Hermann Gunkel (photo) belonged to the “History of Religions School” (photo). This society aimed to investigate religion as a human phenomenon using the tools of sociology, anthropology, history, philology, and of course the study of actual religions. A contemporary defender of their approach is Gerd Ludemann, who is much more hostile to religion (Christianity in particular) than the old Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, as can be seen by glancing at the titles of some of his essays on his English-language web page. (I didn’t intend to inflict another “problem” on you, but Ludemann is relevant to the current topic.)
Gunkel took a completely different approach to the Old Testament from that perfected by Wellhausen. While W. dissected the text of the OT, like some dead thing, Gunkel approached it as the living literature of ancient Israel. Gunkel believed that “literature” in the ancient world was, first of all transmitted orally, and second, it was intimately related to the life of the people.
He noticed the many different styles and types of “literature” in the OT (he used the terms “form”–the same word in English and German–and Gattung, roughly equivalent to the French ‘genre.’ Gunkel believed there was a perfect match between various life situations and forms of expression. For example, a law court has its own language, as does a funeral dirge, a wedding song, a genealogical list, a family saga, the story of a nation, etc. In fact, it is essential to an oral literature that there be set forms that can be filled in like templates. (We may think of how children can fill in the details of stories that begin “Once upon a time . . .” and end, “and they lived happily every after.”
So for Gunkel, the task of the interpreter of the OT is to find the “setting in life” (you should learn the German term, “Sitz im Leben,” literally, “setting in the life of –”). Gunkel spoke of the Sitz im Leben Israels; later scholars applying his method to the Gospels would talk about the Sitz im Leben Jesu, or the Sitz im Leben der Gemeinde (the community, or church), as the setting of various pericopes.
Gunkel and Wellhausen had completely different interests. Wellhausen had no interest in the prehistory of the four main “documents” his hypothesis discovered. He wanted to use the documents to reconstruct the history of the religion of Israel (he did have that interest in common with Gunkel.) But Gunkel was not so much interested in the institutional history of Israel–he wanted to know what the living religion was like for the average Israelite. Gunkel had no interest in the written stage of Israelite literature, no interest in “documents” as such. He wanted to understand the life of the people that produced the oral traditions that were eventually written down.
Gunkel’s form criticism analyses individual units: poems, prophetic sayings, laws, pericopes or episodes in narratives. The first question was “what kind of setting in life produced this particular type of expression?” Then that life-setting was used to clarify the passage.
Gunkel would have been shocked if anyone had suggested that Israel alone, of all ancient nations, did not have forms such as legend, myth, and fable in its national literature, along with laws, genealogies, and royal chronicles. He believed each form of oral “literature” had its place and function in the life of the people.
One example of the connection between a form and a setting is the “etiological narrative.” Etiology refers to the origins of things and words. There are several narratives in Genesis, for example, that explain how certain places got there names. Note for example expressions like this: “and it is called X to this day.” There are also stories explaining customs and practices, even stories explaining why certain people are enemies (The Hattfields and McCoy’s must have had such stories!)
National stories express national values. Family stories express characteristics of the ancestors, family traits which were considered identifying traits of the descendants. Various types of Psalms are appropriate to various national, personal, and family occasions: thanksgiving and lamentation in particular.
Admirers of Gunkel observe his great sensitivity to the human religious spirit, to the meaning of religion for all people, and especially his literary sensitivity. He produced three separate commentaries on Genesis as well as two commentaries on the Psalms.