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Form criticism

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Form criticism is a method of biblical criticism that classifies units of scripture by literary pattern (such as parables or legends) and that attempts to trace each type to its period of oral transmission.[1] Form criticism seeks to determine a unit's original form and the historical context of the literary tradition.[2] Hermann Gunkel originally developed form criticism to analyze the Hebrew Bible. It has since been used to supplement the documentary hypothesis explaining the origin of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) and to study the Christian New Testament.

Oral tradition

Form criticism operates on the premise that biblical text is derived from an oral tradition. It claims that the creative process has produced a number of layers, each with a particular meaning. First, there is the original 'historical material', a saying or an event that may have occurred in some manner and was witnessed. The thousand and one tales of the Arabian Nights many times contain the names of real people and places. Yet the Arabian Nights is regarded as fantasy. Biblical literature is regarded as having the highest authority, therefore it must be more historical and truthful. Both contain elements of the marvelous: talking animals, demons, witches, prophetic dreams, magic, etc. and the mundane that make them memorable. Both use the number forty repeatedly. Both make use of the interesting practice of word plays. (These are lost in translations).

In telling and retelling, a number of details were added or removed. These inevitably reflect the purpose of the narrator; the original material was used to reinforce a particular message. Of course, each retelling might bring further accretions, until there are several meanings attached. Finally, the tradition is incorporated into a written account. However, the author will inevitably have his own agenda, and the assembly of traditional material will be crafted into a narrative that seeks to underline a particular theological point of view. Not all of these written accounts survive to the present. Sometimes only fragments are discovered in various languages from different locations and different times in the ancient world. Preliterate oral teachers were suspicious of written accounts because a written account became "the story" and oral traditions disappeared. Only literates had the final word.


As developed by Rudolf Bultmann and others, form criticism might be seen as a form of literary deconstruction in an attempt to rediscover the original kernel of meaning. This process has been described as 'demythologising', although the word must be used with caution. 'Myth' is not intended to convey a sense of 'untrue', but the significance of an event in the narrator's agenda. What, ultimately, does the writer mean by it?

In the case of the Gospels, this deconstruction or demythologising is intended to reveal the underlying kerygma or 'message' that is to be conveyed. What does the Gospel say about the nature and significance of Christ and his teaching? Form criticism is thus an attempt to reconstruct the theological opinions of the primitive church and pre-talmudic Judaism.

Literary forms and sociological contexts

Form criticism begins by identifying a text's genre or conventional literary form, such as parables, proverbs, epistles, or love poems. It goes on to seek the sociological setting for each text's genre, its "situation in life" (German: Sitz im Leben). For example, the sociological setting of a law is a court, or the sociological setting of a psalm of praise (hymn) is a worship context, or that of a proverb might be a father-to-son admonition. Having identified and analyzed the text's genre-pericopes, form criticism goes on to ask how these smaller genre-pericopes contribute to the purpose of the text as a whole.

Scholars of form criticism

Form criticism was originally developed for Old Testament studies by Hermann Gunkel. Martin Noth, Gerhard von Rad, and other scholars used it to supplement the documentary hypothesis with reference to its oral foundations.[3] It later came to be applied to the Gospels by Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, among others.


  • Armerding, Carl E. The Old Testament and Criticism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983, pp. 43-66.
  • Hayes, John H. An Introduction to Old Testament Study. Nashville: Abingdon, 1979, pp. 121-154.
  • Hayes, John H., ed. Old Testament Form Criticism. San Antonio: Trinity University, 1974.
  • McKnight, E.V., "What is Form Criticism?" Guide to Biblical Scholarship, New Testament; Philadelphia, 1967.
  • Tucker, Gene M. Form Criticism of the Old Testament. Guides to Biblical Scholarship. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971.
  • Tucker, Gene M."Form Criticism, OT," pp. 342-345 in Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume. Keith Crim, gen. ed. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976.
Further reading


Some or all of this article is forked from Wikipedia. The original article was at Form criticism. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

  1. "form criticism." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2 Dec. 2007 read online
  2. "form criticism." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2 Dec. 2007 read online
  3. Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005

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