scholar who adapted H. Gunkel's principles of OT form criticism
to research on the synoptic
gospels. Dibelius, who was born at Dresden, taught at Berlin (1910) before
becoming professor of NT at Heidelberg (1915).
His analysis of
the gospels' portraits of John the Baptist (1911) convinced him that these
were not historical reports but passages designed for Christian preaching. He
concluded that the portraits of Jesus in these works were developed for the
same purpose. Thus, he argued that the gospels cannot be regarded as purely
Dibelius insisted that the gospel writers were collectors rather than authors.
They did not fabricate their preaching material but merely polished the
elements of previous oral tradition. Thus, he proposed to trace these elements
to the "natural state" by separating the original oral units from
the composite structures of the gospel context.
This led to his
1919 masterpiece: Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums (1935
English translation entitled: From
Tradition to Gospel), which
gave the name "form criticism" to this type of analysis of the
gospels. In this work, Dibelius distinguished two basic kinds of stories in
(example stories) designed for preachers; &
of miracles designed by story-tellers for entertainment.
Dibelius launched the discipline of form criticism, his work was soon
overshadowed in importance & influence by the more technical literary
analysis of the gospels by Rudolf
Dibelius did not
live to see the real fruition of his insights in the rise of redaction criticism
after WW2. In explaining how gospels were composed out of paradigms & tales, he had insisted that
the prime motivation was each writer's own theology of history:
...the most significant of all
means...has to do with the interpretation of tradition. The
evangelist, in making his collection, strives to do this by setting a number
of traditional elements in a particular setting. He knows how and why they
must have taken place in accordance with the Divine Plan of Salvation. [Tradition
to Gospel, p. 230]
Thus, the next
generation of scholars began to analyze & compare the personal theological
horizons of Matthew,
Luke, by studying the editorial elements that Dibelius had called attention to in his earlier work on John the Baptist:
Often the additions of the
collector are easily distinguished from what has been collected: references
to the change of place and time, remarks of a pragmatic sort, isolated
sayings of the Lord...that are often attached to one another only by a
catchword, finally, the so-called summary reports, with general
references to the healing of sick persons. [Analysis of the
Primitive Christian Tradition of John the Baptist (1911) p. 2].
Dibelius began by
setting these interpretive elements aside. Those who followed him used them to
pinpoint the circumstances in which each gospel was written.
[For details &
more excerpts see W. G. Kümmel, The NT: The History of the Investigation of
its Problems ET (NY/Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972), pp. 263-65, 330-34].
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