Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Need for Biblical Criticism
Much of what we know as biblical criticism today originated
with modernity, but interest in understanding the meaning of biblical
texts is much older than that. Even the Bible itself recognizes
the need for the explanation and interpretation of its contents.
The simplest form of this is translation, taking the
biblical tradition, which has been recorded in one language, and
making it accessible to those whose language is different. Nehemiah
8:7-8 recounts that the scribe Ezra, accompanied by other scribes,
read from the law of Moses and helped the people to understand
it. What the Book of Nehemiah refers to as reading "from the book,
from the law of God, with interpretation" is the act of translating
the Hebrew tradition into the Aramaic language, which was the
language of many postexilic Jews.
The Gospel writer Luke presents Jesus as an interpreter
of Scripture in the story of his post-resurrection appearance
to two disciples on their way to the village of Emmaus. He writes,
"Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted
to them what referred to him in all the scriptures" (Lk 24:27).
Scripture eludes easy understanding and challenges
its readers to seek ways to uncover the message it proclaims.
The quest for understanding the sacred text takes many forms.
The methods and goals of biblical criticism arise with the kinds
of questions we have about the Bible's meaning, whether that be
what it meant when it was being written, or what it may mean for
A Place to Begin
The search for understanding the Bible's meaning originates
with particular questions not only about the content of individual
books, but also about when, why, how these books were produced.
In order to provide reasonable answers to these questions, biblical
scholars have employed scientific and quasiscientific methods.
It must, however, be said that biblical criticism is as much an
art as it is a science. Its objects are the interests we have
in knowing as much as we can about the Bible, its world, its ideas,
its teachings, indeed its very truth. The point of departure for
any kind of biblical criticism, then, is the human desire to know
whatever can be known about the Bible.
The questions that govern this search for knowledge
are quite simply the stimuli for the various methods of biblical
criticism that have sprung up over time. When scholars realized
the Bible had been physically handed down in manuscripts that
are not identical to one another, they set out to establish what
the sources of the written form of the tradition were, in number
and kind, and whether the process of transmission was reliable.
At first this required that the known manuscripts be catalogued
and compared. Then a critical edition could be prepared, which
showed where the major variations in wording and placement of
biblical texts occurred. The goal of this level of biblical study,
called textual criticism, was to establish a trustworthy text.
After all, without a text that one could feel was reliable, how
could one have confidence in the words the text conveyed?
The desire to know the origin of biblical traditions
went beyond the establishment of a reliable text and inquired
into the sources of the stories and narratives included in the
Bible. Often comparison of biblical texts with other ancient literatures,
or with other texts in the Bible itself, was helpful in isolating
subtle differences among these texts. The noted differences became
important clues. They may indicate, for example, that some biblical
stories did not originate only with their written transmission.
It is very likely that these stories, or at least some parts of
them were, at first, handed on by word of mouth. Or, the observed
differences of style, vocabulary, and viewpoint may show that
a given biblical story was passed on in more than one form.
A well-known example of this phenomenon is the creation
story, told in two accounts, in the opening chapters of Genesis.
It is generally accepted today that Genesis 1:1-2:4a tells one
account of creation and Genesis 2:4b-25 tells yet another. Identifying
the origins of different versions of an account, which may have
arisen at separate times in the transmission of biblical tradition,
is commonly known as source criticism.
Other scholars were prompted by an interest to know
about the kinds of materials contained in the Bible and how they
may have related to the real lives of those who were responsible
for producing it. In view of the realization that the transmission
of biblical tradition may be quite complex, these scholars set
out to catalogue the various shapes that tradition, preserved
in the Bible, took. With the help of comparison with other ancient
literature, contemporaneous with the Bible, they were able to
isolate narrative, poetic, cultic, legal, literary and historical
materials, which had their own definite shapes or forms. These,
they conjectured, functioned in relation to the various circumstances
of life in the ancient biblical world. Such criticism came to
be known as form criticism. So, for example, knowing that, in
Philippians 2:5-11, St. Paul preserved a very early form of a
Christian hymn, one might reasonably conclude that one way of
handing on important tradition about the life, death and exaltation
of Jesus was related to early Christian worship.
Once sources and composite elements of biblical texts
were able to be identified, it was inevitable that interest would
turn to the persons who collected and ordered these materials
in continuous biblical books. Naturally scholars wanted to know
if the process was merely one of collection, or whether it involved
editing and composition as well. Out of this method of biblical
criticism, called redaction criticism, emerged the identity of
particular biblical authors, or editors, known largely from how
they shaped the traditions they received into an ordered and continuous
One advantage of this type of biblical criticism was
that it could study the history of given biblical traditions,
by paying attention to the author's writing style, the choice
and use of vocabulary, and the ways the content of biblical tradition
was modified over time.
