Biblical criticism is the scholarly "study and investigation of biblical writings that seeks to make discerning judgments about these writings". Viewing biblical texts as being ordinary pieces of literature, rather than set apart from other literature, as in the traditional view, it asks when and where a particular text originated; how, why, by whom, for whom, and in what circumstances it was produced; what influences were at work in its production; what sources were used in its composition; and what message it was intended to convey. It will vary slightly depending on whether the focus is on the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, the letters of New Testament or the canonical gospels. It also plays an important role in the quest for a historical Jesus.
It also addresses the physical text, including the meaning of the words and the way in which they are used, its preservation, history and integrity. Biblical criticism draws upon a wide range of scholarly disciplines including archaeology, anthropology, folklore, linguistics, Oral Tradition studies, and historical and religious studies.
Biblical criticism, defined as the treatment of biblical texts as natural rather than supernatural artifacts, grew out of the rationalism of the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th century it was divided between the higher criticism, the study of the composition and history of biblical texts, and lower criticism, the close examination of the text to establish their original or "correct" readings. These terms are largely no longer used, and contemporary criticism has seen the rise of new perspectives which draw on literary and multidisciplinary sociological approaches to address the meaning(s) of texts and the wider world in which they were conceived.
A division is still sometimes made between historical criticism and literary criticism. Historical criticism seeks to locate the text in history: it asks such questions as when the text was written, who the author/s might have been, and what history might be reconstructed from the answers. Literary criticism asks what audience the authors wrote for, their presumptive purpose, and the development of the text over time.
Historical criticism was the dominant form of criticism until the late 20th century, when biblical critics became interested in questions aimed more at the meaning of the text than its origins and developed methods drawn from mainstream literary criticism. The distinction is frequently referred to as one between diachronic and synchronic forms of criticism, the former concerned the development of texts through time, the latter treating texts as they exist at a particular moment, frequently the so-called "final form", meaning the Bible text as we have it today.
Both Old Testament and New Testament criticism originated in the rationalism of the 17th and 18th centuries and developed within the context of the scientific approach to the humanities (especially history) which grew during the 19th. Studies of the Old and New Testaments were often independent of each other, largely due to the difficulty of any single scholar having a sufficient grasp of the many languages required or of the cultural background for the different periods in which texts had their origins.
Modern biblical criticism begins with the 17th century philosophers and theologians—Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, Richard Simon and others—who began to ask questions about the origin of the biblical text, especially the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). They asked specifically who had written these books; according to tradition their author was Moses, but these critics found contradictions and inconsistencies in the text that they concluded made Mosaic authorship improbable. In the 18th century Jean Astruc (1684–1766), a French physician, set out to refute these critics. Borrowing methods of textual criticism already in use to investigate Greek and Roman texts, he discovered what he believed were two distinct documents within Genesis. These, he felt, were the original scrolls written by Moses, much as the four Gospel writers had produced four separate but complementary accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. Later generations, he believed, had conflated these original documents to produce the modern book of Genesis, producing the inconsistencies and contradictions noted by Hobbes and Spinoza.
Astruc's methods were adopted by German scholars such as Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1827) and Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette (1780–1849) in a movement which became known as the higher criticism (to distinguish it from the far longer-established close examination and comparison of individual manuscripts, called the lower criticism); this school reached its apogee with the influential synthesis of Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) in the 1870s, at which point it seemed to many that the Bible had at last been fully explained as a human document.
The implications of "higher criticism" were not welcomed by many religious scholars, not least the Catholic Church. Pope Leo XIII (1810–1903) condemned secular biblical scholarship in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus; but in 1943 Pope Pius XII gave license to the new scholarship in his encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu: "textual criticism ... [is] quite rightly employed in the case of the Sacred Books...Let the interpreter then, with all care and without neglecting any light derived from recent research, endeavor to determine the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the age in which he lived, the sources written or oral to which he had recourse and the forms of expression he employed". Today the modern Catechism states: "In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression".
