Methods of Biblical Criticism

Methods of Biblical Criticism

Modern scholars use the following methods in their study of the Bible in order to better understand the meaning of the text, the history of its composition, its relationship to the wider world of the ancient Near East, and the way that the text has functioned in various faith communities.

Canonical Criticism

  • Study of the final, received (canonical) text rather than the smaller, individual traditions and sources that were joined together over time to make up the text. (Contrast with Form Criticism, below.)

  • Because the Bible, like most religious texts, is the sacred scripture of an actual religious community (or communities), canonical criticism often focuses on the relationship between the ideas in the text and the theological and religious issues of the community.

Form Criticism

  • Assumes the Bible is composed from older, often oral, literary units, and attempts to isolate those units.

  • Units that make up the final text include prayers and psalms, aphorisms and proverbs, genealogies, narratives about ancient heroes, and legal codes.

  • Tries to place these units into a specific Sitz im Leben (“setting-in-life”) in order to understand how they might originally have functioned.

Historical Criticism

  • Considered by many the standard methodology of scholarly biblical studies.

  • Attempts to recover the original setting and meaning of texts, using methods of historical inquiry common to other academic fields.

  • Methods include study of questions such as “Who wrote the text?”, “When was the text written?”, and “What does the text reveal about the society in which it was written?”

Literary Criticism

Applies many of the standard tools of modern literary studies to the Bible, such as studies of plot, narrative devices, and character development.

Redaction Criticism

Attempts to uncover the work of the final editors (redactors) responsible for arranging the different sources into a single work in order to learn about their interests.

Source Criticism

Attempts to separate and analyze the different sources that were brought together to create a text.

Textual Criticism

  • Attempts to establish the most reliable and logical biblical text by consulting different manuscripts and accounting for (and sometimes correcting) intentional and unintentional mistakes and obscurities.

  • Sometimes called “lower criticism” to distinguish it from the “higher criticism” of interpreting the text.

Tradition Criticism

Attempts to analyze the smaller textual units that have been grouped together in order to understand traditions about important places or people, such as those about holy sites, great leaders, and ancestors.