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Biblical criticism

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Biblical criticism is the analysis of the Bible from two distinctive perspectives: the 'scientific' concern to avoid dogma and bias by applying a neutral, non-sectarian, reason-based judgment to the study of the Bible, and the belief that reconstructing history according to contemporary understanding will correctly illuminate the texts. This basis in critical thinking set it apart from the precritical, the anti–critical and the post–critical methods that came before and after it. Biblical criticism, also called the "historical–critical method," began in the European West during the Enlightenment and lasted into the twentieth century when it then transformed into multiple variations with differing views.

Biblical criticism historically included a wide range of approaches and questions within four major contemporary methodologies: textual, source, form, and literary criticism. Textual criticism examines the text and its manuscripts to identify what the original text would have said. Source criticism searches the texts for evidence of original sources. Form criticism identifies short units of text and seeks to identify their original setting. Each of these is primarily historical and pre-compositional in its concerns. Contemporary literary criticism, on the other hand, focuses on the literary structure, authorial purpose, and reader's response to the text through methods such as rhetorical criticism, canonical criticism, and narrative criticism.

The rise of modern culture in the West, in the form of the German Enlightenment, is seen by most scholars as causing biblical criticism's creation, however, some scholars claim that its roots reach back to the Reformation. German pietism played a role in its development, as did British deism, with its greatest influences being rationalism and Protestant scholarship. The Enlightenment age and its skepticism of biblical and ecclesiastical authority ignited questions concerning the historical basis for the man Jesus separately from traditional theological views concerning him. This "quest" for the Jesus of history began in biblical criticism's earliest stages, reappeared in the nineteenth century, and again in the twentieth, remaining an interest of biblical criticism, on and off, for over 200 years.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, biblical criticism was influenced by a wide range of additional academic disciplines and theoretical perspectives, which changed it from a primarily historical approach to a multidisciplinary field. In a field long dominated by white male Protestants, others such as non-white scholars, women, and those from the Jewish and Catholic traditions became prominent voices. Globalization brought a broader spectrum of worldviews into the field, and other academic disciplines as diverse as Near Eastern studies, psychology, cultural anthropology and sociology formed new methods of biblical criticism such as socio-scientific criticism and psychological biblical criticism. Meanwhile, post-modernism and post-critical interpretation began questioning biblical criticism's role and function.

These additional world views changed the nature of biblical criticism. Contemporary critical methods are no longer primarily historical, and the criteria of neutral judgment has changed to one of beginning from a recognition of the various biases the reader brings to the study of the texts. Biblical criticism's legacy is both undeniable and mixed.


Beginnings: the eighteenth century[edit]

page with text beginning "Histoire Critique du vieux testament par Le R.P. Richard Simon"
Title page of Richard Simon's Critical History (1685), an early work of biblical criticism

Beginning in the Enlightenment era, philosophers and theologians such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677), and Richard Simon (1638–1712) began to question the tradition that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible. Spinoza wrote that Moses could not have written the preface to Deuteronomy, since he never crossed the Jordan, and found other problems such as Deuteronomy 31:9 which references Moses in the third person. Spinoza lists multiple inconsistencies and anomalies that led him to conclude "it was plain" that these Pentateuchal books were not written by Moses himself.[1]

Jean Astruc (1684–1766), a French physician, believed these critics were wrong about Mosaic authorship. According to Old Testament scholar Edward Young (1907–1968), Astruc believed that Moses used the hereditary accounts of the Hebrew people to assemble the book of Genesis.[2] Biblical criticism can be said to have begun when Astruc borrowed methods of textual criticism (used to investigate Greek and Roman texts) and applied them to the Bible in search of those original accounts. Astruc believed that he had identified them as separate sources that were edited together into the book of Genesis, thus explaining Genesis' problems while still allowing for Mosaic authorship.[3]:xvi The twenty or so Protestant universities in Germany adopted and developed Astruc's method. There was a willingness among the doctoral candidates to re-express Christian doctrine in terms of the scientific method and of the historical understanding common during the German Enlightenment (circa 1750–1850).[4]:2,3,5

German Pietism played a role in the rise of biblical criticism by supporting the desire to break the hold of religious authority.[4]:6 Rationalism also became a significant influence in the development of biblical criticism, providing its concern to avoid dogma and bias through reason.[5]:8,224 For example, the Swiss theologian Jean Alphonse Turretin (1671–1737) attacked conventional exegesis (interpretation) and argued for critical analysis led solely by reason. Turretin believed that the Bible could be considered authoritative even if it was not considered inerrant. This has become a common modern Judeo-Christian view.[6] Johann Salomo Semler (1725–1791) argued for an end to all doctrinal assumptions, giving historical criticism its non-sectarian nature. As a result, Semler is often called the father of historical-critical research.[5]:43 Semler distinguished between "inward" and "outward" religion, the idea that, for some people, their religion is their highest inner purpose, while for others, religion is a more exterior practice: a tool to accomplish other purposes more important to the individual – such as political or economic goals. Modern psychology recognizes this concept.[7][5]:43

John W. Rogerson says there are two views on biblical criticism's origins: one which traces it to the Enlightenment and the other which traces its origins to the Reformation.[8]:297 There are three early scholars of the Reformation era who are considered as having laid the intellectual foundations which bore later fruit: Joachim Camerarius (1500–1574), Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), and Matthew Tindal (1653–1733). Camerarius wrote a philological study of figures of speech in the biblical texts using their context to study and understand them.[9]:37 Grotius paved the way for comparative-religion studies by analyzing New Testament texts in the light of Classical, Jewish and early Christian writings.[9]:35 Tindal, as part of English deism, asserted that Jesus taught natural religion, an undogmatic faith that the Church later changed. Tindal's "view of Christianity as a mere confirmation of natural religion and his resolute denial of the supernatural" led him to conclude that "revealed religion is superfluous."[10]

Oil painting of Reimarus
Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768) studied the historical Jesus

Communications scholar James A. Herrick (b. 1954) says that even though most scholars agree that biblical criticism evolved out of the German Enlightenment, there are also histories of biblical scholarship that have found "strong direct links" with British deism. Herrick references the German theologian Henning Graf Reventlow (1929–2010) as linking deism with the humanist world view, which has also been significant in biblical criticism.[11][12]:13–15 English Deism was also an influence on the philosopher, writer, classicist, Hebraist and Enlightenment free-thinker Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768) in developing his criticism of revelation.[12]:13

During this same period, the biblical scholar Johann David Michaelis (1717–1791) advocated the use of other Semitic languages to understand the Old Testament, and in 1750, wrote the first modern introduction to the New Testament.[13][14] Instead of interpreting the Bible historically, Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1827), Johann Philipp Gabler (1753–1826), and Georg Lorenz Bauer (1755–1806) used the concept of myth as a tool for interpreting the Bible. Rudolf Bultmann later picked up this approach, and it became particularly influential in the early-twentieth century.[15]

George Ricker Berry says the term "higher criticism" was first used by Eichhorn in his three-volume work Einleitung ins Alte Testament which was published between 1780 and 1783. The term was originally used to differentiate higher criticism from lower which was the term commonly used for textual criticism at the time.[16] Higher criticism describes a method of study of the biblical texts using the text's own internal evidence: it focuses on the Bible's composition and history. Lower criticism (textual criticism) is concerned with finding and interpreting the text's meaning, and as such, is often highly subjective.[8]:297, 298 The importance of textual criticism means that these terms are no longer much used in contemporary studies.[17]:108

The historical Jesus[edit]

Hermann Samuel Reimarus began the first quest for the historical Jesus after his own death. G. E. Lessing (1729–1781) discovered copies of Reimarus' writings in the library at Wolfenbüttel when Lessing worked there as librarian. Reimarus had left permission for his work to be published after his death, and Lessing did so between 1774 and 1778, publishing them as Die Fragmente eines unbekannten Autors (The Fragments of an Unknown Author). Over time, they came to be known as the Wolfenbüttel Fragments. Reimarus distinguished between what Jesus taught and how he is portrayed in the New Testament. According to Reimarus, Jesus was a political Messiah who failed at creating political change and was executed by the Roman state as a dissident. His disciples then stole the body and invented the story of the resurrection for personal gain.[12]

