Tuesday, 5 June 2012

More Lives of Jesus 6: Rudolf Bultmann

I know I promised to review some more recent Lives of Jesus and I've been doing that, but late last year I picked up a copy of Rudolf Bultmann's Jesus and the Word in a second hand shop.  Since Bultmann has made a couple of cameos in these reviews, I thought I'd tell you a little more about what he says.

Jesus and the Word was first published in German in 1926, and translated into English in 1934.  Bultmann had yet to embark on the project of "demythologising" Christianity which was to make him famous or notorious throughout the Christian world, depending on your viewpoint.  Here in this book we can see the beginnings of that theology and understand both its strength and its weakness.

One thing this book shows is how little the study of the Gospels has changed over the past century.  Bultmann has a lot in common with the present day fellows of the Jesus Seminar.  Like them, he sees the Gospels as layered texts, some parts recording the actual words of Jesus, others later embellishments by the early Christians.  Furthermore he agrees with them that the Synoptic gospels contain most of this early material. 

However, he does rely on a slightly different method to them, attempting to identify the sayings that could have originated in the original Aramaic-speaking Christian community and eliminate those which have an obvious Hellenistic flavour.  This means that, unlike the Jesus Seminar, he sees Jesus as fundamentally connected to his Jewish roots, and his ideas as a development of the Jewish thought of his day - in some respects he echoes and agrees with the views common in his time and place, while in others he radically departs from them.

Bultmann is also quite pessimistic about the prospect of knowing anything much about Jesus as a person.

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.  But how far that community preserved an objectively true picture of him and his message is another question.  For those whose interest is in the personality of Jesus this situation is depressing or destructive; for our purpose it has no particular significance.  It is precisely this complex of ideas in the oldest layer of the synoptic tradition which is the object of our consideration.  It meets us as a fragment of tradition coming to us from the past, and in the examination of it we seek the encounter with history.  By the tradition Jesus is named as bearer of the message; according to overwhelming probability he really was.  Should it prove otherwise, that does not change in any way what is said in the record.

So, a "Life of Jesus" in Bultmann's eyes is an impossibility.  We have no way of knowing even simple biographical details about Jesus with any certainty, never mind any insight into his psychology or emotional life.  Nor do his deeds rate very highly in Butmann's view.  He dismisses Jesus' miracles in a few sentences. 

What remains is Jesus as a teacher.  What is important about Jesus is his words or, if you like, his Word.  This is what holds Bultmann's attention for the bulk of this book, after the rest has been dismissed in a brief introduction.  So what is it, in Bultmann's view, that Jesus taught?

The first part of this message is of the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Butmann is rather vague about the meaning of this term, but he is clear that the implication of its imminence is that his hearers must repent.  The Kingdom is upon them, and God demands decision of them - will they obey God and enter the Kingdom, or will they refuse and be destroyed?  There is no middle ground for Jesus, no room for prevarication, now is the time for decision. 

What do they have to decide?  Bultmann is clear that Jesus stands firmly in the Jewish tradition.  He accepts without question the authority of the Law and the Prophets, and the value of the temple worship and the Jewish cult.  Bultmann is also clear that "one should not...designate the Jewish ethic as an ethic of works and contrast it with an ethic of intention".  The Jews understood that motive was important, that they would follow the law because they wanted to obey God.  Nor did the Jews do this out of any sense that to do so would bring them some sort of reward, or that the law was intrinsically good or helpful.  Obedience was necessary for its own sake, even if the purpose of the laws made no sense to them.

Jesus' difference from the scribes is precisely this - that for them the law was unintelligible and needed to simply be followed blindly.  All commands were equal, as coming from God, and all must be equally obeyed.  For Jesus, on the other hand, one law can be set against another, and it should be clear to his hearers which has priority.  Thus, for instance, Jesus contrasts Moses' rules about divorce with the description in Genesis - "the two shall become one flesh" - to demonstrate that divorce is not God's original intention, only an allowance for their weakness.  The laws about the Sabbath are turned on their head by the question, "ought a man to do good or evil on the Sabbath? save a life, or kill?".  The laws on purification are nullified by the statement "There is nothing which comes into a man from without which defiles him; it is what comes out of a man which defiles him". 

This leads to what Bultmann calls the "radical conception" of obedience.

