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Biblical Scholarship and its role in interpreting and applying the Bible

So what is biblical scholarship?

The scholastic approach to study of the Bible is called Biblical criticism. The term “criticism” should not be mistaken for criticizing. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language defines literary criticism as: “The practice of analyzing, classifying, interpreting, or evaluating literary or other artistic works.” Biblical criticism, then, studies biblical writings as historical and literary documents rather than as divinely inspired revelations of God. The goal is to make discerning judgments about who wrote them, the times they lived in, and the sources they used in the composition of their writings.

The critical approach to biblical study began when the same tools of investigation applied to the natural sciences were applied to the study of the humanities. A major shift occurred with the development of Renaissance humanism in the fifteenth century, when the humanities began to be regarded as subjects to study, rather than simply read. This included history, literature, and ancient and modern languages.

Scholars attempted to apply scientific inquiry to these fields. Whereas the natural sciences rely on empirical methods, the humanities could only use critical tools. Information about the past had to be systematically collected. The languages of the texts had to be studied.

These new critical approaches to the ancient texts attempted to reconstruct the times in which they were written. The point was to understand ”the world behind the text.”

Biblical criticism arose as these historical critical methods were applied to the Bible. It approached the Bible in the same manner as any other ancient text: as historical and natural documents, rather than divinely inspired revelations of God. By studying them as historical and literary documents  it was hoped to gain a better understanding of 1st Century Christianity. To get as close as possible to the 1st century world out of which these the books and their authors lived.

How is Biblical Criticism helpful?

  • An enormous amount of work has been done in the field of biblical scholarship that brings us closer to the ancient world.

One of the cardinal teachings of the Evangelical Christian community about the Scriptures has maintained that Scripture is our ultimate authority for faith and practice. This authority is based on what the Scriptures **said** as written by writers inspired by the Holy Spirit and not what the scriptures **mean to me** Since what was **said** is determined both by the writer, his readers and the sociohistorical context, and since the contemporary reader is so removed from that context… … [in order to determine what the text said] all who seek a normative witness must use every available literary and historical means to gain a more accurate understanding of what the evangelist **said** – WBC p. xxxv

The three most significant fields of study are textual, historical, and source criticism.

Textual criticism

As more manuscripts were discovered, researchers were able to examine multiple papyri and compare them with each other. New technologies such as ultraviolet and multi-spectral imaging revealed changes made to some manuscripts. It became apparent that over the course of the Bible’s travel from Jerusalem and Rome to today errors had crept into the texts as generations of scribes reproduced each other’s manuscripts.

In most instances, this was little more than the addition, misspelling, or dropping of a word. Scribes may have had trouble seeing the document they were copying, and copied a word incorrectly, or dropped one altogether. Sometimes a scribe reached the end of a line, and accidentally skipped the next one, leaving out an entire sentence.

Other changes were intentional, though not malicious. Some scribes fancied themselves as editors. They corrected events that were historically inaccurate and made sure places were named accurately. They also corrected spelling and grammar as they saw fit.

In some extreme cases scribes made overt attempts to change the text for doctrinal purposes which impacted the meaning of the verses involved for generations after them. A scribe added commentary to 1John 5:7-8 to make the doctrine of the trinity more explicit. And somewhere along the way, an additional ending was added to Mark’s gospel, probably for the purpose of completing what originally seemed an unsatisfactory ending.

Textual criticism developed as a method to trace the history of these errors as they had been introduced into the Bible and attempt to determine the original writing. By meticulous comparison of the manuscripts, researchers could determine words, sentences, and stories that were either redacted or added to what eventually became the official canon.

Textual criticism is also known as lower criticism.

Historical criticism

Historical criticism focuses on finding the place of each book in its original historical context. The historical critic tries to determine who wrote the book, when it was written, and where. This is done by comparing biblical texts with ancient history, contemporary books, and current findings in archaeological studies.

For example, we know the second temple at Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. Because this was such a cataclysmic event, we can approximate the dates some books were written by whether the book shows evidence the author knew about its destruction. Mark’s gospel and the early letters of Paul do not show evidence of experiencing the destruction, while Matthew and Luke’s gospel do. This, along with other evidence, allows us to date Mark’s gospel at around 65-70AD and Paul’s letters to around 50AD. Matthew and Luke’s gospels were likely written around 80-90AD

Another tool is the context of the language used by the author. Robert Alter, in his book “Strong as death is love,” explained why The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah and Daniel can be placed in the Late Biblical period:

Biblical language, like any language changed through time. The temporal distance between the sunset strands of Genesis or the Book of Samuel and these Late Biblical texts is comparable to the distance between Shakespeare and John Updike. Just as in the four centuries separating Shakespeare from Updike the English language underwent profound changes — terms once in common usage replaced by others, palpable modifications of grammar and syntax — the Hebrew through these centuries exhibits a similar set of changes. P. xiv

The historical critic also tries to flesh out the original meaning of texts in their historical context. To ascertain the text’s primitive or original meaning in its original context. We have learned much more about the Bible and its times as we have discovered more and more documents from the 1st-3rd century, especially those of a similar genre. The gospel of Thomas discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945 helps us understand the gospel genre. And the study of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature gives insight to the language and context of the book of Revelation.

Historical criticism is also known as higher criticism.

Source criticism

The final type of scholastic study is Source criticism which tries to determine the original sources of a biblical book.

The similarities between Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels are well known. In the fifth century, St. Augustine claimed the gospels were written chronologically, by order of their listing in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark and Luke, with each author thoughtfully elaborating, or supplementing the work of his predecessors.

This view prevailed until the late eighteenth century, when Johann Jakob Griesbach published a synopsis of the Bible, laying the gospel stories side by side. It was noticed that Matthew and Luke relied heavily on Mark, as opposed to Augustine’s belief that Matthew was the earliest source.

By comparing these gospels with each other, scholars noticed that both Matthew and Luke had access to Mark’s gospel, and used it as a source in their writing. They also contributed their own material: stories and sayings not found in the other gospels. But scholars also found a substantial amount of stories and sayings that Matthew and Luke shared in common, but didn’t get from Mark. Scholars have hypothesized a source document existed which they call the “Q” gospel that both Matthew and Luke drew upon, but was foreign to Mark.

To learn more,

Peter Enns’ interview of Dr. Christopher M. Hays (DPhil, University of Oxford,) author of Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism

Also, the rather unique Quartz Hill School of Theology has an excellent series of articles.

  1. Bible Study Methods and Textual Criticism
  2. Literary Criticism
  3. Redaction Criticism
  4. Form Criticism
  5. Tradition Criticism

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