Form criticism is a field of biblical studies that sees the Bible as a collection of traditional stories and sayings (or “units”), which were circulated orally and eventually strung together and preserved in writing. Form criticism attempts to determine literary patterns in Scripture, isolate units of text, and trace each unit to its “origin” in oral tradition. The form-critic separates a Bible story from its literary context and asks, “What is this unit’s literary genre? What is the pre-history of this unit? How did the story change as it was passed down orally?” Originally focused on the Old Testament, this field of research soon became another lens through which to understand portions of the New Testament. For example, parallel accounts of a parable are analyzed, and variations in wording are noted; then, the form-critic draws conclusions as to what he thinks Jesus really said and how oral tradition may have led to the various written accounts.
German scholar Rudolf Bultmann popularized form criticism in the twentieth century, relating it to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. His work History of the Synoptic Tradition caused much discussion regarding what can be known about the oral teachings of Jesus prior to their written form in the New Testament documents. Bultmann believed that the Bible needed to be divested of its miraculous accounts, that the gospel must be “demythologized” in order to be accepted by modern society.
Form criticism is a favorite among scholars who deny the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. As a result, conservative Christians often view form criticism with suspicion. Of major concern is the fact that many form-critics have a bias against supernaturalism and dismiss the miracles of Jesus as myths. However, while form criticism has been used to cast doubt on God’s Word, there are some ways in which a literary study of Scripture has been beneficial.
The Psalms, for example, contain many different literary forms. Some psalms are laments (e.g., Psalm 142). Others are praise hymns (e.g., Psalm 113). Still others are Messianic (e.g., Psalm 110). Grouping the psalms into units based on their various forms allows the student of Scripture to take note of similarities and contrasts, common themes, and poetic structure.
Interest in form criticism has waned in recent years. It has become increasingly apparent that there is limited benefit in determining the “exact” words of Moses, David, or Jesus. Indeed, who’s to say that Jesus’ actual words were any different from what Matthew recorded in his Gospel? No matter how scholarly the approach, form criticism entails vast amounts of speculation, skepticism, and sometimes blatant unbelief.