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Biblical criticism

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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.



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

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) studied Genesis and found contradictions, parallelisms, and inconsistencies that indicated to them a single author, such as Moses, was improbable. They began asking questions about the origins of the texts.[1]:140,404[2]:127 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.[3]:119[4]: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.[4]: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).[5]:1–6[6]:53–55 Bible scholar David R. Law writes that "a distinctive feature of the historical critical method is that it addresses the internal inconsistencies of biblical texts by looking to history to solve these problems."[6]:6-7

German pietism played a role in the rise of biblical criticism by supporting the desire to break the hold of religious authority.[7]:19 Rationalism was also a significant influence in biblical criticism's development, providing its concern to avoid dogma and bias through reason.[6]:25 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.[6]: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.[6]: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.[8]

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.[9]: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.[10] 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.[6]:41[11]:117–136

The historical Jesus

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

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).[12] 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.[12][6]:46–48 Reimarus' controversial work prompted a response from Semler in 1779, Beantwortung der Fragmente eines Ungenannten (Answering the Fragments of an Unknown).[13]:355–359; 43–45 Semler engaged critically to effectively refute 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.[14]:346–350[6]:48

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.[15]: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.[16]:343–346,394–398 [6]:43 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.[17]:117 They are seen as the founders of the mythical school of biblical interpretation.[18]:288

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".[19]: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 impact on topics such as Pauline and New Testament studies, early church studies, Jewish Law, the theology of grace, and the doctrine of justification.[20]:60–77[21]:285–289 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.[10]:297,298 In the later 19th century, the discovery of ancient manuscripts revolutionized textual criticism and translation.[7]:20 During this same period, Bible scholar H. J. Holtzmann developed a listing of the chronological order of the New Testament.[22]:82 The height of biblical criticism is also represented by the history of religions school (known in German as the Kultgeschichtliche Schule[23]:19,96 or alternatively the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule). 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.[24]:161[25]:222

The late nineteenth century saw the second "quest for the historical 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.[26]:364–368 Adolf Von Harnack (1851–1930) contributed to the study of Jesus in history and was opposed by German Protestantism his entire life, though his purpose was to provide a scholarly, scientific basis for Christianity.[27]:491–495 William Wrede (1859–1906) was a forerunner of redaction criticism.[28]:394–398 Ernst Renan (1823-1892) promoted the critical method and was opposed to orthodoxy.[29] Johannes Weiss (1863–1914) is associated with the history of religions school's concern for Near Eastern religion.[30]:531–535 These men all made contributions to the study of Jesus in history, but none more than Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965).[31]:523–526 Schweitzer revolutionized New Testament scholarship by proving to most of the scholarly world that Jesus' teachings and actions were determined by his eschatological outlook. Yet it is "one of the ironies of the history of biblical criticism that Schweitzer's picture of Jesus as a religious fanatic who died disillusioned on a cross" merely became an additional witness to the dubious assumptions of the nineteenth century 'quest.'[19]:154[32]:257[33]:3–4

The twentieth century

black and white photo of Barth laughing while speaking standing at a podium
Karl Barth delivering a talk at the Wuppertal in March of 1956; Bundesarchiv Bild 194-1283-23A, Wuppertal, Evangelische Gesellschaft, Jahrestagung

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.[7]:154[34]:433–439 While there is consensus that Barth was the greatest theologian of the century[35]:19, scholars such as theologian Konrad Hammann call Bultmann the "giant of twentieth-century New Testament scholarship." Hamann explains: "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 said faith became possible at a point in history: the historical event of Jesus' death. However, he also said this history is presented in the New Testament in the mythical terms of Jesus' resurrection. Therefore, he concluded, the mythology of the New Testament needs to be reinterpreted—demythologized—using historical study and the existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger.[37]:627 As a major proponent of form criticism, Bultmann's views "set the agenda for a generation of leading New Testament scholars".[7]: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.[38][39]:23,74 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.[40]:1-13,89-98 New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias used linguistics and history to describe Jesus' Jewish environment.[39]:563–565[41] Theologian C. H. Dodd pioneered the biblical theology movement which can be seen as a rejection of the liberal views of the historical critics who had come before him.[39]:29[42]:11[43]

