Rudolf Karl Bultmann was a German theologian of Lutheran background, who was for three decades professor of New Testament studies at the University of Marburg. He defined an almost complete split between history and faith, writing that only the bare fact of Christ crucified was necessary for Christian faith.
Bultmann was born in Wiefelstede, Oldenburg, the son of a Lutheran minister. He got an Abitur from the Altes Gymnasium in Oldenburg. He studied theology at Tübingen. After three terms, Bultmann went to the University of Berlin for two terms and finally at Marburg for two more terms. He received his degree in 1910 from Marburg with a dissertation on the Epistles of St Paul. After submitting a Habilitation two years later, he became a lecturer on the New Testament at Marburg. After brief lectureships at Breslau and Giessen, he returned to Marburg in 1921 as a full professor. He stayed there until his retirement in 1951.
His History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921) is still highly regarded as an essential tool for gospel research, even by scholars who reject his analyses of the conventional rhetorical tropes or narrative units of which the Gospels are assembled, and the historically-oriented principles called "form criticism," of which Bultmann has been the most influential exponent:
"The aim of form-criticism is to determine the original form of a piece of narrative, a dominical saying or a parable. In the process we learn to distinguish secondary additions and forms, and these in turn lead to important results for the history of the tradition."
In 1941, he applied form criticism to the Gospel of John, in which he distinguished the presence of a lost Signs Gospel on which John, alone of the evangelists, depended. This monograph, highly controversial at the time, is a milestone in research into the historical Jesus. The same year his lecture New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Message called on interpreters to replace traditional theology with the philosophy of Bultmann's colleague, Martin Heidegger, an endeavor to make accessible to a literate modern audience the reality of Jesus' teachings. Bultmann remained convinced the narratives of the life of Jesus were offering theology in story form. Lessons were taught in the familiar language of myth. They were not to be excluded, but given explanation so they could be understood for today. Bultmann thought faith should become a present day reality. To Bultmann, the people of the world appeared to be always in disappointment and turmoil. Faith must be a determined vital act of will, not a culling and extolling of "ancient proofs."
He carried form-criticism so far as to call the historical value of the gospels into serious question. Some scholars criticized Bultmann and other critics for excessive skepticism regarding the historical reliability of the gospel narratives. The full impact of Bultmann was not felt until the English publication of Kerygma and Mythos (1948).
Bultmann was a student of Hermann Gunkel, Johannes Weiss, and Wilhelm Heitmüller. Ernst Käsemann, Günther Bornkamm, Hannah Arendt and Helmut Koester were among his students.
He was member of the Confessing Church and critical towards National Socialism. He spoke out against the mistreatment of Jews, against nationalistic excesses and against the dismissal of non-Aryan Christian ministers.
Bultmann died on July 30, 1976.