Thoughts of John

What is on my mind.

Torah: Development of Form Critics

Advances made in various disciplines of study in the Old  Testament in the twentieth century (archaeological, linguistic, historical, etc.) brought about certain important adjustments in the documentary theory. For example, archaeological research has made it clear that complex cultic structure was existent in. pagan communities before Israel became a nation. This caused a re-eva.uation of the religion of Israel data and placed within an earlier time frame the development of the priestly system. This research also verified the historicity of the Patriarchal period, but without verification of the patriarchs themselves.

Furthermore, the study of ancient languages also took on greater impetus. This led to a change in understanding how linguistic evidence within a document may influence the scholar’s understanding of the date of that document. For example, it is now known that as Old Testament books were copied, words in those books were sometimes modernized for the sake of understanding by a contemporary audience. There were times that syntax was also brought in line with the contemporary language structure. Thus one could not use the updated linguistic evidence to make a case for the date of the composition of the work.

The Documentary Hypothesis began to exhibit a host of weaknesses for biblical studies. As a result, though it was not abandoned by a number of Old Testament scholars, it was revised. Furthermore, it was seen that other approaches to Old Testament study needed to be developed that would increase an appreciation for its literature. One very important approach that came out of this concern is Form Criticism.

Hermann Gunkel is considered one of the leading proponents of Form Criticism. Ronald Clements, in his work One Hundred Years of Old Testament Interpretation, said this: “He is rightly regarded as the pioneer of form criticism as a method of biblical study, even though the type criticism (German Gattungsgeschichte) which he introduced reached far beyond questions of literary form alone” (p. 12).

Form Criticism is based on an attempt to analyze forms in the Old Testament and to try to determine the history of their development. What originally came out of this was the recognition of two basic forms, prose and poetry. Further efforts were then put forth to analyze in greater detail the poetic and prose forms. Attempts were made to determine the literary units, the genres to which those literary units belonged, and the oral or written traditions of this material. This in turn would lead, at least theoretically, to a recovery of the setting in life (Sitz im Leben) out of which this material came. Thus we understand the study of Form Criticism to be a literary-sociological discipline.

Gene Tucker, in his book Form Criticism of the Old Testament, defines this method of study in this way: “Form Criticism is a method of analyzing and interpreting the literature of the Old Testament through a study of its literary types or genres. In particular, form criticism is a means of identifying the genres of that literature, their structures, intentions and settings in order to understand the oral stage of their development.” (p. 1)

Many of the form critics had not given up their commitment to the Documentary Hypothesis. Form Criticism was simply another step in the attempt to understand the Old Testament. But it too had its weaknesses. In certain cases artificial hypotheses were drawn. For example, Mowinckel (in his ThePsalms in Israel’s Worship) argued that all of the Psalms belong to the ‘cult-functional1 setting, that is, they all arose out of the cult of Israel. But this conclusion was too simplistic and only proved that the setting in life was, in many cases, far more difficult to determine.
There has been a spin-off from Form Criticism which has led to various other approaches to the study of the Old Testament. It will not do to go into these in our particular study of the Pentateuch for it would lead us somewhat afield of our main goal.

The last two decades or so have brought into focus a renewed interest in the study of the Old Testament without the dogma of the Documentary Hypothesis controlling that study. Furthermore, certain branches of evangelical scholarship are getting beyond the point of reacting to this or like theories and are beginning to offer some intelligent and creative approaches to the Old Testament. Unfortunately there has also been some entrenchment brought about by the battle waged over biblical inerrancy and this has led to a defensive and apologetic posture that tends to stifle creativity.

Notes by J Warren & H Hosch


October 22, 2009 - Posted by | Bible, Bible Study, Biblical Interpretation, Christian, Christianity, God, Jesus, Old Testament, Religon, Theology

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