After 1970, biblical criticism began to change radically and pervasively.[7]:21 New criticism (literary criticism) developed.[44]:3 New historicism, a literary theory that views history through literature, also developed.[45]:60–65 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.[46]:14 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.[47]:69–92,260[48]:xviii Sanders also advanced study of the historical Jesus by putting Jesus' life in the context of first-century Second Temple Judaism.[33]:13–18 The third period of focused study on the historical Jesus began in 1985 with the Jesus Seminar.[49] 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.[50][51]

By 1990, biblical criticism was no longer primarily a historical discipline but was instead a field of disciplines with often conflicting interests.[7]: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.[52]:1[11]:150 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 the Bible can be rationally interpreted from many different perspectives.[44][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.[7]:22[54]:19–20[11]:138 In the process, modern biblical criticism lost some of the "luster of inevitability and superiority that it once had."[7]:21 Still, "biblical criticism continues to set an agenda for interpretation that remains potent: to let the text speak on its own terms."[7]:22

Major methods of criticism

Theologian David R. Law writes that textual, source, form, and redaction criticism are employed together by biblical scholars. These methods are the outcome of the historically based approach to biblical criticism which has the goal of reconstructing the history of the 'world behind the texts' as well as the 'world within the texts'.[55]:11-14 The different methods take the results of one method as the point of beginning the next. Law goes on to explain the Old and 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 a somewhat artificial approach. Even so, it is necessary for the purpose of description.[6]:1-24

Textual criticism

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; courtesy of the John Rylands Library

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. There are more than 3,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts, not including nearly 2,000 fragments. There are also more than 2,000 lectionaries, approximately 15,000 antique New Testament translations into languages such as Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Gothic, Georgian, and Armenian, and literally a million New Testament quotations in the collected writings of the Church Fathers. As a comparison, the next most sourced ancient work is Homer's Iliad 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.[57] 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.[58]:206–212

A variant is simply any variation between two texts; the more texts, the more variants.[58]:206–215 Textual critic Bart Ehrman says the total number of New Testament variants is almost three times the number of words. However, they are not evenly distributed.[59]:13–60 Textual scholar Kurt Aland explains that charting the variants shows it is 62.9% is variant-free.[60]:29 Many variants originate in simple mis-copying. For example, a scribe drops one or more letters, skips a word or line, writes one letter for another, transposes letters, and so on. Some variants represent a scribal attempt to simplify or harmonize, by changing a word or a phrase.[61]:37–42[57] Some mistakes were corrected, others perpetuated, with the copies of the copies also having the same mistakes. Ehrman explains: "The errors tend to form 'families' of manuscripts: scribe 'A' will introduce mistakes which are not in the manuscript of scribe 'B', and over time the families of texts descended from 'A' and 'B' will diverge further, but will be identifiable as descended from one or the other. Textual criticism studies the differences between these families to piece together what the original looked like."[58]:206–212[57] 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).[61]:213–217;252 [note 1]

Forerunners of modern textual criticism can be found in both early Rabbinic Judaism and the early church.[6]:81 Rabbis addressed variants in the Hebrew texts as early as 100 AD. 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.[6]: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. The Dead Sea Scrolls are important for many reasons, but especially for placing in question the entire concept of "original texts."[6]:81-112

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.[58]: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."[63]:23–45

All of this contributes to textual criticism being one of the most contentious areas of biblical criticism as well as the largest.[59]:2[57][64]:119–120 It uses specialized methodologies, enough specialized terms to create its own lexicon,[65] 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.[66] [67]:295 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.[58]: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."[58]:213 Clark's claims were criticized by those who supported Griesbach's priciples. 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 all along.[58]: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 exact way.[62]

Source criticism

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.[68]: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. Astruc's 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. 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.[69]:1–10[70]:336[71]:139–152 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).

Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis

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

Theologian Antony F. Campbell says source criticism's most influential work, 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, has left its "mark indelibly on modern biblical studies".[72]:1–18 Wellhausen correlated the history and development of those five books, known as the Pentateuch, with the development of the Jewish faith.[73]:3[74]:256 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).[72]:2 Old Testament scholar Karl Graf (1815–1869) suggested the P in 1866 as the last stratum of the Wellhausen theory.[39]:382[75]:58 Therefore, the Documentary hypothesis is sometimes also referred to as the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis.[76]:69

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 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."[73]: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.[72]:207,208[75]: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.[77]:273–275 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."[73]:95–132;228

The New Testament synoptic problem

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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. This has revealed the Gospels are both products of sources and sources themselves. 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.[78]:136–209 Multiple theories exist to address the dilemma, however, two theories have become predominant: the two-source hypothesis and the four-source hypothesis.[78]: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 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".[79]:9 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 most supported of the various synoptic solutions.[79]:9,10[79]: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 two source theory into four-source theory in 1925.[80]:48

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.[81]:163 No single theory offers a complete solution. There are a number of complex and important difficulties that create challenges to every theory.[78]:208[82]:4–13 One example is Basil Christopher Butler's challenge to the legitimacy of two-source theory, arguing it contains a Lachmann fallacy[80]:149–151 which says the two-source theory loses cohesion when it is acknowledged that no primitive source can be established for Mark.[80]:149 The theologian Donald Guthrie says there is still much uncertainty concerning the sources.[78]:208

Form criticism

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.[83]:5 Bible scholar Richard Bauckham says this "most significant insight," which established the foundation of form criticism, has never been refuted.[84]:243 Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932) and Martin Dibelius (1883-1947) built from this insight and pioneered form criticism.[85] 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.[67]:269[86]:174[87]:55[88]:17–25

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

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, genré, text-type, setting and language that challenge several of its aspects and assumptions.[89]:42–72[90]:13[91][92]:1-15[93]:278[84]:242,247 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.[90]:13[89]: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.[86]:174[94]:1–118 In the 1970s, New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders argued against the existence of such laws.[95]:273–274 [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.[67]:291–298[97]:4–5,7–13 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.[98] 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.[67]:298[99]:20[100] 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.[101]:112 [67]:295[102]

Additional challenges of form criticism have also been raised. For example, biblical studies scholar Werner H. Kelber says form criticism was programmed throughout the mid-twentieth century toward finding each pericope's original form. He goes on to say this focus distracted from consideration of memory as a dynamic force in the construction of the gospels or the early church community tradition.[93]: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.[103][93]:278 Another example concerns the Hellenistic culture that surrounded first-century Palestine. Form criticism assumed the early Church was heavily influenced by that culture.[104]: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."[105]:1–7[104]:36–38,47[106]:xv[107]:71[108]

Bultmann has been personally criticized for being overly focused on Heidegger's philosophy in his philosophical foundation,[39]:57,58 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".[109]:101[84]:246–248 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.[110]:219–220

Redaction criticism

Redaction is the process of editing multiple sources, often with a similar theme, into a single document. Redaction critics, then, 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.[6]:181-215[111]: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 those traditions.[6]: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.[112]:158–159 As a result, "it provides a corrective to the methodological imbalance of form criticism".[113]:158–160[111]: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.[112]:158–159 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."[113]:159 They go on to say 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.[113]:159

Literary criticism

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.

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.[114]: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.[114]:3

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.[114]: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.[114]: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, and reader-response criticism, which focuses on the reader rather than the author. Reader-response criticism was put forward by the Old Testament scholar David M. Gunn in 1987.[114]:5 Literary criticism has been accused of using its methodology to make claims beyond its scope, and for being too politically oriented.[115]:1-9

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. Canonical critics believe the texts should be treated with respect as the canon of a believing community. Canonical critics use the tools of biblical criticism to study the books of the Bible, but approach the books as whole units. 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.[116]:37–38[117]:1–10 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.[118][119]:154

James Muilenburg (1896-1974) referred to himself as "the prophet of rhetorical criticism".[39]:762–765 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.[120]:3–8 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.[121]:ix-xvii Phyllis Trible, a student of Muilenburg, also applied and developed rhetorical methods, while adding a Christian feminist viewpoint.[122]:158–159[123][124]:131–133

