Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The MOST Theological Collection: The Consciousness of Christ

"Appendix: Form Criticism - 2. Immediate Bases"


Browse by Title
New Search
Table of Contents for this Work

Besides the prejudices reviewed in the last chapter, some prominent form critics have another set of beliefs, more immediately presupposed by form criticism. There are three chief points: (1) the Gospels were put together out of many short units or forms, which circulated before the Gospels were assembled; the Evangelists were not properly authors: they just strung together these units like so many beads; (2) it was the "creative" community that produced these units or forms. The community could be creative since it was not interested in facts. Rather, it was quite willing to create (fake) things as needed to "prove" points. This of course presupposes that there was no effective control by apostles; (3) the Gospels were all too late to be written by eyewitnesses.

We will examine each of these points in detail and conclude with an examination of the arguments which N. Perrin advances in corroboration of their validity.

Form critics hold that the Gospels developed through a three stage process. First, there were the words and acts of Jesus. Like any good speaker He would adapt His presentation to the audience at hand. Second, after His departure, various people would retell things He did or said. They would usually report just one saying or one action at a time. Each of these constituted a unit. The critics, by an odd use of the word, call these units "forms." Third, certain individuals gathered together and put into writing a collection of these units, thus producing the Gospels. They are our evangelists; they were not really authors, rather they just strung the beads on a string.1

The fundamental idea that the Gospels developed in these three stages is obviously correct. St. Luke himself in his preface says that many had worked on Gospel accounts before him. However, it is not true that the evangelists were no more than stringers of beads. More recently the critics themselves have admitted that; in what is called redaction criticism, a new group of scholars have (predictably) swung to the opposite extreme of attributing marvelous artistry in a superlative degree to the evangelists: "Today the synoptics are understood to be enormously intricate products containing subtle and ingenious literary patterns and highly developed theological interpretations."2 N. Perrin, as we shall see later in this chapter, thinks Mk 8:27-32 is so artistic that it must have been "created" by Mark.

We agree that the evangelists are real authors, that they are quite artistic (at times-at other times not) and that they do have a theological framework. We object only to the extremist claims of certain writers. Moreover, certain critics speak of numerous units as stemming initially from the creative community. They give little if any credit to the apostles or to the normative influences for which they were responsible. Rather, they seem to presuppose a headless mob, or more correctly, they logically imply a vast number of headless mobs-one for each, separate Christian community.

Every community was "creative," they say, for nowhere were Christians concerned about facts.3 They were preoccupied with polemic (as Bultmann4 says) or with missionary preaching (as Dibelius5 claims). In its bursting creativity, the primitive community unscrupulously faked accounts to "prove" points. Thus Bultmann teaches that "The Controversy Dialogues as we have them are...creations of the Church. "6 Let us try to visualize this. There are two groups, one within the Church, another also within the Church, or perhaps outside the Church. They are debating with each other. Group A does not really have a genuine saying of Jesus to prove its point, so it makes one up. Group B (if within the Church) composes one to answer Group A. Neither group is concerned about the truth. Truth means little. The only thing that does have meaning is the existential "resolve to be a human being," to "go through with it."7

Our comment: the critics themselves surely are creative-they have structured a picture out of their own unsupported fancy, and contrary to the facts as common sense knows them. The Acts of the Apostles, for instance, gives a very different picture of an early Christian community. The position of the apostles was unique, preeminent (Acts 5:13), "None of the rest dared join them (the apostles), but the people held them in high honor" (2:42). "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching. " We are well aware of how the critics attack the reliability of Acts. It has not yet been demonstrated that Acts was not written by Luke, who, we have shown, was deeply concerned with facts.8 Attacks on Acts stem from two sources: an a priori conviction that the community was not concerned with facts) and certain alleged contradictions within Acts, all of which can be resolved.9

Further, the picture given by Acts is corroborated in the epistles of St. Paul, whose reliability is not in question. St. Paul often claimed authority, e.g., in 2 Cor 13:10, and he set up authorities in his churches at the very beginning of his missionary work, as seen in 1 Thess 5:12. Moreover, the critics' notion which logically presupposes many headless mobs, one for each of the numerous communities scattered all through the Mediterranean world, cannot explain how these many communities, each headless, each independent in faking things, could maintain such harmonious agreement on a multitude of details, facts and doctrines pertaining to the work and words of Jesus.

Finally, as shown in the introduction, the first Christians were supremely concerned with facts;10 a mere existential resolve "to go through with it" would not have sufficed for persons confronting persecution, discrimination, imprisonment, social ostracism, and even death.

