Literary and Historical Criticism

literary and historical criticism

We can learn a lot from literary and historical examinations of the Bible, as long as we remember that we are students of the Word and children of the Living God. Literary and Historical criticism can be useful to those with teachable, faithful hearts.

By Mark D. Harris

Classic Biblical criticism, the kind that gave us the JEDP in the Torah, deutero- and even trito-Isaiah, and the “historical Jesus” is criticism focusing on the historicity of Biblical events and teachings. It was influential in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but towards the end of the 20th century theologians had pretty much divided themselves into two groups, the liberals who doubted the historicity of almost everything in the Bible and the conservatives who affirmed in the historicity of almost everything in the Bible. Once specialists in Greek and Hebrew had parsed every word in every manuscript and made their decisions, the field reached an impasse. This seemed especially true in relation to the study of John’s gospel.

Literary criticism

As a result, and with the rise of the postmodern disbelief in objective truth, literary criticism, analyzing the book of John (and the entire Bible) as literature became more popular. The literary critic studies, evaluates and interprets literature, often with regard to how the author supports or opposes the critic’s ideology. He searches for the natural structure of and divisions in the work, and may analyze literature by comparing it to various genres, whether novel, poetry or history.

Often in literary criticism the author is no longer recognized as the determiner of meaning in his work and the reader is elevated as the one who decides meaning. RA Culpepper, author of The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design, is an example. While we must remember that readers are not blank slates and they read their own experiences and prejudices into every text, including the Bible, it is also true that authors place meaning into their work and readers must respect that meaning. Judges put meaning into court summons and teachers put meaning into homework assignments and it is the foolish reader who does not respect and follow that meaning.

Literary criticism can be useful. Burge’s division of John into Jesus’ Public Ministry, the Book of Signs (John 1-12) and Jesus’ personal glorification, the Book of Glory (John 13-21), is a useful way to understand the macrostructure of the book. His further division of John into the Institutions and Festivals of Judaism, etc, is also intriguing.

Literary criticism can also be useless and even dangerous. God speaks through His word, the Bible, and people are to approach it as learners, not as critics. The heart of pride which accompanies so much academic Biblical study guarantees that nothing true will be learned and the Spirit will not move. This pride is especially blatant when the reader disregards the intent of the author, in this case God, believing that he is the final arbiter of meaning. Literary criticism deemphasizes the study of God in the Bible and ignores the real historical background of Christianity, a very historical religion.

Literary criticism can enhance one’s understanding of John, but the dangers are great. The problem with the Bible is less understanding it than believing it and living it. Many seminaries are filled with people who can criticize the text to the last jot and tittle but don’t get along with their spouse, can’t manage their resources, and don’t really believe in the love and power of God.

Historical criticism

Despite the impasse mentioned above, historical criticism, in which the critic seeks to ascertain the text’s original meaning in its historical context, is more fruitful. Christianity is indeed an historical religion. Postmodernism is uncomfortable with any objective truth, because anything that is true regardless of what anyone thinks about it undermines its whole premise. The modern mind rejects objective truth and in so doing rejects real knowledge. It rejects objective beauty and in so doing prefers the gray and dull to the vibrant and active. Like the Green Witch in CS Lewis’ Silver Chair, we prefer the dim underworld that we think we can control to the sunlit overworld of Narnia which we don’t.

If history really happened then it contains facts that are true and events that occurred whether we like it or not. Christianity is the one religion which can be historically disproved. If Jesus Christ’s body is ever found in a grave in Jerusalem, Christianity is finished. Neither Islam, Hinduism, nor any other world religion can be destroyed by history, but neither can they be verified by history.


Fortunately, as much as we say we don’t believe in objective truth, we are really deceiving ourselves. Let someone punch us in the nose, kidnap our child or burn down our house and we suddenly discover that right and wrong are real, not just matters of opinion. Let our doctor tell us that we have cancer and suddenly we find ourselves searching for truth, not opinion. Isn’t it funny how we gravitate towards preachers, teachers and politicians who simply tell us what we want to hear but wouldn’t tolerate a surgeon or pilot who did the same? Eventually we will all discover, mostly to our shame, that truth exists, and God’s word is truth.

Believers need never fear criticism of the Bible. The Word of God is the rock on which we, and Western Civilization, stands. If we forsake it, the rock of the Scriptures will be our stumbling block. We will fall and perish. Literary and historical criticism, done with a right heart, can help us learn more about our faith, and about our Lord.

We love constructive feedback! Please leave a reply.