Narrative criticism approaches scripture as story. Narrative criticism began studying the New Testament in the 1970s, and a decade later also included the Old Testament. However, the first time a published approach was labeled narrative criticism was in 1980 in the Bible scholar David Rhodes' article "Narrative Criticism and the Gospel of Mark".[125]:3–179 Narrative criticism has its foundations in form criticism, but it is not a historical discipline. It is purely literary. 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. The literary scholar Erich Auerbach (1892–1957) 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". He encouraged others to see biblical characters as literary figures, and promoted the idea of textual unity, the importance of the narrator, authorial intent, and an awareness a narrative can be interpreted in multiple ways.[126]:3-27 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."[127]:49–51[128]

The Historical Jesus

painting of Jesus and an elder with long beard sitting talking together on a rooftop
Henry Ossawa Tanner - Jesus and Nicodemus

Bible scholars James Beilby and Paul Eddy say consensus in historical Jesus studies is "elusive but not entirely absent".[129]:47 There is widespread consensus among the majority of contemporary biblical scholars that "Jesus was a first century Jew, who was baptized by John, went about teaching and preaching, had followers, was believed to be a miracle worker and exorcist, went to Jerusalem where there was an "incident", was subsequently arrested, convicted and crucified."[129]:48-49 There is also near unanimous agreement that Jesus must be understood within the context of the first century Judaism in which he lived.[129]:40-50 Contemporary scholarly views toward the historical Jesus are divided: the largest group, containing scholars such as John Meier, N. T. Wright and Gregory A. Boyd, maintain the value of historical research, say objective understanding can be derived even from biased material, and say some recognizable version of the Jesus of tradition emerges from critical study of the Bible texts.[67]:24–26[130] Robert Funk and J. D. Crossan are among those who support historical research, say facts of the historical Jesus can be discerned from biblical texts, but focus on the humanity of Jesus without a supernatural aspect.[131]:105-133 Rudolf Bultmann and Burton Mack accept the possible existence of a historical Jesus but argue that the stories of him are so saturated with legend and myth that we can know nothing about him. Last, since the days of Reimarus there have been scholars such as Bruno Bauer (1809–1882), G. A. Wells (1926–2017) and the modern day Robert Price (1954– ), who have argued Jesus is a fictional character, the Gospels themselves are fiction, and the historical existence of Jesus is therefore impossible to verify.[132]:15-22[67]:24

The developing tradition

The period of the first century after 30 AD when scholars place Jesus' death, and the period before the most common dates for the writing of the Gospels, (circa 60–90 AD), has been referred to as the "oral period" of early Christian history.[133]:43 Scholars generally agree that the traditions and sayings concerning Jesus were passed on verbally during this period. How this was accomplished is one of the key issues in the question of historical authenticity.[84]:5–10 There is diversity and controversy in scholarly views on the oral period as there is almost no information dating directly from this time.[67]:13–33[84]:240 New Testament scholar Cynthia Briggs Kittredge says the church's earliest creeds are among the few types of evidence in existence from this period.[134]:112–123 Literary criticism has revealed three texts within the New Testament that critics have identified as having been early oral creeds. There is consensus these texts are older than the writings which contain them. These were received by Paul, recorded by him in his epistles, but not authored by him. They are: 1 Corinthians 15:3-5ff, a primitive narrative outline of the gospel; Philippians 2:6–11, a song of Christ; and Galatians 3:28, a fragment of prayer used at baptism.[134]:123 The majority of scholars,[note 4] including textual scholar Bart Ehrman, say 1 Corinthians 15:3-5ff is the oldest creedal account in the New Testament. It was probably in use by the early 30s shortly after the accepted time of Jesus' death.[135]:262 Its existence, content and dating have impacted contemporary theories concerning the development of the gospels as legend, myth, and/or their possible historicity, as well as theories on early Christianity, its Christology and the early church's theology.[136]:3–124,319[134]:124[137]:27-51


