Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Biblical Criticism

In reading and writing about Peter Enns' The Evolution of Adam, Biblical Criticism comes up and plays a major role.  In order to supplement what I wrote about Dr. Enns's book, I thought it best to present the topic of Biblical Criticism and allow the reader to see briefly what the term means and how it has influenced the work of Enns.  This section is from the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible.
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Biblical Criticism
Biblical criticism is a child of the Enlightenment, an era when it was believed that every human endeavor must appear before the bar of reason and be judged according to its relation to universal truth. Inevitably, the OT and NT were made to appear. 
The purposes for which biblical criticism were used were many and varied. For example, the French prelate Richard Simon (d. 1712) subjected the Bible to critical scrutiny in order to prove that it was not a sufficient rule for faith. The great Jewish philosopher and lens-grinder Benedict Spinoza (d. 1677) applied the critical method to distinguish whatever in the Bible gave rise to dogma, thus to persecution, and whatever in it could be recognized as eternally valid and thus could end religious conflict. Due to his rigorous examination in the Tractatus, Spinoza has been celebrated as the “father” of modern biblical criticism. Johan Salomo Semler (d. 1791), early Protestant biblical critic, applied the discipline to the question of the biblical canon—chiefly in order to detach the OT from the NT, and the orientalist Hermann Samuel Reimarus (d. 1768) used it to distinguish the “system” of Jesus from that of his disciples, intent on fraud.
Initially, the word “criticism” lacked negative connotation. The German term Kritik, for which it served as translation, simply denoted a discrete method of investigation. But owing to the largely negative results at which its advocates arrived, it came to be associated with an attack on the sacred Scriptures, and thus identified as an enemy of faith, an identification still made by some. Others, then as now, have insisted that biblical criticism could be made to serve the ends of faith. In the United States, biblical criticism actually made its advent at the hands of people of faith. Moses Stuart of Andover (d. 1852), representative of the evangelicalism of Jonathan Edwards, was early attracted to German critical scholars, whose works he proceeded to master and interpret for his American readers. Stuart’s approach to the OT and NT earned him the title of “father of biblical science in America.”
If biblical criticism in the 17th and 18th centuries served the ends of the Enlightenment, i.e., to lift out the “universal truths of reason” from the merely historical or “accidental,” in the 19th century it engaged in historical “excavation.” Through advances in archaeology and the deciphering of ancient texts, scholars encountered witnesses to the biblical texts previously unknown, which greatly facilitated approximating those texts to their originals or autographs. The German pietist Johan Albrecht Bengel (d. 1752) proceeded to group the witnesses into “families,” a practice continued by Brooke Foss Westcott (d. 1901) and F. J. Anthony Hort (d. 1892) in England. This “lower” or textual criticism came to be distinguished from the “higher criticism” with its questions touching sources, structures, and religious-historical contexts of the biblical writings. While the more wary restricted themselves to the lower criticism, ultimately the restriction could not guarantee security. The so-called Textus Receptus (“received text”) which had dominated since the 16th century, and on which the orthodox had based their doctrine of verbal inspiration, now fell from favor. The result was elimination of neutrality from the pursuit of the lower criticism.
In the first half of the 19th century, the greatest strides in biblical criticism were made by OT scholars, chiefly in the search for sources underlying the Pentateuch. Following the suspicion of Jewish tradition toward Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch, the French scholar Jean Astruc (d. 1766) elaborated the theory that the patriarch combined two main sources in his composition of Genesis, the one using the divine name Elohim, and the other the name Jehovah. Building on Astruc’s theory, OT scholars arrived at the so-called documentary or Graf-Kuenen-Wellhausen hypothesis, named for its three principal proponents, Karl Heinrich Graf (d. 1869) and Julius Wellhausen (d. 1918) of Germany and Abraham Kuenen (d. 1891) of Holland. According to this theory the final editor of the Pentateuch combined four sources (the Jahvist/Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and the Priestly source, hence: JEDP).
Influenced by their OT colleagues, NT scholars advanced to the problem of the similarity and dissimilarity between the first three Gospels, the “Synoptic problem.” If the Pentateuch resembled a weave of sources distinguished either by their use of the divine names or by their legal or cultic character, the relationship between the NT Gospels urged an analogous source theory. Earlier opting for a single written source (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, d. 1781) or fragments of the Jesus tradition (Friedrich Schleiermacher, d. 1834) behind all four Gospels, scholars came to settle for the theory of literary dependence among the first three (J. K. L. Gieseler, d. 1854), assigning the Fourth Gospel a separate place. According to this “multiple source hypothesis,” Mark’s Gospel was prior and furnished Matthew and Luke with their outline. Matthew and Luke then supplemented what they had gleaned from Mark with a second Synoptic source dubbed “Q” (i.e., Ger. Quelle, “source”). In addition, Mark’s two co-evangelists included material peculiar to each (e.g., in Matthew the visit of the Magi, in Luke the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and two sons).
