Chautauqua Institution – 2014

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 14 August 2014 0 Comments
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More than 70 years ago, the great scholar Rudolf Bultmann reportedly summed up his "demythologizing" approach in the pithy observation that "Jesus rose into the Kerygma." Being "the greatest story ever told" doesn't make it a true story. Please comment/explain. Thanks.



Dear Ruth,

Your assessment of Rudolf Bultmann is right on target. I regard him as the greatest New Testament scholar of the 20th century. About four years ago on a lecture tour of Germany, I was invited to speak at the University of Marburg where Bultmann spent most of his professional life. On that occasion, I had the chance to express my indebtedness to him. It was one of the special moments in my life.

Not everyone, however, understood Bultmann and the quotation you offer is one of those occasions. Bultmann talked about “de-mythologizing the gospels.” For Bultmann that meant to lift the story of Jesus out of the mythology of the first century in which it had inevitably been captured and to place it into the mythology of our own time. Every generation thinks it is objective and therefore its concepts are true, but the fact is that everything that we articulate reflects the world view of our generation, and is cast in the perception of the era in which we live. All of those things shape and define the way we perceive reality. Unfortunately many people heard Bultmann saying that the gospels were nothing but myths.

When Bultmann said “Jesus rose into the Kerygma,” he was asserting that the resurrection of Jesus had nothing to do with his resuscitation back into the life of this world. It had nothing to do with a buried body walking out of a tomb. Does this mean that the resurrection of Jesus is therefore not true? No, but it does mean that truth is more than literal words trying to capture historical events.

The earliest biblical concept of resurrection was that Jesus rose into the life and reality of God. He transcended the human limits of mortality. It does not mean that he walked out of a grave restored to life. If that had been what resurrection meant, he would have to die once more since all living things die. Yet Paul writes before any gospel was composed, “Christ, being raised from the dead, dies no more. Death has no more dominion over him.” Resurrection was the perception, articulated in the Kerygma that Jesus had entered into the meaning of God from which he could be universally available to his disciples. I doubt if literal-minded people even understand this, but the heart of the Christian gospel is that God was in Christ not that Jesus walked out of the tomb.

My best,

John Shelby Spong




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