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Form criticism

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Title: Form criticism  
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Subject: Biblical criticism, Historical criticism, Hermann Gunkel, Canonical criticism, Gerhard von Rad
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Form criticism

Rudolf Bultmann

Form criticism is a method of biblical criticism that classifies units of scripture by literary pattern and then 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.[1]

Form criticism was originally developed for Old Testament studies by Hermann Gunkel. Martin Noth, Gerhard von Rad, and other scholars, who used it to supplement the documentary hypothesis with reference to its oral foundations.[2] It later came to be applied to the Gospels by Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, Rudolf Bultmann, and Robert M. Price among others.

Over the past few decades, form criticism's emphasis on oral tradition has waned in Old Testament studies. This is largely because scholars are increasingly skeptical about our ability to distinguish the "original" oral traditions from the literary sources that preserve them. As a result, the method as applied to the Old Testament now focuses on the Bible's literary genres, becoming virtually synonymous with genre criticism.


  • Literary forms and sociological contexts 1
  • Demythologising 2
  • The Evangelists 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Bibliography 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

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.


As developed by Rudolf Bultmann and others, form criticism attempts 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 Canonical gospels, this 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.

The Evangelists

Studies based on form criticism state that the [6] However, "Today it is no exaggeration to claim that a whole spectrum of main assumptions underlying Bultmann's Synoptic Tradition must be considered suspect."[7]

See also


  1. ^ a b "form criticism." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2 Dec. 2007 read online
  2. ^ Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  3. ^ Schmidt, K. L. (1919). Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu. Berlin: Paternoster.
  4. ^ Dibelius, M. (1919). Die Formgeschichte des Evangelium 3d Ed. Günter Bornkamm (ed). Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr.
  5. ^ Bultmann, R. (1921). Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Kelber, W. H. (1997). The Oral and Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 8.


  • 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

  • Koch, Klaus (1969). The Growth of the Biblical Tradition: The Form-Critical Method. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.  
  • Lohfink, Gerhard (1979). The Bible: Now I Get It! A Form-Critical Handbook. New York: Doubleday. 
  • Tucker, Gene M. (1971). Form Criticism of the Old Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.  

External links

  • Form criticism,
  • Form criticism, Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  • Biblical criticism, at Religious Tolerance web site.
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