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
First, 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.
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.