Contra Jim West: Why Martin Hengel is Greater than Rudolf Bultmann

Contra Jim West: Why Martin Hengel is Greater than Rudolf Bultmann December 13, 2013

As a rejoinder to my friend Jim Westfor my affection for Martin Hengel over Rudolf Bultmann, I’ll simply leave you all with a quote from Hengel himself.

“After I became Stiftsrepetent [i.e., a student instructor] in 1954, my colleagues at the instructors’ table (with the exception of my friend Otto Betz, who had already then recognized the significance of the Qumran texts) appeared to me to be “ drunk from the sweet wine from Marburg”. In hearing the new theses I could time and again only shake my head: a radical synoptic criticism on the basis of “form criticism,” an unmessianic Jesus of whom Paul knew hardly anything more than the “that of his having come,” the radical separation between “Palestinian” and “Hellenistic” community, earliest Christianity as “syncretistic religion” profoundly influenced by a pre-Christian Gnosis and oriental mysteries, Paul and John as opponents of Jewish apocalyptic and as the first “demythologizers,” Luke by contrast as a contemptible “early catholic,” and above all a fundamental devaluation of all “objectifying” historical knowledge and behind it all a latent Marcionism, for which the term “Biblical theology” was almost already a swearword. Although I, being fascinated by the early church and ancient history, had more of an inclination to devote myself to church history, I began, to a certain extent as a protest against these “new insights,” a New Testament dissertation, which dealt with Judaism as the birthing ground of Christianity (Die Zeloten [AGSU 1], Leiden 1961). It was the then so fashionable theses of R. Bultmann, which dominated the field but were questionable in my judgment, that brought me to the New Testament.”

I’ll grant that Rudolf Bultmann was able to combine historical-criticism, hermeneutic poise, and theological reflection like no-one else of his generation, and the aesthetics of it are truly breath-taking. That said, Bultmann always struck me as an existentialist whose only reason for being Christian was because he was a white European, all of his source-critical views have been trashed (e.g., the Gnostic Redeemer myth was surely one of the biggest con jobs of the 20th century biblical scholarship and  HST contains ex cathedra statements about the authenticity of units with almost no argumentation at times), his commentary on John for all its genuine profundity could have been written by Valentinus, his account of Judaism simply regurgitated the anti-Semitism of Max Weber, and his celebrated NT Theology includes 30 pages on Jesus (whom he was not particular enamored with) and then 120 pages on the fictive entity called “Hellenistic Christianity” which in my mind even existed. I just don’t see the attraction!!!

Hengel was admittedly not a theologian like Bultmann, but Hengel’s account of biblical theology arguably provides a much better basis for a theology with more utility and better hopes of longevity.

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