Form Criticism

The ‘form’ of a text allows you to recognise its purpose and social setting. Form criticism involves observing the conventions – content and structure – used by particular forms of story and poetry. This then allows a reconstruction of its original purpose and social setting.

This is based on the assumption that people’s tradition was preserved and passed on through small units of folk memory.

A classic exercise in Form Criticism was Hermann Gunkel’s analysis of the Psalms, in which he distinguished, for example, laments, hymns, and thanksgivings.
Gunkel observed that laments share a common structure:

  • address to God
  • lament – expressing sorrow or misery, or complaining about their cause
  • petition – asking for help
  • expression of trust and/or vow of praise

Hymns are characterised by descriptions of God, whereas thanksgivings are based on something specific that God has done.

There are also other types of psalm, for example, celebrating Zion or offering wise instruction.

Recognising these different forms allows you to consider their different purposes and social settings. A hymn of praise may have been used as an expression of corporate worship at festal gatherings in the temple, whereas a psalm of instruction might have belonged to a domestic setting.

Further reading

Barton, John. “Form Criticism.” Pages 838-41 in vol. 2 of Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.