In 1987, Dennis Polkow presented a paper cataloguing 25 separate criteria which are a variety of rules used to determine if some event or person is more or less likely to be historical.[138]:193–199[139]:3–33 New Testament scholar John Kloppenborg Verbin says the lack of uniformity in their application, and the absence of agreement on methodological issues concerning them, have created challenges and problems that have undermined confidence in their dependability. For example, the question of whether dissimilarity or multiple attestation should be given more weight has led some scholars exploring the historical Jesus to come up with "wildly divergent" portraits of him, which would be less likely to occur if the criteria were prioritized consistently.[140]:10–31 Methodological alternatives involving hermeneutics, linguistics, cultural studies and more, have been put forth by various scholars as alternatives to the criteria, but so far, the criteria remain the most common method used to measure historicity.[106]:xi

The criterion of multiple attestation or independent attestation, sometimes also referred to as the cross-sectional method, is a type of source criticism first developed by F. C. Burkitt in 1911. Simply put, the method looks for commonalities in multiple sources with the assumption that, the more sources that report an event or saying, the more likely that event or saying is historically accurate. Burkitt claimed he found 31 independent sayings in Mark and Q. Within Synoptic Gospel studies, this was used to develop the four-source hypothesis. Multiple sources lend support to some level of historicity. New Testament scholar Gerd Theissan says "there is broad scholarly consensus that we can best find access to the historical Jesus through the Synoptic tradition."[141]:25[142]:83[143] A second related theory is that of multiple forms. Developed by C. H. Dodd, it focuses on the sayings or deeds of Jesus found in more than one literary form. Bible scholar Andreas J. Köstenberger gives the example of Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God had arrived. He says it is found in an "aphorism (Mat.5:17), in parables (Mat.9:37–38 and Mark 4:26–29), poetic sayings (Mat.13:16–17), and dialogues (Mat.12:24–28)" and is therefore likely an authentic theme of Jesus' teaching.[144]:149[108]:90–91[86]:174–175,317[109][145]

The criterion of embarrassment is based on the assumption the early church would not have gone out of its way to "create" or "falsify" historical material that only embarrassed its author or weakened its position in arguments with opponents.[87]:54–56 As historian Will Durant explains:

Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed—the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus' arrest, Peter's denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity, his early uncertainty as to his mission, his confessions of ignorance as to the future, his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross.[146]:557

These and other possibly embarrassing events, such as the discovery of the empty tomb by women, Jesus' baptism by John, and the crucifixion itself, are seen by this criterion as lending credence to the supposition the gospels contain some history.[146][147][87] The criterion of the crucifixion is related to the criterion of embarrassment. In the first-century Roman empire, only criminals were crucified. The early church referred to death on the cross as a scandal. It is therefore unlikely to have been invented by them.[148]:139,140[145]:239 Bible scholar David Mishkin says "[t]hat Jesus died on a Roman cross in Jerusalem is perhaps the one truth with virtual unanimity" among Bible scholars.[149]:203[147][87]

New Testament scholar Gerd Theissen and theologian Dagmar Winter say one aspect of the criterion of embarrassment is "resistance to tendencies of the tradition".[145]:239 It works on the assumption that what goes against the general tendencies of the early church is historical. For example, criticisms of Jesus go against the tendency of the early church to worship him, making it unlikely the early church community invented statements such as those accusing Jesus of being in league with Satan (Matthew 12:24), or being a glutton and drunkard (Matthew 11:19). Theissen and Winter sum this up with what can also be referred to as enemy attestation: when friends and enemies alike refer to the same events, those events are likely to be historical.[145]:240

The criterion of dissimilarity or discontinuity says that if a particular saying can be plausibly accounted for as the words or teaching of some other source contemporary to Jesus, it is not thought to be genuine evidence of the historical Jesus. The "Son of Man" sayings are an example. Judaism had a Son of Man concept (as indicated by texts like 1 Enoch 46:2; 48:2–5,10; 52:4; 62:5–9; 69:28–29 and 4 Ezra 13:3ff), but there is no record of the Jews ever applying it to Jesus. The Son of Man is Jesus' most common self-designation in the Gospels, yet none of the New Testament epistles use this expression, nor is there any evidence that the disciples or the early church did. The conclusion is that, by the process of elimination of all other options, it is likely historically accurate that Jesus used this designation for himself.[150]:202[151]:489–532,633–636

