My thanks to Anthony le Donne, and Chris Keith in the comments, for the response to some of my questions about the differences between social memory and form criticism (Larry Hurtado also notes their typology of memory studies). It has definitely encouraged me to pick up a copy of Anthony Le Donne’s The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology and the Son of David and Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? For my part, while I am not convinced by Richard Bauckham that the Gospels reflect direct eyewitness testimony and I still find value in the form critical legacy (e.g., some Jesus stories circulated independently, were orally retold according to certain narrative conventions, utilized in Christian preaching/worship/evangelism/debates, and some diversity of Gospel traditions can be explained by different interpretations of Jesus), I also think that the presence of some eyewitnesses in the first generation and the importance of memorization in oral cultures (cf. mneumonic devices in the teaching of Jesus to aid memory) and the possible use of some written sources (e.g., the use of notebooks; Maurice Casey on Aramaic sources?) served as a kind of check against the radical creativity envisioned by some form critics. But if the various studies of social memory (Le Donne makes a good point that it is not one monolithic approach) can offer a more methodologically rigorous, interdisciplinary approach and provide a better explanation for the unity and diversity that we see in the Gospel tradition, than I am all for them. The approach of Dunn or Alison to look for the “characteristic Jesus” or the gist of how he is represented in the early sources as a whole may also be a better approach than an individual scholar subjectively creating a list of authentic sayings of Jesus versus those of the early church or the evangelists, at least for coming up with a general reconstruction of the historical Jesus as a sage or healer or apocalyptic prophet or messianic figure, but I wonder if one wants to get into further specifics if some criteria is still necessary to sift between earlier and later social memories. For just one example, it seems to me that Mark 11:15-17, 14:57-59, John 2:15-71, Acts 6:13-14 and Thomas 71 all reflect different interpretations of the significance of Jesus’ judgment on the Temple. Granted, there is no uninterpreted history and how the event (the gist is that Jesus seems to have threatened the Temple) is remembered and interpreted by friend or foe is influenced by a variety of social factors, but is there still a role for some of the criteria in sorting out the earlier from the later interpretations?
Anthony Le Donne has a summary about the various scholars engaging memory studies in historical Jesus research, especially helpful for those of us who have not kept up with all the literature on this, and Michael Bird has created the new theme song :) There is much I like about this approach including that it is more interdisciplinary in nature, it is a useful reminder that there is no access to the “historical Jesus” apart from the “Jesus remembered” (cf. James Dunn) by his earliest followers, and it replaces some of the more dubious aspects of form criticism (e.g., one can remove the inauthentic bits based on deviations from “pure forms” or laws on the growth of the tradition or secondary “Hellenistic” layers over primitive “Palestinian” material).
However, is some of the research on memory really so different from the insights of the form critics? Has memory research refuted, or might it even vindicate, some of the following conclusions: 1) memory is both retentive (how Jesus was) and reconstructive (what Jesus came to mean for the community doing the remembering), 2) memory is shaped according to narrative conventions (e.g, a Pronouncement story, a parable, a miracle story), 3) the selection and shaping of memory happens in a specific social context (i.e. the Sitz im Leben or “setting in life”), 4) Mark puts its own stamp on the memories through the selection and arrangement of them in retelling the Jesus story (e.g., linking individual stories together with loose connectors such as “and immediately” or using the sandwich technique to have two independent stories mutually interpet each other), and 5) some of the diversity in the Gospel tradition may be based on different forms of Jesus’ saying (e.g., the Lord’s Prayer) or ways of retelling certain stories but that others may be intentional redactional changes of Mark or other sources by the Gospels of Matthew/Luke/Thomas/Peter, etc. I can accept criticism of the confidence in the “criteria of authenticity” to weed out “authentic” from “inauthentic” material and admit we can’t get behind the earliest memories of Jesus (sage, apocalyptic prophet, Torah teacher, healer/exorcist, messianic claimant), but is it not the task of historians to then try to sort out which memories may be earlier and which were developing ways of thinking about Jesus and might some criteria help that task. So if something is independently multiply attested itpresumably must be older than both sources or if it seems to go “against the grain“ of developing theological views than it may be the survival of an earlier memory not fully suppressed, but if something clearly stands out from the rest of the Jesus’ tradition while supporting a distinctive theme of an evangelist then it may be later or “redactional”)? Anyways, all the recent discussion about memory is fascinating so it would be interesting to open this up to further dialogue in the comments.