The second basis of form criticism is the critic's assertion that the Gospels are so late that they could not have been written by eyewitnesses, for which two reasons are given. First, says Bultmann, the Gospels show no sign of the debate, prominent in St. Paul's day, over whether or not Gentile converts were obliged to keep the Mosaic law. He therefore concludes that, by the time the Gospels were written, "It is...already self-evident that the gospel, and the gospel alone apart from the Law, was meant for the heathen."11 And, although he said, as quoted above,12 that nothing is certain, he insists this conclusion is part of the "assured results of research."13

Two counter-observations: first, Bultmann ignores Mt 5:17-20 where Jesus says:

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets, I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.

Luke reports the more significant part of this saying (16 17), "It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one dot of the law to become void." Bultmann simply considers such statements faked-in-debates, to prove points, a neat way to obviate objections!14

If we wanted to argue as loosely as does Bultmann we would say: It is clear that Matthew and Luke believe the Law is binding on all: no exception for the Gentiles is mentioned. Therefore, Matthew and Luke must have written before the Council of Jerusalem in 49 A.D., at which it was formally promulgated that the Gentiles were not bound. Further, since Bultmann thinks Matthew and Luke used Mark, we must allow a few years before 49 for Mark to write and to be used. So the composition of Matthew and Luke should be dated around 45 A.D., while that of Mark would be around 40 A.D.

We do not seriously propose those dates15; we merely wish to show that with such loose methods as Bultmann's, one can reach a great variety of erroneous or inconclusive conclusions. The trouble is that Bultmann is working solely with internal evidence, which seldom really proves anything16; specifically he is here using the argument from silence, an internal argument that is even less conclusive.

A telling object lesson on the inconclusiveness of internal evidence concerns the case of the Dialog on Orators by the ancient Roman historian Tacitus. Besides that Dialog four of his historical works have survived. His style in the historical works is highly distinctive, a style quite evident to anyone who reads the original Latin. It is a style very obviously different from that of the Dialog (a computer study made privately by my students confirms this observation). Form critics would probably say the Dialog is not by Tacitus, because of literary differences.

The difficulty is further compounded by the fact that a writer from about the same time, Quintilian, wrote a similar work, On the Causes of the Corruption of Oratory, which is now lost. Quintilian's style, as known from his extant works, greatly resembles the style of the Dialog attributed to Tacitus. So there is a powerful temptation to say that the Dialog is not by Tacitus but by Quintilian. Classical scholars, moved by other evidence have nevertheless reached virtual unanimity in attributing the Dialog to Tacitus, in spite of the powerful internal evidence. For much less evidence, the form critics would be apt to leap to the opposite conclusion. 17

Our second comment is this: in contrast to the proffered loose internal arguments, there exists the external witness of an unbroken chain of early writers: for Matthew we have: Papias, Irenaeus, Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, the Monarchian Prolog, Eusebius, St. Jerome, St. Ephrem, St. Epiphanius-all these insist that the Hebrew Matthew was really by an apostle, a companion of Jesus, although the Greek version, which is all we now have, may have been made somewhat later.18 (It is often argued that our Greek Matthew is not a translation but a new work, because it contains instances of plays on words that are impossible in Hebrew. But that argument proves little, for the translator could have introduced such stylistic niceties. For instance, the Latin translator of Hosea 13:14 introduced a memorable play on words not found in the Hebrew original or in the Septuagint: "Ero mors tua, o mors, morsus tuus ero, inferne.")

We know of course that the testimony of Papias is challenged because Eusebius calls him a man of small intelligence, and says Irenaeus and others copied from him. But we reply that Eusebius made this statement in polemic, to combat Papias' millennium theory, which is erroneous-through many later intelligent writers accepted it. But it is a very different thing, requiring far less intelligence, to report a tradition of who wrote a book, than it is to correctly interpret difficult enigmatic lines in Scripture that could mean a millennium. In the same passage, Eusebius adds: "He [Papias] was also responsible for the fact that many ecclesiastical writers after him, relying on his antiquity, held a like opinion, such as Irenaeus, and whoever else seems to have held like views. "19 Some modern scholars have neglected the context of this sentence, and so have said Eusebius means Papias was the source of later opinions on the authorship of Matthew. But the context shows Eusebius refers to millennium opinions, actually held by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and others.

