Form  Criticism 

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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 insisted that

  • 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 & parable, 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 called pericopae.

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 composed;
  • 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 Jesus himself.

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 terms:

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/

The 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, concluded:

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 ideas &
  • if that saying is not common opinion &
  • 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 parable. 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 aphorism, 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.

Note: 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, 1969.]

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last revised 01 January 2018


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