Biblical Criticism

bibleThe word "criticism" is often taken by the public to imply negative judgment. Hence "biblical criticism" is often taken to mean negative judgment against the Bible. Yet it is not necessary to gather this meaning from the use of the word "criticism." When the various types of biblical criticism are considered carefully it becomes clear that biblical criticism helps us to arrive at a clearer understanding of the meaning and relevance of the Bible.

Scholars use the word "criticism" in a slightly different sense than that which is implied in common use. By this word scholars do not mean negative judgment but simply judgment or discernment. The task of the biblical critic, then, is not to find fault with the Bible but to understand it more fully. We will now examine how the various types of biblical criticism adds to our knowledge of the Bible.

The Penguin Dictionary of Religions lists eight types of biblical criticism.1 Each type helps us to appreciate the true worth of the Bible. The first mentioned type is textual criticism. The purpose of this endeavor is to determine as much as possible what text left the pens of the inspired authors. Over time scribal errors are bound to result from even the best human attempts to produce hand-written copies of the Bible over the centuries. Today we have thousands of manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments from which to reconstruct what must reasonably have been the ancestor from which these texts descended. Since the desire of every Bible believer is presumably to hold on to the one text which God condescended to reveal to us, it is difficult to see why textual criticism should not prove to be of positive benefit.

The second type is source criticism. We understand that the inspired authors were inescapably products of their environments. There exists no reason for excluding the possibility that in composing their works they drew upon existing sources and documents. The author of the third Gospel explicitly makes known in his introduction that he did so exactly draw upon other works (Luke 1:1-4). This type of criticism helps us to understand our existing documents by isolating within them as far as possible the traces remaining of the sources from which they drew. Thus we are better able to understand Genesis, for example, when we come to realize that the book was composed from three main sources. Otherwise much of Genesis would be puzzling if not incomprehensible. The sources are combined in such a fashion that our resulting document which appears in the form of a continuous narrative is actually riddled with repetitions which on occasion contradict each other. Hence the creation of the heavens and the earth is described twice in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. Whereas in chapter 1 we learnt that the man was the last item of God’s creating, we learn from chapter 2 that animals were created after the man. Without the help of source criticism here we would be at a loss to understand how a single sane author could have written such a book. Now we can appreciate that our present Genesis is a result of careful scholarly work that went into combining, retaining, and editing existing documents.

A third type, form criticism, helps us to detect the way in which the material developed over time through oral transmission until final inclusion in our present documents. Since it is clear that many of our documents were written long after the events they describe, it is reasonable to assert that the oral material must have been somewhat fluid. Gospel material, therefore, would have been given shape by the situations that the early church experienced. Thus when the early church preached the message about Jesus the teaching about him took on various shapes. Conflict stories, for example, developed to explain why the early church is now in conflict with Jewish leaders. The explanation is cast in the form of a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. Hence we find that a conflict should mean more for the situation of the early church than for an understanding of Jesus’ life - situation is represented in Mark 7 as already having occurred during Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is said to have there already declared all foods clean, whereas we know from Acts and Paul that the question of clean versus unclean foods was an unanswered question for the early church.

The positive contribution of this type of criticism is that it helps us to retrace the development of the material about Jesus over time. Often we can understand more about a finished work if we can see the process by which it reaches completion. We do not have this advantage with the books of the Bible, since all we have here are the finished documents. Form criticism helps us to retrace what must have been stages of development along the way.

A type of criticism not unrelated to form criticism is tradition criticism. Whereas form criticism provides insight into how teaching material were cast into more or less fixed forms, tradition criticism helps us to understand how the initial stories acquired later changes. Such changes would reflect again the needs of the Christian community arising at a time later than that which gave shape to the initial teaching. To illustrate tradition criticism at work, consider the story of Jesus’ baptism as narrated in the four Gospels. We notice a progressive tendency among the later Gospels to minimize the implications of the fact that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Mark had simply mentioned the brute fact without caring for the implication that the baptizer had an advantage over Jesus (Mark 1:9-11). Luke, writing later, minimizes mention of the baptizer by using the passive form of the verb to say that Jesus was baptized (Luke 3:21). Matthew has the baptizer declaring Jesus’ superiority (Matthew 3:14). John, writing last, has the baptizer at once raising the banner of Jesus and lowering his own. Jesus becomes greater, the baptizer becomes lesser (John 3:30). This explains why John never clearly asserts that Jesus was baptized. We see that as we go from Mark to John the story of the baptism is reshaped to suit the later needs of the community. Christians may have found the implications of the baptism of Jesus to be at tension with the later claims about Jesus’ divinity. The way to avoid such tension was to modify the tradition. We get a better understanding of what the authors of the Gospels are saying from this insight into the growing tradition. It helps us to see the various stages of early Christian apologetics at work.
Historical criticism is the fifth type to consider here. This area of study raises questions having to do with authorship, date, and place of composition of the documents. Most of the Bible would have little meaning for us unless we knew who wrote what when and where. Often we do not have all of this information, but knowing what information we lack also helps us better than if we had not raised the questions in the first place. Knowing, for example, that Hebrews was not written by Paul now leaves us powerless to determine who wrote it. Yet the knowledge that Paul was not the author reduces our chances of misunderstanding Paul and his message which is to be found in his own letters. We can also understand Hebrews better knowing now that we would be unwise to force-fit its theology into a framework of Pauline teachings.

