Form Criticism Part I: The Forms and their Sitz im Leben

As mentioned before, one of the goals of Form Criticism is to classify the units in the Gospels according to their form and discover their “Sitz im Leben” (situation in Life) in the earliest congregations, whether in missionary preaching, myth-making, catechetical instruction, worship, debates with opponents, church discipline, etc.  My friend and former professor Tyler Williams provided this useful handout on Hermann Gunkel’s contribution to a Form Critical analysis of the Psalms.  It would not be long before New Testament scholars applied the new method to the gospels and I will focus on the categories of Martin Dibelius, Rudolf Bultmann and Vincent Taylor. 




(From Tradition to Gospel)

Paradigms, Tales, Legends, Exhortations, Mythological Stories, Passion Narrative


(History of the Synoptic Tradition)

Apophthegms (subdivided into controversial, scholastic or biographical), Dominical Sayings (subdivided into Logia, Prophetic, Legal, I-sayings and Similitudes), Miracle Stories (Healing, Nature Miracles), Historical Stories & Legends, Passion Narrative


(The Formation of the Gospel Tradition)

Pronouncement Stories, Miracle Stories, Sayings and Parables, Stories about Jesus, Passion Narrative

The problem confronting the researcher is that his or her own etic classification system has the potential to distort as much as the illuminate the NT data.  For instance, what really is the difference in form between what Dibelius classifies a “Tale”  (worldly stories about Jesus, particularly his miracles, passed on by special class of story-tellers), a “Legend” (a narrative about a saint) and a Myth (action of a god)?  Is “Historical Stories and Legends” or “Stories About Jesus” really a distinctive form or a grab bag of a bunch of diverse narratives of varying historical value from the infancy, baptism, temptation, confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi, Transfiguration, Triumphal Entry, etc?  What remains of value is the distinctive form of a Paradigm/Apophthegm/Pronouncement Story (I agree with Taylor, pg. 30, that  “pronouncement story” best captures the central feature), a brief anecdote with few background details but centers on a significant pronouncement of Jesus (in response to a conflict, an inquirer or a situation that arises).  For instance, in Mark 11:13-17 (Thomas Saying 100), opponents attempt to trap Jesus about paying tribute which he skillfully outmaneuvers with the ambiguous retort “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (see Loren Rosson’s posts on different interpretations of this passage)   Dibelius held the Sitz im Leben of the “Paradigms” was the missionary sermon and their main purpose was as example stories that end with a concluding thought of Jesus useful for preaching (Dibelius adds that the sermon was the only vehicle for preserving authentic Jesus traditions by unliterary persons expecting the imminent end).  Bultmann judges that controversial/scholastic apophthegms emerged from debates of the Palestinian church with Jewish opponents (e.g., note “the Pharisees” often question the conduct of “the disciples” with regards to Sabbath or purity) or internal debates over various matters in the church, while the life situation of the biographical apophthegms was in the preaching to the congregations and giving them an example to emulate.  Taylor sees the original function in the edification of believers gathered at the assembly or in debate/apolegetics directed towards outsiders.  For the rest, I will look at how various passages (NRSV) in Mark are classified according to their form.  For this, I rely on Bultmann since he seems  to have the most detailed analysis and to please the Bultmann fanclub in the biblioblogosphere (cough, Jim West).

Apophthegm (Pronouncement Story)

Controversy/Scholastic = Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. (Mk 2:18-19) (V. 20 “the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day” is often judged an addition since it reflects a post-Easter identification of Jesus as the bridegroom and his impending death and rationalizes why the church resumed the practice of fasting [cf. Bultmann, pg. 19; but contra Taylor, pg 34-35])

Biographical = Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’  (Mk 3:31-35)

Dominical Sayings

Logia = But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (Mk 10:31)

Prophetic/Apocalyptic Sayings = And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’ (Mk 9:1)

Legal Sayings/Church Rules = He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’  (Mk 10:11-12)

‘I’ = I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Mk 2:17b)

Similitudes = He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’ (Mk 4:26-29)


Healing = They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. (Mk 8:22-25)

Nature = A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (Mk 4:37-41)

Historical Stories and Legends

=  In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’  And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Mk 1:9-11) (Note Dibelius classified Mark’s account of the baptism as a “myth” because he viewed it as an epiphany scene with the personal vision given to Jesus of the spirit coming down as a dove and of the heavenly voice revealing Jesus divine nature)

Mixed Forms

How would you classify the following passage: a miracle story that revolves around the faith of the paralytic and the miraculous healing, or a pronouncement story about the controversy over Jesus’ authority to forgive sins and his central proclamation in response to his critics?

= And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’ (Mk 2:4-12)

5 Responses to Form Criticism Part I: The Forms and their Sitz im Leben

  1. Thanks for offering this exercise in understanding.

    In answer to your question at the end about ‘mixed forms’ I think maybe more than one issue is at stake.

    My classroom answer would be ‘pronouncement story’ rather than ‘miracle story’ and my reason would be that I see this story precedes five or six incidents involving other types of challenges from the Pharisees. Extended motif.

    In fact I think that Mark 1:21-3:35 is fundamentally not a string of wonder tales so much as it is a string of explanations (in the mouth of Jesus and Mark) for how it came to be that Jesus was falsely accused by his enemies as a law-breaker and blasphemer (i.e. Sabbath-breaker, evil exorcist, non-fasting, non-washing, dining with sinners, rude to his mother, etc.).

    In any case, I would view the presence of a ‘mixed form’ as a challenge to the whole system of form criticism. Has anyone dared to suggest that in 2:4-12 Mark has combined a miracle story with an unrelated pronouncement story? That would be ludicrous in my unprofessional opinion.

    • Mike K. says:

      Great thoughts, John. I tend to agree with you that the focus on this story, like the other healing episode with the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath, is Jesus’ pronouncement on his authority as God’s agent to heal. And I think you spot one of the weaknesses of form criticism: the assumption of original pure forms by which we strip away all the additional bits. I will get into it more later as the series progresses, but my attitude towards form criticism is that it has contributed much (the idea that some of the oral traditions were passed along individually and grouped together topically, that there are “some” forms we can recognize like a pronouncement story or a parable or an aphorism, and that the early churches were not disinterested but used these traditions actively in their preaching and worship) without accepting the whole model.

  2. [...] original “Sitz im Leben” (situation in life) in the primitive communities (see last post).  They also argue for strict laws of development in how traditions grow and expand by [...]

  3. [...] I wrote about Form Criticism, I noted that the oral traditions incorporated into the gospels may have originally circulated [...]

  4. […] those interested, I have blogged on the development and form-critical classifications of form criticism, a method that dominated Gospel scholarship in the first half of the 20th […]

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