Tag Archives: Form Criticism

Form Criticism: Modern Scholarship’s Blind Spot

Percival Gardner-Smith

Percival Gardner-Smith

In a recent post, Neil discussed Helen Bond’s paper, “The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John.” I can’t find a print version of the paper, but the video released by Biblical Studies Online on my birthday, brings me both pain and pleasure. Pleasure, because I also believe the author of the Fourth Gospel knew and used Mark. (See my series, “How John Used Mark.”) But pain, too, because Bond repeats the same mistaken views about form criticism that continue to dominate modern New Testament studies.

I agree completely with her thesis statement:

I see John as a rewriting of those written texts in light of both the cultural memories of his own group and a very particular set of historical circumstances. There’s no doubt that this gospel is distinctive in many ways, with its view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the unique Son of the Father, and the bringer of eternal life. And yet, it seems to me that many of these distinctive features can be seen to derive from a creative reflection on Markan material. (Bond, 0:55, 2016 — Note: In this post all bold emphasis in quotations is mine.)

An extremely slim volume

Further, she correctly observes that most scholars thought John knew and used the Gospel of Mark until the publication of Percival Gardner-Smith’s Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels in 1938. But notice who turns out to be the villain in this story.

So, while the extent of John’s familiarity with Matthew has often been debated, there was almost complete agreement, until the early 20th century, that the evangelist was thoroughly acquainted with Mark and very likely also with Luke. With the emergence of form criticism, however, things began to change. (Bond, 1:52, 2016)

I set those last four words in italics to indicate Bond’s ominous tone, reminiscent of Neil on The Young Ones, telling us that Vyvyan has escaped. She continues: read more »

What Is a Prophet?

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

In biblical studies, we continually read articles, posts, books, etc. in which authors use apparently ordinary words that on closer inspection turn out to be highly specific terms. And unfortunately, some authors will use these specific terms rather loosely, flitting between general and specific usage while blurring important distinctions.

I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before when discussing “memory.” Are they talking about ordinary human recollection, or are they talking about memory theory? Are they referring to the psychology of memory or the physiology of memory, or are they talking about social memory? I often suspect memory dabblers of deliberate obfuscation, but I suppose we should err on the side of charity and presume they simply find it difficult to write in ordinary, declarative sentences.

Uncertain terms

On the other hand, some terms are so fundamental that it seems almost insulting to define them for readers. We presume everyone knows what the term “scripture” means. But should we? The same goes for terms that may have multiple meanings, depending on the context. I might assume that you will know what I mean by the surrounding contextual clues. But that could be a mistake on my part.

Recently, while reading Neil’s excellent series on messianism in the first century CE, I started thinking about the terms messiah and prophet. And I wondered how many people know exactly what those terms mean in their various contexts. Both of these terms carry a lot of baggage with them — not only in their popular meanings, but also in the way they’re used in modern Christian churches.

In this post, I’m only going to focus on the term prophet, but we could probably spend the rest of the year churning out posts on terminology that we often gloss over but shouldn’t. Authors have an obligation to make sure their readers understand how we’re using these terms, but often fall short. read more »

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 3: Oral Tradition

English: Rudolf_Bultmann Deutsch: Rudolf_Bultmann

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous post, we looked at the basic element of form criticism. Bart Ehrman in Jesus Before the Gospels uses the findings of the form critics to explain a commonly held assumption in NT scholarship. Many, if not most, of today’s critical scholars believe the stories found in our canonical gospels survived orally over a period of decades before anyone wrote them down. We refer to this phenomenon as “oral tradition.”

Basic Element 3: Oral Tradition

Traditions, the form critics held, were transmitted orally within the Christian community until at some point people began to commit them to papyrus. The author of Mark presumably constructed the first gospel from (1) stories that were still only preserved orally, (2) written traditions preserved only as Jesus’ sayings (logia), and (3) narrative fragments already preserved in writing.

