Bultmann: The Problem 1. The Myths

As mentioned in a previous post, Kerygma and Myth contains the text of Bultmann’s New Testament and Myth in the first two parts authored by Bultmann. I will look at the first of those, The Mythological Element in the Message of the NewTestament and the Problem of its Re-interpretation Part I. That document is further subdivided by Bultmann into

Part I: The Task of Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation
A. The Problem

The first subsection expresses the New Testament’s mythical worldview in a nutshell.

    1. The Mythical View of the World and the Mythical Event of Redemption

…The world is viewed as a three storied structure, with the earth in the centre, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath. Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings — the angels. The underworld is hell, the place of torment. … God and his angels…and Satan and his demons…intervene in the course of nature and in all that men think and will and do. Miracles are by no means rare. Man is not in control of his own life. Evil spirits may take possession of him. Satan may inspire him with evil thoughts. Alternatively, God may inspire his thought and guide his purposes. … He may give him the supernatural power of his Spirit. It [the end of the aeon] will come very soon, and will take the form of a cosmic catastrophe. … Then the Judge will come from heaven, the dead will rise, the last judgment will take place, and men will enter into eternal salvation or damnation.

This then is the mythical view of the world which the New Testament presupposes when it  presents the event of redemption which is the subject of its preaching. [Italics in original] It proclaims in the language of mythology that the last time has now come. “In the fullness of time” God sent forth his Son, a pre-existent divine Being, who appears on earth as a man. … He dies the death of a sinner … on the cross and makes atonement for the sins of men. … His resurrection marks the beginning of the cosmic catastrophe. Death, the consequence of Adam’s sin, is abolished … and the demonic forces are deprived of their power. … The risen Christ is exalted to the right hand of God in heaven … and made “Lord” and”King”. … He will come again on the clouds of heaven to complete the work of redemption, and the resurrection and judgment of men will follow. … Sin, suffering and death will then be finally abolished. … All this is to happen very soon; indeed, St. Paul thinks that he himself will live to see it.(I Thess. 4:15ff.; I Cor.15:5lf.; cf. Mark 9:1.)

This, then, is the New Testament according to Rudolph Bultmann, stripped down to its essentials. Bultmann is introduced as “one of the great scholars in the field of New Testament study,” so he should have known what the New Testament is all about. If he didn’t, who would? And most of this summary is unexceptional, if highly selective. However, there are a couple of sticking points.

[Spiritual beings] intervene…in all that men think and will and do… Man is not in control of his own life.

That’s news to me. Clearly I’m not reading the New Testament properly. There are plenty of instances of spirit possession in the NT, but that’s against a context of the free will of men. The NT Jews still believed the Old Testament. The problem started, not when Eve was possessed but an evil spirit, but when an evil spirit inveigled her; likewise Adam was inveigled by his wife. Without free will, there is no sin. Without the law to break, there is no sin, so how can the first paragraph be compatible with the second? How could “one of the great scholars” make such an egregious blunder?

What the NT, and the Old, does tell us is that we are not alone. We are not the autonomous and isolated  beings, standing utterly apart from such fantasies as spiritual beings, in sole and bitterly lonely control of the barque of the self on the vast sea of existence. We make our decisions, moment by moment, year by year, lifetime by lifetime, but that decision draws to our assistance those very spiritual beings whose existence Bultmann ridicules. Among the whisperings, the cajoling, the shouts, the enticements offered to us, we choose, and join, for the duration of that moment or that lifetime, the side we have chosen. And that army stands with us, while the other is arrayed against us.

Of course, to Bultmann, this is nonsense. After all, he was writing in Germany, in 1941. He was the heir to a couple of centuries of “Enlightenment.” Germany was rich, powerful, and in control of Europe  from the Atlantic to the Soviet border. Rommel was driving towards Egypt, the Suez and Jerusalem. When he arrived, the Mediterranean would become a Nazi lake. Germany was peopled by rational, enlightened, independent intellects under no influence from any spiritual entities. Clearly.

All this is to happen very soon; indeed, St. Paul thinks that he himself will live to see it.

Reading the NT, especially the letters written so relatively soon after the Resurrection, one is struck by the lively expectation of the parousia in a number of places, including the Gospels. However, by the time Peter wrote the letters (which of course he did not write) he clearly saw the return of the King as a more distant event. I would be surprised had Paul not himself come to the same conclusion by the time he was in Rome, at the very latest.

I would not cf Mark 9:1, either. In all of the Synoptics, this reference is immediately followed by the recounting of the Transfiguration, mentioned also in the 2nd letter not written by Peter. And John beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father. When was that? But we don’t have to worry about what John might have said, because John’s Gospel has no historical validity at all. Bultmann, his teachers, and the generations of theologians and NT scholars who have trained under his influence, tell us so.[1]

Of course, the Church Fathers of the first, second and third centuries were well aware of the contents of the NT. The fact that the parousia had not yet eventuated doesn’t seem to have disconcerted them. There was a ferment of criticism, a multitude of theological splits, an abundance of apocryphal documents vying for canonical status, and many variant readings of the canonical works, notably in Egypt. It often seems, when reading modern attacks on the NT, and Christianity in general, that the critics don’t think blokes like St Augustine, Eusebius, Origen, Tertullian and Irenaeus could either read or think: that in this current unbelieving generation has a better understanding of the NT than did they. The canonicity of the four-fold Gospel was well established in the early second century. It took until 400 for the full complement of the NT to be firmly established throughout Christendom, although this discussion assumed the four Gospels, the thirteen Pauline epistles (not including Hebrews), I Peter and I John. It was the status of the other books, and of a number of non-canonical books, that was in dispute. And an active dispute it was. How was it, then, with all of this discussion of the merits of various books, that the supposedly crippling problems of the canon were not noticed as Christianity spread to encompass the Mediterranean and beyond?

[1]There is an interesting side-trail here.  It is argued that the Gospels could not have been written before the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in AD70. Why not? Because the references to the end-times in the Gospels are obviously referring to this event. When Jesus predicts the sack of Jerusalem, we know that he could not have actually predicted the future: therefore the supposed prediction was invented after the fact. So, 40, 50 or 60 years after the crucifixion of the hopes of Jesus’ followers, Matthew, Mark and Luke constructed Gospels which contributed to the sense of “lively expectation.” Why then, when the model of the end-times had come and gone, and Jerusalem was being re-populated in peace, would they do such a thing? If, however, the Synoptics were written before 70, Bultmann’s hypothesis makes slightly more sense.

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