Biblical Criticism

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Origen (c. 185—254) Christian scholar and theologian




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The examination of the books of the Bible with the resources of historical investigation, archaeology, palaeography, and linguistics. Biblical criticism, or the historical critical method, starts from a conviction that the heterogeneous collection of books which constitute the Bible were written in a variety of genres for different purposes and readerships by human authors. A biblical critic is a scholar equipped with linguistic skills and literary or historical knowledge who tries to shed light on what the authors of the books were saying, given the thought‐world and social and political situations of their own age. The tools for this enterprise have been refined over the past four centuries and are the fruit of the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the 18th‐cent. Enlightenment; but, long before, it was recognized that divine inspiration of scripture did not overrule the humanity of the authors. Origen (185–254ce), for example, noticed that the letter to the Hebrews could probably not have been written by Paul. The establishment of a canon of scripture itself witnesses to a process of discrimination and assessment. The first task of biblical criticism is to establish a reliable text; to get as near as possible to what the original authors wrote in Hebrew (or Aramaic) and Greek. This was already being done for classical authors such as Homer when Erasmus (1466–1536ce) began to apply the same principles to the text of the NT, comparing the variations in the ancient MSS that were available at that time. In the centuries since then many important discoveries have been made and much international research undertaken. The technical investigation is known as textual criticism; sometimes, especially in less recent books of NT introduction, it is referred to as Lower Criticism. For the NT it compares the large number of MSS, together with the many quotations of scripture made by the early Fathers, and also translations of the Greek into Latin and Syriac; and the verbal differences, mostly only in small details, are very numerous. In a modern Greek NT some are noted in the apparatus criticus at the bottom of each page. It is apparent that scribes copying MSS occasionally wrote twice (‘dittography’) or omitted a few words, or, in the case of a MS being written from dictation, misheard. It is even possible that scribes sometimes felt at liberty to add something on their own account. The process of tracking down and eliminating such errors is the work of textual criticism. But for all the labour expended, we do not possess the precise words penned by the NT authors. What we can now say with some confidence is that we have the NT text as it was read in the main centres of Christian learning about 200 ce.

Historical criticism, sometimes called Higher Criticism, deals with questions of authorship and date, editorial arrangements of sources, historicity, literary categories (genres), and doctrinal tendencies. Historical criticism acquired a bad name amongst orthodox churchmen because its pioneers were unbelievers, like Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679ce) in the Leviathan; but early work was also done by Roman Catholics: Jean Astruc, a French professor of medicine (1684–1766ce), noted that Genesis was a compilation of several earlier documents, following a book (Eng. edn., 1682) of OT history by the Oratorian priest Richard Simon (1638–1712ce) which pioneered Pentateuchal criticism and was burnt by Louis XIV. These works were translated into German, which in due course led to the establishment of the view that much of the Pentateuch was written after the time of the great prophets. The classical 19th‐cent. view of the source criticism of the Pentateuch was the work of Karl Graf and Julius Wellhausen. The traditional view that these books were written by Moses was shown to be untenable. Archaeological discoveries also suggested that the religion of the Hebrews had marked similarities to that of other peoples. At the same time scientists' work on the origin of species showed that the accounts of creation in Genesis did not correspond to the fact of biological evolution.


Subjects: Biblical Studies.

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