The word "criticism" is often taken
by the public to imply negative judgment. Hence "biblical criticism"
is often taken to mean negative judgment against the Bible. Yet it is
not necessary to gather this meaning from the use of the word "criticism."
When the various types of biblical criticism are considered carefully
it becomes clear that biblical criticism helps us to arrive at a clearer
understanding of the meaning and relevance of the Bible.
Scholars use the word "criticism"
in a slightly different sense than that which is implied in common use.
By this word scholars do not mean negative judgment but simply judgment
or discernment. The task of the biblical critic, then, is not to find
fault with the Bible but to understand it more fully. We will now examine
how the various types of biblical criticism adds to our knowledge of the
The Penguin Dictionary of Religions lists
eight types of biblical criticism.1 Each type helps us to appreciate
the true worth of the Bible. The first mentioned type is textual criticism.
The purpose of this endeavor is to determine as much as possible what
text left the pens of the inspired authors. Over time scribal errors are
bound to result from even the best human attempts to produce hand-written
copies of the Bible over the centuries. Today we have thousands of manuscripts
of both the Old and New Testaments from which to reconstruct what must
reasonably have been the ancestor from which these texts descended. Since
the desire of every Bible believer is presumably to hold on to the one
text which God condescended to reveal to us, it is difficult to see why
textual criticism should not prove to be of positive benefit.
The second type is source criticism. We understand
that the inspired authors were inescapably products of their environments.
There exists no reason for excluding the possibility that in composing
their works they drew upon existing sources and documents. The author
of the third Gospel explicitly makes known in his introduction that he
did so exactly draw upon other works (Luke 1:1-4). This type of criticism
helps us to understand our existing documents by isolating within them
as far as possible the traces remaining of the sources from which they
drew. Thus we are better able to understand Genesis, for example, when
we come to realize that the book was composed from three main sources.
Otherwise much of Genesis would be puzzling if not incomprehensible. The
sources are combined in such a fashion that our resulting document which
appears in the form of a continuous narrative is actually riddled with
repetitions which on occasion contradict each other. Hence the creation
of the heavens and the earth is described twice in Genesis chapters 1
and 2. Whereas in chapter 1 we learnt that the man was the last item of
Gods creating, we learn from chapter 2 that animals were created
after the man. Without the help of source criticism here we would be at
a loss to understand how a single sane author could have written such
a book. Now we can appreciate that our present Genesis is a result of
careful scholarly work that went into combining, retaining, and editing
A third type, form criticism, helps us to
detect the way in which the material developed over time through oral
transmission until final inclusion in our present documents. Since it
is clear that many of our documents were written long after the events
they describe, it is reasonable to assert that the oral material must
have been somewhat fluid. Gospel material, therefore, would have been
given shape by the situations that the early church experienced. Thus
when the early church preached the message about Jesus the teaching about
him took on various shapes. Conflict stories, for example, developed to
explain why the early church is now in conflict with Jewish leaders. The
explanation is cast in the form of a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.
Hence we find that a conflict should mean more for the situation of the
early church than for an understanding of Jesus life - situation
is represented in Mark 7 as already having occurred during Jesus
ministry. Jesus is said to have there already declared all foods clean,
whereas we know from Acts and Paul that the question of clean versus unclean
foods was an unanswered question for the early church.
The positive contribution of this type of
criticism is that it helps us to retrace the development of the material
about Jesus over time. Often we can understand more about a finished work
if we can see the process by which it reaches completion. We do not have
this advantage with the books of the Bible, since all we have here are
the finished documents. Form criticism helps us to retrace what must have
been stages of development along the way.
A type of criticism not unrelated to form
criticism is tradition criticism. Whereas form criticism provides insight
into how teaching material were cast into more or less fixed forms, tradition
criticism helps us to understand how the initial stories acquired later
changes. Such changes would reflect again the needs of the Christian community
arising at a time later than that which gave shape to the initial teaching.
To illustrate tradition criticism at work, consider the story of Jesus
baptism as narrated in the four Gospels. We notice a progressive tendency
among the later Gospels to minimize the implications of the fact that
John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Mark had simply mentioned the brute fact
without caring for the implication that the baptizer had an advantage
over Jesus (Mark 1:9-11). Luke, writing later, minimizes mention of the
baptizer by using the passive form of the verb to say that Jesus was baptized
(Luke 3:21). Matthew has the baptizer declaring Jesus superiority
(Matthew 3:14). John, writing last, has the baptizer at once raising the
banner of Jesus and lowering his own. Jesus becomes greater, the baptizer
becomes lesser (John 3:30). This explains why John never clearly asserts
that Jesus was baptized. We see that as we go from Mark to John the story
of the baptism is reshaped to suit the later needs of the community. Christians
may have found the implications of the baptism of Jesus to be at tension
with the later claims about Jesus divinity. The way to avoid such
tension was to modify the tradition. We get a better understanding of
what the authors of the Gospels are saying from this insight into the
growing tradition. It helps us to see the various stages of early Christian
apologetics at work.
