Guest Blog: Form Criticism and Catfish

Dr. Mike Russell from In Search Of Arete recently wrote this excellent series on higher criticism based on a question I posted on Theologica. The posts poke fun while doing a great job explaining the different forms of higher criticism applied to Scripture. He graciously allowed me to repost them here at The Bible Archive. This is Post 2 of 4.

Form Criticism (FC), you will remember, examines the previous forms a document might have been in prior to what is now in front of us. We know, for example, that prior to the synoptic Gospels being written they existed in an oral form. FC looks at the effect previous forms have upon the final product.

Our text under consideration now is a petition that Rey made recently:

I started cooking too late tonight and it’s too cold and dark out to turn on the grill. Does anyone have a CatFish [sic] recipe for stove top or oven?!!? I hope people are online.

According to Carson, Moo, and Morris – which is not a law firm – there are a half dozen assumptions made by FC scholars that we will adapt and apply when possible to Rey’s text.

1. “The stories and sayings . . . circulated in small independent units.”

It is very unlikely that the final text we have from Rey suddenly blossomed into its present form, given that there are at least seven bits of information that came together to produce the message as we now have it. It is beyond question (I’m writing like a FC scholar now) that each of these units existed in an oral form first; it is equally certain that not all, if any, of the oral traditions originated with the author, i.e., Rey. It is not unreasonable to conclude that other family members or friends contributed to the final text with their own, unique oral traditions. For example, Rey’s wife likely was the first to notice the time and thus begin the oral teaching, “It’s too late.” Someone else, perhaps, one of his children, contributed something of their own, such as, “You’re cooking?” which was adapted by Rey for his text. Other oral contributions would include references to the amount of light available at their geographical location, the fact that the grill was not turned on (or even mildly aroused), and that recipes exist that are applicable to non-grill adventures in catfish conflagrations.

2. “The transmission of the material can be compared to the transmission of other folk and religious traditions.”

Although it is Rey who typed this petition, it is actually the product of his community. It was in collaboration with them that Rey shaped and worded the material as we now have it.

3. “The stories and sayings . . . took on certain standard forms . . . for the most part still readily visible [in the text].”

Some of what is included in Rey’s text is clearly in the form of folk tales, cultural legends, and paradigms. Surely the statement “it’s too cold and dark out to turn on the grill” reflects a old tale going back centuries in the lore of the Pennsylvania Amish. There also seems to be a cultural legend reflected in the implied fear of lighting and using a grill in the cold and dark, perhaps demonstrating the widely held belief in demonic spirits that come down from the Nittany Mountains to dance around grill fires.

4. “The form of a specific story or saying makes it possible to determine its Sitz im Leben (“setting in life”) . . .”

We know from the form of this text that Rey was frightened by both the cold and the dark, ravenously hungry, and mentally confused to the point that he forgot how to cook. This explains the hyperbolic nature of the text, as well as the desperate tone.

5. “As it passed down the sayings and stories . . . [the] community not only put the material into certain forms, it modified it under the impetus of its own needs and situations.”

A starving household, almost deranged with hunger, could not help but impact the final form of the text. Was this indeed an historical event? Or was it exaggerated due to the pressing need of growling stomachs and grumbling wives? Even if it does portray an actual situation, it has taken on a particular form due to the needs of the community.

6. “Classic form critics have typically utilized various criteria to enable them to determine the age and historical trustworthiness of particular pericopes.”

The “laws” include lengthening stories, adding details to embellish them, conforming them to their own idiosyncratic language (e.g., “stove top” instead of “microwave”), preserving and creating “only what fits their own needs and beliefs.” The story omits, for example, any reference to other food in the house or the proximity of a McRestaurant in order to heighten the sense of drama and desperation. This serves the purpose of motivating the audience to come up recipes for the family, or perhaps ordering them a pizza.

Such is the nature of form criticism and how it enables us to better understand the otherwise completely incomprehensible text provided by the Rey Community.

Next we will further our understanding of Rey and catfish through the lens of Source Criticism.

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