What the name of Charles Darwin is to the field of biological science, the name of Rudolf Bultmann is to the world of New Testament study. Virtually every student of theology worldwide is introduced to the writings of German scholar Rudolf Karl Bultmann (1884–1976) and his students. He is considered by many the Grand Master of New Testament skepticism. In Germany he was hailed by many intellectuals as “the greatest event since Luther.”

Bultmann is credited with launching the world-famous program of interpreting the “Jesus myths” for modern society by “demythologizing” the primary documents of the Christian faith. He stood like a colossus over academic biblical studies for much of the twentieth century. With variations, Bultmann’s program was enthusiastically carried forward by his students who imagined themselves to be forging ahead with ever-increasing clarity on the ways legends and myths about Jesus entered the Christian tradition. His ideas form the underpinning of many who make pronouncements in the media asserting whether a particular story or saying of Jesus is authentic or not.

The movement of radical criticism has taken several different directions since his era, but he is the inspiration behind many of today’s most vocal critics of the Bible. Building upon the literary principles of Bultmann, they assume that the vast majority of the recorded sayings and deeds of Jesus, although well-intentioned stories, are in the final analysis merely elaborate inventions of the early church. So extreme were Bultmann’s methods and treatment of biblical texts that he was criticized even by his old schoolmate, philosopher Karl Jaspers.

But did this giant of doubt have a change of mind and repudiate his entire teaching career before he died in 1976? Let’s consider three things:

  1. Reports in Germany of such a change;
  2. Bultmann’s apparent predisposition to return to a traditional faith; and
  3. The remarkable events occurring at his funeral.

Stories have been circulating in and around Germany to the effect that in his closing days Bultmann “converted,” turned entirely against his life’s work, and even sent a final message to some of his closest students apologizing for all that he had ever taught about the New Testament.

The reports first came to my attention in the spring of 2004 while living in Basel, Switzerland. A theology student and friend of mine, Dietrich Wichmann, heard the account of the change of mind from one of Bultmann’s former students and teaching assistants (now an octogenarian) who was passing through Basel. We were immediately intrigued and began to pursue the matter.

Wichmann set out to cover the contacts associated with Tübingen, Germany (to where this particular version of the story could be traced), while I interviewed people in Marburg (where Bultmann spent most of his teaching career). Eventually, we ended up speaking to people in other German cities such as Herleshausen, Göttingen, and Münster. Further connections led us even to people now living in New York.

Here is what we found. The original information we received was apparently a somewhat corrupted version of an account that could be tracked back to a hospital in Tübingen (Tropenklinik Paul-Lechler-Krankenhaus). There, Professor Ernst Käsemann, one of Bultmann’s principal students, had been receiving care for a heart condition just prior to his death in February 1998. A nurse working closely with Professor Käsemann heard unequivocal statements from a visiting German clergyman that Bultmann had “converted” or “repented” some time before he died. A second and apparently independent report (also traceable to Tübingen) claimed that he had made a private apology to a few of his students following his change. The exact identity of the clergyman and what his relationship to Bultmann or Käsemann was not be established.

As for famed biblical critic Käsemann himself, it appears from some of his final comments that much of his thinking was controlled by a lifetime of intense suffering. At the age of nine, he was plunged into deep loneliness by the loss of his father in World War I. His oldest son Dietrich was snatched from him at age nine by diphtheria. Later, his thirty-year-old daughter Elisabeth was tortured and brutally murdered in Argentina for political reasons. One can’t help but speculate as to what extent such acute personal trauma influenced his very public theological skepticism.

It isn’t known whether Käsemann ever heard the account of Bultmann’s “repentance.” We know only that in the end there was animosity between the two men, most likely precluding Käsemann as a personal confidant of his former mentor.

We were unable to find anyone in Marburg still alive who was a close German acquaintance of Bultmann in the very last days of his life either to verify or to dispute the story of his repentance. Over the 28 years since his death at age 92, most of the clues had grown cold. Many of his pastors, students, and closest friends had passed on, and those associates who knew him best during his career had little or no access to him in his final years. His personal reader admitted to having had no contact in the last three years of Bultmann’s life and his current biographer in the last four to six years. Even some of his immediate family members had very little close association until the very end.

When some who knew him personally were told the story of his alleged end-of-life turnabout, they responded in a variety of ways, ranging from, “That’s only mythology,” (an interesting choice of words) to, “It seems improbable,” to, “Yes, it could have happened.” Apparently, it would not have been out of character for Bultmann to change his mind on important theological matters without ever clearly saying so. Even during the peak of his influence, other theologians of his day suggested that he did exactly that (Hordern, 23).