♦ The context of transmission

Most of them assumed that tradents preserved the bulk of the sayings and stories for many years orally within the context of the early church. Here’s how Rudolf Bultmann put it:

[T]he gospel tradition did not arise within a literary movement, but had its origin in the preaching of Jesus in the life of the community of his followers, in their preaching, teaching, missionary work and apologetics. This is what one would expect not only from the oriental origin of Christianity, but above all from the fact that the earliest community formed part of Judaism and carried out its activity in the forms of Judaism, which were those of the synagogue and the teaching of the scribes. The spoken word was dominant, fixed forms had come into being, great use was made of the memory in preserving and reproducing what was heard, and the basis of everything was scripture. (Bultmann, 1961, pp. 90-91, emphasis mine)

He has described the general form-critical understanding of oral tradition. More recent research has added to our understanding of this process. In the first phase, Jesus himself preached and performed certain acts. His disciples remembered and retold those stories. Jan Vansina and other experts in oral tradition would call this the oral history phase. Once the tradition moves outside the sphere of eyewitnesses and direct memory, either because of geographic or temporal distance, we reach the second phase.

In phase two, the community that inherited the traditions of and about Jesus preserved them through memory and the telling and retelling of the traditions. The context of the transmission is, above all else, a social setting. It depends on the community of believers telling stories in an internal (preaching to believers, worship, catechism, cultic practices) and external (preaching to nonbelievers, apologetics) setting.

Ehrman appears to understand that context quite well. For example, he writes: read more »

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 2: Form Criticism

In my previous post, I discussed the basic element of Bart Ehrman’s understanding of Maurice Halbwachs, the founder of the study of collective memory. This time, I’d like to focus on his remarks concerning Formgeschichte (form criticism) as it applies to the New Testament in general and memory theory in particular.

Basic Element 2: Form Criticism

“Forget it — he’s rolling.”

♦ Dibelius said what?

This is more like a scholar of American history saying that George Washington wrote the Declaration of Independence.

jesusbeforeBart gets on a roll in Jesus Before the Gospels, as he describes the early form critics. He writes:

The authors of the Gospels—all of them, not just Mark—wrote down stories that had been passed along by word of mouth for years and decades before they wrote. For that reason, when the Gospel writers produced their accounts, they were not simply inventing the stories themselves; but they were also not recording what actually happened based on direct testimony. They were stringing together stories that had long been circulating among the Christian communities. For [Martin] Dibelius, “stringing together” is precisely what the Gospel writers did. The Gospel stories are “pearls on a string.” The authors provided the string, but they inherited the pearls. (Ehrman, 2016, p. 46, emphasis mine)

It would appear that Ehrman wishes to attribute the well-known metaphor, pearls on a string, to Martin Dibelius. When I first saw it, I thought, “I must not be reading that right.” But then I noticed a post on his blog, entitled “The Next Step: Redaction Criticism,” in which he wrote: read more »

What’s Wrong with the Word “Pericope”?

English: From Gospel lectionary Mt. Athos Dion...

From the Gospel lectionary Mt. Athos Dionys. Cod. 587 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I discover the most curious things en route to learning something else. I can’t even remember why now, but for some reason I recently stumbled upon the definition of pericope (peh-RIH-kuh-pee) at the Oxford Biblical Studies Online site.

If you’ve read my posts on the Memory Mavens, you’re no doubt aware that I sometimes refer to a common practice in current NT studies wherein scholars tend to associate concepts, ideas, and even words they don’t like with form criticism. By such association, they dismiss anything they find offensive. “Don’t touch that,” they imply. “It has form-critical cooties.”


Here’s an unexpected example from Oxford:


A term used in Latin by Jerome for sections of scripture and taken over by form critics to designate a unit, or paragraph, of material, especially in the gospels, such as a single parable, or a single story of a miracle. (emphasis mine)

Reading that definition, you might get the impression that Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius resurrected a word that hadn’t been in use for 1,500 years. But can that be true? Well, it would appear the Mark Goodacre thinks so. In a post from back in 2013 he recommends we abandon the term, for several reasons, and concludes: read more »