[This entry contains three subentries, HEBREW BIBLE, APOCRYPHA AND DEUTEROCANONICAL BOOKS, and NEW TESTAMENT]

Hebrew Bible

“Form Criticism” (FC) is an English rendering of the German term Formgeschichte, literally “history of the form,” a critical research methodology that seeks to understand ancient texts—especially the Bible—by giving careful attention to their “forms,” that is, the typical genres of verbal and written discourse. At its heart, the method is one of comparison, in which texts (or parts of texts) are better understood when we read them alongside other texts that are similar. This article will consider FC’s origins and general contours in terms of theory and practice.

Origin of Form Criticism.

Prior to the Enlightenment (ca. eighteenth century), the Bible’s genre was primarily understood as “divine word.” This does not mean that pre-Enlightenment scholars failed to notice that different types of literature were in the Bible; rather, whatever these others genres were, they were considered secondary to the Bible’s status as divine discourse. And because the Bible was a divine book, both Jews and Christians interpreted it differently from other books. They anticipated that their respective Bibles would provide a single, coherent understanding of God and theology. As a result, when two biblical laws seemed to contradict each other, the Jewish rabbis would resolve the contradiction by employing one of their interpretive rules, such as kelal upherat (“the general and the particular”), or by interpreting one or both conflicting texts as allegories. Early Christians also used allegories for this purpose. The details of these interpretive strategies are not important; the important point is that the traditional understanding of the Bible’s genre as “divine word” significantly affected the secondary generic judgments made by Jews and Christians about its human genre. Equally important for our understanding of early interpretation is the fact that for much of Western history, biblical interpreters underestimated the historical distance that separated them from the world of the biblical text. Traditional interpreters, whether they lived in the fifth, tenth, or fifteenth centuries, usually assumed that a seamless fabric connected their world with the biblical world. So the Bible was a divine book, and its cultural world was our world.

During the late medieval period, and especially during the subsequent Renaissance period, this understanding of the biblical world was gradually shattered by the rise of historical consciousness. Scholars studying Latin and Greek texts, and the classical historical contexts described in them and assumed by them, began to realize that human languages and traditions change radically over the course of time. At first this observation was not rigorously applied to the Church and the Bible, but eventually scholars turned their critical eye on these religious institutions. Just as the Reformation uncovered the historically contingent nature of Church tradition and doctrine, so the Enlightenment revealed that the Bible was a product of many different historical and cultural perspectives. These developments laid the groundwork for the first critical engagements with the Bible’s genres.

Scholars of the Enlightenment and early post-Enlightenment eras attended closely to the historically and socially conditioned nature of the Bible’s “forms” and genres. One thinks immediately of the Jewish scholar, Baruch Spinoza, or of the Christian scholar David Strauss. But the father of FC was undoubtedly Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932). To understand his work, we must note two key elements in his agenda: (1) his reservations about the limitations of Julius Wellhausen’s “Source Criticism,” and (2) his desire to apply the insights of Folklore Studies to the Bible.

By the nineteenth century, scholars had long recognized that the Pentateuch was composed of diverse materials that reflected differing sources and viewpoints. Wellhausen’s great accomplishment was to clearly explain this diversity by isolating four hypothetical literary sources in the Pentateuch, each the product of a different author working in a distinct historical context (known respectively by the sigla) J, E, D, and P. While Gunkel found some merit in this approach, he concluded that Wellhausen’s four-source thesis was only half of the answer. Because Israel had originated as a primitive oral society, it followed (said Gunkel) that any effort to recover the Pentateuch’s composition history would need to peer behind the literary sources to the smaller oral traditions from which the literature was eventually composed. It was this observation that spawned Gunkel’s interest in Folklore Studies.

During the nineteenth century, the Brothers Grimm assembled and cataloged their famous corpus of oral German folktales. Gunkel surmised that the forms of these tales were comparable to stories in the biblical narrative and so concluded that the Grimm tales, and similar traditions, could be used as the basis for positing the original oral contexts of tales in the Pentateuch (see Gunkel 1921; also J. G. Frazer). Moreover, at about the same time, there was a strong belief emerging among folklorists that oral traditions followed very specific “laws” (e.g., Olrik) and that it was possible to trace the development of traditions from their “primitive” oral origins to their more advanced literary forms (Jolles). For Gunkel, the chief end of this exercise was not merely to recover the history of Israel’s oral and literary traditions. Rather, the goal was more ambitious: to reconstruct the social history of ancient Israel.

Essential to Gunkel’s project was to identify the form of each individual tradition unit so that its genre might be correctly identified and then attached to an historical situation. This process of generic classification employed three key indices: mood, form, and Sitz im Leben, where “mood” referred to the affective dispositions that inspired the tradition, form to the structure of its discourse, and Sitz im Leben to the “life setting” or context that produced the genre (Gattung). In actual practice, however, it was Sitz im Leben that eventually took center stage in this analysis because history was the chief interest of the early form critics. Like other scholars during his age, Gunkel’s view of genre presumed the neoclassical view that each form or genre reflected a single unique Sitz im Leben. While this inflexible equation made it easy to determine the context of a particular biblical pericope (one only needed to identify the form and the context followed), later theorists recognized that FC’s rigidity on this point was actually an “Achilles heel.” We will return to this problem later.

Gunkel rigorously applied his method to both Genesis and Psalms and, although few scholars would now accept his conclusions at face value, it is fair to say that Gunkel’s work produced lasting results. Modern scholars routinely accept his conclusion that Genesis contains etiological legends about the origins of Israel’s institutions and that a fivefold classification of the Psalms (hymns, communal laments, individual laments, individual thanksgiving songs, and royal psalms) provides a useful rubric for studying that Hebrew collection. In sum, Gunkel succeeded in his effort to demonstrate that Genesis and Psalms reflect a broad range of genres stemming from varied historical contexts.

Form Criticism and the Hebrew Bible.

European scholars were quick to apply Gunkel’s new method to the Hebrew Bible, producing landmark studies of Hebrew law (Alt), the Pentateuch (Noth; Von Rad), the Deuteronomistic History/Chronicler (Noth), the prophetic books (Hölscher; Gunkel; Lindblom; Westermann), and the Psalms (Mowinckel). Gunkel’s emphasis on the priority of orality in the Bible was subsequently taken up with gusto by the so-called “Scandinavian school” (represented by of H. Birkeland, I. Engnell, E. Nielsen, H.S. Nyberg, S. Mowinckel et al.), which attributed nearly all of the Hebrew Bible to oral modes of composition (see Knight).

Scholars following these forebears continue to acknowledge the role of orality in biblical tradition, but it is no longer in vogue to imagine that most of the Bible can or should be traced back to oral composition. It is now more common to attribute the biblical materials to literary rather than oral processes, with signs of orality increasingly attributed to the influences of oral patterns upon literary texts (Kirkpatrick). One result of these developments is that FC’s purview has expanded gradually to include not only the Bible’s smallest oral traditions but also its genres on a larger literary scale, so that, for example, one may speak not only about the “casuistic form” of a single law in Deuteronomy 15:12 but also of the “treaty form” that characterizes the book of Deuteronomy as a whole (German Gattungsgeschichte). This expansion of FC’s purview from the parts to the whole was a natural development. The limitation of FC to smaller units was in fact an accident, which resulted from an artificial distinction between Source Criticism, which focused on the longer written sources used to compose the Bible, and FC, which sought to discern the nature and character of the smaller tradition units. All units of verbal discourse—whether large or small, oral or written—have a generic character that can be considered in terms of “form.”

One reason that the purview of FC broadened to include larger text types was the emergence of comparative evidence from the Bible’s ancient world. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, archaeologists began to recover the lost societies of the ancient Near East from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia, Persia, and the Levant. Many texts were unearthed in these digs, but at first the languages were unknown and the texts could not be read. Scholars managed to decipher the ancient scripts in a relatively short time thanks to linguistic brilliance and the discovery of two multilanguage texts, the Behistun Inscription of Darius (which permitted scholars to decipher the Akkadian script of Mesopotamia) and the Rosetta stone (which permitted them to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs). The feat of decipherment was so great that some of the world’s best scholars at first doubted its accomplishment.

The texts from Mesopotamia had the most sensational effects in Europe and America. During the 1870s scholars published Akkadian literature that was closely connected to the Bible. Some of these texts, which referred to Israel, Judah, and their kings, were heralded as proof of the Bible’s historicity and accuracy, but other texts created certain problems. Notable in this regard were Enuma Elish, the Gilgamesh Epic, and the Sargon Birth Legend, which were respectively similar (for many, uncomfortably similar) to the creation story in Genesis, the biblical flood story, and the story of Moses’s birth. These texts appeared to undermine the supposed uniqueness of the Bible as the divine word. Some influential scholars began to think of Israel and its Bible as merely one small part of ancient Babylonian culture. A strong tension soon emerged between the new field of Assyriology, which was discovering and publishing these new texts, and Biblical studies, largely influenced by conservative Judaism and Christianity. The tension persists to this day in some quarters of scholarship.

The “pan-Babylonian” and “parallelomania” approaches tended to assume that every similarity between Israelite and Mesopotamian literature was a result of borrowing from Mesopotamia. For some this meant that the writers of the Bible were reading and copying Mesopotamian texts, while others thought that the Bible reflected a degraded memory of the more ancient and impressive Mesopotamian tradition. Scholars soon realized, however, that these theories offered deficient accounts of the matter. They doubted that Israelite scribes living in Palestine, hundreds of miles from Mesopotamia, read and imitated cuneiform texts, and there were also clear differences between Israelite and Mesopotamian cultures. As a result, during the twentieth century scholars increasingly attributed these similarities to the general diffusion of religious and cultural ideas throughout the Near East. The Israelite scribes did not copy Mesopotamian texts—they merely reflect common religious and cultural patterns that permeated the ancient world.

In the last few decades, however, the pendulum against Mesopotamian influence has swung modestly the other way. Biblical texts that were once believed to come from early in Israel’s history are now dated to the exilic and postexilic periods, at a point when the biblical writers really did live in Mesopotamia or under its cultural influence. One result has been a renewed interest in the Near East and its literature among scholars and students of the Hebrew Bible.

The Hebrew Bible in Its Near Eastern Context.

Notions of “form” and “genre” reflect our natural human tendency to understand texts (and verbal discourse in general) through a process of comparison and contrast. Form criticism makes this implicit process more explicit by seeking out comparative exemplars that aid our reading and understanding of the literature in the Hebrew Bible. Here we will briefly outline some of the enduring results of this comparative effort, using as our rubric the threefold division of the Hebrew Canon (the Law, Prophets, and Writings. [For specific details on the following cited examples, see Sparks 2005]).

