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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Bultmann, Jesus, and Myth

Rudolf Bultmann, in Kerygma and Myth, argues that the New Testament is clouded with mythology which modern persons cannot accept. To understand the truth Scripture is trying to proclaim, it must first be demythologized.


He begins by critiquing New Testament cosmology. The New Testament portrays the world as being divided into the world above, where God and the angels dwell, and the world below, a place of torment. Earth lies in the middle and serves as the battleground between the two worlds [1]. However, science has shown that this is not how the world is arranged. Scientific cosmology has replaced that of the New Testament [2]. Since humans cannot accept one view of the world in their faith and another in their day-to-day life, the mythological framework must be removed from the New Testament in order to reveal its true message for modern persons [3].


A key element of New Testament teaching which Bultmann takes issue with is that human beings are caught between two powers, that of the world above and that of the world below. A human being is an unity and “bears the sole responsibility for his own feeling, thinking, and willing” [4]. Humans are free responsible agents. As such, he rejects original sin. Each person is responsible for his or her own sin, not Adam’s. Death is not a punishment for Adam’s sin, but part of the world’s natural workings [5].


Bultmann states, “The real purpose of myth is not to present an objective picture of the world as it is, but to express man’s understanding of himself in the world in which he lives” [6]. As such it must be interpreted “existentially”. “Myth speaks of the power or the powers which man supposes he experiences as the ground and limit of his world and of his own activity and suffering. He describes these powers in terms derived from the visible world” [7]. “It expresses his sense of dependence not only within the visible world, but more especially on those forces which hold sway beyond the confines of the known” [8]. New Testament mythology contains “an understanding of existence” [9].


Bultmann identifies a central contradiction in the New Testament which indicates the text’s demand to bey demythologized: a contradiction between the determination of human life and the demand to decide [10]. Bultmann believes the view of humanity enshrined in the New Testament is essentially that of existentialism [11]. Existentialism focuses primarily on the individual and the demand for him or her to make a choice to live authentically in the angst of life’s possibility of nonexistence [12].


Human life is lived in a world in revolt against God, in which “everybody tries to hold fast to his own life and property, because he has a secret feeling that it is all slipping away from him” [13]. The life of faith, on the other hand, is “based on unseen, intangible realities” and rejects all attempts at “self-contrived security” [14]. God’s grace forgives human beings of sin, their attempts to cling to the security of the past, and opens them to God’s gift of the future, which requires complete trust in Him alone [15].


The life of faith is always lived in light of the Christ event [16]. Jesus is a unique figure wrapped in mythology as the pre-existent Son of God but presented as a historical figure in the life of Jesus of Nazareth [17]. The mythology of Jesus is utilized to explain the significance of Jesus’ life [18].


The defining event of Jesus’ life is the crucifixion. Bultmann asserts that the mythology of a sacrifice whose blood atones for sin is not tenable in a modern world [19]. For Bultmann, the cross not only forgives sin but sets individuals free from sin’s power. The reality of the cross is not a simple historical fact but is “an ever-present reality” where individuals are freed from the power of sin by its reality [20]. The cross frees individuals from a fear of suffering and death and perfects a detachment from the world [21]. Because of the cross, individuals can live authentically in the world, as finite, mortal beings, capable of non-existence. “The real meaning of the cross is that it has created a new and permanent situation in history. The preaching of the cross as the event of redemption challenges all who hear it to appropriate this significance for themselves, to be willing to be crucified with Christ” [22].


Bultmann rejects the cross’s companion event, the resurrection, as a historical fact [23]. The resurrection reflects the Christian’s state of freedom from sin [24]. It is proclaimed alongside the cross as the key articles of Christian faith [25]. The proclamation of the cross and resurrection of Christ confront each individual hearing. “In accepting the word of preaching as the word of God and the death and resurrection of Christ as the eschatological event, we are given an opportunity of understanding ourselves” [26]. The proclamation is itself part of the eschatological event. “This word supplements the cross and makes its saving efficacy intelligible by demanding faith and confronting men with the question whether they are willing to understand themselves as men who are crucified and risen with Christ” [27].


In separating the Christian message from the way it is presented in the text, Bultmann runs the risk of distorting the text, a criticism he regularly receives from N. T. Wright [28]. When studying Bultmann, one must ask whether he is truly discerning the Christian message or imposing existentialist categories on the text. In this author’s opinion, he does the latter. By divorcing the text’s message from the details of the text which he finds unpalatable, Bultmann is free to interpret the message along whatever lines are most appealing to him. However, the New Testament text presents the Christian message in a variety of particular ways. Scholars such as Bultmann do not have the freedom to select certain elements of the text and leave others behind. Doing so is an exercise in changing the message itself. The New Testament has given its proclamation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and it must be taken on its own terms to discern the message it contains.

[1] Bultmann, Rudolf. Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate. Edited by Hans Werner Bartsch. London, UK: S.P.C.K., 1972, p. 1.

[2] Bultmann, p. 3.

[3] Bultmann, p. 4.

[4] Bultmann, p. 6.

[5] Bultmann, p. 7.

[6] Bultmann, p. 10.

[7] Bultmann, p. 10.

[8] Bultmann, p. 11.

[9] Bultmann, p. 11.

[10] Bultmann, p. 11.

[11] Bultmann, p. 16.

[12] Allen, Diogenes, and Eric O. Springsted, eds. Primary Readings in Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Milton Keynes UK: Lightning Source UK, 2010, p. 190; Doornbas, Gayle. “Introduction to Existentialism and Phenomenology”.

[13] Bultmann, pp. 18-19.

[14] Bultmann, p. 19.

[15] Bultmann, p. 19.

[16] Bultmann, p. 22.

[17] Bultmann, p. 24.

[18] Bultmann, p. 35.

[19] Bultmann, p. 35.

[20] Bultmann, p. 36.

[21] Bultmann, p. 37.

[22] Bultmann, p. 37.

[23] Bultmann, p. 38.

[24] Bultmann, p. 40.

[25] Bultmann, p. 41.

[26] Bultmann, p. 41.

[27] Bultmann, p. 42.

[28] Wright, N. T. “Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity.” NTWrightPage. Accessed July 25, 2019. http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/imagining- the-kingdom/.

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