The seminal figure in New Testament criticism was Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768), who applied to it the methodology of Greek and Latin textual studies and became convinced that very little of what it said could be accepted as incontrovertibly true. Reimarus's conclusions appealed to the rationalism of 18th century intellectuals, but were deeply troubling to contemporary believers. Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789) - "Ecce Homo -The History of Jesus of Nazareth, a Critical Inquiry" (1769), the first Life of Jesus described as a mere historical man, published anonymously in Amsterdam. George Houston translated the work into English—published in Edinburgh, 1799, London, 1813, and New York in 1827—for which "blasphemy" Houston was condemned to two years in prison. In the 19th century important scholarship was done by David Strauss, Ernest Renan, Johannes Weiss, Albert Schweitzer and others, all of whom investigated the "historical Jesus" within the Gospel narratives. In a different field the work of H. J. Holtzmann was significant: he established a chronology for the composition of the various books of the New Testament which formed the basis for future research on this subject, and established the two-source hypothesis (the hypothesis that the gospels of Matthew and Luke drew on the gospel of Mark and a hypothetical document known as Q). By the first half of the 20th century a new generation of scholars including Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, in Germany, Roy Harrisville and others in North America had decided that the quest for the Jesus of history had reached a dead end. Barth and Bultmann accepted that little could be said with certainty about the historical Jesus, and concentrated instead on the kerygma, or message, of the New Testament. The questions they addressed were: What was Jesus’s key message? How was that message related to Judaism? Does that message speak to our reality today?
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948 revitalised interest in the possible contribution archaeology could make to the understanding of the New Testament. Joachim Jeremias and C. H. Dodd produced linguistic studies which tentatively identified layers within the Gospels that could be ascribed to Jesus, to the authors, and to the early Church; Burton Mack and John Dominic Crossan assessed Jesus in the cultural milieu of first-century Judea; and the scholars of the Jesus Seminar assessed the individual tropes of the Gospels to arrive at a consensus on what could and could not be accepted as historical.
Contemporary New Testament criticism continues to follow the synthesising trend set during the latter half of the 20th century. There continues to be a strong interest in recovering the "historical Jesus", but this now tends to set the search in terms of Jesus' Jewishness (Bruce Chilton, Geza Vermes and others) and his formation by the political and religious currents of first-century Palestine (Marcus Borg).
The critical methods and perspectives now to be found are numerous, and the following overview should not be regarded as comprehensive.
Textual criticism (sometimes still referred to as "lower criticism") refers to the examination of the text itself to identify its provenance or to trace its history. It takes as its basis the fact that errors inevitably crept into texts as generations of scribes reproduced each other's manuscripts. For example, Josephus employed scribes to copy his Antiquities of the Jews. As the scribes copied the Antiquities, they made mistakes. The copies of these copies also had the mistakes. 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 and further as more mistakes are introduced by later scribes, but will always be identifiable as descended from one or the other. Textual criticism studies the differences between these families to piece together a good idea of what the original looked like. The more surviving copies, the more accurately can they deduce information about the original text and about "family histories".
Textual criticism uses a number of specialized methodologies, including eclecticism, stemmatics, copy-text editing and cladistics. A number of principles have also been introduced for use in deciding between variant manuscripts, such as Lectio difficilior potior: "The harder of two readings is to be preferred". Nevertheless, there remains a strong element of subjectivity, areas where the scholar must decide his reading on the basis of taste or common-sense: Amos 6.12, for example, 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 judgement.
Source criticism is the search for the original sources which lie behind a given biblical text. It can be traced back to the 17th-century French priest Richard Simon, and its most influential product is Julius Wellhausen's Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (1878), whose "insight and clarity of expression have left their mark indelibly on modern biblical studies". An example of source criticism is the study of the Synoptic problem. Critics noticed that the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, were very similar, indeed, at times identical. The dominant theory to account for the duplication is called the two-source hypothesis. This suggests that Mark was the first gospel to be written, and that it was probably based on a combination of early oral and written material. Matthew and Luke were written at a later time, and relied primarily on two different sources: Mark and a written collection of Jesus's sayings, which has been given the name Q by scholars. This latter document has now been lost, but at least some of its material can be deduced indirectly, namely through the material that is common in Matthew and Luke but absent in Mark. In addition to Mark and Q, the writers of Matthew and Luke made some use of additional sources, which would account for the material that is unique to each of them.
