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  • Perhaps there are some early, unpublished notes from Twain outlining the story of Huck Finn which shed light on how the novel came together.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 Academia.edu)
  • 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.