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No. 85 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program January 2000

In answer to the form-critical analyses of M. Dibelius and R. Bultmann

by John F. McCarthy

        1. The background of this article.  In the November 1999 issue of Living Tradition, I presented a neo-Patristic interpretation of what is said about St. Joseph in Matt 2:23, the text of which reads as follows: And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled that he would be called a Nazorean. My interpretation used a contemporary neo-Patristic framework, based upon the teaching of the Fathers of the Church and upon Catholic exegetical tradition, especially upon the interpretation of Thomas Aquinas. This interpretation defends the historical truth of the verse and of the entire Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke in terms of the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture. I recognized a certain ambiguity in the literal sense, inasmuch as Matthew may be affirming either that Joseph went and dwelt in Nazareth because Joseph saw this to be a fulfillment of prophecy concerning Jesus, or that Matthew himself saw the settling in Nazareth as a fulfillment of a prophecy. In that article I offered evidence in favor of the possible historical truth of either alternative, and I presented different ways, on the levels of the Four Senses, in which this verse of Matthew indicates a fulfillment of prophecy. The conclusion of that study was that there is no error of logic or of fact in Matt 2:23 either on the level of the literal sense or on the levels of the three spiritual senses. I noted that historical-critics would not agree with this conclusion, but, in order to avoid an inopportune digression, I postponed the problems they raise to a subsequent writing, which problems pertain almost entirely to the literal sense of the text. I now take up an analysis of some of these difficulties, but, for the sake of brevity, I limit this discussion to the form-critical phase of historical-critical interpretation.

        2. The form-critical approach of Martin Dibelius.  The form-criticism of the Gospels arose in Germany just after the First World War, centered mainly around two critical works, Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums, published in 1919 by Martin Dibelius, whose English translation, From Tradition to Gospel (FTG), will be quoted in this article, 1 and Die Geschichte der Synoptischen Tradition, published in 1921 by Rudolf Bultmann, whose English translation, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (HST), will be quoted here. 2 Dibelius expressed the aim of his study as "a research in the history of the Form of the Gospels," in particular of the Synoptic Gospels, beginning from "the recognition that they are collections of material" which was chosen, limited, and finally shaped by the evangelists but not given by them their "original molding" (FTG, pp. 2-3). The objective of his book is to defend "the right to read the Gospels from the standpoint of the development of their form" (FTG, 6). He sees the study of these Gospels as a study of popular writings not dependent upon individual writing ability and having no individual source of a personal and creative character, but expressing a mere "sociological result" in which the literary categories are determined "according to laws which are independent of the individual personality," so as to enable the form-critical researcher "to draw a conclusion regarding their Sitz im Leben, i.e., the historical and social stratum in which precisely these literary forms were developed" (FTG, 7). Characteristically, the form-critic pursues the question of "what categories are possible or probable in this sociological connection" (FTG, 8).

        3. The form-critical approach of Rudolf Bultmann.  The form-critical approach of Rudolf Bultmann does not differ essentially from that of Martin Dibelius. "The aim of form-criticism," according to Bultmann, "is to determine the original form of a piece of narrative, a dominical saying or a parable" (HST, p. 6). For this work he summarizes certain presuppositions, which are now to be taken for granted, such as the following. Mark is the oldest of the four Gospels, and even Mark "is the work of an author who is steeped in the theology of the early Church" (HST, 1) 3; there is a "fundamental assumption that the [Synoptic] tradition consists of individual stories or groups of stories joined together in the Gospels by the work of the editors" (HST, 2); "the distinction between traditional and editorial material" in the Gospels is an established procedure (HST, 3); the respective "literary form" which the form-critic assigns to the respective Gospel units "is a sociological concept and not an aesthetic one," although "one piece of the tradition is seldom to be classified unambiguously in a single category" (HST, 4); form-criticism "has to move in a circle," inasmuch as "the forms of the literary tradition must be used to establish the influences operating in the life of the community, and the life of the community must be used to render the forms themselves intelligible." What is more, in Bultmann's opinion, form-criticism not only "presupposes judgments of facts," but must also "lead to judgments about facts," such as "the genuineness of a saying, the historicity of a report and the like," gravitating around "the one chief problem of primitive Christianity, the relationship of the primitive Palestinian and Hellenistic Christianity" (HST, 5).