In the latter half of the 19th century, biblical critics turned in earnest to the question of the Bible’s religious-historical context, and the History of Religions School (Religionsgeschichtliche Schule) was born. For example, the OT scholar Herman Gunkel (d. 1932) attempted to demonstrate the Genesis Creation story’s dependence on Babylonian myth, purged of its polytheistic aspects, while Richard Reitzenstein (d. 1931) asserted the influence of Gnosticism on the NT Christology. Others insisted that Judaism alone furnished the background for understanding the two testaments, and a division among scholars ensued which has persisted to the present. The influence of the History of Religions School has been mixed. Reitzenstein’s idea of a gnostic, pre-Christian “Redeemed Redeemer” as sitting for the NT portrait of the Christ has not endured in face of new evidence or of improvements in the techniques of reading the old evidence. But Gunkel’s study on the Spirit in both testaments as directly contrary to the romantic identification of the Spirit with human consciousness remains axiomatic.
The greatest and best known among biblical critics of the 19th century was Ferdinand Christian Baur (d. 1860) of Tübingen, Germany. Baur, attracted to G. F. W. Hegel’s tracing of the development of the “Absolute Spirit” toward self-realization, set the literature of the NT within the context of a conflict and its final resolution between two parties, the one reflected in the Gospel of Matthew, with its allegedly Jewish, particularistic, and nomistic understanding of the gospel, and the other represented by the “genuine” Pauline epistles (1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans) with their universalistic, law-free gospel. Baur’s assessment of each NT book as reflecting the various stages of this conflict and its resolution has been discarded or corrected, but his insistence on interpreting the NT in its historical context has remained a principal rule of interpretation.
Prior to World War I biblical research consisted largely of “source criticism.” From the Astrucs, Grafs, Kuenens, and Wellhausens, to the Lessings, Schleiermachers, and Gieselers, and the hundreds between and following affirming or denying, scholars concentrated on questions respecting literary origins. Now, attention was given the shape of the biblical text prior to its assuming written form, and on its reflecting the “situation-in-life” (Sitz im Leben) of the community in which it had made its home. The name of the new method was “form criticism.”
In a famous 1938 essay (“Das formgeschichtliche Problem des Hexateuchs”), Gerhard von Rad of Heidelberg (d. 1971) attempted to demonstrate that the first six books of the OT rested upon “historical credos” or rehearsals of the saving deeds of God which had taken on stereotyped, “canonical” form to give shape and content to Israel’s worship. Von Rad went on to fix the times and places in which these creeds originated. Those which reflected the promise of the land had their origin where the question of its possession was acute, at Gilgal near Jericho, in the time of Samuel and Saul; those which reflected the giving of the law had their “situation-in-life” at Shechem, during the coalition of the 12 tribes.
The principal pioneers in NT form criticism were Karl Ludwig Schmidt (d. 1956), Martin Dibelius (d. 1947), and Rudolf Bultmann (d. 1976). Schmidt and Dibelius cautiously proceeded with the isolating of individual units of the Gospel tradition, presumably husbanded in the oral period for preaching purposes, while Bultmann believed the method enabled him to determine the genuineness or nongenuineness of a given unit of the tradition. In The History of Synoptic Tradition, he concluded that the entire Jesus tradition had undergone revision before being committed to writing, having taken on accretions in analogy with the evolution of traditions in nonbiblical circles. Conservative scholars registered alarm, adhering strictly to the “safer” source criticism, or contented themselves with the purely phenomenological task, classifying the various units of the gospel tradition. In the United States, Benjamin Wisner Bacon’s (d. 1932) The Beginnings of Gospel Story (1909) anticipated form-critical analysis on the continent, and gave stimulus to the “social environment research” of the University of Chicago.
Close on the heels of form criticism followed redaction criticism, which concentrated on the question of authorial intent. If form criticism inquired after the “life” of a text prior to its assuming written form, redaction criticism inquired after the life of that text once it had come into an author’s hands. Redaction criticism also had its precursors. In their work on the Gospels, Bacon, Wellhausen, and William Wrede (d. 1906) had already wrestled with the question of the degree to which an author’s theological perspective affected his arrangement of the traditional material. And, as was also the case with form criticism, the method was honed and sharpened to a point its forebears may not have recognized.
