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Rudolf Bultmann and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

May 11, 2012


Among the most influential theologians of the twentieth century stands Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976).[1]  He was a man of towering intellect whose work continues to exercise a significant influence over theological discussions to this day.  Although more people say negative things about Bultmann than those who have actually read him, he has made many important contributions to the theological world.  The following essay will explore his role within the quest for the historical Jesus.[2]


Theological ideas are never formed in a vacuum.  They are always developed within a matrix of past and present influences.  Bultmann’s understanding of Jesus is no exception.  Along with Karl Barth, Bultmann’s work marks the transition between the “Old” and the “New Quest”, a period of about 40 years often referred to as the “No Quest” era.[3]  In most histories of the quest, Bultmann is usually considered to have been the direct successor of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965).  Schweitzer is generally regarded as being responsible for demolishing the “Old Quest” of the nineteenth century with his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus,[4]  in which he critically weighed the previous reconstructions of Jesus that had been suggested and found them wanting.  He concluded that these portraits of Jesus reflected the faces of the historians themselves more than the historical figure they were searching for.[5]  He dismissed their views as being distortions of the evidence found in the Gospels, arguing instead that Jesus was a wandering apocalyptic prophet predicting the end of the world, which of course didn’t happen.

Ten years earlier, Martin Kähler (1835-1912) had written The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ[6] in which he also rejected the nineteenth-century quest,  regarding “the entire Life-of-Jesus movement as a blind alley”.[7]  While he argued that it is impossible to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith, his distinction between the two has had a significant impact on all subsequent quests.[8]  Kähler is also responsible for distinguishing between historie and and geschichte;[9] the former refers to the facts of history, while the latter refers to the interpretation or meaning of history.  Thus, the Christ of faith was geschichte, while the Jesus of historie was simply a “figment of the historical-critical mind”.[10]  Having made these careful distinctions, Kähler was able to argue that faith was not dependant on historical research.  Much of this was anticipated decades earlier by Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).[11]  Casting doubt on the whole quest, he stated that “It is infinitely beyond history’s capacity to demonstrate that God… lived here on earth as an individual human being.”[12]  Instead, he reasoned that faith grows out of an existential experience, not history.

Around the turn of the century, a new methodology  was being developed which came to be known as Formgeschichte, or “form criticsm” as it is better known in English.  Its aim was to examine the biblical text in order to determine what can be considered as reliable historical source material.  Following Hermann Gunkel’s (1862–1932) use of it in Old Testament studies, Martin Dibelius (1883-1947) was the first to systematise the method for the Gospels in From Tradition to Gospel.[13]  Dibelius argued that the Gospels were composed of a series of isolated units that were products of oral traditions developed in response to the church’s needs.  He grouped the material into six categories, concluding that the Gospel writers were little more than collectors and editors of the traditions about Jesus that were really produced by the church,[14] although he didn’t deny the possibility that some of the tradition went back to Jesus Himself.[15]  These are among the many influential ideas that formed the climate in which Bultmann began his work on Jesus.[16]


Given the negative attitude towards the quest by many of his predecessors and contemporaries, it is perhaps no surprise that Bultmann rejected it altogether.  Morris Aschcraft notes that there were at least two reasons for this: 1) the failure of the old quest, and 2) the unsuitable nature of the sources.[17]  Like Schweitzer and Kähler, Bultmann had no time for the nineteenth-century portraits of Jesus, but went further than both of them by insisting that not even the “personality” of Jesus could be recovered from the Gospel records.  In the most frequently quoted statement from Jesus and the Word, he wrote:

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, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.[18]

This quotation has been too often misunderstood.  Bultmann did not mean that we can know next to nothing about Jesus.  The book he wrote, in which this statement is found, proves he believed there are in fact some things that can be known about Him.  What he was rejecting were the biographical narratives that were attempting to define Jesus’ personality.[19]