The Pentateuch (or Law) contains a dizzying array of generic types, many with parallels in the Near Eastern literature. The creation stories in Genesis share many motifs with myths from both Mesopotamia and Egypt. Among these motifs are the creation of humanity from earth’s dust or by divine decree, the food and drink of life (or death), trees and plants that rejuvenate life, serpents that block human access to life, the loss of eternal life by deception, and the requirement that human beings tend the earth’s gardens and fields. The similarities are so close in one case ( Enuma Elish) that many scholars believe the author of Genesis knew the myth itself. Also, in addition to these motifs, the general structure of the so-called “Primeval History” in Genesis 1—11 follows Near Eastern forms. The four-movement narrative in Genesis, which includes (1) Creation, (2) Genealogy, (3) Flood, and (4) Genealogy, was probably influenced by a similar rubric found in the Sumerian King List, Eridu Genesis, and Atra asis Epic, where the pattern is (1) Creation, (2) King List, (3) Flood, and (4) King List.

Elsewhere in Genesis, the stories and genealogies of the Hebrew patriarchs have been fruitfully compared to Near Eastern narratives and genealogies. Specifically, the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob stories include motifs and patterns found in the Ugaritic Epics (Kirtu and Danel) and Greek histories (Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women and the Histories of Herodotus), while the Joseph Story, being more “novelistic,” is reminiscent of the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe; the author of Joseph also drew upon other Egyptian tales and tropes, such as the Tale of Two Brothers (cf. Joseph and Potiphar) and the tradition about seven years of plenty and famine. Near Eastern influence appears in what immediately follows in the book of Exodus, where Moses is depicted, like the Sumerian King Sargon, as a child exposed at the river bank but rescued to become the savior of his people (see the Sargon Birth Legend). In sum, the Pentateuchal narrative is permeated with Near Eastern traditions.

As for laws and rituals, here too the Pentateuch is rich with Near Eastern patterns and motifs. A parade example is the law code of Exodus and its imitation of Hammurabi’s Babylonian law code in both organization and individual laws. Less well-known in popular circles is that the Bible’s ritual laws are also similar to (and in some cases influenced by) Near Eastern exemplars. Foremost we can cite the Punic Sacrificial Tariffs (cf. Lev 1—7) and several Mesopotamian texts, including the priestly ordinations (cf. Lev 8), Kuppuru rituals (cf. Lev 16), and temple topographies and construction narratives (cf. Exod 25—42).

Of the books of the Pentateuch, none is so Near Eastern in its overall structure as the book of Deuteronomy. The author composed his book as a “covenant” between Israel and Yahweh, using as his model the form and content of then-current Neo-Assyrian treaty texts and loyalty oaths. This was one way of saying that Yahweh, rather than Assyria’s king, was Israel’s true overlord and master.

These examples only scratch the surface of the many instances in which Near Eastern texts help us read the Pentateuch.

The second portion of the Hebrew Canon, “the Prophets,” includes both historical literature and books that are more conventionally “prophetic” in nature. Both types of texts have close parallels in the Ancient Near East. The historical books of Samuel and Kings are very similar to Mesopotamian chronicles and annals. Among other things, we learn from this comparison that the biblical and Near Eastern historians were more interested in serving theological and political agendas than in reconstructing history “as it actually happened.” Moreover, we can deduce that these “historians” sometimes wished to preserve ancient traditions or tell a good story rather than to write “history” in the modern sense. It follows that we must use these sources with care if we wish to consult them as grist for our modern historical work.

As for the Bible’s prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve), we have recovered from the Near East both individual prophetic oracles (see the Mari Prophecies) and larger texts that gather up these oracles into “books” of prophecy (the Neo-Assyrian prophecies). The Mari texts are particularly instructive inasmuch as they show how natural it was for a single prophetic oracle to be edited and reinterpreted by those who heard and repeated it. If we may judge from the Neo-Assyrian prophetic collections, this process of reinterpretation continued as the oracles were gathered and edited to create small oracle collections. From this we may deduce that the biblical prophecies are neither wholly foreign to the prophets who uttered them nor verbatim reports of their words. Rather, to some extent or other, the editors and tradents who passed on the oracles also had their say in the prophetic message.

The “Writings” is the most diverse of the three parts of the Hebrew canon. It includes collections of songs and proverbial wisdom (Psalms, Lamentations, Song of Songs, and Proverbs), works of theological “skepticism” (Job and Qohelet), apocalyptic prophecies (Dan 7—12), short novelistic stories (Ruth; Esther; Dan 1—6), and historical and biographical narratives (1—2 Chronicles; Ezra; Nehemiah). All of these “forms” have striking parallels in the Near Eastern literature, particularly if we include as “Near Eastern” those Hebrew texts (like Judith and Tobit), which were not accepted into the Jewish canon.

To compare with the Psalms we have numerous songs, prayers, and laments as well as complete song collections, such as the Sumerian Temple Hymns and collections of laments and prayers. We learn by comparison that the biblical Psalm collection is far more diverse and less generically homogeneous than these other collections. Thus, in what foreshadows a point to be made later, the biblical Psalms are far more than an effort to compile similar songs and prayers; rather, it seems that the editors sought to collect almost every kind of cultic song that they could find. The laments in the book of Lamentations were never folded into this collection, undoubtedly because they stood as a coherent witness to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The book has many parallels in Mesopotamian literature, but most of these city laments are Sumerian and hence much older than Lamentations. Whether and how they might have influenced the biblical book is hard to say.

To compare with Job and Qohelet we have several texts that question the conventional wisdom that good behavior leads to divine blessing. Foremost among them are the Babylonian Theodicy (cf. Job) and the Gilgamesh Epic (cf. Ecclesiastes). The Theodicy describes an instance of unjust suffering and the victim’s struggle to understand his suffering in light of theology and piety. The author of Job was not alone in asking these kinds of questions. As for the Epic, its author accentuated the inevitability of death and the futility of human efforts to secure life and immortality. Qohelet seems to have quoted the Epic in 4:12, thus suggesting that he was familiar with and to some extent inspired by this ancient piece of skeptical wisdom.

To compare with Proverbs we have the Sumerian Proverbs and the Aramaic Proverbs of Ahiqar. The latter includes an introductory tale whose purpose was to stimulate interest in the proverbs themselves. This confirms that the authors of Proverbs, who wrote their own introduction in chs. 1—10, were not the only ancient sages who labored to inspire an interest in their wise maxims.

The apocalyptic collection in Daniel 7—12 reflects Jewish resistance to the Seleucid Greeks. While it is unique in the Hebrew Bible, the collection turns out to be one of many when viewed in light of the comparative evidence. Babylonian and Egyptian exemplars (the Dynastic Prophecy and Demotic Chronicle) attest to the fact that the Jews were not alone in their resistance to Greek oppression. Among other things, all three texts present history as a cycle of rising and falling kingdoms, use esoteric or symbolic language, practice vaticinia ex eventu (“prophecies” after the fact), and follow their pseudoprophecies with genuine predictions that Greek tyranny will end. The same patterns appear in many other Jewish apocalyptic texts. Thus we know that the book of Daniel is better understood as a book of political and religious resistance than as a book of future predictions.

Thus far, most of the cited parallels have been of Mesopotamian origin. But the closest parallels to the biblical Song of Songs are undoubtedly the Egyptian love songs, whose tone and content reveal that the Song is likewise a text about the joys and perils of young love. Also Egyptian are the funerary autobiographies, which spoke well of the deceased and thus hoped to secure a blessed afterlife. We cannot say whether this was the author’s goal when writing Nehemiah, but the book was undoubtedly penned to present Nehemiah in very favorable light. Parts of the book were indeed written using the first-person address of an autobiography, prompting many scholars to conclude that the book’s author consulted an autobiographical source for his history (the so-called “Memoir of Nehemiah”).

The biblical stories of Ruth, Esther, and Daniel and his friends (Dan 1—6) also have ready parallels from the ancient world. The Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe is an example, but better comparative exemplars are shorter stories from Mesopotamia and the Jewish tradition. Among these texts are the Tale of Ahiqar (which introduces the Proverbs of Ahiqar) and the Jewish stories of Tobit and Judith. We learn by comparing these texts that ancient Jewish authors sometimes used egregious errors to signal that their literature was fictional. The author of Judith thus introduced us to “Nebuchadnezzar, King of Assyria” (every good Jew knew that he was the king of Babylon), and the author of Esther thus introduced us to “Mordecai of Kish” and “Haman the Agagite” (when every good Jew knew full well that both families, “Saul of Kish” and “Agag, King of Amalek,” had been executed already in the book of 1 Kings).

Thanks to modern translations, anyone can read the Bible and get a sense of ancient Hebrew literature and history without the benefit of FC. But as these examples show, FC enhances our ability to comprehend the literature and its import for our understanding of religion, history, and the human situation.

Our comparative survey of Israel’s canonical literature reveals that the Hebrew canon is itself a “form” of sorts. Given the diversity of form and perspectives represented in the literature, the editorial interest in constructing this canon cannot have been to serve the needs of a monolithic theological and ideological agenda. Rather, we must presume that the scribes and tradents embraced as their first priority to collect and preserve the best of Jewish literature, regardless of its theological profile or genre. That is, tradition and diversity were deemed more valuable and important than ideological uniformity and homogeneity.

Form Criticism: Retrospect and Prospect.

In spite of its obvious and undeniable utility for biblical interpretation, as practiced FC has also displayed certain weaknesses. James Muilenburg was among the first biblical scholars to put his finger on the problem. He noted that when the form critics classify texts into generic categories on the threefold basis of mood, form, and setting, their tendency is to focus only or mainly on the similarities of the texts and to overlook or underappreciate the differences. In order to compensate for this oversight, Muilenburg proposed that biblical scholars add Rhetorical Criticism to their theoretical chest of research tools. Rhetorical Criticism begins where FC ends by closely examining texts of the same genre to determine what distinguishes them from each other. So while a form critic might point out that Psalms 8 and 22 are “individual lament psalms,” the rhetorical critic will go on carefully attending to the differences between these laments.

The importance of FC has been eclipsed in the last few decades by two new developments in biblical studies, postmodern Reader-Response Criticism and Redaction Criticism. Reader-Response Criticism is interested primarily in the role of the text’s final form in evoking responses in its readers. In such cases the critic has no interest in either the ostensible intentions of the text’s author or in the oral and literary sources he or she may have used. The interpretive posture of Reader-Response Criticism precludes its value for answering the sociological and historical questions posed by many biblical scholars. As for Redaction Criticism, this was a natural response to the limitations of FC. Form critics were so preoccupied with the Bible’s pre-literary traditions that they often failed to consider how the traditions were finally combined by authors and editors to produce extended literary works like the Pentateuch. Redaction Criticism focuses on the process of collecting, arranging, and organizing the text and hence has become, along with FC, an indispensable element in critical readings of the Bible.