Judy Redman has kindly responded to my question on whether Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics and argues Thomas received sayings independently from the rich oral tradition. There are a number of things that I can say appreciatively about the many scholars studying oral transmission or social memory. First, I agree with Judy on many points: Jesus may have repeated the same teachings in different ways in all sorts of settings and various eyewitnesses in the first generation continued to retell their stories as they remembered, both of which could account for some similarities (even some verbatim ones) and variations in the Synoptics or Thomas. Second, against those attacking Bart Ehrman (who now has a blog) and the infinitely patient James McGrath, there was likely many oral and written souces floating around because Luke tells us so in the prologue (Lk 1:1-4, this is an odd way of saying just Mark & Q, or Mark & Matthew), it was an oral culture with low literacy, it accounts for some differences of John from the Synoptics even if John is literary dependent (ditto Matt/Luke, it is difficult to explain every difference as intentional redactional change), the early 2nd century bishop Papias prefers the “living voice” to the written word and it explains some variations of Jesus’ sayings or deeds in the Apostolic Fathers (Helmut Koester’s Überlieferung bei den Apostolischen Vätern  and subsequent works demonstrates they often draw on oral tradition rather than written gospels) or some extra-canonical gospels. Third, as also from her review, there is much to be gained from social memory capturing the gist (Jesus was a sage, an apocalyptic seer, social reformer, messianic figure) while acknowledging human memory is also selective, flawed and sometimes constructs what is needed for the contemporary situation, echoing form critical debates of how much goes back to Jesus or the Sitz im Leben of the church. Fourth, I appreciate these studies are interdisciplinary and offer methodologically sound replacements for outdated form critical laws about “pure forms” or impersonal “laws of tradition” for how traditions grow.
However, I am not ready to throw out all the labours of the classic German scholarship on source, form and redaction criticism. I continue to accept sayings/deeds apart from the Passion circulated individually in forms to aid memory (e.g., chreiai -pronouncement stories), served various practical functions as they were handed down (instruction in ethics, magnifying Jesus when retold in worship, aiding in legal debates with fellow Jews, useful for evangelizing outsiders, etc) before incorporated in written Gospels. Eyewitnesses are subject to both the limitations of memory and limited to not being everywhere at once, so as stories were told and retold widely there was room for creative new things. Once included in a written source (Mark, perhaps Q source[s]?), the later evangelists (Matthew, Luke, John, Thomas, etc) did not just pull everything from oral tradition but copied each other and did some deliberate updating of the material to meet the theological needs of their readers. An example where I see literary dependence and redaction is Mk 13:14/Matt 24:15/Lk 21:20 – “let the reader understand” seems to me a Markan addition hinting to the readers that they had been instructed about the “abomination of desolation”, Matthew repeats Mark’s aside verbatim while Luke reinterprets the enigmatic sign for non-Jewish readers in a post-70 context as the siege of Jerusalem. That is a minor change, but would not a major change either during the continuing oral tradition or at the redactional level be to explain how Mark and Thomas can reach such opposite views on apocalyptic? An example I would want to look at would be the ”thief in the night” (Thomas 21, Matt 24:43/Lk 12:39; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 3:3; 16:15; Did 16:1) – on the one hand I could accept Judy’s view on Thomas complete independence here and getting this from the oral tradition as it is abundantly attested, but it does lead one to ask whether something Jesus had said about a thief in the night was remembered by different eyewitnesses or tradents in two dramatically different ways and put in very different contexts (be on guard against the world, be ready for the second coming of Jesus), if it was dramatically altered in the oral tradition received by either Matt/Luke (Q?) or Thomas, if either Matthew (or Q?) or Thomas made the redactional change to the saying or gave it a new context or if Thomas is dependent and changed Matt/Luke?
