The Roles of Biblical Criticism (RJS)

The Roles of Biblical Criticism (RJS) November 15, 2012

The introduction to the new book by  Marc Brettler (Brandeis University), Peter Enns (Eastern University) and Daniel J. Harrington (Boston College), The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically & Religiously, provides a brief sketch of the history of biblical interpretation and the rise of historical criticism. The emphasis of this book is on the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament with Marc Brettler providing a Jewish perspective, Peter Enns a Protestant perspective and Daniel Harrington a Catholic perspective. All three are both believers and biblical scholars.

As a scholarly term biblical criticism does not have a negative or pejorative connotation – at least it need not have such a connotation. For the believer biblical criticism is broadly defined as “the process of establishing the original, contextual meaning of the biblical text and assessing their historical accuracy.” (p. 3)

“Historical criticism,” which means placing a biblical text in its original historical context, is our preferred term. Historical criticism often involves comparing the text with parallel or analogous biblical or extrabiblical texts from the same general geographical area and the same general time period. This helps us better understand what was “in the air” at the time and what may have been the cultural assumptions underlying the biblical texts, its authors, and earliest audiences. (p. 4)

The sketch of the history of biblical interpretation begins almost immediately after the writing of the earliest portions of the Hebrew scriptures. The later writers wrestle with and interpret the earlier texts. The inter-testamental authors wrestled with the text – as we see in works like those found among the Dead Sea scrolls.  Large portions of the New Testament “can be regarded as an interpretative process of connecting Israel’s story with the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.” ( p. 11) This later point is important. Unless we understand the Old Testament, and the general cultural assumptions concerning the Hebrew Scriptures at play in the first century, we will almost certainly misinterpret large parts of the New Testament message.  The New Testament authors, Brettler, Enns, and Harrington note, “quote the Old Testament well over 300 times and allude to it over a thousand times.” These are significant quotations and allusions, deeply entwined with the meaning the authors wishes to convey.

The reformation laid the groundwork for scholarly biblical criticism and the rise of skeptical biblical criticism.  The reformation doctrine of sola scriptura required that the faithful believer pay close attention to what Scripture is actually saying. This also led to a political twist to biblical criticism. Biblical criticism moved out of the church and became a tool to undermine the authority of the church, and the authority of the state when church and state were intertwined.  The deep enlightenment and modernist skepticism grew further and became tied to questions of science and faith – with miracles denied and the text demythologized.  There is much more to this history – more in the brief sketch provided by Brettler, Enns and Harrington; and even more in the books suggested for Further Reading.

Out of this history though, there is perhaps a path forward. A path that does not ignore the results of textual criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, historical criticism, but considers them critically in conversation with traditions of religious faith.

While we may sympathize at times with some of the critics on either side, we are convinced that it is possible to read the Bible both critically and religiously. Although historically it has been the case that “the scriptural Bible and the academic Bible are fundamentally different creations oriented toward rival interpretive communities,” we do not believe that this should be so. We used the broad understanding of historical criticism, proposed by scholars like John Barton, as outlined earlier: biblical criticism refers to the process of establishing the original contextual meaning of biblical texts with the tools of literary and historical analysis. Whatever challenges such study raises for religious belief are brought into conversation with religious tradition rather than deemed grounds for dismissing either that tradition or biblical criticism. (p. 18-19)

The next three or so posts will look at how this conversation between historical criticism and religious tradition plays out for Brettler’s Jewish approach, Harrington’s Catholic approach, and Enns’s Protestant approach.

What does it mean to use historical criticism in conversation with religious tradition?

Does the Protestant refrain of Sola Scriptura require that the conversation occur?

After all, if Scripture is our authority, whatever contributes to a a better understanding of scripture should help us better understand the faith.

Or does the Protestant refrain of Sola Scriptura relegate historical criticism to a back seat?

After all, the plain meaning of scripture should be accessible to anyone, anywhere, with only a moderate education required.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Tim Atwater

    Good subject. Am somewhat familiar with all three authors, and have seen advance notes at Enn’s blog.
    Maybe this will come later, but wondering about no word here on literary criticism — surpassing so-called historical criticism as common ground turf over past several decades (at least)…?

    grace and peace….

