Baker Academic

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dibelius on Getting Behind the Earliest Tradition—Chris Keith

I have spent much effort in publications on detailing the ways in which the criteria of authenticity are outgrowths of form criticism.  In my contribution to Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise ofAuthenticity, however, I also pointed out a difference.  I noted how, although both the form critics and the criteria approach try to get “behind” the Gospel texts, what they sought was different.  The form critics sought the earliest oral tradition, which still reflected the interpretations of the Palestinian Christians.  The criteria approach sought something like uninterpreted tradition, raw access to the historical Jesus.  

In doing some research today, I was surprised to see that Martin Dibelius, already in his From Tradition to Gospel, had warned against doing precisely what Käsemann and company did in developing the criteria of authenticity on the basis of form criticism:
“Methodological knowledge . . . is important.  For even here we must beware of the temptations to employ literary criticism and to delete ‘additions’ for the purpose of reaching a historical and completely purified original-original form from the original form found in the Paradigm.  Such an original-original form never existed, or at least not in the region of the missionary tradition in Greek.  When this tradition was created it was for the purpose of preaching, and that preaching required those sayings of a general character which are probably unhistorical.”  (From Tradition to Gospel, 64)
In the 1970s, Morna Hooker would make very, very similar complaints about the criteria approach’s usage of form criticism for historical, rather than literary, purposes.  To be fair, though, it should be noted that Bultmann was much more comfortable with using form criticism to reach historical conclusions and regarded this as a difference between him and Dibelius, which is probably why primarily his students went on to develop the criteria of authenticity.


  1. Interesting observations, Chris. A related issue: I have noticed a tendency in some scholars to talk about "the form critics" when in fact they mean Bultmann. It's important to grasp the differences between Bultmann, Dibelius and, for that matter, Taylor, if one is going to understand the form critics accurately.

    1. Agreed. Jeremias is a great example of this. To my mind, he
      represents the early aims of that "school" and wasn't as easily side-tracked by speculations of community reconstruction.


  2. I think, Debelius was still a form critic. Form critics have a common denominator that Sitz im Leben is the most important factor to decide the original tradition. But they define the Sitz im Leben differently. In this respect, I agree that even Dibelius is different from Bultmann in many ways.

    Dibelius applied form criticism to analyzing “purer forms” behind the gospel tradition. In his From “Tradition” to “Gospel” he used three key dichotomies to sift single discrete “traditions” from the “Gospel.” He set oral tradition, Aramaic tradition, and eyewitness testimony in opposition to written tradition, Greek tradition, and eyewitness preaching. In his view, the first three traditions are transmitted to the latter three counterparts in a unidirectional way. Consequently, the first three traditions are more original. When dealing with sayings by Jesus and stories about Jesus, Dibelius argued that the first three manifestations represented purer forms than their counterparts. He thinks that the transmission from eyewitness testimony to eyewitness preaching is more important factor than the transmissions from Aramaic into Greek tradition, and from oral into written tradition.

    Bultmann maintained the three key unidirectional hypotheses of the transmission of the Jesus and gospel tradition. In his view, the traditions were transmitted from oral to written form, from Aramaic to Greek, and from Judaeo-Palestinian to Hellenistic tradition in a unidirectional way, and never vice versa. He (1968:6) called this unidirectional concept “laws govern[ing] the development of material.” He considered the Sitz im Leben transmission from Judaeo-Palestinian to Hellenistic tradition the essential factor in deciding upon modal transmission(from oral into written) or linguistic transmissions(from Aramaic into Greek).

    The form critics supposed that the Jesus and gospel traditions were unidirectionally transmitted from oral into written forms, Aramaic into Greek, and Judaeo-Palestinian into Hellenistic tradition, and never vice versa. The three unidirectionality hypotheses are based on their hard and fast distinction between Aramaic-speaking Palestinian Jewish Christians and Greek-speaking Hellenistic Gentile Christians. This was based on their assumptions of monolingualism in first-century Palestine and the Roman Near East. To date, the three unidirectionality hypotheses have had strong and widespread influence upon New Testament scholarship and in discussions about the historical Jesus, the synoptic problem, textual-critical arguments, and development of christological titles, etc.

    But I think that the transmission of Jesus and gospel traditions is not unilinear, teleological, or unidirectional but hybrid, circular, and interdirectional. This implies that the former three traditions (oral, Semitic, and Palestinian) are not always closer to the historical Jesus than the latter three traditions(written, Greek, and Hellenistic).