Following Dibelius,[20] Bultmann took a more radical approach to form criticism in The History of the Synoptic Tradition.[21]  He utilised this new method of historical analysis to distinguish the differing layers of oral tradition present in the Synoptic Gospels.[22]  While the individual fragments of Jesus’ teachings were gathered together in a layer of tradition grounded in Palestine, a unified life of Jesus “was first created by the Christ myth of the Hellenistic congregation”.[23]  The Gospel of Mark is the first example in which we see not only a unified form of “the Christ myth” but also the questions, interests and concerns of the Hellenistic church, far removed in time, language and culture from the Palestinian origins of Jesus.  In other words, the Gospels simply “give us a glimpse into the period after Jesus’ death when the church was defining its stand points, settling controversies and coming to some sort of terms with its environment”.[24]  Thus for Bultmann, “what is found in the Synoptic Gospels is a record of the life of the church, not the life of Jesus”.[25]  He concluded that, in terms of the available evidence, we are able to know very little about the historical Jesus.  “The Christ who is preached [in the Gospels] is not the historic Jesus, but the Christ of the faith.”[26]

So after all the tradition had been stripped away, what kind of Jesus did Bultmann find?  In his major work on the topic, Jesus and the Word, he argued that what we know about Jesus is that He baptised by John, He was part of a messianic movement, He preached the kingdom of God, and was executed under Pontius Pilate.  However, He had no consciousness of being the Messiah, He never predicted His passion nor did He imagine that He would return again to earth.  He was essentially an existentialist teacher of timeless truths that calls for a decision in the present.[27]

At this point Bultmann takes up the ideas of Kähler and Kierkegaard and develops them further.  Combining the insights gained from form criticism and existentialism, he was basically confronted with a question similar to that which Kierkegaard faced a century earlier: How is faith related to historically uncertain facts?[28]  For Bultmann, the answer was simple.  Throughout all his writings, he repeats the refrain that Christian faith is not dependant on the historical Jesus but on the Christ of faith.  He consistently maintained “that it is impossible to write a modern biography of Jesus because the source materials are confessional rather than biographical”.[29]  He made no attempt to say that Christianity stands or falls on historical evidence.  Rather, Christianity then as now, stands on the proclamation of Christ,[30] which he referred to as the kerygma.  Bultmann was convinced that he was on the same ground as the New Testament when he turned his attention away from the historical Jesus towards an encounter with the Christ of faith[31] since he believed that the New Testament only deals with the latter and not the former.

Even if we did have the kind of historical evidence needed to paint an accurate portrait, Bultmann believed that theology which is centred on the figure of Jesus would not be Christian theology at all, because in reality Christian theology is the explanation of faith, a faith that initially became a historical reality in the Hellenistic church, not the Jesus movement of Palestine.  Thus, the very nature of Christian faith and theology basically leaves the historical Jesus irrelevant, though not completely forgotten:

Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation.  No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community.[32]


As mentioned in the introduction, people seem to have more negative things to say about Bultmann than positive, and it’s not hard to see why.  However, Herbert Wolf rightly points out that “any critique of Bultmann demands recognition of the positive contribution he has made in this area of thought.”[33]

Although Bultmann’s picture of Jesus may be considered downright heretical, he was at least attempting to make Jesus relevant.  His motivation to present the message of the Gospel to modern man is seen in the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.[34]  What matters most is not the often misguided reconstructions of Jesus, which are based on confessional documents not historical accounts anyway, but how one will respond to the timeless call for decision.  Jesus is not some dusty figure of a bygone era; His message continues to demand a response in the present.  Bultmann thus intended to direct attention to faith rather than simple facts, a corrective that was perhaps needed at the time.[35]  However, although his approach managed to avoid some of the confusion that previous historical research had generated, it ends up creating bigger problems elsewhere.  For instance, how can there be any existential response to Jesus that does not involve some objective historical knowledge?[36]  The problem with driving a wedge between faith and history is that it totally ignores the fact that Christianity is and always has been a historical religion.  It depends entirely on concrete historical events, especially the resurrection.[37]  As Ben Witherington points out, “A faith that does not ground the Christ of personal experience in the Jesus of history is a form of docetic or gnostic heresy.”[38]  Faith does not arise in and of itself; it comes in response to historical facts.[39]

