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Biblical criticism is an umbrella term for those methods of studying the Bible that embrace two distinctive perspectives: the concern to avoid dogma and bias by applying a non-sectarian, reason-based judgment, and the reconstruction of history according to contemporary understanding. Biblical criticism uses the grammar, structure, development, and relationship of language to identify such characteristics as the Bible's literary structure, its genre, its context, meaning, authorship, and origins.
Biblical criticism includes 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. 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.
Biblical criticism began as an aspect of the rise of modern culture in the West. Some scholars claim that its roots reach back to the Reformation, but most agree it grew out of the German Enlightenment. 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 a major occupation 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, changing it from a primarily historical approach to a multidisciplinary field. In a field long dominated by white male Protestants, 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, 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.
- 1 History
- 2 Major methods of criticism
- 3 Life of Jesus research
- 4 Contemporary developments
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Beginnings: the eighteenth century
According to tradition, Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible, including the book of Genesis. Philosophers and theologians such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677), and Richard Simon (1638–1712) questioned Mosaic authorship. Spinoza said Moses could not have written the preface to Deuteronomy, since he never crossed the Jordan; he points out that Deuteronomy 31:9 references Moses in the third person; and he lists multiple other inconsistencies and anomalies that led him to conclude "it was plain" these Pentateuchal books were not written by Moses himself.:70–72:140 Jean Astruc (1684–1766), a French physician, believed these critics were wrong about Mosaic authorship. According to Old Testament scholar Edward Young, Astruc believed Moses used hereditary accounts of the Hebrew people to assemble the book of Genesis.:119,122:212–214 So, 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 he identified them as separate sources that were edited together into the book of Genesis, thus explaining Genesis' problems while still allowing for Mosaic authorship.:213 Astruc's method was adopted and developed at the twenty or so Protestant universities in Germany. There was a willingness among the doctoral candidates to re-express Christian doctrine in terms of the scientific method and the historical understanding common during the German Enlightenment (circa 1750–1850).:2,3,5:39,55
German pietism played a role in the rise of biblical criticism by supporting the desire to break the hold of religious authority.:6:19 Rationalism was also a significant influence in biblical criticism's development, providing its concern to avoid dogma and bias through reason.:42,252 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 the Bible could be considered authoritative even if it was not considered inerrant. This has become a common modern Judeo-Christian view.:39–42 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.: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. This is a concept recognized by modern psychology.
Communications scholar James A. Herrick says 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 theologian Henning Graf Reventlow as saying deism included the humanist world view, which has also been significant in biblical criticism.:39–40 Some scholars, such as Gerhard Ebeling (1912–2001), Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), and Ernst Käsemann (1906–1998) trace biblical criticism's origins to the Reformation.:298 :261 Three early scholars of the Reformation era who helped lay the foundations of modern biblical criticism were Joachim Camerarius (1500–1574), Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), and Matthew Tindal (1653–1733). Camerarius advocated for using context to interpret Bible texts. Grotius paved the way for comparative religion studies by analyzing New Testament texts in light of Classical, Jewish and early Christian writings. Tindal, as part of English deism, asserted that Jesus taught natural religion, an undogmatic faith that was later changed by the Church. This view drove a wedge between scripture and the Church's claims of religious truth.:41:117–136,138
The first scholar to separate the historical Jesus from the theological Jesus was philosopher, writer, classicist, Hebraist and Enlightenment free thinker Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768). Copies of Reimarus' writings were discovered by G. E. Lessing (1729–1781) in the library at Wolfenbüttel where he was 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 after the library where Lessing worked. 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. His disciples then stole the body and invented the story of the resurrection for personal gain.:45–48 Reimarus' controversial work prompted a response from Semler in 1779, Beantwortung der Fragmente eines Ungenannten (Answering the Fragments of an Unknown).:358–359, 266 Semler refuted Reimarus' arguments, but it was of little consequence. Reimarus' writings had already made a lasting change in the practice of biblical criticism by making it clear such criticism could exist independently of theology and faith. Reimarus had shown biblical criticism could serve its own ends, be governed solely by rational criteria, and reject deference to religious tradition.:48:356