  • Why was this assumption thrown in at the end?

    “the plain meaning of scripture should be accessible to anyone, anywhere, with only a moderate education required.”

    I’m skeptical of “plain meaning” rhetoric.

  • Tim Atwater

    Dale (#2 — RJS pls correct me if i am off on this) I think the phrase “the plain meaning of scripture should be accessible to anyone, anywhere, with only a moderate education required…” is meant to be a paraphrase of common (mis-) interpretation of Sola Scriptura…

    To take this in perhaps a slightly different direction (or maybe not?) —
    John Wesley, nobody’ fundy, did believe the plain meaning was always the place to look first in scripture. What he meant by plain was not always what others meant…
    Historic and textual and narrative and all the other forms of critical scholarship offer us kinder gentler ways (at their best) of arguing what plain meaning is…

    Wesley believed in a literal common purse. He also said he doubted he’d met 50 others in his lifetime who agreed with him. But he still held to this as the plain meaning of acts 2-4.
    He didn’t believe in literally cutting off his hand if his hand sinned or plucking eye etc.. (Mt 5)

    The literal vrs parable-ometer that Scot had up in another posting comes to mind. (Would like to find that one to save… I think it is available on e-bay?


  • RJS

    Dale (#2),

    I was just trying to start a conversation on the value of historical criticism. Some will say it is of little importance – others that it is of great importance. So with the questions at the bottom of the post I have examples of reasons for holding it of great value or little value.

    Certainly Pete has been criticized for holding that historical criticism is of importance for our understanding of scripture.

    His critics often claim that the “plain meaning,” (reinforced by their tradition) is sufficient and going beyond this is to undermine the authority of scripture.

  • Norman

    I think what may have possibly fallen through the cracks of OT investigation somewhat is that there appears two competing camps of OT writers. Those pro Moses/Ezra (Law-think Pharisees) and those who wanted that aspect of Hebrew religion overturned through the Messiah who would get rid of the Law that permeated the Ezra group (think Essenes/First Christians).

    It appears after the revelation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi writings that we are in the slow process of re-determing just what comprised the scriptures that were considered authoritative to the first Christians. It becomes obvious even to a casual reader of extra biblical literature that the early Christians pulled extensively from them (Especially 1Enoch) and that the OT doesn’t fully support their applied theology. More research indicates that the Pharisaical Jews (Ezra group) who were especially at odds with this segment of 2nd Temple messianic fulfillment took control of the Jewish OT. They reworked, redacted, reedited and finally out right expunging certain contrary scriptures and books that strongly supported much concerning the Messianic coming and especially Judgment pieces. This process begin strongly around AD95 with the Jewish Council of Jamnia ending up with our Masoretic Test which supported their agenda better.

    There was a brief fight with the early Christians over their usurping the scriptures but by about the 3rd and 4th Century AD the Christians acquiesced due to their overall lack of historical coherent rationale behind the original problems that led to this split. The church ended up taking up the mantle of the Jews who rejected Christ the Messiah and the church has suffered mightily ever since without realizing the significance of our loss.

    One of the most difficult challenges the Christian church has before us is redeeming the scriptural base that defined Christianity in the first place. This is especially difficult when we understand the difficulty of moving into a paradigm of scholarship that says the OT Bible that you hold in your hand is not the one the first Christians would have used and supported. There are so many entrenched beliefs about the infallibility of the churches process of canonization that only the most independent scholar is going to be able to wrestle with these issues effectively.

    It will be a bitter pill for the church to swallow in coming to the recognition that we have turned away from Christ, the Apostles and Paul’s contemporary understanding of scripture and have sided with their enemy the legalist and apostate Jews who wanted no part of a Christian Messianic understanding. Christianity had its roots deep in the earliest 1st Temple experience and became adversaries of the Legalist camp and wanted things returned to the original Garden of Righteousness without Law.

    If you read the OT and extra biblical literature with that understanding you will see the tension throughout the literature that was at play between these two camps. Paul changed sides and joined the messianic camp due to his Damascus Road coming to Jesus revelation. He would be quite disappointed that the church moved back toward the 2nd Temple errors to a degree.