Form Criticism: Modern Scholarship’s Blind Spot

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by Tim Widowfield

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:

In his extremely slim volume from 1938, Percival Gardner-Smith stressed the major differences between John and the Synoptics. . . . (Bond, 2:13, 2016) 

I must point out that the form critics had been researching, teaching, and publishing for well over two decades before Gardner-Smith wrote his book. And throughout that period, John’s familiarity and general dependence on the Synoptics remained the dominant consensus. The author begins his study with this cranky, passive-aggressive sentence:

This study may perhaps be considered a waste of labour, for it deals with a subject generally thought to have been settled, a subject on which the voice of scholars ancient and modern has spoken with a somewhat rare unanimity. (Gardner-Smith 1938, p. vii)

John’s sources

Oh, Percival, don’t be like that. We’ll read your little book.

Whoever he was, the author of the Fourth Gospel must have been a member of some local congregation, and as such he must have been instructed in the traditions of the Church. It is a fallacy, obvious yet strangely common, to think that he can only have learnt about the life of Christ and the incidents of the ministry from the perusal of some written document. (Gardner-Smith 1938, p. xi)

Far more common, I think, is the view held by the scholar responsible for the term Formgeschichte, Martin Dibelius, who argued that John used Mark directly in some cases, while using written or oral tradition in others. In fact, before Gardner-Smith (and especially C.H. Dodd, who developed the idea much more fully) you would be hard pressed to find any scholar who thought John learned about Jesus solely by perusing written documents.

The consensus had remained solid for a very long time. Bond hinted that somehow form criticism would change all that. But how? Apparently with its corrosive “assumptions.”

The independence view, if I can call it that, was predicated on the form-critical assumption that the evangelists were little more than compilers of tradition. Thus, it was considered impossible that John could have got from from a Markan story to one of his own without some kind of an intermediate source. And a whole industry was devoted to working out what these pre-gospel traditions that gave rise to both Mark and John might have looked like. (Bond, 5:38, 2016)

What did the form critics really say?

Even a casual reader of the form critics should recognize at least three errors in the above statement — errors that are as flagrant as they are fatal. First, contra Bond, the form critics noted a clear difference between the synoptic evangelists and John. Specifically, they recognized that while John also used sources, he had a more consistent theological view that colored the entire gospel. That is, the Fourth Gospel was (according to Bultmann) an existential reworking of the tradition.

Hence, they viewed John as more than a compiler of tradition, which is one of the reasons that Bultmann had originally trained his attention on the synoptic authors, whom he saw as less intrusive and less likely to warp the tradition to fit their own theology. Walter Schmithals, a student of Rudolf Bultmann’s, wrote in the introduction to the English edition of Bultmann’s commentary on John:

The narrative material, especially the passion story and the accounts of John the Baptist, has the closest contact of all with the corresponding elements in the Synoptic tradition. But even in these respects the author has more or less strongly interposed, transformed and completed them in accordance with his theological views.

In the Synoptic Gospels the editorial framework can be removed from the elements of the tradition with comparative ease. It fulfils the function chiefly of conjoining the earlier isolated elements of tradition into a chronologically and geographically ordered life-story.

In John, by contrast, the editorial comments that provide the structure are closely bound up with the narrative- and sayings-material, and in general they cannot be loosed from this structure. They no longer serve the purpose of adding together individual items of tradition, but rather support the artistic composition of the Gospel in accordance with a dominating theme. (Schmithals, 1971, pp. 4-5)

You may well recognize the foregoing as a literary-narrative-critical comparison between John and the Synoptics. Today’s narrative critics might be surprised to learn they are not so much innovative pioneers as re-discoverers of a discarded past.

The second error, more subtle and much more pernicious, is her dismissal of the idea that the synoptic authors were mostly “artless compilers” as an assumption. We have noted here many times before on Vridar that today’s scholars apparently can’t find the time to read the form critics. As a result, they don’t know that Schmidt, Bultmann, and Dibelius reached this conclusion following careful, detailed argumentation and a thorough examination of the evidence. They may have been mistaken, but because Bond and her contemporaries characterize this conclusion as an assumption, they have absolved themselves of the need to discover those arguments and rebut them.

Finally, Bond’s contention that proponents of form criticism couldn’t imagine John getting his stories directly from Mark is factually wrong. Here’s what Dibelius had to say while discussing “tales.” (He defines a tale as “a story told primarily for its own sake.”)

The miracle of the feeding, obviously dependent upon Mark, is accentuated as over against the older record. According to John vi 7, two hundred pennyworth of bread would not be sufficient for the multitude; according to Mark vi, 37, so much bread would be enough. (Dibelius, p. 92, 1933/1987)

In case anyone out there might have missed it, this is Martin Franz Dibelius, the pioneer in the study of form criticism, writing in Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums (Eng. tr., From Tradition to Gospel), discussing how John used Mark but changed the text to suit his needs.

