The German theologian Rudolf Karl Bultmann (1884-1976) altered the direction of biblical studies by his work in the interpretation of the New Testament.
Rudolf Bultmann was born August 20, 1884, in Wiefelstede, the eldest son of an Evangelical Lutheran pastor. He attended the humanistic gymnasium in Oldenburg and in 1903 began to study theology at Tübingen. In the manner of German university students, he spent several semesters at Berlin and later at Marburg and thus studied with most of the leading German scholars of biblical and dogmatic theology. His degree was awarded in 1910, and after submitting a qualifying essay two years later, he was admitted at Marburg as a lecturer on the New Testament. After brief lectureships at Breslau and Giessen, he returned to Marburg in 1921 as a full professor. He retained this position until his retirement in 1951.
Bultmann applied to his exegesis of Scripture certain key ideas borrowed from the "existential analysis" of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger attempted to discover the fundamental concepts which must be used in any understanding of human existence. Thus, for example, his treatment of "authentic" existence was adopted by Bultmann to illuminate the biblical conception of the life of faith. Bultmann also used Heidegger's treatment of alienation and anxiety to clarify the biblical notions of sin and guilt, and the philosopher's emphasis of human mortality influenced Bultmann's ideas of dying to the world and to oneself.
Another important aspect of Bultmann's biblical interpretation was his effort to separate the essential gospel message from the 1st-century world view. This "demythologizing" did not mean the elimination of the miracle stories or the account of demonic powers. Rather, it meant their reinterpretation "existentially" in terms of man's understanding of his own situation and its fundamental possibilities. To Bultmann the story of the Resurrection is not an account of the reanimation of a corpse; instead, it expresses the possibility of man's entrance into a new dimension of existence, free from guilt and anxiety and open to all people in love. Less plausibly, Bultmann argued that Paul began this process of demythologizing by giving an existential interpretation to the Gnostic mythology of demons. The most complete statement of Bultmann's biblical exegesis is found in his Theology of the New Testament (trans. 1951).
In his later writings Bultmann continued with his form-critical analysis of New Testament sources. The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1968) was an influential examination of the compositions of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of John: A Commentary (1971) was considered a significant new interpretation of the difficult fourth Gospel. One of Bultmann's last works, Jesus and the Word (1975), was an investigation of the teachings of Jesus that provides readers a glimpse of the theologian's theory of history, as well as Biblical interpretation.
During the Nazi regime Bultmann was one of the most outspoken members of the "Confessing Church," which refused to follow the "German Christian" clergy in supporting Hitler's non-Aryan exclusion policies. Throughout his career Bultmann continued to preach as well as teach. Bultmann married and became the father of three daughters. He died on July 30, 1976, in Marburg, (then West) Germany.
Further Reading on Rudolf Karl Bultmann
The literature on Bultmann's work has grown enormously since the end of World War II. Charles Kegley, ed., The Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (1966), contains a brief autobiographical sketch by Bultmann, important essays of interpretation, and criticism of his major ideas, together with Bultmann's replies. It also contains an exhaustive bibliography of his works to 1965. André Malet, The Thought of Rudolf Bultmann (trans. 1971), is comprehensive and very readable. More recent studies include Gareth Jones, Bultmann: Towards a Critical Theology (1991) and Schubert M. Ogden, Christ Without Myth: A Study Based on the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (1991).