        4. How does the form-criticism of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann relate to the prophecy referred to in Matt 2:23?  Dibelius concludes that Matt 2:22-23, narrating the decision of Joseph to go and settle in Nazareth, did not pertain to the original story of "the slaughter of the children," but expresses "remarks of the evangelist who wishes to introduce Nazareth as Jesus' home." Dibelius excludes that this element could have been original, because, "Otherwise we should have to ask why the angel said nothing of the renewed danger, or why Joseph under such an openly proclaimed divine protection, gave hearing to the voice of human fear" (FTG, 129). This is flimsy reasoning. Joseph had given hearing to human fear even earlier, when he fled with the Virgin and Child into Egypt, knowing that it would have been presumptuous on his part to count upon some not-promised extraordinary divine protection. Fear was more than justified on Joseph's part, according to all of the circumstances of the episode. And we don't have to ask why the Angel said nothing of the renewed danger: we are told in the text that Joseph was warned in a dream. Yet Bultmann concurs with this form-critical conclusion as he states: "Dibelius rightly says that verses 22f. [of Matt 2] are not legendary, but were added by Matthew with the intention of introducing Nazareth as the home of Jesus (HST, 439). For Bultmann, this "awkward combination of the historical tradition of Nazareth as Jesus' home town with the messianic dogma of his birth at Bethlehem" is an idea, not based upon any prior happening, but invented by Matthew himself in order to give continuity to his account (HST, 294).

        5. The immediate background of this form-critical interpretation.  To address this question adequately, one must situate the brief remarks of Bultmann and Dibelius about Matt 2:23 within the context of their treatment of the entire Infancy Narrative (Matt 1-2). It is important to realize that both Bultmann and Dibelius take for granted that the separate units that they distinguish in the Gospel accounts have, in general, their origin in human imagination, with some possible real basis in some cases. Thus, the Christian tradition that Jesus came from Nazareth is accorded more historical probability than the tradition that He was born in Bethlehem (which they consider to be a non-real story made up to show a fulfillment of the prophecy in Micah 5:1). As a general procedure of the form-critical method, the presumed imaginary origin of the episodes recounted gives way only to evident realities gathered from outside sources, and, while these evident realities are accepted provisionally by the form-critic, they also undergo a continual probing in search of difficulties that could call into question their status as real. Furthermore, affirmations pertaining to supernatural events of any kind are systematically relegated to the category of the unreal and the unhistorical. Such processing is done in the name of historical science, but it is not scientific, because true historical science deals with unique events of the past, and it must seek to discover what actually happened; it cannot define in advance what could or could not have happened on the basis of assumed statistical laws. Neither Bultmann nor Dibelius ever demonstrated historically that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem; they simply reasoned from the assumption that the story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem was concocted by Christians from meditation on the prophecy in Micah. Now, if the prophecy in Micah was inspired by God to predict the real historical birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, an idea that form-critics have excluded a priori but never refuted, then the tradition of the birth of Jesus relates an historical fact, and, consequently, its narration in Matthew is historical reality. In this case, the result is that Matthew's account of the decision of Joseph to go and settle in Nazareth is not an "awkward combination" of history with dogma; it is rather a true historical happening.

