Blinded By Bultmann?


“It is in truth far from easy to say how an eschatological prophet who sees the end of the world approaching, who senses the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and who accordingly pronounces blessed those of his contemporaries who are prepared for it (Matt 13:16-17, 5:3-9, 6:5-6 etc.) – to say how such a person could argue over questions of the Law and turn off epigrammatic proverbs like a Jewish rabbi (since to practically all the moral directions of Jesus there are parallels and related words of the Jewish rabbis), in words which contain simply no hint of eschatological tension (e.g. Matt 6:19-21, 25:34, 7:1, 2, 7, Luke 14:7-11, Mark 2:27, 4:21).”

Rudolf Bultmann, “Form Criticism: Two Essays on New Testament Research”(1934).

This sentence accosted me as I attempted to delve into my long-awaited (and, let’s face it, mandatory) Bultmann-reading. At first glance, I dismissed it as a product of Bultmann’s zeitgeist. But as I continued reading I kept coming back to it in my mind. Is this really just a product of his zeitgeist, or is it also a product of our zeitgeist? Does NT research still hold this to be true, albeit (usually, optimally) under the surface? I don’t think many serious scholars today would suggest that Matt 25 is not an eschatological text, but are there examples of how this (false) juxtaposition between moral sayings and eschatological beliefs still rears its ugly head, perhaps disguised in a little something we like to call ‘Q’?

I want to begin this analysis by pointing out the obvious: Bultmann was extremely sharp. Even though most NT scholars have perforated the power dynamics of form criticism (in theory at least), I think we can all agree that its giver-of-birth was a man with a bright and innovative mind. Right, now that the obligatory disclaimer has been taken care of, let’s move on to the juicer part of the argument: the place of eschatology in modern NT scholarship, and the burden of “moral teaching” that Bultmann has loaded onto our collective backs.

Let’s start by assaulting the Lutherans (since I categorize myself as a follower of Luther in the most general sense of that term [the one thing Bultmann and I have in common], my conscience finds it easier to start the rampage closer to home). Lutherans have a specific way of reading the Old Testament and dealing with all the disconcerting theological complications it brings forth. I like to call it the “Quick-n-Easy Ethical Fix”, a model influenced by Bultmann and his clique. The approach consists of categorizing the precepts and laws in the OT into two categories: cultic and ethical. The ethical rules are to be followed; the cultic rules are to be ignored. Quick and easy. Or is it? Are we really capable of distinguishing between the ethical and cultic laws in the Bible (yes, the Bible as a whole: the NT also contains a number of cultic rules [see Matt 5:22-24], which is enough to confuse one to distraction if one is too strict in one’s Lutheran appropriation of the Bible)? Is the distinction between cult and ethics valid at all?

If we take a closer look at Jeremiah 7, a different image begins to form. The passage begins with a reference to the Temple, thus setting the thematic stage as a cultic one. In 7:6-7, the speaker, God, says that He will not continue to dwell in the temple unless the people do not cease oppressing the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow; shedding innocent blood, and worshipping other gods. This is, according to my mind, one of the best examples of how mingled and messy the supposed “borders” between ethics and cult is: what we categorize as moral guidelines (not oppressing the immigrant, orphan, or widow; not shedding innocent blood) is intimately connected to cultic matters (God dwelling in the temple), making it very difficult for us to distinguish clearly between them. Of course, in Jer 7 it is much easier for us to tell the difference between “ethics” and “cult”, since the ethical guidelines are some of the most celebrated rules in Judeo-Christian tradition. But what about other texts, where the contextual veil is harder to lift, like Ps. 51:16-19? Matt 5:22-24 is another such example. The majority of preachers (and perhaps many scholars as well) would tell their flock that this is a text about the importance of reconciling with your brother or sister. They wouldn’t be wrong per say, but it’s also a text about how to make offerings without tainting the sacrifices with moral impurity, something which often gets left out of the discussion. The pattern in Jer 7, Ps. 51, and Matt 5 is the same: “moral” behaviour is linked to the purity/impurity of God’s dwelling place, in the same way that ritual purity usually is. The existence of moral purity and its cultic connections makes it difficult to draw a clear line between ethics and cult – the line quickly turns into a blurry smudge. Perhaps what we today label as “ethics” and “cult” were once one and the same thing: meshed together, two strings in the same Biblical tapestry.

