Rudolf Bultmann, E.P. Sanders, and Curious Legacies


August 28, 2014 by James Crossley

Picking up on the evaluation of Bultmann’s legacy on the Jesus Blog and publishing some fragments I could not be bothered writing up and publishing properly…

Here are two truisms of modern historical Jesus and New Testament scholarship. 1. E.P. Sanders contributed significantly to demolishing the explicit anti-Jewish tendencies in New Testament and the over-emphasis on the Law versus Gospel distinction. 2. E.P. Sanders downplayed historicity of the conflicts between Jesus and his opponents as presented in the Gospels.

There is no need to argue with these points, even if we might fill out the details in a book, article or even blog post. However, what can be done is to look at a particularly interesting scholarly genealogy. One of the curious things about Sanders is the unexpected influence on some of his more famous ideas. For instance, on the one occasion where Sanders thinks Jesus may have overridden the Law is the ‘let the dead bury their dead’ saying from Matt. 8.21-22//Luke 9.59-60 where the saying is deemed (and as others repeat) shocking. The lack of evidence used to support this repeated position in scholarship is curious. It is further curious that Sanders, and especially Wright, would claim that they are not falling into the old Protestant trap of ‘Law v Gospel’ and yet all the while rely on Hengel’s work from 1968 which casts this saying in terms of Protestant language of ‘Law v Gospel’. This language gets filtered out but the old myth of difference and superiority remains and, in the case of Wright, with a tolerant liberal spin to indicate that difference from Judaism is, in fact, very Jewish. I have argued this elsewhere, as has Markus Bockmuehl in some detail, and so I won’t repeat this argument but instead I will turn to another example and the influence of Bultmann.

We might, in fact, turn Sanders’ suspicions of twentieth-century German scholarship on Sanders’ use of Bultmann, in this case the handling of Mark 2.23-28 and Mark 7.1-23. Sanders argued that these have ‘extraordinarily unrealistic’ settings. Pharisees ‘did not organize themselves into groups to spend their Sabbaths in Galilean cornfields in hope of catching someone transgressing’. Similarly, according to Sanders, it is not credible that scribes and Pharisees journeyed from Jerusalem to Galilee to inspect the disciples’ hands. ‘Surely’, he concludes, ‘stories such as these should not be read as describing actual debates between Jesus and others’ (Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 265; cf. Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, pp. 74, 215-16; Sanders, Jewish Law, pp. 19-23, 84-89. Meier would also stand in this scholarly tradition). As might be expected to follow from this position, such stories were deemed to be church creations in response to Jewish criticisms.

I do not know how to make claims for the historicity of these specific passages. But are they any more unrealistic than the rest of the Gospel stories? Are they historically and culturally implausible as Sanders suggests? Some of the arguments Sanders makes are problematic. Mark 7 does not say that a ‘special trip’ was made to Galilee to inspect the disciples’ hands. We might note that Pharisees only ask a question (‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’), although Jesus certainly gets all polemical. In Mark 2.23-28, there is no indication that Pharisees were gathered in cornfields ready to catch people transgressing. All we really get is a question in Mark 2.24, albeit a loaded one: ‘why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ It is difficult to know what we are to picture here. Were Pharisees organizing into groups in cornfields? Was it all happening somewhere near to this group of Pharisees? Was it an accidental meeting? Were Pharisees already a bit suspicious? Such questions are impossible to answer because Mark gives no indications.

Sanders toys with the idea of preserving a memory of dispute before making it clear that there was no substantial conflict (Jesus and Judaism, p. 265). He even not unreasonably adds: ‘I do not wish to deny that Jesus at sometime or other debated sabbath practice. He may well have done so’ (Historical Figure of Jesus, p. 223). Sanders argues that there were debates about interpretation and ‘lots of Jews disagreed…without deciding to kill each other’ (Historical Figure of Jesus, pp, 222-23). Yet there were suggestions that debates could get heated and even deadly over the interpretation of the Law and related issues (e.g. Ant. 13.297-98; 1QpHab 11.2-8; 4Q171 4.7-10; Gal. 1.13-14; Phil. 3.6) so there’s nothing implausible as such about such arguments, even if we cannot provide precise historicity one way or another.

So on what other grounds does Sanders base his arguments? Bultmann is the surprising choice given that Sanders demolished the explicitly negative reading of Judaism associated with Bultmannian exegesis. For Sanders, it was Bultmann, among others, who pointed out how ‘just how incredible’ such conflict stories are (Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 265; Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition [2nd edition; 1968; original German, 1931], p. 39). Concerning Mark 2.23-28, ‘Bultmann long ago observed that the disciples (that is, the church) are criticized, not Jesus, and the passage represents a Christian response to Jewish criticism’ (Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 266; Bultmann, History, p. 16). Like the turn to Hengel, this turn to Bultmann is unusual, particularly given Bultmann’s views of Christianity in relation to Judaism which so troubled Sanders and there are hints of the old distinctions coming through, particularly the distinction between Judaism and Christianity.