What God's will is, is not stated by an external authority, so that the content of the command is a matter of indifference, but man is entrusted and expected to see for himself what God commands.  God's requirements are intrinsically intelligible....For so long as obedience is only subjection to an authority which man does not understand, it is no true obedience; something in man still stands outside and does not submit....Radical obedience exists only when a man inwardly assents to what is required of him, when the thing commanded is seen as intrinsically God's command; when the whole man stands behind what he does; or better, when the whole man is in what he does, when he is not doing something obediently but is essentially obedient.

So then, who is this God we are to obey?  Once again Bultmann starts with the basic Jewish conception of God - that God is both remote and near.  He is remote, in that he is not part of the cosmos, or resident in it, or a creature like the others we see.  Yet he is near, because everything depends on him.  He then explains how Jesus used this concept.

For him God is not an object of thought, of speculation; he does not press into service the concept of God in order to understand the world and comprehend it as a unity.  Therefore God is to him neither a metaphysical entity nor a cosmic power nor a law of the universe, but a personal Will, holy and gracious Will.  Jesus speaks of God only to affirm that man is claimed by the will of God and determined in his present existence through God's demand....

Hence we circle back to the starting point - the Kingdom of God is at hand, and we have to choose - bow to his will and enter the Kingdom, or reject it and be rejected in turn.

The beauty of Bultmann's view of Jesus is its simplicity.  By abstracting Jesus' sayings and focusing on them, he gets in a few short pages to the heart of his message and his purpose, and the radical challenge he presents to us.  In the process he strips away much of our own theology, inspired and guided as it is by Greek modes of thought that were unknown to Jesus.  He rules out of court our metaphyical speculations, our humanistic desire for self-realisation, our legalistic desire for self-justification.  All of these things, he says, need to be removed so that we can hear the voice of Jesus calling us to repentance.

I feel a little presumptuous in offering criticism of one of the foremost theologians of the 20th century.  Still, it seems to me that the simplicity of Bultmann's analysis is to some extent illusory.  For instance, he has chosen to accept the teachings passed on by the first Christians and recorded in the Gospels, but to ignore his deeds - both the miraculous and the everyday.  Yet if we can rely on the first Christians to faithfully record Jesus' teachings, why can we not rely on them to record his deeds?  Are these deeds not also an important part of his teaching?  Even leaving aside the miracles which Bultmann finds untenable, surely Jesus' baptism by John,  the "triumphal entry", the cleansing of the temple and of course his crucifixion are key clues to his message and intent?  Bultmann, just as much as his successors, is a prisoner to his assumptions and his methods.

Nonetheless, the message of Jesus can stand on its own, and Bultmann's formulation of it challenges us.  It gave him courage to oppose the mythology and terrors of the Nazis, and enabled him to remain faithful in the midst of post-war disillusionment.  Jesus still calls us to repent, and our need for such repentance is as fresh as ever.


Hermit said...

"The beauty of Bultmann's view of Jesus is it simplicity". In my view, the ugliness of Bultmann's view of Jesus is it's complete lack of belief that Jesus could be who he said he was (and is).

In dismissing the miracles, he has turned from the inescapable conclusion that this man was the Son of God, as testified by God the creator. He has spurned God's testimony of His only begotten son.

How can I find help in a belief that dismisses its own foundations?

No, I shall continue to trust in Jesus, the Son of God, as revealed in His Word, and I know that I shall not be ashamed. Every knee will bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Jon said...

Hermit I don't disagree with you about Jesus as Son of God, and Bultann's attitude to miracles seems a little arbitrary to me. However I don't agree that the miracles lead to that conclusion inescapably.

In an earlier post in this series I reviewed Crossan and Read's "Excavating Jesus" - here's my summary of what they said on the subject. Full review at http://paintingfakes.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/more-lives-of-jesus-4-crossan-and-reed.html

"In our post-Enlightenment world view, they say, "impossibility battles with uniqueness" - the miracles and resurrection appear improbable, but Christians argue that they are one-off, unique events attested to by their followers' passion. In the first century this argument would have been totally irrelevant. The miracles and resurrection would be seen as neither impossible, nor as unique. No-one would have had any trouble believing them and most ancient religions involved similar claims. Instead, the arguments of the early Christians centred around the question of superiority. For believers, the clincher was not the truth of the events, but the superiority of the message they conveyed - the reality of the liberation and justice that flowed from the Kingdom of God, enacted in their own believing communities."

Hence Bultmann's focus on the call to repentance. It presents a challenge to us - is our message, and the way we live it out, such as would attract other people to our faith? Or does it repel?

Also bear in mind that Bultmann's faith was real enough to give him courage to stand up to the Nazis - not an easy thing to do by any means.