What About Form Criticism? (2)

What shall we say about form criticism? Has this scholarly pursuit contributed anything to the understanding of the formation of the Gospels? Does the form critic use a number of hypotheses in order to arrive at conclusions? These are some of the questions I shall try to answer in this lecture.

Let us begin with the last question: Does the form critic use a number of hypotheses in order to come to any conclusions? The answer to this question is: Yes. Granted that there is very little information about the period between 30 and 60 A.D. and that certain guesses must be made, nevertheless the form critic has gone to many extremes in setting up hypotheses which have little or no foundation at all. The form critic often merely speculates. And such speculation has not always been convincing; in fact, it has led to skepticism.

But let us be a bit more specific. What kind of hypotheses does the form critic use? He assumes that a vivid narrative in the canonical Gospels, let us say the healing of blind Bartimaeus, is the work of the early Christian community. The form critic has lifted the individual Gospel narrative out of its historical context and he has fitted it into the framework of faith and proclamation. That is, the early Christian Church expressed its faith in the form of stories which it had composed, and it used these stories to proclaim the Word. Certainly, the form critic can construct such a hypothesis but he has to show that the hypothesis rests upon some kind of foundation; he has to prove that there is some certainty for his hypothesis and that his reasoning is not merely speculation. Therefore, the burden of proof rests upon the shoulders of the form critic. He must demonstrate that a vivid narrative cannot have originated within the period of Jesus’ ministry. He must show that the Gospel narrative is not a true-lo-fact historical incident.

The form critic has received severe rebukes because he has disconnected the link with historicity. By calling the individual Gospel unit a product of the early Christian Church which composed the unit in order to express its faith and to proclaim the Word, the form critic has discarded history.

A New Testament theologian in England, William Barclay wrote a book in 1966 which has the title The First Three Gospels. In that book, Barclay analyzes the studies of the form critic rather carefully and makes a characteristic observation. He says: “What we have is not the earthly facts about the Me of Jesus, but the Church’s interpretation. of these facts. What we have is not the record of history, but the witness of faith. What we have is not a record of Jesus as he was in the days of his flesh, but of Jesus as the Church experienced him to be the the light of the Resurrection.”

We may add to this observation that the form critic has overlooked the account of the [eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” to whom Luke refers in the first few verses of the Third Gospel. Moreover, if the form critic asserts that historical truth is unfounded he is rather negligent of the witness of the early Christian Church recorded in the writings of the apostolic Fathers. The early Church Fathers of the beginning of the second century do have something to say about the formation of the four Gospels.

What does the form critic say to his opponents? He must give an answer to all the objections that are raised against his hypotheses. And answer he does. He is not at all perturbed by the rebukes which .he has received. He sees the issue clearly before him, and unruffled he answers his opponents.

The form critic explains that he is not interested in the facts of history. Rather he is interested in the faith which the early Christian community had in Jesus Christ. For example, he says, the fact that Caesar Augustus was Emperor of the Roman Empire at the time Christ was born is a mere historical fact; in itself this fact does not call for a commitment. However, the fact that Jesus preached is an event which called for a commitment of faith on the part of the early followers of Jesus. That is important, says the form critic. Not in a history book but m listening to the preaching of the Word, man meets Jesus today. Likewise, in the early Christian Church, Jesus was not Found in the annals of a history book but in the living faith of the believers.

Furthermore, the form critic asserts that the primary purpose of the canonical Gospels is not to give the reader an authentic historical account. of actual events. The primary purpose of the canonical Gospels is to present Jesus as a real Person. The Gospels present him as a living Person who calls man to faith and obedience. The difference is this: The traditional view is that the Gospels are a reliable account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus because these events are rooted in history. The form critical view, on the other hand, is that the Gospels are the expression of faith in Jesus Christ. These expressions of faith composed by the early Christian Church are not used to prove history; they are used to preach Jesus to the world.

Serious objections – Though the view of the form critic seems justifiably true, the adherents to the traditional view have pointed out a number of facts which the form critic cannot afford to ignore. First, the passion narratives, as they are found in all four Gospels, arc not single units but are given in a historical sequence. Although the four evangelists differ in regard to emphasis and detail, yet they reproduce the same pattern for these in the passion narrative. Therefore, it is virtually impossible to maintain that the passion narrative circulated originally in unit form.

The form critic does admit that the narratives about the suffering and death of Jesus must have been recorded as a continuous story. He qualifies this admission by saying that the passion narratives form an exception. But this qualification simply does not satisfy because if the passion narratives show sequence, we may expect sequence in the other parts of the Gospel as well.

Another fact which has been brought to the attention of the form critic is the presence of Jesus’ immediate followers. The apostles were influential people in the early Christian communities. Certainly the twelve apostles, the one hundred and twenty upon whom the Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost—all these people could not have disappeared from the scene. The book of Acts gives clear testimony: the immediate followers of Jesus preached the Gospel as eyewitnesses and earwitnesses.

Furthermore, the preaching of the Gospel, as Luke relates in the book of Acts, was not left to the discretion of the individual or to the choice and making of the community. Luke relates that Peter and the other apostles were fully in control. Even Paul writes that he consulted with the church leaders in Jerusalem concerning the preaching of the Gospel. The apostles organized and directed the preaching of the Gospel, for they were the eyewitnesses. They were author. ized. They were in control. Also Luke in the first few verses of his Gospel writes that the Gospel narratives “were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (1:2). Apart from the four Gospels, the rest of the New Testament shows that the apostles had a genuine interest in history. Though no one wishes to claim that the apostles were interested in writing history for the sake of history—the Bible is not a textbook on history—the student of Scripture does find that the apostles had such an interest in history that they reported and transmitted faithfully past events and discourses.