Thus, in my opinion the gist of how Jesus was remembered in the first generation was preserved and aphorisms/parables/short anecdotes and so on survived orally for centuries, but also the image of Jesus was theologically developed in oral tradition and redactionally at the hands of the Synoptic evangelists and (even more so) in John, Thomas, etc. For a bibliography on memory and oral tradition:
- Alison, Dale. Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.
- Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.
- Dunn, James. Jesus Remembered. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003.
- Le Donne, Anthony. The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology and the Son of David. Baylor University Press, 2009.
- Le Donne, Anthony. The Historical Jesus: What can we know and how can we know it? Eerdmans, 2011.
- Redman, Judy. ”How Accurate Are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 1 (2010): 177-97.
- Rodriguez, Rafael. Structuring Early Christian Memory. London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010. His blog has lots of discussion on memory.
I want to conclude with what I see as strengths or weaknesses of the form critical model. I believe there is no going back to the patristic view. Modern historical-criticism challenges it on a number of fronts: Matthean priority (some enlist Clement of Alexandria, quoted in Hist. Eccl. 6.14.5-6, in support of the Griesbach hypothesis but Stephen Carlson has a good article in response), Matthew writing “in a Hebrew dialect” (Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ) (NT Matthew is Greek as is its major source Mark, while so-called Q material is more debatable), Mark as Peter’s ghost writer (especially as Mark depicts Peter the most negatively of the four), that the shift in first person plural in Acts shows it authorship by Paul’s co-worker Luke (cf. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.14.1) (but then what to do with major differences of the Paul of epistles vs Paul of Acts?), the 4th Gospel by the Apostle John (the Beloved Disciple has been identified as everyone from the Apostle, John the Elder, Thomas, Lazarus, Mary, Jesus brother James, or a symbolic figure, and can an eyewitness account for John’s major historical/theological differences from the Synoptic tradition?). At best the patristic authors may simplify a more complex historical process and at worst they may just be attaching these names to secure these texts because apostolic successsion became important in intra-Christian debates. So what contribution does form criticism make for understanding the period between Jesus and the gospels. Here is my checklist:
- Unless one imagines that Mark, the double tradition (“Q”), special Matthean material (“M”) or special Lukan material was all invented from scratch, there must have been an active oral medium for circulating traditions before they were recorded by the evangelists (cf. Paul’s references to passing on/receiving tradition and handing on “words of the Lord”; Luke 1:1-3 on the many compiling accounts just as delivered by the first witnesses & assistants of the word; Papias on the “living voice” as superior to books; the fact that oral variants of Jesus sayings/deeds continue into the 2nd century, etc). This is what we would expect for a largely non-literary, oral-culture.
- Many traditions may have circulated independently as isolated sayings or anecdotes about Jesus (though with possible exceptions of the Passion narrative, perhaps a kerymatic outline of Jesus ministry, a few other longer oral/written sources) before grouped together in topical arrangements.
- At least some oral units can be classified according to form (aphorisms, parables, pronouncement stories, etc). This can aid exegesis; for instance one should not read every element of a parable allegorically unless the evangelists give explicit license to read them in such a way (the Parable of the Sower or of the Tenants in Mark) or get hung up about the background details of a pronouncement story when the focus is on the central pronouncement of Jesus. And while there may not be one form per one Sitz im Leben, form criticism rightly calls attention that the words and deeds of Jesus were not preserved for merely interest sake but for the needs of preaching, worship, instruction, debates with outsiders, etc.
- The diversity within the Synoptics, not to mention other gospel sources, means there must be some theological creativity and embellishment in the oral period or by the evangelists themselves. However, without the assumption of originally “pure forms” or set “laws of tradition” (e.g., law of increasing distinctiveness), we may have to be more cautious then some of the earlier form critics in postulating what we can know about the shape or evolution of the pre-Markan traditions.