Reimarus' controversial work garnered a response from Semler in 1779: Beantwortung der Fragmente eines Ungenannten (Answering the Fragments of an Unknown).[18] Semler effectively refuted Reimarus' biblical arguments using biblical criticism, but it was of little consequence. Reimarus' writings had already made a lasting change in the practice of biblical criticism by making it clear that such criticism could exist independently of theology and of faith.[5]:46 Reimarus had shown biblical criticism could serve its own ends, be governed solely by rational criteria, and reject deference to religious tradition.[5]:46–48 Lessing contributed to the field of biblical criticism by seeing Reimarus' writings published, but he also made contributions of his own, arguing that the proper study of biblical texts requires knowing the context in which they were written. This has since become an accepted concept.[5]:49

The nineteenth century[edit]

Theologians Richard and Kendall Soulen say biblical criticism reached full flower in the nineteenth century, becoming the "major transforming fact of biblical studies in the modern period." They note that the people working at that time "saw themselves as continuing the aims of the Protestant Reformation."[19]:89 Landmarks in understanding the Bible and its background occurred during this century, with many modern concepts having their roots here. For example, in 1835 and again in 1845, theologian Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860) postulated a sharp contrast between the apostles Peter and Paul. Since then, this concept has occasioned widespread debate within topics such as Pauline studies, New Testament studies, early-church studies, Jewish Law, the theology of grace, and the doctrine of justification.[20][21]

Joseph G. Prior quotes Robert M. Grant and David Tracy as saying, "One of the most striking features of the development of biblical interpretation during the nineteenth century was the way in which philosophical presuppositions implicitly guided it."[22]:92 fn.8 Michael Joseph Brown points out that biblical criticism operated according to principles grounded in a distinctively European rationalism. Brown says that, by the end of the nineteenth century, these were recognized by Ernst Troeltsch in an essay, "Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology," where he described three principles of biblical criticism.[23]:3 These are: methodological doubt, analogy (the idea that all events are similar in principle), and mutual inter-dependence which is also known as correlation of cause and effect.[23]:4

The height of biblical criticism is represented by the history of religions school (known in German as the Kultgeschichtliche Schule or alternatively the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule).[17]:161 This school was not a place but was actually a group of German Protestant theologians associated with the University of Göttingen. In the late 19th century, they sought to understand Judaism and Christianity within the overall history of religion.[24]

Biblical criticism's focus on the use of pure reason produced what Anders Gerdmar calls a paradigm shift that profoundly changed Christian theology concerning the Jews: the "process of the 'emancipation of reason' from the Bible ... runs parallel with the emancipation of Christianity from the Jews."[25]:22 The first Enlightenment Protestant to call for the "de-Judaizing" of Christianity was Johann Semler. Semler took a stand against discrimination in society while at the same time writing theology that was strongly negative toward the Jews and Judaism.[25]:25, 27 He saw Christianity as something that 'superseded' all that came before it.[25]:39, 40 This stark contrast between Judaism and Christianity became a common theme, along with a strong prejudice against Jews and Judaism in Herder (1744–1803), Schleiermacher (1768–1834), de Wette (1780–1849), Baur (1792–1860), Strauss (1808–1874), Ritschl (1822–1889), the history of religions school of the 1890s, and on into the form critics of the twentieth century until World War II.[25]:vii–xiii

In the mid-nineteenth century, Bible scholar H. J. Holtzmann (1832–1910) developed a listing of the chronological order of the New Testament texts.[17]:82

The historical Jesus[edit]

The late-nineteenth century saw a renewed interest in the "quest for the historical Jesus," which primarily involved writing versions of the "life of Jesus." Important scholars of this quest included David Strauss (1808–1874), whose cultural significance lies in his contribution to weakening the established authorities, and whose theological significance resides in his confrontation of the doctrine of Christ's divinity with the modern critical study of history.[26] Adolf Von Harnack (1851–1930) contributed to the quest for the historical Jesus, writing The Essence of Christianity in 1900, where he described Jesus as a reformer.[27] William Wrede (1859–1906) rejected all the theological aspects of Jesus and the assumption that there was a historical core about him in Mark.[28] Ernst Renan (1823–1892) promoted the critical method and was opposed to orthodoxy.[29] Wilhelm Bousset (1865–1920) attained honors in the history of religions school by contrasting Jesus and John the Baptist.[30] While at Göttingen, Johannes Weiss (1863–1914) wrote his most influential work on the apocalyptic proclamations of Jesus.[31]

In 1896, Martin Kähler wrote The So-called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ. It critiqued the quest's methodology, with a reminder of the limits of historical inquiry, saying it is impossible to separate one Jesus from another since the Jesus of history is only known through documents about the Christ of faith.[32]:10 However, the Second Quest wasn't closed until Albert Schweitzer's (1875–1965) Von Reimarus zu Wrede was published as The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1910. In it, Schweitzer scathingly critiqued the various late-nineteenth century Lives of Jesus as reflecting more of the lives of the authors than Jesus. He concluded that any future research on the historical Jesus was pointless.[33]:587[32]:10 Schweitzer finished the pursuit of the apocalyptic Jesus and revolutionized New Testament scholarship at the turn of the century by proving to most of that scholarly world that Jesus' teachings and actions were determined by his eschatological outlook.[34]:4

The twentieth century[edit]

black and white photo of Barth laughing while speaking standing at a podium
Karl Barth delivering a talk in Wuppertal in 1956

In the early part of the twentieth century, Karl Barth (1886–1968), Rudolf Bultmann, and others moved away from concern over the historical Jesus and concentrated instead on the kerygma: the message of the New Testament.[17]:20 [35] Scholars, such as theologian Konrad Hammann, call Bultmann the "giant of twentieth-century New Testament biblical criticism: His pioneering studies in biblical criticism shaped research on the composition of the gospels, and his call for demythologizing biblical language sparked debate among Christian theologians worldwide."[36] Bultmann's demythologizing refers to the reinterpretation of the biblical myths ("myth" is defined as descriptions of the divine in human terms). It is not the elimination of myth but is, instead, its re-expression in terms of the existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976).[37] Bultmann claimed myths are "true" anthropologically and existentially but not cosmologically.[38] As a major proponent of form criticism, Bultmann "set the agenda for a generation of leading New Testament scholars."[17]:21

Redaction criticism was another common approach to biblical criticism used in the early to mid-twentieth century. While form criticism divided the text into small units, redaction emphasized the literary integrity of the larger literary units.[39][40]:443 The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran in 1948 renewed interest in the contributions archaeology could make to biblical studies as well as to the challenges it presented to various aspects of biblical criticism.[41] New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias (1900–1979) used linguistics, and Jesus' first century Jewish environment, to interpret the New Testament.[40]:495 The biblical theology movement of the 1950s produced a massive debate between Old Testament and New Testament scholars over the unity of the Bible. The rise of redaction criticism closed it by bringing about a greater emphasis on diversity.[42] 1953 saw a revival of interest in the historical Jesus. [32]:11

After 1970 biblical criticism began to change radically and pervasively.[17]:21 New criticism developed as an adjunct to literary criticism concerning the particulars of style.[43] New historicism, a literary theory that views history through literature, also developed.[44] Biblical criticism began to apply new literary approaches such as structuralism and rhetorical criticism, which concentrated less on history and more on the texts themselves.[45] In the 1970s the New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders (1937- ) advanced the New Perspective on Paul, which has greatly influenced scholarly views on the relationship between Pauline Christianity and Jewish Christianity in the Pauline epistles.[46][47] Sanders also advanced study of the historical Jesus by putting Jesus' life in the context of first-century Second-Temple Judaism.[34]:13–18 In 1974, the theologian Hans Frei published The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, which became a landmark work leading to the development of post-critical biblical interpretation.[48] The fourth period of focused study on the historical Jesus began in 1985 with the Jesus Seminar.[49]

