Critical Methods and the Evangelical

In my years teaching Gospels, I have found that the single most frustrating section of the course is section on Historical Criticism.  Usually students do not see the point of the discussion and would prefer to leave it to the professionals. My purpose here is to give a light summary and definition of three key critical methods and then assess the value of these methods for the evangelical.

The dangers of higher criticism

Source Criticism is the study of the use of literary sources by the Gospel writers including the order the in which the gospels were written and the use of hypothetical sources.  It seems somewhat obvious that there is a literary relationship between the three synoptic gospels – why does Matthew look a great deal like Mark?  Why are there verses that are word-for-word the same in Matthew and Luke?

Form Criticism is the study of the per-literary sources use in the Gospels with an emphasis on the forms which these elements appeared in the “life setting of the early church.”  This is more or less a step backwards from Source Criticism since Form critics asked what elements of tradition a writer might have had at his disposal as he created his gospel.  This method begins with the assumption that no one wrote down what Jesus said and did for a very long time but people circulated stories of what did and did orally.  This units were subject to the sorts of changes that affect any folklore, so the units develop until they were eventually collected into the gospels as we know them.  The Form Critic is interested in the earliest possible “form” of a story and determining what situation might have led to the development of the original story.

Redaction Criticism is the study of the way in which the Gospel writers used their sources.  The focus here is on how they edited the sources and the individual contributions of the writers to their sources, or better, the communities in which the gospel was developed.  A position on Source criticism must be taken:  who wrote first, Mark or Matthew?  Then a Redaction critic will study how Matthew adapted mark for his (new) church situation.

Can these methods be used by evangelical scholars who have a commitment to inspiration and inerrancy? I believe that they can, but judiciously.  First, there is a literary relationship between the three synoptic gospels.  To deny that seems to me to be purposely ignoring the obvious because you are afraid of what the explanation might be.  Second, if there is a literary relationship, then it is obvious that the gospel writers used at least one other gospel as a source, and may have had other sources as well.  Luke states this in his prologue, so I see no trouble in the observation that Matthew used Mark, or Luke used Matthew.  I see no problem with Matthew using a sayings document for that matter if such a thing existed.  Third, that there were orally transmitted stories about Jesus seems equally obvious. The existence of these stories is one of Luke’s motivations for writing an “orderly account.” And it is a fact that some of the stories grew to legendary and fanciful myths, as we find in the (much later) New Testament Apocrypha.

However, just because we can use these methods does not mean we should. It seems to me that every Bible reader has to have some basic idea of the literary relationship and an understanding that the writers were highly creative, Spirit-lead individuals who sought to explain who Jesus was in a way which impacted their community.  The problem comes when we get stuck on Source, Form, or Redaction Criticism to the point that we never actually read the text of the gospel with understanding.  These methods usually obscure and distract as much as the help us understand the words of the Gospels.

19 thoughts on “Critical Methods and the Evangelical

  1. an excellent text, perhaps the best is probably David Friedrich Strauss’s _The Life of Jesus Critically Examined_. And the great thing is that it is online to read.

    If that is the kind of thing that anyone is interested in, feel free to contact me.


  2. I have read through most of Strauss, an Orbis reprint if I recall correctly. Salient portions are available in most “Historical Jesus” readers as well. Strauss was something of a sacrificial lamb, since his views were considered radical he had trouble obtaining a teaching position, but he set the stage for most of the 19th century in Germany (and perhaps the 20th as well!)

  3. For me, reading what Blomberg had to say on historical criticism raised many ideas that were contradictory and difficult to reconcile. For instance, the probability that there might have existed a extra document that lent to both Matthew and Luke, and goes unmentioned through all ancient post-apostolic literature seems highly unlikely to me, especially given the value placed on written and oral account at the time. Yet when one analyzes Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13 it seems that a common link between the two is just common sense. Also, it seems like a concealed document that largely contributed to the scriptures would be at odds with the side of God’s nature that wants the Gospel in it’s entirety to be plain and communicable to mankind. And again, at the same time, the “recent” discoveries at Qumran lead me to believe that it is perfectly within God’s will to withhold certain revelations of the Bible for certain times. I do not blame the throngs of students who have questioned the necessity of this discussion, especially from an evangelical perspective. I would challenge anybody attempting to use these critical methods to use them solely toward the effort of harmonizing the gospels rather than putting exclusive focus on the apostolic writers.

