Saturday, January 27, 2007

Form Criticism

I’m now up to page 260 in Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses and I am wondering about what students might make of form criticism according to Bauckham.

I am not an expert when it comes to form criticism and that is probably why I pity the student who wishes to understand whatever it is that the form critics bequeathed and the value of it. For example I might take Bauckham’s summary of what form criticism is and what we have subsequently gained from it, in the following quotes:

It is a curious fact that nearly all the contentions of the early form critics have by now been convincingly refuted, but the general picture of the process of oral transmission that form critics pioneered still governs the way most New Testament scholars think [p242].

[Schmidt pioneered the argument that:] The units (pericopes) preexisted the Gospel as distinct traditions transmitted orally until Mark first put them into writing and supplied the "string" on which they are now threaded like pearls. . . This insight opened the way, for the first time, to serious study of the oral phase of transmission of the gospel traditions. This is what the form critics undertook to pursue.
That the individual units of the Synoptic Gospels are close to the oral forms in which they previously existed and that in oral transmission they were not necessarily linked together as they are in the Gospels remain, in my opinion, the most significant insights of form criticism and have not been refuted [p242-3].
But I would have to disagree with several elements here. First Bauckham seems to be targeting a perception of form criticism as a theory of oral transmission:

There is no reason to believe that the oral transmission of Jesus traditions in the early church was at all as Bultmann envisaged it.
However, Baukham is possibly misrepresenting "the whole form-critical enterprise." Broadly speaking Bauckham is not diametrically opposed to Bultmann since the notion of there being ‘individual oral units’ contained in Mk but predating the Markan Evangelist is simply an assumption or presupposition that both he and Bultmann share (i.e. that there was a period of ‘oral transmission’ for much of the Gospel ‘traditions’ and as one which requires no testing!). It is no surprise then that form criticism discovers units of tradition (since this is what it presupposed)! Of the nine criticisms that Bauckham provides against form criticism he conveniently does not mention the one made by Joanna Dewey:

Form criticism has customarily assumed that the small episodic units to be discerned in the Synoptic Gospels were the individual units of oral tradition, and that Mark composed the Gospel from these bits and pieces of oral tradition and perhaps a short written source or two. All that we know or can infer about how tradition operates suggests that this assumption of form criticism is wrong, deriving more from the critics’ own immersion in print culture than from how tradition operates. Studies from the fields of folklore, oral tradition, and oral history all suggest that traditions are likely to coalesce into a continuous narrative or narrative framework quite quickly.
Tradition generally is remembered by gathering stories around a hero (fictional or real), not by remembering disparate individual episodes. [Joanna Dewey "The Survival of Mark's Gospel: A Good Story?" JBL 123/3 (2004): 495-507]
The reason I say "conveniently" is because Bauckham makes favourable use of this article of Dewey’s a few pages earlier!

Secondly, and perhaps more relevant for students, is the point that the study of a theory of oral transmission is not necessarily the ‘primary goal’ which form critics undertook to pursue. According to my Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels form criticism had several goals, the first being to identify the various forms or subgenres:

The original form-critical agenda included three main tasks: classifying the original pericopes (self-contained units of teaching or narrative) according to form, assigning each form to a Sitz im Leben ("life situation") in the early church and reconstructing the history of tradition (see Tradition Criticism).

Thus the first goal would be the categorization of the forms (which I believe would be an important legacy of form criticism even if the results have been modified over time). Are students to take Bauckham as inferring that all three goals of form criticism were illegitimate or that form criticism should be equated only with the early form critics.

Finally, the presupposition that knowing something about the form of a tradition could provide clues as to the community who preserved it or shaped it (and the history of such a community), may have been over enthusiastically embraced by early form critics but I fail to see how it would help to presume that the two have no relation whatsoever (which I doubt Bauckham actually wishes to imply) or that the enterprise itself is completely flawed. More helpful for students is the dictionary article on Tradition Criticism in the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels:

Two other disciplines overlap with tradition criticism [the second is redaction
criticism]. The first is form criticism, which in theory focuses on the form in which various types of traditions circulated, but in practice has included the study of how such forms have changed over time and at which period of oral transmission a given form may have arisen. When it moves from categorization to historical analysis, form criticism means the same as tradition criticism. It is because of this overlap that one cannot say when the methodology was first used in modern NT studies, for many of the form critics were in fact doing tradition
So perhaps Bauckham should have taken up his problem with tradition criticism rather than form criticism?


Anonymous said...

Yes, I guess it would be quite confusing for students. What do you propose teachers of the synoticn problem should do with Bauckham?

Tim Lewis said...

I guess let students know that varying opinions exist on what form criticism actually is/was and has given scholarship (Bauckham's opinion being one perspective). When it comes to relating Bauckham's source theory more specifically to the synoptic problem I guess I will have a better idea when I've finished reading him.