        6. The more remote background of this form-critical interpretation of Martin Dibelius.  Unfounded presuppositions form the basis of this form-critical conclusion. On the basis of uncertified and non-existent "sociological laws," both Dibelius and Bultmann assume that these Christian writers of the first century A.D. could neither have gathered historical facts with critical judgment regarding their reality nor could they have made up their alleged events with independent creativity. Rather they take for granted that the "laws" governing their sociological environment would necessarily have caused these narrators to copy ideas derived from outside of their Christian culture and shape them instinctively into stories that fitted their sociological compulsions. But, seeing that these Synoptic Gospel writers possessed intelligence and free will, no such "sociological laws" were governing them; all of the historical evidence regarding their culture is against such an assumption. For Dibelius the "literary understanding of the Synoptics begins with the recognition that they are collections of material" and that the composers are principally "collectors, vehicles of tradition, editors" but "only to the smallest extent authors" (FTG, 3). One can recognize here some twisted logic. Historians are collectors of material; they judge concerning the reality of the material, but they are not authors of the material. The Synoptic evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, were collectors of material, they judged concerning the reality of the material that they collected, but they were not authors of the material. Dibelius has himself stepped away from this reality; he assumes without proof that the Synoptic Gospels are in the genre of "aesthetic" (imaginative) literature, not of reality-oriented literature, and then he reduces the evangelists to the level of "vehicles" having little creative influence of their own. It is this assumption of non-reality that invalidates his conclusion.

        7. The concurrence of Rudolf Bultmann.  The same can be said for Bultmann's method. In his form-critical apparatus, Bultmann agrees with Dibelius that each literary form that is unearthed in the Synoptic Gospels is "a sociological concept and not an aesthetic one." What he means is that the short pieces that he sees sewn together by the editors of the Synoptic Gospels do not arise from free human creativity but rather as an unfree reaction to the impulses of the sociological environment of the respective human instruments. There is no scientific basis for this assumption. Moreover, Bultmann admits that his conclusions have to "move in a circle," inasmuch as he judges what is factual according to his presuppositions and he adds presuppositions from facts that he has so adjudged. Is this science or pseudoscience?

        8. Two form-critical views of the Virginal Conception of Jesus.  Dibelius sees Matthew's Infancy Narrative as being basically "legendary" (FTG, 129-131), but he feels that Matthew's account of the Virginal Conception (Matt 1:18-25) "can in no way be called a legend," because "it is not the miracle but its defense which is the center," and "the decisive proof-passage from the Old Testament about the virgin who should become a mother (Isa 7:14) is not interwoven into the speech of the angel but given as a meditative quotation." So Dibelius concludes that the entire passage is "the work of this evangelist" (FTG, 128), meaning that this entire passage was phrased by the evangelist in defense of what Dibelius calls "the Legend of the Virgin," as it appears in Luke 1:26-38. Since this "legend," he says, "depends verbally on Isaiah 7:14," the prophecy "must be regarded as an essential element of the whole legend" ((FTG, 124). And the response of the Virgin, "How shall this come about, since I know not man," reveals to the form-critical eye of Dibelius that Joseph did not belong originally to the story, but was interpolated by the evangelist (FTG, 124). Bultmann, on the other hand, in his form-critical research, sees a likelihood that the conception and birth of Jesus reported in Matt 1:18-25 was a Semitic report which "would not have contained the motif, unheard of in a Jewish environment, of a virgin birth." Bultmann concludes that the "Virgin Birth" motif "was first added in the transformation in Hellenism, where the idea of the generation of a king or a hero from a virgin by the godhead was widespread" (HST, 291). Believing that he has gone back into the history of this account, Bultmann reasons that "the old story had simply told how an angel promised Joseph that his son would be Messiah" (HST, 292), supporting his conclusion with the observation that in the story Joseph is expressly addressed as "son of David."

