Baker Academic

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Paul Anderson on Bultmann's Legacy

In reply to Butlmann week here at the Jesus Blog, Paul Anderson writes:

Thanks for your pointed question on Bultmann’s contribution, Anthony and Chris; in addition to the excellent collection on Bultmann’s New Testament theology edited by Longenecker and Parsons, I have just gotten his commentary on John back into print in paperback as Vol. 1 in the new Johannine Monograph Series (as of August 15, Wipf & Stock) edited by Alan Culpepper and myself ( Here’s what I say in the rather extensive Foreword (pp. i-xxviii), fyi:

“As the first volume in the Johannine Monograph Series, The Gospel of John: A Commentary by Rudolf Bultmann well deserves this place of pride. Indeed, this provocative commentary is arguably the most important New Testament monograph in the twentieth century, perhaps second only to The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer…. In contrasting Bultmann's and Schweitzer's paradigms, however, we find that Bultmann’s is far more technically argued and original, commanding hegemony among other early-Christianity paradigms. Ernst Haenchen has described Bultmann's commentary as a giant oak tree in whose shade nothing could grow, and indeed, this reference accurately describes its dominance among Continental Protestant scholarship over the course of several decades.”

Any familiar with my treatment of Bultmann’s approach to John (in over 100 pages of analysis in The Christology of the Fourth Gospel) or in the treatments by Jörg Frey will know that while Bultmann’s highly diachronic approach to John’s composition does not convince overall, his theological sensitivity to John’s tensions and riddles is first rate. Therefore, even in a synchronic approach to John, such as the recent thoughtful-yet-traditional New International Commentary, Ramsey Michaels declares that the most helpful single resource in writing his commentary was that of Rudolf Bultmann. That sentiment is confirmed by your informal poll, and I would concur overall, although I differ with Bultmann in seeing John’s tradition as being more coherent and autonomous, in addition to being developed theologically.

Interestingly, despite Bultmann’s treatment of dialectical thinking as the basis for theological and historical reasoning in his 1927 Eisenach address, he refuses to allow the Fourth Evangelist to be seen as a dialectical thinker. He thus wrongly attributes John’s material to inferred alien sources, rather than seeing them as elements of an individuated tradition. In that sense, Bultmann also fails to note the highly dialectical intratraditional engagement of the evangelist, in addition to his intertraditional work, and more recent studies have cast valuable light on the highly dialectical Johannine situation. What Bultmann would concur with, however, is the evangelist’s treatment of the human-divine dialogue, which the Revealer conveys to humanity, calling forth an existential response of faith to the divine initiative. Hence, in the light of John’s dialogical autonomy, we might infer that…in the beginning was…the Dialogue!

Paul Anderson


  1. That is beyond awesome! I have been saying for *years* that Bultmann's Commentary on John needs to be back in print. I must get a copy, not simply to replace my old dog-eared used copy but also for Paul's foreword. Thank you, Anthony and Chris, for posting this, and Paul, for doing the work to get the commentary back in print. Incredibly important.

  2. "a giant oak tree in whose shade nothing could grow" - this sounds not entirely complementary!

  3. Indeed Peter Head. In contrast to Alan Culpepper's reference to "a giant oak tree in whose shade nothing could grow", the preface by John Marsh to the 1972 English edition of The History of the Synoptic Tradition is what one call a complementary preface: "To translate this important work of New Testament into English as been a labour, but a labour of love, and of appreciation for much that I owe to Professor Bultmann ... he made a very considerable impression on me ... for which I have been increasingly grateful. It has been one of the misfortunes of the English-speaking world that this outstanding contribution to Form Criticism has not been put into English before. I hope that, despite the faults of the translation, many more English readers will now discover Bultmann at first hand".