of the marriage at Cana Jesus reveals his divine power in the same way that stories had told of the Greek god Dionysus. The 6th of January became for Christians the feast of the power revelation (epiphany) of their God, thereby displacing the feast of Dionysus’s epiphany. As Bultmann says, “No doubt the story [of the marriage feast at Cana] has been borrowed from pagan legends and transferred to Jesus” (Bultmann, Das Evangelium, p. 83). On his feast day, Dionysus made empty jars fill up with wine in his temple in Elis; and on the island of Andros, wine flowed instead of water from a spring or in his temple. Accordingly, the true miracle of the marriage feast at Cana would not be the transformation by Jesus of water into wine, but the transformation of Jesus into a sort of Christian wine god.” (Ranke-Heinemann, Uta, Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, The Empty Tomb, And Other Fairy Tales You Don’t Need To Believe In To Have A Living Faith, translated by Peter Heinegg, Harper, San Francisco, 1992, pp 81-82)

        Bultmann is presumably as unable and unconcerned to specify just why ‘six stone jars’ were involved, and whether or not the mother of Dionysus was involved in the precedent to the ‘power revelation’, a term better fitted to the complementary miracle of ‘virtual transcendence’, Transfiguration, and indeed finally what, if anything, the story means, as is Ranke-Heinemann to tell us exactly what we do need to believe in order to have a living faith. His working premise is that one is at liberty to dispense with hermeneutics once the event in question has been consigned to ‘myth’, or that the relegation of the narrative in such terms constitutes its hermeneutic. Accepting the baton from their forerunner, David Friedrich Strauss, Bultmann and Ranke-Heinemann both subscribe to the presupposition that whatever is unhistorical or unnatural – read miracle – is an (untrue?) idea, and thus myth. The term ‘myth’, crucial to this enterprise, never receives any substantively literary or epistemological treatment. My disaffection for such ‘theologizing’ stems from its abdication of the hermeneutical task incumbent of any theologian. Ranke-Heinemann disposes of the other two Eucharistic miracle stories with equal and efficient despatch, approving the old chestnut that one of the two stories involving loaves and fishes is a duplicate. Neither does the remiss failure of chauvinistic evangelists to explicitly mention women and children, in some measure at least, escape her notice and polemical censure:

        ” Some miracles reported of Jesus are modeled on Old Testament prototypes. Take, for example, the feeding of the five thousand (or four thousand): “A man came from Baal-shal-ishah, bringing the man of God bread of the first fruits, twenty loaves of barley, and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And Elisha said, ‘Give to the men, that they may eat.’ But his servant said, ‘How am I to set this before a hundred men?’ So he repeated, ‘Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, “They shall eat and have some left”‘ So he set it before them. And they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord” (2 Kings 4:42-44).” (Ibid p 87).

        ” The so-called nature miracles are likewise fairy tales, one and all. With regard to the miraculous multiplication of the loaves, we have seen that it has Old Testament models. There are several versions of this dining miracle. In Matthew (14:13-21) “five thousand men, not counting women and children” are fed with five loaves and two fish. This is a faintly chauvinistic mode of reckoning; Mark (6:44) has simply “five thousand men”; the women and children aren’t even mentioned. Luke (9:14) puts the crowd at “around five thousand men,” and John (6:10) is no more polite,”about five thousand men.” All the Evangelists inform us that there were twelve baskets of bread left over.” (Ibid p 93).

        Alongside this version with the five loaves and the two fish there is yet another, added on by Mark and Matthew. This time it’s seven loaves and “some” fish. In Mark 8:9 the total number of the people fed is cited as four thousand, and there are seven baskets of “broken pieces.” It’s the same in Matthew, except that once again women and children are not included in the total (15:38).”

        “Many Catholic Bibles provide clear headings to distinguish the”First Multiplication of the Loaves” from the “Second Multiplication of the Loaves.” But it’s no good. One can write all the headings one wants; we are still left with different accounts of one and the same multiplication of loaves. There’s no second miracle; and word of this is slowly getting around even among Catholic theologians.”

