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Introducing Form Criticism

Upon discovering Markan priority, Mark’s Gospel was favoured by Liberal Protestants. An early narrative (Mark) and an early hypothetical sayings source (Q) 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 treating Mark ‘s account as Peter’s eyewitness testimony on Jesus’ life 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 against excessive psychological studies of Jesus’ personality from the 19th 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 20th 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 scepticism. Schweitzer took the former route and William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret the latter. Wrede thought that Mark imposed a ‘messianic secret’ over his material to cover up that no one regarded Jesus as the Messiah until after Easter. Thus, Mark no longer supplied the unassailable earliest record about Jesus, but advanced his own theology. Martin Kähler’s The So-called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ objected to the whole quest for the historical Jesus as if Jesus was a mere object of historical inquiry when the biblical Christ had enduring relevance for believers.
  • Deconstructing Mark’s Chronological Framework: K. L. Schmidt’s Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu argued that, with the exception of the Passion narrative, Mark was working with originally independent oral units or pericopae about Jesus which he grouped by topic (e.g., controversy stories in 2:1-3:6, parables in 4:1-34) and attached together through artificial editorial seams (e.g., “and immediately…”, non-specific temporal references to a time of day or a Sabbath or a location like a house or the Sea).
  • Forms: the oral units were classified according to their literary form based on similar research by Old Testament scholars (e.g. Herman Gunkel, The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction). By positing pure original forms, form critics detected 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 the resumption of fasting when the bridegroom is taken away was judged as a secondary addition (i.e. the church identifies Jesus as the Bridegroom taken away and justifies their present 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 reflect Israel’s corporate worship or royal coronations or tragic experiences, New Testament scholars sought the original “Sitz im Leben” (situation in life) of the varied forms of Gospel traditions. Each form had a distinctive purpose in the early Christ followers’ missionary preaching, catechetical instruction, church discipline, worship, debates or polemic against outsiders, and so on. 
  • Creative Communities: Bultmann emphasized that Gospel traditions were not just edited but freely invented within different anonymous communities to serve various functions (worship, catechism, polemic). For example, Pronouncement stories about the Pharisees confronting Jesus’ “disciples” were actually controversies between the Palestinian church and their opponents over Sabbath, food, purity, and so on. 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 Christian prophets who did not distinguish the voice of the risen Lord from the historical figure of Jesus. Vincent Taylor represented the more cautious approach of British scholarship, positively accepting the literary 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 assumptions of the involvement of eye-witnesses based on church tradition is incompatible with the form-critical analysis of the formal and stereotyped individual units that reflect 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 evolved 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 Luke-Acts which made an effort to reach out to the cultured (cf. Luke 1:1-4) and was less constrained by 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 oral 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 via the memories of his theological interpreters. The form critics stressed the theological function that the Jesus traditions had in the present for the Christian communities that actively remembered them, though they were wrong to imagine that there was one form with one theological function per Sitz im Leben, but they underestimated how interpreted memories preserve the past.
  • The form critics may be right that many oral units are detachable from Mark’s framework and were retold 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.
  • The form critic’s categories are not intrinsic to the Gospels nor used emic terms. 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 Tales (worldly stories about Jesus, particularly his miracles, passed on by special class of story-tellers), Legends (narratives about a saint), and Myths (action of a god)? Do “Historical Stories and Legends” or “Stories About Jesus” have distinctive forms or are they grab bags of diverse narratives (e.g. the baptism, the transfiguration, the triumphal entry, the temple cleansing)?
  • 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. Material in the Gospels may 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 people can hold imminent eschatological expectations and still be interested in writing. The evangelists may have had access to written sources or notebooks in addition to oral tradition. 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).
  • 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, or 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

  • 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) 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 New Testament, and meant that it could not be tampered with apart from the minor literary editing by the Gospel writers nor was it permitted for it to be supplemented with teachings under one’s own name or inspiration. A formally controlled transmission process by eyewitnesses is now defended by Samuel Byrskog  and Richard Bauckham.
  • Informally-Controlled Transmission (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 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). The core of the story ought to remain even as the details may vary on the retelling and allow for the tradition to be preserved even when “eyewitnesses” were not always available (see Dunn’s article). Perhaps many of the differences between the Synoptic Gospels may be due to different oral re-tellings instead of deliberate literary editing. This model has been strongly critiqued by Theodore J. Weeden and defended by James Dunn.
  • Eschewing the focus on exclusively oral sources, Maurice Casey reconstructs written Aramaic sources behind Mark and the so-called Q material. His method is to argue Aramaic was the lingua franca in 1st century 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 1st century Jewish perspectives, 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 Patristic traditions (e.g. Mark as Peter’s translator, a Semitic original to Matthew’s Gospel).


  • 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 Jesusüberlieferung [“The Framework of the story of Jesus: literary-critical studies on the oldest Jesus traditions”]. Berlin: Trowitzch, 1919.
  • 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, 1979.
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