We turn now to another area: redaction criticism. Having considered already how the tradition originated and developed, we can take our study further to consider how each writer used the tradition to meet his own editorial policy. We can see, for example, that although Matthew and Luke both culled sayings of Jesus from a hypothetical Q Gospel, Matthew alone arranged many of those sayings to form a lengthy speech delivered by Jesus while seated on a mountain (Matthew 5-7). Matthew, it would seem, thought it useful to represent Jesus as the new Moses delivering a new law from a mountain. Matthew has also arranged his Gospel into five sections as if to represent by these something new to match the five books of Moses. We understand better what Matthew is trying to say when we recognise his editorial policy, or, to put it another way, how he redacted the material to form his own Gospel.

Canonical criticism is the seventh type mentioned in the Penguin Dictionary of Religions. This type has to do with the question of which documents deserve to be included or not in the canon of scripture. This obviously is not a new discipline since the canon is already fixed. Rather, scholars early in Christian history had already recognised the value of at least this type of criticism. The fact of the canon has served, however, to obscure the diversity among the various included documents. Refreshing this discipline may not lead us to revise the canon. But it would give us a chance to evaluate the message of each document understood in its own right. Unless the writers had penned their documents intending them for inclusion within a larger work, the writers could hardly have intended their messages to be understood in the light of someone else’s. Canonical criticism can help us to avoid confusion between what is the message of each individual document and what is the message of the canon taken as a whole.

The last type to consider here is literary criticism. The purpose of this area of study is to uncover what must have been in the mind of the author as he wrote. This type obviously includes all the areas of study already discussed. What is worth mentioning here is the particular attitude adopted in critical studies. The Bible considered as literature is seen to bear the characteristics of other literature. It is thought, then that a careful student should bring to bear all the tools of literary criticism upon the Bible also. The purpose of this endeavor, again, is not to "criticize" the Bible in the negative sense usually understood by the word among laity. The purpose is to understand more fully what the Bible is saying to us.

Now having stressed so much of the benefits of criticism, a word needs to be said about is negative effects. This caution is directly implied from the already mentioned purpose of trying to discover what was in the mind of this or that author at the time of composition. How is this to be known for certain? The various critical methods are hardly scientific. On almost every question scholarly judgment is sharply divided. This alone points to the degree of subjectivity involved in the process. This of course is not to discourage the process. The caution to be expressed, however, is one that should serve to limit the degree of assurance that accompany this or that pronouncement of scholarly judgment. At the end of the day the scholar must feel humbled by the task at hand. A negative effect of this type of study, then, is one which Paul already expressed in the following words: Knowledge puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1).

Leaving aside this possibility, however, we have seen that biblical criticism cannot simply be brushed aside by serious students who seek a better understanding of the Bible. The various methods of study already described above all serve the purpose of discovering what the inspired authors of the Bible were saying. To understand the relevance of the Bible for today we need to first determine what relevance it had back then when various parts of it originated, developed, and were eventually written down. As the New American Bible puts it, the Bible is both God’s word and man’s. To understand God’s messages in the Bible we have to first understand the words of the men who wrote them.

By Shabir Ally

1 John R. Hinnells, The Penguin Dictionary of Religions (US: Penguin 1995) pp 72-73.
2 The New American Bible, St. Joseph Medium Size Edition (US: Catholic Book Publishing, 1985) p. [19]

Aland, Kurt. Synopsis of the Four Gospels. US: United Bible Societies, 1985.
Hinnells, John R. The Penguin Dictionary of Religions. US: Penguin, 1985
Stacey, W. David. Groundwork of Biblical Studies. UK: Epunth Press, 1979.
The Abingdon Bible Commentary. US: Abingdon Press, 1929.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary. US: Harper & Row, 1985.
The New American Bible, St. Joseph Medium Size Edition. US: Catholic Book Publishing, 1986.