While I think there is much of value in form criticism, I would be on the more conservative end of that spectrum. To sharpen the model:
- The awareness that living eye-witnesses or those connected with them did not just vanish from the scene, at least in the first generation between Jesus and the the composition of the earliest gospels. Eye-witness testimony is not exempt from historical-critical scrutiny and cross-examination, but we need to engage studies on memory (for some studies, see Dale Allison, Anthony Le Donne, Judy Redman cf. her blog, though some question whether memory studies just replay older form critical debates in a new guise).
- There needs to be more room for the possibility of written sources, which is not disproven by the imminent eschatological expectations of (some?) early Jesus communities. Whether one accepts the more detailed reconstructions of a historian like Maurice Casey or just finds it inherently plausible that there was some note-taking before the composition of the gospels, I will leave that to readers to decide.
- I tend to think that the oral/written traditions behind the Synoptics preserve the gist of who Jesus was, whatever the debates about the authenticity or not of this or that saying or episode and some creative storytelling. Many of Jesus’ teachings or halakhic debates in his own context were no longer immediately relevant to the issues facing an increasingly socially-mixed Christ communities. For instance, Paul is not able to just conjure up a word from the Lord to settle his dispute against proselyte conversion to Judaizing ways but must rely on his own apostolic credentials and, in the example of 1 Cor 7, Paul must negotiate between the Lord’s strigent commands on divorce with his own opinion on a new situation involving marriages with a believer and non-believing spouse.
The form critical emphasis on the role of anonymous Christian communities in the period between Jesus and the gospels replaced the older consensus on the tradition authorship of the canonical Gospels by apostles (Matthew, John) or apostolic assistants (Mark, Luke) (see, for example, Irenaeus Adv. Haer. 3.1.1). However, before I wrap up a concluding post on form criticism, it should be stressed that there are other models on the scholarly spectrum that range all the way from support of the patristic view of the gospels as rooted in eyewitness testimony to those who like Bultmann find much more theological creativity and embellishment in the pre-gospel traditions.
The Scandinavean School (Harald Riesenfeld, Birger Gerhardsson): Beginning with Jesus as the Messianic Teacher and overseen by the Apostolic college in Jerusalem, the emphasis is on the controlled transmission of the sacred tradition by authoritative teachers and the requirement of strict memorization by their pupils on the analogy of handing down oral tradition in rabbinic literature and ancient education methods generally. The forms of the Jesus tradition (aphorisms, parables, etc) and constant repetition was an aid to memory and the Jesus tradition was kept literarily isolated (note it is hardly present from Acts to Revelation) which meant it could be shaped/edited but not permitted to be supplemented with teachings under one’s own name or inspiration. The torch for a formally controlled transmission process by eyewitnesses has been passed to Samuel Byrskog (cf. Peter M. Head‘s review article) and Richard Bauckham (cf. Chris Tilling ’s extensive overview).
Informally-Controlled Transmission Process (James Dunn, NT Wright): Building on the insights of Kenneth Bailey into a modern Middle Eastern village, when a respected elder or prominent member of the community recites the tradition the community itself exercises control over how it is retold from their communal memory and decide how much flexibility in permitted in the retelling (e.g. poems/proverbs should be left unchanged while there is room for flexibility with parables or stories as long as the “punch line” is preserved). That is, the core of the story ought to remain even as the details may vary on the retelling. This model can allow for the tradition to be preserved even when “eyewitnesses” were not always available (see Dunn’s article contra Gerhardsson & Bauckham) and Dunn, in particular, argues that many discrepancies in the Synoptics are always due to literary redaction but are different oral retellings. Update: Thanks to Ron Price in the comments below, I learned of some strong critiques and subsequent debate over at Xtalk group on the Historical Jesus & Christian origins here and here. I think there is still plenty of room to debate the reliability of oral tradition and how much it preserves versus how much it creates, but it does call into question some of Bailey’s anecdotal evidence used in support of this model.