Lessing contributed to the field of biblical criticism by seeing Reimarus' writings published, but he also made contributions of his own work, arguing that the proper study of biblical texts requires knowing the context in which they were written. This has since become an accepted concept.:102 During this period, the biblical scholar Johann David Michaelis (1717–1791) wrote the first historical-critical introduction to the New Testament, in which the historical study of each book of the Bible is discussed.:45:343–348,390 Instead of interpreting the Bible historically, Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1827), Johann Philipp Gabler (1753–1826), and Georg Lorenz Bauer (1755–1806) took a different approach. They used the concept of myth as a tool for interpreting the Bible. This concept was later picked up by Rudolf Bultmann and it became particularly influential in the early twentieth century.:117,149–150,188–191
The nineteenth century
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" and noted that the people working at that time "saw themselves as continuing the aims of the Protestant Reformation.":79 Landmarks in understanding the Bible and its background were achieved 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 had widespread debate within topics such as Pauline and New Testament studies, early church studies, Jewish Law, the theology of grace, and the doctrine of justification.:67–77, 79, 99:285–289
Foundations of anti-Jewish bias were also established in the field at this time under the guise of scholarly objectivity. The first Enlightenment Protestant to call for the "de-Judaizing" of Christianity was Johann Semler. The "emancipation of reason" from the Word of God was a primary goal of Semler and the Enlightenment exegetes, yet the picture of the Jews and Judaism found in biblical criticism of this period is colored by classic anti-Jewish stereotypes "despite the tradition's lip-service to emancipation.":25, 27 He took a stand against discrimination in society while at the same time writing theology that was strongly negative toward the Jews and Judaism. He saw Christianity as something new and universal that supersedes all that came before it.:39, 40 This stark contrast between Judaism and Christianity became a common theme, along with a strong prejudice against Jews and Judaism, in Herder, Schleiermacher, de Wette, Baur, Strauss, Ritschl, the history of religions school, and on into the form critics of the Twentieth century until World War II.:vii–xiii
Biblical criticism was divided into higher criticism and lower criticism during this century. Higher criticism focuses on the Bible's composition and history, while lower criticism is concerned with interpreting its meaning for its readers.:297, 298 Later in the 19th century, the discovery of ancient manuscripts revolutionized textual criticism and translation.:22 During this period, Bible scholar H. J. Holtzmann developed a listing of the chronological order of the New Testament.:82 The height of biblical criticism is also represented by the history of religions school (known in German as the Kultgeschichtliche Schule:20 or alternatively the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule).:178–180 This school was a group of German Protestant theologians associated with the University of Göttingen in the late 19th century who sought to understand Judaism and Christianity within their relationship to other religions of the Near East.:222
The late nineteenth century saw the second "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 is in his contribution to weakening the established authorities, and whose theological significance is in his confrontation of the doctrine of Christ's divinity with the modern critical study of history.:365 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.:888 William Wrede (1859–1906) was a forerunner of redaction criticism.:1058 Ernst Renan (1823–1892) promoted the critical method and was opposed to orthodoxy. Johannes Weiss (1863–1914), W. Bousset, Hermann Gunkel, and William Wrede were key figures in the founding of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule in Göttingen in the 1890s.:947 While at Göttingen, Weiss wrote his most influential work on the apocalyptic proclamations of Jesus.:172–173 It was left to Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) to finish pursuit of the apocalyptic Jesus and revolutionize New Testament scholarship at the turn of the century. He proved to most of that scholarly world that Jesus' teachings and actions were determined by his eschatological outlook. He also critiqued the romanticized "lives of Jesus" as built on dubious assumptions reflecting more of the life of the author than Jesus.:31–32, 257:3–4
The twentieth century
In the early part of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and others moved away from concern over the historical Jesus and concentrated instead on the kerygma: the message of the New Testament.:20:433 While there is consensus that Barth was the greatest theologian of the century,:19 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." 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.:627 Bultmann claimed myths are "true" anthropologically and existentially but not cosmologically.:46 As a major proponent of form criticism, Bultmann's views "set the agenda for a generation of leading New Testament scholars".:21
Redaction criticism was also a common form of 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.:vi: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.:xxv,1 New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias used linguistics and history to describe Jesus' Jewish environment.:498–499 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.:82
After 1970, biblical criticism began to change radically and pervasively.:21 New criticism (literary criticism) developed. New historicism, a literary theory that views history through literature, also developed.:51,52,60 Biblical criticism began to apply new literary approaches such as structuralism and rhetorical criticism, which were less concerned with history and more concerned with the texts themselves.:296 In the 1970s, the New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders 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.:69–92,260:xviii-xxi Sanders also advanced study of the historical Jesus by putting Jesus' life in the context of first-century Second Temple Judaism.: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.:13 The third period of focused study on the historical Jesus began in 1985 with the Jesus Seminar.
