Form Criticism

August 17, 2011

Upon discovering Markan priority, Mark became the darling of Liberal Protestants.  With an early narrative (Mark) and a hypothetical early sayings source (Q), they could ward off the radical skepticism of D.F. Strauss or F.C. Baur and uncover a rationalist’s historical Jesus stripped of theological dogma (see H.U. Meijboom, A History and Critique of the Origins of the Marcan Hypothesis 1835-1866).  What moved scholars from accepting Mark as “Peter’s interpreter” (cf. Papias) and the guide to the Jesus of history to Bultmann’s assessment, “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)?  Granted, Bultmann reacted to the excessive psychologizing studies of the personality of Jesus from the nineteenth century, but what happened is that Formgeschichte (form history), or Form Criticism, displaced the older model of Gospel origins.  This approach was dominant in the first half of the twentieth century and I will trace the steps that led to this paradigm.

  • Flight from History:  Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus refuted Liberal Lives of Jesus and set forth two options for reconstructing the historical Jesus:  thoroughgoing eschatology or thoroughgoing scepticism.  Schweitzer took the former route and William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret the latter, arguing that Mark imposed a ‘messianic secret’ over his material to cover up how no one regarded Jesus as the Messiah until after Easter.  Thus, Mark was no longer the unassailable earliest record about Jesus, for it too advanced the theology of its author.   Martin Kähler’s The So-called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ objected to the enterprise of questing after a ‘historical Jesus’ as a mere object of historical inquiry when the biblical Christ had an enduring relevance for the faithful.
  • 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 topically (e.g., controversy stories in Mark 2:1-3:6, parables in 4:1-34) and attached by artificial editorial seams (e.g., “and immediately…”, a non-specific temporal reference to a time of day or a Sabbath, a location like a house or the Sea).  Thus, each oral unit or pericope about Jesus was passed down separately before its inclusion in Mark.
  • Forms:  the oral units were classified according to their literary form.  Tyler Williams has a useful handout on Hermann Gunkel’s contribution to a Form Critical analysis of the Psalms and it was not be long before NT scholars applied the method to the Gospels.  By positing a pure original form, form critics detected various accretions in the traditions that led to mixed forms and formulated laws of tradition to trace how a tradition grows and expands (cf. Bultmann, Synoptic Tradition, 4).  For example, a pronouncement story has Jesus questioned about fasting and he answers that there is no need to fast while the Bridegroom is present (i.e. it is time for celebration), but there may be a secondary addition where fasting resumes when the Bridegroom is taken away.  This identifies Jesus as the Bridegroom, looks back on his death, and justifies the contemporary Christian practice of fasting. Here are the categories of Dibelius, Bultmann, and Taylor.




    (From Tradition to Gospel)

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


    (History of the Synoptic Tradition)

    Apophthegms – subdivided into controversial, scholastic (Mk 2:18-19) or biographical (Mk 3:31-35); Dominical Sayings – subdivided into Logia (Mk 10:31), Prophetic (Mk 9:1), Legal or Church-Rules (Mk 10:11-12), I-sayings (Mk 2:17b), Similitudes (Mk 4:26-29); Miracle Stories – subdivided into Healing and Nature Miracles; Historical Stories and Legends; Passion Narrative


    (The Formation of the Gospel Tradition)

    Pronouncement Stories, Miracle Stories, Sayings & Parables, Stories about Jesus, Passion Narrative
  • Sitz im Leben:  As Gunkel documented how certain Psalms had a situation of life in Israel’s corporate worship or royal coronations or tragic experiences, NT scholars sought the original “Sitz im Leben” (situation in life) of the various forms of Gospel tradition among the early Christ congregations, whether in missionary preaching, catechetical instruction, Church discipline, worship, debates or polemic against outsiders, etc. 
  • Creative Communities:  Bultmann emphasized not just the editing but the free invention of pericopes within different anonymous communities to serve various functions (worship, catechism, polemic).  For example, Pronouncement stories about the Pharisees confronting Jesus’ “disciples” actually are controversies of the Palestinian church with Jewish opponents over Sabbath, food, purity, etc.  Or the “I-sayings” were the creation of Hellenistic Churches as Christian prophets spoke in the name of the risen Lord (cf. Rev 16:15); M. Eugene Boring elaborated on the role of early Christian prophets who did not distinguish their utterances from those of Jesus.  Taylor represented the more cautious approach of British scholarship, positively accepting the forms yet criticizing Bultmann on the communal creativity (“If the Form Critics are right, the disciples must have been translated to heaven immediately after the resurrection” – Formation of the Gospel Tradition, 41), but Dennis Nineham insisted that Taylor’s a priori assumptions of the involvement of eye-witnesses based on church tradition is incompatible with the form-critical a-posteri analysis of the formal and stereotyped individual units reflecting a long history of impersonal communal use.
  • Lengthy Oral Period:  Early Christians had no literary pretensions and expected the imminent end of the world, so there was no motive to record historical facts.  Stories about Jesus grew and changed on the analogy of folk legends or hagiography of saints.  Some stories originated with the Palestinian Jewish Church and others with later Hellenistic Churches, each influenced by the wider cultural milieu.
  • Non-Creative Evangelists: the Gospel writers collected traditional oral units together like pearls on a string (cf. Schmidt).  Since the Gospels are not literary, except for maybe Luke-Acts which made an effort to reach out to the cultured (cf. Luke 1:1-4) and was less constrained by the tradition in the second volume, they have no comparable literary genre but are simply the outgrowth of the kerygma (preaching) on Christ’s death and resurrection, Christian rituals (baptism, eucharist), and Jesus traditions.

