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Form Criticism


Form criticism is a way to approach the biblical text that focuses on finding the pre-written, oral origins of the various stories and episodes within text of the Hebrew Bible. First developed in Germany by Hermann Gunkel before the first World War, form criticism emerged from Gunkel’s realization that there were sections of text within the Hebrew Bible that likely had origins in an oral tradition before being written down. Per the Anchor Bible Dictionary, Gunkel first got his idea for the biblical texts having oral origins by studying the oral traditions of other Near Eastern ancient cultures. From his experiences with other nearby cultures, Gunkel suggested that oral origins for the various genres of text within the Hebrew Bible was a fruitful place for critical biblical analysis and started to formulate his ideas for formally.

History of Form Criticism

The Lexham Bible Dictionary cites Gunkel’s first primitive use of the critical methodology known now as form criticism, in his work on the creation account in Genesis called Creation and Chaos in the Beginning and at the End of Time. In his analysis of the creation account he would begin to form his methods of looking to the oral origins of the story within ancient Israel. Gunkel’s first work fully using the methods of form criticism was, again, on the book of Genesis, but this time a full commentary. In his work, appropriately titled The Legends of Genesis, it was suggested that many of the stories in that first book of the Pentateuch were actually passed down orally in ancient Israel as origin stories for various places of worship, religious practices, geographic phenomena, cultural traditions, and so forth. It was only after the oral tradition was written down that cohesive literary characters and plots began to from across the various major sections of the Hebrew Bible as a literary work. To Gunkel, the oral tradition preserved what people saw as truthful, but many unconscious changes to the stories account for divergences in the now written text. In his second major work on the Psalms titled The Psalms, again according to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, Gunkel would find traces of preexhilic temple worship as compared to the rubrics for worship found in other nearby Near Eastern cultures as well as define major genres within the Psalter –royal psalm, lament, etc.–. German scholars Martin Noth, Gerhard van Rad, and Albrecht Alt would take Gunkel’s form criticism further and apply it to other sections of the Hebrew Bible and their own ways of biblical criticism.

Form Criticism Defined

The English term for the critical method devised by Hermann Gunkel, form criticism, is, according to W. Tate’s handbook Interpreting the Bible, a translation of the German term Formgeschichte, meaning “the history of form.” Interestingly enough, as a fluent speaker of German, the German word Geschichte can also be translated into English as “story.” In a way this is fitting as form criticism is all about finding the story behind the written text; the origins behind the way a culture has over time come to share its history and pass down its traditions. Formgeschichte is not only the history of a form, but to my estimation also the story of the form and the people who told it.

The first step in discovering the history or story behind a biblical text, its Formgeschichte, is to find what the Germans called the Form of the text. Form is building the boundaries of the text – not necessarily taking into account the content of the text, according to the Anchor Bible Dictionary – and looking at its structure. Is the text broken into stanzas? How many lines are in the text? What is the meter? Who is addressed in the text? Does the section of text exist between another definable structure? These questions and many more are answered when establishing the Form of a passage. Establishing the Form of a text is a critical exercise in form criticism because the Hebrew Bible, being an ancient text, is not broken up into chapters or sections like a modern work. The scholar must determine for his or herself what makes up a section of the text based on the text itself.

Given a section of text with a describable Form, the next step in form criticism is to define what in German is called the text’s Gattung, or genre. Students of literary criticism will be familiar with literary genres of of epic, tragedy, comedy, and so forth. What is unobserved to many is that oral communication also has genres. We have sermons, persuasive speech, pop ballads, etc. In form criticism both literary and oral genres are taken into account. Oral genres are accounted for because of form criticism’s presumption that the stories in the Hebrew Bible began as oral traditions. Literary genres are engaged because though subsequent authors and editors might have applied established literary constructs around the story, it still should have remnants of its oral origins. Because form criticism is not just looking at established genres, but also trying to reconstruct what the oral tradition behind a text might have been, sometimes a new Gattung must be invented and defined. For example, the Gattung of the royal psalm only exists within the Hebrew Bible’s psalter. Before the royal psalm can be a genre, it must be defined by pointing to other texts within the Hebrew Bible that also fit the pattern of the Gattung. Essentially, a Gattung cannot exist in isolation. Genre must exists within the world of the Hebrew Bible and point to a consistent, ancient oral origin to a now written Gattung.