The criterion of coherence (also called criterion of consistency or criterion of conformity) can be used only when other material has been identified as authentic. This criterion holds that a saying or action attributed to Jesus may be accepted as authentic if it coheres with other sayings and actions already established as authentic. While this criterion cannot be used alone, it can broaden what scholars believe Jesus said and did.[87]:54–56[108]:90[86]:174 For example, Jesus' teaching in Mark 12:18–27 concerning the resurrection of the dead coheres well with a saying of Jesus in Q on the same subject of the afterlife (reported in Matthew 8:11–12/Luke 13:28–29), as well as other teachings of Jesus on the same subject.[150]:69–72

The New Testament contains a high number of words and phrases called Semitisms: a combination of poetic or vernacular koine Greek with Hebrew and Aramaic influences.[152]:112[153]:52–68 A Semitism is the linguistic usage, in the Greek in a non-Greek fashion, of an expression or construction typical of Hebrew or Aramaic. In other words, a Semitism is Greek in Hebrew or Aramaic style.[153]:53[152]:111–114 For example, Matthew begins with a Hebrew gematria (a method of interpreting Hebrew by computing the numerical value of words). In Matthew 1:1, Jesus is designated "the son of David, the son of Abraham". The numerical value of David's name in Hebrew is 14; so this genealogy has 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the Babylonian exile, and 14 from the exile to the Christ (Matthew 1:17).[153]:54 Such linguistic peculiarities tie New Testament texts to Jews of 1st-century Palestine.[153] :53

Contemporary developments


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.

At first, biblical historical criticism and its deductions and implications were not popular outside liberal Protestant scholarship.[154] The American Fundamentalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s was begun, at least partly, as a response to liberalism. Some fundamentalists believed liberal critics had invented an entirely new religion "completely at odds with the Christian faith".[154] Other conservative Protestants disagreed with the fundamentalists. William Robertson Smith (1846–1894) is an example of an evangelical who believed historical criticism was a product of Christian theology going back to the Christian Reformation. He saw it as a "necessary tool to enable intelligent churchgoers" to understand the Bible. He 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).[10]: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.

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.

The Catholic Church had difficulty accepting biblical criticism. Pope Leo XIII (1810–1903) condemned secular biblical scholarship in his encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus ('On the Study of Holy Scripture') on 18 November 1893. The pioneering work on textual criticism by the French Dominican Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855–1938) laid the path to overcoming this resistance.[155]:Intro Later, the Jesuit Augustin Bea (1881–1968), played a vital part in the publication of the 1943 papal encyclical Divino afflante spiritu ('Inspired by the Holy Spirit') sanctioning historical criticism.[156]:231[10]:298 This tradition is continued by Catholic scholars such as Bernard Orchard,[157]:89 and Reginald C. Fuller.[158]:5

Christian Hebrew Bible scholar Marvin A. Sweeney writes that some specifically Christian theological assumptions in what was claimed to be a non-sectarian pursuit led to specifically anti-Jewish lines of reasoning in the field from its beginning, causing most Jews to avoid it; those problems began to be corrected in the contemporary era, following Christian rethinking ways to relate to Judaism following the Holocaust as well as the entry of Jewish scholars into academic departments from which they had been excluded.[159]

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 19th century and early twentieth century, the perception that higher criticism was an entirely Christian pursuit, and the sense many Bible critics were not disinterested academics but were proponents of supersessionism, prompted Schechter to describe "Higher Criticism as Higher Anti-semitism".[160]:83 Professor of Hebrew Bible Baruch J. Schwartz states these perceptions contributed to Jewish scholars being late to enter the field of biblical criticism.[161]:8,9–10

The first historical-critical Jewish scholar of Pentateuchal studies was M. M. Kalisch in the nineteenth century.[161]:203–229 Full entry into Pentateuchal studies defined by the critical approach did not begin until the early twentieth century.[161]: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."[161]: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.[162]:182[161]:277