By 1990 biblical criticism, as a primarily historical discipline, had come to its end as it transformed into a group of disciplines with often conflicting interests.[17]:21,22 New perspectives from different ethnicities, feminist theology, Catholicism and Judaism revealed an "untapped world" previously overlooked by the majority of white male Protestants who had dominated biblical criticism from its beginnings.[17]:21[note 1] Globalization brought different world views, while other academic fields such as Near Eastern studies, sociology, and anthropology became active in biblical criticism as well. These new points-of-view created awareness that the Bible can be rationally interpreted from many different perspectives.[17]:22 In turn, this awareness changed biblical criticism's central concept from the criteria of neutral judgment to that of beginning from a recognition of the various biases the reader brings to the study of the texts.[17]:22

The historical Jesus[edit]

painting of three crosses with Jesus in the center and women at his feet
Ernst Hildebrand's 1910 painting "Kreuzigung Christi" depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. The crucifixion is widely regarded by historians as a real historical event.[52][53]

The Quest for the historical Jesus became known as Life of Jesus research in the twentieth century.[33]:587 The First Quest began with the posthumous publication of Hermann Reimarus' effort to reconstruct an "authentic historical picture of Jesus" instead of a theological one.[33]:587[54]:1 The study flourished in the nineteenth century, making its mark in the theology of the German Protestant liberals. They saw the purpose of a historically true life of Jesus as a critical force that also functioned theologically against the high Christology established by Roman Catholicism centuries before.[54]:1

Interest languished in the early twentieth century, but revived in 1953 when a former student of Bultmann, Ernst Käsemann, gave a famous lecture saying "Bultmann's skepticism concerning what could be known about the historical Jesus was too extreme." Käsemann claimed that because the Evangelists recorded theology does not preclude them having recorded history as well.[32]:11 This Third Quest focused on Jesus' teachings as interpreted by existentialist philosophy, and interest waned by the 1970s.[32]:11

By the Fourth Quest of the 1980s, Ben Witherington says it became necessary to acknowledge "the upshot of the first quests was to reveal the frustrating limitations of the historical study of any ancient person."[32]:12 E. P. Sanders explains that, because of the desire to know everything about Jesus, including his thoughts and motivations, and because there are such varied conclusions about him, it seems to many scholars that it is impossible to be certain about anything. Yet according to Sanders, "we know a lot" about Jesus.[55] While scholars rarely agree about what is known or unknown about the historical Jesus, according to Witherington, scholars do agree that "the historic questions should not be dodged."[32]:271

Major methods of criticism[edit]

Theologian David R. Law writes that textual, source, form, and redaction criticism are employed together by biblical scholars, while the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament are distinct bodies of literature that raise their own problems of interpretation. Therefore, separating these methods, and addressing the Bible as a whole, is an artificial approach that is necessary only for the purpose of description.[5]:viii-ix

Textual criticism[edit]

photo of a fragment of papyrus with writing on it
The Rylands fragment: P52 verso. Oldest existing fragment of New Testament Papyrus; contains phrases from the Book of John.

Textual criticism examines the text itself and all associated manuscripts to determine the original text.[56]:47 It is one of the largest areas of Biblical criticism in terms of the sheer amount of information it addresses. The roughly 900 manuscripts found at Qumran include the oldest extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible. They represent every book except Esther, though most are fragmentary.[57] The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work, having over 5,800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian. The dates of these manuscripts range from c.110—125 (the 52 papyrus) to the introduction of printing in Germany in the 15th century. There are also a million New Testament quotations in the collected writings of the Church Fathers of the first four centuries. As a comparison, the next best-sourced ancient text is Homer's Iliad, which is found in more than 1,900 manuscripts, though many are of a fragmentary nature. The two chief works of the first-century Roman historian Tacitus, Annales and Historiae, each survive in only a single medieval manuscript.[58] There are a total of only 476 extant non-New Testament manuscripts dated to the second century.[59]

photo of ancient text of gospel of Luke
Folio 41v from Codex Alexandrinus contains the Gospel of Luke with decorative tailpiece.

These texts were all written by hand, by copying from another handwritten text, so they are not alike in the manner of a printed work. The differences between them are called variants.[17]:204 A variant is simply any variation between two texts, and while the exact number is somewhat disputed, scholars agree the more texts, the more variants. This means there are more variants concerning New Testament texts than Old Testament texts.[60]:33 Variants are not evenly distributed throughout the texts. Textual scholar Kurt Aland explains that charting the variants shows the New Testament is 62.9% variant-free.[61]

Many variants originate in simple misspellings or mis-copying. For example, a scribe would drop one or more letters, skip a word or line, write one letter for another, transpose letters, and so on. Some variants represent a scribal attempt to simplify or harmonize, by changing a word or a phrase.[62] Ehrman explains: scribe 'A' will introduce mistakes which are not in the manuscript of scribe 'B'. Copies of text 'A' with the mistake will subsequently contain that same mistake. Over time the texts descended from 'A' that share the error, and those from 'B' that do not share it, will diverge further, but later texts will still be identifiable as descended from one or the other because of the presence or absence of that original mistake.[63]:207,208 The multiple generations of texts that follow, containing the error, are referred to as a "family" of texts. Textual criticism studies the differences between these families to piece together what the original looked like.[63]:205 Sorting out the wealth of source material is complex, so textual families were sorted into categories tied to geographical areas. The divisions of the New Testament textual families were Alexandrian (also called the "Neutral text"), Western (Latin translations), and Eastern (used by Antioch and Constantinople).[note 2][65]:213

Forerunners of modern textual criticism can be found in both early Rabbinic Judaism and the early church.[5]:82 Rabbis addressed variants in the Hebrew texts as early as AD 100. Tradition played a central role in their task of producing a standard version of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew text they produced stabilized by the end of the second century, and has come to be known as the Masoretic text, the source of the Christian Old Testament.[5]:82–84 However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 has created problems. While 60% of the Dead Sea manuscripts are closely related to Masoretic tradition, others bear a closer resemblance to the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew texts) and the Samaritan Pentateuch. For textual criticism, this has raised the question of whether or not there is such a thing that can be considered "original text."[5]:82

Photo of painting of Griesbach
Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745–1812), an influential German textual critic

The two main processes of textual criticism are recension and emendation. Recension is the selection of the most trustworthy evidence on which to base a text. Emendation is the attempt to eliminate the errors which are found even in the best manuscripts.[63]:205,209 Jerome McGann[66] says these methods innately introduce a subjective factor into textual criticism despite its attempt at objective rules.[67] Alan Cooper discusses this difficulty using the example of Amos 6.12 which reads: "Does one plough with oxen?" The obvious answer is 'yes', but the context of the passage seems to demand a 'no.' Cooper explains that a recombination of the consonants allows it to be read 'Does one plough the sea with oxen?' The amendment has a basis in the text, which is believed to be corrupted, but is nevertheless a matter of personal judgment.[68]

All of this contributes to textual criticism being one of the most contentious areas of biblical criticism as well as the largest.[58][60]:2[69] It uses specialized methodologies, enough specialized terms to create its own lexicon,[70] and is guided by a number of principles. Yet any of these can be contested, as well as any conclusions based on them, and they often are. For example, in the late 1700s, textual critic Johann Jacob Griesbach developed fifteen critical principles for determining which texts are likely the oldest and closest to the original.[65]:213 One of Griesbach's rules is lectio brevior praeferenda: "the shorter reading is preferred." This was based on the idea scribes were more likely to add to a text than omit from it, making shorter texts more likely to be older.