But did he change his mind here? Is this a true story or merely an unfounded rumor split into two separate traditions? If true, was the secret taken to the grave with the last of his closest students? There would have been very strong reasons for those left behind not to reveal the change, since entire careers and international reputations based upon his teaching hung in the balance. To this day, he and his students are still revered as icons in the German academic world.

The trail of evidence for these two versions of the story ended with the nurse and the unnamed clergyman. But the more we continued our probe along other lines into Bultmann’s alleged “repentance,” the more evidence came to light, all seemingly pointing in the same direction. Month by month, scattered bits and pieces of the puzzle were assembled to form a more coherent picture of the great scholar’s mysterious last days. Since other potentially valuable sources of information were not able to be consulted (some were unwilling to speak to us), it is entirely possible that more information could surface in days to come.

We learned that during his career Bultmann spoke wistfully to a few of his closest students about the loss of the faith of his youth. This was never an insignificant matter to him and apparently played upon his mind his entire professional life. He came from a family of staunch believers (his paternal grandfather was a missionary to Africa and his maternal grandfather was a pastor in the pietistic tradition). As a young, devout Lutheran, he was severely affected by the shocks of World War I as well as the corrosive influences of skeptical German theologians Johannes Weiss, Wilhelm Heitmüller, Wilhelm Hermann, and Adolf von Harnack. He was relatively late in publishing any significant works since, unlike his father, he was slow to accept much of the German liberalism of his day. It seems that he never fully reconciled with much of it and always remained a potential defector from the camp.

Some of the many people who visited Bultmann at his home on Calvinstrasse 16 during his closing days observed that the man who was so vocal and adamant about his views during his professional life had slipped into an ever-deepening and reflective silence, while in full possession of his mental faculties to the very end. What was he thinking during those long days as blindness was closing in upon him and the glories of this world were literally fading from view? We can’t help but wonder if he was thinking about the bitter accusations made against him during his lifetime. Much against his original intent, he was attributed with helping to destroy the church in Germany and undermining the faith of countless numbers of people worldwide.

We can wonder if like the wandering prodigal in the parable of Jesus, he returned home to the simpler faith of his youth after retracing his steps leading away from the biblical Jesus to radical skepticism. He had three years after his wife’s death to do little more than grieve, remember, and think. Whatever took place in his heart of hearts during those literally thousands of hours of solitary introspection or reevaluation as death was approaching only God knows for sure.

What appear to have been his most eloquent final statements about Jesus, the New Testament, and his personal faith come from the remarkable events which occurred at his funeral.

On Wednesday, August 4, 1976, at the Matthäuskirche in Marburg, only a few instrumental pieces, his favorite hymn, a motet by Bach, and readings of Scripture were heard. Dr. Christian Zippert was presiding. Bultmann, who spent his entire career arguing vigorously (some would say pugnaciously) that the New Testament could not possibly be understood correctly without a great deal of academic explanation (particularly his own), ordered that the texts be read without comment. Contrary to the very heart of his earlier theology, there was to be no demythologizing, no preaching, and no interpretation. This one fact stood out as extraordinary in the minds of virtually all those interviewed. One theologian present at the funeral admitted to being puzzled by this omission since, in his words, “Bultmann’s theology demanded it.”

After Bultmann parted from this life, the Scriptures read to the congregation were left to speak for themselves. Whatever he thought about the biblical texts and their need for radical reconstruction and demythologizing during his long teaching career, he wanted them just as they were to have the last word. Printed on the lead page of the worship bulletin was the first in a series of surprises, the request by Bultmann himself that “this hour should belong entirely to the Word of Holy Scripture” (Dorhs, 88).
The order of worship (Dorhs, 86) was as follows:

Prelude: J. S. Bach’s organ choral, Vor deinem Thron
Choir Piece: Four-part motet by Melchior Franck,
Herr, nun lässest du…
Pastor’s Greeting
Scripture Readings (interspersed with pieces by Mozart and Bach):
2 Corinthians 4:6–11
2 Corinthians 5:1–7
John 5:21–25
Bach motet: Jesu, meine Freude (sung by Bultmann’s family)
Silent Prayer
Unison Reading of Psalm 103
Hymn: Georg Neumark’s Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (verses 1–4, 7)
Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29–31
Postlude: Organ piece by J. S. Bach

The choice of texts to be read forms what looks like a theological last will and testament. Since his eyesight was nearly gone, the actual selection process was carried out by his daughters, but he knew the readings and endorsed them. He approved each passage, then emphasized that they be read and left to stand on their own. He was particularly concerned that there be absolutely no praise of him or his life’s work. He left this directive with Pastor Zippert. Perhaps this accounts for Bultmann’s partiality for the arresting phrase “life of vain endeavor” that he knew well from his beloved motet by Bach. Why would he want these words included in his funeral with a complete absence of any biographical or vocational references?

