A systematic method of
analyzing the genres of the basic oral units preserved in literary works to
clarify the history of their formation. The term comes from the title of a
1919 book by Martin
Dibelius, Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums (literally:
the form history of the gospels). Fifty years before Marshall McLuhan
popularized the idea that "the medium is the message," Dibelius
- nothing is remembered or
communicated without some form; &
- the form in which something
is preserved shapes the contents.
From ancient times students of
literature, linguistics & folklore have been trained to distinguish the
different patterns of speech used to make a point: poetry & prose, proverb
commandment & oracle, miracle story & myth, lament & joke, etc.
Some of these are clearly identified in the Bible: the OT book of Proverbs
& the NT parables of Jesus, for
example. Church lectionaries also made it clear that the synoptic gospels were
composed of small self-contained units.
It was only at the beginning of
the 19th c., however, that scholars began to pay serious attention to these
units as relics of the earliest stages of the formation of Christianity.
J. G. von Herder
was the first to call attention to the importance of oral forms such as sayings, parables, &
tales in the composition of the gospels. Yet it took a work by the OT scholar
Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History (1901),
to prompt research on the oral formation of the gospel tradition.
Gunkel formulated several basic
principles that were later adapted by NT form critics:
- biblical writers are not authors so much as
collectors & editors;
- the forms of oral story telling reflect the
social situation (Sitz im Leben) for which they were originally
- changes in social situation lead to changes
in forms of communication;
- oral forms follow set patterns; so,
stylistic inconsistencies (gaps, digressions, etc.) indicate later
alteration of the original material.
These principles allowed Gunkel
to reconstruct the social history behind the written sources of the Hebrew
Pentateuch. On the basis of careful formal analysis of the biblical narrative
he traced passages to early or late stages of the oral tradition or to the
editorial work of some later scribe.
Gunkel's achievement led
Dibelius & other NT scholars to relate the oral forms preserved in the
synoptic gospels to social settings in the earlier period when Christianity
was taking form. Form critics pointed out that the narrative framework of each
gospel was composed by the writer & thus was not the original
context in which the individual units took form. Since the oral Jesus
tradition was filtered through Christian preaching & worship in a Greek
world, form critics concluded that the stories & sayings in the gospels
reveal more about the early Christian community than about the historical
The most influential form
critic was Rudolf Bultmann, whose
History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921) is still regarded by
scholars as an essential tool for gospel research. Bultmann announced the
historical significance of the consequences of his research in no uncertain
Just because literary forms are
related to the life and history of the primitive Church, I am definitely
convinced that form criticism not only presupposes judgments of
facts alongside judgments of literary criticism, but must also lead to
judgments about facts (the genuineness of a saying, the historicity
of a report & the like)...
The aim of form-criticism is to determine the
original form of a piece of narrative, a dominical saying or a parable. In
the process we learn to distinguish secondary additions and forms, and these
in turn lead to important results for the history of the tradition./Note/
immediate historical effect of Bultmann's research was to put the brakes on
most research on the life of Jesus for the next half century. To analyze the
life of any person one needs
- historically reliable data
- a chronologically accurate
sequence of material.
If the gospel stories
& sayings were molded by early Christian preachers for situations after
Jesus died & if the narrative framework of the gospels was
created by even later writers, then writing a historically accurate biography
of Jesus is virtually impossible. The British form critic, R. H. Lightfoot,
For all the inestimable value of the gospels
they yield us little more than a whisper of his [Jesus'] voice; we trace in
them but the outskirts of his ways. [History
& Interpretation in the Gospels (Brampton Lectures 1934, NY: Harper
& Bros.), p. 57].
Some scholars criticized
Bultmann & other form critics for excessive skepticism regarding the
historical reliability of the gospel narratives. Yet form critical
work on the synoptic sayings tradition laid the foundation for the resurgence
of Jesus research in the last quarter of the 20th c.
If the form in which something
is communicated is a window into the mind that originally formed it, then
sayings that can be traced to Jesus (& no one else) should reveal a lot
about him. Bultmann himself provided a criterion for identifying authentic
Jesus sayings. He called it dissimilarity, but later scholars prefer to call
it distinctiveness. The criterion works this way:
- If a writer credits a saying to Jesus
- if the form & content of that
saying differ from the author's own style & characteristic
- if that saying is not common
- if there is no close parallel
in ancient Christian, Jewish or Greek literature
- then that saying is not apt to have been
formulated by anyone other than Jesus.
One form of speech in early
Christian literature is ascribed only to Jesus: the
So, the gospel parables were recognized as a window into Jesus' distinctive
personal views on God & the world. Thus, form criticism prompted half a
century of research on the parables of Jesus by many scholars including
J. Jeremias, C. H. Dodd, R. W. Funk & J. D. Crossan.
This led to research by J. D.
Crossan & others on the form of the
which in turn provided the basis for the Jesus Seminar, the largest
international scholarly research project on the sayings & deeds of Jesus
ever assembled. Despite a wide range of personal viewpoints, more than 70
members of the Jesus Seminar were able to reach consensus that at least 90
sayings which the gospels ascribe to Jesus can reliably be traced to him.
Thus, the century that began with form critics skeptical about the historical
value of information in the gospels ended with their intellectual heirs using
form critical principles to identify a solid core of authentic sayings from
the mouth of Jesus himself, in spite of years of oral transmission &
editing by gospel writers.
Excerpts from the English translation of the
History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Basil Blackwell,
1963), pp. 5-6. Bultmann's German sentences are often hard to turn into
readable English. I have taken the liberty of rearranging John Marsh's version
of the first excerpt to improve clarity & emphasis (italics mine).
[For further introduction, see
E. V. McKnight, What is Form Criticism?, Philadelphia: Fortress Press,
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