Criticisms of the Form Critical Model

  • There is a false dichotomy of history against theology; the only access we have to Jesus is through the memories of his earliest theological interpreters.  In my opinion the form critics rightly emphasized the theological function that the Jesus traditions had in the present for the Christian communities that actively remembered them, though one form could serve multiple functions in a certain Sitz im Leben, but they underestimated how interpreted memory also preserved the past.
  • The form critics may be right that many oral units are detachable from Mark’s framework and could be told on separate occasions, but it is unlikely that early reciters of Jesus traditions did not integrate individual anecdotes into some total picture of Jesus.  There may have been a basic outline of Jesus’ ministry from his baptism and early Galilean activity to his last week in Jerusalem.
  • Form critical categories are not intrinsic to the Gospels or emic terminology; they are the scholar’s creation.  The Paradigm, Apophthegm, or Pronouncement Story has a distinctive form – a brief anecdote with few background details (a conflict, an inquirer’s query) that centers on a significant pronouncement by Jesus.  But what is the difference in form between what Dibelius calls 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)?  Do “Historical Stories and Legends” or “Stories About Jesus” have distinctive forms or are they a grab bag of diverse narratives such as Jesus’ infancy, baptism, temptation, Transfiguration, Triumphal Entry, etc?
  • Against the view that mixed forms or embellished details are secondary and late, E.P. Sanders’ The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition debunks set laws of tradition as material in the Gospels can be observed to grow or shrink or become more or less detailed over time.  Further, we may not be able to extrapolate how stories developed from one written Gospel to the next to how stories developed in the oral period; James Dunn criticized how form critics impose a literary model of early and later layers onto an oral culture where performances could vary and details differ as long as the gist remained constant.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls shows a community can hold imminent eschatological expectations and still be interested in writing.  The evangelists may have had access to early written notebooks in addition to oral traditions (cf. George Kennedy, Graham Stanton).  Maurice Casey has attempted to reconstruct Aramaic sources behind the Gospels and other scholars reconstruct other written sources (Q, the Passion Narrative, etc).  Finally, the analogy to folk literature does not take serious the shorter time gap between Jesus and the evangelists or the genre of the Gospels as biographies (cf. Richard Burridge) and redaction or literary criticism has overturned the image of the evangelists as mere compilers of tradition.
  • The presence of eyewitnesses, the existence of written sources, oral tradents who did not consciously try to change the gist of stories, and the ability to distinguish the words of the Lord from one’s private opinions (e.g., 1 Cor 7) may have restrained the creativity of early Christ followers.  There are newer models on oral transmission (e.g., different types of material such as aphorisms, stories, jokes may be handed down with varying degrees of accuracy) and social memory (continuist views that emphasize that memory may capture the gist of an event even if details on places or times or names are forgotten versus presentist views that emphasize how memory reflects how groups wish to imagine the past to legitimate present beliefs/practices).

Alternative Models

If the form critical model is to be replaced, do any of the suggestions below better explain the transmission of the materials that were incorporated into the Gospels?

The Scandinavean School (Harald RiesenfeldBirger Gerhardsson):  Beginning with the Messianic Teacher Jesus and overseen by the Apostolic college in Jerusalem, the Jesus traditions were strictly controlled by authoritative teachers who required strict memorization by their pupils on the analogy of handing down oral tradition in rabbinic literature and ancient education methods.  The forms of the tradition (aphorisms, parables, etc) and constant repetition aided memory.  The Jesus tradition was kept in literary isolation, which is why sayings or deeds of Jesus are rarely cited outside the Gospels in the NT, and meant that it could not be tampered with (though some editing in the Gospels) nor was it permitted for it to be supplemented with teachings under one’s own name or inspiration.  The torch for a formally controlled transmission process by eyewitnesses was 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 DunnNT Wright):  Building on the anecdotal evidence 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.  There are strong critiques and subsequent debate over at Xtalk group on the Historical Jesus & Christian origins here and here (HT Ron Price) and to which James Dunn responds here.

Eschewing the focus on exclusively oral sources, Maurice Casey has striven to reconstruct 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, find translation errors or signs of Semitic interference in the Greek as most bilinguals do not have full command of either language or have difficulties translating from one culture to another, ensure his reconstruction of the Aramaic substratum is sufficiently idiomatic and reflects a 1st cent Jewish perspective, and attempt to explain the evangelist’s translation choices.  He finds Aramaic sources underlying Mark 2:23-3:6, 9:11-13, 10:35-45 and 14:12-26 and some external evidence for Aramaic sources from the Papian notice (i.e., Mark as Peter’s translator, Matthew’s oracles in a Hebrew dialect) and the Patristic references to a 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” (62).  Myth-making was not conservative but open to major changes, improvisations, and contradictory versions and most took the existence of the heroes or gods for granted, even if intellectuals rationalized the myths.  He argues for 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 accepts extravagant tales in his “Exegesis of the Lord’s Logia” or 2 Peter speaks about cleverly invented myths or John on the exclusion of many stories about Jesus) shows the oral transmission of the tradition was a less restrained process.


  • 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 TraditionCambridge: 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 ManuscriptNew 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.
  • Nolland, John.  “Form Criticism of the NT” in The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of Scripture.  Edited by K. J. Vanhoozer.  Baker Academic, 2005.
  • 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 JesusüberlieferungBerlin: 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 TraditionLondon: 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, 1979.