Form Criticism


Hello, my darlings. Please allow me the privilege of introducing to you Professor Hermann Gunkel, the German Bible scholar who in the early 20th century founded the critical method known as Form Criticism.


Ja, Ja, Danke very much BibleDudes! Das is correct, I did invent die Formgeschichte, or what you call das "Form Criticism." I was very interested in das history of die Bibel before it was written down, ja. That is I made study of der oral history, and I noticed that many tales in die Bibel were etiologies, or stories about why tings are the way they are. For example, in der Genesis 35 Jacob meets God at Bethel in a dream, and this story explained why die later Israelites made der pilgrimage to the cult center at der site of Bethel. Eventually, my methodology studied die formal aspects of passages, such as grammar and meter. I then broke die text down into distinct units, ja, each of which is called a pericope, and I established literary genres for each unit. Then, finally, I examined for each of die passages what we in Deutschland call die Sitz im Leben.


Hold it! I can't understand a word this guy is saying, with all the der, die, das, and ja ja's. And I find it hard to believe that some Zits in Leggings have anything at all to do with biblical studies.


That's Sitz im Leben, an important German phrase for "setting in life." It has to do with context — the occasion that gave rise to various passages. To simplify things, let's look at a specific example from the Bible and apply this critical method.

Yahweh is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of Yahweh forever.

Psalm 23


So with Form Criticism, first we like totally study the formal aspects of the passage. We examine the meter, the grammar, and who is speaking. Then we like make decisions about the genre. The passage is poetry, it's a psalm, and more specifically, it is like so totally a Song of Trust. Last but not least, we try to establish its Sitz im Leben.


I know! I know! It was a beer drinking lullaby sung at sheep shearing festivals in Timna. Those were so cool!


Not even close. Most likely in this case the Sitz im Leben of Psalm 23 was the coronation of a king in Jerusalem, or perhaps it was sung at covenant renewal ceremonies. But let's look at another example:

There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his food, and drink from his cup, and like in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the traveler who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him.

2 Samuel 12:1-4


Ja, das is prose, and der genre is what you call die parable. Die Sitz im Leben for das one is very difficult. Perhaps it was retold at coronation ceremonies to remind the king to be humble, or maybe it was recited at lavish feasts where the rich and famous put some poor man's lamb in das pfeiffer stew. Ja, das pfeiffer stew is sehr gut! Before I leave, BibleDudes, let me list a few of der many other genres used in die Bibel: short stories, letters, laws (apodictic and casuistic), court archives, war hymns, poems of lament, and many many more. Ja, see you later.

Awesome! Let me like try to summarize. Form Criticism sort of contends that the Bible as we know it is composed of many smaller sections of text, many of which had oral prototypes. That means they were said for generations, and not written down. Form criticism breaks the Bible down into sections, each of which is known as a pericope, and then the unit of text is analyzed and categorized into genres. Then we theorize on the Sitz im Leben, or setting in life. So it's all good, though one disadvantage of Form Criticism is that it sort of leaves out the possibility that at times sections of the Bible were literary documents where some dude sat down and wrote the story from scratch. In the next section, we're gonna take a looksie at African American Criticism and the Bible. Yowsa!