Through his use and development of form criticism, Bultmann quite correctly brought to light the fact that the Gospels do indeed reflect many of the questions and concerns of the early church communities.  No New Testament scholar would deny the reality of that today.  Along with the others championing form criticism, he helped draw attention to the process of writing, compiling and editing the Synoptic Gospels which has been a constant area of research ever since, often producing important insights.  But once again, Bultmann was right in what he affirmed but wrong in what he denied.  Although the Synoptic Gospels clearly reveal insights into the community to which they were written, does that mean that the writers or editors simply fabricated parts of it to meet their needs?  Furthermore, despite the criteria he outlines in The History of the Synoptic Tradition, how can we be totally sure of which sayings of Jesus are authentic and which are not?  Where do we draw the line?[40]  These are among some of the most notable weaknesses in his understanding.


Whether one agrees with Bultmann’s understanding of Jesus or not, no one can doubt the far reaching influence it has had on all subsequent quests for the historical Jesus.  Pointing to the insufficiency of the Gospels as historical sources, he shifted the focus away from history and on to faith.  Jesus is not a figure confined to the past; His message continues meets us in the present.  While his understanding contains some major flaws, it has had some positive outcomes.  And for those, Bultmann is to be thanked.

[1] A brief but helpful sketch of his life can be found in Morris Ashcraft, Rudolf Bultmann (Waco, TX: Word, 1972), 11-22.

[2] For a definition and overview of the many quests, see Dale C. Allison, “Jesus Christ,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: I-Ma (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2008) 262-264; “Historical Jesus, Quest of the,” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F.L. Cross (New York: Oxford University, 2005), 779-780; N.T. Wright, “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 3, edited by David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 796-802. From here on, the quest for historical Jesus will simply be refered to as “the quest”.

[3] It is perhaps important to note that this period was also marked by the two world wars, which had no small influence on theologians and historians alike.

[4] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (London : Adam & Charles Black, 1954), first published as Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung in 1906.

[5] This is a common metaphor used by many writers to sum up Schweitzer’s attitude towards the quest.

[6] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, translated by Carl E. Braaten (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1964), first published as Der sogenannte historische Jesus und der geschichtliche, biblische Christus in 1896.

[7] Ibid, 46.

[8] Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), 10.

[9] This distinction can only be seen in the original language.

[10] Reinhart Schelert, “The Continuing Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Restoration Quarterly 19, no. 4 (1976), 234.

[11] For a more detailed study on this point, see Herbert C. Wolf, Kierkegaard and Bultmann: The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1965).

[12] Kierkegaard, Søren. Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Søren Kierkegaard, edited by Charles E. Moore (Rifton, NY: Plough Books, 2002), 69.

[13] Martin Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, translated by Bertram Lee Woolf (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1971), first published as Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums in 1919.

[14] Schelert, “The Continuing Quest,” 235.

[15] Charles C. Anderson, Critical Quests of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 89.

[16] Another important factor to consider in this context his Lutheran background.

[17] Morris Ashcraft, Rudolf Bultmann (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1972), 45. Walter P. Weaver notes that his scepticism was also a “response to the liberalism in which he was himself trained and from which he came.” The Historical Jesus in the Twentieth Century, 1900-1950 (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 1999), 103.

[18] Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (London: Fontana, 1958), 14.

[19] Cf. Rudolf Bultmann, Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, translated by Schubert M. Ogden (New York: Meridian, 1960), 28.

[20] Weaver has pointed out that “Dibelius attempted to reconstruct the history of the tradition by proceeding from the Sitz im Leben to the literary forms, while Bultmann began with the literary settings and inferred something about the life of the community.” The Historical Jesus, 102.

[21] Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, translated by John Marsh (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968), first published as Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, in 1921.

[22] In agreement with other scholars, Bultmann excluded the Gospel of John as a source for the historical Jesus.

[23] Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 223.

[24] Ian Henderson, Rudolf Bultmann (London : Lutterworth, 1965), 17.

[25] Robert K. McIver, Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels (Atlanta: SBL, 2011), 101.

[26] Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 370.