By 1990, biblical criticism was no longer primarily a historical discipline but was instead a group of disciplines with often conflicting interests.:18–22 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.:150:1, 15 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.:22,53 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.:22:19–20
Major methods of criticism
Theologian David R. Law writes that textual, source, form, and redaction criticism are employed together by biblical scholars. 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.:vii-ix
Textual criticism examines the text itself and all associated manuscripts to determine the original text.: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. 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. There are a total of 476 extant non-Christian manuscripts dated to the second century. 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.:47
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.:2 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.:29 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. 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. The multiple generations of texts that follow, containing the error, are referred to as a "family" of texts. 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. Textual criticism studies the differences between these families to piece together what the original looked like.:206–212 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).:213 [note 1]
Forerunners of modern textual criticism can be found in both early Rabbinic Judaism and the early church.: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.: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.":82
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.:205,209 Despite its use of objective rules, there is a subjective element involved in textual criticism. The textual critic chooses a reading based on personal judgment, experience and common-sense. Biblical scholar David Clines gives the example of Amos 6.12. It reads: "Does one plough with oxen? The obvious answer is 'yes', but the context of the passage seems to demand a 'no'; the usual reading therefore is to amend this to, '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.":29
All of this contributes to textual criticism being one of the most contentious areas of biblical criticism as well as the largest.:2:68 It uses specialized methodologies, enough specialized terms to create its own lexicon, 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.: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.: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.":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.: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.:5
Source criticism is the search for the original sources that form the basis of biblical text. It can be traced back to the 17th-century French priest Richard Simon.:35 In Old Testament studies, source criticism is generally focused on identifying sources within a single text. For example, the modern view of the origins of the book of Genesis was first laid in 1753 by the French physician Jean Astruc. He presumed Moses used ancient documents to write it, so his goal was 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.:166–168 He found repetitions of certain events, such as parts of the flood story that are repeated three times. 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.:7:336 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).:5:147
Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis
Theologian Antony F. Campbell 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.:1–18 Wellhausen correlated the history and development of those five books, known as the Pentateuch, with the development of the Jewish faith.:3:247 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).:2 Old Testament scholar Karl Graf (1815–1869) suggested the P in 1866 as the last stratum of the Wellhausen theory.:382:58 Therefore, the Documentary hypothesis is sometimes also referred to as the Graf–Wellhausen hypothesis.:69 Later scholars inferred more sources, with increasing information about their extent and inter-relationship.:38
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. This accounts for diversity but not structural and chronological consistency. 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.:23,55
Advocates of the Documentary hypothesis contend it accounts well for the differences and duplication found in each of the Pentateuchal books. 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.":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.:4:50,58,59 Problems and criticisms of the Documentary hypothesis have been brought on by such literary analysis, but also by anthropological developments, and by various archaeological findings, such as those indicating Hebrew is older than previously believed.:273–275:95,222 Presently, few biblical scholars still hold to Wellhausen's Documentary hypothesis in its classical form. 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.":95–132;228 Critical scholar Pauline Viviano 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.:41
The New Testament synoptic problem
