The generation of the so called “große Gelehrte” to whom Bultmann belongs is to this day very influential. Especially in the case of Rudolf Bultmann young, ambitious New Testament scholars have to deal with the fact that this professor from Marburg set the agenda in New Testament research for several decades until now. In modification of a famous quote one could say: New Testament scholarship consists of a series of footnotes to Bultmann. The topic of my doctoral thesis is no exception. I, like many others, am still wrestling with the consequences of his insights. Taking serious the end of the “Leben-Jesu-Forschung”, Bultmann focused resolutely on the synoptic tradition, its origin, and its pre-literate forms. Some of his students, above all Helmut Koester, followed up on the trace of the synoptic tradition in various early Christian writings, including the Gospel of Thomas and the letters of Paul. The research interest was in pre-literate, catechetic collections of early Christian tradition and in the question whether Paul and other early Christian authors included such collections in their writings. If so, the early dates and perhaps even the historical reliability of the primitive Gospel tradition could be proven. As a consequence the analysis of parallel tradition aroused new interest in the historical Jesus. And New Testament research turned to the letters of Paul hoping to find sayings of Jesus who match the criterion of multiple attestations. Programmatic in this field was Dale C. Allison’s influential article on “The Pauline Epistles and the Synoptic Gospels: The Pattern of Parallels” (NTS 28), published in 1982.
Often discussed analogies to synoptic tradition can be found, inter alia, in Romans 12:14-21 and 14:14, 20. The passage in Romans 12 seems to allude to a part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus commands non-retaliation and to love one’s enemies. Romans 14 on the other hand deals with purity. Paul here declares, that there is no impurity in “Kyrios Jesus” and hereby supposedly evokes the disputation passage in Mark 7:1-23. Traces of an “original Jesus tradition” have been claimed for this Pauline passage as it seemed necessary that Paul would use the authority of Jesus in a question as important as the suspension of the food laws. Following this thesis however, the lack of an original saying of Jesus seems all the more conspicuous. The missing command to love one´s enemy in Rom 12 is significant. Instead Paul cites Prov 25:21-22 as an example of how the congregation should deal with enemies! Wouldn´t it at this point have been much easier for the apostle to just cite Jesus and use his authority, had he possessed a such command from his master? And exactly how much is the criteria “multiple attestation” worth, when Paul in these cases doesn’t even mention Jesus? Even the only two unmistakable references to words of Jesus in 1 Cor 7:10-11 and 9:14 are actually just paraphrases. Paul creates his own context to use these words in and even changes the content of what the Lord had commanded. Paradoxically he sees himself authorized to do so by the lord Jesus Christ himself, since he himself in Jesus spirit can command independently (cf. 1 Cor 7:25,40; 14:37; Phlm 8-9). One could even go as far as to say, that Paul uses the authority of the lord against the Jesus tradition.
And so the question remains, how much knowledge did Paul really have about the Jesus tradition? Furthermore, was at all important to him? He was surely not interested in Jesus of Nazareth in any modern historical sense and he seems to care very little for Jesus’ authoritative teachings.
Following Bultmann on this matter, Paul was much more convinced about the significance of the risen Christ, the healing implications of this event for the whole of humanity, and its overall influence on Christian living. It is precisely through this lens that Paul views the Jesus tradition. This circumstance raises the hermeneutic question as to whether it is even possible to examine the Pauline letters with an interest in the historical Jesus. As Paul’s letters follow a completely different agenda, on our search for traces of the historical Jesus do we not much more risk dragging our own interests into those texts?
Being a newcomer and researching, hidden from the world, in German higher education, I was able to meditate on and investigate these and other exegetical, theological and philosophical questions and surprisingly, many of my insights turned out to be very close to the theses of this famous man shown above. So I find myself asking: Are we living in a Bultmann-revival-era?