Form Criticism (1)

For more than half a century, the word form criticism has been in circulation. And for that matter the whole movement which this word represents is hardly a modern theological trend. Yet the effect of form criticism has been noticed only in the last few decades. In fact, the study conducted by the form critics is not at all outdated.

What is form criticism? Well, the name itself says quite a bit already: a criticism of forms—forms, let us say, in the Gospels. The individual Gospel stories are analyzed and criticized, and the person doing this type of work is called a form critic.

But let us get back to the very beginning. We have to go to Germany. There we find that in 1901 an Old Testament theologian wrote a commentary on Genesis. The theologian, Hennann Gunkel. explained many chapters of Genesis as individual stories which had originated not as true accounts of historical events; they had originated in the popular tradition of people sitting around a camp 6re in the evening or in the city gate during the day. These stories were told repeatedly for instruction and entertainment in the form of legends. They were told in succession so as to form a continuous narrative. Yet the individual story within this succession was a separate unit in which the core consisted of a proverb or word of wisdom. In other words, a popular proverb happened to be much in use among these people. This proverb was applied to a given situation in life. Details were added, and gradually a fully developed story was told at the camp fire or in the city gate. And individual stories were linked together to form the narrative which eventually was recorded as the book of Genesis.

Nearly two decades later, New Testament theologians began to apply this method of criticizing the biblical narrative to the New Testament. They had often looked at the short narratives found in the Gospels; they wondered how these individual units were ever put together to form the continuous story known as the Gospel. They assumed that the individual stories -units of the Gospel-circulated orally in the early Church. And this assumption was further expanded: the stories were used in the worship services by the early Church, they were used in catechetical instruction, and they were used as a defense of the faith.

Honest Questions

Precisely now, what did the apostles do with the knowledge they had received from Jesus? What did they do with the knowledge of the words and the deeds of Jesus? If we may speak in approximate figures for just a moment, we say that Jesus ascended to heaven in the year 30 and that the first Gospel which appeared in written form began to circulate in the year 60. Then the question arises: what happened to the knowledge of the words and deeds of Jesus during this thirty-year time span? Still another question may be asked: when the written Gospels did appear, why did the writers only include certain sayings of Jesus and why did they omit others? For example, the well-known saying: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” is not found in any of the four Gospels. Instead it is found in the farewell sermon of Paul delivered on the beach of Miletus to the elders of the Ephesian church. He introduces this saying of Jesus with these words: “You ought to help the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he himself said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Why was this saying of Jesus not taken up in the context of the four Gospels?

It is clear from the Gospels that only a select number of incidents from the life of Jesus have been recorded. If we assert that Jesus ministered to the people for a total of three years, then it is hard to believe that he raised only three people from the dead: the daughter of Jairus, the young man of Nain, and Lazarus…And it is difficult to accept that of the many sick whom Jesus healed, there are but a few whose sight was restored (among them Bartimaeus). No wonder that John ends the Fourth Gospel by saying: “there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written everyone, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (21:25).

For the last fifty years there has been a serious study into the how, the where, and the when of Gospel writing. There used to he a time when New Testament scholars were satisfied to know that Matthew, publican and apostle, wrote the first Gospel, that Mark composed the Second Gospel guided by Peter, and that Luke received his information from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” That time is now past. Students of the New Testament want to know how the Gospels were written during the middle of the first century.


What New Testament theologians have done is to explore, in so far as this is possible, the unknown area of oral tradition. The so-called form critical theologian turned to a study of folklore—some studied the structure of old-Norwegian oral traditions. The results of such studies were applied to the four Gospels. They reasoned that if a given pattern of folklore and tradition should be found in one field, the same would hold for another field. If something holds true for the structure and formation of Norwegian folklore, the same should hold for the structure and formation of the New Testament Gospels.

Form critical theologians attempted to explain the fragmentary structure of the Gospels by setting forth a grand assumption. They assumed that the individual stories of the Gospel circulated orally within the early Church. They assumed that the Gospel units circulated individually in the form of separate, circumstantial reports. Moreover, they assumed that each report had been subjected to the rule of the early Church. That is, they assumed that the early Church accepted only those stories which filled the need created by the worship services, by catechetical instruction, and by the defense of the faith. In short, the collection of stories, now known as Gospel, was a handbook for the Church at worship, in the catechism room, and in the hall of public debate.

The task which the form critical theologians have set for themselves is this: to reconstruct the development of the form in which the Gospel was proclaimed orally. They trace the development of the oral Gospel until the Gospel was written down permanently. Actually their task is to survey historically the formation of the Gospels. What the form critics are doing is to study the history of the formation of the Gospel. And this is exactly what the German name Formgeschichte means—form history.

Well, what happened during those years between 30 and 60 A.D.? The form critic answers this question by saying that there were numerous individual stories in circulation. These stories were eventually brought together much the same as a child strings beads for a necklace. These stories have no connecting links and have been collected and arranged at random by the Gospel writer. The Gospel writer may have put into the text a few connecting links, yet we have individual beads.


As early as 1919, German theologian Karl Ludwig Schmidt said that the individual units of Gospel stories were linked together, but that the links themselves did not form part of the stories. For example, all the information about the places where the events happened and the time when they occurred were the links; and these links merely served the purpose of making the Gospel stories more attractive. However, said Schmidt, these details, however interesting, were void of any value.

