Form Criticism - Witness Statements


Rudolf Bultmann was one of the foremost practitioners of the Form Critical approach.

This is from the Introduction of his highly influential Jesus and the Word (first published in German in 1926).

What the sources offer us is first of all the message of the early Christian community, which for the most part the church freely attributed to Jesus. This naturally gives no proof that all the words which are put into his mouth were actually spoken by him. As can be easily proved, many sayings originated in the church itself; others were modified by the church.

Critical investigation shows that the whole tradition about Jesus which appears in the three synoptic gospels is composed of a series of layers which can on the whole be clearly distinguished, although the separation at some points is difficult and doubtful. (The Gospel of John cannot be taken into account at all as a source for the teaching of Jesus, and it is not referred to in this book. ) The separating of these layers in the synoptic gospels depends on the knowledge that these gospels were composed in Greek within the Hellenistic Christian community, while Jesus and the oldest Christian group lived in Palestine and spoke Aramaic. Hence everything in the synoptics which for reasons of language or content can have originated only in Hellenistic Christianity must be excluded as a source for the teaching of Jesus. The critical analysis shows, however, that the essential content of these three gospels was taken over from the Aramaic tradition of the oldest Palestinian community. Within this Palestinian material again different layers can be distinguished, in which whatever betrays the specific interests of the church or reveals characteristics of later development must be rejected as secondary. By means of this critical analysis an oldest layer is determined, though it can be marked off with only relative exactness. Naturally we have no absolute assurance that the exact words of this oldest layer were really spoken by Jesus. There is a possibility that the contents of this oldest layer are also the result of a complicated historical process which we can no longer trace.

Text has been highlighted for emphasis

To read more of Bultmann's Jesus and the Word click here


More recent research into orality suggests that Bultmann may have been unduly pessimistic concerning the preservation of Jesus' actual words. 

The notion that much of the Gospel material (sayings, teachings etc.) originated from the church rather than Jesus has also been criticised. 


Nevertheless, this is John Muddiman's assessment of Form Criticism:

Despite these reservations, form criticism is an indispensable tool of biblical interpretation. When popular oral tradition is preserved or closely reflected in the biblical literature, recognition of the fact may serve to moderate our expectations of the text and therefore perhaps our sense of disappointment at its lack of theological sophistication: conversely, it may well also increase our excitement at being in touch with a living faith, free of self-conscious theorising.

John Muddiman 'Form Criticism'. In A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation. (R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden. eds) London: SCM Press. 1990:240-243.

Used with permission of the publisher.