He continues:

In John, an acclamation constitutes the conclusion of the miracle; so also in the story of walking on the sea, and indeed at its end, there is a trait which signifies an increase of the miraculous, and not some sort of rational explanation. In Mark, whose account in this case also seems to be at the basis, the miracle ends with the calming of the wind, which promises a safe return. But in John we read, “they wished to take Him into the ship, and immediately the ship came to land and the could disembark.” (Dibelius, p. 92, 1933/1987)

Again, we can hardly overemphasize this point: here’s the guy who essentially invented the word Formgeschichte (he was the first to use it to describe what he and Bultmann were doing), writing one of the seminal books about form criticism of the gospels, explaining how John took the Markan tradition, with which he was familiar as a finished, written document, and altered it.

The discarded past

By labeling the conclusions of the form critics as assumptions, modern NT scholars find justification in remaining largely ignorant of them. For example, they don’t understand K.L. Schmidt’s arguments about the genre of the gospels, because they have learned secondhand that Schmidt “assumed” they were not Greco-Roman biographies. Conveniently, then, they can discard his examination of the evidence along with his arguments, replacing all of that with a caricature of his results — namely, that the gospels were like no other writing, before or since. They popped into existence out of nowhere, like a mysterious alien mushroom in the backyard. Having invoked that caricature, they can dismiss it with scorn and derision.

If they knew that the form critics did see the gospels as some sort of biography (albeit with unusual attributes) just not Greco-Roman biography, what might today’s scholars learn? In particular, they could find out that Schmidt and Bultmann noted certain specific defining characteristics that all four gospels lack, along with unique characteristics that they share only among themselves. (For more, see my series: The Genre of the Gospels.)

In our current case — viz., John’s dependence on Mark — knowing actual form-critical arguments rather than straw-man form-critical assumptions could help them gain some insights. In Bultmann’s commentary on John, for example, we find with each probable contact point, he argues that John got his story from a different source, or else from a pre-Markan oral tradition that both shared.

But if we stopped there, we’d miss an important point. First, as Dwight Moody Smith, put it:

Bultmann’s monumental commentary sets out a literary theory in which the use of the Synoptic Gospels per se figures peripherally and only in the very last stage, although there were earlier contacts with synoptic, or synoptic-like tradition. (Smith, 2008, p. 150)

Still, the form critics generally agreed that John had to have had some contact with the Synoptics, because the Fourth Gospel follows the same genre conventions that are unique to the other three canonical gospels. Walter Schmithals wrote:

The Gospel of John exhibits the same literary form as the Synoptic Gospels. It covers the period from the Baptist’s appearance, includes the beginning of the activity of Jesus, and extends to his death and resurrection. Galilee and Jerusalem are the scenes of the work of Jesus, as in the Synoptics. Most of the names of places and persons in John are also met with in the Synoptic tradition. (Schmithals, 1971, p. 3)

Since Mark created the literary type of the Gospel, to which John’s writing also belongs, a direct or indirect acquaintance with the Gospel of Mark must surely be accepted. (Schmithals, 1971, p. 6)

Yes, Bultmann and Schmithals noted very distinct “differences [between John and the Synoptics] that emerge on form-critical considerations.” (Schmithals, p. 4) But where Bultmann consistently argues against direct dependence, I would argue he nearly always does so as much on source-critical grounds, such as vocabulary, as anything else. For example, in the case of the Cleansing of the Temple, he insists it came from a written, Semitic source.

I happen to agree with Bond that Bultmann is incorrect, and that John used Mark directly. But to blame it all on form-critical assumptions misses the boat terribly.

Oral tradition and separable stories

I would be only half-joking if I said that Anglo-American scholarship spent most of the last century scolding German scholars for going too far.

Today’s scholars frequently disparage what they refer to as form-critical assumptions, especially the reliance on oral tradition to explain the formation of the gospels. Even as far back as Burnett Hillman Streeter, British scholars were saying the form critics had gone too far.

It is the fundamental assumption of this Formgeschichtliche school that each incident (and most sayings) had its own history — having at one time circulated by itself in oral tradition. This school marks an extreme reaction from the position of men like Oscar Holtzman thirty years ago, who believed that in the Gospel of Mark there can be traced a definite evolution not only in the historical situation but also in the mind of Christ Himself. In protest against the Holtzman attitude I wrote, in 1910, in the Oxford Studies in the Synoptic Problem,

“Mark is a collection of vignettes — scenes from the life of the Master . . . . The traces of a development which have been noticed . . . show that the author has some knowledge of the correct order of events, but far too much has been made of this. In the last resort Mark is a series of roughly-arranged sketches or reminiscences exactly as Papias describes it.”