Historical criticism is the fifth type to
consider here. This area of study raises questions having to do with authorship,
date, and place of composition of the documents. Most of the Bible would
have little meaning for us unless we knew who wrote what when and where.
Often we do not have all of this information, but knowing what information
we lack also helps us better than if we had not raised the questions in
the first place. Knowing, for example, that Hebrews was not written by
Paul now leaves us powerless to determine who wrote it. Yet the knowledge
that Paul was not the author reduces our chances of misunderstanding Paul
and his message which is to be found in his own letters. We can also understand
Hebrews better knowing now that we would be unwise to force-fit its theology
into a framework of Pauline teachings.
We turn now to another area: redaction criticism.
Having considered already how the tradition originated and developed,
we can take our study further to consider how each writer used the tradition
to meet his own editorial policy. We can see, for example, that although
Matthew and Luke both culled sayings of Jesus from a hypothetical Q Gospel,
Matthew alone arranged many of those sayings to form a lengthy speech
delivered by Jesus while seated on a mountain (Matthew 5-7). Matthew,
it would seem, thought it useful to represent Jesus as the new Moses delivering
a new law from a mountain. Matthew has also arranged his Gospel into five
sections as if to represent by these something new to match the five books
of Moses. We understand better what Matthew is trying to say when we recognise
his editorial policy, or, to put it another way, how he redacted the material
to form his own Gospel.
Canonical criticism is the seventh type mentioned
in the Penguin Dictionary of Religions. This type has to do with the question
of which documents deserve to be included or not in the canon of scripture.
This obviously is not a new discipline since the canon is already fixed.
Rather, scholars early in Christian history had already recognised the
value of at least this type of criticism. The fact of the canon has served,
however, to obscure the diversity among the various included documents.
Refreshing this discipline may not lead us to revise the canon. But it
would give us a chance to evaluate the message of each document understood
in its own right. Unless the writers had penned their documents intending
them for inclusion within a larger work, the writers could hardly have
intended their messages to be understood in the light of someone elses.
Canonical criticism can help us to avoid confusion between what is the
message of each individual document and what is the message of the canon
taken as a whole.
The last type to consider here is literary
criticism. The purpose of this area of study is to uncover what must have
been in the mind of the author as he wrote. This type obviously includes
all the areas of study already discussed. What is worth mentioning here
is the particular attitude adopted in critical studies. The Bible considered
as literature is seen to bear the characteristics of other literature.
It is thought, then that a careful student should bring to bear all the
tools of literary criticism upon the Bible also. The purpose of this endeavor,
again, is not to "criticize" the Bible in the negative sense
usually understood by the word among laity. The purpose is to understand
more fully what the Bible is saying to us.
Now having stressed so much of the benefits
of criticism, a word needs to be said about is negative effects. This
caution is directly implied from the already mentioned purpose of trying
to discover what was in the mind of this or that author at the time of
composition. How is this to be known for certain? The various critical
methods are hardly scientific. On almost every question scholarly judgment
is sharply divided. This alone points to the degree of subjectivity involved
in the process. This of course is not to discourage the process. The caution
to be expressed, however, is one that should serve to limit the degree
of assurance that accompany this or that pronouncement of scholarly judgment.
At the end of the day the scholar must feel humbled by the task at hand.
A negative effect of this type of study, then, is one which Paul already
expressed in the following words: Knowledge puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1).
Leaving aside this possibility, however,
we have seen that biblical criticism cannot simply be brushed aside by
serious students who seek a better understanding of the Bible. The various
methods of study already described above all serve the purpose of discovering
what the inspired authors of the Bible were saying. To understand the
relevance of the Bible for today we need to first determine what relevance
it had back then when various parts of it originated, developed, and were
eventually written down. As the New American Bible puts it, the Bible
is both Gods word and mans. To understand Gods messages
in the Bible we have to first understand the words of the men who wrote
- John R. Hinnells, The Penguin Dictionary
of Religions (US: Penguin 1995) pp 72-73.
- The New American Bible, St. Joseph Medium
Size Edition (US: Catholic Book Publishing, 1985) p. 
Aland, Kurt. Synopsis of the Four Gospels.
US: United Bible Societies, 1985.
Hinnells, John R. The Penguin Dictionary
of Religions. US: Penguin, 1985
Stacey, W. David. Groundwork of Biblical
Studies. UK: Epunth Press, 1979.
The Abingdon Bible Commentary. US:
Abingdon Press, 1929.
Harpers Bible Dictionary. US:
Harper & Row, 1985.
The New American Bible, St. Joseph Medium
Size Edition. US: Catholic Book Publishing, 1986.