Biblical Criticism

In the late 1800’s scholars finally began analyzing Biblical texts with the same tools they examined all other texts.   In 1893 a Papal encyclical limited study of the Bible.1 But the study went on, of course.  And then thanks to Atheists and agnostics and even some brave Christians, critical biblical studies continued.

Many of those interested in the Bible are not even aware of these tools.  When discussing the Bible, it is important to understand how your tools of analysis differ from you discussion partner. Sometimes, neither party is actually aware of the history of the tools of Biblical Criticism.  Remember,  in Christian minds, the reasons for these limits still exist. For though many Christians may entertain analytic study of scripture they always go in with one or all of the following and thus have no intent to be objective in their analysis:

  • The inerrancy of their scripture
  • The authority of their scripture
  • The final truth of their scripture (even if little errors are found)
  • The unity of their scripture (their god was behind it all)

Thus, rather than Biblical Critical methods,  many Christians prefer a “Devotional method” or an “Applied method” which are not critical but faith based.  Devotional and Applied “methods” are the non-critical ways believers in all faiths read their scriptures.

Below I list several genre of Biblical Criticism and some texts in that genre.  I will expand this list as I learn from readers and other sites, which texts may be helpful in learning about Biblical Criticism.


General Texts on Biblical Criticism:

Textual Criticism: (“lower” criticism)  Comparing the many extant manuscripts to discover errors of transcriptions with the goal to reveal the original text. “Higher” criticism came after this and is among those below.

Historical Criticism: Uses the insights of historical settings to analyze the text.  Source and Form Criticisms are sub-genre of this.

Source Criticism: To examine the sources behind texts. The Marcean Hypothesis and others.

Form Criticism: Breaks bible down into stories (pericopes) and analyzes by genres. Then theorizes on “Sitz in Leben” (“setting in life”), the social context in which it was composed  and thus its use.

  • Buss, Martin J. Biblical form criticism in its context. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1999.

Redaction Criticism: Examines how and why the text arrived at it current form through modifications, merges and editing.  It view the editor (redactor) having a purpose in the editing.  This helps reconstruct the community and purpose(s) of the author(s) of the text. Thus related to Source Criticism.

Rhetorical/ Literary Criticism: Elucidates the style works and how the rhetoric functions in discourse when considering the original audience.

Narrative Criticism:  Treats the text as a unit. Focuses on narrative structure and composition, plot development, themes and motifs, characters and characterizations. Narrative criticism assumes the text is capable of more than one interpretation and can have several meanings — ambiguity.

  • Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. Basic Books, 1983.

Canonical Criticism:  How, why, when did a text gain ‘canonical’ status as a sacred text.  How does it function as such?


1.  In 1943, after 50 years  of scholars ignoring Pope Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus , that Pope Pius XII issued a counter encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, allowing limited use of modern biblical criticism.  Then in 1965 a vatican II document called “Dei Verbum” further addressed Biblical interpretation issues.

Special thanks to Ian from the comments


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

13 responses to “Biblical Criticism

  1. Peg

    Good summary of our first-year Biblical Interpretation class in seminary. Useful tools, all of them.

    The challenge then becomes to tell the difference between what the original text actually supports and what boils down to little more than “Jesus fan-fiction” (the Markan Hypothesis being an example).

  2. Ian

    Great summary Sabio!

    Two little niggles though 😀

    Redaction Criticism is particularly the study of how the text arrived at its current form through modifications, merges and editing. Redaction is often seen as ‘editing out’ but in redaction criticism the aim is to see why things were removed, added, changed, and developed. In other words, what can we learn about the purpose of the text from the way it was modified. It is therefore rather closely related to Source Criticism.


    Narrative Criticism definitely doesn’t presuppose the reliability of the narrator. Quite the opposite; reliability is a central question. Along with, as you say, questions of ambiguity.

  3. @ Peg : Could you elaborate — not sure of your stance(s). You are saying the Markan Hypothesis is mistaken? Biblical Criticism from nonbelievers has changed the Christian thinking of many Christians. Has it changed yours? Or do you still believe what your faith believed back in the 1700’s (for instance).

    @ Ian: Thank you as always. I have modified the definitions with your help. Two inquiries:

    1) Concerning Narrative Criticism: I created this post due to my interactions with Shawn over at this site. He is an Evangelical Christian (his own confession) who values Narrative Criticism. But your definition would seem to say that Shawn should be open to doubting the reliability of the text. But I doubt he uses it with openness to questioning the reliability of the text. Was Narrative Criticism first a non-believer Criticism tool and then some Christians embraced it but put in the “reliability” presupposition?

    2) Lastly, if you ever have time, or any other reader, under each type of Criticism, I’d love to put one or two titles. I would also label the author as a believer or nonbeliever(or heterodox believer) so the audience could understand perspectives. All of this, as you know, to helping those in dialogue take a position or at least understand that they don’t understand the positions. I personally love exploring positions I have not seen before.

  4. Ian


    1) Yes, most of the ‘critical’ methods of biblical scholarship are systemically agnostic. They have been adopted to some extent by (particularly US) evangelical theologians, who use them in a non-agnostic way, but if you look at the main literature it is functionally agnostic even when written by believers.

    2) So the best place to start would be a summary text that talks about the range of critical scholarship. Something like

    Haynes, Stephen R., and Steven L. McKenzie. To each its own meaning. Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

    As for individual heads, I’m only really interested in source criticism, so I only have undergrad-level recommendations for the others.