In this matter the pendulum of German scholarship has by now, I venture to think, swung too far — in the direction towards which I was myself at that time looking. To the extent, however, that scholars of the Formgeschichtliche school have substantiated their contention that stories and sayings must have circulated separately in oral tradition, and also that the exigences of practical teaching must have early created a demand for accounts of the Passion and Resurrection, they have considerably strengthened the case for the views put forward in this volume in the chapters entitled “A Four-Document Hypothesis” and “Proto-Luke.” (Streeter, 1924, p. viii, formatting added)

I would be only half-joking if I said that Anglo-American scholarship spent most of the last century scolding German scholars for going too far. Streeter, here, is no exception. He’s willing to accept the idea of fragmented, isolated oral traditions so long as it proves his thesis — but this far and no further, please!

Lost in translation?

. . . one should never assume that an English translation is completely accurate or complete.

Still, however appealing some may find it, blaming the form critics for the appearance and spread of oral tradition theory simply won’t fly. It ignores the history of NT scholarship. Consider the following example:

The emergence of the three synoptic gospels a generation after the course of history and their connection to oral tradition does not rob them of their value as original sources. All three evangelists proceed independently, so that their statements build up to formal contradictions, while their writings, by virtue of the homogeneity of their grouping and of their representation, would prove to be an account of the apostolic proclamation, even if their authors were unknown.

The Fourth Gospel is different. While in the 6th and 13th chapters, it also has the same great turning points in the ministry, which are recognizable in the Synoptics, remarkably, it has neither the same outline of presentation, nor is it the same narrative type as that tradition, despite having familiar parallel pericopes. (Nösgen, 1891, p. 55 [my translation])

I picked this passage almost at random, just by searching Google Books for German authors who mentioned oral tradition and pericopes. Decades before the form critics, scholars were theorizing that stories about Jesus existed in eyewitness apostolic preaching, followed by a period of oral tradition.

At some point these stories, or pericopes, that circulated in the oral tradition were assembled to form the gospels. As we discussed in a post from last year — “What’s Wrong with the Word ‘Pericope’?” — some of today’s scholars have such an aversion to form criticism, its assumptions, its analysis, and especially its conclusions, that they blame the form critics for the reappearance of the word “pericope” some 1,500 years after Jerome.

We can easily trace the German term mündliche Überlieferung to the English term oral tradition in translations of works from the 19th and early 20th century. However, the German Perikope sometimes disappeared from the text, as translators failed to recognize it as a term of art. In the first edition of David F. Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu, we find the word the Perikope several times, but in the 1860 English translation, it was replaced with the word “passage.” For example, from Section 90, concerning the story of the woman taken in adultery.

Ueber [Über] die Aechtheit [Echtheit] dieser Perikope waltet vieler Streit . . .

The genuineness of this passage has been strongly contested . . .

Hence, if you have read only the English versions of the German classics of Biblical scholarship, you might never have encountered the word. However, NT scholars cannot hide behind that excuse for some obvious and inescapable reasons.

  • Only a fraction of German works have ever been translated.
  • Many of the existing translations are substandard and inaccurate.
  • Some translations exist only of earlier editions, which means you’ll miss important revisions and additions.
  • Many English translations omit important footnotes on the grounds that they are irrelevant to the average reader.

What’s true for German translations is true for the French, as well. Recall that Anthony Le Donne took Maurice Halbwachs to task for neglecting Constantine in The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land, not realizing that his English translation contained only the concluding chapter. When writing a dissertation, one should never assume that an English translation is sufficiently accurate or complete.


I know of no other field of study that has these pervasive problems. Recall that Bond condemned form critics for thinking something was impossible in direct contrast to what Dibelius himself wrote. How does that happen?

Granted, I mostly read history when I’m not studying biblical works. I don’t know — could scholars of, say, medieval Portugese poetry get away with not knowing their own past? Somehow I doubt it.

In each little historical sub-genre, you can count on scholars and amateur geeks who will set you straight if you make a mistake. Civil War buffs know not only the particulars of the battles they study, but they’re familiar with the historians who wrote about them — what they got right, what they missed, how later scholars reinterpreted them.

Similarly, professionals who study the history of Rome know not only ancient texts and contemporary works, but also works of previous historians, including those who wrote in German, French, Italian, etc. They would be embarrassed to demonstrate ignorance of their forebears in public. Moreover, they can almost certainly count on peer review to keep them from making any egregious public blunder. For example, I can’t imagine any historian getting away with mistaking Helena as the wife of Constantine the Great. (See Le Donne, 2009, p. 44.) It wouldn’t even make it to the peer review board. I can scarcely imagine a graduate student of history committing the error in the first place.

So, what’s the matter with NT Studies?