You may ask (rightfully) what all this has to do with Bultmann and eschatology. Allow me to humbly attempt to tie the strings into a bow. Eschatology and cult in the Gospels are like twins borne of the same womb. In Mark 13 with synoptic parallels, known as the Little Apocalypse, Jesus ties the destruction of the temple (cult) to the End of the Ages (eschatology). Indeed, the “discussion of Law” that Bultmann mentions in the quotation above often dealt with matters of purity (Mark 7, Matt 5:22-24; 15 etc.), which means that regardless of whether we think he was for or against it as a concept, Jesus still taught about cultic matters. Thus, since the part of the Mosaic Law dealing with cult is intimately related to the eschatological vision of Jesus, and since there is no difference between cult and ethics, one should perhaps also problematize the separation of eschatology and ethics in the NT. By carving what he referred to as ethics out of the eschatological entity of the Gospels with his exegetical scalpel – dripping with the poison of early twentieth century zeitgeist – Bultmann invented a new category (not to mention a bleeding mess of an interpretative wound). This new, neat, comfortable category fit so well with the beliefs of his time that it settled in like a relative on a visit. But the visit was prolonged and prolonged, until Aunty Ethics became a permanent resident. And now we take her for granted, like an old, comfortable couch that we stash in the corner of our living room even though it doesn’t fit with the rest of the décor, just because we don’t want to go through the hassle of lifting it out the door. It’s high time to re-decorate.

When we accept what Bultmann says about ethics (subconsciously or not), we accept a worldview where the role of Jesus is stripped of its eschatological and cultic function, where cult and ethics become opponents in some bizarre puppet show. But, as Schweitzer pointed out (to pit Bultmann against a contemporary), the historical Jesus becomes void of meaning when his mission is de-eschatologized. The Gospels all place the heaviest focus on the Passion Narrative – it is the climax of the story, the culmination of the narrative. Thus, Jesus’ teaching needs to be in coherence with his death, since everything is leading up to it. Why would the Romans execute an ethical teacher preaching love and justice for all? They wouldn’t. Who they would execute, on the other hand, is a wandering Galilean prophet who preached charismatically about the End of the Ages, the supremacy of the God of Israel over all other gods (read emperors), and the religio-political restoration of a colonized people.

Thus, most modern scholarship has in large parts established that Jesus was an eschatological messianic figure. Ergo, according to the line of argumentation I’ve been attempting to follow, Jesus’ eschatological teaching must also contain cultic aspects (which we saw when we looked at Matt 5).Thus, since there’s no clear line between cult and “ethics” in the Bible, Jesus’ teaching cannot be classified as ethical. Thus, Bultmann’s argument above that Jesus’ eschatological statements should be in some way contradictory to Law discussions is unsustainable and deeply problematic. Much of the Law is connected to cultic matters: all the purity laws (moral and ritual), laws regulating temple practices, taking care of immigrants and widows (because otherwise the Land will “vomit you out” – the Land being tied to the Temple), etc. etc. If we strip discussions of the Law from their cultic and eschatological function, we risk loosing the meaning of Jesus’ teaching.

In the examples that Bultmann lists at the end of the quotation, we can see how confused the picture gets when one juxtaposes the invented category “ethics” with eschatology. The Matthean examples are particularly jaw dropping. It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around how the following: “then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” could be interpreted as an antithesis to eschatology. As a dedicated opponent of ‘Q’, I can’t help but note that this is the tradition one falls into when one accepts theories such as the Two Source Hypothesis, which is based on the assumption that the oldest and most authentic manuscript about Jesus is an almost purely ethical text – not eschatological, not cultic, not enough of a deviation from Bultmann to put my mind at ease.

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7 Responses to Blinded By Bultmann?

  1. Petra Dijkhuizen says:

    Could you provide me with your email address? I have an unrelated question. Thanks, Petra


  2. rebeccarunesson says:

    No problem! Here it is: Looking forward to hearing from you.


  3. A decade after Bultmann’s retirement, Stephen Neill penned this tribute:

    One can write of Rudolf Bultmann only with respect, and even with affection. At seventy-eight he is one of the great father figures of Western theology. There is hardly a subject connected with the New Testament which he has not touched; and…whatever one’s disagreements with him may be, it is necessary to wrestle with him, to take account of all that he represents, to adopt a position in relation to what is still the most powerful contemporary movement in New Testament interpretation.
    (The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961, London: Oxford University Press, 1964)


    • rebeccarunesson says:

      Interesting quotation. I agree: we undeniably all still live in his shadow, which is an indicator of his prowess as a scholar. I think the most respectful thing we can do today is discuss and problematize his theories; engaging with a scholar’s ideas is the biggest compliment one can pay him/her.


      • As long as the conversations continue, we have the chance to keep learning. Hope future generations are still recalling your scholarly contributions in years to come!


  4. rebeccarunesson says:

    Thank you for the kind words, much appreciated :)!


  5. Dear fellow blogger!

    I invite you to read my blog post about the Kingdom of God:

    “The Bible says that we should put it first in our lives (Matt. 6:33) and that we should be preaching it to others (Luke 9:2). We pray for God’s kingdom to come on a regular basis, but if someone were to ask us: “Please, explain to me exactly what the Kingdom of God is”, would we know what to say?”

    Read more:


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