Partner to every stage in the evolution of biblical criticism has been “The Quest of the Historical Jesus.” In fact, inquiry into the life and career of Jesus of Nazareth as an object apart from faith has often served the critic as ultimate goal. In the 18th century, Reimarus believed that his method uncovered a purpose of Jesus antithetical to that of his disciples, and which they vainly intended to obscure, as witness the massive contradictions in the Gospels. In the early 19th century, David Friedrich Strauss (d. 1874) of Tübingen attempted to peel away from the story of Jesus the layers of myth and legend derived from Judaism and Hellenistic thought. Critics of the later 19th century heralded Markan priority and “Q” as the two great pillars on which to base an authentic life of Jesus. This confidence later shattered on the realization that each Gospel was written from a discrete theological perspective which made distinguishing the message of Jesus from that of his community impossible. In a celebrated review, Albert Schweitzer (d. 1965) declared this “first,” 19th-century quest of the historical Jesus bankrupt, and concluded with a line whole generations have committed to memory:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. (The Quest of the Historical Jesus)
The 20th century has witnessed a resumption of life-of-Jesus research. Bultmann’s investigation of the development of Gospel tradition had led him to outlaw the Quest and to give priority to the proclamation or kerygma of the primitive community, devoid of any material link to the historical Jesus. The result was revolt from all sides. Ernst Käsemann (1906–) fired the first volley with his 1954 essay, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus.” He insisted that skepticism need not have the last word; that, e.g., the Sermon on the Mount reflected a clear and unequivocal reflection of the historical Jesus’ consciousness of himself and his mission. Käsemann’s essay was followed by a host of others. A “second” quest came into being which would occupy scholars in North America and abroad for more than 30 years. More recently, a “third” quest of the historical Jesus has come into vogue. Less disciplined than the “first” or “second” in terms of the use of accepted tools, it is more radical in its distancing the historical Jesus from the proclamation of the Christian community.
The 1950s formed the high-water mark of confidence in historical method. From that time scholars began to reflect malaise over the conflicting and at times absurd results to which biblical criticism had led, thus over the total absence of consensus in even the least arguable matters, and called for radical revision or even abandonment of traditional methods.
The consequences for text (lower) criticism have been the least dramatic, however irritating to persons schooled in traditional methods. For example, the grouping of texts into families has been abandoned in favor of the “local-genealogical” method. Once it has established the variety of witnesses to a given text or passage, this method subjects each witness to scrutiny, line by line, sentence by sentence, to determine which witness might have given birth to the other.
The result for the earlier labeled higher criticism has been a congeries of methods, intent on supplementing or replacing methods of the past. The “structuralist” method is concerned with the “synchronic” as opposed to the “diachronic” aspects of the text. Occupied with the logic of an entire narrative rather than of a given sentence, it inquires into how an author appears in his text and sets his readers into it. The “oral history” method treats the move from “orality” to textuality as sacrificing a “metaphysics of presence,” and inquires into the social and psychological upheaval such a move reflects. Another reading convention pays exclusive attention to the text, rejecting all exclusive criticism and attention to an author’s goal as an “intentional fallacy.” A related method denies to words any referents beyond themselves, concerning itself solely with the intratextual relations of words, with whatever meaning may be gleaned from observing the connection between signifiers, exclusive of what they signify. “Reader-response criticism” describes the relation of the text to the reader, rejecting the text’s autonomy in favor of its dependence upon the reader’s participation. According to some, reading not merely discovers the meaning of a text but actually creates it, to the effect that the reader or interpreter constitutes the text. Not to be ignored is the “feminist” reading, which examines the biblical text for reflecting or inhibiting women’s lives and concerns. In contrast with earlier periods, much of contemporary biblical criticism takes its lead from a community of scholars outside the theological disciplines. In the United States, names of humanities scholars appear with regularity in essays, monographs, and volumes dealing with biblical criticism and interpretation. In fact, a considerable amount of contemporary biblical criticism is Anglo-American in character, since criticism in Europe still gives large room to traditional methods.[1]





[1] Harrisville, R. A. (2000). Biblical Criticism. In D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers & A. B. Beck (Eds.), Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers & A. B. Beck, Ed.) (183–186). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.