Marvin A. Sweeney, and Ehud Ben Zvi, eds., The Changing Face of Form Criticism in the Twenty-First Century.
(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003),vii + 350 pp. Paper. US $54.00. ISBN 0-8028-6067-2.
Reviewed by Yehoshua Gitay
University of the Free State, South Africa

For a major part of the 20th century the aim of Biblical studies has been “archeological”, that is, revealing the origin as a clue to authenticity. The philosophical-theological assumption was that the search for the authentic is the aim of Biblical scholarship. In accordance, an appropriate methodology, Form-criticism (Formgeschichte)—under the leadership of Herman Gunkel and Hugo Gressmann—has been dominating Biblical scholarship for more than seven decades. Form-criticism developed philological tools for determining the assumed authentic Biblical literary atom, seeking as well to reveal its social setting. Given its function the method provided a literary theory of the origin of the Biblical text. The scholarly presupposition was that the kernels of the Biblical text are designed through fixed literary shapes (genres), each of which has a different social-religious setting. The precise definitions of the genre: short and unified stylistically and grammatically have been the strength of the method which kept it for so long.

Recently, scholars have shifted their focus from the search for the authenticity to the meaning of the whole. The aim has been altered now in light of the community of readers who read the Biblical text in its given shape. That is, the focus on the historiocity has been replaced from the authorship to the audience.

The result was the growing interest in a synchronic study of the Biblical literature. This significant shift motivated scholars to assess Form-criticism questioning its merit. Did the new goal affect the employment of the old methodology in accordance with the new scholarship trend? The main question is whether the current synchronic interest gave birth to an appropriate new methodology.

The book under review—based on presentations at the 2000 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature—has set as its goal a fresh look at the methodological matter, i.e., reassessing the place of Form-criticism today.

It appeared that Form-criticism was a synonym for Biblical criticism and the replacement of the classical method, considered as the “sacred cow” of Biblical studies, was hard to accept. However, the scholars who participated at the SBL meeting are determined to update the Form-critical study of the Bible.

This is, in fact, the dramatic conclusion of Anthony F. Cambell in his article (which opens the volume following the editors’ introduction): “Form Criticism’s Future” (pp. 15–31). He writes as follows: “the meaning of a text emerges from the text as a whole, not substantively from the fragments that can be found in it” (p 24). Hence, in terms of the search for the meaning Form-criticism is the wrong method as he points out:

Interpretation needs to know what sort of a text is being interpreted. Interpretation needs to know the shape and structure of the text being interpreted. Modern Form Criticism is concerned with precisely these two areas of knowledge. It has a future—if its past is allowed a decent burial (p. 31).

I have no quarrel with this conclusion as I have already buried Form-criticism about two decades ago due to my studies in Biblical Rhetoric (consult Y. Gitay. Prophecy and Persuasion [Forum Theologiae Linguisticae 14; Bonn: Linguistica Biblica, 1981] and more recently in “Prophetic Criticism: ‘What are they Doing?’ The Case of Isaiah: A Methodological Assessment,” JSOT 96 [2001]: 101–128).

Indeed, Campbell points out the problems but this is not sufficient today. Now the critic needs to develop a fresh methodology to pursue his goal of revealing the meaning of the text. The question is how? He speaks about the shape and the structure of the text. But for this he needs to develop a theory of the Biblical text. What are his criteria for defining the literary design of the text? What is a text? What does it mean a text as a whole? Cambell is vague.

This leads me to Erhard Blum’s essay: “Formgeschichte—A Misleading Category? Some Critical Remarks” (pp. 32–45). Blum makes the effort to analyze the nature of the text and to point on the proper methodology as he sees it. He calls attention to C. Hardmeier’s work: Texttheorie und biblische Exegese: Zur rhetorichen Funktion der Trauermetaphorik in der Prophetie (1978) as his inspiration. Here, genres can be defined as transindividual patterns of text transformation. Such patterns are specified as a part of a culturally determined communicative competence of the individual author. Blum elaborates: “Biblical exegesis does not require its peculiar ‘form criticism’ ” (pp. 34–35). Blum reaches the following conclusion:

In critical retrospective it therefore becomes clear that it is Gunkel’s criteria for genre definitions that in their breadth at least may provide something like “the raw material” for an appropriate genre analysis. Here his criterion of “thoughts and dispositions” would have to be transferred to the categories “content and structure” and “purpose of communication” (p. 43).

