Re: Off topic: Rise and persistence of Form criticism

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Mon Oct 16 1995 - 17:25:43 EDT

At 10:53 PM 10/15/95, Kenneth Litwak wrote:
> I'd like to pose a question which I hope won't be too inflamatory.
>I spent the weekend reading about form criticism, both from Bultmann himself,
>and from his critics, like Kelber. As I was reading Bultmann, he seemed to me
>to be making a lot of assertions without evidence and special pleading and
>basing a lot on hypothetical possibilities. It's not surprising others have
>come along and criticized his approach.
> What I don't understand is why it became so popular in the first place, and
>why, in light of all its criticisms, it still appears pervasive in NT studies,
>with its assertions used as the basis for further work without any seeming
>recognition of the challenges to this methodology. I don't understand
>this. I am confident it is not because I'm all wise and those who first
>read Bultmann were incompetent. How then can we explain the ready acceptance
>Bultmann's ideas received and their continuing effect on NT studies?
>Were they guided by their presuppositions to accept anything that seemed
>to further their own research or am I missing something gained through
>hindsight? Thanks.

I have read Phil Graber's response to this question, and I have no quarrel
with it, but I'd like to go at the question in a different way. It seems to
me that, while quite a few of the CONCLUSIONS Bultmann drew and several of
his analyses have NOT stood the test of time, his METHOD by and large has
indeed stood the test of time and has become the unavoidable foundation of
other methodologies of gospel criticism, in particular redaction criticism
(in a broad rather than narrow sense) as an effort to understand how the
particular evangelists have used material from oral and written traditions
to re-shape the gospel they received into a new format upon which they
could stamp the theological reflection and understanding of their own
community of believers for a new time frame in which they write. It is also
an inescapable fact that Form Criticism itself is pretty much grounded in
Source Criticism and cannot proceed very far without some theoretical
assumptions about the relationship of the gospels (chiefly the synoptic,
but John's gospel also, to some extent) to each other in terms of relative
chronology and relative dependence. (An aside: The fact that you or another
person may find Source Criticism to be entirely too speculative and even
tentative conclusions reached by one or another solution of the Synoptic
Problem not worth considering seriously would have to pre-dispose one, I'd
think, against expecting anything of value to be achieved by the method of
Form Criticism)

However, Form Criticism did not begin with Bultmann or Dibelius but rather
in a serious way with the OT scholar Hermann Gunkel who started analyzing
the stories in Genesis in terms of the characteristics of oral
transmission. In fact, there has sprung up a whole discipline since those
post World War I days concerned with "orality" and "literacy," and with the
distinctive mind-sets of a culture that tells stories and passes them down
from one generation to the next and a culture that writes and reads books
and mulls intellectually over the written word. And at the same time that
Bultmann and Dibelius were working on Form Criticism and studying how oral
tradition works, Milman Parry was working in eastern Europe in
Serbo-Croatia with living oral poets and studying how oral tradition and
oral performance of traditional material work, and then he was applying
that to an earth-shaking doctoral dissertation at Paris on Homer and oral

Briefly then--I don't want to write the introduction to a book here--the
methodology of Bultmann (and Dibelius) remains valuable, even if it has
been modified and needs more modification: You start out by clipping the
narrative units in the gospels and eliminating from them the setting and
any material that one suspects has been added by the evangelist: that is,
you try to get back to the "raw--the uncooked" form of the oral tradition
as it appears in Mt, in Mk, in Lk, perhaps even in Jn. Then you take your
clippings and put them in piles as you would arrange playing cards by
suits, except that you try to develop categories into which the clippings
belong because they share certain characteristic story-telling patterns or
parable instruction, or the like. Then you try to trace the PROBABLE
history of the development of a story or parable of controversy-narrative
or eschatological pronouncement or what-not.

That's very brief. Obviously there's refinement needed in application of
the method. But the method itself has not lost but rather has gained
support among many of the groups that once found it anathema because it has
led to other useful methods of analyzing and understanding the work of the
evangelists. Jeremias on the parables remains a very valuable work which is
form-critical fundamentally, and I'd be surprised, Ken, if you didn't find
it a valuable resource. But that's just scratching the surface. I really
think it is the methodology developed by Bultmann and Dibelius that has
really made a profound difference in study of the gospels, rather than
particular conclusions that either of them reached by using it.

Bultmann wrote a little book on Form Criticism that's a lot clearer than
HoST. What surprises me is how much I find still very useful in HoST in
discussions of particular units of tradition. Then there once was a neat
book published by Fortress Press, _What is Form Criticism_ in the series
that Edgar Krentz has also contributed to --or is that the very volume he
did? But I think Perrin's book on Redaction Criticism in the same series
shows why the methodology has continued to be very important. If you take
seriously AT ALL the proposition that Mt, Mk, Lk, and Jn produced their
gospels by amalgamating elements of oral tradition, then there is something
to be learned and applied in the methodology of Form Criticism, however
much you may think it needs still to be refined more.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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