This method is especially helpful in studying how
the first three Gospels tell the story of Jesus in strikingly
similar ways, yet with individual variations. Once scholars felt
reasonably sure that Mark wrote his Gospel first, and that both
Matthew and Luke used some form of Mark in composing their own
Gospels, they could point to the modifications of stories evident
in all three and offer suggestions about the interest of each
of the Gospel authors in any given tradition about Jesus.
Moving beyond the questions of the sources, shapes
and styles of biblical tradition one comes to the question of
history. Do the traditions of the Bible emerge under particular
historical circumstances that influence their content? If so,
what can they tell us about those historical circumstances? In
addition to knowing about the authorship of biblical texts, historical
methods of biblical criticism are interested in knowing why, for
whom and to what end the Bible was written. With the aid of modern
methods of historical study, some biblical critics try to depict
the world of the Bible in terms of its culture, society and religion.
Sometimes this amounts to representing the Bible in its day by
describing the world out of which it emerged and comparing the
communities that produced biblical books with their ancient contemporaries.
At other times this type of biblical criticism is enhanced by
methods employed in the social sciences. Sociology, anthropology
and ethnography can be very useful in analyzing biblical texts
and can help to situate the Bible in its own world.
Then and Now
Up to this point, we have been discussing biblical
criticism as a way of understanding the origin and transmission
of biblical tradition. Biblical criticism is, however, also helpful
in relating the meaning of the Bible to the world today.
Often the methods employed to connect the Bible with
our own experience are more literary and less historical in nature.
Narrative, rhetorical and reader-response criticism fall under
this heading. Appreciating these forms of biblical criticism helps
us to understand how much biblical criticism is informed and influenced
by the language and interests of the day.
Other methods that try to relate the Bible to our
own experience use the feminist method and critique to produce
other enriching ways to interpret the Bible meaningfully. So also
does one find interest in relating the Bible to minority and non-Western
cultures. Taking their lead from interpretive clues provided by
these cultures, biblical scholars read the Bible in non-traditional
ways, rendering its meaning in a manner that historical criticism
is perhaps unable to do.
This brief survey of biblical criticism has shown
that our interest in understanding the Bible takes many forms.
For some, what the Bible meant in antiquity, while it was being
produced or received among the ancient Jews and Christians, for
whom it was written, is primary. For others, how subsequent generations
have understood the Bible, and indeed what it means today, is
more important. Each of these primary interests determines what
kind of Bible critic one will be.
Each of the methods described contributes something
particular to the complete picture of biblical interpretation.
Often biblical criticism is itself eclectic, combining aspects
and elements of more than one methodology, to accomplish its goal.
Some even question whether any one method of criticism can be
employed in isolation of the others.
If your interest is mainly in the origins of the Bible,
what it meant at the time it was being written, you will follow
a method of interpretation that looks at the time, place and circumstances
under which a given biblical book originated. Knowledge of the
language and idiom of the day, as well as awareness of cultural
and historical circumstances, will be essential in such an endeavor.
Familiarity with ancient religion, philosophy and literature is
a valuable aid for understanding some of the riddles of biblical
texts. Other helpful disciplines are archaeology and ancient history,
which might supply a context and help to avoid anachronistic reading
of biblical texts.
Frequently, methods that are primarily concerned with
this kind of historical interpretation of the Bible are called
diachronic. The literal meaning of this word is "through time,"
that is, over a span of time. Diachronic methods of biblical interpretation
are then interested in how the books of the Bible originated and
how they changed down through the time of the biblical period.
Traditional diachronic methods fit within approaches that are
historical-critical, such as source criticism, form criticism,
redaction criticism and the study of the history of a tradition.
Biblical critics who are more interested in what the
Bible meant to people after the biblical period, or what it means
today, focus more on methodologies that look at biblical texts
apart from their origins and history. These methods are sometimes
classified as literary methods, and they attempt to study the
Bible in itself, without looking for information about the people
who wrote it, what they believed or how the Bible functioned for
Knowledge of literary theory is helpful in pursuing
the goals of literary criticism in the Bible. Literary methods
of Bible criticism sometimes have little or no interest in what
biblical authors intended when they wrote biblical books. What
is more important is how readers understand the Bible in their
own time. Of interest to these methods may be how a reader responds
to a given text, what effect the text has on a person, and how
the meaning of the text emerges out of the engagement of the reader
with the text. These kinds of questions can appear in any age,
and whether there is a progression or continuity of interpretation
over time is unimportant. Literary methods of biblical criticism
are sometimes called synchronic, because their interests are governed
by a desire to understand the Bible at a particular moment in
As long as people search for answers to their questions
about the Bible, biblical criticism will flourish. Time has shown
how biblical interpretation is always a product of its age, that
accommodates itself to the questions and interests of the day.
Methods of biblical criticism come in and out of fashion to the
extent that they are useful in helping people to understand the
origins of the Bible and to appropriate its meaning for their
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