Form criticism

Form criticism

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. ["form criticism." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2 Dec. 2007 [ read online] ] Form criticism seeks to determine a unit's original form and the historical context of the literary tradition. ["form criticism." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2 Dec. 2007 [ read online] ] 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 no doubt occurred in some manner and was witnessed. In telling and retelling, a number of details were added. 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.


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.

cholars 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.Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005] 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
* cite book
author=Koch, Klaus
title=The Growth of the Biblical Tradition: The Form-Critical Method
publisher= Charles Scribner's Sons
location = New York

* cite book
author=Lohfink, Gerhard
title=The Bible: Now I Get It! A Form-Critical Handbook
publisher= Doubleday
location = New York
url =

* cite book
author=Tucker, Gene M.
title=Form Criticism of the Old Testament
publisher= Fortress Press
location = Philadelphia
url =


ee also

* Walter Brueggemann
* Rudolf Bultmann
* Hermann Gunkel
* Klaus Koch
* Martin Noth
* Victor Premasagar
* Gerhard von Rad
* Claus Westermann

External links

* [ Form criticism] ,
* [ Form criticism] , Encyclopedia Britannica Online
* [ Biblical criticism] , at Religious Tolerance web site.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • form criticism — n. critical analysis of the literary forms of Biblical texts, designed to reconstruct the original oral or written material from which the texts emerged so as to evaluate the authenticity and accuracy of the existing texts …   English World dictionary

  • Form Criticism — The English translation for the German Formgeschichte. This technique was developed by a group of German biblical scholars shortly after the First World War. It assumed the widely agreed conclusion of source criticism of the priority of Mark and… …   Dictionary of the Bible

  • form criticism —    , Formgeschichte    Form criticism (Formgeschichte in German) is a method of studying the literary forms of a document in order to ascertain the background of a particular passage. For example, biblical form criticism studies such forms as… …   Glossary of theological terms

  • FORM CRITICISM —    from the German FORMGESCHICTE. A method of analysis and interpretation of pre literary oral TRADITIONS based on the conviction that ancient writers frequently collected, arranged and edited materials, stories, LEGENDS, etc., already… …   Concise dictionary of Religion

  • form criticism — form critical /fawrm krit i keuhl/, adj. a method of textual analysis, applied especially to the Bible, in which the origin and history of certain passages are traced by isolating their literary forms, as miracle story, saying, or apothegm, on… …   Universalium

  • form criticism — noun Date: 1928 a method of criticism for determining the sources and historicity of biblical writings through analysis of the writings in terms of ancient literary forms and oral traditions (as love poems, parables, and proverbs) • form critic… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • form criticism — noun : a method of biblical criticism that seeks to classify units of scripture into literary patterns (as love poems, parables, sayings, elegies, legends) and that attempts to trace each type to its period of oral transmission in an effort to… …   Useful english dictionary

  • form criticism — /ˈfɔm krɪtəsɪzəm/ (say fawm krituhsizuhm) noun a method of criticism of the Old and New Testaments, which is based on the belief that the writers often collected, arranged and edited units of literary material circulating in the early church and… …  

  • form criticism — noun analysis of the Bible by tracing the history of its content by literary forms such as parables and psalms …   English new terms dictionary

  • form criticism —  Форма критицизма …   Вестминстерский словарь теологических терминов

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