Biblical Form Criticism in Its Context, by Martin J. Buss. JSOTSup 274. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999. Pp. 512. $95.00.
Buss's aim is to present a comprehensive study of form in biblical interpretation from the times of ancient Judaism and Christianity through 1965. Although he does not explain his choice of 1965 as the concluding point for his history, it appears to be a climactic moment in the consideration of form in biblical scholarship. The year 1965 marks the appearance of both Otto Eissfeldt's The Old Testament: An Introduction, based upon the third German edition of 1964, and Georg Fohrer's Einleitung in das Alte Testament, which served as the basis for the 1968 English translation. It also coincides roughly with the beginning of Buss's own research career in the study of form. Both of these volumes provide influential summations of the then current state of form-critical study of the Hebrew Bible, which in turn constitute the fundamental bases for the study of form through the methodological reconceptualization of form criticism from the late1960s to the present time. Throughout the volume Buss refers to the working title of a manuscript, "Relational Form: Transmodern Views," in which he will presumably set forth his views on the contemporary state of form-critical study in biblical interpretation.
Buss understands the study of literary (which includes oral) forms as "the study of patterns of speech" (p. 15). Following Hermann Gunkel, he maintains that formal literary types comprise three basic aspects: "(1) thoughts and moods, (2) linguistic forms (sounds or written symbols) and (3) a normal connection with life" (p. 15). This provides the basic perspective for his study, which focuses especially on the relations of these three aspects from antiquity through modern times. In Buss's view, consideration of how these aspects of form relate to each other, logically, effectively, or spatiotemporally, leads to insight into the coherence or appropriateness of forms and the means by which they may be comprehended. Such consideration not only helps to defend and understand a traditional pattern of literary expression; it also points to possibilities for improvement. Consequently, he considers the philosophical,, psychological, and social dimensions of the expression and interpretation of such forms or patterns of communication in the history of biblical interpretation.
Buss begins by pointing to the importance of language patterns within the Bible itself. A brief attempt to uncover the implicit philosophy underlying reality and speech points to the role that apprehension of something greater than the self plays in reflection, both constitutively and critically, upon the self or existence in general. His assertions that biblical forms of expression presume the righteousness of G-d must be qualified, however, in that biblical literature frequently raises the possibility of divine evil or absence (Gen 22; Job; Esther; Song of Songs) even when it concludes that G-d is righteous. One may consider the charge that Manasseh's sins (and not G-d's lack of reliability) are responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem in 2 Kgs 21, or that Isaiah's task is to prevent repentance so that the divine plan might be realized (Isa 6). Likewise, his assertions that ideal forms, such as laws, prophecies, psalms, or proverbs, play a major role in the organization of the Bible must also be qualified, as biblical subunits such as the Torah, (Latter!) Prophets, or elements of the Writings (Psalms; Proverbs) are only partially explained by such generic consistency. In both cases, the identities of Buss as religiously sympathetic reader and as form critic appear to play substantive roles in his understanding of biblical patterns of communication. These observations reveal the prescriptive side of Buss's study and the need of form criticism to integrate consideration of the perspective of the reader in its attempts to comprehend the communicative aspects of formal language patterns in the Bible, while simultaneously rejecting the uncritical acceptance of all readers' perspectives as valid in the evaluation of the historical dimensions of such communication. Buss's acceptance of this principal is evident throughout his study.
The bulk of the study presents an analytical account of form. His analysis of GrecoRoman theories of form highlights consideration of the types of language patterns and rhetorical devices recognized in Greco-Roman discussion. It also points to the relationship between aristocratic interests and the universal, general, or ideal typology of literary forms in Greco-Roman discussion and the corresponding relation between middle-- or lower-class interests and concerns with particularity. Such perspectives influenced ancient and medieval exegesis of the Bible in both Jewish and Christian circles. Aristotelian and Platonic hermeneutics often played a role among those who attempted to offer something new and universal in interpretation (Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas). They also paved the way for modern nominalism or particularism insofar as universal reality is composed of individual objects or concepts that must be named and defined in order to be understood. Ockham, for example, developed a new concept of form that conceives of an object (concept) as a composite of its parts. Postmedieval examinations of form continued to struggle with the interrelationship between the universal and the particular; typologies of psalms could be recognized, but the mixed character of the psalm types indicates that such typologies do not reveal the essences of texts. The rise of historicism in the Enlightenment points to the concomitant rise of the middle class and the decline of royalty in relation to a concern to engage the particularities of biblical texts and the means or forms by which they are expressed.
The "postmodern" world since 1875 saw a major change in western European and North American thinking, which emphasized concern with coherence or relationality in the world. This entails an attempt to synthesize the universality that dominated thinking through the high Middle Ages and the particularity that had achieved ascendance thereafter. In relation to communication theory, this likewise entails consideration of the role of entropy, or uncertainty, in that communication is both made effective and enriched by the variety and unpredictability of the many elements of which it is composed. Such concerns informed the broad conceptualization of form criticism evident in Hermann Gunkel's work. Buss makes it clear that Gunkel did not invent the field, but drew upon the intellectual currents of his day to construct a model of analysis that attempts to account for both the pure or ideal forms of expression and their articulation in the worlds of historical, social, and aesthetic reality in the Bible. His apprehension of the relationality of communication tended to be skewed somewhat, however, by romantic notions that the oral realm of communication reflects the general and that the written realm reflects the particular, as well as by his incomplete grasp of sociology. Ironically, Gunkel's biographers and successors have been even more hampered by various interrelated factors that restrict the scope of their worldview, e.g., the impact of theological parochialism in establishing the "unique" character of the Bible (esp. the NT) and the historical truth of its claims; the general failure to engage fully other fields of inquiry beyond theology; the politically and theologically restrictive climate of Germany and Europe in general through the periods of the world wars; and the failure to engage fully other cultures, religious systems, and gender-based perspectives. Consequently, Buss correctly maintains that there remains much to be done in the study of form in relation to biblical interpretation.
In sum, Buss's study makes its greatest contribution by exposing the role that the social location and theoretical presuppositions of the interpreter play in limiting analysis of biblical literature. Some might maintain that such a perspective undermines the analyses of biased readers. It seems instead to provide the basis by which interpreters can come to understand the natures of their perspectives and to employ such self-awareness in the construction of interpretative models that account more fully for the ranges of interpretative data that confront the reader as well as the interrelationships between them. Ideally, such efforts will better enable interpreters to understand the means by which the literature of the Bible communicates ideas together with the means by which its readers perceive them.
Marvin A. Sweeney
Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, CA 91711…