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. This has revealed the Gospels are both products of sources and sources themselves.:53 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.:136–209 Multiple theories exist to address the dilemma. However, two theories have become predominant: the two-source hypothesis and the four-source hypothesis.:136–208,1029–1045
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 copied 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. 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".:342 If this document existed, it has now been lost, but some of its material can be deduced indirectly. Comparing what is common to Matthew and Luke, yet absent in Mark, the critical scholar Heinrich Julius Holtzmann demonstrated (in 1863) the probable existence of Q well enough for it to be accepted as a likely second source, along with Mark, for Matthew and Luke. This allowed the two-source hypothesis to emerge as the best supported of the various synoptic solutions.:148 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.:127
While most scholars agree that the two-source theory offers the best explanation for the Synoptic problem, it has not gone without dispute. The Synoptic Seminar disbanded in 1982, reporting that its members "could not agree on a single thing", leading some to claim the problem is unsolvable.:163 No single theory offers a complete solution. There are complex and important difficulties that create challenges to every theory.:208:4–13 One example is Basil Christopher Butler's challenge to the legitimacy of two-source theory, arguing it contains a Lachmann fallacy:149–151 that says the two-source theory loses cohesion when it is acknowledged that no source can be established for Mark.:104,149
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.:242:1 Bible scholar Richard Bauckham says this "most significant insight," which established the foundation of form criticism, has never been refuted.:243 Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932) and Martin Dibelius (1883-1947) built from this insight and pioneered form criticism. Form criticism breaks the Bible down into those 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 according to their needs (their "situation in life"), and that each form could be identified by the situation in which it had been created.:271:135:17–25
Form criticism, represented by Rudof Bultmann, its most influential proponent, was the dominant method in the field of biblical criticism for nearly 80 years. However, Old Testament scholar Rolf Knierim says contemporary scholars have produced an "explosion of studies" on structure, genre, text-type, setting and language that challenge several of its aspects and assumptions.:42,70:13:6,8:277:247:113 Biblical scholar Richard Burridge explains:
The general critique of form criticism came from various sources, putting several areas in particular under scrutiny. 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 the steady growth of an oral tradition in stages... the length of time needed for the "laws" of oral transmission to operate was greater than taken by the gospels; even the existence of such laws was questioned.:13:63
In the early to mid twentieth century, Bultmann and other form critics said they had found oral "laws of development" within the New Testament.:141 In the 1970s, New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders argued against the existence of such laws.:21,22 [note 2] During the latter half of the twentieth century, observations from field studies of cultures with existing oral traditions lent support to Sanders' view.:298 For example, in 1978 linguists Milman Parry and Albert Bates Lord observed that oral tradition does not develop in the same manner as written texts.:10 Writing tends to develop in a linear manner, beginning with a crude first draft which is then edited bit by bit to become more polished. Oral tradition is more complex and multidirectional in its development.:291–298 Religion scholar Burke O. Long sums up the contemporary view by observing that, since oral tradition does not follow the same developmental pattern as written texts, laws of oral development cannot be arrived at by studying written texts.:295
Additional challenges of form criticism have also been raised. For example, biblical studies scholar Werner H. Kelber says form criticism throughout the mid-twentieth century was so focused toward finding each pericope's original form, that it distracted from any serious consideration of memory as a dynamic force in the construction of the gospels or the early church community tradition.:277,278–291 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.:24:278 Knierim says Sitz im Leben has been challenged by studies that demonstrate a text type "does not automatically reveal the setting.":69 Another example concerns the Hellenistic culture that surrounded first-century Palestine. Form criticism assumed the early Church was heavily influenced by that culture.: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.":36–38,47:23,24
Bultmann has been personally criticized for being overly focused on Heidegger's philosophy in his philosophical foundation, and for working with a priori notions concerning "folklore, the distinction between Palestinian and Hellenistic communities, the length of the oral period, and more, that were not derived from study but were instead constructed according to a preconceived pattern".:19:247–249 For some, the many challenges to form criticism mean its future is in doubt.[note 3] Bible scholar Anthony J. 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.:15–16
