What is Form Criticism?

Form Criticism was applied to the New Testament by K. L. Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann. Their work was based on the form criticism popular in Old Testament studies which divided the text into individual sections (pericope, plural, pericopae) and determined a “mini-genre” for each pericope. These sub-genres included proverb, wisdom saying, I-saying, myths, legends, etc. Once a pericope has been determined and a sub-genre assigned, the form critic would then attempt to construct a plausible Sitz im Leben for the pericope – the “situation-in-life” that might have generated the story.  For example, a miracle story could have been invented in a situation where the divinity of Christ was in doubt. Such a “legend” attempted to give Jesus divine qualities in order to support developing Christology of the early church.

Not all form-critical studies assume stories are fabrications, it is possible a story is a genuine recollection of an event. It is possible to ask why was “a particular story was remembered, retold, and adapted for teaching and preaching in the church. Not everything Jesus said and did was recorded, the things that were served some purpose for the writer. Form Criticism is therefore a logical step from Source Criticism.  If the writers were using sources, what can we know about the sources? It is at least possible to trace the origins back to a pre-textual, oral phase. In order to achieve this, Form critics make a few assumptions.

Assumptions of Form Criticism

Oral TraditionFirst, early form critics assumed no one wrote anything down during Jesus’ life time or in the early years of the church. The assumption is that the early Christians relied on oral tradition and at all on written documents. The reason often given for this is the belief that the earliest Christians were convinced that Jesus was going to return very soon and establish his kingdom, thus there is no need to write books.

Second, oral traditions are seen as discrete, independently circulating rather than a larger narrative. The units circulated among story-tellers and teachers who incorporated them into their teaching, The model for this process is the history of oral folklore in other cultures such as European or African story telling. Since stories developed in Europe in this fashion, so to must have the Christian mythology.

Third, the material preserved had some sort of function in the life of the community that preserved it. This makes sense since it is obvious not every word Jesus said was preserved. But the situation of the community preserving the material is more important than the context of the life of Jesus. The question shifts from “what did Jesus mean?” to “how did the community use a particular saying?”

Fourth, some Form critics assumed very few details of the life of Jesus were preserved. As a result, we cannot really know much about a Historical Jesus from these stories since the oral transmission of stories tends to strip away actual biographical historical or geographical information in favor of local church contexts. Again, it is possible to use some methods and language Form critics and argue the Gospels preserve real history, but that was not the original intention of the Form critics.

Like Source Criticism, Form Criticism can be useful because it establishes a connection between the original event (Jesus tells a parable) and the eventual writing of that parable, fixing the form in a text. Like Source Criticism, the Form Critics are studying the forty or so years between the events and the writing of the Synoptic Gospels. But the assumption that the stories floated freely and were greatly adapted and changed (or created) to fit new situations is problematic. As Michael Bird says in The Gospel of the Lord (Eerdmans, 2014), if this process happens within forty years (A.D. 33-70), then there are eyewitnesses to “police” the developing oral tradition.

Oral Tradition?

What sort of traditions would the Gospel writers have used? We cannot imagine they found boxes of unused tradition stored away in the back of a teacher’s house (Michael Bird, p. 66, citing James Dunn). The traditions preserved through the early, oral period used because they were the stories used in the regular preaching and teaching of the church! While not precisely “Form criticism” in the traditional sense, scholarship has been working on the “oral period” quite a bit lately, attempting to describe how people remembered Jesus and how those memories were passed along to the next generation.

Like other forms of “higher criticism,” Form Criticism is not necessarily a destructive project. It can serve those who study the Gospels well by shedding light on the time between Jesus’ life and ministry and the writing of the Gospels.

15 thoughts on “What is Form Criticism?

