Monday, February 15, 2021



Form Criticism

     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.

The Pioneers of Form Criticism in NT

     Hermann Gunkel was the first scholar who applied form critical analysis to the Biblical studies in his research on Genesis.[1] By 1920, a trio of German scholars namely K. L. Schmidt,[2] M. Debelius[3] and R. Bultman[4] pioneered in the field of form criticism in NT.  At first the English-speaking world was relatively skeptical of this new discipline. But by 1930’s & 1940’s, in great Britain, V. Taylor and R. H. Lightfoot were cautiously appropriating and advocating many form critical principles in their work.

Why Form Criticism

     The main reasons for form criticism are:[5] (a) The weakness of source criticism. Although form criticism is not an alternative for, but a supplement to, source criticism, it owed much of its origin to certain basic weaknesses in current source-critical speculations. (b) Form criticism resulted from the challenge to the historicity of the Marcan account of Jesus. Form critics examined the framework of Mark more thoroughly and concluded that the gospel is chronologically and also geographically unreliable. (c) Another reason for the form criticism was the desire to modernize the gospels. Much of the material in the canonical gospels which are quite outdated by modern scientific knowledge gave birth to the movement for restating the gospel in concepts acceptable to the modern mind.  (d) A further cause for form criticism was the urge to place the literary materials in the gospels in their historical situation, i. e. the Sitz-im-Leben, or life-situation.

Assumptions of the Form Critics

     The fundamental assumption that makes form criticism both necessary and possible is that the tradition consists basically of individual sayings and narratives joined together in the Gospels by the work of the editors. One body of material is seen as an exception to the rule that there were no connected narratives of the life of Jesus in the earliest period. The exception is the Passion narrative. [6] The tradition served the needs and purposes of the church.[7]  The original form of the traditions may be recovered by studying the laws of the tradition.

Method of Form Criticism

     In order to apply the form critical method, critics first define the boundaries of the biblical text, to study it on its own. This means isolating an individual literary unit from its surrounding context.  Second, once a text is separated into its component parts, the form critic identifies the genre of the specific literary unit under consideration based on its form and content. Third, the identification of the genre leads us to an understanding of the text’s original setting (Sitz im Leben), or the situation in which it was used prior to its inclusion in the Bible.[8]  Form criticism is, in fact, not attempting to understand the historical setting of the author, but rather, the social situation in which the text was used.

Merits and Demerits

     The historical skepticism that characterizes many of the prominent form critics has given the reputation of attacking the historicity of the gospels. No form critical hypotheses are justified which ignore the presence of eyewitnesses during the oral period.  As V. Taylor puts it, if the form critics argument is correct, then all the disciples must have been translated to heaven after the resurrection.[9] The Form critic claim that the early church did not distinguish the earthly Jesus from the risen Lord and thus felt free to place on the lips of the earthly Jesus sayings uttered by early Christian prophets is unjustified. As Norman Perrin puts it, “The modern distinction between historical Jesus and risen Lord is quite foreign to the early church.”[10] Many form critics are guilty of underestimating the degree of the importance of memorization in first-century Jewish society, and we are justified in thinking that this provides a sufficient basis for the careful and accurate oral transmission of gospel material. As Birger Gerhardsson pointed out the transmission process would have been akin to the transmission of the rabbinic traditions, in which both written materials and careful memorization would have played key roles.[11] 

            Some of the assumptions on which form criticism is based appear to be valid: there was indeed a period of mainly oral transmission of the gospel material, much of it likely in small units; there probably was a tendency for this material to take on certain standard forms; and the early church might have influenced the way this material was handed down. However, it is probable that more of the gospel material existed from very early periods in written form as Luke stated in 1:1-4 and that much of the rest of it may already have been connected together into larger literary units.[12] Alan Millard has rightly pointed out that writing was quite common in Herodian Palestine and that there were many precedents for the recording in writing of a religious teacher’s sayings.[13]

[1] Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History (trans. W. H. Carruth; New York:  Schocken, 1964).

[2] In his work “The Frame Work of the Story of Jesus,” Schmidt carefully studied the entire Synoptic tradition from the perspective of the framework that the Gospel writers gave to the life of Jesus. He also gave some helpful suggestions as to the nature and origin of the individual units making up the Synoptic tradition. Schmidt argues that the Synoptic 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.

[3] In his work “From Tradition to Gospel-1919,” Dibelius was the first to apply form criticism to the Synoptic tradition. His purpose was to explain by reconstruction and analysis “the origin of the tradition about Jesus, and thus to penetrate into a period previous to that in which our Gospels and their written sources were recorded” and “to make clear the intention and real interest of the earliest tradition.” His main concern was with the narrative material of the Gospels, and he finds three major categories of narrative material in addition to the passion narrative: paradigms, tales, and legends [Martin Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel (trans. Bertram Lee Woolf, New York: Scribner’s, 1935), iii, 25, 70, 82, 104, 108, 246, 271].