Eschewing the focus on exclusively oral sources, Maurice Casey has striven to find written Aramaic sources behind Mark and the so-called Q material. His method is to argue Aramaic was the lingua franca in 1st cent Israel (Latin was the language of Roman imperial power, Greek penetrated Palestine through Hellenization but he contests its extensive use by the majority populace, Hebrew was a living literary language to read scripture), find translation errors or signs of Semitic interference in the Greek (observing most billinguls do not have full command of either language and have difficulties translating from one culture to another) and ensure his reconstruction of the Aramaic substratum is sufficiently idiomatic and reflects a 1st cent Jewish perspective and explains the evangelist’s translation choices. There may be some external evidence for Aramaic sources from Papias assumption that Mark was Peter’s hermeneutes (translator?) and Matthew compiled the logia in a Hebrew dialect (Ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ) to the references in patristic literature to an original Semitic gospel.
In one of the better articles in R. Joseph Hoffman‘s Sources of the Jesus Tradition, Justin Meggitt applies his knowledge of popular culture in the Roman Empire to illuminate the role of myth-making (mythopoesis) among the vast non-elite population. Although aware of sophisticated scholarly debates on the term ”myth”, he narrowly defines it as “a story about a popular figure that includes material that is neither true nor probable” (p. 62). He argues myth-making was not conservative but open to major changes, improvisations & contradictory versions and most took the heroes/gods existence for granted. He also argues that the role of women as cultural transmitters in passing on tales to children in the domestic sphere is often neglected despite NT evidence (2 Tim 1:5) and that the polegenic character of early Christianities and that individuals were unconcerned to sift fact from faction (e.g., note Papias who provides our first traditions on Mark and Matthew also includes extravagant tales in his ”Exegesis of the Lord’s Logia”) shows the oral transmission of the tradition was a less restrained process.
Those are four different models, either leaning towards more careful preservation of the tradition or towards more theological creativity in the period between the historical Jesus and the Gospels. So before I wrap up what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of form criticism in light of all this discussion, I want to ask what you think is the best model for understanding the transmission of the pre-gospel traditions and the reliability of the Gospels?
Upon the discovery of Markan priority (which I accept as the best solution to the Synoptic Problem), Mark became the darling of Liberal Protestant questers. With an early narrative account (and eventual discovery of a Sayings Source underlying the double tradition of Matt/Luke), they could ward off the radical approach of D.F. Strauss or F.C. Baur and uncover a rationalist’s historical Jesus stripped of theological embellishment (for one review/critique of the origins of the Markan priority hypothesis, see H.U. Meijboom, A History and Critique of the Origins of the Marcan Hypothesis 1835-1866). So what lead scholars from seeing Mark as the “interpreter of Peter” (cf. Papias, cf. H.E. 3.39.15) and guide to the Jesus of history to the form critical skepticism of Bultmann who writes, “I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist” (Jesus and the Word) (but note he was reacting against excesses of 19th century romantic & psychologizing bios of Jesus and his book has quite a bit to say historically about the message of Jesus)? I will discuss developments leading to form criticism and note some objections in italics.
- Flight from History: Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus refutes Liberal Lives of Jesus and stresses only 2 options: thoroughgoing eschatology or scepticism. William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret represented the latter route as he argued the overriding secrecy theme in Mark was a theological creation to cover up a nonmessianic Jesus. Also note Martin Kähler’s The So-called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, objecting to the enterprise of questing after Jesus as a mere object of historical inquiry when the biblical Christ had a lasting historical impact and relevance for faith. This may be a false dichotomy as there are no uninterpreted facts; the Gospels do not purport to be objective but are theological interpretations of the historic Jesus event.
- Deconstructing Mark’s Chronological Framework: K.L. Schmidt’s Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu argues that, with the exception of the Passion narrative, independent oral units were collected together in topical arrangements (e.g., controversy stories in Mk 2:1-3:6, parables in Mk 4:1-34, eschatological sayings in Mk 13) and attached by artificial editorial seams (e.g., note how often Mark connects passages by “and immediately…”, a reference to going beside the Sea to teach or to withdraw, or vague time references to that morning, evening, one Sabbath, etc.). Many oral traditions may have been passed down individually and grouped together topically, but there may also have been a basic outline of the ministry starting with the baptism and ending on the fateful last trip to Jerusalem for Passover where the Temple demonstration inevitably set in motion events leading to Jesus death (Mark 11; contra John 2).
