Thursday, May 07, 2009

Next Big Thing in NT Studies: The Eclipsing of Form-Criticism

"The next big thing in New Testament studies will be Gospels studies."

That's essentially the message of the latest post by my friend Michael Bird. In fact, with a number of recent publications himself--including one especially exciting one which is just about to drop--I think Michael has a good idea about what future works will focus on. After all, who would know better about the next wave of books on New Testament studies? He has written many of them himself!

In all seriousness though I think Michael is absolutely right about "Gospel studies" taking center stage. But aside from his list of things to look out for, I want to add a few comments of my own.

Michael is right that there is a sense of fatigue in New Testament Studies. This is particularly true in historical Jesus research, which I want to focus on here. If you don't believe that such weariness exists, check out Scot McKnight's recent post, "Historical Jesus Studies: A Dead End?", in which he basically pronounces new attempts at Jesus research dead on arrival.

Why are scholars looking for historical Jesus research in the obituaries? Here's my answer: because form-criticism has run its course. In my opinion, those who rigorously hold to the methods and assumptions behind the form-critical model have said all that can be said. The model is so worn-out and antiquated it's got nothing left to give us.

By form-criticism let me explain what I mean. The form-critical model to which I am referring holds that the following should be taken as irrefutable historical fact and as foundational for research:
1. Before the sayings of Jesus were incorporated into the Gospels they circulated for a long time through oral tradition which was essentially transmitted anonymously, without authoritative tradents.
2. These sayings were passed along independently of each other.
3. The Jesus tradition was passed along only in small units.
4. Over time elements which were not traceable to the historical Jesus crept into the tradition. For example, the utterances of Christian prophets who spoke “in the name of the Risen Jesus” were accepted as coming truly from the Lord. In fact, the early church was not careful to distinguish what went back to the historical Jesus and so the Jesus tradition was expanded to include large portions of non-historical elements.
5. Many of these non-historical sayings were introduced to help address the needs of the church. For example, sayings were accepted into the tradition which helped to answer critical questions facing the church. In essence, when the church wondered, “What would Jesus have said about x?”, a saying was kindly obliged by someone such as a Christian prophet who could speak for the Lord.
6. The elements of the Jesus tradition―which of course now included features that were not authentic―came to be crystallized in various forms: e.g., parables, pronouncement stories, individual sayings, miracle stories, etc.
7. By carefully analyzing the Gospels one can “get behind the text” and happily answer all of the following questions:
―What were the original forms in which the sayings of Jesus were circulated?
―How were these sayings used in the early church at this oral stage?
―Which elements came from Jesus and which came from the early Church?

Keep in mind, for form-criticism to really be carried out the above presuppositions cannot simply be loosely held. This is either what happened or not. To question the basic assertions of the form-critical model is to be unable to use it.

Now, it took about a hundred years but most scholars are now recognizing how ridiculous the schema is. I have already dealt with #5 above (the supposed role of the early Christian prophets in introducing elements into the Jesus tradition, see here and here). But major planks of this view are now clearly untenable. Perhaps I ought to do a post on each feature, mocking the lunacy of that each one can be asserted as historical fact! Indeed, others have basically done this.

Regardless, the problem is that when it comes to historical Jesus research scholars typically feel the need to revert back to this model and question it only with great caution.

The hegemony of the theory however is clearly losing sway. To my mind, this is going to have a major impact on historical Jesus research. To begin to question some of the basic assumptions of the form-critical model is to open up new vistas in historical Jesus research.

Let’s take one example. One of the extreme absurdities of form-criticism is this: it has invented genres, forms and transmission models which stand behind the text while completely and utterly ignoring the question of the genre of the actual sources we do have. Somehow it has been forgotten that prior to using or reading any source for finding data for historical study the most basic question one must ask is: what genre is this work?

Here is the stunning reality--one is hard pressed to find any historical Jesus work which contains any real treatment of the matter of the genre of the Gospels! The topic is hardly addressed at all! Somehow such authors can readily discern forms such as "pronouncement stories" which stand behind the Gospel narratives. The complex intricacies of the development of the tradition is apparently easy to explain. Yet when it comes to the much more important question, "What genre are the Gospels themselves?," there is absolute and deafening silence. And I really mean there is zero time spent on the matter--not even a single sentence in books that are hundreds of pages!