Moreover, Bultmann did not present any great evidence to back up his case. On Mark 2.23-28, Bultmann claimed that ‘the composition is the work of the Church: Jesus is questioned about the disciples’ behaviour; why not about his own? i.e. the Church ascribes the justification of her Sabbath customs to Jesus’ (Bultmann, History, p. 16). Bultmann made similar claims about Mark 7.1-23 (Bultmann, History, p. 18). However, while these may or may not be creations of the early church, it certainly does not follow from Jesus being asked a question to justify his disciples’ behaviour that they must. There are other possibilities, including the arguments sometimes made about the master representing the disciples or Jesus not poor enough to take Peah (cf. Lev. 19.9; 23.22). Again, I make no judgment on historicity itself, but Bultmann’s argument is not based on strong evidence and there is no real attempt to locate the dispute in the context of legal debates concerning Sabbath law and picking food, such as the following: ‘Six rules did the men of Jericho make…For three the Sages criticised them…[2] they eat on the Sabbath fruit which had fallen under a tree’ (m. Pesah. 4.8; cf. Philo, Mos. 2:22; CD 10.22-23; Jub. 2.29-30; 50.9).

The cultural context of Bultmann’s form critical approach is important here because it partly helps explain why he was making such arguments. Form criticism emerged in Germany at approximately the same time as fascism and its accompanying antisemitism were becoming politically mainstream. The story of some of the prominent antisemitic and Nazi supporting scholars (e.g. Grundmann, Kittel, Kuhn) is well-known, as is such influence of early volumes of major works such as the TDNT. While Bultmann was a TDNT contributor, he was, of course, no Nazi but the general anti-Jewish influence is undeniable. However, as Sanders’ critiques of such scholarship showed beyond doubt, anti-Jewish sentiments continued in post-War scholarship and this included the scholarship of Bultmann and other non-Nazis. By avoiding anything that might be understood (as it indeed was) to have been part of a ‘Jewish context’ (e.g. Sabbath, purity) meant of course that Jesus need not be placed in this context, or at least not in too much detail. This general cultural context of form criticism can help explain why form criticism was, in practice, more concerned with proving a setting in faith rather than a setting in life, if by the latter an emphasis on social and material contexts were meant. A typical explanation for this lack of concern for social context usually involves the influence of Karl Barth. This may well be an important influence (as was the rise of the Marxism and the Soviet Union) but the emphasis on ‘faith’ setting meant something suited the needs of German form criticism in particular, namely the avoidance of locating the Gospel tradition in what could/would have been understood as everyday Jewish social contexts.

With this in mind, the problems with Bultmann’s arguments where he avoided locating Jesus in the context of debates that might have been perceived as a bit too Jewish are better explained. If we take the standard Sanders’ logic, does this not mean that Bultmann’s observations on the synoptic tradition ought to be handled with great care? Again taking Sanders to his logical conclusion, advocating more of Sanders’ suspicious attitude towards the history of scholarship, including Bultmann, not only helps us explain why ‘parallels’ to Jesus’ sayings were ignored in the history of scholarship. Bultmann’s work is of minimal help in understanding what is happening with Sabbath and purity disputes and, in this instance too, does it not deserve the full critique unleashed by Sanders?

Of course, there is a great irony here too. More than one critic has argued that Sanders’ recast the old negative image of Judaism into one of liberal Christianity. This may well be the case in disputes over Sabbath and purity. Sanders (and others) have used arguments generated in anti-Jewish contexts, stripped away the anti-Jewish rhetoric, and reapplied them quite differently to present Judaism in a ‘positive’ light (e.g. they don’t do unpleasant things to each other over ‘mere’ issues of Sabbath and purity etc.). Both maintain a difference between ‘Judaism’/’Jewish’ and ‘Church’/’Christianity’. In fact, we might even detect Sanders’ famous argument concerning Paul and Judaism: the issue with Judaism was that it was not Christianity. In both cases, and put crudely, Jews and Christians must behave in the ways in which scholars are led to believe they should.


9 thoughts on “Rudolf Bultmann, E.P. Sanders, and Curious Legacies

  1. wmcoppins says:

    Thanks for a perceptive post..


  2. Jim says:

    Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    In which James Crossley gives me an early birthday gift by making me sad…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Are you harnessing chaos, or stirring it up?


  4. Chris Keith says:

    James, thanks for this perceptive post. In Jesus against the Scribal Elite, I also noted the influence of Bultmann on Sanders when it comes to the controversy narratives (pp.130-132). I think Sanders might even have taken the term “imaginary” for them from Bultmann, or at least Marsh’s translation (History of the Synoptic Tradition, 40). I argued that both were wrong to dismiss the general portrait of these traditions so quickly and ventured an argument for affirming the general portrait of Jesus and other teachers in argument over the law. I failed, though, to observe the important social context issues that you’ve pointed out. In writing that section on Bultmann and Sanders, though, I remember thinking that it was indeed odd that Sanders is so heavily reliant on Bultmann here because (1) Bultmann’s view of the unhistorical nature of the controversy narratives is inherently tied also to his theory of the development of the Jesus tradition and (2) Sanders spent some time at the beginning of Jesus and Judaism criticizing this very view (he also did in Studying the Synoptic Gospels). So I think you’re onto something here in noting that his appeal to Bultmann is curious.


  5. Chris Keith says:

    Sorry, I meant to say he criticized that view of the development of the tradition in Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition (CUP), not Studying the Synoptic Gospels, though I suspect he does there as well.


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