Biblical Form Criticism in Its Context

By Sweeney, Marvin A. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Biblical Form Criticism in Its Context

Sweeney, Marvin A., Journal of Biblical Literature

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. …

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