After the First World War, the limits of historical criticism had come to be recognized. Research did continue, but the emphasis was no less on establishing the original text, and more on determining the meaning of the text. The message given by Jesus was to be interpreted. Distinction was made between form and content of the gospel texts, and in consequence revision and editing of the texts held the focus of attention. The fact was considered that much of what is written in the Gospels did not come from Jesus' lips but was changed or inserted at a later date by the readers of the early church, as New Revelation has confirmed.
The aim was now to get to the pure teaching of Jesus', removing insertions and distortions. The scholars were no longer doubting the historicity of Jesus.
This method is known as form criticism. It has been the concern particularly of the theologians Rudolf Bultmann, Ludwig Schmidt, and the Protestant Bishop Dibelius.
The question the scholars put to themselves was what the reasons might have been for early Christian communities or their bishops to manipulate the gospel message. This was adumbrated with the phrase "basis in life", a concept that runs fike a thread through the literature on form criticism. "Basis in life" has, however, become something of a slogan, for it had to be regarded from the beginning as a wholly uncertain foundation for a body of knowledge that was at least reasonably subantiated. This clearly was also apparent to the workers.
Zahrnt made the following, rather apt, comment: "The problem of sources presents the greatest methodological difficulties in our case. For we have no formal criteria whatsoever to decide with any certainty what is part of the post-Easter creed of the early church and what goes back to Jesus himself. Only radical criticism will achieve our aims here." 57
This last sentence no doubt sounds surprising. It serves as a marker for a wrong path taken. English theologians were more cautious, considering the extreme uncertainty of the situation. They drew no conclusions from the results yielded by this rather vague method. It was not enough for them that the subjects were classified in groups and the group characteristics defined. In view of the obvious situation and the enormous risks, openly admitted by Zahrnt, it is surprising that theologians occasionally dare maintain that the method had made it possible to "achieve greater, and the best possible, reliability of genuine words spoken by Jesus and of facts." 58
Comparison with the disclosures made in New Revelation shows the extreme results of this method to be utterly wrong.