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Form Criticism

We’ll begin our discussion of specific tools within the historical-critical method by looking at form criticism. I’m going to try to present this in a way that will be useful to lay students of the Bible, so note that I will be ignoring the more obscure forms and some technicalities of the method. The general outline I provide should help in the use of various critical commentaries. The key is to read critical judgments critically. (I would note that form criticism generally becomes less certain and therefore less useful in my view as it tries for greater and greater detail.)

In my previous overview entry, I looked at the different phases of the production and transmission of a text, and showed that form criticism referred to the oral transmission stage. There was a time when I would have said that form criticism applied only when there was an oral stage of transmission, but more recent studies have shown that it can be applied to some texts that did not have an oral stage, such as epistles. There is a danger, however, of finding special oral forms everywhere just because one wants to apply form criticism. Watch out for this when you use critical commentaries.

Form criticism is possible because in oral transmission and in some types of written transmission, particular types of material tend to take specific, repetitive forms. This is best illustrated in the beginning for children’s stories, “once upon a time.” Because these materials tend to take particular forms, we can discover something about their intended meaning and use from identifying the forms, and then comparing them to other material that displays the same form.

In discussing the Parable of the Sower I mentioned the form only briefly, but now let’s look at some of the forms in the material that Jesus used. Parables, for example, could come in at least two types, the short, pithy comparison, or the illustrative story. The parable of the sower is of the second variety. So we would compare it in terms of form to parables such as the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, or other similar longer stories. This may not seem terribly profound, but it does lead us to ask just what differences there might be in interpretation of the two types of parables. For example, many interpreters (I’m one of them) will tell you to look for the one main point of a parable, and be very careful when trying to assign meaning to the details. But would there not be a difference in how one might understand the simple comparison and the longer illustrative story? Certainly there should be. The details of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32; note that this is a good example on which to study the boundaries of the passage to be studied) are far more important to interpretation than the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45-46), for example.

Most interpretation can be reduced to finding good questions to ask, and then looking for the answers. Often we look for answers in Bible study before we have considered our questions carefully. So what are the questions of form criticism?

There are basically four three things we look for:

  1. The structural elements of the passage we are studying, which also involves finding the correct boundaries of the passage
  2. What type or genre is it?
  3. What is its setting and purpose?
  4. Compare and contrast to other similar passages.

You may need to go through these elements a number of times. It’s convenient to start with someone else’s divisions of the text and someone else’s division of the forms into named types, but I would suggest trying to practice this yourself before simply accepting someone else’s division. You will find it especially helpful to reconsider your division of the text into individual passages after you have compared it to other similar passages.

In the case of parables, I’ve already made some suggestions of types. But let’s look at another form–the proverb. This is a good early example to work with, because with the book of Proverbs we have many examples already laid out for us. Note, however, that not all of Proverbs consists of proverbs. Especially in the early chapters there are some other forms, such as the hymn to wisdom in chapter 8. But now consider some other examples of proverbs elsewhere in scripture.

Ezekiel uses a proverb in Ezekiel 18:2, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are dull from grinding.”

Now it’s very much in the form of a proverb. It’s a short, pithy saying that illustrates a point of common wisdom. What would it’s original setting be? We can imagine a situation in which children suffer for their parents’ actions, something that is not all that uncommon. This one is fairly easy. Ezekiel, on the other hand, is using it in another setting. He is using the form of a prophetic oracle. How do I know that? Well, the first clue is in verse one, when he says, “The word of YHWH came to me.” In his case, he’s using the proverb that was probably originally about the general human condition to discuss God’s action; God’s judgment is not going to fall on the children for what the parents did, but rather, God’s judgment will fall on the person who has committed the wrong. We can gain some understanding of the passage by realizing that this proverb was first an expression of an aspect of the human condition. It was probably first used by the Israelites to express how they felt that God was dealing with them, and then is reused in this oracle in Ezekiel to express how God was going to reverse that. The use of this one form in another can be considered an element of redaction, which I’ll discuss later.
Now consider an instance in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. There he uses what is probably a proverb, “Nothing beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). Now there is some question about the meaning here. Some would suggest that this is a call to use nothing outside of scripture. But considering when Paul wrote this, is it likely that Paul is saying to stick to written scripture? He’s still dealing with an oral form of the gospel message itself. So we can ask what might this parable have meant in its original setting. I’m going to suggest that there was a possibility that this is used as a statement about someone who is working entirely on material that has been passed on. It is not a compliment to someone who is sticking with the letter; it’s a criticism of someone who has nothing original to contribute.

Paul is now bringing this to the Corinthians. Is it a criticism in his use? In one sense. He’s saying that the Corinthians have not (yet?) contributed anything to the message of the gospel, and yet they are acting as though they had created an original contribution and attained spiritual superiority. It would be like a student who presented a research paper consisting entirely of quotations, and then claimed to have accomplished original research.

Let me conclude by listing some benefits of form criticism and some potential problems.

Benefits:

  1. Gets us to look closely and in detail at a small portion of the text
  2. Encourages us to ask certain questions of the text
  3. Helps us discover other passages that we can use effectively in comparison
  4. Encourages us to discover, if possible, how a text has been used in various settings
  5. Helps us block off a subsection of text and to find its function in a larger passage

Dangers:

  1. It’s a tree method rather than a forest method, i.e. it gets you to focus on a small portion of the text, and then often you won’t look more broadly. Avoid this by first surveying a larging scripture portion before looking at the individual passage.
  2. It tends to focus us back on the original setting and purpose of a passage. For example, the form critic is first interested in why a proverb or parable would have originated in oral use. It’s final use, such as by Ezekiel or Paul can be ignored. Avoid this by continuing your study after identifying and working with an individual passage as a form using other methods, especially using redaction, literary, and canonical criticism.

The best way to build your skills with this type of criticism is to get good commentaries that include use of this methodology (most commentaries in the Old Testament Library or the Anchor Bible series do so, see my reader’s guides on Bible Study, Old Testament, New Testament, and Biblical criticism), then do your own work, and then compare that work to the results in the commentary.

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