The Changing Face of Form Criticism for the Twenty-first Century

Marvin A. Sweeney, Ehud Ben-Zvi, editors Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids June 1, 2003
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Form criticism has had its heyday. As newer, synchronic interpretive methods gain in popularity, some reject the legitimacy or question the value of form criticism. Yet many biblical scholars continue to engage in form critical analysis. This volume addresses the current state of form criticism and considers the future shape of the method. An introductory essay by the editors sets the stage for the essays, which are placed under four headings: Theoretical Reflection, The Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature, Narrative Literature, and Prophetic Literature.

In part one Antony Campbell considers “Form Criticism’s Future” and argues that the method, though no longer in widespread favor, has an important role to play in interpretation. “Interpretation needs to know what sort of text is being interpreted [and] … the shape and structure of the text being interpreted. Modern form criticism is concerned precisely with these two areas of knowledge. It has a future—if its past is allowed a decent burial” (p. 31). Contributors to part one include Erhard Blum (“Formgeschichte—A Misleading Category? Some Critical Remarks”), Roy Melugin (“Recent Form Criticism Revisited in an Age of Reader Response”), Raymond C. Van Leeuwen (“Form Criticism, Wisdom, and Psalms 111–112”), and Hyun Chul Paul Kim (“Form Criticism in Dialogue with Other Criticisms: Building the Multidimensional Structures of Texts and Concepts”). These essays make it clear that form critics still regard their discipline as relevant and as complementary to other methods. This willingness to change with the times and interface with other methods is evident in several of the essays in parts two through four.

This reviewer finds part two of the volume especially intriguing and stimulating. These essays attempt to show how ancient Near Eastern literature contributes to the understanding of biblical genres. For those who are still interested in the diachronic dimension of a text’s meaning, form criticism has its place in interpretation, but it must be grounded in reality and avoid the speculative fancy that has sometimes characterized it in the past. Utilizing ancient Near Eastern materials is one way such controls may be placed on the method. Contributors to this section of the book include Martin Rösel (“Inscriptional Evidence and the Question of Genre”), Martti Nissinen (“Fear Not: A Study on an Ancient Near Eastern Phrase”), Margaret S. Odell (“Ezekiel Saw What He Saw: Genres, Forms, and the Vision of Ezekiel 1”), and evangelical scholar Tremper Longman III (“Israelite Genres in Their Ancient Near Eastern Context”).

Part three deals with narrative literature, a genre where historically form criticism has especially struggled because of its insistence on blatantly imposing certain philosophical presuppositions on its analyses. Evangelicals skeptical of the value of form critical analysis in narrative may find Won Lee’s essay (“The Exclusion of Moses from the Promised Land: A Conceptual Approach”) a surprising breath of fresh air, for it illustrates how far form critics are willing to move to keep their discipline alive. Lee concludes, “Conceptual analysis is an exegetical approach to explain the text on its own terms and in its own right” (p. 239). He observes that “the priestly traditions” and “the Deuteronomic accounts” differ in some respects, yet both traditions must be allowed to stand “side by side.” He states, “We should neither accept the two as unreconcilable nor collapse the two into one.” He adds, “At best we can learn from the psalmist to integrate the two intertextually in a powerful hermeneutical statement that God has mercy on all sinful people.” Other contributors to this section include Sue Boorer (“Kaleidoscopic Patterns and the Shaping of Experience”), Thomas Römer (“The Form-Critical Problem of the So-Called Deuteronomistic History”), and Bob Becking (“Nehemiah 9 and the Problematic Concept of Context [Sitz im Leben]”).

Form criticism has made a valuable contribution to the understanding of prophetic literature, the focus of part four of the volume. Contributors to this section include David L. Petersen (“The Basic Forms of Prophetic Literature”), Ehud Ben Zvi (“The Prophetic Book: A Key Form of Prophetic Literature”), Michael H. Floyd (“Basic Trends in the Form-Critical Study of Prophetic Texts”), Martin J. Buss (“Toward Form Criticism as an Explication of Human Life: Divine Speech as a Form of Self-Transcendence”), Patricia K. Tull (“Rhetorical Criticism and Beyond in Second Isaiah”), and Marvin A. Sweeney (“Zechariah’s Debate with Isaiah”).

—Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

July 1, 2005
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2005 vol. 162 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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