Biblical Criticism?

Huck and JimPeople often misunderstand what the word “criticism” means when applied to the Bible “Biblical Criticism” sounds like “I am going to criticize the Bible.” Biblical criticism must have been invented by the Devil (or at least German liberals) in order to destroy the foundations of our faith. But this is not the case at all! “Critical study” refers to the close analysis any text, as opposed to a surface reading.

For example, when I read a novel like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, I usually just enjoy it as a story. But I have a collection of essays on Mark Twain that study the book from various historical and literary perspectives. (There are many of these studies, go search Amazon!) These essays are written by scholars who are reading the book more deeply and attempting to study it on a “critical level.”

  • In the case of Mark Twain, scholars often explore his view of racism in the late nineteenth century, but there could be books written on the history, geography, or culture of Twain’s books.
  • Perhaps there are some early, unpublished notes from Twain outlining the story of Huck Finn which shed light on how the novel came together. Someone might have alternate printings of the original story, questioning what the original wording Mark Twain intended.
  • There could be articles written on earlier versions of Huckleberry Finn, comparing the character in Tom Sawyer to the later versions in Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective.
  • Someone might specialize in exploring the sources Twain used to when he wrote the story of Huck Finn (newspaper stories about escaped slaves or life on the Mississippi river).
  • Books could be written on the “archaeology” of Huck Finn, illustrating what homes and businesses looked like in the mid-1800s.
  • A literary critic might explore how Twain wrote the story on a structural level, or explore the implied author versus the implied reader.
  • A feminist critic explorea Mark Twain’s view of women (here is an example on
  • A post-colonialist critic might explore what the novel says about oppressed people in the American South. (Here is an example on Scribd.)
  • There could even be anti-imperial readings of Huck Finn exploring Mark Twain’s view of the American government. There are many Marxist approaches to the story of Huck Finn.

I will admit the world of Mark Twain scholarship is not as broad as biblical scholarship, and rarely are people enraged at critical readings of Huck Finn as Christians sometimes react to “critical readings of the New Testament.” But I am amazed that many of the “critical readings” of the New Testament can applied to virtually any literature. My point is simply that the Bible can be explored from many different angles and with a variety of agendas. Some of these are quite profitable and shed a great deal of light; others are not particularly interesting (to me).

“Biblical criticism” therefore refers to this kind of study of the Bible. It is possible to apply historical methods of study to the Bible in order to explore the origins of the Gospels. It is possible to apply literary methods to the Gospels to explore how the writers told the story of Jesus. It is possible explore the sources the writers used and how they adapted them to their own theological purposes. Various sociological and political methods can be used to understand first century Galilee better and therefore to understand Jesus’ own ministry among the people of that region.

This sort of study is not a devotional reading, nor is it a church Bible study. In fact, biblical criticism is not even the kind of study your pastor does when preparing a sermon, although a pastor should take advantage of tools of scholarship using critical methods. I think it is extremely important we not only understand these approaches, but also see how they can contribute to our reading of a story far more important than Huckleberry Finn.

Over the next few posts I will define some of the more common forms of biblical criticism popular in the history of Gospels study. In each case, the goal of scholars engaged in this kind of work is to get at what the Gospels are about. For the most part these scholars did not desire to destroy God’s Word, but to explore it at the deepest levels possible.

14 thoughts on “Biblical Criticism?

  1. I completely agree and love the parallelism that you brought in using Mark Twain, sometimes adding in a common world topic, such as that, can illuminate an otherwise cloudy situation. Mark L. Strauss states that historical criticism is, “the methods used to determine how the Gospels came to be” (27). He breaks this further down into three separate analysis’s, they are form criticism, redaction criticism, and narrative criticism (which he devotes an entire chapter to). Form criticism, at it’s basic is, determining the Gospels prior oral forms passed down through generations (Strauss, 55). Redaction critics look at how the writers of the Gospels edited their works, the theological emphasis that they had, the purpose they had, and the community that it was situated in (Strauss, 61). In other words, redaction criticism trails the writers of the Gospels themselves to see their purpose in writing. Lastly, narrative criticism, sees the Gospels as a story of sorts where each part lends to the understanding of the whole. They way you would analyze any work of literature, through it’s plot, characters, setting, word choice (Strauss, 68). Overall, Strauss addresses the pros and cons of each of the sub categories, but does a good job of explaining them all in full. I think it is important to understand that, like you’ve said, this sort of studying is about the work itself, not the spiritual aspect of growing from the reading and work of the Holy Spirit. However, growing to understand the origins and reasoning can in and of itself lend to a deeper belief in the power of the Word of God.

