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Form Criticism:

Dissecting the text to uncover its past history


Form Criticism examines the genre and the life of a text before it was written down. It is about the pre-history of a text.
Form Criticism views Biblical texts as being composed of small individual units that were already a part of the Jewish/Christian tradition. These units, referred to as pericopes (pronounced, peri-koe-pays), were preserved and passed on by word of mouth.

The written text, therefore, can be pictured as a string of beads. Each bead representing an individual element - a saying, story, teaching, hymn - which the author then strung together into a literary work.  

Some examples of general Forms:

  • Hymns

  • Tales

  • Curses

  • Laments

  • Proverbs

  • Laws

  • Myths

  • Legends

Some Forms found in the NT

  • Pronouncements

  • Parables

  • Miracles

Form criticism is one of the earliest of the literary approaches to the Bible and, as with most old things, it has got a little blunt over the years. Although there are still a few practitioners, they tend to augment this approach with more recent advances. Nevertheless, it remains valuable as it serves to emphasise the the oral stage behind much of the Biblical material.  

Click to open the Witness Statements' Folder


The 4 pillars of Form Criticism

1. Units of text are examined independently from their written context.

2. Each unit is studied according to its type and structure (genre)

3. The unit is studied in the light of its possible social context (Sitz-im-Leben) by which it was either preserved or created.

4. Units are examined in relation to other types of its genre in other literature - Jewish, Greek, Roman etc. 



Compare with other miracles stories

Mark's Healing of the Leper fits into the broad miracle category with 3 main elements (crisis, intervention and resolution).

The act of healing also incorporates 3 distinct elements: a gesture (v.41), a command (v.41) and effect (v.42). 

What about v43 on?

You might have noticed that all of this really on relates to the first half of the unit or pericope. In order to look at the second half, let's go on to look at the question of setting or its Sitz-im-Leben.

One of the main criticisms of this approach, is that Form Criticism assumed that the church created most of the units. Few scholars now hold this view.

The Significance of Miracles. 

Miracles play an important part in the accounts of Jesus and it must be remembered that the miraculous was part of the language and world of the early church. 

The church today tends to use the miraculous accounts as evidence for Jesus' divinity. However, the first Christians appeared to have used these accounts as a means of  authenticating Jesus' message and teaching (John 10:38; Romans 15:18-19). 

Sitz-im-Leben (Life-Setting)

Although the early church would have used the Jewish Scriptures, its main Christian teaching would have been transmitted orally. Following the life, teaching and death of Jesus, it is thought that a mass of material was accumulated and was circulated by word of mouth between the first Christians. The story of the leper's healing would have almost certainly been one. 

Form Criticism allows us to think more closely about this stage in its life. First of all it asks - Why was this story preserved? Sitz-im-Leben describes how the preservation of material is dependent upon its usefulness; it becomes a part of the church's tradition because it is important to the church.   

Possible Life-Settings of a Text

  • Teaching
  • Preaching
  • Worship (liturgy)
  • Evangelism
  • Defence against persecution
  • Create sense of identity
  • Promotion of community norms

What do you think the life-setting of the leper's healing was (how could it have been used)?

What do you think is the main point of the story - the healing or the leper's response/disobedience?

Look at Jesus' attitude to the Temple and the Law. Is this an important feature of this story - does it tell us anything about the type of Christianity within which this story circulated?

Why do you think Mark decided to include it in his Gospel? 

We are now beginning to think about Mark's use of the material (why did he include it, why did he put it in this position and not with the miracles a few verse earlier). in other words, the life of the text now it is in written form. These are questions which Form Criticism is not equipped to answer - we need to find another approach.

You might find that Redaction Criticism takes over, where Form Criticism ends. 

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