Sunday, September 12, 2010

Christopher Tuckett on Form Criticism

Christopher Tuckett provides an eighteen-page essay that surveys Birger Gerhardsson's nearly five-decade critique of form criticism as well as some of Gerhardsson's counterproposals regarding the development and transmission of the Jesus tradition in Jesus in Memory: Traditions in Oral and Scribal Perspectives (W. H. Kelber and S. Byrskog, eds.; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009). Tuckett focuses some attention on the German term Formgeschichte, for which "form criticism" has become the standard English equivalent.
The German compound noun Formgeschichte (combining Form and Geschichte) might be more literally translated as "form history"; certainly the aspect of tracing out the possible history of the development of traditions in the New Testament has always been an integral part of Formgeschichte, at least for many (German) form critics. (27)

In other words, what in German scholarship is a single discipline—Formgeschichte—has been divided into two subdisciplines in English scholarship: form criticism on the one hand and the reconstruction of a tradition's history on the other. Tuckett, however, suggests a different bifurcation:
[P]erhaps we should distinguish carefully between two issues: the use of Jesus traditions in the early church and the origin of Jesus traditions. Both are important issues, but they need to be distinguished and should not be confused. (27–28)

This is certainly a helpful proposal; we cannot suggest that just because Jesus' early followers found a particular tradition useful for their purposes (instruction, apologetics, preaching, worship, etc.) that tradition must have been created by them for those purposes. If we discount every account of Jesus' polemical victory over his opponents (Pharisees, scribes, etc.) as Christian propaganda, we are left with the hypothesis that in the first century some people found Jesus' teaching persuasive even though Jesus never bested his contemporaries in debate, and that these people later created stories of Jesus' persuasive abilities in order to cover up that fact. Immediately after the quote on pp. 27–28, Tuckett refers to the well-known British scholar, T. W. Manson:
We can list these stories in the Gospels. We can label them . . . But a paragraph of Mark is not a penny the better or the worse as historical evidence for being labelled, "Apophthegm" or "Pronouncement Story" or "Paradigm."1

1 T. W. Manson, "The Quest of the Historical Jesus—Continued," in Studies in the Gospels and Epistles (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1962), 5; quoted in Tuckett, "Form Criticism," 212n. 34.


Alex Dalton said...

If we take the work of the Context Group on challenge & riposte seriously, Jesus would have had to have bested his opponents in public debate to have acquired honor enough for any kind of following. After all, he did not have a very honorable status by birth. These instances of "saving face" in public would have been some of the most crucial aspects of his ministry, and the sort of thing that his disciples would have been likely to remember and transmit in defense of his honor as well.

Rafael said...

Thanks, Alex (and apologies for the untimeliness of this response).

I am generally not too keen on the context group, for various reasons. In the current instance, notice that we don't really need complicated analyses of honor and shame, challenge and riposte, to arrive at this conclusion. Honor and shame studies might help us understand the dynamics of the specific interactions between Jesus and his contemporaries (at least as those are recorded in the gospels), but I'm not even sure they do that (given the pan-Mediterranean bent of many such analyses).

After all, would Jesus have attracted much of a following in any culture had he not demonstrated himself to be at least somewhat proficient in social interactions and polemics? Is it the emphatic orientation toward honor/shame that makes this demonstration necessary? Even in our own culture, where shame, at least, is perhaps downplayed (relative to the ancient Mediterranean and/or Second Temple Judaism), don't public figures have to demonstrate their rhetorical prowess vis-à-vis their opponents (be they political, ideological, or whatever) in order to gain credibility?

Sadly, the only reason we have to have these kinds of conversations is because earlier generations were willing to dismiss the controversy stories in the gospels in toto as later creations of the church and leave us with a Jesus who never had any problems with anyone and with whom nobody ever had any problems. We still need to take a critical approach to the controversy stories, but nothing justifies thinking Jesus didn't engage his contemporaries and conduct himself sufficiently well that onlookers could convince themselves of Jesus' rhetorical superiority.

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