Contemporary methods

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

Socio-scientific criticism is part of the wider trend in biblical criticism reflecting interdisciplinary methods and diversity.[163]:3–28 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 formed the texts. Socio-scientific criticism uses the perspectives, theories, models, and research of the social sciences to determine what "social laws" influenced the growth of biblical tradition. Socio-scientific criticism is close to historical biblical criticism in its goals and methods, and has less in common with literary critical approaches. It analyzes the social and cultural dimensions of the text and its environmental context.[164]:54–56 Professor Margaret Y. MacDonald used socio-scientific criticism, combining anthropological and sociological methods, to study early pagan responses to Christianity and the lives of first- and second-century Christian women. There is little direct information available on the lives of women in early Christianity, but this socio-scientific approach revealed valuable information concerning what exactly pagans were reacting to: the lives and evangelistic activities of Christian women. According to MacDonald, this indicates that women were more important to the beginnings of Christianity than has previously been realized.[165][166]

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

In the 1940s and 1950s the term postmodern came into use to signify a rejection of modern conventions.[39]:70–73 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 is against any philosophy that attempts to make rational descriptions of society. Biblical scholar A. K. M. Adam says postmodernism is not so much a method as a stance.[167]: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.[168]:22 Postmodernism is suspicious of traditional theology and the neutrality of reason, and emphasizes relativism and indeterminacy of texts. In textual criticism, postmodernism rejects the idea of a sacred text, treating all manuscripts as equally valuable.[167]:xi-xiii[169]:292

Feminist criticism is an aspect of the feminist theology movement which began in the 1960s and 1970s. One of its goals was to challenge, subvert, correct, and replace the theology from Germany that had been established since the 1900s. The early historical critical studies of theologians Rosemary Ruether and Elisabeth Fiorenza revealed a history of patriarchy within the biblical texts and a liberating Christian gospel at its core.[170]:75 Fiorenza states feminist views of power, struggle, and vision, give a "full circle" view of a Christian theology of liberation.[52]:1[171][172]:173 Feminist biblical criticism has abandoned the idea of a single correct interpretation, arguing instead that the biblical text has many applications, interpretations, meanings, or values.[173]:11,19,23,61–62 Feminist criticism embraces a reader-response view of the text and the value of women's experiences.[174]:13[52]:218

Postcritical biblical interpretation shares the postmodernist suspicion of reason's ability to remain neutral, but is not hostile toward theology.[168]:22 It begins by asking, "if the meaning [of biblical narrative] is not found in the narrative itself, where is it found?"[51]:1-17 Post-critical interpretation seeks to understand the stories as "realistic narratives" that are "history-like", demonstrating truths inherent within the context of their plot. Post-critical interpretation adopts patterns of reading borrowed from secular literature, but also finds patterns of reading that emerge from the biblical text itself.[51]

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. Bible scholar Wayne Rollins says the goal of a psychological critical approach is to find expressions of the human psyche in the biblical texts. It can be used in both a historical and a literary manner but is often associated with Freudian psychoanalysis.[175]:61–78[176]:3

See also


  1. ^ 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.[62]:44
  2. ^ 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'..."[67]:298[96]:182[95]:272
  3. ^ 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."[92]
  4. ^ For example, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993, p.647; Gerd Lüdemann in the Resurrection of Jesus, 1994, pp.171–172; Robert Funk with Roy Hoover in The Acts of Jesus, p.466; James Dunn in Jesus Remembered, 2003, pp.854–855; Michael Goulder in the Baseless Fabric of a Vision, 1996, p.48.


  1. ^ Muller, Richard (1998). "Biblical interpretation in the 16th and 17th centuries". In McKim, Donald K. Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. ISBN 978-0-8308-1452-7. 
  2. ^ Soulen, Richard N.; Soulen, R. Kendall (2001). "Priestly code". Handbook of Biblical Criticism (Third ed.). Lexington, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0-664-22314-4. 
  3. ^ Young, Edward Joseph (1989). An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co. ISBN 978-0-8028-0339-9. 
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Further reading

  • Barton, John (2007). The Nature of Biblical Criticism. Westminster John Knox Press.  ISBN 978-0-664-22587-2
  • Levenson, Jon D. (1993). The Hebrew Bible, The Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies. Westminster John Knox Press.  ISBN 0-664-25407-1

External links