  4. When I was reading Blomberg’s descriptions of the different methods of approaching the Gospels, I couldn’t help but see my own fallacies in really looking into the connections and validity of the Gospels outside of the typical Christian mentality of just relying on the fact that the scripture is God inspired. As individual ways to approach the Gospels, they leave room for speculation, but combined they can help us to observe the Gospels in a very thorough way, and deepen our understanding of God even more. I agree that we shouldn’t rely specifically on just one method, or ignore them completely either. If one gets caught up on reading with just a specific method, then it is easy to overlook the work of the Holy Spirit or that “All scripture is God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). The flip side of this, of course, is just taking the scriptures completely at face value, and not looking for the correlations between the writers, time period, communities, emphasis, or history. This is a trap that many Christians easily fall into. I have found myself not seeing value in really researching the Gospels, or reading them from any other “point of view” outside of my own. This can limit our understanding of what the writer is saying and leave room for more personal interpretation and opinion. I agree with Steve that we should take these three methods and use them to harmonize the Gospels instead of focusing on picking them apart, but also not to put too much weight into the methods and leave room for the Holy Spirit to move through our reading and study as well.

    • Despite the fact of Scripture as God-breathed, it is difficult to deal with obvious historical criticism. I, for example, would rather just stick to my belief system and spiritual convictions and shrug off any contradictions; but, in doing so, I am neither challenging may personal faith, nor defending my devotion to my Savior. Thus, I must face the inevitable and admit there are plausible arguments against the continuity of Scripture. While here I would like to state the cliché that “God said, I believe it, that settles it”, it seems that some would rather argue for the sake of argument, than argue for the sake of progress.

      It can be assumed that there are many sources–possibly too numerous to count–for the gospels. Does this mean that they are invalid? Hardly. When taking into account the cultural, economic and biblical background of the synoptic gospels, it is easy to see that differing perspectives can lead ultimately to emphatic impact. Although words differ, and the vantage point of their themes differ, overall ideas and truths remain cemented. The challenge, then, is to discover the truths of Scripture, rather than read into contradictions.

    • Joe said that if he avoids all of this scholarly discussion, he “neither challenging may personal faith, nor defending my devotion to my Savior.” I think this is good, since sticking your head in the sand is not going to help anyone. IMHO your faith is stronger if you can adequately integrate scholarship into your faith. It cannot be either/or.

  5. I find these Criticisms interesting. They bring up some very interesting questions that you normally don’t talk about in the local church. They dig deeper than the average commentary and look directly for answers that most don’t dare to ask. I may find these Criticisms interesting but I don’t think I would personally be to dedicate more than a day to thinking too deep about all that they question. I can see where this “questioning” can be prevalent in postmodern thinkers. I can also see where people can get caught up in being “critical” too much and lose touch with the simple fact that the Gospel’s message is meant to bring the good news of Jesus Christ. I can also see these criticisms can lead a person to believe even more in the inerrancy of the Word of God. I know for me, the more I learn about God and His word the more I fall in love with Him. I may not always understand why we need to learn about certain topics all the time, but after careful studying and diligence I usually come to the conclusion that God is so big we’ll never fully understand why He does the things He does until we get to those pearly gates.

  6. These, “potpourri of perspectives” help us understand the literary connectedness that proves each. But the impact from the Gospels can, help us understand what is being discussed in the scripture. Keeping these critisisms in mind we can relate, understand, and see the importance of why these books were written the way they are. It’s like watching the bonus features of your favorite movie, and see how characters, scripts, and staging is designed and for what purpose. When we view the Synoptic Gospels it can help us understand what is transpiring.

    Now that will give you a bunch of head knowledge, but it isn’t until we allow the scripture affect us in a personal manner that they truly have their impact.

