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A Unique Gospel Genre?

The Form Critics and the Unique Genre

Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann were the key pioneers in developing form criticism, a critical approach to the Gospels that was especially influential in the first half of the twentieth century and beyond, and I have provided a brief overview of the history, tenets, and criticisms of form criticism here. How did they relate the Gospels to other literature in the ancient world?

Dibelius judged the early Christians to be unliterary persons who had no need to record history in light of the imminent end of the age, so the only form in which the Jesus tradition could be preserved was in the kerygma or their missionary “preaching” (Tradition, 60-61). The evangelists were not literary composers but, principally, collectors or editors of traditions (1, 3). Bultmann outlines how the kerygma of Jesus death and resurrection became fixed in creeds (1 Cor 15:3-5), was expanded with prophetic proof-texts and the rituals of the baptism and the Lord’s Supper (i.e. Eucharist), filled out with miracles and pronouncement stories confirming Jesus’ authority (i.e. Mark), and finally was linked with sayings that were originally passed down separately for exhortation or instruction (i.e. Matthew and Luke’s use of Mark and “Q”) (Theology, 86).

For Dibelius (5-6) and Bultmann (Synoptic Tradition, 6-7), the closest analogies are folktales, fairy-stories, folk songs, and cult legends (e.g. hagiography of saints, anecdotes about Rabbis, tales of Hellenistic heroes, or the Jataka collection of Buddhist canon). K. L. Schmidt emphasized that the Gospels are not Hochliteratur (high literature) but, like folk books or cult legends, they developed akin to German folktales (e.g., Dr. Faustus) or hagiographic tales in a cultic context and the Gospels lack an authorial “I” or distinct personality or intention of the author present even in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius (“Literaturgeschichte,” 76, 82, 114). M. Eugene Boring adds that, unlike biographies, the Gospels juxtapose images of Jesus’ humanity and divinity through the secrecy motif, proclaim the climax of universal history rather than just narrate an individual subject, do not distinguish the past historical figure and the present Lord, are constituted by oral units formed out of preaching, and express the Christ-event in parabolic imagery (Mark, 7-8).

  • Boring, M. Eugene.  Mark: A Commentary. The New Testament Library. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, London, 2006.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf.  The History of the Synoptic Tradtion.  Translated by John Marsh; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972; The Theology of the New Testament: Volume I.  New York: Schribner, 1951.
  • Dibelius, Martin.  From Tradition to Gospel. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf. Cambridge: James Clarke, 1971.
  • Meagher, John C. “The Implications for Theology of a Shift from the K. L. Schmidt Hypothesis of the Literary Uniqueness of the Gospels.”  Pages 203-33 in Colloquy on New Testament Studies.  Edited by Bruce C. Corley. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1983.  [Critiques the Form Critical View]
  • Schmidt, K.L.  “Die Stellung der Evangelien in der allgemeinen Literaturgeschichte” in EYXAPIΣTHPION: Studien zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments [‘The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature’ in Eucharisterion: Studies on Religion and Literature of the Old and New Testaments].
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