        9. The weakness of this form-critical explanation.  We already knew why Joseph, in Matt 1:20, was addressed by the angel as "son of David." It was for him to represent the male seed of the House of David in an acceptance of the Virginal Conception of Jesus and in becoming a Christian. The carnal interpretation of Bultmann and Dibelius does not stand up in the light of the full spiritual meaning of the text. If one compares the reasoning in these two form-critical treatments of the Virginal Conception of Jesus, presented by the two principal founders of the form-criticism of the Gospels, the weakness and invalidity of the reasoning becomes apparent. Dibelius concludes that the prophecy in Isa 7:14 is clearly essential to the story, inasmuch as, in his estimation, the story originated from pious meditation on Isa 7:14 and the desire to make it apply to Jesus. Bultmann, using the same form-critical method, concludes that Isa 7:14 clearly could not have belonged to the original story about the conception of Jesus. Since the conclusions flatly contradict one another, both could not be right, and, truth to tell, neither is right. If the Virginal Conception actually took place in history, and if an angel did speak to Mary as narrated in Luke 1:35 and to Joseph as narrated in Matt 1:20, then the historical fact of the virginal conception of Jesus is the basis of the story. In this reading, the prediction of the Virginal Conception in Isa 7:14 is a proof of the event but is not "essential" to the historical fact itself. Bultmann and Dibelius exclude in principle the historical fact, but they never deal adequately with the question of historical fact. Thus, Bultmann declares to his readers: "The idea of a divine generation from a virgin is not only foreign to the O.T. and to Judaism, but is completely impossible" ((HST, 291). On historical grounds Bultmann cannot correctly begin from the presupposition that a virginal conception is "completely impossible," but it is this presupposition that underpins all the rest of his reasoning about it. He believes that the idea is "foreign to the Old Testament and to Judaism, while the truth is that the idea was initiated with the prophecy of Isaiah in the Old Testament. Bultmann sees himself forced to resort to an unhistorical distinction: not foreign to Hellenistic Judaism (which began in the fourth century B.C.), but to "Palestinian Judaism," as though there had been no cultural exchange between "Hellenistic Judaism" and "Palestinian Judaism," whereas Judaism of its very nature transcends such a cultural separation. Bultmann assumes that the Palestinian Jews of early Christian times had no acquaintance with the Septuagint and that the Septuagint translators of Isa 7:14 were under the influence of "Egyptian ideas" (HST, 438). There is no evidence for this. With the method he is using, it seems futile for Bultmann to adduce his "parallels" of virginal conceptions from pagan literature without first having determined when those pagan stories arose. That any of these pagan stories dates from before the time of Isaiah he does not show. Form-critics like to assume that pagan parallels are older than they are. Almost inevitably they trace the biblical story to the pagan parallel, rather than ever considering that the pagan parallel may derive from the biblical source, Isaiah 7:14 being the case in point.

        10. In relation to Luke 2:39.  Form-critics think that they see a logical conflict between the episodes in Matt 2 and what is said in Luke 2:39: And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. How could the flight into Egypt have occurred, if the Holy Family returned to their home town of Nazareth immediately after the purification in the Temple? If, by "the law of the Lord" is meant "the law of Moses," then it is to be noted that the text does not say that they returned "immediately" after the purification. Or "the law of the Lord" could include the command to flee into Egypt and remain there for a time. In the previous article I speculated on the idea that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the principal source of the Infancy Narratives both in Matthew and in Luke and that she had narrated these happenings at different times in two different sequences according to the indications of prudence. 4 In the sequence of events recounted in Luke, the chronology skipped over the happenings in Matthew 2, making use of a mental reservation according to which an immediate return to Nazareth was not really implied.

        11. Bultmann's Modernist idea of "Hellenistic Christianity."  A novel idea of the "transformation" of "Palestinian Christianity" into "Hellenistic Christianity" is the characteristic instrument in Rudolf Bultmann's devastating interpretation of the Gospels. This alleged transformation, which goes against the very essence of Christian faith, has never been historically demonstrated to have taken place; it is just a belief of Modernist anti-faith, and Bultmann has at times needed to stretch the plausibility of this belief to the utmost in order to maintain it. We have seen above how it required him to deny any possibility of the occurrence of the idea of a virginal conception in the imagination of early Palestinian Christians or of the fact of any such conception in the real world. It also forced him to downplay the fact that the Palestinian people had been in contact with the Hellenistic world from the fourth century B.C.; they did not first encounter it a generation after the death of Jesus. One cannot adequately survey the exegesis of Bultmann or Dibelius without taking into account their form-critical framework and the way in which this framework is controlled by Modernist anti-belief to produce the results that they desire. Their system depends upon an initial acceptance of the world-view of Rationalism together with certain Modernism presuppositions, and it progresses by meditation upon plausible arguments intended to show how these presuppositions apply to the Sacred Text. But the arguments are never more than plausible, and closer examination reveals in every case that the plausibility is not based upon objective truth but only upon the emotional satisfaction that it gives to the form-critic as he thinks that he is peeling away historical truth from the Gospel text.