[27] I’m in debt to Ian Henderson, Rudolf Bultmann (London : Lutterworth, 1965), 43, for some of the phrasing in this summary.

[28] Wolf, Kierkegaard and Bultmann, 62.

[29] Ashcraft, Bultmann, 42.

[30] Henderson, Bultmann, 18.

[31] Walter Schmithals, An Introduction to the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann, translated by John Bowden (London: SCM, 1967), 215.

[32] Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, 17.

[33] Wolf, Kierkegaard and Bultmann, 86.

[34] This is worked out more systematically in his demythologisation hermeneutic, which strips away everything that seems impossible or irrelevant to people living in a scientific age. Due to the word limitation, this part of his thinking has not been explored in relation to his understanding of Jesus.

[35] His Lutheran background may also have had a significant part to play in this. As many writers on Bultmann have pointing out, basing one’s faith on history could be considered a “work”.

[36] Schelert, “The Continuing Quest,” 238.

[37] Which Bultmann did not accept as a literal historical event.

[38] Witherington, The Jesus Quest, 11.

[39] For instance, 1 Cor. 15:1-19.

[40] This same issue arises in his application of “demythologising” the Gospels.

  1. More than Kierkegaard, though, Bultmann was heavily influenced by the existentialism of Martin Heidegger, who was a colleague of his. It is in this vein that Bultmann sought to de-historicize the kerygma of the church. The historical fact simply is unimportant for Bultmann (only present and future matter). One of the earliest critiques of Bultmann’s theological project can be found in Wolfhart Pannenberg (and the “Working Circle” or “Pannenberg Circle” and included the likes of Ulrich Wilkens) who presented a work meant to substantially criticize the kerygmatic theologians: *Revelation as History*, which, as the title suggests, emphasized the historical nature of the Word of God against Bultmann (and to a lesser extent Barth). It also sought to bring together biblical studies and theology (something Bultmann, paradoxically, opposed). Also, a few side notes: I thought Gunkel work in New Testament, not Old Testament (and his introduction of “form criticism” was in his Introduction to the New Testament, though was an attempt to bring the Old Testament “source criticism” to bear on the New Testament). Also I thought that Geschichte more properly defined “universal history” while Historie was periodic or episodic (from a single viewpoint) facts of a particular history. Though, my German is still pretty uneven. Overall a great post thought (good thorough treatment).

    • Ben permalink

      Thanks very much for your comments Trey. This short essay is far from complete – it was for a unit in historical theology that I’m doing this semester and, as such, was restricted by the word limit (I’m an undergraduate student studying theology in Australia). However, when I get a spare moment or two between assignments and exams, I’ll certainly chase up some of the points you mentioned.

  2. Finally! I printed off this article more than a month ago and I finally got around to reading it.

    My only response, really, is I am impressed with the analysis. Thinking about it now makes me want to compare the logical style of Bultmann to Locke, though, and I never thought of Bultmann that way while I read “Kerygma and Myth.” Locke always seems impossible to satisfy in religious terms. Given how much I like the objectivity in Bultmann’s approach, I don’t like thinking of him as too resistant to accept the miraculous aspects of God and the Son of Man.

    This article does trigger a few (slightly atopical) questions about the time and place of Christ’s life, as they relate to the transmission of data–mostly because, trying to locate your posting again, I came across discussions involving form criticism and the assumption little writing was going on during Christ’s own lifetime.

    Do you know of any fairly new work in theological publications where the distinction between “historie” and “geschichte” is discussed in lay terms? That seems to be critical in understanding the different facets of Jesus, but given the general public’s increasingly vague sense of how God manifests in the world, I dare say the subtle and alternate meanings behind the two German terms are easily overlooked.

    • Ben permalink

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. It’s always a pleasant surprise to discover people are still reading some of these posts! This was an essay that I wrote as an undergraduate a number of years ago and have not really delved into these topics in more detail since. Regarding the distinctions between ‘historie’ and ‘geschichte’, I can only recommend consulting a good handbook or encyclopaedia on biblical criticism.

  3. It’s a start, at least. Thanks!

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