In recent years FC has undergone extensive reevaluation by scholars of the Hebrew Bible (see Buss; Koch; Sweeney/Ben Zvi), but it is not clear that their critiques have generally appreciated the theoretical problems inherent in FC (for two exceptions, see Longman; Van Leeuwen). If we base our critique on the observations of modern generic theory (e.g., Hempfer; Todorov), it becomes clear that the primary problem with FC is its tendency to reify genres, to imagine that generic categories reflect hard, fixed realities rather than comparative taxonomies created by readers. For instance, traditional FC wanted to draw a sharp distinction between individual lament psalms and corporate laments, each a unique genre sporting its own distinctive Sitz im Leben. However, it is clear that on one level the two psalm types are of the same genre (both are “lament psalms”), while on another level they are of entirely different genres (one composed for individual use and the other not so). This reality is not a philosophical sleight of hand but reflects the nature of “analytical genre” as a classification system based on flexible criteria for identifying similarities and differences between texts. A related weakness of FC is its struggle to account for the generic flexibility inherent in verbal discourse. For instance, how can the label “individual lament” be permanently affixed to a psalm that will later be used in a corporate context? FC’s traditionally rigid conceptual link between genre and Sitz im Leben does not adequately explain variations like this, in which a text’s “intrinsic genre” (or, actual genre) changes as it passes through the successive hands of new readers. In sum, traditional FC has generally failed to appreciate the nature of both analytical and intrinsic genres, and it has multiplied the problems by inadvertently blending together these two conceptually distinct aspects of generic study.

By focusing attention on the importance of genre in interpretation, FC has made a lasting contribution to the study of the Hebrew Bible. If biblical scholars will hear the critiques of FC offered by modern generic theory, then the prospects of FC are bright indeed. The reason is that, according to most modern generic theories, all interpretation is based on acts of generic comparison, so that, in the end, there is no aspect of interpretation that cannot be subsumed under the rubric of “Form Criticism.” However, in order to avoid expected confusion, it is perhaps helpful to refer to this new, more broadly conceived version of FC with fresh labels, such as “Genre Criticism” or “Literary Competence.”

[ See also: DIACHRONIC INTERPRETATION; FORM CRITICISM, subentry APOCRYPHA AND DEUTEROCANONICAL BOOKS; FORM CRITICISM, subentry NEW TESTAMENT; GENRE CRITICISM; HISTORICAL CRITICISM, subentry HEBREW BIBLE; REDACTION CRITICISM, subentry HEBREW BIBLE; READER-RESPONSE CRITICISM; and SOURCE CRITICISM.]

Bibliography

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  • Buss, M.J. Biblical Form Criticism in Its Context. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 274. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999.
  • Gunkel, H. Das Märchen im Alten Testament. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1921 [ET, The Folktale in the Old Testament].
  • Frazer, J. G. Folktale in the Old Testament. New York: Macmillan, 1923.
  • Hallo, W.W. “Compare and Contrast: The Contextual Approach to Biblical Literature.” In The Bible in the Light of Cuneiform Literature, ed. W. W. Hallo et al., 1–30. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1990.
  • Hayes, J. H., ed. Old Testament Form Criticism. San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 1974.
  • Hempfer, K. Gattungstheorie. Munich: Funk, 1973.
  • Jolles, A. Einfache Formen. Halle: Niemeyer, 1929.
  • Knight, D.A. Rediscovering the Traditions of Israel. Rev. ed. SBLDS 9. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1975.
  • Kirkpatrick, P. G, The Old Testament and Folklore Study. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 62. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988.
  • Koch, K. The Growth of the Biblical Tradition: The Form-Critical Method. New York: Scribner’s, 1969.
  • Knierim, R. “Old Testament Form Criticism Reconsidered,” Interp 27 (1973): 435–48.
  • Longman, T. III., “Israelite Genres in Their Ancient Near Eastern Context.” In The Changing Face of Form Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, edited by M. A. Sweeney and E. Ben Zvi, 177–195. Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003.
  • Olrik, A. Principles for Oral Narrative Research. Trans. K. Wolf and J. Jensen. Folklore Studies in Translation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992 [Nogle Grundsaetninger for Sagnforskning, 1921].
  • Russell, D. S. The Method & Message of Jewish Apocalyptic. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964.
  • Sparks, K. L. Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005.
  • Sweeney, M. A., and E. Ben Zvi, eds., The Changing Face of Form Criticism for the Twenty-First Century. Grand Rapids, Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003.
  • Todorov, T. Genres in Discourse. Cambridge, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
  • Tucker, G. M. Form Criticism of the Old Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971.
  • Van Leeuwen, R. “Form Criticism, Wisdom, and Psalms 111–112.” In The Changing Face of Form Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, edited by M. A. Sweeney and E. Ben Zvi, 65–84. Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003.
  • Westermann, C. Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1991.

Kenton Sparks

Apocrypha and Deuterocanonical Books

Form criticism serves the study of the Apocrypha and the deuterocanonical books by identifying and analyzing the genres to which these texts belong. Genre, or Gattung in German scholarship, may be defined as a constellation of literary elements: typical mood, typical setting/function, and typical—even formulaic—expression. The modifier “typical” recurs because form criticism as a method focuses on typical or generic aspects of literature. Genre thus comprises mood, setting, and expression in the classical definition of form criticism set forth by Hermann Gunkel (1933, pp. 22–24) and his school. Others working in this discipline have substituted elements such as plot or theme to conceive of genre somewhat differently, an indication that the method is not static and has developed historically. In general, however, genre indicates a complex set of literary elements that are typical and that correspond to aspects of human life as it is experienced in a society. Form criticism attempts to capture this social dimension, which is referred to as the setting-in-life, or Sitz im Leben. Understood to be both textual and social, the generic aspects or elements of literature are the subject of form criticism as it is applied to the study of the Apocrypha and the deuterocanonical books.

Although the Apocrypha and deuterocanonical books have long been defined in contrast to the books included in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, increasingly scholars are critical of such a canonically driven approach. Lest one imply inferior status for the Apocrypha and deuterocanonical books, the texts in question are identified as significant literary witnesses to Second Temple Judaism. That is, in the circles of popular religion and to some degree at the levels of higher authority, these documents had a prominent place and influenced the thought and religious practices of the communities responsible for them. They are important windows on prerabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. There are dozens of titles involved, too many to list individually. Among the most prominent examples of Apocrypha are 1–2–3 Enoch, the Sibylline Oracles, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Jubilees, and the Prayer of Manasseh. The deuterocanonical books, so called because they are found in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles as part of the canon, are a distinct collection in each church. For example, the Roman Catholic church defines the deuterocanonical books as: Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach/Ecclesiasticus, and Baruch. Together, the Apocrypha and deuterocanonical books represent a wide range of genres, including apocalyptic literature, testaments, so-called rewritten Bible, prayers and psalms, and historical accounts along with fictionalized accounts of history and fiction per se (novels and novellas). This article’s point of departure is the intersection of the genres noted here and the practice of form criticism as it has developed in modern scholarship.

The apocalyptic literature provides examples of apocryphal works that are profitably studied in terms of their genre. The genre of apocalyptic literature has recurring characteristics that, analysis shows, are eminently typical. That is, the language is imbued with imagistic oracles that may be heavily symbolic. The mood communicates concern for an underlying problem, often rooted in an individual or a collective misdeed. The setting comprises an earthly plane intersecting the heavenly world of the angels and other noncorporeal beings. A test case for the form-critical study of the apocalyptic literature is found in 1 Enoch. One Enoch is not a single work but rather a collection of writings that scholars describe as five books: the Book of the Watchers (chs. 1—36), the Similitudes (chs. 37—71), the Astronomical Books (chs. 72—82), the Book of Dreams (chs. 83—90), and the Epistle of Enoch (chs. 91—108). The Book of the Watchers incorporates several of the generic elements of apocalyptic literature. For example, 1 Enoch 6—11 indicates a crisis experienced by the group responsible for the text and perhaps shared more widely in its society. The crisis, suggestive of lawlessness and violence, is not articulated in historical terms, however, and instead the crisis is played out on a celestial plane, where parts of this particular scenario fit into patterns that extend across generations. The crisis, and moreover its resolution, is thus transcendent in terms of both space and time. The crisis is described in language that is symbolic in that it vilifies certain of the fallen angels such as Semihazah. Language, setting, and mood combine to indicate the genre of apocalyptic literature as it forms and informs the Book of the Watchers. In the words of John J. Collins (1998, p. 59), “Whatever crisis generated this text, it is viewed from a distinctive apocalyptic perspective.” Indeed, the crisis in 1 Enoch is not presented in terms of historical elements; the writer’s expression is primarily through literary aspects that indicate the apocalypse’s structure and suggest something of the setting in life that gave rise to the text.

Beyond Form Criticism.

A generation ago, in an influential article entitled “Form Criticism and Beyond,” James Muilenburg (1969, p. 5) indicated a number of issues that had arisen with studying ancient texts primarily through genre. For example, he noted that texts may imitate a given genre by incorporating select literary elements but not all of the elements thought to be constitutive of the genre. In these cases, modern interpreters sometimes critique the text as imitative and flawed form-critically. Muilenburg, however, challenged such critique and took a different approach to the ancient text; he spoke of the creativity and consummate skill that the authors of the “imitations” demonstrated in their writing. Moreover, he encouraged his colleagues to think beyond the defined genres of ancient religious literature because there are significant texts that range across form-critical categories to suggest the development of mixed genres. Muilenberg did not call for an end to form-critical study, but he asked its practitioners to apply the method judiciously when working with a text in which genres are mixed and the form-critical determination requires nuance.

Decades after Muilenburg attempted to redirect the practice of form criticism, there remains concern about this method of studying ancient texts. Rolf Knierim (2000, pp. 42–43) writes: “We are preoccupied at this juncture with a number of fundamental problems that are built into the very system of the form-critical method.” In general, Knierim’s assessment echoes that of Muilenburg; as the former writes: “individual texts are more flexible than form criticism has been prepared to assume.” Not surprisingly, Knierim calls for form critics to be less ideological in their focus and to be more flexible in using the method’s various tools. He suggests that the major traditional categories of form criticism should function as “heuristic tools” that allow scholars to discover the typicality or typicalities governing a text. In general, Knierim advocates abandoning the notion that genre is immutable and wedded to certain settings in life, in favor of the view that there are distinct typicalities that govern texts. Studying the interrelationships of the typicalities, moreover, allows for discussions of genre that will, on the whole, be more measured than those of generations past, but no less fruitful.

Although form criticism as a methodology is waning, form-critical reading strategies are an important tool of scholarship today, as the present study will demonstrate. Informed by Muilenberg and Knierim, this study will explore certain of the Apocrypha and Deuterocanonical books from a form-critical perspective by focusing on three distinct genres: fictional prose, poetry, and history writing. There are other genres that would be incorporated into a longer treatment of the subject, but the three genres studied here constitute a literary triad that provides a representative overview of the Apocrypha and the deuterocanonical books.

Judith and Tobit as “Jewish Novellas.”