        12. Can the form-critical method of Bultmann and Dibelius be separated from their Rationalist and Modernist beliefs?  One can always draw a theoretical distinction between the form-critical method itself and the system of Rationalist/Modernist presuppositions in which Bultmann and Dibelius believed. However, in order to pursue this theoretical distinction, one must also identify the presuppositions of the form-critical method itself. Now, in undertaking this work one will quickly discover that Rationalist and Modernist presuppositions underlie the form-critical method itself, at least as it is used by Bultmann and Dibelius and by any of their followers who have not completed the preliminary task of eliminating such presuppositions. I know of no form-critic who has performed this task or who has shown objectively that such a task can be completed successfully. In our examination of the form-critical interpretation of Matt 2:23 presented by Bultmann and Dibelius, we saw that Rationalism/Modernism was clearly functioning. Both of these writers exhibit Modernist belief in assuming that the episodes in Matt 1-1 and Luke 1-2 are products of the religious instinct of the early Christian community, and they exhibit Rationalist belief in assuming that none of the supernatural elements in these narratives could possibly be true, on the ground that nothing beyond the natural can possibly take place. Without these beliefs their form-critical process could not go forward. Matt 2:23 speaks about what was predicted by the prophets, but the Rationalism of Bultmann and Dibelius prohibits them from giving any consideration to the idea that this might really be so. Instead, they give flimsy arguments against the historical truth of the settling of the Holy Family in Nazareth, realizing that those many biblical scholars who share their Rationalist/Modernist beliefs will be predisposed to agree with them and will, therefore, be the more easily convinced. But such scholarly activity is not critical thinking in the true sense of the word. Added to this defect of method is the failure of form-criticism to give ear to the spiritual message of the Sacred Text. The method itself tells the operator to set his mind above the message and to let his presuppositions override both the historical truth and the moral impact of the text.

        13. The first basic error of form-criticism is to assume that the Synoptic Gospels are products of a religious instinct functioning in a credulous people who did not have sufficient intellectual development to be able to think on their own but simply concocted stories under the influence of certain "sociological laws." This assumption is belied by overwhelming evidence on the contrary. All serious historical study of Palestinian Christians at the time of Christ shows that the Palestinian people of the time were perfectly capable of thinking on their own and of making up their own stories, if they had had any desire to do so. But there is no historical reason for affirming that they made up these stories. The text of the Gospels is simple and straightforward in the genre of real chronology; it has none of the characteristics of narrative fiction. And the "sociological laws" invented by Emil Durkheim and others to control the function of a society devoid of intelligence and free will is a mere figment of the Rationalist imagination. Form-criticism assumes that those who formed the Gospel traditions had to copy their ideas from elsewhere, whether it was to copy them from Old Testament texts or from current Jewish practices, from pagan traditions, or from one another, but they could not record what they saw happening in actual fact. And so the early Christians are assumed to have been dishonest people who spread lies in the name of truth and then often believed their own lies. There is no historical basis for this accusation. Form-criticism applies prevenient methodic doubt to the text of the Gospels, and this kind of doubt is anti-faith. Catholic form-critics try to exempt from such doubt the dogmas of the Church, but they are often under pressure from the method itself to doubt this or that teaching of the Church.

