Form criticism is the Biblical method which seeks to discover the type of literature which is contained in the Bible. For instance, when you go to your mailbox and open it you are liable to find various kinds of literature: bills, advertisements, personal notes, and others. Yet you would never treat them all the same. You would never treat a bill as an advertisement or a personal letter as a bill. You can distinguish between these literary "forms" and interpret them accordingly.
When you were a child you listened to stories that began with "once upon a time" and then before bedtime your parents may have read a passage from the Bible. And again, you did not interpret them the same way.
When you watch TV you know the difference between the news and a drama or a documentary. And you never interpret them in the same way; for one is for information while another is for entertainment.
All of these examples show that in our daily lives we are constantly bombarded with different forms and called upon to interpret them in the right way. The Bible is the same; for in it we find a whole variety of forms and our task is to recognize them so that we can interpret them correctly.
In the Book of Psalms, for instance, there are personal psalms of lament, communal lamentations, thanksgivings, wisdom psalms, and others. In the Gospels there are healing narratives, paradigms, apophthegms, pronouncement stories, parables, wisdom sayings, messianic texts, and others. In the Letters of the New Testament we have exhortation, confrontation, and others.
When the student of the Bible confronts the text he or she must ask, in using the method called Form Criticism, "what kind of form is it that is here; and how is it to be interpreted?" The value of Form Criticism is that it sets interpretive boundaries around the text which help the interpreter to not over -- or under interpret. That is, when one knows that one is reading a fable (as in the fable of Jotham), one knows that it is to be interpreted as any fable is -- in order to convey a moral message.
"When it was told to Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim, and cried aloud and said to them, "Listen to me, you lords of Shechem, so that God may listen to you. The trees once went out to ano int a king over themseve tree, 'Reign over us.' The olive tree answered them, 'Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored,and go to sway over the trees?' Then the trees said to the fig tree, 'You come and reign over us.' But the fig tree answered them, 'Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?' Then the trees said to the vine, 'You come and reign over us.' But the vine said to them, 'Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?' So all the trees said to the bramble, 'You come and reign over us.' And the bramble said to the trees, 'If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon." (Judges 9)
This fable is simply an "anti-monarchical" story. It must be interpreted in its own terms.
Other texts consist of other forms. This story from the Mark 10 is a healing story:
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, that I might see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
When one uses form criticism one takes this healing story and sets it beside other healing stories to note the differences and similarities. One takes notice of the structure and the narrative. But most important of all one notes the form and inteprets the material accordingly.
Using your Bible, choose 5 of the Psalms and describe their "Form". Are they laments? Thanksgivings?, etc. You need not know a technical word for the form -- simply describe the form in your own words. Explain in detail why you describe each Psalm as you do- and do not be afraid to consult a commentary!
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