One can easily see how questionable the criteria have been by using a few examples. Who would hold that Clement of Rome is more developed or complex than Paul? Is James any more advanced than the Epistle to the Romans? Is the more encompassing than the Pastoral Epistles? Take a look at later times: whole generations of Thomistic scholars have not been able to take in the greatness of his thought. Lutheran orthodoxy is far more medieval than was Luther himself. Even between great figures there is nothing to support this kind of developmental theory.
Gregory the Great, for example, wrote long after Augustine and knew of him, but for Gregory the bold Augustinian vision is translated into the simplicity of religious understanding. Another example: what standard could one use to determine whether Pascal should be classified as before or after Descartes? Which of their philosophies should be judged the more developed? Further examples could be mentioned to illustrate the whole of human history. All judgments based on the theory of discontinuity in the tradition and on the assertion of an evolutionary priority of the “simple” over the “complex” can thus be immediately called into question as lacking foundation.
But now we must explain in an even more concrete way what criteria have been used to determine what is “simple.” In this regard there are standards as to form and content. In terms of form, the search was for the original forms. Dibelius found them in the so-called “paradigm,” or example narrative in oral tradition, which can be reconstructed behind the proclamation. Later forms, on the other hand, would be the “anecdote,” the “legend,” the collections of narrative materials, and the “myth.”
Bultmann saw the pure form in the “apothegm,” “the original specific fragment which would sum things up concisely; interest would be concentrated on the word [spoken by] Jesus at the end of a scene; the details of the situation would lie far from this kind of form; Jesus would never come across as the initiator . . . everything not corresponding to this form Bultmann attributed to development.” The arbitrary nature of these assessments which would characterize theories of development and judgments of authenticity from now on is only obvious. To be honest, though, one must also say that these theories are not so arbitrary as they may first appear. The designation of the “pure form” is based on a loaded idea of what is original, which we must now put to the test.
One element of originality is what we have just encountered: the thesis of the priority of the word over the event. But this thesis conceals two further pairs of opposites: the pitting of word against cult and eschatology against apocalyptic. In close harmony with these is the antithesis between Judaic and Hellenistic. Hellenistic was, for example, in Bultmann, the notion of the cosmos, the mystical worship of the gods and cultic piety. The consequence is simple: what is Hellenistic cannot be Palestinian, and therefore it cannot be original. Whatever has to do with cult, cosmos, or mystery must be rejected as a later development. The rejection of “apocalyptic,” the alleged opposite of eschatology, leads to yet another element: the supposed antagonism between the prophetic and the “legal” and thus between the prophetic and the cosmic and cultic. It follows, then, that ethics is seen as incompatible with the eschatological and the prophetic. In the beginning there was no ethics, but simply an ethos. What is surely at work is the by-product of Luther’s fundamental distinction: the dialectic between the law and the gospel. According to this dialectic, ethics and cult are to be relegated to the realm of the law and put in dialectical contrast with Jesus, who, as bearer of the good news, brings the long line of promise to completion and thus overcomes the law. If we are ever to understand modern exegesis and critique it correctly, we simply must return and reflect anew on Luther’s view of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. In place of the analogy model which was then current, he substituted a dialectical structure. However, for Luther all of this remained in a very delicate balance, whereas for Dibelius and Bultmann, the whole degenerates into a development scheme of well-nigh intolerable simplicity, even if this has contributed to its attractiveness.
With these presuppositions, the picture of Jesus is determined in advance. Thus Jesus has to be conceived in strongly “Judaic” terms. Anything “Hellenistic” has to be removed from him. All apocalyptic, sacramental, mystical elements have to be pruned away. What remains is a strictly “eschatological” prophet, who really proclaims nothing of substance. He only cries out “eschatologically” in expectation of the “wholly other,” of that transcendence which he powerfully presents before humanity in the form of the imminent end of the world.
From this view emerged two challenges for exegesis. First, exegetes had to explain how one got from the unmessianic, unapocalyptic, prophetic Jesus to the apocalyptic community which worshiped him as Messiah; to a community in which were united Jewish eschatology, stoic philosophy, and mystery religion in a wondrous syncretism. This is exactly how Bultmann described early Christianity. Second, exegetes had to find a way to connect the original message of Jesus to Christian life today, thus making it possible to understand his call to us. According to the developmental model, the first problem is relatively easy to solve in principle, even though an immense amount of scholarship had to be dedicated to working out the details. The agent responsible for the contents of the New Testament was not to be found in persons, but in the collective, in the “community.” Romantic notions of the “people” and of its importance in the shaping of traditions play a key role here.18 Add to this the thesis of Hellenization and the appeal to the history-of-religions school. The works of Gunkel and Bousset exerted decisive influence in this area. The second problem was more difficult. Bultmann’s approach was his theory of demythologization, but this did not achieve quite the same success as his theories on form and development. If one were allowed to characterize somewhat roughly Bultmann’s solution for a contemporary appropriation of Jesus’ message, one might say that the scholar from Marburg had set up a correspondence between the nonapocalyptic-prophetic and the fundamental thought of the early Heidegger. Being a Christian, in the sense Jesus meant it, is essentially collapsed into that mode of existing in openness and alertness which Heidegger described. The question has to occur whether one cannot come by some simpler way to such general and sweeping formal assertions.
Still, what is of interest to us here is not Bultmann the systematician, whose activities came to an abrupt halt in any case with the rise of Marxism. Instead, we should examine Bultmann the exegete who is responsible for an ever more solid consensus regarding the methodology of scientific exegesis.