Rudolf Bultmann’s Letter to Jeffrey B. Gibson (Oct. 27, 1972)

On facebook, Jeffrey B. Gibson recently posted a letter that Rudolf Bultmann sent him, and he has kindly given me permission to provide a translation of this letter here.

As usual, I will alternate between the German text and the English translation:

Sehr geehrter Herr Gibson!

Dear Mr. Gibson (or: Very honored/esteemed Mr. Gibson)!

Für Ihren freundlichen Brief von vom 2.10. danke ich ich Ihnen bestens.

I thank you you most sincerely (or: very much) for your friendly letter from October 2 (1972).

Ich kann ihn nur kurz beantworten, denn ich bin alt und leidend und meine Augen sind schwach, so daß ich nicht mehr lesen und arbeiten kann.

I can answer it only briefly since I am old and suffering (or: ailing) and my eyes are weak, so that I can no longer read and work.

Ich kann nur mit Mühe wenig schreiben.

I can only with difficulty (or: toil) write a little.

Ich freue mich, daß meine theologische Arbeit für Sie fruchtbar geworden ist.

I am glad (or: I rejoice) that my theological work has become fruitful for you.

Zu Ihren Fragen kann ich nur kurz antworten.

Your questions I can answer only briefly (or: I can only respond briefly to your questions).

1. In den biblischen Schriften müssen alle mythologischen Sätze und Begriffe entmythologisiert werden.

1. In the biblical writings all mythological sentences and terms (or: concepts) must be demythologized.

2. Alle biblische Texte müssen existential interpretiert werden.

2. All biblical texts must be interpreted existentialistically.1

Die Interpretation hat zu fragen, welches Verständnis der menschlichen Existenz sich in den Texten ausspricht.

Interpretation must ask (or: The task of interpretation is to ask) which understanding of human existence is expressed in the texts.

Der Leser ist dann vor die Entscheidung gestellt, ob er die in den Texten zu Wort kommende Möglichkeit menschlichen Existenzverständnisses bejahen oder verneinen soll.

The reader is then placed before the decision of whether he (or: s/he) will (or should) affirm or reject the possibility for understanding human existence that comes to expression in the texts.2

Mit den besten Wünschen für Ihre Arbeit und freundlichen Grüßen

With best wishes for your work and friendly greetings

Ihr sehr ergebener,

Yours sincerely (or: Your very devoted),

Rudolf Bultmann

Note 1: For the translation of “existential,” cf. David Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, p. xv: “The terms existential and existentiell are consistently translated as “existentialist” and “existential,” respectively, according to the convention of earlier Bultmann scholars, even though the distinction is largely ignored today.” I owe my own knowledge of this distinction to Michael Wolter.

Note 2: I am not sure if “the possibility for understanding human existence” is the correct translation of die … Möglichkeit menschlichen Existenzverständnisses, but this seems to be what is being said.

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Zimmermann’s Parables, Congdon’s Bultmann, and Wolter’s Paul—With a note on the terms “eschatic” and “existentialogical”

At this year’s SBL I picked up three great books that are likely to be of particular interest to readers of this blog. Therefore, it seemed fitting to give them each a plug in the form of a brief comment and key quotation.

I am excited to work through Ruben Zimmermann‘s Puzzling the Parables of Jesus: Methods and Interpretations not only because it showcases his characteristic blend of sophisticated methodological reflection and close textual analysis, but also because—as shown by the following quotation—it explicitly seeks to bring together current German and American research.

Puzzling the Parables of Jesus (p. xiii): In spite of strong German roots with Jülicher and Joachim Jeremias, a certain gap has appeared between continental (esp. German) and American scholarship, and the two threaten to continue to drift apart. In this book it is my intention to bridge this gap and to demonstrate how current questions are still being influenced by decisions made by older German parable researchers. Furthermore, it is my hope to be able to bring together, at least to a certain extent, current German and American research on parables and in the process to gain insights from engagement with each other.

While I have thus far only read the first four chapters of David Congdon‘s short book Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology, I can already tell that it is likely to shape—and correct—my understanding of Bultmann in many helpful ways (cf. also Congdon’s illuminating review of Beyond Bultmann). Here is a quotation to give you a feel for his book:

Rudolf Bultmann (pp. 59): We can therefore define Bultmann’s concept of theological self-understanding as follows: Self-understanding is the event in which a person encounters the word of God and so discovers herself to be a sinner who has received justification by God’s grace, and who has therefore been given a new future, a new life, a new world. Faith as self-understanding has nothing to do with a solipsistic turning inward upon oneself. It rather means being placed outside ourselves and into a new historical existence, and thus it is “the exact opposite of a dwelling-on-oneself.” For Bultmann, following Paul (cf. Gal 3:23), faith is the advent of new creation: “Could faith then be the Archimedean point from which the world is moved off its axis and is transformed from the world of sin into the world of God? Yes! That is the message of faith.”

Finally, having spent much of my existence over the last year co-translating Michael Wolter‘s impressive commentary on Luke, I am taking great pleasure in reading Robert L. Brawley‘s fine translation of Wolter’s Paul: An Outline of His Theology, not only because of I am interested in Wolter’s interpretation of Paul, but also because it is both fun and illuminating to see how Brawley has navigated some of the same sticking points that Christoph Heilig and I have attempted to get past in our own translation. With this in mind (and with a view to Bultmann’s distinction between existentiell and existential) I have chosen a quote from Wolter’s book that relates to his introduction of the term “eschatisch/eschatic”.

Paul (p. 181 n. 14): I use the adjective “eschatic” here and in what follows to signify end-time events and conditions (that is, the so-called “last things”) (see also Härle, Dogmatik, 605n8). By contrast, I limit the use of the adjective “eschatological” to matters that concern speaking or thinking about the last things. The distinction between “eschatic” and “eschatological” thus is parallel to the distinctions between “Egyptian” and “Egyptological,” “ontic” and “ontological,” “existential” and “‘existentialogical,'” etc.

Though I doubt that Wolter will be successful, I think this is a fascinating attempt to introduce a distinction between eschatisch/eschatic and eschatologisch/eschatological that runs parallel to the Bultmannian distinction between existentiell/existential and existential/existentialogical, which corresponds in turn to the more widely made distinction between ontisch/ontic and ontologisch/ontological and Egyptisch/Egyptian and Egyptologisch/Egyptological. Against this background, I also think it would be appropriate if Bultmann scholars would consider translating existentiell with “existential” and existential with “existentialogical”, though I also think this is unlikely to be taken up. At any rate, I will probably do so!

Addendum: David Congdon has informed me via a facebook exchange that he would “dispute the comparison to the existentiell/existential distinction” on the grounds that “the latter is not a first-order/second-order distinction but rather a theological/phenomenological or personal/general distinction” and has explained that against this backdrop he thinks it is preferable to retain the standard translation for the two terms, i.e. “existential” for existentiell and “existentialist” for existential. On the basis of his helpful explanation, I think I will also retain this standard translation rather than adopting “existentialogical” as I had suggested in my original post. But I still like “eschatic”!

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne