A Summary of Form Criticism
The beginning of form criticism started between the years of 1914-1918 shortly after the War. The three main scholars in the field of form criticism were Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann. While these individuals were the ones whose work dominated the early field of form criticism, they based their methodology on the work of previous Bible critics that dates back to the Enlightenment. Form criticism is the translation of the German word Formgeschichte. The literal translation of this word is “history of form”. A traditionally accepted definition of form criticism is, “a method of study and investigation which deals with the pre-literary stage of the Gospel tradition, when the material was handed down orally”.1 As we can clearly see, the goal is to critically assess the form in which the information was preserved prior to being written down with the goal of identifying whether it was recorded reliably in order to test the historicity of the Biblical material that we have today. Form critics have used this practice to come up with a conclusion that is often unlike what Christians revere as history. A prominent form-critic by the name of G.E. Ladd explains,
“A close study of these forms led to the critical conclusion that in its earliest stages, the material in the Gospels was passed on orally as a series of disconnected units, anecdotes, stories, sayings, teachings, parables, and so on…This means that the indications in the Gospels of sequence, time, place, and the like are quite unhistorical and untrustworthy and must therefore be ignored by serious Gospel criticism”
After reading that quote, you may be wondering, “What do they believe?” That is an excellent question that is worth addressing. E.V. McKnight laid out a summary of the positions that were arrived at through the implementation of form criticism:
1. The “two document” hypothesis was accepted. Meaning, Mark and Q served as sources for Matthew and Luke.
2. Mark and Q, as well as Matthew and Luke, were influenced by the theological views of the early church.
3. Mark and Q contained not only early authentic materials but also materials of a later date
You may question why this was ever accepted as a valid theory. Donald Guthrie provides four reasons why there was a significant rise in the acceptance of form criticism:
1. The form critics were able to account for the amount of time from the Synoptic Gospel events to the writing of the events
2. The questioning of the historicity of the Gospel of Mark
3. The desire to update the gospels from the first century view to the world of the twentieth century.
4. To position the literary materials in their original setting2
To gather further insight in addition to Donald Guthrie, it would be beneficial to see what two of the most prominent form critics concluded after their implementation of the practices of form criticism. Given that form criticism sets out to account for the time between the events themselves and the time the document was actually written, their opinion on whether they think there is evidence that is capable of supporting or invalidating the stories of the Synoptic Gospels would be useful. The two form critics that will be looked at more closely are Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann.
Starting with Martin Dibelius, the author of Form Tradition to Gospel, A Fresh Approach to New Testament and Early Christian Literature, Gospel Criticism and Christology, Jesus, and numerous others, is known to be one of the first prominent form critics. Dibelius never believed that there was a “purely” historical witness to Jesus. Dibelius claimed that the first century expansion of the early Christian church wasn’t due to the historical reliability of the resurrection but because the people who accepted Christ were content with the story of salvation.
Rudolf Bultmann is a prominent New Testament scholar that is known for his work in form criticism and has written many books on form criticism that include The History of the Synoptic Tradition, Jesus and the World, Theology of the New Testament, and Jesus Christ and Mythology. He is known for being very skeptical of his assessment of the Synoptic Gospels and he concludes that “one can only emphasize the uncertainty of our knowledge of the person and work of the historical Jesus and likewise of the origin of Christianity” Bultmann is known to be more responsible for the field’s thoroughness and maturation than Dibelius or Schmidt because Bultmann developed form criticism to a more advanced level.2 Bulmann practiced form criticism with the presupposition that the canonical gospels were “pre-scientific” and he greatly desired to modernize them. Evolutionary dogma heavily influenced him in the formulation of his methods.2
It is clear that neither of these advocates of form criticism placed too much stock in the historical validity of the synoptic gospels during the practice of their form criticism. While so many Evangelical Christians place their entire faith in the reliability in the Synoptic Gospels, what information or mindset has led scholars of form criticism to completely reject the reliability of the Synoptic Gospels? It is important to highlight the unnecessary presuppositions that inspired their understanding of the form critical data in order to comprehend if they are in the objective mindset that is ideal for historical studies of this magnitude. If philosophic presuppositions were held at the time of assessing data from form critical research, what affect did this philosophic presupposition have on the interpretation of the data? What was the philosophic presupposition that the data was filtered through? Most importantly, was this presupposition ideal for conducting objective historical analysis or would it drastically skew the findings? Below, I’ll be closely assessing the most common and destructive critiques against form criticism.
Common Objections to Form Criticism
The most common objections relate to philosophically and scientifically related presuppositional foundations implemented in the interpretation of their findings, subjective theorizing about their data, and the categorization of highly subjective material reveals preconceived agendas. While these are few of the primary objections to form criticism, they will be enough to provide you with a foundational understanding of the negative consequences of form criticism and allow you the opportunity to see numerous reasons why these methods of form criticism have failed us in the past at uncovering the truth of the Biblical texts.
Philosophic and Scientific Presuppositions
The claim that form critics have used philosophic or scientific presuppositions when assessing data is not uncommon. In fact, it is likely the strongest argument against form criticism. I’ll begin with a quote from Donald Guthrie concerning how Rudolf Bultmann’s presuppositions negatively impacted his historical work:
“Bultmann’s disillusionment led him to seek an approach to the Gospels which would emancipate him from the need for historical demonstration. Only so could the simplest, in his opinion, ever come to faith. He was further prompted to his non-historical approach by his commitment to existential philosophy”8
It is believed that form criticism is the product of historical skepticism derived from source criticism, which was ultimately laid out by the philosophical foundation of the Enlightenment.2 It has been deemed that much of the findings of form criticism are found while maintaining philosophical presuppositions. Eta Linnemann remarks on the difficulty of having “prejudgments” made prior to performing form criticism:
“A more intensive investigation would show that underlying the historical-critical approach is a series of prejudgments which are not themselves the result of scientific investigation. They are rather dogmatic premises, statements of faith, whose foundation is the absolutizing of human reason as a controlling apparatus”
From a historian’s point of view, it would be unwise to enter into an investigation of history with presuppositions that would alter the findings in a search for truth. For example, if I was a historian on a search for truth about the lives of the founding fathers of America and I went into this search with the presupposition that all of these individuals were the products of fiction, I would have to compromise the truth value of my historical findings in order to manipulate the evidence to make it appear as though the evidence we have isn’t reliable enough to place our trust in. Clearly, this is an extreme example but one that illustrates the point that what these form critics have done over the last century with the New Testament Synoptic Gospels is comparably absurd.
Form criticism is also rooted with the assumption that evolution is the process of progression from the simple to the complex.2 Kebler describes Bultmann’s form-critical analysis in the following:
“It [Bultmann’s concept of the development of the synoptic tradition] was a process as natural as that of biological evolution: simplicity grew into complexity…, an effortless evolutionary transition from the pre-gospel stream of tradition to the written gospel”
The form critics, similar to evolutionary biologists, posit the concept of gradual change over time. In this case, they felt that the synoptic text were compiled by the early church and were not the testimony of eyewitness accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. The form critics assume that the early church did this to suit their own purposes and not for historically accounting for the life of Jesus Christ.2
During the period of time that oral tradition preserved the information contained in the Synoptic Gospels, which is roughly 30-40 years, the form critics would be merely speculating as to how this information was somehow transformed into a legendary or mythological tale. It is noted by Guthrie that, “The very fact that our historical data for the first thirty years of Christian history are so limited means that form critics inevitably had to draw a good deal of imagination, although none of them were conscious of doing so”.8 Essentially, these conclusions drawn by the form critics aren’t historical at all. When you take into account that the presuppositions traditionally accepted by the form critics do not allow for the possibility of an objective historical conclusion, it would be unreasonable to say that the findings of these form criticisms were the result of honest historical research.
I.J. Peritz discusses the subjectivity of conducting form criticism:
Form criticism thus brings face to face with the obligation either to acquiesce in its faculty method and conclusions or to combat them. What is involved, however, is not the alternative between an uncritical attitude and criticism, but between criticism and hyper-criticalism. A critical view of the Gospels does not claim strict objectivity. It is hard to tell sometimes where poetry ends and history begins. It is highly probable that there is no underlying strictly chronological or topographical scheme; and that they are not biography in “our sense.” But this is far from admitting that we have no reliable testimony from eyewitnesses: that the Church from its Christ of faith created the Jesus of history, instead of from the Jesus of history its Christ of faith”
When we view this observation, we can see that the form critics aren’t being entirely forthcoming in their presentation of their subjective interpretation. Form critics attempt to turn the story on its head by saying that the Christ of faith came after the Jesus of history. It seems as though that the form critics are a little too “hypercritical” of the historical evidence we do have and hence make the whole process of withdrawing information from the Synoptic Gospels impotent. Robert Mounce makes a valid assessment on the subjectivity on form criticism by analyzing the inconsistencies found across the board in the field of form criticism:
“Form Criticism sounds like a scientific method. If it were, you would find consistency of interpretation. But the interpretations of a single saying vary widely. Not only are interpretations widespread but form critics often can’t agree whether a pericopae is a miracle story or a pronouncement story – the two can be woven together. One would expect consistency in historical reconstruction if Form Criticism were a true science”
While many form critics parade form criticism around like a sophisticated method of retrieving historical knowledge, by pealing back the layers of subjective analysis and speculative guesses we can confidently conclude that form criticism is largely unscientific. While they all undeniable agree that Jesus’s disciples were too ignorant and uneducated to effectively document the life of Jesus, we can all identify their method of criticism is founded on their imaginative analysis filtered through numerous presuppositions of historically subjective information.2
Preconceived Agenda when Interpreting
Based on the above philosophical and scientific presuppositions of the form critics when entering into their historical analysis of the Synoptic Gospels, we can say with confidence that they are likely interpreting the collected data with a preconceived agenda.2 Form criticism is distinct from many other methods of historical analysis in that it can be largely considered to promote subjectivity in its findings. By comparison, grammatico-historical methods of interpretation are much more objective in its findings as they accept the findings of the Bible without prejudice. The reason for this distinction is that form criticism is largely based on the presuppositions of the form critic. In addition, the large amount of information that is still unknown about the oral period gives the form critic the freedom to wildly speculate.2
This is evidently clear when it comes to the acceptance of miracles. We see that Dibelius and Baltmann weren’t open to the possibility of miracles within the Synoptic Gospels. From the beginning, we see that they are entering into the analysis of the Synoptic Gospels with the presupposition that the literature is false. Gutrie notes that, “Both Dibelius and Bultmann reject the miraculous and therefore the historicity of the gospel accounts of miracles. This is not so much the basis of ‘form’ as on philosophical and theological grounds”.8 Their philosophical and theological presuppositions weren’t allowing their mind to be open to where the evidence took them so they had to find another way to make sense of the evidence.
Bultmann wanted to “demythogize” the New Testament in order to make it relatable to modern people. However, there appears to be a strong antisupernatural bias by taking this position. It limits what you are allowed to accept as historically true. Given that Bultmann used this presupposition when practicing form criticism, he immediately chalked up Jesus’ baptism, temptation, transfiguration, miracles, and resurrection as legendary.2 Bultmann described these narratives as “instead of being historical in character are religious and edifying”.
Both Dibelius and Bultmann held that these miracles accounts are unhistorical and can be classified as myths. However, are there grounds for making that type of claim solely by using form criticism? Given the nature of form criticism, it would be impossible to make an objectively historical case for mythological Hellenistic concepts to have influenced the Synoptic Gospels without relying upon presuppositions already predetermined to those findings. Unless they were already convinced that the Synoptic Gospels were influenced by Hellenistic concepts, form criticism wouldn’t have been the vehicle to lead them to that conclusion.
Ironically, Bultmann himself doesn’t find the miracles in the Synoptic Gospels to be comparable to the ones found in Hellenistic traditions, “In general, however, the New Testament miracle stories are extremely reserved in this respect [in describing cures], since they hesitate to attribute to the person of Jesus the magical traits which were often characteristic of the Hellenistic miracle worker”. Given that Bultmann concedes that the Hellenistic mythological miracle workers were largely different from the miracle working found by Jesus, what would inspire such a loyalty to the theory that Jesus had been plagiarized by Hellenistic sources? It appears that their loyalty to theories that easily explain away large amounts of genuine information with little evidence requires the person doing the dismissing to have a strong bias in the opposite direction if he is going to knowingly dismiss information without good objective reason.
On the surface, form criticism may appear to be a genuine practice of Biblical evaluation with the intention of gathering deeper insight into the Biblical text. I would caution you from placing stock into the findings of form criticism. Form criticism is not oriented towards objectively seeking truth from the Biblical text. Form critics enter the practice of performing their form criticism with philosophical and scientific presuppositions. Their conclusions cannot be genuinely historical because they will inevitably reflect their bias presuppositions of the Biblical text.2
It is perfectly reasonable to assume that objectivity is possible when analyzing the Synoptic Gospels. The grammatico-historical method has done so by safeguarding hermeneutics by highlighting the need for objectivity.2 It is done in other methods of historical study but it doesn’t seem to be relied upon in form criticism. Positing conspiracy theories of the early church formulation of these stories and/or how the Jesus story evolved from Hellenistic sources fall tremendously short when evidence is weighed and viewed objectively without negative presuppositions.
 E. Basil Redlich. Form Criticism (Edinburgh: Nelson & Sons)
 Thomas L. Thomas & F. David Farnell, The Jesus Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications) Chapter 5
 Josh McDowell. Evidence for Christianity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc) Chapter 15
 George E. Ladd. The New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans)
 Edgar McKnight. What is Form Criticism? (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress)
 Martin Dibelius, Form Tradition to Gospel (New York: Scribner’s Sons)
 Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Kundsin, Form Criticism (
 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press)
 Eta Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible, Methodology or Ideology? (Grand Rapids: Baker)
 Werner Kelber, “The Oral and the Written Gospel” (Philadelphia: Fortress)
 Ismar J. Peritz, “Form Criticism as an Experiment.” Religion in Life 10 (spring 1941)
 Robert Mounce. Personal interview conducted by Josh McDowell, July 2, 1974
 David Atkinson and David Field, New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology (England: Inter-Varsity Press)
 Rudolf Bultmann, History of Synoptic Tradition (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson)
 Rudolf Bultmann, “The Study of the Synoptic Gospels” in Form Critcism (Cleveland, OH:World)