Unlike the literature of other religions, the Bible has always been subject to some measure of scholarly criticism and correction. This criticism undoubtedly developed because Jews and Christians conceive of religion as historical, as the product of definite historical events. Even though the great majority of the Old and New Testament writings are, in fact, anonymous, they have always been ascribed, in one way or other, to a human author. It has therefore been considered legitimate for other human beings to evaluate them. They have never been regarded simply as a literature transmitted directly from heaven or as so remotely distant from the contemporary human condition as to render them immune to critical study. This is in distinct contrast, for example, to the Islamic and Hindu scriptures ( see Koran ; Veda ). The notion of critical biblical study, however, has radically changed over the years.
The earliest Jewish and Christian scholars were concerned with reconciling the disparities caused by human authorship with their conviction that the Bible was divinely inspired-either by direct dictation by God to the author or by suggestion to the author through dreams, visions, and other indirect presentations. Invariably, the divine element tended to be stressed at the expense of the human. The early rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia (200-500 ad ), whose discussions are preserved in the collections of Jewish tradition called the Talmud (Heb., "instruction"), strove for consistency among the Bible's many assertions and between the Bible and Judaism itself, which they regarded as a divinely guided interpretation of the Old Testament. To achieve this consistency, types of reasoning were employed that, by modern standards of textual explanation, often seem convoluted and arbitrary ( see Mishnah ; Talmud ).
In the Hellenistic world, the Jewish scholar Philo Judaeus made similar efforts to demonstrate the correspondence of the Old Testament with the world view formed by Greek philosophers and scientists. To achieve this reconciliation, Philo used allegorism ( see Allegory ), the interpretative process in which the surface or literal meaning of a text is eschewed in favor of some deeper (divine) meaning that lies beneath it and is perceptible only to the initiate.
Most of the early Fathers of the Church used the same approach. They were convinced that the real meaning of the Old Testament was what it had come to signify through the New Testament and later Christian interpretations. Early interpreters of the New Testament tended to treat the Old Testament in its entirety as a Christian book in which all that was done or said had significance only insofar as it symbolized or anticipated that which was later fulfilled in Christ and in the church. See also Apocryphal New Testament .
Today, some Christian commentators continue to think of the Old Testament mainly in terms of its relevance to the Christian church, as did the Second Vatican Council ( see Vatican Council, Second ), at least in some parts of its decree concerning Scripture. Such a position creates a certain tension with what has come to be called the historicocritical method, in which the Bible is treated as a literary work written by a human author and shaped by the literary styles and conventions of its time.
Beginnings of Critical Study.
Some tentative approaches to the historicoliterary method (see below) were made in antiquity. Even when allegorism prevailed, some commentators held that there were better ways of accounting for a divinely inspired literature than the simple assumption that it had been dictated by God to a human author. Philo's allegorism, in fact, was in part motivated by his conviction that some of the Scripture could not be literally true as stated. The interaction of God and humanity in the production of Scripture, therefore, could take on more subtle forms than the one Philo usually assumed, that is, revelation by divine possession in the manner of the Greek oracles ( see Oracle ).
Among the Christians, St. Augustine, in his commentary on the literal meaning of Genesis ( De Genesi ad Litteram, 401-15), was acutely aware of the apparent discrepancy between the contemporary scientific view of the world and that of the biblical authors. He therefore recognized the need to deal critically with the biblical view. In the East, the scholar Theodore of Mopsuestia was even bolder. He attempted to distin guish between the "prophetic spirit" (that is, direct revelation), which was responsible for much of the Bible, and a "spirit of wisdom," which had influenced certain biblical writers (such as the author of Ecclesiastes), who, Theodore believed, were concerned with matters of opinion or of purely human observation.
Despite these and similar efforts, it was not until the Enlightenment ( see Enlightenment, Age of ) in the 17th and 18th centuries that the Bible came to be examined in a truly critical fashion. The Protestant Reformation (q.v.) had reintroduced serious study of the Bible after centuries of neglect, and the new critical methods that developed in historical and literary scholarship during this period were soon applied to biblical texts. Among the first biblical critics were the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and the French scholar Richard Simon (1638-1712).
Types of Criticism.
Anyone attempting to examine a Bible text first should be sure that the text, as transmitted to the scholar, is as accurate as possible and, second, should realize that translation is a form of interpretation, in which the meaning of the text must be determined before it can be expressed in other words. Critics, even in the pre-Christian period, dealt with translated material, and they and later scholars felt they had to go back to the earliest available form of the texts in order to determine their original meaning. Much early textual criticism was therefore devoted to establishing an accurate text. The Protestant reformers were anxious to see the Bible in the hands of the laity, and the translators of the 16th and 17th centuries searched for texts to assure the best translations possible. From their examinations and from newly discovered manuscripts in the 18th century, the methods of textual criticism developed.
Establishing what was originally written, whatever its meaning or relevance may be, is attempted through the so-called lower criticism. The textual critic has two means of establishing a text: external and internal criteria. The external criteria consist of the physical properties of the manuscripts themselves-their material, age, and the style of the script-and the history of the manuscripts. (No autograph text of any biblical author has been found and it is unlikely that any will be.) The extant manuscripts of the Old Testament date only from Christian times, hundreds of years after the time of its original composition. Nevertheless, the evidence of the ancient versions (the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate) and the pre-Masoretic fragments ( see Masora ) that have survived suggests that the standard Hebrew text still extant has been preserved with extraordinary fidelity. The New Testament, on the other hand, is the best-attested text from the past that has been preserved in any tradition. Complete and nearly complete New Testament manuscripts date from the 4th century, and numerous existing fragments were probably copied with-in a century of the original composition of the text. Although literally thousands of variant readings are found among these manuscripts, 90 percent of them involve only incidental matters (such as the substitution of one synonym for another) and present problems that can be solved with relative ease by the textual critic.