    Mark L. Strauss, “Four Portraits, One Jesus”

  2. This reminds me of the young preacher who was introduced to Christian apologetics. He exclaimed, “I ain’t apologizing for anything!”

  3. People have a problem when we say criticism. When people (myself included) hear the term criticism it is negative. The reading for this week touched on this idea as well. Strauss says “The term criticism is not used in the sense of a negative assessment but in the sense of analysis and critique, as we might speak of a literary or film critique” (Strauss, 46). Critics can critique the Bible with their own agendas in mind though. This is not the idea though and just as you mentioned Biblical critiquing is meant to examine the Bible and give us a more in depth understanding of what was written. When critiquing we have to place selfish agendas aside and focus on what is actually meant. If we are going to use biblical criticisms we must fully understand what they are (form criticism, redaction criticism, and narrative criticism) and what exactly they all mean. I am sure that throughout the next few posts and our readings we will receive a pretty good idea of what exactly it means and how to use the criticisms properly.

  4. Luke 24:27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

    When hearing the word “criticize” or “criticism”, one may immediately assume something negative (Strauss 46). Instead, when referring to biblical studying, criticism is in fact positive. Critically reading the Scripture is actually studying it in hopes of completely understanding the Author as opposed to reading for mere enjoyment. God gave us the bible to not only to read, but also to live by. In order to live by the Word, we must critically understand the meaning of it.

    Because of biblical criticisms, we now have multiple hypothesis of what “truth” is. For example, in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul writes “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” The author, surroundings, context, and setting of this verse must be criticized before drawing dogmatic conclusions. Paul was in fact wring to a church in a city where women were worshiped so to speak. Without criticism, one may draw the conclusion that women must keep silent and are not permitted to speak to men.

  5. When I think about “Biblical Criticism” I end up feeling really un-easy and nervous because somebody is challenging what I’ve believed for most of my life. In my opinion, this ‘uncomfortable-ness’ is really important for personal growth and a deeper relationship with Christ.

    If somebody wants to be a body builder, they can not go through the same workout regiment day after day. If they do not push themselves, they will not grow and they will not gain the muscle tone they so desire. Our faith is a muscle, and in order to grow it, we need to challenge it and push it.

    This next quote talks about the process of rethinking and challenging what we are reading in the bible in order to gain a greater understanding of what it means. Rather then being complacent in our learning. “.. This process (challenging what we believe) of rethinking will include the hard and often threatening question of whether some things that our traditions have taken as ‘literal’ should be seen as ‘metaphorical,’ and perhaps vice versa-and, if so, which ones”(Wright 17). If we use Biblical Criticism to challenge ourselves, we will truly find out what we believe and why.

    In conclusion, by allowing ourselves to listen and take into account what other people say about the bible and criticism that they may have, we will have no choice but to challenge what we think and what we believe.

  6. Through study of our reading assignments for this week and reading this post, it is incredible to me that there are so many ways to think critically about the Bible. As a music major I can appreciate the difference between thinking about something critically versus just absentmindedly listening to or thinking about something. the difference is tremendous, and what can be gained through a little more application of one’s mental power into a topic can produce a much deeper understanding of not only the specific story or song or idea being considered, but also stories, music, and philosophies in general! These ideas can easily be seen as admonitions from the Bible itself. Psalm chapter one talks about a man who meditates on the word of God, firmly establishing himself in a secure location (Psalm 1:1-3). This man is not only established because he thinks about God and the truths of God, but because he meditates on them and applies them with wisdom to see how they play out in real life and are relevant to his experience. For this reason I see, after a little more consideration, that it may in fact be beneficial for me to take more time to critically think about the writings and origins of the Gospels and to consider it a matter of importance to know where they came from. For in doing so I know it will only heighten my understanding of the texts as I now know them.

  7. It amazes me that people are so against the idea of Biblical criticism. It seems to me that, in almost every case, a critical reading of the Bible brings about a more full understanding of the meaning, and a much deeper grasp of the author’s intent and possibly what Scriptures mean for us today. I think it is especially important to read critically the Gospels in order to more deeply grasp who this Jesus guy really is.

    However, as with any kind of study, “there are…huge problems and even dangers within the quest” (Wright 2), and it is rather easy to let oneself get off on strange rabbit trails that eventually lead somewhere we probably didn’t want to end up in the first place. But, this risk is by no means a reason to avoid critical reading of the Bible, rather the risk ought to be motivation to know that this type of criticism is incredibly beneficial. As in most things in life, the greater the risk taken; the greater the reward that is received in the end.