    Textual Criticism. A long standing classic is:

    Metzger, Bruce M., and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament. Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Source Criticism. There are many sets of source problems in the OT and NT. Two accessible books on the two most famous are:

    Cassuto, Umberto, Joshua Berman, and Israel Abrahams. The Documentary Hypothesis. Shalem Press, 2006.

    Goodacre, Mark S. The Case Against Q. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002.

    Both do a reasonable job of explaining source criticism while actually doing it on a particular problem. I’m interested in this, so I have a fair number of other resources.

    Form Criticism: My textbook on this was:

    Buss, Martin J. Biblical form criticism in its context. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1999.

    And I haven’t done anything else in the area.

    Redaction Criticism:

    Perrin, Norman. What is redaction criticism? Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1970.

    Is a bit dated now, but it is interesting. I’m sure there must be a more recent set-text that somebody can recommend.

    Rhetorical Criticism:

    I can’t recommend anything. My sense is that it is a relatively small subfield of critical scholarship. But I’ve been out of the academy for 15 years, so that might have changed. I never read in this area.

    I only have one book on narrative theology:

    Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. Basic Books, 1983.

    which is focussed on the Hebrew Bible.

    All the above texts are functionally agnostic, although of the two authors that I know one is a practising (non-evangelical) Christian and the other is a self-declared agnostic.

  5. Ian

    Incidentally Haynes and McKenzie has a good chapter on narrative criticism.

    And secondly it occurs to me that we might mean something different by ‘unreliable narrator’. I’m thinking of it in terms of its literary critical meaning (when the narrator is at odds with the narrative), rather than in terms of the inerrancy of scripture.

    In my experience the vast majority of biblical criticism has long disposed of any illusion of inerrancy. And if individuals believe in it, it doesn’t show in their scholarship.

  6. Peg

    @ Sabio – I think the Markan Hypothesis is often used to justify interpretations of the book that aren’t there on a straight reading. It seems to me the process of de-constructing Mark can be quite valuable…. it’s in the re-construction or re-constitution that people tend to put their own spin on it, which sets off my inner BS-O-METER(tm).

    I tend to go at scripture from an “applied” viewpoint, that is, what does it mean to everyday peoples’ everyday lives? While Biblical criticism has value for asking and answering some of the tough intellectual questions, those of us who enjoy scholarly study need to keep in mind that Jesus’ “target audience” was primarily uneducated — fishermen, housewives, “tax collectors and sinners”. I find when I preach I tend to use my findings in rhetorical and narrative criticism the most, ‘not so as anyone would notice’.

  7. Pingback: Biblical Criticism « Thought Begets Heresy

  8. Shawn Wamsley

    Ian and Sabio,

    Here is the post in question:


    If you had to nail me down (some have said that nailing folks down on this blog is like trying to staple jell-o to the wall), I would say that my particular methods of biblical (higher) criticism are heavily influenced by narrative and rhetorical criticism (though I will be the first to admit that there is something to be taken from most forms of higher criticism), and that my preferred method of textual (lower) criticism is to avoid eclecticism at all costs.

    As usual, Wikipedia provides a place to start, though I wouldn’t receive it with any amount of authority in the field, per se.

    Sabio wrote:

    “Concerning Narrative Criticism: I created this post due to my interactions with Shawn over at this site. He is an Evangelical Christian (his own confession) who values Narrative Criticism. But your definition would seem to say that Shawn should be open to doubting the reliability of the text. But I doubt he uses it with openness to questioning the reliability of the text. Was Narrative Criticism first a non-believer Criticism tool and then some Christians embraced it but put in the “reliability” presupposition?”

    Now, Sabio, in spite of the fact that you are having a discussion with Steve over at theophiliacs about the origin of critical scholarship, you still seem to assume that only non-believers are capable of being genuinely critical of the text. This is a presupposition that I would ask you to reconsider in light of the fact that higher criticism and critical scholarship are two different things. Indeed, much of modern higher criticism has been driven by critical scholarship, but that must be qualified fairly by the fact that where legitimate scholarship was presented Christian scholars accepted (and, yes, amended)

    Also, I am open to discussing the reliability of the text, because those discussions have been going on since the first waves of persecution and heresy arose in the second century CE. However, narrative criticism (in its current state) is less interested in authorship than many other critical studies, because it aims to see the text as a self-sufficient document. So, saying that narrative criticism doesn’t presuppose the reliability of the narrator takes on a much different tone than it would in redaction, for instance.



  9. You should add the following to your list:

    Most of the books by Brevard S. Childs

    Tov, E (2001) Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Augsburg Fortress

    Ulrich, E. (1999) The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible. Eerdmans

    Flint, P. (2001) The Bible at Qumran. Eerdmans

    Sweeney, M. A. and Ehud Ben Zvi. (2003) The changing face of form criticism for the twenty-first century. Eerdmans

    Sanders, J. A. (2000) Torah and Canon. Wipf & Stock

  10. @ Richard: How objective do you think the Biblical Scholars would feel these books are that you recommend, given the filters I think a scholar should be able to suspend?

  11. Sabio, no-one is truly objective as all come to the text with certain presuppositions; but in terms of the books I’ve suggested all of the authors are highly respected scholars in their own field. Tov and Ulrich have been major players in the area of textual criticism and especially Qumran. Sanders and Childs have pretty much invented canonical criticism. Sweeney and Zvi have been major players in form criticism having volumes in the FOTL series amongst others.

  12. I suppose as you mention Providentissimus Deus you should probably point out to both Divino Afflante Spiritu and Dei Verbum.

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