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Biblical Criticism, including Form Criticism,
Tradition Criticism, Higher Criticism, etc.

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Biblical criticism is an umbrella term covering various techniques used mainly by mainline and liberal Christian theologians to study the meaning of Biblical passages. It uses general historical principles, and is based primarily on reason rather than revelation or faith.

Form criticism is an analysis of literary documents, particularly the Bible, to discover earlier oral traditions (stories, legends, myths, etc.) upon which they were based.

Tradition criticism is an analysis of the Bible, concentrating on how religious traditions have grown and changed over the time span during which the text was written.

Higher criticism is "the study of the sources and literary methods employed by the biblical authors." 1

Lower criticism is "the discipline and study of the actual wording" of the Bible; a quest for textual purity and understanding. 1

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Biblical Criticism, in particular higher criticism, deals with why and how the books of the Bible were written; lower criticism deals with the actual teachings of  its authors. The word "criticism" must be one of the all-time least appropriate religious terms. Theologians do not engage in actual criticism - at least as the word is commonly understood. They analyze the Bible in order to understand it better.

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Biblical criticism originated with anti-Christian writers who valued reason and logic over faith and revelation. Their goal was to discredit and ridicule the Bible and Christianity. Their analysis techniques were picked up by some liberal theologians and initially used to explain away and discount Biblical accounts of prophecy, miracles, personal demon infestation, etc. Finally, even mainstream theologians began to use biblical criticism to determine:

bullet"which are the most reliable and trustworthy texts" of the Bible. 1
bullethow are various of its books related to each other
bulletwho were its authors
bulletwhen were they written
bulletwhich passages are of real events; which are myth, legends, folklore, etc. Which are religious propaganda, etc.
bullet"...what is the relationship of these sources to other oral and written material of the time?" 1

Theologians use biblical criticism to date when various books in the Bible were written. This helps them:

bulletdetect when, in the early Christian movement, various beliefs (like the virgin birth) first arose.
bulletdetect when animosity against the Jews developed in Pauline Christianity
bulletdetermine whether 1 Timothy, 2 timothy, and Titus were written by Paul or by unknown persons in the 2nd century CE, 35 to 85 years after Paul's death.

They look for places in the Bible where the text remains silent. Absences can often guide the theologian to new understanding of the text. For example:

bulletthe "absence from the Hebrew Bible of Adam's disobedience as an explanation for evil." 2
bulletthe absence of Jesus' birth narrative from the earliest canonical gospel, Mark
bulletthe absence in the other gospels of the qualifier "sexual immorality" which is included in Jesus' discussion of divorce in Matthew.

They look for apparent discrepancies between various accounts of the same event. For example:

bulletThe gospel of John describes Jesus' assault on the businesses in the temple at Jerusalem as occurring near the start of his ministry. The 3 synoptic gospels describe the attack near the end of his life. Some interpret these passages as referring to two separate events. Others suggest that the gospel of John makes no attempts to place the events in chronological order Still others, using Biblical criticism, conclude that John described the event out of order for a specific theological reason.
bulletThe four canonical gospels describe different combinations of women as visiting the tomb of Jesus on Easter Sunday morning. Some interpret these passages as referring to multiple visits of various combinations of women. Others, using biblical criticism, conclude that the various gospel writers are simply recording different oral traditions propagated by various Christian groups.

They study the style of writing found in the books of the Bible in order to determine the identity of the authors. For example:

bulletSome Christians believe that the gospel of John, the letters of John and the book of Revelation were all written by the Apostle John. After all, the books themselves identify the author as John. But biblical criticism shows that the writing styles in the gospel and letters match, whereas the style of Revelation did not match the other four documents. This shows to the investigators that the author of the gospel of John did not write Revelation.
bulletThe 13 epistles from Romans to Philemon all state that they were written by Paul. But analysis of the writing styles shows to the scholars that Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus were not written by Paul; there is some possibility that Colossians was not either.

One of the most active groups in Biblical criticism is the Jesus Seminar. They, and others, have compared the ministry of Jesus as described in the synoptic gospels with the content of the gospel of John. From the irresolvable conflicts, they concluded that they had to reject either John or the synoptic gospels as a guide to understanding the historical Jesus. They have largely ignored John.

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Reaction of conservative Christians to biblical criticism:

Conservative and liberal individuals and groups view Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (Old and New Testament) very differently. This inevitably leads to beliefs that differ greatly among different Christian denominations.

Fundamentalist and other conservative Christian theologians have tended to discount the importance of biblical criticism. They generally believe that:

bulletAll biblical passages are inerrant (that God totally prevented its writers from making errors).
bulletGod inspired each author 
bulletThe Bible, in its original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek does not contain deceptive passages.
bulletAll verses in the Bible are useful for personal guidance. In an apparent reference to the Hebrew Scriptures, the author of 2 Timothy 3:16 wrote: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God [literally God-breathed], and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness..." (NKJ)
bulletBiblical verses should normally be interpreted literally. Only in the case of apparent conflicts between passages may some verses be considered symbolically or in a restricted sense.

Thus, the name of the author, the date of writing, or the relationships between books is of little interest. Religious conservatives strongly embrace lower criticism, the detailed analysis of the authors' words and thoughts.

