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. 

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.

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.

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Some Differences between Oral Societies in the Ancient Middle East and Modern Literary Societies.

Western societies are largely literary, while all societies in the past and many in the present, are largely oral. What is the difference?

The Near East in the late Bronze Age (3300 to 1200 BC) was composed of verbal, as opposed to literary, societies. Very few people could read or write and those who could were highly paid for their services. Communication, therefore, was predominately person to person without the intermediaries of books, recordings, and other media so prevalent today.

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Critical Methods and the Bible

Historical, literary, and form criticism can help us understand the Bible if we use them as tools and see ourselves as students, not judges.

Christians brought up believing that the Bible is not only a valid historical document but also the inspired and inerrant word of God may have a natural tendency towards disgust when they think about “higher criticism” of the Bible.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.”

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