Sitz im Leben
In Biblical criticism, Sitz im Leben is a German phrase roughly translating to "setting in life". It stands for the alleged context in which a text has been created, and its function and purpose at that time. When interpreting a text, the Sitz im Leben has to be taken into consideration in order to allow a proper understanding of its meaning.
The term originated with the German Protestant theologian Hermann Gunkel. The term Sitz im Volksleben ("setting in the life of the people") was employed for the first time in 1906 and the term Sitz im Leben in 1918. The term Sitz im Leben was used by classic form critics, as pointed out by Chris Tuckett, "...it has been pointed out that the term Sitz im Leben was used in a rather peculiar way by the classic form critics. In fact the term is a sociological one, describing a typical situation within any community" so that the meaning of the text is bound up with its function in the community, and social context. However some have noted that use in Biblical exegesis can be problematic.
At its simplest, it describes what occasions certain passages in the Bible were written for, and is often called the "genres" of the Bible. Simple examples of Sitz im Leben include the classification of material into letters, poems of lament, parables, psalms, and songs. However, Sitz im Leben can also involve many other considerations; who the speaker of a passage was, his role in life, the nature of his audience, and so on. Taken out of its original context, the original meaning of a passage is often lost. So for example, a psalm may have its Sitz in the ritual of the temple cult, or as an artistic votive offering, or in the sense of injustice arising from a power structure in Jerusalem society, or lament in defeat. A major aim of hermeneutics (contextualizing interpretation) is to uncover such things.
Today the term is also used outside theological research, when it is needed to examine a text for its sociologically relevant aspects. For example: the Sitz im Leben of a counting rhyme like "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" is a group of children deciding among themselves who will play in a game; when the children chant the song, we know that they are choosing who will play, but if we are unaware of this context, the rhyme appears merely to be nonsense about toes.
- Prophets and paradigms: essays in honor of Gene M. Tucker ed. Gene M. Tucker, Stephen Breck Reid 1996 p. 113 Form-Criticism of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971
- Christopher Mark Tuckett Reading the New Testament: methods of interpretation 1987 – 200.14"
- Wolfgang Kraus, R. Glenn Wooden Septuagint research: issues and challenges 2006 p. 23 "With the introduction of the term Sitz im Leben we see that for NETS the meaning and significance of the text is bound up with its inferred function within the community that produced it."
- Rolf Rendtorff The Old Testament: an introduction 1985 "Gunkel's term 'Sitz im Leben' denotes a particular situation of communication with which a genre – or even several genres – may be connected. In a more comprehensive sense the term can therefore also denote the social context in ..."
- W. S. Vorster, J. Eugene Botha – Speaking of Jesus: essays on biblical language, gospel narrative 1999 p. 336 ("The use of the term Sitz im Leben has become very misleading and problematic, see Guttgemanns 1970:82ff.")