The deuterocanonical books Judith and Tobit represent a distinct genre within ancient Jewish literature, the Jewish novella. The Jewish novella, in turn, forms part of a broader category of novelistic literature that is exemplified by the Greek and Roman novels of the second and first centuries B.C.E. To speak of these ancient works as novels is not anachronistic, as some might charge. The ancient novels are long fictional prose narratives that are highly similar in sentiment and plot structure (Stephens and Winkler 1995, p. 3). Examples of this category or genre include Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe and Patronius’s Satyricon. With these non-Jewish works, Judith and Tobit share a number of quintessential features: settings that are idealized and whimsically designed, lively plots punctuated with peril, pleasing resolutions of plot, and women characters who exude chastity. In the story of Judith, a God-fearing widow sets aside the sackcloth and makes herself beautiful only so that she might destroy the enemies of Israel by beheading their leader Holofernes. In Tobit the righteous protagonist suffers indignation and penury but triumphs in the end when the angel Raphael assists Tobit’s son Tobias in securing a fortune as well as a worthy bride and a cure for his father’s ailment. Both novellas are highly entertaining, and the recent literature on Tobit and Judith often focuses on their comic qualities (McCracken 1995, p. 403; Portier-Young 2001, p. 53). The comic dimension, in turn, aligns Judith and Tobit form-critically with the Greek and Roman texts that typify the genre of the novel in this period.

The comic aspects of Tobit and Judith, however, have led some scholars to draw different conclusions, with implications for genre designation of the texts as Jewish novellas. On the one hand, there is the claim that despite Tobit’s humorous touches, the work is no comedy as it underscores rather the serious theme of divine providence (Schellenberg 2011, p. 315). Schellenberg relates divine providence in Tobit to the concept of simultaneity as it is found in the writings of Herodotus and Polybius, to imply that Tobit’s genre coincides more with the ancient histories rather than the novels. On the other hand, certain studies deny Jewish novellas such as Judith a place alongside their Greek counterparts because of the former’s lack of literary sophistication (Zeitlin 2008, p. 107). These studies conclude that Judith’s picaresque tone and the overarching playfulness of its storyline leave the Jewish novella too prosaic to inhere in a genre of high literature; by virtue of its comedy, Judith departs from the Greek and Roman novels. There is not, therefore, perfect consensus that Judith and Tobit belong to the generic category of the ancient novel, although many scholars make this association on the basis of the comic elements that are common to the Jewish and non-Jewish novelistic works.

Pleasure as a Defining Element.

Other studies of Judith and Tobit develop a related perspective, that of pleasure, that serves to align the Jewish and non-Jewish novelistic works. The notion of pleasure is derived from the reading experience as it is combined with the structure of the text. In the words of L. M. Wills (2011, pp. 155–156):

"In terms of kinship of genre, however, the question is really whether there is a common structure and reading experience—a common pleasure—that is found in all the different sizes and subtypes of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Christian, Jewish and other indigenous novelistic literature. This question is now often, but not always, answered in the affirmative."

The reference to pleasure forms the crux of Wills’s argument and it informs other scholarly work. Simon Goldhill (2008, p. 187), for example, defines and describes genre in terms of the pleasure that it summons from author and audience alike. Goldhill relates comedy to the pleasure of laughter, lyric poetry to the pleasure of sublime emotion, and the novel to the pleasure of enchantment as it is derived from narrative. By narrative he likely means the turn of plot whereby protagonists such as Judith and Tobias, the son of Tobit, brush up against peril time and again before their fate is resolved positively. Who does not relish a happy ending, especially after it seemed unattainable for much of the story? The pleasing denouement in the Jewish novellas is complex as the accomplishment of God’s purpose is both surprising and not surprising. It is not surprising because success for Judith and Tobias has been virtually guaranteed on the narrative level. Yet certain characters are genuinely unknowing, and reading through their eyes helps one feel, for example, that the life of young Tobias hangs in the balance on the night of his marriage. The reader ultimately knows that Tobias is not in mortal danger, and having knowledge that some of the characters (e.g., Raguel) do not have makes the story that much more enjoyable. The narration, in technical terms, creates dramatic irony, a perspectival pleasure that is indicative of the novelistic genre in ancient literature.

The Application of Newer Theoretical Perspectives.

A relatively new vein of scholarship construes Judith and Tobit as forming a response to empire, specifically the empire that Hellenistic rulers brought to the East. Such postcolonial readings credit eastern authors such as those responsible for the Jewish novellas with critiquing the dominant order and the power that resides at its center. In this critique, new ideas and collective thinking no longer travel from center to periphery exclusively and may advance from the periphery to the center. L. M. Wills refers to this dynamic as “colonized and colonizers mutually energized at a charged boundary” (p. 152).

The application of postcolonial theory to Tobit and especially Judith has implications for the study of genre. The exaggerated comedy that led Zeitlin to discount Judith as novelistic literature leads in these circumstances to a somewhat different analysis of genre. From a postcolonial perspective, the exaggerated comedy of Judith and Tobit points to a conscious reversal of generic literary conventions. The reversal subverts a range of readerly expectations that would otherwise keep separate the real and unreal, the traditional and new, the respectable and the entertaining. In sum, the reversal distorts proportions and, in the case of Judith, creates a scenario in which localized and limited details of history become associated with a larger sphere that is global and all-inclusive.

A telling example is Nebuchadnezzar, who represents the hostile force that Judith overcomes. He is presumably the historical Nebuchadnezzar, who as Babylonian emperor from 605 to 562 B.C.E oversaw three sieges of Jerusalem in the first half of the sixth century. The book of Judith, however, associates Nebuchadnezzar with Assyria, making him as well an eighth-century enemy of the Israelites. The trans-historical profile of Nebuchadnezzar recasts him as a composite enemy who reflects many (indeed all) empires, and whose true adversary, in turn, is God as well as God’s people. The insight of Ernst Haag (1963, p. 78), that Judith’s Nebuchadnezzar is tantamount to the “the eschatological enemy of God,” has influenced many scholars, and informs, at least indirectly, certain postcolonial readings of the ancient Jewish novel. The beheading of Holofernes and the defeat of Nebuchadnezzar, in such readings, subverts hegemonic structures that have been encoded into the literary structures of the text. The characterization of Nebuchadnezzar exemplifies the relationship between eastern, colonized, nationalistic prose fiction, and the literary ideal as found in Greek novels. In the words of L. M. Wills (p. 162), “Authors of both groups…reflect opposite poles of a colonizer/colonized interface. Just as the Greek novel expresses a desire to reimpose a distinction with the barbarian, the Jewish barbarian [sic] wants to reestablish the superior position of a God’s eye view of dignity and virtue.…Both are responding to Hellenization from opposite sides of the porous membrane we call colonial relations.”

Baruch’s Prayer of Complaint (Bar 1:15—3:8 ).

The apocryphal Book of Baruch is attributed to Baruch, the son of Neriah and secretary to Jeremiah, although most scholars think the book was written not in the purported time of the Babylonian exile but sometime during the second century B.C.E. The book nonetheless explores the theme of exile, defined as the consequence of disobeying God’s law (4:12) and clearly elaborated in the book’s four parts. An introduction (1:1–14) is followed by a public prayer of penitence (1:15—3:8). After the prayer concludes by highlighting Mosaic law and the obedience it elicits, the third section (3:9—4:4) follows in the form of a poem that compares the Mosaic law to wisdom, an association not uncommon in the period of the Second Temple (Ps 1:1–2; Sir 24:23–29). The fourth section (4:5—5:9) is a prophetic address signaling the restoration of exiles to Jerusalem as a result of their repentance. Exile is both the theme of the book and the historical occasion to implore God’s grace and mercy.

There are important form-critical issues in Baruch, especially in the book’s second section, a public prayer of penitence ( 1:15—3:8). The prayer approximates one genre in particular, the psalms of communal lament as found in the biblical psalter. The prayer’s phrasing and wording approximates that of the communal laments, and most importantly Baruch in these verses incorporates all the literary elements that collectively define the lament genre. That is, Baruch begins with an invocation to God and follows with a description of the current difficulty, a petition for deliverance, a motivation for God to act, an admission of guilt, an affirmation of trust, and finally a promise of praise complete with a vow to offer thanksgiving sacrifice. The form-critical likeness between Baruch’s prayer of penitence and the psalms of communal lament is striking; all the basic elements of the psalm genre recur in Baruch’s extended petition for God’s forgiveness. Moreover, Baruch’s prayer aligns thematically with communal laments such as Psalm 79, in which the petitions “deliver us” and “forgive our sins” are conjoined (Ps 79:8–9). The deuterocanonical text in this case builds upon the two themes, forgiveness and deliverance from exile, as they are linked inextricably at the center of Psalm 79 (Floyd 2007, p. 71).

A Newfound Penitential Dimension.

Comparing Baruch’s prayer to Psalm 79 and other communal laments also sheds light on the main difference between the two texts, namely the degree to which the penitential dimension in Baruch’s prayer is developed and articulated. First, there is added emphasis on sin as well as on the confession of sin. Baruch defines sin historically as the people’s turning from God’s word in age after age, with the major periods of Israel’s history indicated. The periodization of sin, however, is linked to the notion of repentance, which Baruch describes as heartfelt sorrow resulting in human deeds of rectification. By depicting the current generation of pray-ers as likely recipients of God’s forgiveness, Baruch contrasts them with the ancestors, who did not repent. Those associated with the prayer of Baruch, however, have turned back to God, repented of their sin, and await both divine forgiveness and release from exile. Because their prayer of petition is to be met with God’s favor, their experience is theologically different from that portrayed in the communal laments, where the pray-ers appear to be abandoned.

Studying Baruch’s penitential prayer from a form-critical perspective clarifies larger issues related to the text and its genre. First, scholars debate whether penitential prayers such as Baruch 1:15—3:8 are an extension of an existing genre (i.e., the psalms of communal lament) or whether they constitute a new genre that has emerged in the postexilic period. The so-called new genre would comprise prayer texts such Nehemiah 9:6–37 and Daniel 9:4–19. Does Baruch belong on this list? Its penitential theology notwithstanding, Baruch’s prayer does not depart significantly from the generic form of the lament psalms. The prayer incorporates the elements of the lament psalms, and the elements tend to function in conventional ways. In light of these facts, scholars are disinclined to invoke a new genre of penitential prayer when describing this text form-critically, and they are judicious in suggesting where and how the prayer in Baruch reaches beyond the design of the lament psalms. For example, Richard Bautch (2003, p. 145) observes that in Baruch, a confession of sin motivates the petition of mercy in 3:2, a development that typifies the postexilic prayers of penitence. He notes, however, that the petition for deliverance in 2:3–14 is motivated by a psalmic trope, the appeal to God’s honor in 2:15–18, and not by the confession of sin in 2:12. Bautch suggests that only when the confession of sin functions uniquely as the motivation of the petition are there grounds for speaking of Baruch 1:15—3:8 as materially different from the lament psalms.