A third fact laid at the door of the form critic is the teaching method of Jesus. Two Scandinavian New Testament scholars, Harald Riesenfeld and Berger Gerhardsson, have called attention to the methods of teaching and learning in the days of Jesus. They pointed out that in Israel during the days of Jesus, the teacher (rabbi) instructed his disciples orally by having them repeat everything he taught. In the Hebrew the word “to repeat” means exactly the same as “to teach.” Students of a rabbi wrote down in their memories the instruction of their teacher; the disciples not only retained their master’s teachings but also passed on the very words of their rabbi to the next generation. Students had to memorize in those days; they might never commit anything to writing, for the exposition of the Law had to be transmitted orally.

In this setting the oral Gospel tradition took form and shape. For the sake of clarity we wish to point out that Jesus cannot be classified as a typical Jewish rabbi of the first century. Nevertheless one cannot dispute the fact that He employed the teaching skills and methods of the rabbis. Berger Gerhardsson elaborated this point and saw Jesus as the originator of the Gospel. Jesus taught the apostles during his earthly ministry. After his ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the apostles not only proclaimed the words they had learned but also guarded them faithfully. The formation of the Gospel, according to these Scandinavian scholars, does not find its origin in the creative Christian community of the first century; rather the origin of the Gospel goes back to Jesus Himself. This is rather evident in the introductory sentence of the Gospel according to Mark: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That is, the Gospel belongs to Jesus Christ because he originated it.

Evaluation – How shall we evaluate the form-critical movement? One thing that we can say with certainty is this; the radical form critic fails to understand that the early Christian community did not produce the gospel, but that the Gospel brought about the early Christian community. Rudolf Bultmann, at one time called the king of the theologians, is one of the radical form critics. As Bultmann reflects on the formation of the Gospels, he sees the Christian community of the first century existing in a vacuum, cut off from the apostles. He has shrouded the life of Christ in a haze of uncertainty in order to place all the emphasis on the life and activity of the early Christian community. Bultmann finds the origin of the Gospel narratives not in the pre-Easter period -the three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry—but in the post-Easter period. The early Church produced the narratives.

And what shall we say about the time element involved? The period between the ascension of Jesus and the appearance of the first written Gospel is somewhat longer than one generation. According to the claims of the form critic, during this period the vital connections with the period in which Jesus lived and died were virtually broken; the stories about Jesus, however, were composed by primitive people blessed with a high degree of creativity. The early Church produced the narratives. But whereas the accumulation of folklore among people of primitive cultures took many generations, the gospel stories were produced and collected within little more than one generation. In terms of the form-critical approach, the formation of the individual Gospel units must be understood as an accelerated process.

And what shall we say about the work of the apostles? The one hundred and twenty upon whom the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost did not go to a hiding place; they were active in many communities throughout Palestine preaching the Word they had received from Jesus. The apostles carefully preserved the words of Jesus and delivered these faithfully to the Christian churches. Hence Paul writes to the church at Corinth: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received” (I Cor. 15:3). The form critic fails to take note of the faithful transmission of the very words of Jesus which the apostles delivered to the churches. He fails to see Jesus as the originator of the Gospel.

On the positive side of our evaluation we must say that we do appreciate the scholarly pursuit of the form critic. Through his studies, the form critic has called the believer to a fresh study of the Scriptures. He has called attention to the historical setting in which the Gospels were formed. And he has compelled the student of the Bible to study the period of oral tradition thoroughly.

Oral tradition – We can readily put the hypotheses of the form critic aside as mere speculations. But this does not answer any questions. The primary question: How were the Gospels formed? still remains. If we do not accept the form-critical approach, what answer do we give to the question on the formation of the Gospels? We wish to answer this question looking at the total context in which the Gospel was formed.

All kinds of legal injunctions derived from a study of the Law of Moses were transmitted orally and accurately from teacher to pupil from one generation to the next. Jesus referred to this tradition when he said: “You have heard that it was said to them of old time” (Matthew 5:21). Students of the ancient rabbis had to memorize the oral sayings accurately. In memorizing these sayings, they developed the art of repeating constantly that which was learned. Nothing might be written down, everything had to be memorized.

The same procedure, undoubtedly, was followed in the transmission of the oral Gospel. The disciples had to learn the very words of Jesus by heart so that they might pass them on to the early Christians. When Jesus had ascended, the apostles did two things. First, they zealously guarded the Gospel tradition, for the oracles of God had been entrusted to them. And second, they disseminated the knowledge of the words and deeds of Jesus.

Although it is conceivable that the apostles brought the Gospel in a more or less stereotype form, we cannot presume that they proclaimed the Word in a mechanical fashion. The apostles did express their own feelings in their preaching, spoke of personal observations, and acted on their own initiative. But one thing is clear from a study of the four Gospels, the book of Acts, and the Epistles, and that is this: the apostles adopted a pattern of presenting certain words and deeds of Jesus; they limited their message to those things which Jesus had commanded them. The apostolic message assumed a distinctive form to which the twelve apostles and Paul subscribed, where at the same time the apostles exercised their individual freedom in preaching the Word.

After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the apostles “were clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). One of the characteristics of this power was that the Holy Spirit taught them all things. He brought to their remembrance all the things Jesus had said to them (John 14:26).

Of course these considerations concerning the origin and the transmission of the Gospel do not intend to answer every question. They do suggest the historical setting in which the oral tradition began; they point to the work of the Holy Spirit in preserving the Gospel at the beginning of our Christian era.

We believe that the Holy Spirit guided the individual Gospel writer in recording the message of salvation. He guided the individual writer, who expressed his human characteristics and human personality, to write the Gospel as the Word of God.

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