[4] Bultmann’s work “The History of the Synoptic Traditions-1921,” appeared two years after that of Dibelius, with the purpose of “discovering what the original units of the synoptic were, both sayings and stories, to try to establish what their historical setting was, whether they belonged to a primary or secondary tradition or whether they were the product of editorial activity” [Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (trans. John Marsh; New York: Harper, 1963), 2–5, 145-47, 155, 205, 240, 245].

      Bultmann provides a detailed analysis of all the Synoptic material within the two general divisions of (1) the discourses of Jesus and (2) the narrative material. The discourses of Jesus are divided into two main groups: apothegms and dominical sayings; but Bultmann also gives a separate treatment of “I sayings” and parables although by content they belong to the dominical sayings. The narrative materials are also divided into two major groups: miracle stories and historical narratives and legends. For   him the Gospels are the early Christian Theology rather than the historical data of the life of Jesus [Rudolf Bultmann, “The Study of the Synoptic Gospels,” in Form Criticism: Two Essays on New Testament Research (Ed. and trans. Frederick G. Grant; New York: Harper, 1962), 55-56].

[5] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, (USA: Intervarsity Press.1990), 209-213.

[6] It is argued that the earliest Passion story is not the Marcan story. Both Dibelius and Bultmann hold that the Marcan story is the end result of a very early process of transmission of tradition and that even in the earliest Passion story that we can reconstruct we do not have pure history [Edgar V. McKnight, “Form Criticism and New Testament Interpretation” in Method and meaning: essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold W. Attridge, edited by Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards (Atlanta: SBL, 2011), 23].

[7] This assumption is vital for Dibelius since he follows a constructive method and reconstructs the history of the Synoptic tradition from a study of the early Christian community. Even though Bultmann follows an analytical method that begins with the text instead of the church, he admits that he cannot “dispense with a provisional picture of the primitive community and its history, which has to be turned into a clear and articulated picture in the course of [his] inquiries.” He divided the early Christianity into two basic phases: Palestinian Christianity and Hellenistic Christianity (Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 5). 

      Dibelius sees the Christian movement as originating with the Aramaic-speaking Palestinian circle of Jesus, of course. Then comes a pre-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity in close proximity to Judaism. These pre-Pauline Christian churches were in Greek-speaking regions such as Antioch and Damascus and grew out of Jewish churches without making a logical break with Judaism. Still later comes the Pauline church, which is much less closely related to Judaism. Dibelius declares that the Synoptic tradition did not acquire its form in The Aramaic-speaking Palestinian church or in the later Pauline church. The tradition acquired its form in the pre-Pauline Hellenistic churches closely associated with Judaism (Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, 25).

[8] Joshua T. James, Reading Glasses: Form Criticism,, accessed on 07/11/2020.

[9] Vincent Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (London: Macmillan, 1935), 41-43; See also Richard Bauckham, “The Eyewitnesses and the Gospel Traditions,” JSHJ 1 (2003), 28–60.

[10] Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (London: SCM, 1967), 27.

[11] Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early

    Christianity (Lund: Gleerup, 1964), 196.

[12] C. H. Dodd, proposes that from the beginning, the pattern of early Christian preaching had imposed a certain  pattern in the gospel material (“The Framework of the Gospel Narrative,” ExpTim 43 [1932]: 396–400).

[13] Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (New York: University Press, 2000), 89. 



Bultmann, R. “The Study of the Synoptic Gospels.” In Form Criticism: Two Essays on New Testament Research. Edited and Translated by  Frederick G. Grant. New York: Harper, 1962.

Bultmann, R. History of the Synoptic Tradition. Translated by John Marsh. New York: Harper, 1963.

Dibelius, M. From Tradition to Gospel. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf. New York: Scribner’s, 1935.

Dodd, C. H. “The Framework of the Gospel Narrative.” ExpTim 43 (1932): 396–400.

Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Tradition in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Translated by Eric J. Sharpo. Lund: Gleeup, 1961.

Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Lund: Gleerup, 1964.

Gunkel, Hermann. The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History. Translated by W. H. Carruth. New York:  Schocken, 1964.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. USA: Intervarsity Press.1990.

McKnight, E. V. “Form Criticism and New Testament Interpretation.” In Method and Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold W. Attridge. edited by Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards. Atlanta: SBL, 2011. 20-40.

Millard, Alan. Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus. New York: University Press, 2000.

Perrin, Norman. Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. London: SCM, 1967.

Taylor, Vincent. The Formation of the Gospel Tradition. London: Macmillan, 1935.


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