Further, it is from fragments preserved by the same Eusebius20 that we learn that Irenaeus21 has data which Papias (at least in Eusebius' quotes from him) lacks, i.e., that Matthew wrote while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome. And Irenaeus mentions Matthew before he mentions other Evangelists-if Papias knew that point, it does not show in the quotes Eusebius makes from him. So it seems that Irenaeus had sources other than Papias. Still further, Origen, also cited in Eusebius22, in his commentary on Matthew, says he "learned from tradition about the four Gospels...that the first written was that according to Matthew, once a tax collector, later an apostle of Jesus Christ...." So Origen too seems at least not entirely dependent on Papias.

By no means all scholars are so diffident about Papias: Professor George A. Kennedy, Paddison Professor of Classics at the University of North Carolina, during a session of a Colloquy on the Relationships Among the Gospels, at Trinity University, San Antonio, May 26-29, 1977, in replying to a question about his use of Papias as a credible source answered that "he had studied carefully the second-century evidence for the tradition that Mark's Gospel reflects directly reminiscences of Peter, and had concluded that he would be thoroughly delighted to find such solid evidence for some other ancient historical tradition...."23 According to the noted form critic, Reginald Fuller, who was present, "everyone agreed that 'as a result of Kennedy's essay and the subsequent discussion, New Testament scholars have been challenged to take more seriously the external evidence regarding the origin of the Gospels."24 Professor Kennedy is a Classicist. Classicists once went through an immature period much like that Scripture scholars are now suffering from, but they have outgrown it. Kennedy's judgment would meet with much favor from Classicists.

Even if one might reject the testimony of Papias on Matthew as the author, we have evidence for the authorship of Mark and Luke that is independent of Papias, in the Antimonarchian Prolog, dating from 160-180 A.D., and also from the Muratorian Canon (c.180-190 A.D.), St. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Eusebius, and St. Jerome. In fact, all testimonies on Luke are independent of Papias: Papias did not mention Luke. Still further, while someone might write a work and attribute it to a famous personality such as an apostle, it is very unlikely anyone would want to attribute a work to such poorly known persons as Mark, or to Luke-still less known. External witnesses also tell us that Mark learned his facts from the preaching of Peter and association with him, surely a prime eyewitness. Further, the third Gospel was written by a companion of Paul, the apostle who had received the Gospel message directly from Christ on the Damascus road, but who had taken the added precaution (to calm his opponents) of checking his teaching with that of the main eye-witnesses, as he himself tells us in Gal 2:2.

The second reason the critics propose for assigning a late date for the Synoptic Gospels is the fact that they predict the fall of Jerusalem too clearly, especially Luke 21:5ff. But this argument proves nothing except that these critics are following up on their prejudice, namely that there can be no miracles and no such thing as a genuine prophecy of the future. Our study has already shown that retrojection of a prophecy is impossible within the genre of the Synoptics.25

It is important to notice too that Matthew, whenever possible, links prophecies to their fulfillment; but he makes no mention of the fulfillment of the prophecy concerning the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Had he written after 70 A.D., it is hardly likely he could have resisted the opportunity to follow his usual practice and point out how truly the words of Jesus had come to pass And again, even if the Synoptics were later than the critics think, there would still have been eyewitnesses alive, even persons cured and raised from the dead by Jesus, as we saw from Quadratus, whom we cited in the introduction. These eyewitnesses, realizing their own salvation was at stake, could and would have resisted falsification, had there been any.

Perhaps a new direction has been given to this problem by the appearance of a work of John A. T. Robinson, entitled Redating the New Testament. Briefly, the author presents an intriguing case for the composition of all the books of the New Testament before the year 70 A.D. The argumentation in favor of early Gospel composition is especially powerful. Other scholarly treatises in favor of an early composition of the Synoptics that have appeared recently are by Dr. William R. Farmer of Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, and Dom Bernard Orchard, O.S.B., of Ealing Abbey in England.26 One should not forget that not too long ago eminent scholars dated the composition of the Fourth Gospel toward the end of the second century until the discovery of the John Rylands papyrus proved the presence of that Gospel in distant Egypt a half century earlier. Ironically indeed, the manuscript found contained the words of Pilate, "What is truth!" (John 18:38).27

To round out our treatment of the problem we will focus our attention upon a specific passage from the writings of Norman Perrin. He tells us that the evidence "forces" him to agree with the conclusions of form criticism, chiefly, that neither the community nor the evangelists cared about historical facts, but instead faked freely: "Over and over again, pericopes which have been hitherto accepted as historical reminiscences have been shown (by form criticism) to be something quite different.... We would claim that the gospel materials themselves have forced us to change our mind.... We have been particularly influenced by a consideration of Mark 9:1 and its parallels."28 So we need to examine Mk 9:1 with great care, to see if it really "forces" anyone.