Content and structure and purpose of communication are hermeneutical issues that are beyond the search for the literary genre. A proper methodology needs to serve these goals. Actually, the matter of communication seems to be developed through Patricia K. Tull’s essay: “Rhetorical Criticism and Beyond in Second Isaiah” (pp. 326–334). The author starts her discussion through a paraphrase of Amos’ autobiography, indicating that she is not a Form-critic and even not a daughter of such a critic. This is promising as we might expect to discover in her writing a new approach which might follow Blum’s desire to detect the purpose of communication, and Rhetoric—the objective of Tull’s study—is the art of effective communication. Indeed, she does not disappoint her readers through her study of Deutero-Isaiah’s strategy of argumentation. She points out the prophet concern for the rhetorical trope of the appeal to “societal memory”, “and reshaping of memories in order to persuade” (p. 331). Tull claims to have discovered this argumentative tool but she needs to read deeper the works of M. Haran (Between Rishonot and Hadashot [Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1963]) and Y. Gitay (already in Prophecy and Persuasion) among others in this regard. As a rule, it could be beneficial for her research to present the rhetorical trope of appeal in the context of a theory of argumentation in terms of memory (for instance, Aristotle’s Rhetoric 1361a 34 and 1362b 24). The appeal to memory is actually the example, which leads to induction, a proof based on logic: “Examples are most suitable to deliberative speeches; for we judge of future events by divination from past events” (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1368a). The advantage of such a systematic study of argumentation is that the rhetorical trope is not sporadic but an argumentative phenomenon that constitutes the prophetic strategy of appeal. Thus, the question of the prophetic argumentation as a rhetorical endeavor calls for a new methodology of research which transfers the study of the literary settings into a systematic study of Biblical prophecy as a persuasive discourse. The focus on effect needs to be translated into a proper methodology based on the nature of a text that seeks communication. This needs to be done in terms of a theory of text’s communication and a determination of the prophetic speeches as units of appeal rather than literary-stylistic genres. That is to say, a theory of the prophetic literary design—as a communicative discourse—is in need here.

Thus, I am in full agreement with the editors who enlighten us in their methodological concern as their following outline of the future of research indicates:

Form-critical studies will no longer concern themselves only or mainly with the typical features of language and text. Rhetorical criticism and communication theory have amply demonstrated that the communicative and persuasive functions of texts depend on the unique as well as the typical (p. 9).

Nevertheless, the solution is not the presentation of multi-methodologies. Form criticism provided specific answers in the past because the method had its strength: it sought—at the time—to provide a theory of the text given its peculiar goals. However, in light of further studies regarding the nature of the Biblical texts—based, for instance, on field studies of the nature of orality—which present long speeches of multiply literary styles—we are able today to show the literary mistakes of the old methodology. We can today provide a new theory of the Biblical discourse. Then—as pointed out earlier—we need to engage ourselves with the matter of the determination of the proper methodology in correlation with the nature of the text.

Did the new scholarship introduce another method which might challenge the old and well-established Form-criticism? As a rule, current scholarly concern revolves around the question of the content and meaning of the text as a whole rather than the atomic units. But still a new methodology that is correlated with the new aims is not emerging. The collapse of Form-criticism opens the door for a reevaluation of the nature of the biblical discourse. Then the proper methodology which is a product of the poetics of the Biblical discourse will capture its place. What we need now is a systematic presentation of a theory of the Biblical text. What are the characteristics of this text, what are its goals, how this text is designed given its features? Actually, we need to ask ourselves specific fundamental questions: what is a Biblical text—does it have a head, body and legs given Aristotle’s definition of a literary work? Is it a referential or emotional text? Does it represent a figurative speech? These questions might assist us in developing the proper hermeneutical means which will determine our methodologies.

At the end of the day, it is important to mention that the scholarly motivation for the methodological evaluation is the new social-theological concern rather than the development of a new textual-philological methodology. However, the critical study of the Bible is determined through the methodology of research. Methodology is therefore the essence of scholarship and as such it cannot be uncertain or shallow.

Space is limited, and I must conclude here given my methodological assessment. It is important to thank the editors for initiating the discussions and for including the following studies which will be mentioned here only through their contributors. Hence, in the context of methodology mention should be given to the important essays of Roy Melugin, “Recent Form Criticism Revisited in an Age of Reader Response” (pp. 46–64), Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “Form Criticism, Wisdom and Psalms 111–112” (pp. 65–84) and Hyun Chul Paul Kim, “Form Criticism in Dialogue with other Criticisms: Building the Multidimensional Structures of Texts and Concepts” (pp. 85–104).

The book includes further studies on “The Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature” by Martin Rösel, Martti Nissinen, Margaret Odell and Tremper Longman III, “Narrative Literature” by Sue Boorer, Won Lee, Thomas Römer and Bob Becking, “Prophetic Literature” by David L. Petersen, Ehud Ben Zvi, Michael H. Floyd, Martin J. Buss and Marvin A. Sweeney.

A well written book which appears at a period of methodological transformation thus it stimulates reactions and further thinking regarding the crucial methodological issues of Biblical hermeneutics.