- The early Christians were unliterary persons expecting the imminent end of the world, so there was no motive to record anything of historical interest in the oral period (the analogy for the spread of the Gospel traditions is often along the lines of folk literature). The Evangelists were also not creative authors but reduced to compilers collecting traditional oral units like pearls on a string (cf. Schmidt). Since the Gospels cannot be classified as literature (“Luke” reached out to the world of culture [cf. Lk 1:1-3] but was constrained by tradition in writing the gospel but more an author when writing the second volume of Acts), they have no comparable literary genre but simply the kerygma (preaching) narrativized (cf. Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls shows a community can hold an imminent eschatological expectation and still be interested in writing. Classics scholar George Kennedy urges NT scholars to take seriously the practice of ancient note-taking (hypomnemata) before published memoirs (apomnemoneumata) in the composition of the gospels and in the notice of Papias. Maurice Casey has attempted to identify Aramaic sources underlying Mark 2:23-3:6, 9:11-13, 10:35-45 and 14:12-26. Finally, the analogy to folk literature does not take serious the shorter historical time gap between Jesus and the first evangelists or the gospel genre as bioi (cf. Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels: A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biographies) and the notion of the evangelists as mere compilers has been disproven by the developments of redaction and literary criticism of the Gospels.
- Form critics classify the various units according to form and try to uncover their 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 observing how Matthew and Luke treat their sources Mark and Q and how later accretions and additions became added to the original pure forms (e.g. the examples in the last post about the addition of the saying about the church resuming fasting after the Bridegroom is taken away or how a pronouncement story becomes a miracle story or legend, etc). The form critical contribution must be tempered with the fact that of their categories are not intrinsic to the Gospels (not emic terminology) but are the scholar’s own creation, much of the gospel material does not fit into a single category (Bultmann, “Synoptic Tradition,” pg. 4 acknolwdges mixed forms but does not see it contradicting the form critical premise) and it can be disputed that each separate form belongs to a single Sitz im Leben. E.P. Sanders, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition debunks any set laws of tradition as traditions may either grow or shrink or become more or less detailed over time. Finally, can we extrapolate from how Matthew/Luke treat prior written sources (not to mention some of the differences may be due to oral variants rather than deliberate redactional changes as noted by James Dunn) with how an earlier evangelist may have treated their oral or written traditions?
- Rudolf Bultmann in particular argued that the traditions were not only shaped and edited in the oral period but also invented in various Sitze im Leben. Thus, many pronouncement stories involving a conflict between the Pharisees and “the disciples” reflect the controversies of the Palestinian church with their opponents over issues of Sabbath, fasting, food laws, ritual purity, etc. Others like the “I-sayings” were the creation of Hellenistic Churches as Christian prophets spoke in the name of the risen Lord (cf. Rev 16:15). Vincent Taylor represented the more cautious approach of British scholarship to form criticism, positively accepting many of its contributions but especially challenging Bultmann on this point (“If the Form Critics are right, the disciples must have been translated to heaven immediately after the resurrection” – Formation of the Gospel Tradition, 41) while Dennis Nineham forcefully argued that Taylor follows an a priori assumption of the involvement of eye-witnesses based on church tradition that is incompatible with the form-critical a-posteri analysis of the formal and stereotyped individual units that reflect a long history of impersonal communal use. The presence of living eyewitnesses or those connected with them in a relatively small movement, the existence of written sources, newer developments in the study of oral transmission or social memory (especially remembering the gist even if the details differ) and the fact that the words of the Lord possibly were distinguished from one’s own inspired utterance or opinion (e.g., 1 Cor 7) may be restraining factors on the creativity of individuals or communities.
