Sunday, June 7, 2020


           Form criticism remains a central discipline in New Testament studies.Form criticism is a method of analysis focused on the individual, self contained units of material into which gospels may be sub-divided. It identifies the different ‘forms” or subgenres of literature which appear, and it attempts to describe the way in which these forms developed during the period of time in which they were passed along by words of mouth, prior to writing of Gospels themselves.



  1. The weakness of source criticism: Source criticism is concerned only with the written source but does not go beyond the oral period.
  2. Form criticism is resulted from the challenge to the historicity of the Markan account. W. Wrede proposes that the frame work of Mark’s gospel was author’s own creation. K. L. Schmidt also maintains that Markan gospel is overlaid with editorial additions. This challenge led to the rise of form criticism to discover the reliability of Markan account.
  3. The desire to modernize the gospel: There is a shift from the first century to the twentieth century environment. The materials to the canonical gospels may be outdated to the modern man. Therefore it has to be investigated and appropriated to the modern mind.
  4. To understand the Sitz-in-leben of the literary materials.



            By 1920, a trio of German scholars namely K. L. Schnridt, M. Debelius and R. Bultman pioneered in the field of form criticism in N. T. At first the English-speaking world were relatively skeptical of this new discipline. But by 1930’s & 1940’s, in great Britain, V. Taylor and R. H. Lightfood were cautiously appropriating and advocating many form critical principles in their work.


K. L. Schmidt:- In his work “The Frame Work of the Story of Jesus” argues that the Synoptics are Mosaic like collections of the short episodes from the life of Jesus which are linked by a series of bridge passages provides chronology, geography and movements of life of Jesus from the earthly ministry to his arrest. He also describes a stage between oral transmissions and gospel writings in which similar kinds of forms existed in collections.


M. Debelius:- In his work “From Tradition to Gospel-1919”, he launched form criticism from the N. T. by differentiating six kinds of materials: sermons, paradigms, tales, legends, passion story and myth. These sermons created the socio-logiccal setting (sitz-in-leben) for the traditions as a whole and the ‘constructive” base for discussing Synoptic gospel forms.


R. Bultman:- In his work “The History of the Synoptic Traditions-1921”, he classified the gospel materials into discourses and narratives. For him the Gospels are the early Christian Theology rather than the historical data of the life of Jesus. He expanded the aims of form criticism by seeking to determine the original forms, secondary additions and forms and the result for the history of tradition. His concern was to determine the sociological setting at any particular time for each passage under discussion.



            Form criticism bases its study on several foundational pre-suppositions. All agreed that the teachings of Jesus and the narratives about his life which comprise the gospel were translated orally over a considerable period of time before they were ever written down. They believed that theses units of materials for the most part circulated independently of one another. They affirmed that the closest parallels to the transmission of the gospel tradition could be found in the oral, folk literature of the other ancient, European cultures. They concluded that comparison with these parallels made it highly likely that the final form in which the gospel appeared could not be trusted to supply a reliable account of what Jesus actually said and did. Rather one had to work backward and remove various accretions (matter added) and embellishments which had crept into the tradition and so try to recover the original pure form.



  1. Individual Logia or Sayings: These include wisdom or proverbial sayings (Mt. 8:20), prophetic and apocalyptic utterances (Lk. 12:54-56), legal sayings and Church rules (Mk. 7:6-8), including what one often called “sentences of holy law” (Mt. 18:15-17) and “I’m sayings” (Mt. 12:27-28), in which Jesus reveals some things about his own identity or mission.
  2. Pronouncement Stories:  These have also being called apophthegmns and paragigms. They are short stories about an action of Jesus who’s primary purpose is to leave upto elimatic pronouncement on a given topic (Mk. 2:13-17, 3:31-35, 12:13-17). Many pronouncements stories are also conflict or controversy stories, putting Jesus against his opponents on a crucial topic which divided them.
  3. Parables: These are short metaphorical narratives, usually fictitious designed to reveal some aspects of the Kingdom of God. Form critics have regularly sub-divided them into similitude’s (explicit present tense comparisons, eg. Mk. 4:30-32), parable proper (past- tense stories, eg. Mt. 25:1-13) and examples stories (narratives but if on metonymy rather than metaphor eg. Lk. 12:16-21.
  4. Speeches: These are longer, connected difference of Jesus, usually believed to have been constructed out of shorter forms which once circulated independently of each other (Mt. 5-7; Mk. 4:1-34, 13:5-37). Speeches may be in turn sub-divided into various other categories. Such as farewell addresses (Jn. 14-17) or symposia (Lk. 14:1-24).
  5. Miracle stories: These are narratives of the super natural deeds of Jesus. They divided into two main categories – healing miracles and natural miracles. These may then be sub-divided into categories such as reanimations (Lk. 7:11-17) or exorcism (Mk. 5:1-20) and rescue miracles (Mk. 4:35-41) or gift miracles (Jn. 2:1-11).
  6. Other historical narratives: Many of these have often been labeled legends or myths, partly because of their content (associating Jesus with God in some way) and partly because not all of them were believed to be historically trustworthy (Lk. 2:1-20; Mt. 4:1-16; Mk. 16:1-8).



      The form critics next frics to determine in which contexts in the life of the early Christian community each of these forms would have been most valued. For example, it is widely accepted that pronouncements stories would have been most used in popular preaching; miracle stories were probably most significant in Christian apologetic against Greeco – Roman beliefs in other divine men or primoral hero’s.  Legends, if it is often maintained, created primarily out of a desire to glorify and exalt Jesus. Sentence of holy law were probably most relevant in setting Church disputes. Parables may well have been transmitted during times of popular story telling. Many forms are not readily associated with just one sitz-in-leben, and most critics agree that this objective is the most speculative of the three.



      For a majority of scholars representing a wide spectrum of theological traditions, form critical because the most important modern tool fro gospel analysis. It provides guidelines to interpreting pericopies of individuals. Classification of the gospel pericopies by form also enables one to discern the type of structures and outlines which the four evangelists used. The attempt to assign a sitz-in-leben to each form is well motivated and helpful for exegesis. It suggests that the gospels reflect the nature of the Christian community. Form criticism helps us to see how and why the early Church preserved the materials.




  1. The form critics have not used data that specialist in oral literature have systematically gathered and analyzed to understand the production and transmission of oral literature. Therefore it is not clear the interpreters ever will be able to get an accurate picture of oral activity in the early Christianity.
  2. The absence of detailed work in contemporary literature written in Greek to display the dynamic relationship between the written and oral composition in the Mediterranean Society. Rather they have used a model of writing that exist in later Rabbinic Judaism.
  3. Probably little more than twenty years elapsed between the event described and first written account (c. ad. 30-50). Eye witness of Jesus minisry, including hostile ones could easily have refuted and discredited Christian claims during this period, if those claims had been in anyway mistaken.
  4. Variation on the tradition cannot be assumed as un-historical. Jesus might have repeated some of the teachings in different forms at different occasions.
  5. From the outset Jesus’ disciples may well have kept private written notes along the lines of those kept bother Rabbis and disciples. And the fact that they were sent out to preach about Jesus and his message during his lifetime (Mk. 6:7-13; Lk. 10:1-6) suggest that they could have begun to press the tradition early on.



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