More people say bad things about Bultmann than who have read him (1884-1976). Bultmann was escorted into the theological world in the day of Schweitzer’s famous Quest. Bultmann, a faithful church-going organist-playing son of the Lutheran church, knew that one could jettison it all or dig under and behind the historical to find the existential and demythologized true faith. Marburg University, so I’ve been told, could not have found lecture halls big enough for Bultmann’s lectures in his glory days. If the days of Reimarus to Schweitzer were the old quest, the period of Bultmann is the “no” quest.
Instead of chucking it all, Bultmann cut the Christian faith off from the results of history. (A major influence on Bultmann was Martin Kaehler who, above all, argued that history only takes us so far; faith goes farther.) And the fundamental insights of Bultmann shaped Jesus studies for the better part of two generations.
1. The Gospels are the products of faith and express the faith of early Christians, whether or not they are historically-reliable texts.
2. Bultmann examined the Gospels according to the “forms” — paragraph level format and intent — that we now find in the Gospels. He argued these forms were shaped by early Church concerns and their concerns overrode any need for reporting what happened for the sake of accurate reporting.
3. In light of this, he concluded that what we really know of Jesus is minimal: “I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either and are moreover fragmentary and often legendary” (Jesus and the Word, p. 8 ).
4. This quotation is the most-misunderstood statement in the history of Jesus studies. In fact, Bultmann thought we could know some facts about Jesus and the book he wrote after that quote proves it. What he was talking about mostly was the psychologically-shaped narratives that were being produced.
5. What we know are things like this: Jesus was baptized by John, was part of a messianic movement, preached the kingdom of God, and was executed under Pontius Pilate.
6. Big one and write this down: What we can figure out about Jesus through historical methods doesn’t matter for faith. It is theologically perverse to base faith on historical studies since historical studies fluctuate.
Famous statement by Bultmann: “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles” (New Testament and Mythology, 5).
Bultmann unleashed a movement of those who chased down and reframed his form-critical studies and who also fully developed the so-called “criteria of authenticity.” Bultmann’s famous book on form criticism, called History of the Synoptic Tradition, contained the nucleus of what later was fully worked out by Norman Perrin in his book Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. Tomorrow we’ll look at these criteria.