Hermann Gunkel bigraphy, stories - Founder of biblical form criticism

Hermann Gunkel : biography

23 May 1862 - 11 March 1932

Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932) was a German Old Testament scholar. He is most noted for founding form criticism. He was also a leading representative of the history of religions school. His major works cover Genesis and the Psalms and his major interests were the oral tradition behind the written sources and in folklore.


Gunkel was born in Springe, Kingdom of Hanover, where his father and grandfather were Lutheran pastors. He studied at the University of Göttingen and taught there and at the universities in Berlin, Giessen, and Halle.

Gunkel started his career in New Testament studies at Göttingen in 1888. However, he was soon transferred to Halle (1889-1894) and told to concentrate on the Hebrew Bible by the Prussian academic appointments authority. He went on to teach in Berlin (1894-1907), where he made many inter-disciplinary contacts. His 1895 book, Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton, compared the symbolism in Genesis and Revelation 12. In 1901, he produced the first of three editions of commentary on Genesis, Genesis Translated and Explained.

In 1907, Gunkel finally obtained a full professorship at the University of Giessen. There he produced the third and final edition of Genesis in 1910 and The Prophets in 1917. He moved to the University of Halle-Wittenberg in 1920. He published another standard work, his commentary on the book of Psalms, The Psalms: Translated and Explained in 1926. Introduction to the Psalms was his last major project, brought to completion by his student Joachim Begrich in 1933.

Gunkel founded the series Research into the Religion and Literature of the Old and New Testaments (1903-) with Wilhelm Bousset. He also co-edited with Leopold Zscharnack the second edition of the German religious encyclopedia Religion in History and the Present (1927-1931), in which he authored over one hundred articles.

Major works

  • (Introduction translated by William Herbert Carruth and published as in 1901.)
  • (Introduction available as )


Gunkel became a leading representative of the "History of Religions school" (Religionsgeschichtliche Schule), which addressed the history of traditions behind the biblical text. In addition to Gunkel, the original group also included Albert Eichhorn, William Wrede, Heinrich Hackmann, Alfred Rahlfs, Johannes Weiss, Wilhelm Bousset, Ernst Troeltsch, and Wilhelm Heitmüller. In the beginning they were primarily concerned with the origins of Christianity, but this interest eventually broadened to include the historical backgrounds of ancient Israelite and other Near Eastern religions.

His most important work was probably his commentary on Genesis, published in three editions from 1901 to 1910. In these works he created the new critical methodology of form criticism (Formgeschichte). Form criticism examined the genres used in the biblical text to identify the Sitz im Leben (setting in life) that produced the text. This approach was based on the assumption that each genre is organically associated with a particular social and historical situation. Gunkel and his circle believed that this was an improvement upon source criticism. Nineteenth-century source criticism had examined the biblical text, especially the Pentateuch, on the basis of style, vocabulary, theology, and other criteria to identify the basic literary sources used to create the text. Form criticism allowed scholars to go behind these larger literary sources by identifying the smaller and older sources used by their authors. Because of its utility, form criticism became immensely influential in Germany and Europe during the 20th century, being applied and developed by important scholars like Gerhard von Rad and Martin Noth. By the end of the 20th century, however, scholars commonly identified flaws in the approach and called for adjustments to it, such as one finds in Rhetorical Criticism or total replacements of it, such as postmodern Genre Criticism.

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