Historical, literary, and form criticism can help us understand the Bible if we use them as tools and see ourselves as students, not judges.
By Mark D. Harris
Christians brought up believing that the Bible is not only a valid historical document but also the inspired and inerrant word of God may have a natural tendency towards disgust when they think about “higher criticism” of the Bible. “Higher” critics’ dissection of the Bible and search for the “Historical Jesus” seem to really have been an attack on the faith by godless men who in their vainglory thought that they were smarter than millions who had accepted the Bible for the previous 1900 years. Looking through a paradigm of antisupernaturalism, Darwinism, mechanistic rationalism, and humanism, and knowing that these charlatans had derailed the Christian faith of many over the centuries, many may feel that these men who had caused so many to stumble would be better off having “milestones around their necks” and “being dropped into the depths of the sea.”
Having studying critical methods, I have discovered that whether or not these men were charlatans, critical methods are useful and illuminate the Scriptures in a profound and potentially exciting way. These methods are used on other historical documents to good effect, and can assist with a penetrating yet humble study of God’s word.
It seems widely assumed that the majority of the Bible, Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT), was transmitted orally before being written in its current form. Portions were probably also written down when the event or teaching occurred or shortly thereafter. Unknown authors undoubtedly began combining sources and developing more comprehensive narratives. Over time, as memories began to fade and as eyewitnesses began to die, the NT (especially) was written down close to its current form Luke, for example, told us that in composing his gospel he did extensive research, likely involving written documents, interviews with eyewitnesses, and personal accounts.
“Form criticism” tries to get behind the written sources to the oral traditions, and to understand the “forms” of the various “gospel units” such as miracle stories, etc. The hope is to understand the underlying culture and history. “Literary source criticism” tries to identify the actual written sources that Bible writers used. “Tradition criticism” seeks to identify trajectories that traditions will take so as to identify the development of these traditions. “Redaction criticism” asks how the Bible/NT authors shaped and modified the text, including or excluding bodies of material. “Literary criticism” attempts to identify patterns within the writing, including categories such as “metaphor” and “type”. “Structural criticism” investigates the relationships between surface structures of the writing and deeper implicit structures that belong to that type of literature. It doesn’t ask “what does this mean” but rather “how can it mean what it means?”
A note about deconstructionism. “Deconstructionists” argue that there is no definite meaning in any text and advocates of reader-response theory believe that the reader (or the community of readers), not the text, determines the meaning. The ideas that no text has absolute meaning and that authors do not place meaning into texts would cause great amusement at the local bank or police station, whose employees go to great efforts to put real meaning into bank statements and traffic tickets. To their credit and despite their philosophy, deconstructionists and reader response critics tend to believe that those authors put real meaning in such documents.
Critical methods can be useful. Identifying and studying sources, whether oral or written, understanding the historical, linguistic and cultural milieu, investigating the writing genre and style, considering editorial decisions, avoiding contradictions when possible, and remembering that readers affect meaning are all useful in studying and communicating the Bible. Source criticism, including the historical and cultural backgrounds, seems the method most likely to provide real answers for a reasonable amount of work. One reason for this is that these factors can be known, whether by contemporary literature or archaeology. Deconstructionism seems of little merit.
Critical methods can help a modern interpreter draw the correct meaning out of a text, and pass it on to others. The greatest problem with historical criticism is not with the methods but with the pride that so often accompanies man in his endeavors. Approaching the Bible as a humble learner, methods of criticism can help teach and encourage us. Approaching it as a superior critic, we reject the very truths that God intends us to learn. When we do this it is us, not the word of God, which suffers.