Form Criticism

Definition: Study of individual pericopes, separated from contexts, with special attention to formal characteristics

Goal:  1) Uncover pre-gospel uses of each passage; 2) uncover setting of passage in Jesus's time or later

Method:  Find passages with similar characteristics and compare them (Example:  healing stories, controversy stories)

Assumption 1:  Pericopes can be separated from larger narrative framework

Example:  GP 52 (healing the paralytic) --does Jesus question the Pharisees, or the crowd?

Each passage had a life of its own before being inserted into the narrative framework.

Assumption 2:  Gospels are popular literature.  Stories can be added, embellished, shortened, or dropped.

Assumption 3:  Each form grew out the need of an early Christian group.  Material that was not useful was discarded or put in a slightly different context.

Example:  Debates about the law reflect Christian arguments with opponents.  The sayings might go back to Jesus, but possibly not in the same context.

Assumption 4: Stories that have mixed elements (healing and controversy, for example) may be combining originally separate components.

Types of Forms

Short sayings

Characteristics:  1) independence from narrative context; 2) brevity; 3) end in preaching message


1.  Proverb:  "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?" -- Matthew 9:15

-- Impossible to know whether Jesus used popular proverbs or whether the early Christians did.

2.  Prophetic and apocalyptic:  "The Kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15).

--May fit Jesus's day because of the criterion of dissimilarity (situation of the early church was different).

3.  Legal sayings:  "Things which go in a man defile him." -- Mark 7:15

--Maybe fit Jesus's day, maybe not.

4.  I-sayings:  "I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill."

-- Probably the work of the early Church.

Short Narratives

Characteristics:  Stories that define Jesus's character and powers.


1.  Miracle story

2.  Historical stories and legends (example:  the Tempations, Mark 1:12-13, Jesus in the Temple, Luke 2:41-49.

3.  Controversy stories (plucking grain on the sabbath, the man with the withered hand)

4.  Parables (short stories with a general point that is often broadly interpreted and not immediately apparent)


1.  Jesus taught in short texts, which the gospels generally provide.

2.  There is ample evidence that this material changed in transition.

Example:  Jesus's saying about divorce, GP 24; Jesus's words at the Last Supper, GP 236; the Lord's prayer, G 30

3.  The material was altered, but not with complete license.  The first Christians could, with complete sincerity, hear  Jesus's words in prayer, receive them in revelations, and attribute well-known sayings to him.

4.  Most of the gospels' stories of Jesus can tell us what was thought important in the gospel writers' time, but it is difficult to know in what form they existed in Jesus's own day