Second, Claus Westermann (1981, pp. 165–213) argued that the advent of penitential prayers in the Second Temple period eclipsed the practice of lament and effectively silenced the raw complaint against God that punctuates parts of the psalter. Numerous scholars have followed Westermann and maintain that religious texts after the exile reflect a different theology than that expressed in the psalms of lament. The theological difference is essentially Deuteronomistic in that it views human misfortune as the effect of a prior misdeed, which prompts the penitential reflex in the prayer text. Close readings of the texts in question, including this study of Baruch, affirm their Deuteronomistic character but militate against the notion that penitential prayer displaced lament. As Michael Floyd observes (p. 77):

"Since rituals of penitence were communal, there might have been some functional overlap between those celebrated periodically at the temple and the communal complaint rituals occasionally celebrated there. This could conceivably have led to the demise of communal complaint rituals, but we have no direct evidence on this score, and indirect evidence suggests that communal complaints continued."

It rather appears that a symbiotic relationship prevailed between the lament and the penitential prayer, as indicated by other Second Temple period texts such as Isaiah 63:7—64:11, a postexilic prayer whose expressions of penitence draw upon the language of lament and share lament’s focus on culpability (Bautch 2006, p. 98).

2 Maccabees: A Deity Defending its City or Temple.

The deuterocanonical book 2 Maccabees cites as its basis the five-volume history of Jason of Cyrene (2 Macc 2:19–32), a work no longer extant. The loss of this source complicates the form-critical study of 2 Maccabees, but only to a degree. The narrative of 2 Maccabees conforms to a classic Greek structure, the story of a city facing civil strife and troubles from without but saved by an exceptional event, such as the death of a heroic figure or the intervention of a deity partial to the city. Commentators (Schwartz 2008, p. 65) compare 2 Maccabees, written in standard Greek, to works such as Euripides’s Phoenician Women. The latter features a city not unlike Jerusalem where the struggle of two brothers threatens the commonweal, and a resolution comes through the suicide of a leading citizen who is like Razis, the noble elder who kills himself in spectacular fashion near the conclusion of 2 Maccabees (2 Macc 14:37–46). Commentators consider the relationship between 2 Maccabees and Phoenician Women to be especially relevant. In addition to the form-critical alignment of 2 Maccabees with the Greek literary genre depicting a city defended and saved, discrete sections of the Jewish text are illuminated through a comparison to non-Jewish texts with the same literary structure. An example is 2 Maccabees 3:1–40, the repulse of Heliodorus.

Heliodorus is an agent of Seleucus IV, the Seleucid ruler whom the text identifies as the king of Asia. Heliodorus attempts to plunder the Jerusalem temple but fails. Inside the temple structure and ready to breach the treasury, Heliodorus is met by a manifestation of God, in the form of a horse with a frightful rider wearing golden armor (2 Macc 3:25). After the rider strikes down Heliodorus, two other young men arrive and flog him until he lies on the ground senseless. When Heliodorus subsequently recovers, the two young men exhort him to proclaim the majesty of God’s power (2 Macc 3:34). As Heliodorus does so, he directs his words to King Seleucus. The episode represents a great reversal of fortune for the city of Jerusalem, whose inhabitants respond with joy and gladness (2 Macc 3:30).

The account of Heliodorus in 2 Maccabees 3:1–40 parallels stories of a deity defending his or her city or temple. The form of the story comprises the following elements: the attackers approach the city, the city’s defenders ask the deity for help, the deity responds, the attackers are repulsed, and the defenders rejoice. The pattern is established in non-Jewish writings such as the Cos inscription, which tells of Apollo turning back the Gauls from Delphi in 279 B.C.E. Another inscription from Panamaros describes Zeus Panamaros defending his city from attack. Finally, the Lindos Chronicle recounts how Athene turned back the Persian forces from that city. These and other annals from the Greek tradition situate 2 Maccabees 3:1–40 in a fresh light; the Heliodorus episode is a distinctively Jewish instance of the deity defending his city from foreign invaders.

Correlating Form to Setting in Life.

Form criticism provides the appropriate designation for the Heliodorus episode, in terms of the type or genre of literature that it represents. In this instance, a term other than the generic “form” is in order. Doran (1981, p. 47) does not refer to the inscriptions from Cos and Panamaros as examples of the same literary form “because the ways in which the deities defend their temples are so various that no tight, recurring order of content emerges.” To appreciate Doran’s point, one may recall that a rather exact comparison emerges when the psalms of communal lament are placed alongside postexilic penitential prayers such as Baruch 1:15—3:8. The patterned repetition of literary elements is much less evident when the above inscriptions are compared to 2 Maccabees 3:1–40, although the Heliodorus episode exhibits some level of genetic connection to the accounts of a deity defending his city. The question becomes: How best to articulate the formal connection? Doran (p. 47) speaks of a general shared pattern that constitutes a “topos.” The term topos indicates a complex of ideas (Fischel 1973, pp. 60–61), and in this case it suggests a literary connection between the classical genre and the Jewish traditions included in 2 Maccabees. Doran remarks that, as terminology, “topos” has looser connotations than the designation “form” but is not as controversial as “motif” or “theme.” Doran’s work typifies scholarship that is focused on form-critical issues and exacting in its comparison and contrast of a deuterocanonical book such as 2 Maccabees with classic Greek literary structures.

Doran’s highlighting of the literary significance of the Heliodorus passage, however, has led some scholars to ask whether his approach understates the text’s historical aspect. Portier-Young (2001, p. 80) argues that the episode in 2 Maccabees 3 reveals the politics in play during the years before Seleucus’s death in 175 B.C.E. As the Seleucid king came increasingly under Rome’s aegis, he in turn exerted greater fiscal control over the Jerusalem temple and the worship conducted there. His strategy is typified in the mission of Heliodorus, which has a historical basis. By authorizing such missions Seleucus violated a prior agreement protecting the local administration of the temple and he heightened tensions within and among the Jerusalem elite. The historical picture that Portier-Young provides adds much to the form-critical study of 2 Maccabees 3 as the account of a besieged city embroiled in civil strife but saved by the intervention of its deity. A typical story has been joined to a setting in life that is decidedly political, with an imperial government seeking to extract more revenue from the boundaries of its empire. At first glance the political world of Seleucus IV is not a traditional setting in life; form critics have tended to employ the concept of Sitz im Leben to identify cultic locales and the ritual practices therein. With the infusion of postcolonial theory into biblical studies, however, the temple-based Jerusalem cult may be viewed as a crucial setting in the political life of a preeminent Jewish community. Generations of scholars have known that the Jerusalem temple serves as a political locus, but there is new emphasis on this fact. That is to say, the fundamental correlation in form criticism between genre and setting may be evolving with the study of texts and their contexts.

Conclusion: Form-critical Reading Strategies.

The earlier discussion of Muilenburg and Knierim implied a crisis of confidence in form criticism. The method associated with Gunkel and his school no longer appears capable of identifying a text’s genre, and risks misreading literature that does not fit neatly into form-critical categories. Misguided as well are the attempts to connect text and world, in the hopes of identifying a setting in life for the content that inheres in the literary form. It is little wonder that today few studies engage the form-critical method in a sustained and detailed manner. This review of select deuterocanonical and apocryphal books, however, shows that the demise of form-critical study is not yet at hand. The evidence is to the contrary.

First, the plain fact is that scholars continue to focus on literary form in their evaluation of texts such as Judith, Tobit, and 2 Maccabees. These works are not sui generis. In each case the writer was influenced by a classic Greek form, and he adopted and adapted the form to express views current in the Jewish community that stands behind the text. The prayer in Baruch is similarly patterned after a time-honored Jewish form, the communal lament. “Form is meaning” to quote the literary critic Cleanth Brooks (1951, p. 45), whose dictum could as easily be attributed to our ancient writers. Present day scholars explore the shades of difference between Judith and the Greek novel, between Baruch’s prayer and the psalms of communal lament, between 2 Maccabees and the classic story of a deity saving a city under siege. Adducing differences and divergences in form, scholars bring forth new meaning. True, the form critic is a vanishing breed, but the reflexes of reading long associated with this creature are still in evidence. Indeed, the form-critical reading strategies continue to yield insights.

Second, postcolonial theory is breathing new life into form-critical reading strategies by heightening readers’ awareness of a text’s setting in life. The settings in question reflect the politics of imperial forces pursuing colonization. As such, the setting reflects light back on the text in its formal design and illumines the text anew. To recall the cogent example of Judith as read by L. M. Wills, the Jewish novella violates certain conventions of Greek writing to challenge the norms imposed upon the East by Hellenistic rulers from the West. In writing Jewish novels that break free of formal conventions, the Eastern authors critique the dominant order and the power at its center. The work of Portier-Young similarly examines the interplay of literary form and historical realia, with emphasis on the latter.

Third, form-critical reading strategies bring into sharp relief social questions well beyond those raised by postcolonial theory. Study of the Jewish novellas has sparked a discussion about the role of pleasure in reading these and other texts. The pleasure in reading Tobit is not simply dramatic irony but what Wolfgang Iser (1980, p. 63) calls “the interplay of illusion-forming and illusion-breaking.” If pleasure is an intrinsic part of the reading experience, there are implications for our understanding of the process of reading. Study of Baruch’s prayer provides new impetus to the debate on whether penitential theology silenced the practice of lament in Second Temple Judaism. The so-called silencing of lament has been a fraught issue in contemporary theology. A host of relevant questions come to the fore when form-critical reading strategies are employed.

In sum, the practice of identifying and analyzing the genres to which texts belong, that is, form criticism, has become the first move in a hermeneutical process. That process revolves around the application of form-critical reading strategies in coordination with social concern and, in many cases, political critique. The critic of tomorrow will be tasked with explaining anew the meaning to be found in a text that exhibits literary form and has an impact on the world.

[ See also DIACHRONIC INTERPRETATION; EMPIRE STUDIES AND BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION; FORM CRITICISM, subentry HEBREW BIBLE; FORM CRITICISM, subentry NEW TESTAMENT; GENRE CRITICISM; POSTCOLONIAL BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION; and RHETORICAL CRITICISM.]

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  • Muilenburg, James. “Form Criticism and Beyond.” Journal of Biblical Literature 88, no. 1 (1969): 1–18.
  • Portier-Young, Anathea. “Alleviation of Suffering in the Book of Tobit: Comedy, Community, and Happy Endings.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 63, no. 1 (2001): 35–54.
  • Portier-Young, Anathea E. Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2011.
  • Schellenberg, Ryan S. “Suspense, Simultaneity and Divine Providence in the Book of Tobit.” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 2 (2011): 313–327.
  • Schwartz, Daniel R. 2 Maccabees. Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature. New York: de Gruyter, 2008.
  • Stephens, Susan A., and John J. Winkler. Ancient Greek Novels: the Fragments: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Westermann, Claus. Praise and Lament in the Psalms. Translated by Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen. Atlanta: John Knox, 1981.
  • Wills, L. M. “Jewish Novellas in a Greek and Roman Age: Fiction and Identity.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 43 (2011): 141–165.
  • Zeitlin, Froma. “Religion.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel, edited by Tim Whitmarsh, 91–108. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Richard J. Bautch

New Testament

[The first sections of this essay are in part revisions of material from McKnight 1969, repr. 1997. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com.]

