In this post, I will continue with the theme of my previous post, defining Bultmann’s “mythology.” Although, I will do it from my perspective. So to be clear, this is my defense of Bultmann’s Mythology, and not his. If you want his, read this.
First, we’ll look at the (modern) problem of calling the NT framework mythological. In other words, if it’s mythological, does that mean it’s not historical? And second, we’ll look at what’s behind historical questions. One thing I did not mention in the previous post is why Bultmann takes this approach. Against both the historical scholars and “literalists” of his day, Bultmann resisted. Somewhere between their aims, Bultmann believed there was a core meaning to Scripture. By neutralizing the frameworks of the Bible’s origins and of its interpreters, Bultmann used existential philosophy to locate this core. We will discuss and critique this core in a later post, but I wanted to be clear why Bultmann juxtaposes the mythological with the scientific: to get to the core of the Scriptures.
In the last post, we used the example of Jesus walking on water, let’s stay with it. Did the historical Jesus really walk on water, using his own or YHWH’s supernatural powers? There is natural anxiety for the Christian in asking this question. There are scholars who say it is unlikely, and there are scholars who defend the historocity of this event. But this argument is not helpful for understanding the story in its context, nor for our lives. History, at least in the way modern readers think of it, is part of the scientific framework of the modern Western reader. We want to know the sequence and the details, so that we can have assurances in the accuracy of the information we use. We want accurate data so we can make an informed guess at causality. Did Jesus walk on water? If so, then we can assume he did so by the power of YHWH.
But the flip-side is that there was a different conceptual framework for ancient people in ancient cultures. Some diseases were thought to have come from evil forces. Gods and heros walked on water. Jesus was not unique in this act. What Jesus actually did, and how the interpreter’s conceptualized it at that was very likely different than how we conceptualize it now. Even for me, it is difficult to describe what the ‘mythological’ worldview looked like, because I am caught in my scientific conceptual framework. Could Jesus have walked on water, historically speaking? Yes. No one is challenging the power of God. Could Jesus have done something similar to walking on water that we can’t conceive of, and they called it “walking on water”? Yes. Could Jesus not have walked on water, and later authors used their own mythological framework to tell the story of YHWH’s presence in Jesus? Yes. By our scientific calculations this would be deceit, but not necessarily in an ancient society. What do I think about the historical Jesus walking on water? Sounds great, but I say it is not crucial. What is crucial, is to ask the question, “why tell the story of Jesus walking on water?” The meaning of this story is not found in mythology, nor in history, but in the narrative’s interaction with its audience.
So then, who cares about history? Behind our need for history is a desire for accuracy and certainty for one’s faith claims (just blogged on this one). But anxiety over whether the Scriptures are historical or not, does not help us to engage the Scriptures for our faith and for the renewal of our hearts. As my old professor use to say, “Truth does not equal history.” First of all, if a friend of yours gave you inaccurate information once, does that mean you can never trust that friend again? If the same friend, told you a fairy tale about a talking rabbit, does that mean that your friend is unable to give reliable “historical” information anymore? The answer to both question is a resounding, “No.” So too with the Scriptures and their authority. Second, history helps us deal with information efficiently. I don’t have to suffer through mundane historical analysis. I don’t have to deal with issues that question my faith. I don’t have to spend my time arguing my points, if we just accept some things as historical. But the truth is, we don’t need to interpret the Scriptures efficiently, we need to interpret them well. And hopefully, Bultmann’s mythology, however correct, can give us pause and challenge us to interpret the Scriptures well.