In that same year, 1919, another German scholar, Martin Dibelius, followed the approach of Schmidt. He studied the Gospels, worked out a method, and categorized the individual Gospel stories. According to Dibelius, the various categories consisted of narrative tales, legends, the passion story, and myths. Dibelius classifled the healing of the blind man at Jericho (Mark 10:46–52) as a narrative tale. What does Dibelius do with this narrative? Let’s listen to him. The core of the narrative, says Dibelius, consists of the faith of the man and the passion of Jesus; the rest of the story, such as the name Bartimaeus, the location of Jericho, the passing crowd, the hush to be silent, is descriptive detail made up by the evangelist. An example of a legend can be found in Luke 2:41–52—the account of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. In the opinion of Dibelius, the core of the legend is the conclusive question of Jesus addressed to his patents: “How is it that you seek me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The return to Nazareth, Mary keeping all these things in her heart, the lack of understanding all these things are not a necessary part of the legend.

Dibelius asserts that a description of the resurrection of Christ has been omitted from the Gospels because the legend of the empty tomb took its place. If this had not been the case, the myth of the resurrection would have been taken up in the Gospel account. This happened in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter. There the mythological account of the resurrection depicts two angels descending from heaven, removing the stone, and leading the risen Lord out of the grave. Therefore, says Dibelius, the omission of this account in the four Gospels is because of the legend of the empty tomb, and because the mythological story of the resurrection did not fill the need of the early Church at that time. Nevertheless, Dibelius finds mythological events in the baptism of Jesus, his temptation, and his transfiguration.

Rudolf Bultmann, emeritus professor of New Testament theology at the University of Marburg, Germany, pursued the form critical approach to the Gospels still further. He maintains that the majority of Jesus’ words and deeds recorded in the Gospels have not originated with Jesus; they are a production of the early Church. Certainly, there are authentic sayings of Jesus, says Bultmann, but whenever a saying of Jesus has been placed within the framework of a narrative in the Gospel unit, the narrative together with the saying must be regarded as the product of the early Christian community. Whenever Bultmann thinks that a certain Gospel unit could have been composed by the early Christian Church, he regards that unit as a product of the Christian community. The result is that the Gospel, as understood by Bultmann, finds its birth and development in the early Christian community.

Why did the early Christian community construct these individual Gospel units? According to the form critic, the individual Gospel units were used by the Church to proclaim the Word because these units were their expressions of faith. Thus the faith of the early Christians came to expression in these individual units. And these individual units in turn were used to awaken faith in those people who listened to the preaching of the Word.

In the language of the form critic, the Gospel units were the kerygma of the Church. The word kerygma has been taken from the Greek language: it means the proclamation of the Word. In short, it is the message which the herald brings—the message of the early Christian Church. And this term, kerygma, is used by the form critic whenever he refers to the preaching of the early Church.

If we sum up the form critical approach, we find that the individual Gospel story has been composed by the early Christian community as a product of faith. The early Church expressed the faith of the believers in the form of a Gospel story. That means that the Gospel account is not a product of history. The Gospel does not go back to actual events rooted in history.

For form criticism, the early Christian community was the cradle in which the individual story was born; and the early Christian Church by teaching and defending the faith gave shape to a developing story. Eventually all these stories were collected, put into a framework, provided with connecting links, placed within the gospel tradition, and regarded part of the Gospel. Bultmann, for example,’ claims that the story of Jesus sending forth the twelve apostles two by two to preach (Matt. 10:1ff.) was born in a missionary setting of the Christian community. The Christian community gave expression to its faith in the spreading of the Gospel and thus composed the story of Jesus sending forth the twelve disciples. Thus Bultmann teaches that the early Christian community creatively produced the individual stories used in preaching and in debate.

Preliminary observations

By making the early Christian community the cradle of the Gospel units, the form critic has virtually severed the tie with history. The form critic by finding the origin of the Gospel stories in the early Church has severed the historical connection with Jesus Christ, the prophet of Nazareth. Form critics are rather bold in their assertion that because the early Christian community created the individual Gospel stories we can learn nothing at all about the historical Jesus except through the message of the early Church—the kerygma proclaimed by the early Christian community.

We are told by the form critic that the early Christian community was a very creative community. When the Christian community heard an authentic word of Jesus, the early believers meditated on this word. They used this word to give expression to their faith. They developed the word and expanded it into a narrative, which in time found its way into the gospel tradition. An editor, they say, collected all these narratives and composed the Gospel.

A few things are quite obvious by now. First, the form critic considers the writers of the Gospels mere collectors and editors. Second, the modern student of the Gospels must find the core of truth in the individual Gospel story. He must do so by peeling away the several layers of details which surround that core; he must peel these layers much the same as one peels an onion. Third, the early Christian Church added many details to the authentic sayings of Jesus for the sake of catechetical instruction and missionary preaching. And fourth, the form critic asserts that the written Gospels are not founded on historical truth.

A detailed analysis and critique of form criticism will be dealt with in the next article. For the moment I wish to say one thing in favor of form criticism and that is this: the form critic has put the believer to a fresh study of God’s Word; he has induced the student of the New Testament to look anew at the historical setting in which the Gospels were formed; and he has given the conservative student of the Bible a deeper insight into the unity and harmony of the canonical Gospels.

(To be continued)

Simon Kistemaker is professor of Bible at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.