In any case, textual critics most depend for their judgments on the internal criteria, which constitute the grounds by which a given manuscript is determined to be authoritative or not. These are simply the commonsense principles on which one variant reading is judged more likely to be original than another. Thus, a shorter variant is generally taken to be superior to a longer one, on the assumption that a copyist is more likely to amplify a text (for clarity or other reasons) than to compress it. Similarly, the more difficult of two or more readings is assumed to have the greater probability of originality, because a scribe's tendency would have been to explain away or resolve interpretative problems rather than create them.
The so-called higher criticism, a further development in the critical study of the Bible, emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, mainly in Germany. By the end of the 19th century it had aroused tremendous opposition from those who considered it an attack on the reliability of Scripture. To some degree this opposition has not yet been overcome, although the great majority of biblical scholars regard higher criticism as the only acceptable method of determining biblical meaning.
The historicoliterary method emphatically raises questions of interpretation and relevance, because it is concerned with such problems as the following: Who wrote the book? On what sources did the author depend? Were the sources reliable? What happened to them in the process of transmission and editing? How has the message of the biblical word been altered through this process? In short, this approach asks the same questions about reliability and attestation that would be asked by anyone attempting to establish the credibility of any verbal or oral assertion from the past.
Historicoliterary criticism has disturbed many people because it revealed that some biblical assertions could not be literally true when judged by impartial history or factual evidence, and that various biblical works could not be the product of those to whom they had traditionally been ascribed. Ironically, this form of criticism is now under attack by some critics who feel that the vitality of the biblical material under study is often obscured during scholarly examination. Form criticism.
A further dimension of the historicoliterary method is form criticism. This approach is based on the assumption that literary statements can be made in different ways. The same event or spectacle may be recorded in the language of poetry or in that of straight factual reporting. Each form has its own kind of validity. Therefore, acknowledging the existence of a diversity of literary forms in the Bible helps in defending biblical "truth" against objections that the Bible often departs from a uniform assertion of simple, sober facts.
Once the literary forms have been identified, the critic then has to ascertain the historical situation, or Sitz im Leben ("life situation"), that gave rise to certain forms. This technique was first applied to the Old Testament, principally by the pioneer German scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932). He tried to group the Genesis stories into etiological narratives, that is, stories that he felt were constructed to explain the origin of features of an existing tradition. For example, he believed that Gen. 9:20-27 explained why the Canaanites were subject to the Israelites. Other passages, he suggested, were included in Genesis to account for names, as in Gen. 25:26, which describes the origin of Jacob's name. He also considered such passages as Gen. 28:10-19 as explanations of the cult legends attached to sacred sites such as Bethel. See also Mythology .
In New Testament exegesis, the same principles have been applied to the study of the formation of the Gospels in the early church. The individual Gospel stories, too, are isolated narratives (variously called "conflict" stories, "pronouncement" stories, or "miracle" stories involving Jesus). Scholars therefore ponder the original purpose of these stories and attempt to find out what they reveal about the church that produced them.
Another aspect of the historicoliterary method that has passed from Old Testament to New Testament criticism is redaction criticism, which is concerned with the role of the editors who worked on a text over a period of time and which examines their procedures and motivation. The Old Testament Torah, the Prophets, and even the Writings (particularly Psalms and Proverbs) have long been known not as the products of single writers but as those of various authors whose work has been homogenized by subsequent authors. This has also proved true of the Gospels. Works once thought to have been the product of a single and identifiable individual (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) are now recognized as the end result of a school, a church, a community, or a person working for the community, who took the common tradition that was available and adapted it to pressing needs.
Redaction criticism simply asserts that biblical meaning developed at various stages in the history of the community of faith that produced the biblical text. The task of the interpreter is to decide to which stage of development the ultimate sense of the text should be assigned. Does one, for example, look for the prophetic word in the words of Amos so far as they can be reconstructed from the redacted work that now exists in the Bible, or does one take the Book of Amos for what it now is in its redacted state-a prophecy of salvation (see Amos 9:11-15) rather than a prediction of inexorable doom? Most commentators prefer to deal with Amos in its earlier, unredacted form. On the other hand, it is generally taken for granted that the Gospels mean what their redactors made them mean, rather than retaining the meaning of the original tradition on which they depended. For the Old Testament, a special problem is created, at least for Christians, by the subsequent development of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Greek Septuagint, which became the Bible for the New Testament and the early church. Even Christian translators and interpreters of the Bible today almost invariably prefer to use the Hebrew, not only as the point of departure for their reconstruction of the biblical text but also for determination of its meaning. Structuralism.
A recent development in literary criticism, structuralism, stresses an approach to the text in its final, finished form and thus veers away from its history. It also explores the Bible's correspondence to the literatures of other cultures, as revealed in the common structures they assumed by telling similar stories in similar ways. Its relevance for interpretation is significant. It attempts to arrive at a universal human psychology and therefore suggests that a text can have a meaning beyond the understanding of its author.