How does historical criticism help us understand the Bible?

The "father" of the modern discipline of historical criticism in biblical studies is the German theologian Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860). He was founder of the influential University of Tübingen school of theology.

Baur applied Hegel's theory of dialectic (i.e. of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis) to the New Testament. He argued that 2nd century Christianity represented the synthesis of the two opposing theses of Jewish Christianity and Pauline Christianity.

Clearly Baur emphasized the human dimension of the Bible when he applied his theory to the entire of the New Testament. He insisted that only writings in which the conflict between Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians is clearly marked should be considered genuine. He believed the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are adaptations (or redactions) of an older Gospel, such as the Gospel of the Hebrews, of Peter, of the Egyptians, or of the Ebionites.

Baur applied the new Enlightenment tools of historical criticism and literary analysis of the origins of a text to biblical studies. This new discipline investigates the books of the Bible and compares them to other texts written at the same time, before, or recently after the text in question.

There are two aspects of Biblical criticism - "lower" and "higher".

Lower criticism (or textual criticism) determines what a text originally said before it was altered (through error or intent).

Higher criticism (or historical criticism) investigates the Bible as a text created by human beings at a particular historical time and for various human motives.
According to George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982), professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA: “The Word of God has been given to men through historical events and historical personages; and this very fact demands historical criticism, unless the true nature of the Bible it to be ignored.”

What is a critic?

The word comes from the Greek term krisis, which means a judgment. According to Ladd, “A critic is a man who makes intelligent judgments or decisions about necessary questions associated with the books of the Bible.”

Professor Ladd's book The New Testament and Criticism (1967), in spite of being dated, is still a seminal introduction to historical criticism.

Lower (Textual) Criticism

Textual criticism is the study of the many variants in the text of the Bible and the effort to recover the original text. Ladd defines it as "the task of a scientific textual criticism to establish a trustworthy text.”

Textual criticism does not ask: Is the Word of God true?

It asks: What is the text of the Word of God?

How far can we re-establish the exact words through which God has revealed Himself?

Closely related to textual criticism is linguistic criticism is the study of the meaning of the actual words in the New Testament.

Higher (Historical) Criticism

Historical criticism is a critical literary analysis of the biblical books themselves. It answers questions about authorship, date, provenance or place of writing, sources, and unity.

There are several sub-disciplines within the broad field of historical criticism:

Form criticism (Formgeschicte). Dr. Robert Gundry understands this as “the task of inferring by literary analysis what the oral tradition about Jesus was like before it came to be written down.” Scholars call this oral tradition the Kerygma (from the Greek term meaning proclamation).

The most influential form critic was the German theologian, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976).

Source criticism. The study of the literary sources of behind the biblical books. For example in the study of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) this includes the lost “Q” document (from the German word Quelle, meaning “source”). Scholars believe that Q was an early source containing many of the saying of Jesus.

Redaction criticism (Redaktionsgeschicte). The study of the Gospels as unified compositions carefully redacted (edited) by their authors to project distinctive theological views. This strand of historical criticism identifies ways in which the evangelists tailored earlier materials (sources) about Jesus to the needs of their own times. This is why Jesus’ words and deeds do not appear as fossils of dead history, but as applications to contemporary life.

Deconstruction criticism. Postmodern literary critics and deconstructionists are convinced that no text is stable or coherent, that all texts are indeterminate in meaning and inevitably contain inherent contradictions.

According to Dr. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Deconstruction is not a method of interpretation but a method for undoing interpretations, for exposing readings as functions of various ideological forces.”

This leaves the thoughtful postmodern New Testament scholar with only two alternatives:

Abandon any search for meaning in texts, or…

…Find meaning in the interplay between the reader and the contradictory ideas sparked by a text.

Reader-response Theory. This approach is neither AUTHOR-centered nor TEXT-centered, but READER-centered.

Professors D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo content that postmodern readers "are less interested in the hard lines drawn by truth and error, and more interested in the soft lines drawn by fuzziness and interpretative possibilities.”

Some of my students have been concerned that historical criticism subtly undermines their confidence in the Bible as the Word of God. I understand their concern, but I have always affirmed Ladd's contention that "the role of biblical criticism is not to criticize the Word of God but to understand it.”

I agree with Carson and Moo that all sub-disciplines of historical criticism surveyed "have had some value." They are also correct to point out that "almost all of them have sometimes been deployed irresponsibly, primarily by claiming some kind of near-exclusive methodological control or by being married to deep-seated rationalism or even philosophical naturalism, both of which find it difficult to read the New Testament sympathetically on its own terms.”

Return from Historical Criticism to Who Wrote the Bible?

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