Form criticism is a method of biblical study that seeks to categorize units of Scripture according to their literary pattern or genre and then attempt to trace this pattern to its point of oral communication. It has often been used in attempts to categorize the supposed sources within the Torah or Books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy) and classify them by sources according to the JEDP Theory.
Because of the connection of form criticism with critical methods of biblical interpretation that teach a disunity among the portions of Scripture, many Evangelical scholars have sought to avoid or condemn this field of study. In addition to the JEDP Theory (that proposes the Books of Moses consist of four sources represented by the letters JEDP), New Testament form critics suggest various levels of oral communication behind the parables, healings, and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels.
The primary concern with form criticism related to the Bible, however, is not only a spiritual/theological concern but a practical one. While many literary patterns can be found, piecing together any type of prior oral transmission is an impossible attempt. Who could possibly decide with any degree of confidence that a particular account existed in a particular oral form at a precise time? Such ambiguity suggests that form criticism offers a limited ability to help understand the background of the biblical text.
However, a couple of positive aspects of form criticism can be noted. First, the discovery and analysis of literary patterns within Scripture can help in numerous ways. For example, it can help mark the start and end of a passage of Scripture. Recognizing chiastic structure can aid in understanding the middle part of the passage that is the emphasis of the literary unit. Poetic parallels can also help to determine the meanings of various words used in parallel with similar words to make better interpretive choices.
Second, form criticism emphasizes the important role of oral tradition in ancient culture. Even in the time of Jesus, it is estimated that less than ten percent of adults were literate. Most gatherings of early Christians would have been dependent upon memorizing the reading of biblical writings by those who were literate.
In summary, form criticism is an attempt to determine literary units of Scripture and their oral transmission. These attempts are very limited in the actual ability to produce trustworthy results, yet can be helpful in identifying literary units in Scripture to help with interpretation as well as help our understanding of Scripture from the perspective of people in primarily oral societies.
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