Latin scholar Albert C. Clark challenged this in 1914.[63]:212–215 Based on his study of Cicero, Clark argued omission was a more common scribal error than addition, saying "A text is like a traveler who goes from one inn to another losing an article of luggage at each stop."[63]:213 Clark's claims were criticized by those who supported Griesbach's principles. Clark responded, but disagreement continued. Nearly eighty years later, the theologian and priest James Royse took up the case. After close study of multiple New Testament papyri, he concluded Clark was right, and Griesbach's rule of measure was wrong.[71][63]:214 Some scholars have recently called to abandon older approaches to textual criticism in favor of new computer-assisted methods for determining manuscript relationships in a more reliable way.[64]:5

Source criticism[edit]

Source criticism is the search for the original sources that form the basis of biblical text. In Old Testament studies, source criticism is generally focused on identifying sources of a single text. For example, the 17th-century French priest Richard Simon (1638–1712) was an early proponent of the theory that Moses could not have been the single source of the entire Pentateuch. According to Simon, parts of the Old Testament were not written by individuals at all, but by scribes recording the community's oral tradition.[72][73]:1 Subsequently, the French physician Jean Astruc presumed in 1753, that Moses had used ancient documents to write the book of Genesis, which is the first book of the Pentateuch.[73]:2 Astruc's goal became one of identifying and reconstructing those documents by separating the book of Genesis back into those original sources. He discovered Genesis alternates use of two different names for God while the rest of the Pentateuch after Exodus 3 omits that alternation.[3]:166–168 He found repetitions of certain events, such as parts of the flood story that are repeated three times indicating the possibility of three sources. He also found apparent anachronisms: statements seemingly from a later time than Genesis was set. Astruc hypothesized that this separate material was fused into a single unit that became the book of Genesis thereby creating its duplications and parallelisms.[74] Further examples of the products of source criticism include its two most influential and well-known theories concerning the origins of the Pentateuch (the Documentary hypothesis) and the four gospels (two-source hypothesis).[75]:147

Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis[edit]

photo of head and shoulders painting of Wellhausen, looking directly at camera
Julius Wellhausen, one of the originators of the documentary hypothesis

Hywell Clifford[76] says source criticism's most influential work is Julius Wellhausen's Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (Prologue to the History of Israel, 1878) which sought to establish the sources of the first five books of the Old Testament.[77] Wellhausen correlated the history and development of those five books, known as the Pentateuch, with the development of the Jewish faith.[74]:7–10[78] The Documentary hypothesis, also known as the JEDP theory, or the Wellhausen theory, says the Pentateuch was combined out of four separate and coherent sources known as J (which stands for Yahwist, which is spelled with a J in German), E (for Elohist), D (for Deuteronomist), and P (for the Priestly source).[79]:5 Old Testament scholar Karl Graf (1815–1869) suggested the P in 1866 as the last stratum of the Wellhausen theory.[80]:33[40]:69 This formulation of the Documentary hypothesis is sometimes also referred to as the Graf–Wellhausen hypothesis.[81][82] Later scholars inferred more sources, with increasing information about their extent and inter-relationship.[83]:49–52

The fragmentary theory was a later understanding of Wellhausen produced by form criticism. This theory argues that fragments of various documents, and not continuous documents, are the sources for the Pentateuch.[83]:38,39 This accounts for diversity but not structural and chronological consistency.[83]:38 The Supplementary hypothesis can be seen as an evolution of the Documentary hypothesis that solidified in the 1970s. Proponents of this view assert three sources for the Pentateuch, with the Deuteronomist as the oldest source, and the Torah assembled from a central core document, the Elohist, then supplemented by fragments taken from other sources.[80]:38,39

Advocates of the Documentary hypothesis contend it accounts well for the differences and duplication found in each of the Pentateuchal books.[84]:58,59 Furthermore, they argue, it provides an explanation for the peculiar character of the material labeled P, which reflects the perspective and concerns of Israel's priests. However, the original theory has also been heavily criticized. Old Testament scholar Ernest Nicholson says that by the end of the 1970s and into the 1990s, "one major study after another, like a series of hammer blows, ... rejected the main claims of the Documentary theory, and the criteria on ... which those claims are grounded."[85]:95 It has been criticized for its dating of the sources, for assuming that the original sources were coherent, and for assuming E and P were originally complete documents. Studies of the literary structure of the Pentateuch have shown J and P used the same structure, and that motifs and themes cross the boundaries of the various sources, which undermines arguments for separate origins.[79]:4[note 3]

Problems and criticisms of the Documentary hypothesis have been brought on by literary analysis, by anthropological developments, and also by various archaeological findings. According to Thomas L. Thompson, archaeological discoveries during the 1920s and the 1930s transformed the historical aspects of these biblical studies.[86]:11 Presently, few biblical scholars still hold to Wellhausen's Documentary hypothesis in its classical form.[86]:15 However, while current debate has modified Wellhausen's conclusions, Nicholson says "for all that it needs revision and development in detail, [the work of Wellhausen] remains the securest basis for understanding the Pentateuch."[85]:95–132;228 Critical scholar Pauline Viviano[87] agrees, stating that the general contours of Wellhausen's view remain with the Newer Documentary Hypothesis providing the best answers to the complex question of how the Pentateuch was formed.[83]:41

The New Testament synoptic problem[edit]

Diagram summarizing the two source hypothesis
The widely accepted two-source hypothesis, showing two sources for both Matthew and Luke
Diagram summarizing Streeter's four source hypothesis
Streeter's four source hypothesis, showing four sources each for Matthew and Luke with the colors representing the different sources

In New Testament studies, source criticism has taken a slightly different approach from Old Testament studies by focusing on identifying the common sources of multiple texts instead of looking for the multiple sources of a single set of texts. This has revealed the Gospels are both products of sources and sources themselves.[88] As sources, Matthew, Mark and Luke are partially dependent on each other and partially independent of each other. This is called the synoptic problem, and explaining it is the single greatest dilemma of New Testament source criticism. Any explanation offered must "account for (a) what is common to all the Gospels; (b) what is common to any two of them; (c) what is peculiar to each."[89]:87 Multiple theories exist to address the dilemma, with none universally agreed upon, however, two theories have become predominant: the two-source hypothesis and the four-source hypothesis.[75]:136–138

Mark is the shortest of the four gospels with only 661 verses, but six hundred of those verses are in Matthew and 350 of them are in Luke. Some of these verses are verbatim. Most scholars agree that this indicates Mark was a source for Matthew and Luke. There is also some verbatim agreement between Matthew and Luke of verses not found in Mark.[89]:85–87 In 1838, the religious philosopher Christian Hermann Weisse developed a theory about this. He postulated a hypothetical collection of Jesus' sayings from an additional source called Q, taken from Quelle, which is German for "source."[89]:86 If this document existed, it has now been lost, but some of its material can be deduced indirectly. According to Harry T. Fleddermann, there are five highly detailed arguments in favor of Q's existence that rest upon the verbal agreement of Mark and Luke, the order of the parables, the doublets, a discrepancy in the priorities of each gospel and each one's internal coherence.[90]:41 Q allowed the two-source hypothesis to emerge as the best supported of the various synoptic solutions.[90]:12[91]:fn.6 There is also material unique to each gospel. This indicates additional separate sources for Matthew and for Luke. Biblical scholar B. H. Streeter used this insight to refine and expand the two-source theory into a four-source theory in 1925.[92]:5[93]:157

While most scholars agree that the two-source theory offers the best explanation for the Synoptic problem, and some say it has been solved, others such as Zeba Antonin Crook say "it is far from solved."[94] Donald Guthrie says no single theory offers a complete solution as there are complex and important difficulties that create challenges to every theory.[75]:208[95] One example is Basil Christopher Butler's challenge to the legitimacy of two-source theory, arguing it contains a Lachmann fallacy[19]:110 that says the two-source theory loses cohesion when it is acknowledged that no source can be established for Mark.[92]:149 F. C. Grant posits multiple sources for the Gospels.[93]:158

