The English translation for the German Formgeschichte. This technique was developed by a group of German biblical scholars shortly after the First World War. It assumed the widely agreed conclusion of source criticism of the priority of Mark and the view that the Gospel of John was later than the other three but the aim was to penetrate into the period of Church life before even the earliest sources had been written. ‘Form Criticism’ had been used in Germany since about 1900 to explore some of the OT narratives and Jewish and Hellenistic literature. The literary classifications of prose and poetry were subdivided into (prose) history, legends, and myths; and (poetry) hymns, psalms, and prophetic oracles. Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932) classified the psalms according to type (1925) and explained how they might have been composed for singing in worship and later written up by poets. In the course of oral transmission the types developed according to a regular process. In Britain and America Form Criticism is better known as a NT discipline since being introduced in the 1930s by the NT scholars H. J. Cadbury (in America) and R. H. Lightfoot and Vincent Taylor (in Britain). It was claimed that in the course of oral transmission these types had developed according to a regular process.

Form Critics generally accepted the theory of W. Wrede that Mark's gospel was not a reproduction of the reminiscences of Peter but was permeated with a strong apologetic interest: why had Jesus' Messiahship not been recognized by his contemporaries? Because Jesus made efforts to keep it a secret. So, according to Wrede, the gospels, beginning with Mark, were constructed as supporting evidence for the early Church. But what was happening to the memories about Jesus in the thirty years or so before anything was committed to writing? There was preaching and teaching and controversies with the Jews, and Christian leaders had a fund of stories to draw on as need arose and inevitably their stories developed into characteristic shapes. The audiences needed advice and reassurance, information and answers to problems just as much as the readers for whom Mark was shortly to write his gospel. Indeed Mark's gospel consisted, according to the Form Critics, of precisely all those fragments and isolated units that were used by Christian evangelists to get their message across in a persuasive form. Mark's gospel is not so much a connected, chronological narrative (think of the geography of Jesus' journeys rapidly made from one place to another, from the hills of Galilee to the Lake, from somewhere to Capernaum, from Galilee to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, and eventually to Jerusalem) as a series of incidents, miracles, parables, and injunctions strung together with a minimum of linkage.

These units circulated in isolation during the ‘oral’ period; Form Critics called them pericopae, and scrutinized them independently and classified them into ‘forms’. Their original historical situation in the ministry of Jesus has been for ever lost: what is discernible is the way the pericopae reveal the influence of the needs and outlook of the Church. A particular example would be the interpretation and explanation of the parable of the Sower (Mark 4: 10–20) which related more to the life of the Church than to the ministry of Jesus.

After assigning a pericope to the appropriate category or type (e.g. apophthegm, chria, paradigm), the Form Critic next relates it to its social setting or circumstances (in German Sitz im Leben, life situation) which explains how a story has been adapted to fit changes in the development of the Church, such as the expanding Gentile mission. Or there may be additions to a parable (e.g. Luke 19: 27) which reflect growing hostility to the Jews. Several Form Critics eliminated genuine history from some of the pericopae altogether, especially that group of events, such as the Transfiguration, which have a strong supernatural element, and regarded them as creations of the Church in the light of its belief in the Resurrection. Rudolf Bultmann, a leading Form Critic, was held by other scholars to be excessively sceptical and did not allow for factors which controlled any extravagant growth of legendary embroidery. It is for example noticeable that some sayings are accurately preserved (e.g. Matt. 11: 12) which clearly the Church did not understand. But some had remembered!

In due course the detailed concerns of Form Criticism were succeeded by those of Redaction Criticism, which recognized the theological interests of the evangelists but gave them greater credit as authors. They did more than string together isolated units of tradition. The Form Critics had in a way anticipated Redaction Criticism by recognizing that there is one section—the Passion Narrative—which is a unity, with reliable topographical and chronological details, but with variations (e.g. in the words of Jesus from the cross) which illustrate the special theological interest of each author.

Thus Form Criticism has a place as a lively and influential stage in the history of biblical scholarship, emphasizing the evidence existing in the gospels for the life of the Church. But the view that the gospels are a unique form of literature is undermined by comparisons with the Lives of teachers and leaders published in the Graeco‐Roman world. Like them, the gospels are centred on a person—Jesus of Nazareth—to whom there is eye‐witness testimony which even lends credibility to the ancient tradition of Mark's indebtedness to the memories of Peter.