Source criticism (biblical studies)

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Source criticism, in biblical criticism, refers to the attempt to establish the sources used by the author and/or redactor of a biblical text.

Biblical source criticism originated in the 18th century with the work of Jean Astruc, who adapted the methods already developed for investigating the texts of Classical antiquity (Homer's Iliad in particular) to his own investigation into the sources of the Book of Genesis. It was subsequently considerably developed by German scholars in what was known as "the Higher Criticism", a term no longer in widespread use. The ultimate aim of these scholars was to reconstruct the history of the biblical text, as well as the religious history of ancient Israel.

In general, the closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it to give an accurate description of what really happened. In the Bible where a variety of earlier sources have been quoted, the historian seeks to identify and date those sources used by biblical writers as the first step in evaluating their historical reliability.

In other cases, Bible scholars use the way a text is written (changes in style, vocabulary, repetitions, and the like) to determine what sources may have been used by a biblical author. With some reasonable guesswork it is possible to deduce sources not identified as such (e.g., genealogies). Some inter-biblical sources can be determined by virtue of the fact that the source is still extant; e.g., where Chronicles quotes or retells the accounts of the books of Samuel and Kings.

Out of source criticism developed the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis considers the sources for the Pentateuch, claiming that there were four separate sources that combined to create the first five books of the bible. These sources are the Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly source. The Jahwist source is characterized by the use of the name YHWH, has a human-like God, and is especially concerned with the kingdom of Judah. The Jahwist source is thought to be written c. 950 B.C. The Elohist source is characterized with God being called Elohim, and deals more with the kingdom of Israel. The Elohist source is thought to be written c. 850 B.C. The Deuteronomic source is characterized by a sermon like style mostly concerned with law. The Deuteronomic source is thought to be written c. 721-621 BC. The Priestly source is characterized by a formal style that is mostly concerned with priestly matters. The Priestly source is thought to be written c. 550 BC. While there are many opponents to the Documentary Hypothesis, the majority of biblical scholars support it. Some of the other hypotheses that have been raised by source criticism are the fragmentary and supplementary hypotheses.

Related to Source Criticism is Redaction Criticism which seeks to determine how and why the redactor (editor) put the sources together the way he did. Also related are form criticism and tradition history which try to reconstruct the oral prehistory behind the identified written sources.

Famous examples[edit]


Biblical writers sometimes make explicit mention of the sources they use. Among the sources mentioned in the Hebrew Bible are: "The Book of the Acts of Solomon" (1 Kings 11:41), "The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah" (1 Kings 14:29 and in a number of other places), "The Book of the Chronicles of the kings of Israel." (I Kings 14:19 and in a number of other places), "The Book of Jashar" (Josh 10:12-14, 2 Sam 1:18-27, and possibly to be restored via textual criticism to 1 Kings 8:12), and "The Book of the Wars of the LORD" (Num 21:14). Also known as the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.

A more complicated and speculative form of source criticism results from critical evaluation of style, vocabulary, reduplication, and discrepancies. An example of this kind of source criticism is found in the book of Ezra-Nehemiah (typically treated by biblical scholars as one book) where scholars identify four types of source material: letters to and from Persian officials, lists of things, the Ezra memoir (where Ezra speaks in first person), and the Nehemiah memoir (where Nehemiah speaks in first person). It is thus deduced that the writer of Ezra-Nehemiah had access to these four kinds of source material in putting together his book.

Other examples in the Tanakh include:

  • The division of the Torah, and sometimes the historical books, into sources described by the "JEDP" documentary hypothesis and subsequent, more complex proposals
  • The division of the book of Isaiah by many critical scholars into original Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and sometimes Trito-Isaiah or upwards of six "Isaiahs"

New Testament[edit]

There is general consensus among New Testament scholars that Mark used a variety of sources, most of them written, and that the authors of Matthew and Luke were dependent on some version of Mark plus a lost collection of "sayings" called theQ Document. That the Gospel of John used a hypothetical Signs Gospel is possible, but less agreed upon.

Other works[edit]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Viviano, Pauline A. "Source Criticism." To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application. Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes, eds. Westerville John Knox Press, 1999. pp 35–57.

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