Mk 9:1 reads, "There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power." Mt 16:28 is the same, except that it says they will see "the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." In Lk 9:27 we find substantially the same wording, except that they will see "the kingdom of God."

Perrin understands both Matthew and Mark to refer to the end-time, except that Matthew adds "a characteristic concern for the expectation of the coming of Jesus as Son of man."29 But Luke, Perrin believes, "completely reformulates the primitive Christian eschatology.... His major concern is the ongoing life and work of the Christian community as it settles down to face, so to spear`, the long haul of history."30 That is, Matthew and Mark both expected the end soon; but Luke had given up and settled down to the long pull. Hence the Gospels must be unreliable.

Exegetically we could consider three possibilities for what these passages refer to: (1) the transfiguration, (2) the coming of the kingdom in power (dynameis-miracles) with Pentecost, (3) the parousia.

As to the first option, the transfiguration: all three Synoptics place this saying immediately before their transfiguration account. This is noteworthy, for they do not always agree on sequence. It is at least possible that they meant the saying to refer to the transfiguration, in which some would see the kingdom in power in Jesus transformed. Since this is a reasonable interpretation, Perrin is not really forced to regard the passage as historically untrue.

In regard to the second possibility which takes "the kingdom coming in power" to mean the spread of the kingdom by miracles: many exegetes think that the Synoptics do take the kingdom to refer to the church.31 Stanley, for one thinks Mk 9:1 refers to the coming of the kingdom in the Church after Pentecost with power, i.e., with miracles.32 St. Paul often speaks in line with this concept, e.g., in 1 Cor 2:4-5 he says that his preaching and the acceptance of the kingdom by the Corinthians did not depend on human wisdom and eloquence, but on "the Spirit ant power", i.e., on a number of supportive miracles. (See also Gal 3:5; Rom 15:19 and 2 Cor 12:12.) Further, Paul often makes the kingdom refer to the present Church; for example, in Col 1:13, "He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." (See also 1 Thess 2:12; Col 4:11; Acts 28:31.)

Therefore, the expression of Mark, "the kingdom coming with power" can refer to the establishment of the Church with miracles. Matthew could also mean the same, for as Stanley notes, Matthew at times identifies the kingdom of the Son of Man with the Church.33 Luke's phrase "the kingdom of God" could refer to the same; his phrase is merely less specific. So again, nothing can force someone to reject this second option.

The third option proposes that Matthew and Mark thought the end was near. No proof, however, is offered; we examined the usual attempts at proof in chapter 3. Perrin does give one weak argument: "He [Mt] has also strengthened the reference in the previous verse, changing Mark's '...the Son of man...when he comes....' to '...the Son of man is about to come...."'34 Perrin thinks "about to come" means the end is viewed as imminent. But the Greek verb mellei, though it could mean "he is about to", has other connotations. Easily and very commonly it indicates the ordinary future, "he will come."35 Perrin has had to strain normal Greek usage to get a reason to "force" himself.

There are, then, three ways to understand Mark 9:1 and its Synoptic parrallels. The first and second ways are truly plausible, and the third as understood by Perrin cannot be corroborated. Hence there is nothing to force Perrin to label the verses as inauthentic; such would follow only if the third view were inescapable.

Perrin adds a few supplementary points. He claims that Luke "subtly alters the tone...[by] the insertion of 'daily' in Luke 9:23."36 The word "daily" is inserted in the exhortation to take up one's cross and follow Jesus. Does that insertion really make a great and certain difference? Does it prove that Matthew and Mark thought the end imminent while Luke did not? Even with a nearby end, one could be urged to imitate Jesus daily, for whatever days might be left. Perrin notes also that Luke omits the words "in power". But if, as we said, those words could refer to the miracles worked in the spread of the kingdom, then to omit the words would not be significant. For we cannot picture Luke denying there were miracles in the spread of the kingdom. Perrin also thinks Mark "created" (faked) the entire incident of the confession of Peter which ends with our verse 9:1. Why? His chief reason seems to be that it is artistically constructed. But what is the structure of the scene? It includes the following: (1) Peter confesses Jesus is the Messiah; (2) Jesus commands silence, and (3) predicts His Passion; (4) Peter reacts and is reproved as a satan;37 (5) all are urged to take up their cross; (6) some will not die before seeing the kingdom coming in power. One may well ask whether this is so wonderfully artistic a structure that it simply could not have happened in that order. Was it necessary for someone to fake it? It seems the pendulum has swung far, for a few decades ago the critics insisted that the evangelists were not really authors at all; now we find things so elegantly artistic that they must have been faked. Again, Perrin only imagines he is "forced."