I hope I have been fair in noting a sample of some of the arguments for and the objections against form criticism, though with the disclaimer that a blog post is a rough collection of informal notes and no substitute for reading the books/articles listed here. In the next post I will look at alternative proposals to the form critical model before I conclude with what I think are the main strengths and weaknesses of form criticism, but I want to turn it over to readers to ask what you see as some of the enduring contributions of form criticism and what do you think has been refuted by later scholarship?
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.
|Paradigms, Tales, Legends, Exhortations, Mythological Stories, Passion Narrative|
|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|
|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)
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)
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)
Before I launch into the series on Form Criticism, I want to provide a short bibliography for those who want to research the subject in more depth than can be done on a blog. These are the sources I consulted, from both proponents and detractors of the presuppositions and methodology of form criticism, and so will refer back to it in the next few posts (and if you know of good books/articles for consideration let me know in the comments):
- Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.
- Blomberg, Craig L. “Form Criticism.” Pages 243-50 in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green et al. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992.
- Boring, M. Eugene. Sayings of the Risen Jesus: Christian Prophecy in the Synoptic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982; Mark: A Commentary. The New Testament Library. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, London, 2006.
- Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Translated by John Marsh; New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
- Byrskog, Samuel. Story as History, History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History. WUNT 123. Tubigen: Mohr, 2000, reprinted Leiden: Brill, 2002.
- Casey, Maurice. Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
- Dibelius, Martin. From Tradition to Gospel. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf; Cambridge: James Clarke and Co, 1971.
- Dodd, C.H. “The Framework of the Gospel Narrative,” Expository Times 43 (1931-1932): 396-400.
- Dunn, James. Jesus Remembered. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
- Gerhardson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript. New Edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
- Hengel, Martin. The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. London: SCM; Harrisburg: Trinity, 2000.
- Kümmel, Werner Georg. Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville: Abingdon, 1973.
- Kennedy, George. “Classical and Source Criticism.” Pages in The Relationship among the Gospels: an Interdisciplinary Dialogue. Edited by William Walker; Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1978.
- McKnight, E.V. What is Form Criticism? Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969.
- Nineham, D.E. The Gospel of St Mark. The Pelican NT Commentaries. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963; “Eye-witness Testimony and the Gospel Tradition, I.” JTS 9 (1958): 13-25; “Eye-witness Testimony and the Gospel Tradition, II.” JTS 9 (1958): 243-252; “Eye-witness Testimony and the Gospel Tradition, III.” JTS 11 (1960): 253-264.
- Sanders, E.P. The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
- Schmidt, Karl Ludwig. Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu: Literarkritische Untersuchungen zur ältesten Jesusüberlieferung. Berlin: Trowitzch, 1919 (sorry, unlike Dibelius and Bultmann this one was never translated into English, but the title reads “The Framework of the story of Jesus: literary-critical studies on the oldest Jesus traditions”)
- Stein, Robert H. The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction. Nottingham: InterVarsity, 1987.
- Stuhlmacher, Peter (ed.). The Gospel and the Gospels. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991
- Taylor, Vincent. The Formation of the Gospel Tradition. London: MacMillan, 1933; The Gospel According to St. Mark. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1966.
Travis, Stephen H. “Form Criticism.” Pages 153-164 in New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods. Edited by I. Howard Marshall; Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1979.
Just as I had a series reviewing Source Criticism and the discovery of Markan Priority as the best solution to the Synoptic Problem, I want to turn my attention to the Form Critical pursuit of the pre-literary oral traditions that were later incorporated into our Gospels. Formgeschichte (form history), better known as Form Criticism, was dominant in the first half of the twentieth century and is the attempt to classify the various units (or pericopae) of the Gospels according to form (parables, aphorisms, pronouncement stories, miracle stories, legends, etc.) and to trace these traditions back to an original Sitz im Leben (situation in life) in the early Christian communities (i.e. what function the tradition had in the preaching, worship, catechetical instruction, community organization or discipline, controversies with the synagogue, etc). This wll be a four-part series:
Part 1: The Forms and Their Sitz im Leben
Part 2: The Development and Presuppositions of Form Criticism
Part 3: Alternative Models to Form Criticisms
Part 4: Concluding Observations