For many years it had been Bultmann’s practice to use the life of the deceased as the basis for important lessons imparted to those still living. This deliberate elimination of a biographical account, a stated connection between the dead and the living as a relationship between teacher and student, was a complete departure from his own custom when performing funerals. The earthly life of each person was key for him. However, he clearly forbade for his own service what he consistently had required for those of others (Dorhs, 88).

As for the Scriptures and their arrangement, they create the distinct impression of a sermon outline:

2 Corinthians 4:6–11
2 Corinthians 5:1–7
John 5:21–25
1 Corinthians 7:29–31

The sanctuary was filled with Bultmann’s colleagues, intellectuals from around Europe, dignitaries, friends, and family. The summary testament (sermon?) Bultmann wanted them all to hear was as follows:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.
2 Corinthians 4:6–11

Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight.
2 Corinthians 5:1–7

For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him. I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.
John 5:21–25

What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short.… For this world in its present form is passing away.
1 Corinthians 7:29–31

That Bultmann would allow these readings (particularly those on resurrection) to stand on their own is astonishing in light of how he treated such texts at the height of his career. Yet it was customary, at least in later years, for him to allow all resurrection texts to stand alone when used in funerals (Dorhs, 88). It is illuminating to examine how he interpreted each of these passages in his earlier theological writings.

If the unexpounded Scripture readings were a disturbance to the hearers, how much more was the music. Bultmann requested what in the end had become his favorite hymn, Georg Neumark’s Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (“If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee”). It was introduced with strong emphasis as the hymn that had come to mean so much to him. The text in English by Catherine Winkworth reads as follows:

Verse 1
If thou but suffer God to guide thee
And hope in Him through all thy ways,
He’ll give thee strength, whate’er betide thee,
And bear thee through the evil days.
Who trust in God’s unchanging love
Builds on the rock that naught can move.

Verse 2
What can these anxious cares avail thee,
These never-ceasing moans and sighs?
What can it help if thou bewail thee
O’er each dark moment as it flies?
Our cross and trials do but press
The heavier for our bitterness.

Verse 3
Be patient and await His leisure
In cheerful hope, with heart content
To take whatever thy Father’s pleasure
And His discerning love hath sent,
Nor doubt our inmost wants are known
To Him who chose us for His own.

Verse 4
God knows full well when times of gladness
Shall be the needful thing for thee.
When He has tried thy soul with sadness
And from all guile has found thee free,
He comes to thee all unaware
And makes thee own His loving care.

Verse 7
Sing, pray, and keep His ways unswerving,
Perform thy duties faithfully,
And trust His Word: though undeserving,
Thou yet shalt find it true for thee.
God never yet forsook in need
The soul that trusted Him indeed.

In view of Bultmann’s great fondness for the hymns of Gerhard Tersteegen or Paul Gerhardt, it was a further wonder to some present that nothing from their works was selected. Their mystic theology or poetry was not anywhere evident (Dorhs, 87).

Although Bultmann specified no preaching or eulogy, he allowed the Scriptures, the hymn, and Johann Sebastian Bach to do a great deal of speaking. A competent musician in his own right, he would have the family gather in the mornings as he played a piece from Bach on the piano or harpsichord. After a lifelong passion for the music of Bach, he had become a master of every word and nuance of his motets.

The musically literate congregation was given weighty commentary from Bultmann’s most beloved motet, Jesu, meine Freude (“Jesus, My Joy”), clearly suggesting a type of highly personalized faith testimony. With words rather than instruments being supremely important, motets were classic vehicles for delivering heavy loads of theology and Christian witness. Every word was to be articulated with crystal clarity and with the utmost dramatic effect. This motet stands out as a choral sermon on death and resurrection, powerfully interpreting the apostle Paul’s theology in Romans 8. It highlights the insignificance of death, the coming resurrection of the physical body, and the believer’s everlasting communion with Jesus his Lord.

With vivid word painting and unparalleled musical architecture evident throughout the work, Bultmann chose in this piece one of the most eloquent and explicit songs of repentance in the entire library of sacred music. Coming from deep within the soul of Bultmann, the famed doubter and demythologizer of Jesus, the words were more than startling. As the service progressed, few were prepared for what was to follow:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.
Romans 8:1

Verse 1
Jesus, my salvation,
And my heart’s possession,
Jesu, all my joy,
With what great desiring,
With what deep despairing,
I have longed for thee!
Lamb of God, o wellbelov’d,
Here on earth no joy allures me;
Nothing less can please me.

There can be no ungodliness in those who truly are in Jesus Christ, those who follow not their passions, but the Spirit.
Romans 8:4

Verse 2
Lord, thou dost defend me
From the storms around me
And the enemy.
Let the devil taunt me;
Let the world affront me;
Jesus is with me.
Though storms crash, though lightnings flash,
And though sin and hell afflict me,
Jesus will protect me.