Perrin also thinks he finds an argument in this observation: at the start of the scene (Mk 8:27) Jesus is alone with the disciples; later at 8:34, He is speaking to crowds. So, thinks Perrin, here is evidence of "creation". There are at least two ways here of avoiding the need of being "forced". Note first that at the start of the incident Jesus is speaking to the disciples "on the way" to Caesarea Philippi. Naturally, He would arrive there later, and, as usual, a crowd would gather. So we have a plausible explanation. But, secondly, we could also suggest that we might have two scenes here, the second beginning at 8:34. The form critics themselves often divide passages into much smaller units.

Really, we owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Perrin. For he has shown us his strongest argument for rejecting the reliability of the Gospels. Yet, by ordinary analysis, we have found it is defective on many counts and actually proves nothing. If this is the best America's most illustrious form critic can do against the historical credibility of the Gospels, our confidence in their reliability can remain unshaken.


1 HST 6.
2 Dan O. Via, Jr. in "Editor's Foreword", v, to Norman Perrin, What is Redaction Criticism? Fortress, Philadelphia, 1969. Cf. Bultmann in preface to SSG 4.
3 SSG 64.
4 HST 40-41.
5 Martin Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, tr. B. L. Woolf, Charles Schribner's Sons, New York, (from revised second edition) 13.
6 HST 40, n. 2. Cf. also 138, 145-46.
7 N. Perrin, The Promise of Bultmann 29, in The Promise of Theology, ed. M. Marty, Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1969. Cf. KM 194.
8 Cf. pp 16-20 above.
9 For example: (a) Acts 9:7 says the men who were with Paul heard the voice, while 22:9 says they did not hear it. Answer: Greek akouein can mean merely to perceive a sound without understanding, or to understand. (b) Acts 9:7 says his companions stood amazed, while 26:14 says they fell to the ground. Answer: After falling, it is natural to scramble to one's feet as soon as possible, and then to stand there amazed. (c) In Acts 21:22-24 James tells Paul that pious Jews have heard he departs from the Law, advises him to make the Nazarite vow with others and "Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself live in observance of the law." Answer: see note 14 on Appendix: 1. Other objections are equally superficial and soluble.
10 Cf. pp 15-20 above.
11 SSG 15.
12 KM 195.
13 SSG 17.
14 HST 138, 146.
15 Paul does not really differ with Mt. 5:17. Cf. note 14 on Appendix:1.
16 E.g., if a document mentions a recent total eclipse of the sun, that of course permits dating it exactly.
17 Cf. F. R. D. Goodyear, Tacitus, in Greece and Rome-New Surveys in the Classics #4, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1970, 12-14.
18 For Mark and Luke we have a very similar list. John A T. Robinson Redating the New Testament, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1976 refreshingly shows a return to external evidence. He shows the flimsy nature of generally accepted evidence on dating. W. R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem, Western North Carolina Press, Dillsboro, North Carolina, 1976 challenges Marcan priority, shows the weak nature of most evidence in discussions of the Synoptic Problem Similarly, Matthew, Luke and Mark, by Dom Bernard Orchard, O.S.B., Koinonia Press, Manchester, 1977.
19 Eusebius, Histories, 3.39.
20 Ibid. 5.8.
21 Irenaeus, Against heresies 3.1.1.
22 Eusebius 6.25.
23 Cited in Patrick Henry, New Directions in New Testament Study, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1979, pp. 33-34.
24 Ibid., note 13 on p. 276.
25 Cf. p. 27 above. Still another argument says that Matthew could not have been an eyewitness since he uses Mark and Q as sources. We reply: The Two Source Theory is far from proved. On the contrary there is impressive evidence against it. See pp 24-25 above.
26 John A. T. Robinson, op.cit. (n.18 above); The Synoptic Problem (n.18).
27 Cf. W. H. Hatch, Principal Uncial Manuscripts, University of Chicago, Chicago, 1939.
28 Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, Harper and Row, New York, 1967, 16.
29 Ibid. 16-17.
30 Ibid. 17.
31 Cf. Stanley in JBC 11, p. 783, McKenzie, ibid. p. 64.
32 Ibid.
33 Ibid.
34 Op.cit. 17.
35 Cf. W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich and F. W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2d ed., University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979, 501.
36 Op. cit. 17.
37 Luke's version omits this item.

To Most Collection home page