    When it comes to the Gospels, particularly in dealing with Jesus, criticism is vital to a deeper understanding. If, as N.T. Wright says, “it is by looking at Jesus himself that we discover who God it, it seems…indisputable that we should expect always to be continuing in the quest for Jesus, precisely as part of, indeed perhaps as the sharp edge of, our exploration into God himself” (Wright 3). If looking more critically into who Jesus is leads us closer to understanding who God is. Ought we not look more critically into the rest of this book of God-inspired scripture in order to move further on our quest to understanding our God?

  8. When I first started reading though this chapter, I had a very different understanding of what I thought bible criticism meant. I thought it was differnt ways that readers would break down the content of the bible to argue it’s authority. But after getting a better understanding, I found that it is a practice done by believers in order to dive deper into the word. Breaking text into different ways can bring out many different insights and different angles on the same teachings. I feel like most of us for this without even thinking about it sometimes, but without the depth that will actually open up new understanding of the same scripture. One example is narritive criticism, which is comparing and contrasting differnt stories in order to find details like, “setting, plot, characters and social settings”. All of these aspects can bring out different teachings and understanding from each scripture that is studied. Although there are many different types of criticism, most have the same goal. To study and look further into the studied scripture to find the spirit inspired teaching.

  9. I always thought of the word ‘criticism’ as bad or pointing out the things that are wrong. So when I saw Biblical Criticism I right away thought it meant pointing out the flaws of the Bible. Now knowing the true definition of it I completely agree that it is something that should be used when reading the Gospels. We are commanded to arm ourselves with the armor of God(the Bible) in Ephesians 6:13. So using Biblical criticism we can learn more about Gods word, specifically here in the Gospels, and fulfil what God has commanded us to do.

  10. The concept of criticism of both biblical and general scholarly contexts is a valuable tool in deciphering critical texts. As stated in P. Long’s blog about this particular subject it, “refers to the close analysis of any text, as opposed to surface reading.” In turn, this concept also allows free reign for subjective analysis on a passage of scripture or any passage of a book for that matter. Many biblical scholars tend to do this in today’s age, where they are able to use their subjective opinion on the passage and mold it to compliment a very personal theory they have on that passage (i.e. Jesus is a vegetarian). Through the use of this “Biblical Criticism,” most intelligent biblical scholars have allowed themselves the freedom to form their own theory of what Jesus is like or was like. This can be a good and a bad concept for Christians because it allows for the opportunity for Jesus’s true character to become muddled. How are we able to balance the line between effective Biblical criticism and the overall simplicity of Jesus’s life?

  11. It is true that the Bible can be viewed from many different angles and we can get different lessons from it because of this. When we critically look at the Bible we are able to gain more knowledge and understanding. The word critical or criticism has a very negative connotation, but when it comes to Biblical criticism it can be considered a positive reaction to reading the text. We are called to follow the teachings of the Bible; however, if we are not questioning what the Bible means and striving to understand the text then how can we live by what it says. Strauss points out that there are different kinds of Biblical criticism; there is “source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism” (Strauss 27). An example of critically studying the word is source criticism; according to Strauss, the goal of source criticism is to “identify the written sources for the Gospels and to determine their relationship to one another” (Strauss 50). If we assess who wrote the book and how it relates to other books while reading, then we are critically viewing the text. This will help us develop a deeper understanding of the Gospels and the Bible as a whole.

  12. I have seen time and time again where Christians argue and debate over meaning of the scripture. As Aubree said, the bible can and is viewed in different ways. I think that it is safe to say that most of the big picture ideas are generally agreed upon, but the small details trip us up, the things that are unclear and explained vaguely. As Professor Long put it in class, people want to believe something so they change it to fit their standards. This is understandable by human nature, but we start to follow each other instead of God when we do this. People did this in Huck Finn as well, as people do to any piece of renowned literature. These criticisms aren’t necessarily bad, but people took a simple story and wanted to dissect it. They wanted to know the possible underlying meaning, and create their own interpretation that may have never been foreseen by the author. The correct way to go about this, as Strauss points out, is to make your criticisms but not to do it blindly. Make your criticisms, and compare them to other sources, never go off of one source or simple insight. It is always a good point to make when reading the bible in general, to check your insight and to not simply go off what you have been told but rather to do the research oneself.

  13. We’ve all heard the term “constructive criticism”. Like a lot of us have already
    pointed out, the word “criticism” many times comes with a negative reaction, because it’s many times something that requires change, which can be hard. But when we add the word “constructive” in front of it, we understand that it’s for our own good, or at least we think so. I think the criticism that we talk about when reading and studying the Bible is the same way. As Christians, we should be reading the Bible not to “criticize” it and make it sound stupid, but to understand it. There are some passages in the Bible that require a healthy amount of biblical criticism, digging deeper into the text, which sometimes requires stepping outside our box. As constructive criticism is meant to bring people up, biblical criticism is necessary to increase our knowledge of God’s Word.

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