New Testament form criticism describes what happened to the Jesus tradition as it was handed on before being written down in the Gospels. Form criticism has shown that the church’s vital life exerted a creative influence in terms of content and “form” allowing criticism to classify individual units in the Synoptic Gospels according to literary form (or Gattung).

Background for New Testament Form Criticism.

The form-critical approach to the New Testament was influenced by Hermann Gunkel’s study of the stories in Genesis as originally oral stories developed and modified in the life of Israel. Also important was the identification of four sources behind the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, M, and L standing for the sources peculiar to Mark, Matthew, and Luke; Q, from German Quelle, designating a source postulated to explain material common to Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark) and the need to pry back historically into the period before the composition of the Gospels. More directly influential was Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s suggestion that the lack of relationship between the units in the Gospel of Mark (the oldest Gospel) shows that the oldest tradition of Jesus is an abundance of individual stories. Only occasionally from the inner character of the story can these individual stories be fixed in respect to time and place.

An exception to the rule that there were no connected narratives of the life of Jesus in the earliest tradition is the passion narrative. Schmidt saw in the Marcan passion narrative a unified construction answering the question as to how Jesus could have been brought to the cross by those who were blessed by his signs and wonders.

Pioneers in New Testament Form Criticism.

The definition of the task of form criticism and the early application of this tool were the work of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann. The term “form criticism” came to be used in biblical studies because the title of Martin Dibelius’s 1919 volume was Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums. Dibelius’s purpose was to explain the origin of the Jesus tradition, and therefore to penetrate back into the period before the one in which the written sources of the Gospels were recorded.

Bultmann’s volume on the history of the synoptic tradition appeared two years after that of Dibelius, but his name and method of analysis have been more closely associated with form criticism that has the name of Dibelius. Bultmann’s purpose was the discovery of what the original units of the Synoptics were—both sayings and stories—to try to establish what their historical setting was, whether they belonged to a primary or secondary tradition, or whether they were the product of editorial activity.

The major presuppositions and procedures in a form-critical analysis may be delineated using the works of Bultmann and Dibelius. The fundamental assumption making form criticism both necessary and possible is that the tradition basically consists of individual sayings and narratives united in the Gospels by the editorial work of the Gospel writers.

The determination of the earliest written form of the unit is important in analysis. When the unit is found in all three Synoptic Gospels, it may be assumed that the earliest written form is that of Mark. If the passage is found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark, Matthew and Luke must be compared and the earliest written form of Q serve as the basis for analysis.

The assumption that the tradition served the needs and purposes of the church is central for the early form critics. Dibelius follows a constructive method and Bultmann follows an analytical method. That is, Dibelius reconstructs the history of the synoptic tradition from a study of the earliest Christian community while Bultmann begins with the text instead of the church. Dibelius sees the origins of the Christian movement occurring in the Aramaic-speaking Palestinian circle of Jesus. Next comes a pre-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity in close proximity to Judaism. Finally comes the Pauline church, much less closely related to Judaism. Dibelius declares that the synoptic tradition acquired its form in the pre-Pauline Hellenistic church closely associated with Judaism.

Bultmann’s analytical approach does not demand as detailed a picture of the church as does the constructive approach of Dibelius. Bultmann begins with a division of early Christianity into Palestinian Christianity and Hellenistic Christianity.

Both Dibelius and Bultmann affirm that the form enables students to reconstruct the history of the tradition. When Dibelius says that a critical reading of the Gospels shows that the Gospel writers took over units of material that already possessed a form of their own, he is speaking of a “style” that has been created by its use among early Christians. The forms developed out of primitive Christian life itself. The units, therefore, have a form that is related to their place in the life of the church.

Bultmann is in accord with this assumption. “The proper understanding of form criticism rests upon the judgment that the literature…springs out of quite definite conditions and wants of life from which grows up a quite definite style and quite specific forms and categories” (1921, p. 4). Every literary category then will have its own “life situation” (Sitz im Leben), which is a typical situation in the life of the early Christian community.

Narrative Forms in Dibelius and Bultmann.

The main concern of Dibelius is with the narrative material of the Gospels, and so in addition to the passion narrative, Dibelius deals extensively with paradigms, tales, and legends.

Paradigms.

According to Dibelius the sermons of the early Christians did not contain simply the basic message of the gospel “but rather the message as explained, illustrated, and supported with references and otherwise developed” (1919, p. 25). Narratives of the deeds of Jesus were introduced as examples to illustrate and support the message. These examples constitute the oldest Christian narrative style, and Dibelius suggests the name “paradigm” for this narrative form.

The tribute money (Mark 12:13–17) is an example of a pure paradigm with the five characteristics Dibelius sees as essential in such a form: (1) independence from the literary context; (2) brevity and simplicity for use as examples in the sermon; (3) religious rather than artistic coloring; (4) didactic style causing the closing words of Jesus to stand out clearly; and (5) an ending in a thought useful for preaching.

Bultmann’s category “apophthegm” is basically the same as Dibelius’s paradigm. But Bultmann does not agree that the form arose in preaching in every case. Rather than “paradigm,” he uses the term “apophthegm,” a category from Greek literature denoting merely a short, pithy, and instructive saying. The term “apophthegm” does not prejudge the matter of origin. Bultmann sees three different types of apophthegms characterized by the different settings or causes for the sayings: controversy apophthegms, scholastic apophthegms, and biographical apophthegms. In Bultmann’s opinion the three types of apophthegms are “ideal” constructions of the church. It is true that Jesus engaged in disputations and was asked questions about such things as the way to life and the greatest commandment. It is also true that a particular apophthegm could easily contain a historical reminiscence; that is, a decisive saying of an apophthegm may go back to Jesus himself. But the apophthegms as they stand are church constructions. Bultmann judges that they are Palestinian church constructions, as may be seen by comparison with similar rabbinical stories.

Tales.

The tales in the Gospels are stories of Jesus’s miracles that originated in their present form, according to Dibelius, not with preachers but with storytellers and teachers who related the stories from the life of Jesus “broadly, with colour and not without art” (1919, p. 70). Indeed, “literary style in reporting miracles…appears in the Tales with a certain regularity” (1919, p. 82). The style of the tale compares with the style of similar stories from ancient to modern times: first comes the history of the illness, then the technique of the miracle, and finally the success of the miraculous act. Tales belong to a higher grade of literature than paradigms.

The first tale in Mark is the healing of a leper (Mark 1:40–45). (The recounting of the miracle in Mark 1:23–27 is a paradigm, not a tale.) The characteristics of tales are clearly seen here: (1) the tales are individual stories complete in themselves; (2) tales are longer than paradigms; (3) they contain a greater breath of description; (4) devotional motifs are lacking and there is a gradual retreat of any words of Jesus of general interest; (5) the conclusions do not contain material helpful for preaching.

Dibelius explains the origin of tales through the extension of paradigms and through the introduction and use of motifs and materials strange to the original paradigm. The story of Jesus walking on the water, for example (Mark 6:45–52), may have resulted from the introduction of an epiphany motif into a primitive story of Jesus’s intervention in a difficulty caused by winds and waves.

Bultmann’s category “miracle stories” is what Dibelius means by “tales,” namely stories of healing, and nature miracles in which the miracle constitutes the main theme and is described with considerable detail. Miracles occur among the apophthegms, but there the miracle is subordinated to the point of the apophthegm.

Bultmann compares the synoptic miracle stories with the miracle stories of Jewish and Hellenistic origin and discovers that the Gospel stories have exactly the same style as the Hellenistic miracle stories. The condition of the sick person is described, the healing is recounted, then the consequences of the miracle are unfolded. Bultmann asks at what stage the tradition was enriched by the addition of miracle stories and concludes that a Palestinian origin is probable for several miracle stories—the stilling of the storm (judged by its content), the feeding stories, and the healing of the leper. But “for the rest, the Hellenistic origin…is overwhelmingly the more probable” (1921, p. 240).

Legends and Myths.

According to Dibelius, legends, “religious narratives of a saintly man in whose works and fate interest is taken” (1919, p. 104) arose in the church to satisfy a double desire: the desire to know something of the human virtues and lot of the holy men and women in the story of Jesus and the desire that gradually developed to know Jesus himself in this way. The story of Jesus when he is 12 years old (Luke 2:41–49) shows most clearly the qualities of legend. As far as history is concerned, Dibelius says that a narrator of legends is not interested in historical confirmation, and opposition to increasing the material by analogies is not offered.

Dibelius is convinced that the story of Jesus is not of mythological origin. The oldest witness of the process of formation of the traditions (the paradigms) does not tell of a mythological event. Dibelius lists the baptismal miracle, the temptation of Jesus, and the transfiguration as the only narratives describing a mythological event (“a many-sided interaction between mythological but not human persons,” 1919, p. 271).

Following Bultmann’s thought, legends are religiously edifying narratives, which are not properly miracle stories—although they may include something miraculous. And they are not basically historical—although they may be based on historical happenings. Historical stories and legends must be treated together because of the impossibility of separating the two. Some passages are purely legendary, an example being the narrative of the temptation of Jesus. But even the stories with a historical basis “are so much dominated by the legends that they can only be treated along with them” (1921, p. 245). For example, the historicity of Jesus’s baptism by John is not to be disputed, according to Bultmann. But as the story is told in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1:9–11) it must be classified as a legend whose purpose is not history but religious edification. It tells of Jesus’s consecration as Messiah; it is a faith legend. When the context is the faith and worship of the community, the result is a faith legend; when the context is the life of some religious hero, the result is a biographical legend.

Bultmann observes that the legendary motifs in the narratives are of diverse origin. Some materials show the influence of the Old Testament and Judaism, others show Hellenistic elements, still others have motifs that have developed within the Christian tradition itself.

Dibelius’s Confident Approach to the Sayings of Jesus.

Although Dibelius emphasized the narrative material of the Synoptic Gospels, he dealt with the sayings of Jesus and he finds preaching (especially catechetical instruction) as the place of formulation of such teachings. Dibelius presupposed a law at work with the sayings of Jesus that was different from the law concerning narrative material. The Jews of Jesus’s day took the rules of life and worship more seriously than they took historical and theological tradition. Just so, the Christians treated the sayings of Jesus more seriously than they did the narratives. Modifications took place as the sayings of Jesus were transmitted. The hortatory character of the words of Jesus was strengthened. There was also a tendency to include Christological sayings, so as to gain from the words of Jesus not only solutions to problems or rules for one’s own life but also indications about the nature of the one uttering such words.

Dibelius’s study of Jesus maintained that a distinction must be made between the historical reliability of units of the tradition on the basis of their form. The passion story is unique and the general outline of the passion story is trustworthy. Paradigms are the most historical of the three forms of narrative material because they arose among the eyewitnesses. These eyewitnesses could control and correct the tradition. They arose in connection with preaching and “the nearer a narrative stands to the sermon the less is it questionable, or likely to have been changed by romantic, legendary, or literary influences” (1919, p. 61).