Form criticism[edit]

Form criticism began in the early twentieth century when theologian Karl Ludwig Schmidt observed that Mark's Gospel is composed of short units. Schmidt asserted these small units were remnants and evidence of the oral tradition that preceded the writing of the gospels.[96]:242[97]:1 Bible scholar Richard Bauckham says this "most significant insight," which established the foundation of form criticism, has never been refuted.[96]:243 Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932) and Martin Dibelius (1883–1947) built from this insight and pioneered form criticism. By the 1950s and 1960s, Rudolf Bultmann and form criticism were the "center of the theological conversation in both Europe and North America."[98]:xiii

Photograph of Bultmann in old age, smoking a pipe
Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), prominent proponent of form criticism

Form criticism breaks the Bible down into its short units, called pericopes, which are then classified by genre: prose or verse, letters, laws, court archives, war hymns, poems of lament, and so on. Form criticism then theorizes concerning the individual pericope's Sitz im Leben ("setting in life" or "place in life"). Based on their understanding of folklore, form critics believed the early Christian communities formed the sayings and teachings of Jesus themselves, according to their needs (their "situation in life"), and that each form could be identified by the situation in which it had been created and vice versa.[99]:271

In the early to mid twentieth century, form critics thought finding oral "laws of development" within the New Testament would prove form criticism's assertions about how the text developed. Since Mark was believed to be the first gospel, the form critics looked for details becoming more concrete in Matthew and then more so in Luke: the addition of proper names, indirect discourse being turned into direct quotation, and the elimination of Aramaic terms and forms.[100] However, in the 1970s, New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders wrote that: "There are no hard and fast laws of the development of the Synoptic tradition. On all counts the tradition developed in opposite directions. It became both longer and shorter, both more or less detailed, and both more and less Semitic. 'Even the tendency to use direct discourse for indirect, which was uniform in the post-canonical material which we studied, was not uniform in the Synoptics themselves'..."[99]:298[note 4]

According to Old Testament scholar Rolf Knierim, contemporary scholars have produced an "explosion of studies" on structure, genre, text-type, setting and language that have challenged several of form criticism's aspects and assumptions.[102]:42,70 Richard Burridge says: "The general critique of form criticism came from various sources, putting several areas in particular under scrutiny."[103]:13[note 5] For example, during the latter half of the twentieth century, field studies of cultures with existing oral traditions impacted form criticism directly.[99]:296–298 In 1978, research by linguists Milman Parry and Albert Bates Lord undermined Gunkel's belief that "short oral narratives evolved into long ones."[97]:10 Within these oral cultures, literacy did not replace memory, instead, writing was used to enhance memory in an overlap of written and oral tradition.[97]:16,17 Susan Niditch[106] concluded from her orality studies that: "no longer are many scholars convinced that the most seemingly oral-traditional or formulaic pieces are earliest in date."[97]:11 Miller quotes Niditch as saying, "oral works can become quite fixed, a virtual 'text,' while written works can display the qualities of performance."[97]:11 According to Eddy and Boyd, this directly undermines Sitz im leben: "In light of what we now know of oral traditions, no necessary correlation between [the literary] forms and life situations can be confidently drawn."[99]:296–298

Religion scholar Werner H. Kelber[107] says form criticism throughout the mid-twentieth century was so focused toward finding each pericope's original form, that it was distracted from any serious consideration of memory as a dynamic force in the construction of the gospels or the early church community tradition.[105]:276–278 What Kelber refers to as form criticism's "astounding myopia" has produced enough criticism to revive interest in memory as an analytical category within biblical criticism.[108][105]:278

Form criticism assumed the early Church was heavily influenced by the Hellenistic culture that surrounded first-century Palestine.[109]:46 However, in the 1970s, E. P. Sanders, as well as Gerd Theissen, sparked new rounds of studies that included anthropological and sociological perspectives, reestablishing Judaism as the predominant influence on Jesus, Paul, and the New Testament. New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says, "The earliest traditions of Jesus reflected in the Gospels are written from the perspective of Second Temple Judaism [and] must be interpreted from the standpoint of Jewish eschatology and apocalypticism."[109]:47[110]

For some, the many challenges to form criticism mean its future is in doubt.[note 6] Bible scholar Tony Campbell says:

Form criticism had a meteoric rise in the early part of the twentieth century and fell from favor toward its end. For some, the future of form criticism is not an issue: it has none. But if form criticism embodies an essential insight, it will continue. ... Two elements embody this insight and give it its value: concern for the nature of the text and for its shape and structure. ... If the encrustations can be scraped away, the "good stuff" may still be there.[104]:15–16

Redaction criticism[edit]

diagram of how much of gospels is shared and different
A diagram of the complexity of the Synoptic problem

Redaction is the process of editing multiple sources, often with a similar theme, into a single document. According to Richard Burridge, Norman Perrin defines redaction criticism as "the study of the theological motivation of an author as it is revealed in the collection, arrangement, editing, and modification of traditional material, and in the composition of new material ... redaction criticism directs us to the author as editor..."[103]:14 Redaction criticism developed after World War II in Germany and arrived in England and North America by the 1950s.[111] It focuses on discovering how and why the literary units were originally edited— "redacted" —into their final forms.[9]:820

Daniel Harrington says that redaction criticism is the "child" of source and form criticism.[111]:98 As in source criticism, it is necessary to identify the traditions before determining how the redactor has used them.[111]:98[5]:181 Form criticism saw the synoptic writers as mere collectors and focused on the Sitz im Leben as the creator of the texts. Redaction criticism deals more positively with the Gospel writers, asserting an understanding of them as theologians of the early church.[111]:99[112] Redaction criticism rejects source and form criticism's description of the Bible texts as mere collections of fragments. Where form criticism fractures the biblical elements into smaller and smaller individual pieces, redaction criticism attempts to interpret the whole literary unit.[111]:99

Redaction criticism assumes an extreme skepticism toward the historicity of Jesus and the gospels just as form criticism does. It seeks the historical community of the final redactors of the gospels, though there is often no textual clue, and Porter and Adams say its method in finding the final editor's theology is flawed.[113]:335,336 In the New Testament, redaction discerns the original author/evangelist's theology by focusing and relying upon the differences between the gospels, yet it is unclear whether every difference has theological meaning, how much meaning, or whether any given difference is a stylistic or even an accidental change. Further, it is not at all clear whether the difference was made by the evangelist, who could have used the already changed story when writing a gospel.[113]:336 The evangelist's theology more likely depends on what the gospels have in common as well as their differences.[113]:336 Harrington says, "over-theologizing, allegorizing, and psychologizing are the major pitfalls encountered" in redaction criticism.[111]:100

Followers of other theories concerning the Synoptic problem, such as those who support the Greisbach hypothesis which says Matthew was written first, Luke second, and Mark third, have pointed to weaknesses in the redaction–based arguments for the existence of Q and Markan priority.[114] Mark Goodacre says "Some scholars have used the success of redaction criticism as a means of supporting the existence of Q, but this will always tend toward circularity, particularly given the hypothetical nature of Q which itself is reconstructed by means of redaction criticism."[114]

Literary criticism[edit]

Statue of Northrop Frye sitting on a bench at the University of Toronto
Statue of Northrop Frye, an important figure in biblical criticism, on a bench in Toronto.

