An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Form Criticism

A scholarly method used for the interpretation of biblical texts. A form is a passage or unit of biblical material. It has a structure that is considered self-consistent. Units include miracle story, pronouncement story, legend, and saying. Herman Gunkel is an important OT form critic; Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann are two of the most important NT form critics. Form criticism assumes that a unit was transmitted orally before being written. Form criticism is often described as a search for the “history of the tradition.” Form criticism considers how the forms were transmitted orally before they were written in the document where they now exist. Since the material in the Bible represents a later written stage, this method works backward from the complex written form toward the much simpler oral form. It is assumed that the forms were modified or edited as they were transmitted. The goal is to reconstruct a hypothetical, earlier, oral tradition. Some “form critics,” such as Vincent Taylor, do not emphasize the importance of the history of the tradition. Their analysis of the form is simply a recognition of its literary features. Most form critics seek to understand the “situation of life” (Sitz im Leben) of the early church and gospel writers or editors when they wrote down the modified material. Form criticism evolved into redaction criticism, the search for the theology of an editor, such as Matthew or Mark, and the rationale for their own distinctive gospel forms and stories. See Apophthegm.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.