  1. Professor Long, the above post was very informational regarding what form criticism is and the purpose that it holds. Form criticism is a scary thing in and of itself being that it “studies oral and spoken traditions behind the written Gospel sources” (Strauss, 529). It is a curious study, as no one is alive now that can relate these traditions, leaving the time period between when things actually happened and when they were written down vulnerable to alteration. But, just as interesting is its ability to give us insight into the people and culture of that time. For criticism generally gets a bad-wrap due to many negative results it produces, but I like the very positive aspect you remind us of in your last paragraph. Teaching others orally was very influential and purposeful in the time of Jesus. “The good news was meant to be preached” (Strauss, 58). Although there were several years where messages were primarily passed down orally, do you think it was strictly an oral period? 2 Thessalonians 2:15 tells the believers to hold fast to the traditions they were taught by word of mouth or by letters sent to them. Other than the letters we have in the New Testament, could there be other documentation that was written down and preserved during that time to give a better footing to the assumptions that have been made?

    • Good point, there are quite a few “tradition” passages in Paul, 1 Cor 15:3-5 is even earlier, and the reference to the last supper in 1 Cor 11:13-26 is even more important to this discussion since the gist of that report is the same as Matt, Mark and Luke, even the Words of Jesus, I suppose someone could say the tradition shaped the Synoptics, but it is possible they all drew on the same early collection of “important things Jesus said and did.”

  2. I thought that this was a very informational piece as well! Form criticism allows us to get a glimpse of what it was like in the “bible times.” The Christians seemed to be very motivated to spread the gospel. It shows how popular Jesus was because most people were talking about Him. “Most early form critics assumed that the majority of the Gospel material had its origin in the preaching and teaching of the early church, rather than in the life of the historical Jesus” (Strauss 58). The church was already adapting to the teachings of Jesus. The Gospel was being spread in front of congregations. I think that it can be easy to doubt the words on the page, because we all know how words can be misunderstood, and then told the wrong way. The important thing is that God’s work was passed down, and we have the priviledge to read it and to share it.

  3. It makes sense to me that people would pass the stories down orally. I tell stories about my life to people all the time (even if I’m the only one who finds them interesting). So, it makes sense that people would begin passing the stories down. It also makes sense that the stories would need a logical flow to make them more interesting. It also helps the teller and listener remember. Also, if persecution happened it would be a great way to remain a secret. No matter what though people needed to remember and share the Gospel story. Mark 16:15 even tells the disciples to go and preach the Gospel. I think that it makes sense and that the structure of their stories doesn’t matter, it helped them remember and it was all inspired by the Messiah, the God who the story is about is the one who told them what needed to be said and how to say it.

  4. I think the idea that the Bible is based off of word of mouth storytelling and not an immediate manuscript from the time of Jesus’s life can create this assumption that the story of Jesus being told in the gospels is simply that, a story. Form criticism seeks to discover the facts about the original form of the gospels, which can be a very good thing in verifying the authenticity of the Gospels. However, as Strauss highlights in chapter two, there are some dangers of form criticism as well.

    Some dangers that Strauss highlights include: The assumption that the Gospels were not historical but simply made to fit to the needs of the church. The second is the assumption that the early church was a strictly oral period. Third, the assumption that the form of the Gospels are clear cut, and lastly, their subjectivity towards settings and life in the Gospels (2018).

    I think form criticism is necessary and important to properly understanding the Gospels. While it can be tricky to do it correctly, I think if you are aware of what not to do when practicing form criticism, you will be more equip to use form criticism as a tool for understanding certain scriptures. Understanding the forms in which the Gospels came to us is not only important spiritually, but historically as well, it helps us understand the cultures and people groups of Jesus’s time better. Overall, form criticism is a tool that needs to be used with caution, but when used correctly can prove to be very helpful in expanding our knowledge on the Gospels.

  5. I think form criticism has its value in really studying the period between the life of Jesus and the events that happened and the time of the written sources. This helps us to understand what was going on in the early church culture as well as historical and cultural things going on outside of the church. For me it is a little hard to wrap my head around the point of trying to figure out words that were spoken 2000 years ago, but the question of why these stories might have still floated around seems obvious within the context of the early church. They were simply teaching from the life of Jesus just not with written sources.