Because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.
Romans 8:2

Verse 3
Yes, though Satan hates me,
Yes, though death awaits me,
Yes, though I may fear!
Rage then, world, with cursing!
I stand here rejoicing,
For my help is sure.
For God’s power holds me secure;
Earth and hellfire must keep silence,
Though they raged with violence.

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.
Romans 8:9

Verse 4
Go from me, all treasure!
Thou art all my pleasure,
Jesu, my desire.
Go, all vain pretenses!
You offend my senses,
And I will not hear.
Sorrow, pain, cross, death, and scorn,
Though here they may overcome me,
Shall not take thee from me.

But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.
Romans 8:10

Verse 5
So good night, affections,
All the world’s attractions,
For you give no joy.
And good night, transgression,
Sins of my commission,
Come no more to me.
So good night, all pride and might.
And, o life of vain endeavor,
Now good night forever.

And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
Romans 8:11

Verse 6
Leave me now, o sadness,
For the Lord of gladness,
Jesus, comes to me.
Those who love the Master
Find all their disaster
Turned to hope and joy.
Though I earn abuse and scorn
Thou must also suffer passion,
Jesu, my salvation (Bach, 16–20).

Surely, Bultmann could not have been oblivious to the impact such an extraordinary service would have upon the illustrious gathering at the Matthäuskirche. The entire event appeared carefully conceived, constructed, and executed, and his aim must have been achieved. According to Pastor Zippert, the congregation left the church that day utterly “stunned.”

At the graveside, there was a brief reading (again without interpretation) taken from the Gospel of John 11:25–27:

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

It is clear from family members that Bultmann felt that some personal, spiritual preparation was necessary for death and that he believed himself completely ready for his own passing and an open-armed reception into the presence of God. In a personal letter (dated March 9, 1991) his daughter Heilke Bultmann stated that he had met death “internally prepared and composed.” She added:

He said our life here was bound to earthly time. No one here could conceive eternity, but one could confidently feel secure in God and hope to be lifted up into “God’s time” after earthly life. This is approximately how he expressed himself to me and this is how he died with confidence (Dorhs, 86).

He was laid to rest high on a hill in the huge, forested Ockershausen cemetery, a few blocks from his home on Calvinstrasse. Bultmann appears to have taken his final cue from the parting sentiments of his mother-in-law, whose grave lies next to his and his wife’s. What took a collection of Scriptures, a hymn, and an extended motet to say to his survivors and friends, she expressed in one simple thought: The Lord saves the best wine for last (Jn 2:10).

The same passage Bultmann had chosen three years earlier for his wife Helene’s funeral, contrasting the temporal, passing kingdom with the everlasting one yet to come, was repeated in his obituary in Marburg’s newspaper, the Oberhessische Presse, for Monday, August 2, 1976:

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
-2 Corinthians 4:18

There are several nagging questions which still hang over this entire story: If Bultmann did experience such a profound transformation, then why didn’t he just spell it out clearly? Why would everyone be kept guessing? Can there be any plausible explanation for such an indirect route? There are several possibilities:

He was known for not clearly announcing his changes of thought to the world. He was even criticized by other scholars for this personal idiosyncrasy.

As a very private person by nature, he never felt obliged to explain himself to others. Born and raised in Oldenburg/Lower Saxony, he represented well his area’s customs, known over Germany as exhibiting an exaggerated, often obsessive protection of personal privacy. Even today, visitors to the region are struck by this characteristic of its inhabitants.

If asked directly whether he had experienced some sort of personal repentance and returned to a traditional faith in Jesus, he most likely would have said, “That’s my business!”—if he even bothered to respond to the question. For traditional Oldenburgers, such public disclosures of highly private matters were simply out of the question.

From a wider view, such a general announcement of a very personal repentance, fairly ordinary in some other cultures, was not commonly made on the level of German intellectual society where he spent his professional life. It was unsuccessful when tried. In a celebrated case in Marburg, roughly around the time of Bultmann’s death, a reputable New Testament scholar who had recently come to faith in the traditional Jesus of the New Testament stood up and publicly renounced the entire school of Bultmannian higher criticism. This confession was utterly incomprehensible to other scholars and resulted only in confusion. It was as if reason itself had been repudiated. The event was immediately disregarded by the theological community and thereafter written off as too absurd to take seriously.

Bultmann’s chosen course of action seems the most intelligent and effective way of communicating his final testimony of faith. He must have known that any other strategy would have resulted in a general dismissal of his mental faculties, forbearance of his age, failure of will in the face of death, or the like. He had a great many hours to play out in his mind this one last chess game and to determine the most powerful presentation of his closing profession of the faith he had spent a lifetime trying to understand.