Most conservatives disagree with biblical criticism's rejection of miracles, prophecies, etc. Some have warned that biblical criticism may threaten an individual's faith:

bulletAnkerberg and Weldon believe that "miracles and the supernatural are inherently a part of what God does in history, because God is a supernatural being.  The Bible is checkered with miracle from beginning to end, from creation, the fall, and the flood to the exodus, conquest, prophets, captivity / return to the Gospels, Acts, epistles and Revelation." 3
bulletG. Maier describes higher criticism as: "a truly dictatorial regime in theology."  It results in "an uncritical and unjustified denigration of the Biblical text" and a "godless technique that eroded the Word of God itself." 4
bulletW.A. Maier stated: "It is not only an absolutely useless but also a manifestly sinful and extremely dangerous exercise...to take the gospels in hand and then to discard vital and substantial portions of the sacred text as though these were records of deliberate fabrications, mythological formulations, and misunderstandings on the part of the early Christian communities...It is...fraught with the gravest spiritual consequences." 5

When two or more verses in the Bible appear to be in conflict, religious conservatives normally attempt to harmonize the passages. They will often select the clearest and most specific passage(s), and interpret them literally. Explanations are then sought for the remaining verses which are apparently in contradiction. For example, consider the virgin birth of Jesus. Matthew and Luke state specifically that Mary was a virgin at the time that she conceived Jesus. But other passages in the Christian Scriptures by Paul and the author(s) of the gospel of John seem to imply that Jesus' birth was unremarkable. In addition, the gospels of Mark and John do not contain a birth story at all. Conservative Christians might harmonize these apparent conflicts by:

bulletAccepting the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke which state clearly that Jesus was born of a virgin.
bulletExplaining that the author(s) of the gospel of John may have wished to emphasize that Jesus was the son of God and thus did not specifically mention Jesus' virgin birth.
bulletBelieving that the author of Mark wished to emphasize Jesus' adult ministry and thus did not include a birth narrative.
bulletBelieving that Paul wanted to emphasize Jesus' resurrection and thus did not refer to Jesus' virgin birth.

Once the passages are harmonized, the birth stories of Matthew and Luke can be emphasized; the other references to Jesus' birth can be ignored.

On the other hand, advocates of biblical criticism would emphasize differences and conflicts among various passages in an effort to understand why they disagree. They might conclude that:

bulletPaul's writing (circa 50 to 65 CE) and Mark's gospel (written circa 70 CE) did not mention the unusual nature of Jesus' conception because the Christian movement had not created the belief prior to 70 CE.
bulletMatthew and Luke added a birth narrative because church tradition had invented the virgin birth by the time that those two gospels were written (80's or 90's CE).
bulletThe author(s) of the gospel of John knew of the widespread belief in the virgin birth when he/they wrote the gospel circa 90 to 100 CE. But it was rejected as invalid. Thus he did not include it in the gospel.

Apparent conflicts between Bible passages motivate conservative Christians to try to harmonize the verses. Discrepancies are useful to liberal theologians. They believe that they can use Biblical criticism in order to improve their understanding of the origin of religious beliefs and the development of religious traditions.

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Other essays on this website which discuss Biblical criticism:

bulletWho wrote the 5 books of Moses (a.k.a. The Pentateuch, the Torah...)
bulletThe Book of Daniel (was it written in the 6th century BCE or about 166 BCE?)

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Books dealing with the Biblical Criticism:

Books critical of Biblical criticism:

bulletE.T. Guttgemans, "Candid Questions Concerning Gospel Form Criticism: A Methodological Sketch of the Fundamental Problematics of Form and Redaction Criticism" You can see reviews and/or order this book from Amazon.com
bulletL.T. Johnson, "The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and Truth of the Traditional Gospels," Harper, (Reprinted 1997) Review/order it?
bulletG. Maier, "The End of the Historical-Critical Method," Concordia (1974). Review/order it?
bulletW.A. Maier, "Form Criticism Reexamined," Concordia (1973). Review/order it?
bulletJ.P. Moreland's and Mike Wilkins, "Jesus Under Fire," Zondervan (1995). Review/order it?

Books promoting the results of Biblical criticism:

bulletMarcus J. Borg, Marcus J. "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith," Harper Collins, (1994). Review/order it?
bulletJ. Dominic Crossan, "The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant," Harper Collins, (1992). Review/order it?
bulletJ. Dominic Crossan, "Jesus. A Revolutionary Biography." Harper Collins, (1994). Review/order it?
bulletJ. Dominic Crossan, "Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus," Harper Collins, (1995). Review/order it?
bulletR.E. Friedman, "Who Wrote the Bible?" Harper, (1987). Review/order it?
bulletR.W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, "The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus," HarperCollins, (1998). Review/order it?
bulletR.W. Funk, Roy Hoover and the Jesus Seminar. "The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus," HarperCollins, (1997). Review/order it?
bulletH. Schonfield, "The Passover Plot: A New Interpretation of the Life and Death of Jesus," Element, (1965). Review/order it?
bulletR. Shorto, "Gospel Truth: The New Image of Jesus Emerging from Science and History, and Why It Matters," Riverhead, (1997) Review/order it?
bulletJ.S. Spong, "Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile," Harper, (1998). Review/order it?
bulletJ.S. Spong, "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture," (1991). Review/order it?

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References used:

  1. G.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols, "Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult," Zondervan (1993)
  2. B.M. Metzger, M.D. Coogan, "The Oxford Companion to the Bible," Oxford (1993), Page 319
  3. J. Ankerberg & J. Weldon, "The Facts on False Views of Jesus: The Truth Behind the Jesus Seminar," Harvest House (1997)
  4. G. Maier, "The End of the Historical-Critical Method," Concordia (1974).
  5. W.A. Maier, "Form Criticism Reexamined," Concordia (1973).

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Copyright © 1998 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2008-JAN-19
Author: B.A. Robinson

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