What Sort of Work Is K. L. Schmidt’s “Framework”?

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by Tim Widowfield

While doing a little background research on folklore and oral tradition, I happened upon something written by David Aune that confused me. Aune edited The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament, and wrote the chapter on form criticism (pp. 140-155).

You probably recognize Wiley-Blackwell’s well-regarded Blackwell Companions to Religion series. Generally, I admire their clarity and reliability, so when I read Aune’s remarks regarding Karl Ludwig Schmidt, I was taken aback.

One of the corollaries of the view that the Jesus tradition originally circulated in relatively short oral units is that the framework of the life of Jesus in the gospels has no claim to historicity. K. L. Schmidt, who did not himself use the term “form criticism,” argued that Mark was made up of short, originally independent episodes or pericopae that were linked together editorially by a variety of chronological and geographical bridge passages inserted by the evangelist with the intent of creating a connected narrative. (Aune 2010, p. 142, emphasis mine)

The problem, as you can see immediately, is that Schmidt did use the term form criticism (Formgeschichte). In fact, the editors of the RGG II specifically asked him to write the section on it (see volume II, “Formgeschichte” pp. 639-640). He also used the term in his 1923 work, The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literatureacknowledging the methodology in section A.5 — “Methodologisches: Literarkritik und Stilkritik (Formgeschichte).” So, what could Aune have meant?

I think perhaps he’s referring to the fact that in Schmidt’s magnum opus Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu (The Framework of the Story of Jesus), he never refers to Formgeschichte or the formgeschichtliche Methode. Yet, this revelation should surprise no one, least of all a scholar entrusted with the history of form criticism.

Primary and Essential

As we pointed out, this task is a literary-critical endeavor, not a form-critical one.

Why would a foundational work in the world of form criticism never mention the term itself? We find our first clue to the mystery of the missing term in the book’s subtitle: “literarkritische Untersuchungen zur ältesten Jesusüberlieferung” (A Literary-Critical Study of the Oldest Jesus-Tradition). Before any serious, detailed form-critical research could begin in earnest, somebody needed to complete the task of analyzing the synoptic gospels to determine which parts were most likely the oldest traditions about Jesus and which parts were the redactional cement that held the aggregate together. Schmidt completed that task at the tender age of 28.

Schmidt focused on the topographical and chronological assertions in the gospels, while noting the obvious stylistic habits and formulaic tendencies of the gospel compilers. As we pointed out, this task is a literary-critical endeavor, not a form-critical one.

Unfortunately, since no publisher has undertaken an English translation of Schmidt’s book, we sometimes find authors musing over what they assume the work is about. For example, in the Wikipedia entry for K. L. Schmidt, we find this blunder:

In 1919, his book Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu (“The Framework of the Story of Jesus”) showed that Mark’s chronology is the invention of the evangelist. Using form criticism, Schmidt showed that an editor had assembled the narrative out of individual scenes that did not originally have a chronological order. (bold emphasis mine)

Fortunately, the purported source for the second sentence above, The Historical Jesus: a Comprehensive Guide, does not make the same mistake.

Next Steps

After noticing Aune’s bizarre statement, I took some time out to translate and annotate Schmidt’s “Formgeschichte” article from the second edition of Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart,* with the intention of publishing it here. I regret to say that Mohr Siebeck still holds the copyright on this 90-year-old work. As for his Framework, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft renewed the copyright in 1964. They own the worldwide rights and appear to have no intention of providing an English translation.

However, although my plans for translating and publishing these works under the Creative Commons License have hit a major snag, I have decided on a new path forward. I will translate them for myself, and then write detailed reviews of the works here on Vridar. These reviews, of course, will contain pertinent quotations (in English) where applicable.

  • Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Handwörter für Theologie und Religionswissenschaft, Vol. 2, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 1928
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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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12 thoughts on “What Sort of Work Is K. L. Schmidt’s “Framework”?”

  1. • And on the next page, Aune notes:

    Aune, David E. (2010) [now formatted]. “Form Criticism”. In Aune, David E. (ed.). The Blackwell Companion to The New Testament. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 140–155. ISBN 9781444318944.