Redaction is the process of editing multiple sources, often with a similar theme, into a single document. Redaction critics focus on discovering how the literary units were originally edited—"redacted"—into their current forms. Redaction criticism developed after World War II in Germany and in the 1950s in England and North America, and can be seen as a correlative to form criticism.:181:96–97 It is dependent on both source and form criticism, because it is necessary to identify the traditions before determining how the redactor has made use of them.:181 However, 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. As a result, redaction criticism "provides a corrective to the methodological imbalance of form criticism".:159:96–108 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 restoring an understanding of them as theologians of the early church. Bible scholars Richard and Kendall Soulen explain that when redaction criticism is applied to the synoptic gospels, "it is the evangelist's use, disuse or alteration of the traditions open to him that is in view, rather than the form and original setting of the traditions themselves.":159
Since redaction criticism was developed from form criticism, it shares many of its weaknesses. For example, it assumes an extreme skepticism toward the historicity of Jesus and the gospels just as form criticism does. Redaction criticism seeks the historical community of the final redactors of the gospels, though there is often no textual clue, and its method in finding the final editor's theology is flawed.:335,336 In the New Testament, redaction discerns the 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 a 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.:336 The evangelist's theology more likely depends on what the gospels have in common as well as their differences.:336
One of the weaknesses of redaction criticism in its New Testament application is that it assumes Markan priority. Redaction criticism can only function when sources are already known, and since redaction criticism of the Synoptics has been based on the Markan priority of two-source theory, if the priority of Matthew is ever established, redaction criticism would have to begin all over again.:159 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, do not accept redaction criticism.:335
Literary criticism shifted scholarly attention from historical and pre-compositional matters to the text itself, becoming the dominant form of biblical criticism in a relatively short period of about thirty years. New Testament scholar Paul R. House says the discipline of linguistics, new views of historiography, and the decline of older methods of criticism opened the door for literary criticism.:3 In 1957 literary critic Northrop Frye wrote an analysis of the Bible from the perspective of his literary background that used literary criticism to understand the Bible forms. It became influential in moving biblical criticism from a historical to a literary focus.:3–4
By 1974, the two methodologies being used in literary criticism were rhetorical analysis and structuralism. 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.:8 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.:9–12 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. Reader-response criticism, which focuses on the reader rather than the author, was put forward by the Old Testament scholar David M. Gunn in 1987.:5
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.":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.:20
Types of literary criticism
Canonical criticism has both theological and literary roots. Its origins are found in the Church's views of scripture as sacred as well as in the literary critics who began to influence biblical scholarship in the 1940s and 1950s. Canonical criticism responded to two things: 1) the sense that biblical criticism had obscured the meaning and authority of the canon of scripture; and 2) the fundamentalism in the Christian Church that had arisen in America in the 1920s and 1930s. Canonical criticism does not reject historical criticism and sociological analysis, but considers them secondary in importance.:46,47 Canonical critics believe the texts should be treated with respect as the canon of a believing community.:77–79,90,100,102 Canonical critics use the tools of biblical criticism to study the books of the Bible, but approach the books as whole units.:318,320 They take the books as finished works and treat each book as a unity, instead of taking them apart and focusing on isolated pieces. This begins from the position that scripture contains within it what is needed to understand it, rather than being understandable only as the product of a historically determined process.:7–11 Canonical criticism helped literary criticism move biblical studies in a new direction by focusing on the text rather than the author. It uses the text itself, the needs of the communities addressed by those texts, and the interpretation likely to have been formed originally to meet those needs. The canonical critic then relates this to the overall canon. Canonical criticism is associated with Brevard S. Childs (1923–2007), though he declined to use the term.:154