The tales and legends are less historical than paradigms. Tales, however, are not all on the same level historically. They arose in three different ways—extension of paradigms, the introduction of foreign motifs, and by borrowing foreign material. The historical judgment upon the tale is related to its origin. A historical basis is to be presupposed when the tale developed from a paradigm. Even legends must not be ruled out as possible vehicles of history.

In general, Dibelius is confident of the trustworthiness of the sayings. He says that we can observe that the Jesus’s sayings were handed down with great fidelity thanks to the unencumbered memory of his unspoiled followers and their reverence for Jesus’s words. He suggests that it is proper to speak of nongenuine sayings only where the later circumstances of the church are clearly presupposed.

Bultmann’s Skeptical Analysis of Discourse Material.

Bultmann provides a detailed analysis of the dominical sayings (proverbs, prophetic and apocalyptic sayings, and law and community regulations). He also gives a separate treatment of parables and I sayings (sayings attributed to Jesus in which he speaks of himself, his work, and his destiny), although by content both belong to the dominical sayings.

Proverbs.

The proverb shows Jesus as the teacher of wisdom comparable with wisdom teachers throughout the Orient. Three basic “constitutive” forms exist in all proverbial literature—including that of the Synoptic Gospels. The proverb in a declarative form sets forth a principle or a declaration: “The laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). Exhortations take an imperative form: “Physician, heal yourself” (Luke 4:23). Proverbs also take the form of questions: “And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?” (Matt 6:27).

In regard to the relationship of the proverbs of the Synoptics to Jesus, Bultmann sees several possibilities: Jesus himself is responsible for some of the proverbs; Jesus occasionally made use of popular proverbs; and the primitive church placed in Jesus’s mouth wisdom sayings that really go back to Jewish proverbial lore. Bultmann’s judgment is that the wisdom sayings are “least guaranteed to be authentic words of Jesus and they are likewise the least characteristic and significant for historical interpretation” (1925, p. 55).

Prophetic and Apocalyptic Sayings.

Prophetic and apocalyptic sayings are those in which Jesus proclaimed the arrival of the reign of God and preached the call to repentance. Bultmann sees proof in the little apocalypse of Mark 13:5–27 that Jewish material has been ascribed to Jesus by the church. Bultmann asks to what extent the rest of the material must go back to the church. In some sayings Jesus must be the origin; the immediacy of eschatological consciousness indicates that Jesus himself must have been the origin (Luke 10:23–24). Not all sayings that are judged unlikely to have originated in Judaism come from Jesus, however, for the early church formulated some passages. A church origin is more likely the more there is a relationship of the saying to the person of Jesus.

Statements Regarding the Law and Jewish Piety and Regulations of the Early Community.

The third group of sayings treated by Bultmann is made up of statements regarding the law and Jewish piety and regulations of the early community. Bultmann declares that the history of the sayings can be seen with desirable clarity in this legal material. The church possessed a stock of genuine sayings of Jesus—especially important and genuine are the brief conflict sayings expressing Jesus’s attitude to Jewish piety (Mark 7:15; 3:4; Matt 23:16–19, 23–24, 25–26). Concerning these sayings Bultmann says that “this is the first time that we have the right to talk of sayings of Jesus both as to form and content” (1921, p. 147). The tradition gathered these genuine sayings, giving them a new form, enlarging them by additions, and developing them further. Other Jewish sayings were collected and fitted for reception into the treasury of Christian instruction. New sayings were produced from the church’s consciousness of a new possession, sayings that were ingeniously put into the mouth of Jesus. Bultmann especially attributes to the church the Old Testament citations, which are frequently found in combination with debating sayings, as well as the sayings with rules for the discipline of the community and for its mission, and the sayings in which the church expresses its faith in Jesus.

I Sayings.

Bultmann acknowledges that it is impossible to prove that Jesus could not have spoken in the first person about himself. But such serious considerations are raised up against so many of the sayings that “one can have but little confidence even in regard to those which do not come under positive suspicion” (1921, p. 155). The sayings as a whole express the retrospective point of view of the church and were predominantly the work of the Hellenistic churches.

The Parable.

The parable is a concise and simple story—much like a popular story in its concrete language, use of dialectical language and soliloquy, and repetition. The story is told to call forth a judgment on the part of the hearer—a judgment regarding the story of everyday human affairs and relations—and then judgment is applied in the realm of the spiritual life. Jesus spoke in parables, and the church transmitted the parables and used them for its own purpose. Here and there the form has been changed and applications added to make them more relevant to the later church. Alterations are even seen in Matthew’s and Luke’s use of the written sources. But Bultmann sees more radical alteration by the church: the placement of the parables into particular contexts and the giving of introductions that affect the meaning of the stories; the placement of a new parable alongside an older independent story; the providing of allegorical additions and explanations; and the augmentation of the store of parables from the Jewish tradition.

The history of the parables in the tradition makes it clear that some of the parabolic material does not go back to Jesus but to the church. Bultmann concludes his treatment of parables with a rule that enables us to discover the genuine parables of Jesus: “We can only count on possessing a genuine similitude of Jesus where, on the one hand, expression is given to the contrast between Jewish morality and piety and the distinctive eschatological temper that characterized the preaching of Jesus; and where on the other hand we find no specifically Christian features” (1921, p. 205).

Bultmann’s analysis of the gospel tradition results in a skeptical attitude to the possibility of historical research into the life of Jesus. He is skeptical of the historicity of the narrative tradition. He does not doubt that Jesus lived and did many of the sorts of things reported in the tradition. But he doubts that any specific activity is a historical report. And he is certain that the narratives in the tradition cannot give us knowledge of the life and personality of Jesus.

Bultmann is less skeptical about the sayings. We know enough to construct a consistent picture. Yet the sayings as well as the narratives go back to the church, which not only passed on actual sayings of Jesus but also placed its own teachings on the lips of Jesus. How can we distinguish between authentic and inauthentic sayings? Helpful is knowledge that the Synoptic Gospels were written in Greek in the Hellenistic community, while Jesus and the primitive church lived in Palestine and spoke Aramaic. Everything that could have originated only in Hellenistic Christianity must be excluded. But not everything thus retained goes back to Jesus, for there was an Aramaic-speaking Palestinian church after the time of Jesus. Different layers within the Palestinian material must be distinguished. Whatever materials show characteristics of related development or specific interests of the church must be rejected as secondary. Even here one must be cautious if not skeptical. “Naturally we have no absolute assurance that the exact words of this oldest layer were really spoken by Jesus. There is a possibility that the contents of this oldest layout are also the result of a complicated historical process which we can no longer trace” (1926, p. 13).

Bultmann’s work on Jesus, therefore, is the treatment of the message that can be recovered from the oldest layer of the synoptic tradition. By the tradition, Bultmann admits, Jesus is named as the bearer of the message. According to probability Jesus was the messenger, but Bultmann allows the name “Jesus” to be placed in quotation marks and understood as an abbreviation for the historical phenomenon that can be uncovered with the help of form criticism.

Early Scholarly Evaluation and Use of Form Criticism.

New Testament scholars differed widely in their reaction to form criticism. Some continued to emphasize source criticism and virtually ignored the new discipline. Others defended the basic historicity of Mark and the other sources of the Synoptic Gospels but were increasingly affected by form criticism.

Continued Use of Source Analysis Alone.

B. H. Streeter and Arthur C. Headlam represent scholars who continued to emphasize source analysis alone. B. H. Streeter summed up the results of the scientific study of the Gospels to his day in the great book, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins. Streeter first published his work in 1924 and took no account of the work of form criticism. The year before Streeter’s book appeared, A. C. Headlam published his work, The Life and Teachings of Jesus the Christ, which utilized the results of the analysis of the sources of the Gospels. Headlam sees himself as a defender of the “general credibility of the traditional account of the life and work of our Lord” against a school of critics that, while accepting Jesus as a real person and founder of Christianity, holds that “the greater part of the contents of the Gospel tells us not what He taught, but what the Christian Church which grew up after His death thought” (p. ix).

Challenges to Form Criticism.

C. H. Dodd, T. W. Manson, Harald Riesenfeld, and Birger Gehardsson challenged basic presuppositions of form criticism. In 1932 Dodd challenged the assumptions of form criticism regarding the framework of the gospel narrative. Dodd denied that the order of the units of Mark is arbitrary and that the framework is only an artificial construction. The conclusion Dodd drew is that “we need not be so scornful of the Marcan order as has recently become the fashion.” He admitted, however, that “we shall not place in it the implicit confidence it once enjoyed” (1952, p. 11). T. W. Manson, a noted English New Testament scholar and teacher, whose career continued until his death in 1958, remained throughout his lifetime much more confident of the historicity of the gospel tradition than did the form critics. In light of Manson’s general defense of the authenticity of the Marcan framework, it is important to note his grudging concession to the form critics. He admitted that “it is no longer possible to regard the Marcan framework, in all its details, as a rigid and nonalterable scaffolding, into which everything must somehow be fitted.…Many concessions may have to be made to the disruptive criticism of Mark” (1962, p. 26).

Two Scandinavian scholars, Harald Riesenfeld and Birger Gehardsson, attempted to prove false the postulate upon which the discipline of form criticism most depends, that the formation of the material took place in the later Christian community. Riesenfeld stated the basic arguments in an address delivered at the opening session of the congress on “The Four Gospels in 1957” in Oxford. Riesenfeld held that “the beginning of the gospel tradition lies with Jesus himself” (1957, p. 23). Riesenfeld attempted to establish this by identifying the origin and transmission of the Christian tradition with the origin and transmission of Jewish tradition. A pupil of Riesenfeld, Birger Gerhardsson, in his book Memory and Manuscript, carried forward Riesenfeld’s work by presenting in great detail the evidence from Judaism and early Christianity that supports the case.

Cautious Use of Form Criticism.

Burton Scott Easton, Vincent Taylor, and R. H. Lightfoot represent the cautious acceptance and use characteristic of the attitude and practice of most New Testament scholars. Burton Scott Easton was one of the earliest American scholars to evaluate form criticism. In December, 1927, he gave a series of lectures at the General Theological Seminary, New York, in which he dealt with form criticism. Some of the tradition may be classified in terms of form, according to Easton. This is true of the form known to Dibelius as paradigm and to Bultmann as apophthegm, the tale, and the parable. But attempts to classify other narratives and teaching material have not proved helpful, and form critics violate the rules when they classify in any way other than by form. Although Easton denies that form criticism as such is historical criticism, he does not deny the validity of the historical criticism engaged by the form critics. Indeed “form criticism may prepare the way for historical criticism” (1928, p. 81). Easton’s own evaluation is that the synoptic narratives and sayings go back not to the early church but to the earthly Jesus.

Vincent Taylor very cautiously evaluated form criticism as a legitimate tool in lectures given at the University of Leeds in 1932. He does not see the discipline as totally negative at all. In fact, he declared, “Form criticism seems to me to furnish constructive suggestions which in many ways confirm the historical trustworthiness of the Gospel tradition” (1933, p. vi). Taylor is responsible for the use of “pronouncement story” for the form called paradigm by Dibelius and apophthegm by Bultmann. The term does justice to the dual nature of the form.