    [Oral tradition and the written gospels as folk literature]

    The founders of form criticism:
    • Karl Ludwig Schmidt,
    • Martin Dibelius,
    • and Rudolf Bultmann,
    categorized the oral traditions that were incorporated into the written gospels—as well as the gospels themselves—as folk literature, or to use the dichotomy made famous by Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Kleinliteratur rather than Hochliteratur (Schmidt 2002). —(p. 143)

    1. McGinley, Laurence J. (1941). “Form-Criticism of the Synoptic Healing Narratives”. Theological Studies. 2 (4): 451–480. doi:10.1177/004056394100200401.

      [The Principles of Form-Criticism]

      Early in 1919 appeared a work by Martin Dibelius entitled, Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums. It was followed shortly by a book of Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Der Rabmender Geschichte Jesu. Two other Gospel studies, nearly complete at the time, were published early in 1921: Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, by Rudolf Bulemann, and Die synoptischen Streitgespräche, by Martin Albertz.

        1. IMO Aune (p. 143) makes it obvious that he knows Schmidt did use the term “form criticism,” at some point and likely Aune (p. 142) is conflating “The Principles of Form-Criticism” per Schmidt (1919) with “Form-Criticism” proper. Which you point out is an apples and oranges comparison:

          Why would a foundational work . . . of form criticism never mention the term [Formgeschichte] itself?
          Before any serious, detailed form-critical research could begin in earnest, somebody needed to complete the task of analyzing the synoptic gospels to determine which parts were most likely the oldest traditions about Jesus and which parts were the redactional cement that held the aggregate together.

          • “Rabmender” is a typo, of the correct “Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu”.

  2. Tim Widowfield – This is an amazing piece of information !!! I thought I had something new when I arrived at this idea myself, but I didn’t use something as sophisticated as form criticism to arrive at it. I am in total agreement with Schmidt – I further believe that other early gospels – not just Mark fell prey to people ‘scribes/evangelists’ stringing traditions together like beads in a rosary and smoothing out the bumps. I was not aware such studies were already done.

    So for the layman like me – literary critical means using the story to date itself and form critical is using the language style to date it. (Right?) The way I arrived ay my notion was by mulling over the way the Gospel of Thomas was documented. Parable after parable – no or little subtext and certainly no narrative. I thought perhaps this might actually be how Mark might have gathered the traditions and then wove them together, if they were oral traditions that would explain their scantiness or even absence in concrete history.

    I’m sorry regarding your actual observation I don’t have much to add because I don’t know German.
    I did however note that the conclusion – that a complete gospel was originally in separate smaller discrete packets can be drawn from either method, except that the allocated dating periods might differ.

    So it may just be an edit problem you see in Aune’s work. Where he perhaps should have written “he did not use the term ‘form criticism’ in the work where he argued that Mark …” as you said.

  3. Kudos for undertaking this. I’m finding the history of modern biblical scholarship to be as fascinating as the history of early Christianity itself, and no doubt this will make a very interesting addition to that history.

    On a side note, what I basically argue for in my book is that this oral tradition theory is incorrect and that what people like Schmidt and those that followed him had misunderstood the roll of scriptural references in Mark. What appears as a series of smaller anecdotes strung together by the author of Mark is really a series of scriptural references. The writer of Mark wasn’t piecing together a collection of oral narratives, he was piecing together scriptural narratives.

    1. And that very well may be true. Of course, it’s also possible that some or all of the individual stories were created from scriptural references and prophetic imagination before Mark got hold of them.

      1. It’s possible, but highly unlikely. The whole narrative of Mark is a single cohesive structure that is extremely complex and self-referential. None of the elements make sense in isolation, they only make sense collectively. Furthermore, the Gospel of Mark is clearly highly derived from the Epistles of Paul. The entire narrative is structured on the Pauline epistles in such a way that no parts of it could exist without this Pauline structuring, so if any oral tradition did precede Mark it would itself had to have been developed on the basis of Paul’s letters, which aren’t believed to have been fully produced until the late 60s CE. So that doesn’t really work.

        The only explanation that really complies with the evidence is that the author of Mark invented the entire narrative from head to toe on his own, and that prior to Mark there was no concept of an earthly life of Jesus at all.

        1. The expanded Ascension of Isaiah (in which the career of the Son of God on earth is recounted in extremely summary lines and Jesus is crucified by Jews alone, note that I don’t mean the his original version where Satan kills directly Jesus) may be an intermediate phase between the pure celestial myth and Mark, who “romanized” the original only-Jewish crucifixion by introducing Pilate as killer possibly for this intriguing reason.

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