Form criticism

(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).

FORM CRITICISM is the analytical study of the “forms” assumed by various categories of tradition, esp. in its oral, preliterary phase. The Ger. word Formgeschichte, “form history,” suggests, as the Eng. term does not, a study of the history of the tradition as revealed by the development of its “forms.” While the word Formgeschichte in the field of Biblical criticism does not appear to have been current before the publication of the first edition of M. Dibelius’s Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums in 1919, the discipline itself was not new. The similar term Formengeschichte occurs in the subtitle of E. Norden’s Agnostos Theos (Leipzig, 1912)—“Inquiries into the history of the forms of religious language.” As far as the gospels are concerned, A. Menzies anticipated some of the most characteristic features of the formcritical approach in The Earliest Gospel (London, 1901). The pioneer of form criticism in Biblical study was H. Gunkel, who applied it to Biblical lit. as early as 1895, in his Schöpfung und Chaos (a comparison of Gen 1 and Rev 12). Gunkel’s most fruitful application of this method (already applied by others to the lit. of the heroic ages of Greece and Northern Europe) was to the Psalter, which he classified according to its Gattungen (“literary types”), assigning to each Gattung its life-setting—a life-setting almost invariably to be found in Israel’s worship (cf. his Die Psalmen4 [Bonn, 1926] and Einleitung in die Psalmen [Göttingen, 1933], completed by J. Begrich). It is perhaps no accident that M. Dibelius had his interest in comparative religious study first aroused by Gunkel.


The main classification of gospel material naturally recognizes the distinction between narratives and sayings. The terminology of classification differs from one form critic to another, but outstanding categories of narrative in the gospels are (a) pronouncement stories (paradigms, apophthegms), (b) miracle stories (in which healing narratives are prominent), (c) stories about Jesus (e.g. the baptism, temptation and transfiguration narratives), while outstanding categories of sayings are (a) wisdom sayings, (b) prophetic and apocalyptic sayings, (c) comunity rules, (d) “I” sayings, (e) parables. There are other ways of classifying the gospel material, and whichever way is adopted, a fair amount of overlapping is inevitable.

One important result of classification and cross-classification of the material is that a Messianic picture of Jesus is consistently yielded: “We can find no alternative tradition, excavate as we will in the successive strata of the Gospels” (C. H. Dodd, History and the Gospel [London, 1938] p. 103). Especially on the European continent, form critics warn scholars not to conclude that this picture goes back into the conditions of the actual ministry of Jesus; many of them hold that this study can take one back only to the Christ of the primitive Early Church preaching.

Classification in itself is not of prime importance; more important are two things closely connected with it in the history of form criticism, i.e. the theory of the composition of the synoptic tradition propounded by K. L. Schmidt and adopted by many colleagues and successors, and the quest for the life-setting.


Schmidt’s thesis in Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu (Berlin, 1919) was that the synoptic, i.e. the Markan tradition consisted originally of isolated units, brought together by Mark in such a way as to form a consecutive narrative with the aid of “editorial cement” lacking any historical value of its own. The passion narrative, admittedly, did exist as a connected record from earliest days, partly because of its being repeatedly recalled in the cult (cf. 1 Cor 11:26), but otherwise material simply did not exist to make a coherent life of Christ, or even a continuous account of His ministry, possible. C. H. Dodd (“The Framework of the Gospel Narrative,” ExpT XLIII [1931-1932], pp. 396 ff.) argued that the “editorial cement” in Mark, when considered in isolation from the units of tradition which it joined together, presented an independent outline of the gospel story, comparable to outlines which can be discerned in some of the epistles and the speeches of Acts (e.g. Acts 10:37-42). Dodd’s argument has not found much acceptance outside Britain, but it cannot be easily refuted.


In form-critical terms, the life-setting usually means the setting in the life of the primitive Christian community which determined the preservation of certain elements in the tradition about Jesus and the form in which they were preserved. An interest in this life-setting should not preclude an interest in the earlier life-setting in the ministry of Jesus. Although the possibility of establishing this earlier life-setting except in a handful of instances is widely denied, it should not be given up too quickly. W. Manson, for example, gave cogent reasons for believing that the setting given in Mark 11:20-24 to Jesus’ saying about mountain-removing faith corresponds to the original historical and geographical setting (Jesus the Messiah [London, 1943] pp. 29f.).

But in its more extreme formulations the doctrine of the life-setting rules that if a saying or action ascribed to Jesus in the gospels reflects the post-Easter faith of the Church, it should be regarded as a creation within the Church, and that no saying or action ascribed to Him can confidently be taken as authentic if a parallel saying or action is elsewhere ascribed to a Jewish rabbi. It is unlikely that the Church never took over some of Jesus’ historical teaching and it is equally unlikely that Jesus never said or did anything comparable to the word or action of some rabbi; nor need one take too seriously the insistent view that in such cases the burden of proof lies on those who maintain the authenticity of the gospel tradition.

Yet the life-setting approach helps one to appreciate the circumstances of the Church’s worship and witness within which the gospel tradition (Johannine as well as synoptic) was molded and transmitted, and in so far as form criticism makes it possible to move back from the setting in the Early Church to the setting in the ministry of Jesus (e.g. by removing, as it sometimes does, a later Hel. layer which has overlain an earlier Palestinian layer), it makes its own special contribution to the understanding of the gospels and appraisal of the works and words of Jesus.


K. L. Schmidt, Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu (1919); E. Fascher, Die formgeschichtliche Methode (1924); V. Taylor, The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (1933); F. C. Grant (ed. and trans.), Form Criticism: Two Essays by R. Bultmann and K. Kundsin (1934); R. H. Lightfoot, History and Interpretation in the Gospels (1935); E. B. Redlich, Form Criticism (1939); M. Dibelius, Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums3 (Tübingen, 1959), Eng. tr., From Tradition to Gospel (1934); R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, Eng. tr. (1963); C. K. Barrett, Jesus and the Gospel Tradition (1967); K. Koch, The Growth of the Biblical Tradition: The Form-Critical Method (1967); N. Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (1967).