Martin Dibelius    1883-1947 

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Pioneering NT 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 "objective" history.

Nevertheless, 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 the gospels:

  • paradigms (example stories) designed for preachers; &
  • tales (Novelle) of miracles designed by story-tellers for entertainment.

Yet, while 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 Bultmann.

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, Mark & 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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last revised 28 February 2023

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