When the Society for New Testament Studies held its annual meeting in August 1976 at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, the secretary read out at the opening session the names of members who had died since the previous meeting. When this is done, the chairman usually invites those present to stand for a moment in respect for the memory of departed colleagues. On this occasion, when the names were read in alphabetical order, the first was that of Professor Dr. Rudolf Bultmann, and as soon as his name was read out, the audience rose to its feet as one man: such was the esteem in which this veteran scholar was held, by those who disagreed most profoundly with him as well by members of his school.
Rudolf Bultmann was appointed Lecturer in New Testament at Marburg in 1912. After four years there he moved to Breslau and then to Giessen, but in 1921 he returned to Marburg as full professor, and remained there for thirty years of active teaching and then for twenty-five years of active retirement.
Outside the academic world he became known first for his identification with the Confessing Church movement in its opposition to the Hitler regime, and then for his ‘demythologizing programme’. In both respects he was moved by concern for the purity of the gospel. The demythologizing programme attempted to remove what he considered to be all irrelevant stumbling-blocks in the way of the gospel so that men and women might be confronted by the unencumbered offence of the cross. Like a number of other German theologians, he was more Lutheran than Luther: he deplored any appeal to the historical foundation of Christianity on the ground that justification by history was simply one form of justification by works and therefore inimical to the gospel of justification by faith alone.
He was not sceptical for the sake of scepticism, and some who could be described as being just that could not understand why, in view of his negative attitude to the historical evidence, he bore firm witness to Jesus as the Word became flesh. The reason was not far to seek: he knew whom he had believed.