In the mid–twentieth century, literary criticism began to develop, shifting scholarly attention from historical and pre-compositional matters to the text itself, thereafter becoming the dominant form of biblical criticism in a relatively short period of about thirty years. It can be said to have begun in 1957 when literary critic Northrop Frye wrote an analysis of the Bible from the perspective of his literary background. It used literary criticism to understand the Bible forms.[115]:3–4 Frei proposed that "biblical narratives should be evaluated on their own terms" rather than by taking them apart in the manner we evaluate philosophy or historicity.[40]:99 Frei was one of several external influences that moved biblical criticism from a historical to a literary focus.[115]:3 New Testament scholar Paul R. House says the discipline of linguistics, new views of historiography, and the decline of older methods of criticism were also influential in that process.[115]:3

By 1974, the two methodologies being used in literary criticism were rhetorical analysis and structuralism.[115]:4,11 Rhetorical analysis divides a passage into units, observes how a single unit shifts or breaks, taking special note of poetic devices, meter, parallelism, word play and so on. It then charts the writer's thought progression from one unit to the next, and finally, assembles the data in an attempt to explain the author's intentions behind the piece.[115]:8 Critics of rhetorical analysis say there is a "lack of a well-developed methodology" and that it has a "tendency to be nothing more than an exercise in stylistics."[115]:425

Structuralism looks at the language to discern "layers of meaning" with the goal of uncovering a work's "deep structures:" the premises as well as the purposes of the author.[115]:102 In 1981 literature scholar Robert Alter also contributed to the development of biblical literary criticism by publishing an influential analysis of biblical themes from a literary perspective. The 1980s saw the rise of formalism, which focuses on plot, structure, character and themes [115]:164 and the development of reader-response criticism which focuses on the reader rather than the author.[115]:374,410

New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie highlights a flaw in the literary critical approach to the Gospels: the genre of the Gospels has not been fully determined. No conclusive evidence has yet been produced to settle the question of genre, and without genre, no adequate parallels can be found, and without parallels "it must be considered to what extent the principles of literary criticism are applicable."[75]:19 The validity of using the same critical methods for novels and for the Gospels, without the assurance the Gospels are actually novels, must be questioned.[75]:20

Types of literary criticism[edit]


Canonical criticism has both theological and literary roots. Its origins are found in the Church's views of the biblical writings as sacred, and in the secular literary critics who began to influence biblical scholarship in the 1940s and 1950s. By the mid-twentieth century, the high level of departmentalization in biblical criticism, with its mountains of data and absence of applicable theology, had begun to produce a level of dissatisfaction among both scholars and faith communities.[116]:4 Brevard S. Childs (1923–2007) proposed an approach to bridge that gap that came to be called canonical criticism. Canonical criticism "signaled a major and enduring shift in biblical studies."[116]:4 Canonical criticism does not reject historical criticism, but it does reject its claim to "unique validity."[117]:80 John Barton says "canonical criticism does not simply ask what the text might have originally meant, it asks what it means now to the believing community."[117]:80

John H. Hayes[118] and Carl Holladay say "canonical criticism has several distinguishing features: (1) Canonical criticism is synchronic; it sees all biblical writings as a single collection standing together in time instead of focusing on the diachronic questions of the historical approach.[119]:154 (2) Canonical critics approach the books in their finished forms as whole units instead of taking them apart and focusing on isolated pieces. They accept that many texts have been composed over long periods of time, but the canonical critic wishes "to interpret the last edition of a biblical book" and then relate those books to each other.[119]:155 (3) Canonical criticism opposes approaches like form criticism that isolate individual passages from their canonical setting. In canonical criticism, a single text can only be read as part of the whole Bible and never independently.[119]:155 (4) Canonical criticism emphasizes the relationship between the text and its reader. In an effort to reclaim the relationship between the texts themselves and how the texts were used in the early believing communities of faith, canonical critics focus on how the reader interacts with the biblical writing.[119]:156 (5) 'Canonical criticism is overtly theological in its approach. Canonical critics are primarily interested in what the text means for the canonizing community—the community of faith whose predecessors produced the canon, that was called into existence by the canon, and seeks to live by the canon'."[119]:156


While James Muilenburg (1896–1974) is often referred to as "the prophet of rhetorical criticism,"[120] Herbert A. Wichelns is credited with "creating the modern discipline of rhetorical criticism" with his 1925 essay "The Literary Criticism of Oratory."[121]:29 In that essay, Wichelns says that rhetorical criticism, and other literary criticism, differ from each other because rhetorical criticism is only concerned with "effect. It regards a speech as a communication to a specific audience, and holds its business to be the analysis and appreciation of the orator's method of imparting his ideas to his hearers."[121]:29 The rhetorical scholar Sonja K. Foss explains that rhetorical criticism is a qualitative analysis. According to Foss, "This definition includes three primary dimensions: (1) systematic analysis of the act of criticism; (2) acts and artifacts as the objects of analysis in criticism; and (3) understanding rhetorical processes as the purpose of criticism."[121]:6 Foss discusses ten different methods of rhetorical criticism in her book "Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice" saying that each method will produce different insights.[121]:ix,9

Biblical rhetorical criticism makes use of understanding the "forms, genres, structures, stylistic devices and rhetorical techniques" common to the Near Eastern literature of the different ages when the separate books of biblical literature were written. It attempts to discover and evaluate the rhetorical devices, language, and methods of communication used within the texts by focusing on the use of "repetition, parallelism, strophic structure, motifs, climax, chiasm and numerous other literary devices."[122] Phyllis Trible, a student of Muilenburg, has become one of the contemporary leaders of rhetorical criticism and is known for her detailed literary analysis and her feminist critique of biblical interpretation.[123]


Within narrative criticism, critics approach scripture as story, focusing on the finished form of the texts.[124]:7 Christopher T. Paris says that, "narrative criticism admits the existence of sources and redaction but chooses to focus on the artistic weaving of these materials into a sustained narrative picture."[125] Narrative criticism analyzes narratives as complete tapestries, organic wholes, and attends to the constitutive features of narratives such as characters, setting, plot, literary devices (for example, irony), point of view, narrator, implied author, and implied reader.[126] However, according to James L. Resseguie, "of the three main components of a literary work — author, text, reader — narrative criticism is focused primarily on the text."[126].

Narrative criticism began being used to study the New Testament in the 1970s with the works of David Rhoads, Jack D. Kingsbury, R. Alan Culpepper, and Robert C. Tannehill.[124]:6 A decade later, this new approach in biblical criticism included the Old Testament as well. The first time a published article was labeled narrative criticism wasn't until 1982, in "Narrative Criticism and the Gospel of Mark," written by Bible scholar David Rhoads.[127]:167 Stephen D. Moore[128] says that "as a term, narrative criticism originated within biblical studies. As a method, it appropriated narratology."[127]:166 It was also influenced by New Criticism which saw each literary work as a freestanding whole with intrinsic meaning.[127]:166 Sharon Betsworth[129] says Robert Alter's work is what adapted New Criticism to the Bible.[127]:166 Scholars such as Robert Alter and Frank Kermode sought to teach readers to appreciate the texts based on their artfulness — "how [the text] orchestrates sound, repetition, dialogue, allusion, and ambiguity to generate meaning and effect."[130]

Historical critics began to recognize the Bible was not being studied in the manner other ancient writings were studied, and they began asking if these texts should be understood on their own terms before being used as evidence of something else.[124]:3 According to Mark Allen Powell the difficulty in understanding them on their own terms is determining what those terms are: "The problem with treating the gospels 'just like any other book' is that the gospels are not like any other book."[124]:3 The New Critics, (who's views were absorbed by narrative criticism), asserted that meaning and value reside within the text itself.[124]:4 It is now accepted as "axiomatic in literary circles that the meaning of literature transcends the historical intentions of the author."[124]:5

Contemporary developments[edit]


line drawing of profile of William Robertson Smith
William Robertson Smith was a Scottish orientalist and conservative minister of the Free Church of Scotland who supported biblical criticism in its early days.