Does this not strike anyone as odd? Apparently not! I’ve read review after review of historical Jesus books and never once seen a reviewer say: "This author spends all of his time in sources (i.e., the Synoptic Gospels) without ever addressing the basic question of how he believes they were meant to be read in the first place!"

Of course, the question of genre is especially important. If the Gospels are ancient biographies this has huge implications for our understanding of them. For one, it would seem to suggest that the Gospels were not written to simply answer questions facing the life of the early church. They were written to tell us about Jesus and about what he taught.

That of course does not mean that the discussion is over in scholarship. But it does radically change how we read them in my opinion.

It seems to me that it’s time for scholars to look squarely at the claims made by the form-critical model which has ruled scholarship for so long and say the simple words: the Emperor has no clothes.

I think the next “big thing” will be Gospel studies, but I think such studies are going to be asking questions which were previously neglected.


Ranger said...

I'm so glad that you are posting again now that the semester is finished! This was a very enjoyable read.

I know that most historical Jesus stuff doesn't get into the genre of the gospels, but what works would you suggest that do address this question? What are your thoughts on Graham Stanton's "The Gospels and Jesus?"

Anonymous said...

Currently what is the Magisterium recommending for Catholic Biblical Scholars to concentrate on?

Why are Catholics Scholars following Protestant Scholars and their trends? Isn't that backwards?

Isn't Protestantism a heresy?

Mich said...

Form criticism has been dead for decades.

steph said...

What is it with you bibliobloggers - Goodacre, McKnight and you - being so keen to dismiss future historical Jesus research?! It can't be a threat in some way. It is being very unhelpful to describe it in this way - sure there is room for improvement and that is why is will not end. Fatigued?!! May you eat your words!! :-)

James said...

I take it Ehrman and Sanders count as seekers after the historical Jesus, and perhaps also as adherents of the dreaded form criticism--though evidently neither is wedded to Bultmannism.

Ehrman discusses the gospel genre at pages 62 to 65 of the 3d edition of his New Testament textbook.

Sanders gives over Chapter 6 of his Historical Figure of Jesus to a discussion of the gospel genre.

This silence doesn't deafen me.

steph said...

BTW Michael, have you read Richard A Burridge "What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography" - published doctoral thesis under the supervision of Maurice Casey?

Anonymous said...

I'm sure this has been said before, but my main problem with the "sayings of Jesus invented by the early church in fits of mantic enthusiasm" theory is quite a simple one.

If one has a "sayings gospel", such as Thomas, or the hypothetical Q, which opens with "these are the sayings of Jesus" and then proceeds to list them, without any concern as to which of them were uttered by the pre-Easter Jesus walking around Galilee in flash and blood, and which of them were uttered by the post-Easter Jesus appearing amongst or charismatically posessing his followers then the theory can float. But, Thomas aside, that's precisely what we don't have. We have "narrative gospels" in which Jesus is not merely recorded as having said this or that, but having done so AT A PARTICULAR TIME AND PLACE.

Now one could argue that such a literary presentation is secondary, a result of tidying up, but that would also require the somewhat dubious assumption that either the first generation were only interested in what Jesus said rather than what he did, or that memories of deeds and sayings were transmitted in total isolation from one another.

However, we also have to contend with Luke-Acts: here we have not only yet another narrative, as opposed to sayings, gospel, but appended to it we have an account of the early Church. Yet not once in this account do we have any reference either to "prophets" transmitting dominical utterances, or to appearances of a post-Easter Jesus to give those utterances directly, NOT EVEN WHEN THERE ARE BITTER DISPUTES TEARING THE COMMUNITY APART. Where are the "prophets" or the visionary experiences of the Risen Christ uttering an appropriate saying on the subject of Gentile circumcision for example? Absolutely diddly squat. This it seems to me puts a massive question mark against the whole idea: it doesn't spring out of the sources, but is rather imposed on them from outside. Let's put it do bed. In real historical research carried out in history departments, as opposed to biblical studies departments, such an approach would get you an F and no degree.