    • I really like Jed’s comparison with the “Bonus Features” picture and I totally agree with him. I also agree with the comments people have made shedding light on the fact that it’s all well and good to argue but if we leave it at that or argue for the sake of arguing and not digging into the word, there really is no point. I do however want to point out that one of the biggest and most effective methods for study around the first century is memorization. In Chapter 1, Blomberg says that many venerable rabbi’s committed the entire bible (OT) to memorization and that by the time young Jewish boys were around the age of 7 or 8, they had the Torah memorized. This whole synoptic problem that arises then should not necessarily be that surprising to us. If the tradition of the day was for people to memorize, does it surprise us that this was the main form of teaching and circulation? It makes sense that this be the case. Blomberg also makes mention of the “Q” hypothesis in which there was “a hypothetical document on which Matthew and Luke drew” (Blomberg 90). Physical document or no, these ‘sayings of Jesus’ would probably be its contents. “Q” could have just as easily have been an oral tradition, stories about Jesus being shared by people amongst the community and since it was so close to the actual events of Jesus, any embellishments or false stories would have been immediately corrected due to the large number of eyewitnesses. To me, it makes sense that there would be a literary connectedness between the Gospels because 1) they are talking about the same Jesus and 2) at least 2 of them were drawing from either each other or different sources (see Luke’s Genealogy of Jesus).

    • Ok, Jed, it is like the bonus features. but some people do not buy the extended editions and never see the bonus features. they have no idea what the director was thinking or what “rally happened” on the set of the movie. Are they somehow less informed about the movie? To run with the analogy, are people in church who have no conception that scholars worry over Form Criticism (for example), less able to understand the Gospels? Or, to put it another way, are those of us who get to think about Form or Redaction criticism better off than those who never know this stuff exists?

      It might be argued that the more “pure” way to watch a movie is to avoid all that extra junk and just experience the movie for yourself – what if the gospels are better understood by simply reading them as the stand in the Bible without worrying over the sources or potential Sitz im Lebens?

  7. I can agree that this would be an area of study that I would really struggle to understand and I would be concerned that I would use criticism too much and end up thinking my way out of inerrancy. Saying that, I think it is still important that we are using discernment and our God given wisdom to evaluate the texts in their historical form and in how they relate to us in modern times. One thing I have to remember for myself when reading scripture is that real human beings wrote it. Yes, the Bible is inerrant and inspired but God used real people and their own creative styles. When we dive too much into taking things literally or, on the opposite end, metaphorical we can get lost in the understanding of scripture. In whatever genre, style or time it was written, 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof and righteousness. Not just some of scripture but all of scripture. Although students like myself may not enjoy the process of either debunking or using the criticism, understanding the three forms of criticism mentioned, helps in recognizing when it’s being applied in sermons, commentaries, and other teaching methods.

  8. I also agree that it could be a problem of having the Source, Form, and/or Redaction criticism lens on with comparing and analyzing the four disciples. I could see the good that can come out of it, but I also wonder if it matters? Not in a way that I don’t care but what’s the point of knowing who wrote first when they all lived at the same, experiencing almost the same things with what Jesus lived through. For what matters is that the word is right and true (Psalms 33:4). But I can understand for a student to understand and to put into practice of these criticisms can be helpful of expanding the horizon of more understanding of what the author wrote.

  9. To ignore the obvious would be arrogant and ignorant. We as evangelicals have to admit the obvious, and if we truly trust in the inerrancy and inspiration of the gospels, we should not be afraid of these observations. We may not have all the answers and we may not ever piece it completely together, but at least we can use what tools we have to our disposal to help unravel the mystery and get a better understanding of that in which we observe. Unless these gospel writers were writing a news report and writing their accounts as these events were happening, of course they are going to use other sources at their disposal to help write a carefully and spirit led account of Jesus Christ, with the agenda of helping people understand who Jesus was, Christ the Savior. They were good writers like anyone of today who would use other sources to write other biographies or narratives, it is a given.

  10. Criticism often has a negative connotation to it because it is most associated when someone has said, done, or wrote something that is not correct or controversial. Critical methods, however, have more to do with focusing on analysis or interpretation of a certain type of written work than looking at what is inherently seen as wrong. Biblical critical methods are no different. Phil Long’s blog post mentions three key types of critical methods – source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism – each used to help with students of the evangelical (Long, 2010). Source criticism focuses on the use of literary sources by the Gospel and may include the order in which they were written. From criticism is the study of the different elements of tradition the writer of the gospel may have had at his disposal during his work. Redaction criticism is the study of how the Gospel writers used their sources. Each of these helps in deciding the similarities and differences of the Gospels, and whether they can be seen as having a literary relationship or not. We have to be careful using these methods, however, because over – reliance on one type of criticism causes us in failure of understanding of biblical text. “The problem comes when we get stuck on Source, Form, or Redaction Criticism to the point that we never actually read the text of the gospel with understanding. These methods usually obscure and distract as much as the help us understand the words of the Gospels.” (Long, 2010). Sometimes when we lack the understanding of something using these critical methods may cloud the understanding even more. In my Theology I class, we have been talking a lot about different methods to evaluate biblical text and compare methods of what scholars believe about each one. This has been really confusing for me, so sometimes it helps to just be affirmed in what you do understand and go from there.

