Monday, April 30, 2007

What good is Form Criticism?

John Shuck asked me in the comment section of the last post, if we can't know Jesus' authentic words by using form criticism, can we at least learn about earlier material?

My response, "Perhaps."

The reason for my ambiguous answer is that the application of form criticism and other assumptions are going to make this determination. Certainly form criticism identifies the literary type of the block of material (although this tells us next to nothing about its oral performance). If there are enough variants, it might even show us how earlier material becomes secondarily developed, such as variants placed in different literary contexts, reinterpreted with the addition of a secondary clause or phrase or introductory question, or developed into fictitious literary dialogues.

But once we leave these parameters, the going becomes rougher since ALL the materials we have about Jesus were remembered and written by and for the early Christians, including his parables and sayings. This means that the parables and sayings are no less "church material" than the miracle stories or apothegms or passion narrative. So trying to sort out some of this material as "less-churchy" than the rest is very problematic. The sayings of Jesus, especially the parables, are considered most authentic of the materials, as if they were preserved in his own diary untouched by the memories and needs of the early Christians.

Form critics seem to have realized this and so ventured to put into use the dissimilarity principle (and the principle of coherence) in order to determine which of the sayings were authentic and which represented the voice of the church. Jesus material is eliminated if there are parallels in early Judaism or early Christianity.

Of course this leads to a serious distortion of any historical Jesus recovered. And it is a way that the difficult apocalyptic materials have been removed from Jesus' mouth, even generating the argument that they are later additions made by the early Christians to the non-apocalyptic message of Jesus. Circular reasoning at its height.

What we end up with is a Jesus that doesn't look anything like anyone around him!

In my opinion, the application of this principle has been theologically-motivated from the start, and in some cases bordering on anti-Semitic. It allows the interpreter to control Jesus to the point that Jesus becomes a man against Judaism and other Jews around him, a man who has no self-consciousness as a Prophet or Messiah, and a man who is unlike all other first-century Jews. Jesus is unique.

This principle can tell us nothing about the historical Jesus, in fact it outright distorts him beyond recognition. It is a principle that we should never have applied in the way we have done. And it is time for it to go.

3 comments: said...

Considering what one might expect a Jewish prophet to be, I cannot believe that the extant text of the NT has not already been meddled with to eliminate much of the apocalyptic character and the true history of its prophet who never was a messiah in the sense of a Davidic king messiah as in the DSS of the priests. The same applies to much of the extant text attributed to Josephus covering the period shortly before and after the turn of the first century. The texts are extremely garbled. The Gospel of Judas, for example, tells us they are garbled - thus 'Jesus' was a spirit, or rather the Spirit of the Lord, Judas was a prophet who was stoned to death. He was undoubtedly anti-priest and anti-aniaml sacrifice. He saw himself in the sanctuary in the presence of the Lord. His words appeared as God speaking from the cloud of burning incense in the sanctuary. And the listening priests didn't like what they heard. No doubt it all trickled down through memories or odd writings.

John Shuck said...


Thank you! I have learned a great deal from you and will continue to do so. Thanks for your thoughts on Form Criticism. I have had reservations about it myself. A couple of thoughts:

1) I winced a bit at the quote from Judy Redman: "For in the end, the answers which the New Testament scholar gives are not the result of applying objective tests and using precision tools; they are very largely the result of his own presuppositions and prejudices..."

The reason I winced is not that it is not true. I believe it is, to a point. I winced because it appears to be applied to particularly, my friends of the Jesus Seminar, whom you alluded to with your comments about the colored marbles.

Of course, we all have prejudices, usually unconscious ones. No one is immune from this. We see prejudices in others more clearly than our own, so we think.

I know many of the fellows of the Jesus Seminar personally, and not one of them would deny that. They are good scholars. They are not limited to form criticism. They use redaction criticism, source criticism, narrative criticism, archaeology, orality, and whatever the term is for social criticism.

They took a shot at trying to find HJ. And they are still at it. God bless 'em. I would doubt that any of them thinks they found him! Everyone finds their own Jesus, from the defenders of the creeds to the despisers of religion. Why? Points two and three:

2) Jesus is an inkblot. He has no personality. He wrote nothing. We have virtually no records of him save the early writings. The Gospels are all theological works. The closest parallel I can think of Jesus to another figure is Robin Hood. All we really have is legend. From an historical perspective, Jesus could be any one of the thousands of executed Jews. He was in the wrong place in the wrong time for him, but in the right place and in the right time for the movements that capitalized on him. Scholars can make Jesus into many different things. And it can all be very good scholarship with clear objective methods. Personally, I think Robert Price, a Jesus Seminar Fellow who wrote "The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man," took form criticism and the historical method to its logical conclusion: Nobody's home. There may have been an historical Jesus, but all we have about him is propaganda.

3) Jesus in an ishta devata. The reason I have a job and you as well, probably, is that we are devoted to Jesus in some way. We are not debating the historicity of Krishna or Caesar Augustus. People care about Jesus. There is no such thing, then, when dealing with an ishta devata, of having purely objective historical research. We care too much. We want our ishta to be something worthy of the name. Frankly, from this perspective, I am not interested in an apocalyptic madman. We have enough of those. My ishta is the parable-speaking Jesus, whether historical or not.

4) The best we can do from an historical perspective is to seek to understand the communities that made a propaganda item out of him. That I think, is exciting stuff, and that is why I really like your work! The second century is where its at!

Then again, that is just my prejudice!

April DeConick said...

Dear John,

I hope my more recents posts thinking about methodology are in some way helpful to your concerns. Methodology is always an interpretative process. What one has to do, however, is determine what methods and assumptions you find the most convincing, and then work with that and see what you get. What you get, however, will be determined by how you approach the problem. I see no way around this fact for any of us.

I too am personal friends with many of the Jesus Seminar folk, and I know them to be top notch scholars. But one's starting assumptions have a great deal to do with one's results. We all have to start with assumptions. It is impossible to do this work without it. If you start with the dissimilarity principle (which was one of the main principles used by the Jesus Seminar), then Jesus doesn't look Jewish or Christian, and he certainly doesn't appear apocalyptic. If you start with the principle of incremental change and historical continuity, then Jesus will be Jewish, apocalyptic, and perhaps even have a consciousness of some kind of Messiah.