Professor Rudolf Bultmann's Jesus, here translated, is a strictly historical presentation of the teaching of Jesus in the setting of the thought of his own time. Its aim is to free that teaching from certain accretions and re-interpretations, often superficial and inaccurate, which have grown up around it in modern times.
The translation of the book into English was undertaken originally in 1934 because the translators had themselves found in the book so much that was thought-provoking. It was felt by both publishers and translators that the title, Jesus and the Word, would convey a more definite idea of the content and viewpoint of the book than the original title, Jesus. This change was made with the approval of the author.
At the time when the book was first published in Germany (1926), the author was a member of a small group of continental theologians associated with Karl Barth of Switzerland. Even in 1934, he was little known in the United States. His later work, especially his writing on the need of "demythologizing" the Gospel, has been influential here as in Europe. Many Americans have sat in his class room in Marburg, and he has lectured at various educational institutions in this country.
The earlier book, however, has not lost value. The special approach to the subject and the nature of the book itself combine to give it a less theoretical character than most of the author's work, and it has always appealed to American readers. It serves, moreover, to correct the impression sometimes gained by readers of certain of his other works -- that the author is one of those who emphasize Pauline and Johannine theology at the expense of the teaching of the Jesus of the Synoptics.
Professor Bultmann's interpretation of the teaching of Jesus, however, differs radically from that popularized by liberal scholars of pre-World War One days. It forces recognition of the fact that Jesus' teaching did not center around such ideas as the infinite worth of personality, the cultivation of the inner life, the development of man toward an ideal; that Jesus spoke rather of the coming Kingdom of God, which was to be God's gift, not man's achievement, of man's decision for or against the Kingdom, and of the divine demand for obedience.
But the book is no mere return to an outworn theological traditionalism. It is of course a return to certain emphases which were prevalent throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity. Professor Bultmann recognized in the thought of the past certain essential, lasting truths which in later sophisticated times were often missed; and he has carefully and critically separated these truths from the accretions of later misinterpretations.
One of the chief stones of stumbling in the Gospels has been the eschatological element. Professor Bultmann agreed with Dr. Albert Schweitzer (cf. The Quest of the Historical Jesus) that eschatology was an essential part of the teaching of Jesus, but he differed from Dr. Schweitzer in his conviction that the ethical teaching of Jesus is inseparable from his eschatology: both are based on the certainty that man is not sufficient unto himself but is under the sovereignty of God. The ethic is therefore not an "interim-ethic" which has no claim on us. The eschatological interpretation of human life was not merely the teaching of a prophet nineteen centuries ago, but is essentially true today as then. Jesus' message as he delivered it, not some modern variation or dilution of it, is his message today. The details of apocalyptic imagery are transitory (here is the germ of "demythologizing"), and wishful thinking about the world to come is valueless, even harmful; but the eschatological message, "The kingdom of God is at hand," "among you" not "within you," is relevant to any age, including our own.
Finally we suggest that no reader should allow himself to be disturbed by the purely negative element in the book. Professor Bultmann uses "know" and "certain" in an almost absolute sense; consequently he is forced to use "probably" where most of us say "certainly," and "possibly" stands often for "probably." It is true that by his use of the methods of Form Criticism many sayings are excluded from the genuine words of Jesus. But the value of the book lies in the interpretation of Jesus' teaching as a whole, and this interpretation becomes more rather than less convincing if we ascribe to Jesus himself more of the Gospel content than Professor Bultmann is ready to do.
After twenty-five years, the translators wish again to record their debt to Eliza Hall Kendrick, formerly Professor of Biblical History at Wellesley College, for her criticism and her help in the attempt to avoid "translation English."
Louise Pettibone Smith
Erminie Huntress Lantero