  11. I can definitely see how some people wouldn’t see the need for historical criticism and would just want to simply read the text and try to understand it that way, but it really is important in order to enhance what we get out of the text. For source criticism, it is obviously important for us to know which of one of the gospels was written first, as this can help us see who got inspiration from who, and how much, and how the original author wrote his gospel. As for form criticism, I must admit this is very interesting to me and something I have never really thought about before. I always just assumed that the gospels were written right around the time of Jesus, by people that we either with Jesus, or talked to people who were. It is definitely something to consider though, as it would vastly change how they are interpreted. For redaction criticism, it is really good to compare the gospels, and see what is similar and what is different, and what themes and messages each of them tells. To wrap things up, as Christians we shouldn’t want to just read the bible and try and understand it that way, we should want to understand as much as we can about the background of the passages and the authors who wrote them, and how and why they wrote the way we did. If we do this to the best of our ability, it can only enhance our knowledge of the scripture, and ultimately lead us closer to getting what God wants us to get from his word.

  12. I too can see the “upsides” of just skipping the historical context and reading it directly how it is written. It is really the most important piece in my opinion to help truly understand what the writer is meaning in the text. Not only in the Gospels, the entire scripture, historical and cultural context can bring the meaning of a verse from A to Z with a matter of understanding what the context really is. I also think that these methods can be used by scholars but in only the slightest much like you said. Nobody, as I stated in my comment last week, can take one piece of scripture and believe it and then dismiss another. So to find fault or criticism of the scriptures and create tension in your belief of scripture as a whole is not correct. However, if someone were to look at these criticisms and take them to heart and use them to help study scripture that is an entirely different story. I think that these can be a basis what somebody researches and comes to understand about scripture because they can read the scripture for face value and then following that they can research and figure out how to debunk at criticisms about it as well as adding to their own understanding of scriptures. Much like you added in the end, we cannot only do one thing and look at these criticisms we have to still read through scriptures for understanding in order to truly grow and understand them. According to Strauss (109), many form critics have entirely rejected the idea that many of Jesus’ traditions, messages and miracles are at all historical. This goes back to the idea that a true scholar and believer cannot look at one piece of scripture and dismiss it and then look at another and accept it and claim to be a bible believer. You either believe the Word is the Word of God in the entirety or you shouldn’t at all. We cannot pick and choose what we like.

  13. My first thought when reading about each Critical Method was, “why is this really important?”. Although I now see why it is a big deal to some. As a Christian I have faith in the Lord and cherish the Bible as sacred words from the Lord but not all do. The Bible is criticized by many in today’s society and believed to be a Holy or Sacred text. Reading your article Redaction Criticism stood out to me. In today’s society everything is recorded immediately whether it is on the news or social media. Today’s society no longer passes valuable stories and information down by word of mouth. Everything is stored on the internet for anyone that wants it. We have accredited groups that edit important materials unlike the writers of the gospels. Thus we are unsure how they would have come up the way to edit and format the Bible. Thus creating questions about it. I think that it is very valid to question things like this of the Bible because it gets us studying it and seeking answers. But I do agree that it is important to not get stuck on criticisms because they can distract us from the real reasons of the Bible. Thus we should seek understanding rather demanding answers the Lord does not give us.

  14. The critical methods discussed are essential for creating the most well rounded and accurate events as they happened version of scripture. Each of these criticisms has a place in discovering the full story. While historical criticism may be lackluster, and very tedious, for the sake of connecting events and seeing the story from all angles. Connecting the scripture to all historical accounts may yield the most inclusive result in terms of information. Criticism at every stage of the process in scripture is important though. Source criticism is important for knowing why scripture is written the way that is it is, and why the people who wrote it were in the situation they were in. Form criticism takes this a step further as it analyzes by which means were the writers of the gospels writing, what did they have access to? Redaction criticism considers how did one writer take liberties compared to the writer before him, while this is problematic as the order of the gospels is under some debate, many scenarios can be examined using this criticism to understand what the writer felt most and least important to the accounts discussed. Each criticism has its place.

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