Dibelius, Martin

From Tradition to Gospel, Lutterworth Press, 1933 (Eng. trans. 1987)

Gardner-Smith, Percival

Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels, Cambridge University Press, 1938

Le Donne, Anthony

The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David, Baylor University Press, 2009

Nösgen, Karl Friedrich

Geschichte der Neutestamentlichen Offenbarung, C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung (Oskar Beck), 1891

Schmithals, Walter

“Introduction,” The Gospel of John: A Commentary, by Rudolf Karl Bultmann, Westminster John Knox Press, 1971 (1st German Ed., 1941) [The German editions had no introductory chapter.]

Smith, D. Moody

The Fourth Gospel in Four Dimensions: Judaism and Jesus, the Gospels and Scripture, University of South Carolina Press, 2008

Streeter, B. H.

The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, Treating of the Manuscript Tradition, Sources, Authorship, & Dates, St. Martin’s Press, 1930

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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6 thoughts on “Form Criticism: Modern Scholarship’s Blind Spot”

  1. “In the Synoptic Gospels the editorial framework can be removed from the elements of the tradition with comparative ease. It fulfills the function chiefly of conjoining the earlier isolated elements of tradition into a chronologically and geographically ordered life-story. In John, by contrast, the editorial comments that provide the structure are closely bound up with the narrative- and sayings-material, and in general they cannot be loosed from this structure. They no longer serve the purpose of adding together individual items of tradition, but rather support the artistic composition of the Gospel in accordance with a dominating theme. (Schmithals, 1971, pp. 4-5)”

    Thanks Tim for some history and clarification on form criticism. Although unrelated to the main reason for your post, in the above statement by Schmithals, wouldn’t a more modern narrative-historical critic like Dykstra suggest that Mark too had a “dominating theme” that guided his narrative account? For example, Mark has possibly woven together some received tradition, Christian haggadah on Jewish scripture, possibly some Greek material from Homer, and direct and indirect references to the Pauline epistles to make a Gospel whose “dominating theme” is primarily an allegory (parable) for Paul? The purpose of this allegory (or “dominating theme”) being to promote Paul and Paul’s [Gentile] Jesus in opposition to the Ebionite heresy of the Jerusalem Church?

    1. Yes, I think the form critics generally missed the mastery of Mark. They followed in a long line of people who underestimated and underappreciated it. I’m reminded of the fact that in some minuscule manuscripts of the NT, the book of Mark is still in majuscule, because they didn’t care to expend the effort in converting it. It tells you how much they preferred Matthew.

  2. I think Tom Dkystra “Mark Canonizer of Paul”, Theodore Weeden “Traditions in Conflict”, Dominic Crossan “Power of Parable”, Robert Eisenman “The Brother of James”, taken together (along with many other earlier and modern scholars) are revolutionizing our understanding of Mark’s Gospel, and hence the other Gospels, including John, and their overarching narrative theme of promoting Gentile Catholic Christianity in opposition to the original Jerusalem Church “Christianity” (or Judaizing Ebionite heresy as it was later known). And the way they went about that was to create the Jesus of the Gospels more of less in the image of Paul. Of course they couldn’t deny the historical fact that someone called Jesus was crucified (most likely for sedition against Rome) but they could reshape the little received historical tradition they had in the image of Paul and Paul’s difficulties with the Jews, most prominently Paul’s difficulties with the Jerusalem Church hierarchy, the “chief priests”, the scribes, and “hypocritical Pharisees”, and the Jewish Sicariots (Judas Iscariot) of the Jerusalem Church.

    I wish I could see that more modern narrative developed a little more here on Vridar. To me it seems the almost certain to be true version of events back in the first century.

  3. April Deconick’s “Gospel of Judas” is also great. Deconick explains that this Gnostic book is even more anti-Judaic and more anti-apostolic than the original Gospels. In fact Deconick says the “Gospel of Judas” is highly critical of the “Orthodox Catholic Church” for tracing it’s authority to the Jewish apostle. But ironically those same apostles are retroactively (and fictitiously) made to endorse Paul, Paul’s Jesus, and Paul’s Gospel by that same “Gentile Orthodox Church”, and therefore are also anti-Judaic! Ms. Deconick doesn’t say that last part, but it is almost certainly true. Fascinating stuff!

  4. So, what’s the matter with NT Studies?

    — Indeed!

    Another leading “light” in the field, Larry Hurtado, is asked the following question:

    In reaching your conclusions about who Jesus was and how he came to be worshipped, what do you consider the strongest – and what the weakest – evidences in the case you make?

    The eminent scholar is confused by such a question. He replies:

    I’m not sure what you mean, Bobby. I would say that what evidence we have is pretty clear. What I could wish for is more evidence!

    Where else but in the field of biblical studies . . . . . !

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