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(Ger. Formgeschichte, “Form- history”). This is a method of literary study, applied both to secular and religious literature, which seeks to classify the forms which underlie written documents, and to reconstruct the process by which they reached their present shape. The pioneer in using this method for study of the Bible was Hermann Gunkel,* who first applied it to the narratives of Genesis. Among the more significant forms which were found to be present in the OT were “legend” and “myth.” A “legend” was a story with a historical base which was recounted for an instructional or devotional purpose. A “myth” was a story to explain in pictorial form some supernatural truth. The presuppositions of some form-critics and the use of the words “myth” and “legend” (which were generally taken to indicate a lack of historical reliability) tended to give form-criticism of the OT a negative bias. But much useful work has been done, particularly in the classification of various kinds of poetic and prophetic literature.
The application of form-criticism to the NT, though dependent upon the work of Gunkel and that of J. Wellhausen* and E. Norden, was specifically made almost simultaneously between 1919 and 1921 by K.L. Schmidt, M. Dibelius,* and R. Bultmann.* The particular area of study was the synoptic gospels and, as source-criticism had suggested Mark to be the earliest of these, form-criticism, seeking to go a step further back, concentrated particularly on Mark. Schmidt sought to show that the paragraphs of Mark were units on their own, and that the gospel was “a heap of unstrung pearls.” The main classifications involve those stories which are told principally for a saying of Jesus (“apophthegms,” “paradigms,” or “pronouncement stories”) and those which are told principally for an action of His (“miracle stories” or Novellen).
Form-critics have tried to find the Sitz im Leben (“setting in life”) of the various units, and so a great deal of study has been directed to the understanding of the everyday life of the early church, including its liturgical and evangelistic activity. There has been a tendency among many form- critics to suggest that the early church created the gospel material to serve its own needs and thus to find its original Sitz im Leben after the ministry of Jesus. But this is due, not to the method itself, but to philosophical presuppositions held about the nature of the gospel history. The method may equally well be used to suggest that incidents from the life of Christ were not created, but preserved by the church because of their usefulness, and thus provide a genuine double Sitz im Leben for the gospel material.
V. Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (1933); M. Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel (ET 1934); C.F.D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament (2nd ed., 1966); R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (ET 1968).