The American fundamentalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s began, at least partly, as a response to the "German ideas" of higher criticism in nineteenth century liberalism.[131][132]:4 Some fundamentalists believed liberal critics had invented an entirely new religion "completely at odds with the Christian faith."[133]:29 However, there have also been conservative Protestants who accepted biblical criticism. William Robertson Smith (1846–1894) is an example of a nineteenth century evangelical who believed historical criticism was a legitimate outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation's focus on the biblical text. He saw it as a "necessary tool to enable intelligent churchgoers" to understand the Bible, and was a pioneer in establishing the final form of the supplementary hypothesis of the documentary hypothesis.[8]:298 A similar view was later advocated by the Primitive Methodist biblical scholar A. S. Peake (1865–1929).[8]:298 Contemporary evangelical Protestant scholars (such as Edwin M. Yamauchi, Paul R. House, and Daniel B. Wallace) have continued the tradition of conservatives contributing to critical scholarship. Mark Noll says that "in recent years, a steadily growing number of well qualified and published scholars have broadened and deepened the impact of evangelical scholars."[134]:135

black and white photograph of Marie-Joseph Lagrange with habit pulled up looking to the left
M.-J. Lagrange was instrumental in helping Catholicism accept biblical criticism.


Monseigneur Joseph G. Prior says, "Catholic studies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries avoided the use of critical methodology because of its rationalism [so there was] no significant Catholic involvement in biblical scholarship until the nineteenth century."[135]:90 In 1890, the French Dominican Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855–1938) established the École Biblique in Jerusalem to encourage study of the Bible using the historical-critical method. Two years later he funded a journal, spoke thereafter at various conferences, wrote Bible commentaries that incorporated textual critical work of his own, did pioneering work on biblical genres and forms, and laid the path to overcoming resistance to the historical-critical method among his fellow scholars.[136] However, Pope Leo XIII (1810–1903) condemned biblical scholarship based on rationalism in his encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus ("On the Study of Holy Scripture") on 18 November 1893. It declared that no exegete was allowed to interpret a text to contradict church doctrine.[137][135]:99,100 Later, in 1943 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Providentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII issued the papal encyclical Divino afflante spiritu ('Inspired by the Holy Spirit') sanctioning historical criticism, opening a new epoch in Catholic critical scholarship. The Jesuit Augustin Bea (1881–1968) had played a vital part in its publication.[8]:298[138] This tradition is continued by Catholic scholars such as John P. Meier, and Conleth Kearns who also worked with Reginald C. Fuller and Leonard Johnston preparing the New Catholic Commentary.[139]

photo of Mordechai Breuer wearing a Kippah
Mordechai Breuer was a prominent Jewish critical scholar.


Hebrew Bible scholar Jon D. Levenson has described how some Jewish scholars, such as rabbinicist Solomon Schechter (b. 1903), did not participate in biblical criticism at first because they saw criticism of the Pentateuch as a threat to Jewish identity. The growing anti-semitism in Germany of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the perception that higher criticism was an entirely Protestant Christian pursuit, and the sense that many Bible critics were not impartial academics but were proponents of supersessionism, prompted Schechter to describe "Higher Criticism as Higher Anti-semitism."[140]

photo of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, seated and speaking into a microphone
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is a pioneering scholar of feminist criticism.

The first contemporary historical-critical Jewish scholar of Pentateuchal studies was M. M. Kalisch in the nineteenth century.[141]:213 In the early twentieth century, historical criticism of the Pentateuch became mainstream among Jewish scholars.[141]:218 In 1905, Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann wrote an extensive, two-volume, philologically based critique of the Wellhausen theory, which supported Jewish orthodoxy.[142] Bible professor Benjamin D. Sommer says it is "among the most precise and detailed commentaries on the legal texts [Leviticus and Deuteronomy] ever written."[141]:215 According to Aly Elrefaei,[143] the strongest refutation of Wellhausen's Documentary theory came from Yehezkel Kaufmann in 1937.[144]:8 Kaufmann was the first Jewish scholar to fully exploit higher criticism to counter another hypothesis of higher criticism. Wellhausen's and Kaufmann's methods were similar yet their conclusions were opposed.[144]:8 Mordechai Breuer, who branches out beyond most Jewish exegesis and explores the implications of historical criticism for multiple subjects, is an example of a contemporary Jewish biblical critical scholar.[141]:267


Feminist criticism is an aspect of the feminist theology movement which began in the 1960s and 1970s as an aspect of the feminist movement in the United States.[145]:1 Three phases of feminist biblical interpretation are connected to the three phases, or 'waves,' of the movement.[146]:11 Feminist theology has since responded to globalization, thereby making itself less Western, and moving beyond its original narrative "as a movement defined by the USA."[145]:2

In the 1980s, Phyllis Trible and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza reframed biblical criticism itself by challenging the supposed disinterest and objectivity it claimed for itself, and exposing how ideological-theological stances had played a critical role in interpretation.[147] The patriarchal model of ancient Israel had become an aspect of biblical criticism through the anthropology of the nineteenth century.[146]:9 Feminist scholars of second-wave feminism appropriated it.[146]:15 Third wave feminists began raising concerns about its accuracy.[146]:24–25 Meyers concludes "male dominance was real; but it was fragmentary, not hegemonic."[146]:27

Feminist criticism embraces the inter-disciplinary approach to biblical criticism, encouraging a reader-response approach to the text that includes an attitude of "dissent" or "resistance."[148]


In the mid to late 1990s, a global response to the changes in biblical criticism began to coalesce as "Postcolonial biblical criticism."[149]:4,5 Fernando F. Segovia and Stephen D. Moore postulate that it emerged from "liberation hermeneutics, or extra-biblical Postcolonial studies, or even from historical biblical criticism, or from all three sources at once."[149]:5–6 It has a focus on the indigenous and local with an eye toward recovering those aspects of culture that Colonialism had erased or suppressed.[149]:6 The Postcolonial view is rooted in a consciousness of the geopolitical situation for all people, and is "transhistorical and transcultural."[149]:11 According to Laura E. Donaldson[150] Postcolonial criticism is oppositional, multidimensional, and "attentive to culture, race, class and gender."[149]:12


Michael Joseph Brown writes that African-Americans responded to the assumption of universality in biblical criticism by challenging it. He says all Bible readings are contextual in that readers bring with them their own context: perceptions and experiences harvested from social and cultural situations.[23]:2 African-American biblical criticism is contextual, based on liberation theology and black theology, and looks for what is potentially liberating in the texts.[23]:2

Contemporary methods[edit]

Socio-scientific criticism[151] is part of the wider trend in biblical criticism reflecting interdisciplinary methods and diversity.[152] It grew out of form criticism's Sitz im Leben and the sense that historical form criticism had failed to adequately analyze the social and anthropological contexts which form criticism claimed had formed the texts. Using the perspectives, theories, models, and research of the social sciences to determine what social norms may have influenced the growth of biblical tradition, it is similar to historical biblical criticism in its goals and methods. It has less in common with literary critical approaches. It analyzes the social and cultural dimensions of the text and its environmental context.[153]

As traditional historical biblical criticism changed, Lois Tyson[154] says a new form of historical criticism developed in the 1970s. It "rejects both traditional historicism's marginalization of literature and New Criticism's enshrinement of the literary text in a timeless dimension beyond history."[155] Literary texts are seen as "cultural artifacts" that reveal context as well as content, and within New Historicism, the "literary text and the historical situation" are equally important."[155]

In the 1940s and 1950s the term postmodern came into use to signify a rejection of modern conventions.[156]:73 Many of these early postmodernist views came from France following World War II. Postmodernism has been associated with Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, radical politics, and arguments against metaphysics and ideology. It questions anything that claims "objectively secured foundations, universals, metaphysics, or analytical dualism."[156]:74 Biblical scholar A. K. M. Adam says postmodernism has three general features: 1) it denies any privileged starting point for truth; 2) it is critical of theories that attempt to explain the "totality of reality;" and 3) it attempts to show that all ideals are grounded in ideological, economic or political self-interest.[157]