James Muilenburg (1896–1974) is often referred to as "the prophet of rhetorical criticism". A product of the 1960s, rhetorical criticism seeks to understand text type, as does form criticism, but moves beyond form criticism by looking into the inner theological meaning the author was trying to communicate. The rhetorical scholar Sonja K. Foss says there are ten methods of practicing rhetorical criticism, but each focuses on three dimensions of rhetoric: the authors, what they use to communicate, and what they are trying to communicate.:6 Rhetorical criticism is the systematic effort to understand the message being communicated in a focused and conscious manner. Biblical rhetorical criticism asks how hearing the texts impacted the audience. It attempts to discover and evaluate the rhetorical devices, language, and methods of communication used within the texts to accomplish the goals of those texts.:181–182 Phyllis Trible, a student of Muilenburg, has become one of the "leading practitioners of rhetorical criticism" and is known for her detailed literary analysis and her feminist critique of biblical interpretation.:615
Within narrative criticism, critics approach scripture as story. Narrative criticism began being used to study the New Testament in the 1970s,:6 and a decade later, study also included the Old Testament. However, the first time a published approach was labeled narrative criticism was in 1980, in the article "Narrative Criticism and the Gospel of Mark," written by Bible scholar David Rhoads.:278 Narrative criticism has its foundations in form criticism, but it is not a historical discipline. It is purely literary. 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 like history.:3 It is now accepted as "axiomatic in literary circles that the meaning of literature transcends the historical intentions of the author.":5 Narrative criticism embraces the textual unity of canonical criticism, while admitting the existence of the sources and redactions of historical criticism. Narrative critics choose to focus on the artistic weaving of the biblical texts into a sustained narrative picture.:2–5 The literary scholar Steven Weitzman (1892–1957) has argued that "narrative economy" (omitting comments about the thoughts or emotional state of a character) and "narrative unity" are what make the text a "work of art".:9 Narrative critics encourage the "implied reader" to see biblical characters as literary figures, observe textual unity, the importance of the narrator, "implied" authorial intent, and to be aware that a narrative can be interpreted in multiple ways. This perspective is key, Auerbach says: "Since so much in [Bible stories] is dark and incomplete, and since the reader knows that God is a hidden god, [the reader's] effort to interpret it constantly finds something new to feed on... there is no end for interpretation.":49
Life of Jesus research
The Quest for the historical Jesus, also known as life of Jesus research, is an area of biblical criticism that seeks to reconstruct the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth by critical historical methods.:587–589 The quest began with the posthumous publication of Hermann Reimarus' effort to reconstruct an "authentic" historical picture of Jesus instead of a theological one. The quest was a product of the Enlightenment skepticism of the late eighteenth century and produced a stark division between history and theology.:587:1 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 functioned theologically against the high Christology established by Roman Catholicism centuries before.:1
After Albert Schweitzer's Von Reimarus zu Wrede was published as The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1910, its title provided the label for the field of study for the next eighty years.:587 Interest languished in the early twentieth century, but revived in the 1950s, with some scholars asserting there have been three distinct quests. However, Bible scholar Stanley Porter asserts that there has been one fluctuating, but still continuous, multifaceted quest for the historical Jesus from the beginning.:52 By the end of the twentieth century, a more trusting attitude towards the historical reliability of sources gradually replaced Enlightenment skepticism. 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. Sanders' view characterizes most contemporary studies.:5 Reflecting this shift, the phrase "quest for the historical Jesus" has largely been replaced by "life of Jesus research".:33 The lasting achievement of the contemporary quest has been sensitizing scholars to Jesus' Jewish environment.:589
At first, biblical historical criticism and its deductions and implications were so unpopular outside liberal Protestant scholarship it created a schism in Protestantism. The American fundamentalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s began, at least partly, as a response to nineteenth century liberalism. Some fundamentalists believed liberal critics had invented an entirely new religion "completely at odds with the Christian faith". However, there were also conservative Protestants who accepted it. 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. A similar view was later advocated by the Primitive Methodist biblical scholar A. S. Peake (1865–1929).:298 Other 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.