Form criticism breaks the Bible down into sections (pericopes, stories) which are analyzed and categorized by genres (prose or verse, letters, laws, court archives, war hymns, poems of lament, etc.). The form critic then theorizes on the pericope's Sitz im Leben ("setting in life"), the setting in which it was composed and, especially, used. Tradition history is a specific aspect of form criticism which aims at tracing the way in which the pericopes entered the larger units of the biblical canon, and especially the way in which they made the transition from oral to written form. The belief in the priority, stability, and even detectability, of oral traditions is now recognised to be so deeply questionable as to render tradition history largely useless, but form criticism itself continues to develop as a viable methodology in biblical studies.
Redaction criticism studies "the collection, arrangement, editing, and modification of sources", and is frequently used to reconstruct the community and purposes of the authors of the text. It is based on the comparison of differences between manuscripts and their theological significance.
Associated particularly with the name of Brevard S. Childs, who has written prolifically on the subject, canonical criticism is "an examination of the final form of the text as a totality, as well as the process leading to it". Where previous criticism asked questions about the origins, structure and history of the text, canonical criticism addresses questions of meaning, both for the community (and communities—subsequent communities are regarded as being as important as the original community for which it was produced) which used it, and in the context of the wider canon of which it forms a part.
Rhetorical criticism of the Bible dates back to at least Saint Augustine. Modern application of techniques of rhetorical analysis to biblical texts dates to James Muilenburg in 1968 as a corrective to form criticism, which Muilenburg saw as too generalized and insufficiently specific. For Muilenberg, rhetorical criticism emphasized the unique and unrepeatable message of the writer or speaker as addressed to his audience, including especially the techniques and devices which went into crafting the biblical narrative as it was heard (or read) by its audience. "What Muilenburg called rhetorical criticism was not exactly the same as what secular literary critics called rhetorical criticism, and when biblical scholars became interested in "rhetorical criticism", they did not limit themselves to Muilenberg's definition...In some cases it is difficult to distinguish between rhetorical criticism and literary criticism, or other disciplines". Unlike canonical criticism, rhetorical criticism (at least as defined by Muilenberg) takes a special interest in the relationship between the biblical text and its intended audience within the context of the communal life setting. Rhetorical criticism asks how the text functions for its audience, including especially its original audience: to teach, persuade, guide, exhort, reproach, or inspire, and it concentrates especially on identifying and elucidating unique features of the situation, including both the techniques manifest in the text itself and the relevant features of the cultural setting, through which this purpose is pursued.
Narrative criticism is one of a number of modern forms of criticism based in contemporary literary theory and practice—in this case, from narratology. In common with other literary approaches (and in contrast to historical forms of criticism), narrative criticism treats the text as a unit, and focuses on narrative structure and composition, plot development, themes and motifs, characters, and characterization. Narrative criticism is a complex field, but some central concerns include the reliability of the narrator, the question of authorial intent (expressed in terms of the context in which the text was written and its presumed intended audience), and the implications of multiple interpretation—i.e., an awareness that a narrative is capable of more than one interpretation, and thus of the implications of each.
Psychological biblical criticism is a perspective rather than a method. It discusses the psychological dimensions of the authors of the text, the material they wish to communicate to their audience, and the reflections and meditations of the reader.
Socio-scientific criticism (also known as socio-historical criticism and social-world criticism) is a contemporary form of multidisciplinary criticism drawing on the social sciences, especially anthropology and sociology. A typical study will draw on studies of contemporary nomadism, shamanism, tribalism, spirit-possession, and millenarianism to illuminate similar passages described in biblical texts. Socioscientific criticism is thus concerned with the historical world behind the text rather than the historical world in the text.
Postmodernist biblical criticism treats the same general topics addressed in broader postmodernist scholarship, "including author, autobiography, culture criticism, deconstruction, ethics, fantasy, gender, ideology, politics, postcolonialism, and so on". It asks questions like: What are we to make, ethically speaking, of the program of ethnic cleansing described in the book of Joshua? What does the social construction of gender mean for the depiction of male and female roles in the Bible?