        14. The second basic error of form-criticism lies in the way it understands its own tradition. Bultmann and Dibelius see their form-critical tradition as a vaguely scientific one, but in their expositions, the question of science is never clearly defined. In fact, whether they are attempting to present reality as reality is never clear in their exposition. They do (uncritically) limit all reality to the bounds of the natural, but their speculation in support of this position often goes beyond the presentations of logic and of natural reality. It is true that they are spokesmen for an historic school of exegesis, and of this they are aware. Dibelius tells his readers that Johann Gottfried Herder "was the pioneer" of movements to understand "the special character of religious popular literature," while Georg Heinrici distinguished the New Testament writings from literature proper, inasmuch as they were to him "the sources and the witnesses of a missionary activity." Then Hermann Gunkel made the analysis of the smallest details "an axiom of research" (FTG, 5). Bultmann, too, has his list of accepted results of the historical research of his predecessors. Thus, Wilhelm Wrede performed a "quite annihilating criticism" of the seemingly clear historical development in the Gospel according to St. Mark, and Julius Wellhausen showed "how the theology of the early Church has influenced the traditional material"; it was Wellhausen who "stated very clearly the fundamental assumption that the tradition consists of individual stories or groups of stories joined together in the Gospels by the work of the editors." Bultmann notes that Gunkel had shown how the methods of form-criticism could be applied to the Old Testament, and K.L. Schmidt presented a conclusive discussion of "the distinction of traditional from editorial material." Finally, Martin Dibelius has "brilliantly shown" the fruitfulness of form-criticism "for discovering the stages in the development of the tradition as well as for the Gospels as a whole" (HST, 1-3). Looking at these evaluations from outside of the historical-critical tradition, one is inclined to question how correct is the classification of the Gospels as "popular religious literature" with no appreciation of its inspired character, and to ask whether Gunkel's analysis of the "smallest details" of the text of Genesis did not actually lead him to miss the meaning, not only of the details, but even of the text as a whole. Would that there were available a consistent critique of these and other "accepted results" of historical-critical research, but this important work still remains largely to be done. Wrede's notion of "historical development" does not meet the standards of serious historical research, while Wellhausen, in his work on the influence of the theology of the early Church upon the traditional material, doesn't even seem to have understood the distinction between the finis operis and the finis operantis of the respective sacred writer.

        15. Conclusion.  The neo-Patristic method of biblical interpretation can present a full and a truly fulfilling commentary on the Gospels, as we have tried to demonstrate with regard to Matt 2:23 and with other passages of the Sacred Text. But in the circumstances of contemporary biblical scholarship, the neo-Patristic study of the Sacred Text requires also an analysis of the results of historical-critical research. In the present article I have done some analysis of the form-critical conclusions of Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius regarding Matt 2:23 and its background, which could serve as one more illustration of how form-critical interpretations of the Gospels can be objectively analyzed. Form-critics tend to assume that Gospel episodes do not recount real historical events. Since they have never demonstrated this assumption, they depend upon arguments which appear to be plausible especially to those who have already to some degree been disposed to doubt the historicity. It is my conclusion that this kind of argumentation cannot stand up under neo-Patristic criticism. In the case of Matt 2:23, Bultmann and Dibelius dismiss the historicity of the Holy Family's going and settling in Nazareth for insufficient reasons, seeing that they present weak and questionable criticisms of an historical account in Matthew that is already logical and clear. But the use of something like the neo-Patristic method is important for determining why their form-critical analysis is insufficient and how the account of Matthew can be regarded as logical and clear.


1. Martin Dibelius, Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums (first published in 1919, second revised edition, 1933); English translation by Bertram Lee Woolf of the revised edition: From Tradition to Gospel (Cambridge, England, The Library of Theological Translations, 1971 - hereafter to be referred to as FTG).

2. Rudolf Bultmann, Die Geschichte der Synoptischen Tradition (1st ed., 1921; 8th rev. ed., Göttingen, 1970; Eng. trans. by J. Marsh, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963 - hereafter to be referred to as HST). Another important book in the launching of the form-criticism of the Gospels was K.L. Schmidt's Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu, published in 1919.

3. I shall not deal with the question of the oldest Gospel in this article.

4. See "Called by the Prophets a Nazorean (Matthew 2:23)," in Living Tradition 84 (Nov. 1999), no. 14.

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