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.":13,90 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.:83–86:23,135 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.:13,14,91–94:83–86 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.:298:231 This tradition is continued by Catholic scholars such as John P. Meier, Bernard Orchard,:89 and Reginald C. Fuller.:5:9
Hebrew Bible scholar Marvin A. Sweeney argues that some Christian theological assumptions within biblical criticism have reached anti-semitic conclusions. This has discouraged Jews from engaging in biblical criticism.:142–146 Hebrew Bible scholar Jon D. Levenson described how some Jewish scholars, such as rabbinicist Solomon Schechter (b. 1903), saw biblical 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 Christian pursuit, and the sense many Bible critics were not impartial academics but were proponents of supersessionism, prompted Schechter to describe "Higher Criticism as Higher Anti-semitism".:42,42,82,83 Professor of Hebrew Bible Baruch J. Schwartz states that these perceptions delayed Jewish scholars from entering the field of biblical criticism.:210 These problems began to be corrected in the modern era. The Holocaust led to Christian theologians rethinking ways to relate to Judaism, and the entry of Jewish scholars into academic departments from which they had formerly been excluded aided that process.:142–146
The first historical-critical Jewish scholar of Pentateuchal studies was M. M. Kalisch in the nineteenth century.:203–229 In the early twentieth century, historical criticism of the Pentateuch became mainstream among Jewish scholars.:222 In 1905, Rabbi David C. Hoffman wrote an extensive, two-volume, philologically based critique of the Wellhausen theory, which supported Jewish orthodoxy. Bible professor Benjamin D. Sommer says it is "among the most precise and detailed commentaries on the legal texts [Leviticus and Deuteronomy] ever written.":215 Yehezkel Kaufmann was the first Jewish scholar to appreciate fully the import of higher criticism. 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.:277
Socio-scientific criticism is part of the wider trend in biblical criticism reflecting interdisciplinary methods and diversity.:3–4,8 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.:70
In the 1940s and 1950s the term postmodern came into use to signify a rejection of modern conventions.:403–404.410 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. Soulen and Soulen quote French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard saying "I define postmodernism as incredulity toward meta-narratives.":125 Biblical scholar A. K. M. Adam says postmodernism is not so much a method as a stance.:vii It 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.:140–142 Postmodernists are suspicious of traditional theology and the neutrality of reason, and emphasize relativism and indeterminacy of texts. In textual criticism, postmodernists reject the idea of a sacred text, treating all manuscripts as equally valuable.:xi-xiii
Feminist criticism is an aspect of the feminist theology movement which began in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of Second Wave feminism in the United States.:1, Feminist theology has been ground-breaking in biblical criticism, disrupting the long-standing exclusivity of Christian theology as Western.: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.:56 Feminist biblical interpreters are characterized by the claim that classical models of understanding are patriarchal and therefore that makes it impossible for those models to identify the true contribution of women.:9 Feminist criticism embraces a reader-response approach to the text that includes an attitude of "dissent" or "resistance.":49
Post-critical biblical interpretation shares the postmodernist suspicion of non-neutrality of traditional approaches, but is not hostile toward theology.:22 It begins with the understanding that historical biblical criticism's focus on historicity produced a distinction between the meaning of what the text says and what it is about (what it references). This produced doubts about the text's veracity. The theologian Hans Frei writes that what he refers to as the "realistic narratives" of literature, including the Bible, don't allow for such separation.:119 Subject matter is identical to verbal meaning and is found in plot and nowhere else.: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'.":120
Psychological biblical criticism applies psychology to biblical texts; it was not until the 1990s that it began to have an influence among the new critical approaches.:67 Bible scholar Wayne Rollins says the goal of a psychological critical approach is to find expressions of the human psyche in the biblical texts.:67–74 It can be used in both a historical and a literary manner to examine the psychological dimensions of scripture through the use of the behavioral sciences.:3
- 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.:3–9
- According to Sanders, "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'...":298:182:272
- Anthony 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."
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|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- David J. A. Clines, "Possibilities and Priorities of Biblical Interpretation in an International Perspective", in On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays 1967–1998, Volume 1, (JSOTSup, 292; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 46–67 See Section 6, Future Trends in Biblical Interpretation, overview of some current trends in biblical criticism.
- Philip Davies, review of John J. Collins, "The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age", 2005 Reviews a survey of postmodernist biblical criticism.
- Allen P. Ross (Beeson Divinity School, Samford University), "The Study of Textual Criticism" Guide to the methodology of textual criticism.
- Yair Hoffman, review of Marvin A. Sweeney and Ehud Ben Zvi (eds.), The Changing Face of Form-Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, 2003 Discusses contemporary form criticism.