The articles in this issue are based on papers presented at a special Westar seminar on the legacy of the renowned German New Testament scholar and theologian Rudolf Bultmann on November 16, 2012 in connection with the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in Chicago. One of the many remarkable features of Bultmann’s career is the fact that he envisioned a comprehensive research agenda for the radical updating of Christian theology early in his career and systematically pursued this agenda through his monographs, articles, entries, and reviews for over sixty years. His groundbreaking research on Christian origins formulated most of the major issues that scholars have been addressing for the past generation. When asked how one might become engaged in the academic study of the New Testament, I usually reply that one could either enroll in a good introductory course on the subject or read through Bultmann’s collected works.
The legacy of Rudolf Bultmann includes the work of the Jesus Seminar. Robert Funk and many of the Fellows can be characterized as “Bultmannians.” The historical critical method and criteria for distinguishing authentic units of Jesus tradition employed by the Jesus Seminar can be traced to Bultmann and his teachers. I was asked by Funk to respond to the criticism that the Jesus Seminar should have started with the deeds of Jesus, not his words, at a session of the Jesus Seminars on the Road in New Orleans on November 23, 1996 in connection with the SBL annual meeting. I started my paper, entitled “Why Start with the Sayings?”, by quipping: “The quick answer as to why the Jesus Seminar started with the sayings is, because Bultmann did. The outline of his History of the Synoptic Tradition provided the ten-year agenda of the Jesus Seminar: I. The Tradition of the Sayings of Jesus ... ; II. The Tradition of the Narrative Material.” Recent efforts to discredit Bultmann’s critical conclusions about the Jesus tradition are thus also aimed at the work of the Jesus Seminar. My hope is that the 2012 Westar seminar on Bultmann’s legacy will be followed with future sessions on the basic elements of his historical critical approach, for example, his form critical approach to analyzing the transmission of independent units of tradition during the oral period between Jesus and the Gospels.
The lead entry in this volume is by Schubert M. Ogden, the preeminent American interpreter of Bultmann’s theological program. Ogden engaged in extensive correspondence with Bultmann and published an assessment of Bultmann’s theology, Christ without Myth, already in 1961. Ogden is the University Distinguished Professor of Theology Emeritus at Southern Methodist University, where he taught from 1956–1969 and 1972–1993. Between 1969–1972 he was the University Professor of Theology at his alma mater, the University of Chicago. Ogden was a Fulbright Scholar and a Guggenheim Fellow in Marburg, Germany and is a past president of the American Academy of Religion. He has been an active member since 1984 of the International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter Group. In 1985 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Ogden reports that Bultmann told Ogden that he and Van Harvey were the two American theologians who best understood Bultmann’s work. Ogden agreed to present his paper on “the ideal of a fully critical theology” both to describe Bultmann’s program and to sum up his own understanding of systematic theology—in this sense Ogden’s article defines his own legacy as it contributes to Bultmann’s.
A second reason for the Bultmann seminar in Chicago was to celebrate the release on November 12, 2012 of Konrad Hammann’s Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography, translated into English by Philip E. Devenish and published by Polebridge Press. This comprehensive intellectual biography introduces a new generation to Bultmann’s influence on Christian theology, and Devenish’s article elaborates on the implications of Bultmann’s program for Christology. Devenish frames his article with a note of irony: Bultmann argued that an interest in the person of Jesus or Paul—or Bultmann himself—borders on idolatry, since all three were focused on their work or cause. Both the author of the Bultmann biography (Hamman) and the translator (Devenish) are systematic theologians and thus are fully competent to address Bultmann’s intellectual formation and work. In addition, Devenish was a doctoral student of Schubert Ogden’s and co-editor of a Festschrift in his honor, Witness and Existence, in 1986.
The article by William O. Walker is an updated version of an earlier one published in Religion in Life in 1965–1966 that assesses Ogden’s critique of Bultmann’s demythologizing program. It offers a clear and concise summary of the debate that flourished in the 1950s and 60s after Bultmann’s writings became more widely accessible in English translation, and thus is also helpful in describing Bultmann’s intellectual legacy. Walker is the Jennie Farris Railey King Professor Emeritus of Religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He was a member of the Westar Acts Seminar and contributed to Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report (2013). Walker is also a specialist on the letters of Paul.
Gerd Lüdemann is Professor Emeritus of the History and Literature of Early Christianity and founder of the archive of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule at the University of Göttingen in Germany. He has also served as a visiting scholar at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is a prolific author and is prominently featured in the recent documentary film on the apostle Paul (“A Polite Bribe”) directed by Robert Orlando. Lüdemann was trained in the same Enlightenment liberal Protestant tradition as Bultmann, and so applauds elements of Bultmann’s work, while raising critical objections to others.
The final article by Jon F. Dechow is a detailed study of a key term in early Christianity, εὐαγγέλιον, usually rendered in English as “gospel” or “good news.” Dechow traces the debate over the meaning of this key word from Bultmann’s view that it is a technical Christian term to John Dominic Crossan’s argument that it is a common Greek word that contrasts the message about Jesus as the Christ to that of Caesar. Dechow employs the usage of Melito of Sardis to settle this debate. He is a patristics scholar who earned his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1975.
—Lane C. McGaughy
Geo. H. Atkinson Professor of Religious and Ethical Studies Emeritus
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Purchase Issue 3,2: Assessing the Work of Rudolf Bultmann (October 2014)
Ogden, Shubert M. "The Legacy of Rudolf Bultmann and the Ideal of a Fully Critical Theology." Forum Third Series 3,2: 9–19.
Devenish, Philip. "Reflections on Konrad Hammann's Biography of Rudolf Bultmann—with Implications for Christology." Forum Third Series 3,2: 21–30.
Walker Jr., William O. "Demythologizing and Christology." Forum Third Series 3,2: 31–44.
Lüdemann, Gerd. "Kêrygma and History in the Thought of Rudolf Bultmann." Forum Third Series 3,2: 45–60.
Dechow, Jon F. "The 'Gospel' and the Emperor Cult: From Bultmann to Crossan." Forum Third Series 3,2: 63–88.