        “The first signs of this shift are already visible in the Catholic Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche. “The exegetes, and in part Catholic exegetes as well, nowadays generally assume that both narratives are dealing with a single event” ([1958] II, 709). They are variants or doublets, whatever one wishes. But some people are still racking their brains over why in one variant the number given is five thousand and in the other it’s four thousand. And these riddle-solvers even find reasons for the discrepancy, as if the whole episode were historical. But from the historical standpoint, there was neither one nor two “miraculous multiplications of loaves.” There was none at all.” (Ibid p 94).

        There is no attempt on the part of such efforts to come to terms with the corpus of the healing and messianic narratives as gestalten which are internally coherent and aesthetically integrated, nor to deal sensitively with any possibility of their semantic worth. I accept without reservation the allusion of the two miracles of loaves and fish to the stories about Elisha, just as I do the association between The Transfiguration and the traditions concerning Moses on Mount Sinai. These are allusions or associations only. Any merit they may claim as precedents can only be marginal given the clear logical and aesthetic rapport sustained by the sevenfold messianic series and the P narrative. Moreover to leave both matters, supposed provenance, and necessary meaning as accounted for in terms of myths about Dionysos and their self-evidently fictive status and therefore meaninglessness is facile to a degree qualifiable by the very epithet she uses to decry the narratives: ‘childish’. My chief objection is that ‘exegetical’ determination of the miracle narratives as mythological in kind, should evidently absolve the hermeneut of any obligation.

        I am by no means advocating a revisionist account of the miracle narratives. The status of such events as actual, historical, veridical occasions does not concern me for it does not influence the hermeneutic expounded here. (Clearly, I do not accept a literal understanding of either creation narrative, that of P or J, in spite of Paul’s doctrine of anakephalaiosis, which seeks to tie the person and work of Christ to creation and fails: ‘Le premier pas vers la philosophie, c’est l’incrédulité’ – ‘The first step toward philosophy is incredulity’, Denis Diderot.) The necessity of such texts to serve the need to believe of persons of a thoroughly diverse range of times and places is what marks them as theological in the first place. It also guarantees their hermeneutical viability. That is, it also requires their re-appropriation fitted to the intellectual and emotional climate of these times and places, whose variation is more or less a function of knowing. Knowing is gounded in the aconscious intentionality of will-to-believe, whose conceptual roots are grafted to space : time.

        Any putative mirroring by one of the feeding miracles of the other, especially the alleged duplication of one of the stories of loaves and fish by the other is grist to the theological mill of Bultmann and his disciples.

        But we are meant to make this observation initially only. It is a starting point. Leaving matters there however is exegetically negligent to say the least. The same occurs vis-a-vis the two miracles, with which the former are so conspicuously paired: in virtue of STRUCTURE – i.e. the chasms. This leaves the two Christological miracles, Transformation of Water Into Wine and Transfiguration (already comparable by dint of the sheer commonality of ‘transmutation’) distinct, a fact which squares with their orders, being the first and last events in every recension, as noted.

        The same structure dominates the P narrative; Days 2 and 3, (paried quite remarkably with Days 5 and 6 respectively), employ comparable leitmotifs – those of water etc, as do their analogues in the messianic series. Days 1 and 4, thus remain like their analogues in the messianic series, distinct. Again there is referential consonance – the motifs of light and darkness – in obvious support of the structural (‘formal’/’propositional’) correspondence.

        The upshot is undeniable: the hermeneutic of any single messianic miracle narrative entails that of each member of the sevenfold series; moreover, it entails the hermeneutic of Genesis 1.1-2.4a. The two are interdependently significative; scripture interpreting scripture.

        Bultmann and co. have failed egregiously where these texts are concerned. You accept their conclusions at your peril. They are theologically vacuous.

        My apologies: the script editor for this blog has no means for propagating Greek and Hebrew fonts.

        P.S. The first ‘sign’ story in John, is certainly the most anascetic text in the N.T. It rehabilitates desire as a fundamental psychological-social reality not only from any Judaic background, but also from the bad press it receives in Hinduism/Buddhism, and certain schools of philosophy, Stoicism and some forms of Platonism.

        It sits perfectly with – as does the ensuing story of the Cleansing of the Temple – with the Lutheran agenda, and that of Protestantism in general, with its inherent drive to reinstate marriage as at least a religiously viable to Christian discipleship as celibacy. And Bultmann was a Lutheran!

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