  6. I find it interesting that early critics assumed that there were only oral records of the gospels. This mindset is due to the idea that there would be no need for it, as Jesus was thought to come back very soon – and I find that interesting. The more I look into the development and purpose of the gospels, the more I understand that the context matters. The time and tradition – everything that the people group involved is essential when thinking about what the Scriptures meant and how they were intended to be written.
    Another note that I wanted to add is that Straus mentions that it is likely that the different forms of developmental stages and periods overlap. In this, there were works written during the oral period and there were things passed along orally during the written period. While the period was primarily one or the other, it was not exclusive. I find it interesting to look into how we communicate and pass things along today – I find stories and lessons from my childhood that many others have experienced from oral traditions, and there are written traditions all around us! I think it’s cool to look into the mindset that the early Christians have towards the gospels and compare it to ours today, as we have the complete gospel in our hands.

  7. I find the study of oral tradition interesting. To think we can study what was spoken back then sounds impossible. I can picture fellow believers quoting the words of Jesus over and over. They had to have had good memory to be able to pass down these teachings for generations. It is interesting to think that details of Jesus could have been left out. Strauss talks about the similarity in the Gospels. He lists one specific example when he compares Matthew 19:13-14, Mark 10:13-14, and Luke 18:15-16 (Strauss, 61). The words that Jesus spoke are almost word for word the same. This is one example that Strauss uses when he asks the question, “Are the Gospels dependent on one another? If so, which was written first and which depended on the others?” (Strauss, 61). I think it is possible some of the Gospels used the other to write theirs. I think it is also possible that they simply remember what Jesus said because it was spoken over and over amongst fellow believers or even in the church. I enjoy reading the similarities between the three Synoptics. Observing the events all three of them decided to include in their Gospel makes you examine the importance of that specific passage. Even if they copied the other, all three authors saw the importance of the passage and decided to include it in their Gospel as well.
    Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels, Zondervan
    Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2020.

  8. Form Criticism was to “go behind the written sources and identify the earlier oral forms of the gospel traditions.” (Strauss, 75). When discussing form criticism we see a lot of trying to find the true meaning of the spoken word. It’s almost as if we are interpreting the word in my opinion. Strauss introduces us to the method of form criticism. Form critics “assume that between the time of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels, there was an oral period when the sayings and stories of Jesus were passed along by word of mouth.” (Strauss, 76). In your article you talked about form criticism coming from the New Testament by a few different authors. Their work was often based on Old Testament studies that divided the text. (Long). Oral findings are often interesting because I feel like they go into depth a little deeper. They often find what I like to call the “missing things.” The early critics did surprise me by saying they felt as if there were only oral findings. I do believe oral and written traditions are super important. I think with only having one without the other we are lacking in some areas. Out of all of these criticisms we still find them in today’s day and age. In my opinion I feel as though these things will always be relevant.

  9. I really enjoyed reading about all the types of “criticisms” that are applied when reading the synoptics; however, form criticism is the one that resonates with me the most because it makes the most sense, keeping in mind the way of life “Stiz im Leben” and how people communicated during biblical times. Understanding that form of criticism and its methods were almost the only way that people communicated any sort of “Pericope”. According to Strauss, form criticism can be determined by seeking the spoken word behind the written word; stating, “its goal was to go behind the written sources and identify the earlier oral forms of the gospel tradition” (Strauss 75). This is important because it will help readers and scholars understand and trace more historical information back to the words of Jesus as well as what words that were developed and modified by the church. I think that form criticism is the best take and makes the most sense in regard to the synoptics because, the way stories were told was more often than not via word of mouth. P.Long makes valid points throughout his blog post one of which was very applicable; stating, “not all stories are fabrications, it is possible a story is a genuine recollection of an event. It is possible to ask why a particular story is remembered, retold, and adapted for teaching and preaching in the church (P.Long)”. I like this point P.Long mentions because, traditionally, in almost all worldviews and religions, major stories were told as lullabies via word of mouth. Nonetheless, the synoptics are nothing like a lullaby, however form criticism allows one to identify the genre, setting and tracing of the transmission, which is very important and helpful, but it must be done tediously. .

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