In textual criticism, postmodernist criticism rejects the idea of an original text (the traditional quest of textual criticism, which marginalised all non-original manuscripts), and treats all manuscripts as equally valuable; in the "higher criticism" it brings new perspectives to theology, Israelite history, hermeneutics, and ethics.
Feminist criticism of the Bible utilizes the same means and essentially strives for the same ends as feminist literary criticism. It is therefore made up of a variety of peoples, including, but not limited to, Jews, people of color, and feminist Christians such as Elisabeth Fiorenza.
The criterion of multiple attestation or "independent attestation" is an important tool used by scholars. Simply put, the more independent witnesses that report an event or saying, the better.
The gospels are not always independent of each other. There is a possibility that Matthew and Luke copied contents from Mark's gospel. There are, however, at least four early, independent sources. The criterion of multiple attestation focuses on the sayings or deeds of Jesus that are attested to in more than one independent literary source such as the Apostle Paul, Josephus, Q, and/or the Gospel of the Hebrews. The force of this criterion is increased if a given motif or theme is also found in different literary forms such as parables, dispute stories, miracle stories, prophecy, and/or aphorism.
Multiple attestation has a certain kind of objectivity. Given the independence of the sources, satisfaction of the criterion makes it harder to maintain that it was an invention of the Church.
It is important that scholars research the earliest testimonies. To do this, they need to figure out the earliest gospel and the earliest parts of the gospels. Ideally, this material would come from eyewitnesses, but that is not always possible.
The writings of the Church Fathers are helpful in this regard. They wrote that the Hebrew Gospel was the first written while the Gospel of John was later. Also, because certain "laws" govern the transmission of tradition during the oral period, we can, by understanding these "laws", determine which tradition is early and which is late.
The criterion of embarrassment, also known as the criterion of dissimilarity, is an analytical tool that biblical scholars use in assessing whether the New Testament accounts of Jesus' actions and words are historically accurate. If an author says something that would be awkward or embarrassing for them, it is likely to be accurate.
The essence of the criterion of embarrassment is that the Early Church would hardly 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. Rather, embarrassing material coming from Jesus would naturally be either suppressed or softened in later stages of the Gospel tradition, and often such progressive suppression or softening can be traced through the Gospels.
The evolution of the depiction of the Baptism of Jesus exhibits the criterion of embarrassment. In the Gospel of the Hebrews, Jesus is but a man (see adoptionism) submitting to another man for the forgiveness of the "sin of ignorance" (a lesser sin, but sin nonetheless). Matthew's description of the Baptism adds John's statement to Jesus: "I should be baptized by you", attempting to do away with the embarrassment of John baptising Jesus, implying John's seniority. Similarly, it resolves the embarrassment of Jesus undergoing baptism "for the forgiveness of sin", the purpose of John's baptising in Mark, by omitting this phrase from John's proclamations. The Gospel of Luke says only that Jesus was baptized, without explicitly asserting that John performed the baptism. The Gospel of John goes further and simply omits the whole story of the Baptism. This might show a progression of the Evangelists attempting to explain, and then suppress, a story that was seen as embarrassing to the early church.
The criterion of coherence (also called consistency or conformity) can be used only when other material has been identified as authentic. This criterion holds that a saying and 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 the database for what Jesus actually said and did.
The criterion of the Crucifixion emphasizes that Jesus met a violent death at the hands of Jewish and Roman officials and that the authentic words and actions of Jesus would alienate people, especially powerful people.
Since Jesus spoke in Aramaic, traces of Aramaic in the Gospels argue in favor of a primitive tradition that may go back to Jesus. Semitisms are structured according to general rules that allow Hebrew speakers and hearers to say and hear things according to predictable patterns. Hebrew and Aramaic are linguistically very closely related and they follow similar elementary rules. For example, the pun in Matt 23:24, "straining out the gnat (galma) and swallowing a camel (gamla)" points in the direction of the historical Jesus.
The sayings and actions of the historical Jesus must reflect the Sitz im Leben or the concrete social, political, economic, agricultural, and religious conditions of ancient Palestine, while sayings and actions of Jesus that reflect social, political, economic, agricultural, or religious conditions that existed only outside Palestine or only after the death of Jesus are to be considered inauthentic.