Dammit Bultmann! Stop rationalizing the miracles! The Bread, Loaves, and Myth

the-officeRudolf Bultmann, the father of demythologization, urged people to get behind the text. On that, I agree. I also agree that sometimes the superstition of the age, or the need to see things in a miraculous way, can be passed down in an oral society much easier than it can today. But, I don’t think that is what is happening with the story of the fishes and the loaves.

At this point, I do not care if the event(s) actually happened. I don’t think that we can determine if Jesus set on a hilltop and fed even a single person, much less test the validity of the miracle. But, this doesn’t stop people from placing this story into two interpretative categories. One, it happened as the Gospels say it did. Twice. Or, we can demythologize it and suggest the real miracle is that people shared what they had. Perhaps, as the demyth camp suggests, this event tells us that when the one lone boy shared his meal, then the hearts of the others were opened.

Personally, I find it easier to believe that Jesus actually fed 5000 (Mark 6.30-44) and 4000 (mark 8.1-10) people via a miracle than it is to believe that the story is actually a mythologized account of a communal sharing of a meal because of the heart of a small child.

Rather, this section of Mark, as ]] has established, is based on the Elijah-Elisha narratives. You cannot — you should not — read Mark without reading 2 Kings several dozen times.

Let me give you an alternative to the dichotomy of the “it happened” camp.

Mark is using two feeding stories to show that 1.) Jesus is greater than Elijah-Elisha and 2.) Jesus’ bread is better than the Pharisees. If you’ll turn to 2 Kings 4, there are 2 feeding stories there.

2 Kings 4.1-7 is about the plentiful oil Elisha grants the widow.
2 Kings 4.38-44 details the story of Elisha recognizing the poisoned stew, fixes it with yeast or flour. Then, it feeds more than expected.

In Mark 8.14-21, the disciples are hungry and ask for bread. Look at the answer Jesus gives them. Not only does he compare the bread he has with those of the Herodians and the Pharisees but he then calls attention to the number of baskets, as if they were a sign!

If you seek to rationalize the miracle you will miss the theological significance of them. They are crafted in such a way as to put Jesus into a particular place in the story — not only Mark’s story, but Israel’s story as well. Jesus assumes the Elijah-Elisha mantle, does it better, and then does it in such a way as to counter the opposing religious viewpoints.

Stop rationalizing, accepting, or rejecting the miracles. Understand how they fit into the story.

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4 Replies to “Dammit Bultmann! Stop rationalizing the miracles! The Bread, Loaves, and Myth”

  1. “Personally, I find it easier to believe that Jesus actually fed 5000 (Mark 6.30-44) and 4000 (mark 8.1-10) people via a miracle than it is to believe that the story is actually a mythologized account of a communal sharing of a meal because of the heart of a small child.”

    I struggled with that before. I may have mentioned before that my first “contact” with theological scholars was in a Methodist College in Brazil (against my Baptist background) and one of my teachers was a Bultmannian, or Bultimmanist, as you wish, as I have never seen one. He taught us exactly what you cite you your post “that the real miracle is that everyone shared their meal after the boy shared his”. It so happens that another teacher, one familiar with all types of biblical “hebraisms” and culture, which included without being limited, to what was a regular meal for a boy and he said that if anything that was not the meal for a boy… That was a meal that the boy was probably taking to a group of fishermen, but not enough to feed 5,000. I also believe that it would be unlikely that everyone had prepared and was bringing a large, family or multiple parties meal to listen to Jesus at the beach because those gatherings tended to be formal much like a street preachers who gather a crowd in a corner somewhere of people curious to find out what he is all about. No one takes a meal to these occasions, especially a big meal. It must have been a miracle.. as you say, it is easier to believe that than any other possibility.
    Of course I was comfortable with this professor’s explanation. I also never researched the composition of a boy’s meal in the time of Jesus or whether it was a common practice for Jewish people, even fishermen, to take a meal with them all the time. Let’s not forget that there was no refrigeration available then.

    However, interestingly enough, although it is indeed important to read 2 Kings, I submit that the important aspect (and today perhaps the most important) is that Jesus, who could work miracles, commanded the disciples that they should provide food to the people. This pattern of Jesus commanding people to execute a certain relevant task of which humans are capable to execute is also found, or rather, lost, in the narrative of the resurrection of Lazarus. The one who was about to resurrect a man dead for four days, which credentialed Jesus to “pulverize” the stone, commands men to “remove the stone”; and even after the awesome miracle of calling Lazarus from the tomb, in an example “particular calling”, He, who could tell the shrouding straps to fall from the Lazarus hopping body as he came out of the tomb, rahter commands men “to untie him and let him go…”

    Often believing the miracle as we see one narrated in the Scriptures is not the most important aspect of our faith; but it is believing what and how Jesus commands us to participate in the peripheral, but relevant aspects of a miracle. In the case of the loaves and fishes we need to take upon ourselves to feed the hungry…which includes the spiritually hungry; It is His command! As per the resurrection of Lazarus, well, this may sound “too metaphoric” for some, but it may strike familiarity to those who attend Churches: Through the preaching of the Gospel we remove the stones; Through discipleship we will untie those who have been resurrected but are bound by sin which so easily beset us, legalism, demonic paganism, and as “untied” to be able to function as a living being, that is, if we understand that being alive is not synonymous to living.

    So, yes, stop rationalizing the miracles and learn what they really teach, which in and of itself will be a miracle!

  2. Bottom line: Be less stitious and be more studious, lest stitiousness become silliness.

    On the other hand, to simplify matters, just read Jefferson’s Bible.

  3. I would say that theologians need to deal with such matters in our setting. I realize that such questions are “unsettling.” However, I find it far easier to believe this particular “miracle” is a theological statement about the presence of the risen Lord in the Lord’s Supper. We indeed need to learn what miracles “really” teach us, but that may include some form of rationalizing or theologizing rather than taking such accounts at face value. Thank you for the post.

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