Form criticism received a champion in England in R. H. Lightfoot at the University of Oxford. Although Lightfoot disclaims the title of “champion” of the claims of form criticism, in the Bampton lectures of 1934 he introduced the insights of form critics to his compatriots, and in this series of lectures and later works he applied the method to the Gospel of Mark. The most valuable aspect of form criticism is the way it seeks to relate the individual stories to the life of the church that preserved them and used them to give its message to the world. “In this way the Gospels can be to us…within limits which need to be carefully guarded, a mirror of the hopes and aspirations, the problems and the difficulties, of the early church” (1950, p. 102). Lightfoot’s interest in the total purpose of the evangelists led him to apply form criticism to the Gospels in a different way than the earlier scholars. Lightfoot became a pioneer, then, in yet another method of Gospel study, redaction criticism.

The Challenge of Structuralism.

“Structuralism” refers to a theory concerning the composition of literary texts and other human productions and the technique of analysis of those productions. In basic terms, the text is to be analyzed primarily in terms of principles of internal organization not in terms of the historical process that produced it. And the organization on the level of “deep structure” not “surface structure” is of greatest interest.

The most radical structural-linguistic approach to New Testament texts was offered by Erhardt Güttgemanns of the University of Bonn. His 1970 book was a declaration that the whole tradition of New Testament scholarship has to be shelved. Historical criticism must be replaced by a linguistic exegesis based on the principle of structural linguistics. Form criticism was the first opponent to be demolished in Güttgemanns’s work. For Güttgemanns, history and the sociological situation of the early church had nothing to do with the essence of the forms of the Synoptic Gospels. The forms grow out of nonhistorical anthropological and linguistic factors.

In his application of structural analysis, Güttgemanns concludes that whoever wants to learn the production of Gospel narratives does not need to learn the “performance” or surface level phenomena but simply the abstract categories (character types and types of action) and the possibilities of the combinations of the abstract categories as determined by logic. Humankind is capable in the present day and in modern verbalization of narrating stories of God through which they carry on the synoptic stories from the perspective of genre so that the present proclamation represents a generative expansion of the canonical Synoptic Gospels. (1976, pp. 168–169).

Güttgemanns was influenced by French narratology to stress the “profound” or “deep” or “generative” level of the literary structure. Historical positivism was replaced by a linguistic positivism. “Jesus and the kerygma belong to the pragmatic basis of narrative proclamation. This basis motivates the proclamation, but at the same time makes use of an a priori linguistic basis. Jesus and the kerygma are therefore, to be sure, a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for Gospel narrative. Rather, the sufficient condition is exclusively narrative competence of humankind. Consequently, in each case grammar ontologically and logically precedes history” (1976, p. 169).

The radical nonhistorical or antihistorical perspective was not inevitable in French narratology or the work of Güttgemanns. Daniel Patte provided for English-speaking scholars an introduction to structural methodology and specific procedures in What Is Structural Exegesis? Patte sees that attention can be given to structures closer to the surface of the text and is aware that the methods he introduces complement traditional historical critical methods.

Through the structuralist interlude of the 1970s and 1980s a number of important contributions other than those of Patte were made by New Testament scholars. Elizabeth Struthers Malbon’s 1986 work on the “geographical code” in Mark showed how the structural organization of spaces provides a major key to what is going on in the Gospel.

Aesthetic and Rhetorical Examination of Forms.

Contemporary form and redaction criticism attempt to integrate traditional historical approaches with nonhistorical linguistic and literary methods of study. The expansion of the concept of Sitz im Leben (“life-setting”) allows conventional criticism to embrace newer approaches. Individual units and completed Gospels are seen not only in the light of institutional settings but also in the light of linguistic, literary, and other cultural settings. The tradition and the completed Gospels will be explained by a plurality of historical and nonhistorical settings.

Concern with genuine literary matters began to surface in the 1960s and 1970s and became commonplace in the 1980s. The lack of interaction with genuine literary criticism in the early Bultmann tradition hindered the task among students of Bultmann, but in his 1964 publication, The Language of the Gospel, Amos Wilder advocated a move that takes advantage of literary insights. He expounds the New Testament “language event” in terms of literary form. There is reference in the text but the reference is not the same as that in conventional study of the Gospels. Students of the New Testament can learn about its literary language and reference from students of poetry: “this kind of report of reality—as in a work of art—is more subtle and complex and concrete than in the case of a discursive statement, and therefore more adequate to the matter in hand and to things of importance” (p. 133).

A comprehensive New Testament study will be open to all sorts of questions—different kinds and levels of literary, historical, and theological structures. The conventional historically-oriented form-critical approach to reading the New Testament text has been supplemented but not effectively displaced by the formalist-structuralist and other literary approaches.

[ See also LITERARY CRITICISM, LITERARY THEORY, AND THE BIBLE; REDACTION CRITICISM, subentry NEW TESTAMENT; and STRUCTURALIST INTERPRETATION.]

Bibliography

  • Bultmann, Rudolf. Form Criticism: Two Essays on New Testament Research. Edited and translated by Fredrick Clifton Grant. New York: Willett, Clark and Co., 1934. English translation of Die Erforschung der synoptischen Tradition, first published in 1925. This is a popular exposition of the method elaborated much more fully in the History of the Synoptic Tradition.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf. History of the Synoptic Tradition. Translated by John Marsh. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. English translation of the third edition of Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, first published in 1921. This was the first study of the entire synoptic tradition from the perspective of form criticism. Bultmann attempted to write the history of the tradition and to show the forces at work on the tradition as it was formed and transmitted. This book is basic to modern-day form criticism.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf. Jesus and the Word. Translated by Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress Lantero. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934. English translation of Jesus, first published in 1926. A treatment of the message of Jesus based on Bultmann’s understanding of the history of the synoptic tradition.
  • Dibelius, Martin. From Tradition to Gospel. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934. English translation of Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums, first published in 1919. The third German edition (1959) contains an essay by G. Iber on form criticism since Dibelius. Dibelius applied Gunkel’s principles for the study of the narrative material of the synoptic tradition. In retrospect he is seen as a conservative form critic.
  • Dibelius, Martin. Jesus. Translated by Charles B. Hendrick and Fredrick C. Grant. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1949. English translation of Jesus, first published in 1939. An application of Dibelius’s form critical method to a study of the life and teachings of Jesus.
  • Dodd, Charles Harold. “The Framework of the Gospel Narrative.” Expository Times 43 (1932): 396–400; reprinted in New Testament Studies. New York: Scribner’s, 1952: 1–11. Dodd attempted to show that the arrangement of the units in Mark is based at least in part upon the traditional framework of the history of Jesus.
  • Easton, Burton Scott. The Gospel before the Gospels. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928. A cautious American introduction to form criticism. He stressed the limitations of form criticism as a historical tool.
  • Fascher, Eric. Die formgeschichtliche Method. Giessen: Töpelmann, 1924. Fascher stressed the limitations of form criticism, declaring that the discipline itself does not establish the authenticity or lack of authenticity of units of the tradition.
  • Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Translated by Eric J Sharp. Lund: Gleerup, 1961. An attempt to support the thesis of Riesenfeld by careful study of the transmission of the tradition in Judaism and of Christian sources that tell of the delivery of the gospel tradition.
  • Gunkel, Hermann. The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History. Translated by W. H. Carruth. New York: Schocken, 1964. English translation of the introduction to Genesis, first published in 1901. Gunkel applied form criticism to the units of Genesis and provided a critical procedure for a study of the units of the Synoptic Gospels.
  • Güttgemanns, Erhardt. Candid Questions Concerning Gospel Form Criticism. Translated by William G. Doty. Pittsburgh Theological Monograph Series 26. Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1979. English translation of Offene Fragen zur Formgeschichte des Evangeliums: Eine methodologische Skizze der Grundlagenproblematic der Form- und Redaktionsgeschichte, first published in 1970. Challenged the basic assumptions of form criticism.
  • Güttgemanns, Erhardt. “Narrative Analysis of Synoptic Texts.” Semeia 6 (1976): 127–179. Translated by William G. Doty from “Analyse synoptischer Texte.” Linguistica Biblica 25/26 (1973): 50–73.
  • Headlam, C. Arthur. The Life and Teaching of Jesus the Christ. 2d ed. London: John Murray, 1927. Headlam assumed that the life of Jesus could be constructed from the four independent sources identified by source critics.
  • Lightfoot, Robert Henry. The Gospel Message of St. Mark. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950. In this and the previous work, Lightfoot both introduced form criticism to the English-speaking academic world and began to use the discipline to discover the theological message of the Gospel writers. This aspect of the discipline of form criticism has become known as “redaction criticism.”
  • Lightfoot, Robert Henry. History and Interpretation in the Gospels. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1935.
  • Malbon, Elizabeth Struthers. Narrative Space and Mythic Meaning in Mark. New York and San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Manson, Thomas Walter. Studies in the Gospels and Epistles. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962. A collection of Manson’s lectures given between 1939 and 1953. In these lectures Manson affirmed his belief in the historicity of the Gospels.
  • Manson, Thomas Walter. The Teaching of Jesus: Studies of its Form and Content. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1931. The study of Jesus’s teachings based on the view that the earliest written sources are basically historical.
  • McKnight, Edgar V. Meaning in Texts: The Historical Shaping of a Narrative Hermeneutics. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.
  • McKnight, Edgar V. What Is Form Criticism? Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969, repr. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 1997.
  • Patte, Daniel. What Is Structural Exegesis? Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976.
  • Riesenfeld, Harald. The Gospel Tradition and its Beginnings: A Study in the Limits of “Formgeschichte. London: Mowbray, 1957. Riesenfeld attempted to show that the gospel tradition was derived from Jesus himself and that the tradition was passed down carefully as was the rabbinic tradition.
  • Schmidt, Karl Ludwig. Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu. Literarkritische Untersuchungen zür ältesten Jesusüberlieferung. Berlin: Trowitzsch und Sohn, 1919. This book gave the final blow to faith in the Marcan framework. Schmidt isolated individual units from the framework and prepared the way for other scholars to classify and study the individual units and the contribution of the editor or author of the Gospel.
  • Streeter, Burnett Hillman. The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins. London: Macmillan, 1924. Revised edition, 1930. Streeter’s comprehensive summary of the results of the study of the Gospels to his day. His original contribution is the “four document” theory of Gospel origins.
  • Taylor, Vincent. The Formation of the Gospel Tradition. London: Macmillan, 1933. Second edition, 1935. A cautious introduction to form criticism that acknowledges its usefulness as a limited tool.
  • Wilder, Amos N. The Language of the Gospel: Early Christian Rhetoric. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Wilder was the literary critic and New Testament scholar who opened the door for correlation of genuine historical and literary study at a time when Rudolf Bultmann’s existential approach cast a shadow on historical study and was out of tune with literary imagination.

Edgar V. McKnight