The final element of form criticism is to place the text within its Sitz im Leben; a German phrase I would translate as the “place or setting in life” and which the Oxford Dictionary of the Bible translates as “life situation.” This is to say that the text must be placed within the historical setting it originated from. For this, according to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, we are not looking for a single historical event to associate the text with, but rather a “general […] repeatable occasion” within the life of the people of Israel. Would the text being studied have been used in formal worship in the temple? From a legal proceeding or out of the royal court? Is the text in the form used to express extreme joy? Does the text come from usage in times of sadness or military defeat? Does the text signal a revelation or judgement from God? All of these questions relate to a text’s Sitz im Leben; the context the text would have been orally used in ancient Israel.

With it focus on Form, Gattung, and the text’s Sitz im Leben it is clear the process of Formgeschichte is less focused on the historicity of the text or even the authors and editors of the text. The focus, says the Lexham Bible Dictionary, is clearly on the “transmission [of the oral version of the text] between individuals and communities shaped [by] the oral traditions.” It is less, for example, about who Moses actual was, but who the ancient Israelites believed Moses was, the Form and Gattung they transmitted the stories of Moses in, and where and when in their daily lives stories about Moses would be told. The purpose, then, of form criticism is per Interpreting the Bible, “the recovery of the history of development of literary form within the Hebrew Bible.”

Form Criticism’s Contributions

Formgeschichte made major contributions to the field of biblical studies. Prior to Gunkel and his method of form criticism, prevailing scholars had been focusing on source criticism; trying to find the original historical sources for the biblical text. This focus on the “what”, “who”, and “when” on the biblical text had been the prevailing school of criticism on the Hebrew Bible for a long while. Through form criticism the Hebrew Bible could once again be appreciated as literature and not just a historical document sourced from other historical documents. The “form”, “structure”, and “why” of the text could come into better focus in the study of Formgeschichte. Folklore and other neo-romantic ideas could be engaged in the Hebrew Bible just as the tales of the peasant people had been engaged during the Romantic period in Europe.

By looking to the oral origins of the text, culture and other anthropological concerns came into the picture. With this, the religion on culture of the ancient Israelite people could be compared against other ancient Near Eastern cultures. These other cultures could begin to fill in the silences the Israelites left in the Hebrew Bible; the ancient Near East could begin to be revealed. Freed from the text, Israel’s culture could begin to be reconstructed beyond its written sources all the way back to the second millennium BCE. Though not a favored method of biblical criticism today the echoes of Formgeschichte are still seen today. The major genres of pslams defined in Gunkel’s second major work of form criticism are still used in conversations around the study of the Hebrew Bible today. In the area of study around the legal content of the Hebrew Bible form criticism still has a lot to offer. Outside of these still in use contributions, form criticism led to the development of redaction criticism which would begin to question to motivations – theological, cultural, historical, etc. – behind the authors and editors of our present Hebrew Bible text.

Shortcomings and Reactions

Though Formgeschichte brings many useful tools for engaging the Hebrew Bible, it is not universally accepted. The Lexham Bible Dictionary notes that many scholars criticize the assumptions upon which the methodologies of form criticism are built. For example, Gunkel’s idea that a shorter text is a sign of an earlier oral tradition is not necessarily a position that can be fully supported. Another critique of form criticism is that the Gattung defined in the process are arbitrarily defined. Some genres are very difficult to define and so broad as to not be entirely descriptive. Some Formen are described by their content – miracle stories – whilst others are defined by their form – myths –. Because of these and other issues and shortcomings, in recent decades form criticism has waned in favor in the study of the Hebrew Bible. Scholars are increasingly skeptical, according to Wikipedia, whether it is possible to differentiate between the source oral tradition and the now literary text it is preserved in. Modern form criticism has morphed into a form rhetorical analysis originating outside of biblical studies called genre criticism.


Formgeschichte, was an important step in the evolution of modern biblical studies. Through its study of Form, Gattung, and the text’s Sitz im Leben form criticism breathed a breath of fresh air into the world of biblical studies. Biblical scholars began the process of engaging the people and culture of the people who sourced the stories of the Hebrew Bible before priest, scribes and other authors committed the oral tradition to text. Just as the recording of folktales in Romantic Europe documented the oral tradition and culture of the peasantry, exploring the oral origins of the text of the Hebrew Bible opened scholars’ eyes to the possibilities of who the ancient Israelite people might have been. Formgeschichte brought the story of the Hebrew Bible to the forefront and allowed the literature to express itself outside of the constraints of historicity.