According to Ken and Richard Soulen, "post-critical biblical interpretation shares postmodernism's suspicion of modern claims to neutral standards of reason, but not its hostility toward theological interpretation."[17]:22 It begins with the understanding that biblical criticism's focus on historicity produced a distinction between the meaning of what the text says and what it is about (what it historically references). The biblical scholar Hans Frei wrote that what he refers to as the "realistic narratives" of literature, including the Bible, don't allow for such separation.[158]:119 Subject matter is identical to verbal meaning and is found in plot and nowhere else.[158]:120 "As Frei puts it, scripture 'simultaneously depicts and renders the reality (if any) of what it talks about'; its subject matter is 'constituted by, or identical with, its narrative'."[158]:120


Ken and Richard Soulen say that "biblical criticism has permanently altered perception of the Bible."[17]:22 One way this has occurred has been through the forging of what Jonathon Sheehan[159] calls a "cultural Bible."[160]:9 The Bible has become recognized as "the foundational document of our culture."[161]:129 It is no longer thought of solely as a religious artifact, and its interpretation is no longer restricted to the community of believers. Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough[162] write that "no culturally literate person" can afford to be ignorant of what the Bible says.[163] Its cultural impact is therefore studied in multiple academic fields.[164] Michael C. Legaspi[165] says, "The Enlightenment not only led to the forging of cultural Bibles; it also produced the modern academic Bible."[160]:9 Soulen adds that "[Biblical criticism's] leading practitioners have set such high standards of scholarship that they 'remain pace-setting today'."[17]:22

However, scholars such as Sheila Devaney[166] say that biblical authority has been assaulted by biblical criticism, through the "autonomy of reason," from its beginnings.[167]:2 This has "increasingly diminished confidence in the reliability and intelligibility of the Bible" says Devaney.[168] [167]:2,8 According to John Barton, there are aspects of biblical criticism that have been hostile to the Bible and the religions whose scripture it is, in both intent and effect.[51]:137 Jeffrey Burton Russell echoes that view saying, "The early Protestant critics insisted the truth of Christianity lay in its origins, and they had full confidence that their new 'scientific' tools led them, not only back to the scripture, but through it, to the historical reality behind them. Faith was transferred from the words of scripture to those of the critics, as '...liberal Christianity retreated hastily before the advance of science and biblical criticism. By the end of the eighteenth century, advanced liberals had abandoned the core of Christian beliefs'."[169]:151,152,153

On the one hand, J. W. Rogerson says that "historical criticism is not inherently inimical to Christian belief."[170] On the other hand, as Michael Fishbane frankly wrote in 1992, "We are no longer as we were. No longer are we sustained within a biblical matrix: ...The labor of many centuries has expelled us from this edenic womb and its wellsprings of life and knowledge. this not because the Bible has lost its ancient authority? To be sure, there are those who regard the desacralization of the Bible as the fortunate condition for the rise of new sensibilities and modes of imagination."[161]:121 Religion and ethics scholar Jeffrey Stout says this "crisis of authority" is part of what led to the creation of the modern world.[167]:6[171]

What this means for "the community of faith whose predecessors produced the [sacred text], that was called into existence by the [sacred text], and seeks to live by the [sacred text]" — is the question on the other hand.[172]:156 Can the text, after biblical criticism, still be justly seen as sacred? Fishbane says, "This question affects our innermost cultural being and our relationship to the foundational text of our cultural and religious origins."[161]:128 He compares biblical criticism to Job, a prophet who destroyed "self-serving visions for the sake of a more honest crossing from the divine textus to the human one."[161]:128 According to Fishbane, traditional Judaism teaches the fourfold meaning of the biblical text: its plain meaning, its hermeneutical meaning as it developed within communities, its hidden meanings within its symbolic structures, and the 'deep, divine affinities' found within its transcendent texts. "Accordingly, the sacrality of the Bible is at once simple and symbolic, individual and communal, practical and paradoxical. ...Thus we may say that the Bible itself may help retrieve the notion of a sacred text."[161]:126,129

See also[edit]


  1. ^
    • Fiorenza says, "Christian male theologians have formulated theological concepts in terms of their own cultural experience, insisting on male language relating to God, and on a symbolic universe in which women do not appear... Feminist scholars insist that religious texts and traditions must be reinterpreted so that women and other "non-persons" can achieve full citizenship in religion and society."[50]
    • This "leads naturally to a second indictment against biblical criticism: that it is the preserve of a small coterie of people in the rich Western world, trying to legislate for how the vast mass of humanity ought to read the Bible. ...Not only has such criticism detached the Bible from believing communities, it has also appropriated it for a particular group: namely white, male, Western scholars..."[51]
  2. ^ There is some consensus among contemporary textual critics that the various locations traditionally assigned to the text types are incorrect and misleading. Thus, the geographical labels should be used with caution; some scholars prefer to refer to the text types as "textual clusters" instead.[64]:3–9
  3. ^ Viviano says: "While source criticism has always had its detractors, the past few decades have witnessed an escalation in the level of dissatisfaction with the method itself and in particular with its best known representative, the Newer Documentary Hypothesis."[83]:52
    • R.Rendtorff used form criticism to show the development of the Pentateuch was opposite to the manner the Documentary hypothesis claimed.[83]:49
    • Mid-twentieth century scholars of oral tradition objected to the "cut-and-paste book mentality" of source criticism, saying it reflected the modern world more than the ancient one.[83]:49,50
    • "Contradictions and repetitions are to be expected given the cultural background of the Old Testament and the long period of time during which the text was in formation and being passed on orally."[83]:50
    • The documentary theory has been undermined by subdivisions of the sources and the addition of other sources, since: "The more sources one finds, the more tenuous the evidence for the existence of continuous documents becomes."[83]:51
    • Another problem is posed by dating. "The process of religious development is more complex and uneven than Wellhausen imagined. Without his evolutionary assumptions, his dating of sources can no longer be accepted."[83]:51
    • MacKenzie and Kaltner say "...scholarly analysis is very much in a state of flux at present."[84]:58
  4. ^ Sanders explains:
    • 1.The form critics did not derive laws of transmission from a study of folk literature as many think.
    • 2. They derived them by two methods: (a) by assuming that purity of form indicates antiquity, and (b) by determining how Matthew and Luke used Mark and Q, and how the later literature used the canonical gospels.
    • 3. The first method is based on a priori considerations.
    • 4. In so far as it depends on the use of Mark and Q by Matthew and Luke, the second is circular and therefore questionable.
    • 5. The two are sometimes in direct conflict, although the form critics did not observe this.
    • 6. In any case, the form critics did not derive the laws from or apply the laws to the Gospels systematically, nor did they carry out a systematic investigation of changes in the post-canonical literature.[101]
  5. ^ Burridge says:
    • "The analogy between the development of the gospel pericopae and folklore needed reconsideration because of developments in folklore studies:
    • it was less easy to assume steady growth of an oral tradition in stages; significant steps were sometimes large and sudden;
    • the length of time needed for the 'laws' of oral transmission to operate, such as the centuries of Old Testament or Homeric transmission, was greater than that taken by the gospels;
    • even the existence of such laws was questioned...
    • Further the transition from individual units of oral tradition into a written document had an important effect on the interpretation of the material; as Kelber put it, 'writing always entails a rewriting of worlds.' ...
    • Finally, the form–critical approach had the effect of giving the community the active role in the formation of the gospel material, whereas communities tend to be passive with regard to their traditions;
    • the active innovations tend to come on the part of the story tellers — and thus we are back to the person of the author once more."[103]:13 See also: [104]:6,8; [105]:277; [96]:247; [102]:16,17
  6. ^ Tony Campbell says, "... form criticism has a future if its past is allowed a decent burial; form criticism has been relegated now from its high status in the past: it no longer attracts scholars"; Erhard Blum observes problems, and he wonders if one can speak of a current form-critical method at all; Thomas Römer raises the question of the validity of Sitz im Leben; "Such is the question asked by Won Lee: one wonders whether Gunkel's form criticism is still viable today."[104]


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External links[edit]