The Glossary of Terms

Biblical criticism


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

biblical criticism, the study and investigation of biblical writings that seeks to make discerning and discriminating judgments about these writings. The term ‘criticism’ is derived from the Greek word krino, which means ‘to judge,’ ‘to discern,’ or to be discriminating in making an evaluation or forming a judgment. It has come to refer to a form of inquiry whose purpose is to make discriminating judgments about literary and artistic productions. Thus, we speak of literary criticism, art criticism, music criticism, or film criticism as disciplines or fields of inquiry whose purpose is to review productions in their respective areas in order to discuss and appraise their significant features and judge their lasting worth.

Generally speaking, the questions asked in biblical criticism have to do with the preservation and transmission of the biblical text, including in what manuscripts the text has been preserved, their date, setting, and relationship to each other, and what the most reliable form of the text is; the origin and composition of the text, including when and where it originated, how, why, by whom, for whom, and in what circumstances it was produced, what influences were at work in its production, and what sources were used in its composition; and the message of the text as expressed in its language, including the meaning of the words as well as the way in which they are arranged in meaningful forms of expression.

Textual Criticism: The aim of this field of biblical criticism is to establish the original wording or form of the biblical text insofar as this is possible. Even with modern printing technology, what an author sends to the printer and what is actually printed may differ. When we recognize a typographical error on a printed page, or note an obvious omission or transposition of a word or phrase, realize that this could not have been the author’s intention, and mentally correct the text, we are engaging in textual criticism.

In dealing with ancient texts, it is more difficult to determine what an author actually wrote for several reasons. First, ancient texts were written and copied by hand, and this increased the likelihood that changes in the text could occur. As ancient scribes copied these manuscripts, either by transcribing a written text or by copying a text as it was read aloud by a reader, they sometimes copied the same word or phrase twice, omitted words or phrases, misspelled words, heard one thing and wrote another, heard incorrectly what was read, or made changes they thought would improve the text in some way. As a result, the various copies of surviving texts differ in their actual wording.

Second, whereas with modern texts it is usually possible to check the printed copy against the author’s manuscript, this is not possible with ancient biblical texts. In no case has the author’s original text, the autograph copy, been preserved. What have survived are copies of the original (or, more accurately, copies of copies), translations of the original into other languages, and quotations of the original by later authors. Quite often, these were written many years, even centuries, later. During this intervening period, numerous changes occurred, not only in the wording but also in the form of the text. In some cases, entire sections of the original have been lost, and thus what remains is incomplete. Or, in other cases, perhaps only portions of the original text have been preserved, often because only certain passages have been quoted by other authors.

It is the task of textual criticism to collect and study these various writings in which a text has been preserved, determine the changes that have occurred in the wording and arrangement of the text, assess the significance of such changes, and restore, if possible, the original wording or form of the text. If this is not possible, one must decide on the best or most reliable wording and try to account for the historical process through which the text has been changed. In every case, textual criticism seeks to establish a reliable text that can serve as the basis for serious study and reflection.

Sometimes textual criticism is referred to as ‘lower criticism,’ as opposed to other fields of inquiry concerning the text that are called ‘higher criticism.’ It is ‘lower’ not because it is less important but because it is foundational to other forms of inquiry.

Historical Criticism: Every biblical writing arose in a particular historical setting or perhaps even developed over time in one or more historical settings. Consequently, a biblical writing may be said to have a history of its own, which includes its time and place of composition, the circumstances in which it was produced or written, its author or authors (whether an actual author, editor, or group of editors), how it came to be written, and the audience(s) to which it was addressed. The process through which one attempts to reconstruct the historical situation out of which a writing arose and how it came to be written is one of the main tasks of historical criticism.

A crucial part of determining the history of a text is to establish its date of composition. Sometimes, this is possible because of explicit references in the text itself (e.g., Isa. 1:1; 6:1; Jer. 1:1-3). More often, the text contains no clear indication of its date and this must be determined indirectly, usually through the use of external sources, such as archaeological evidence or nonbiblical writings from the same period that provide reliable evidence for dating persons or events mentioned in the text. For example, the discovery of an inscription that mentions Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12-17), has made it possible to date Paul’s first visit to Corinth in a.d. 51-52 (Acts 18:1-18; 1 Cor. 2:1-5). This has provided valuable evidence not only for dating 1 and 2 Corinthians, but also for establishing NT chronology as a whole.

Historical criticism has also made it possible to see that some biblical writings were written much later than the time of the events depicted in the work. The book of Daniel describes events in Israel’s history that occurred as early as the sixth century b.c., but the book was actually composed much later, during the Hellenistic period (mid-second century b.c.). Through historical critical analysis, the book of Isaiah is now seen to reflect at least two historical periods, the first part (chaps. 1-39) stemming from an eighth-century pre-exilic situation, the second part (chaps. 40-66) a sixth-century exilic or even postexilic situation.

The place of composition, or provenance of the writing, also figures prominently in historical criticism. The general provenance of all the biblical writings is the Mediterranean basin, especially the eastern part, including Egypt, Palestine, Babylon, Syria, and Asia Minor. In some cases, it may even be possible to locate a writing in a given region or city (e.g., Ezek. 1:1-3; Rev. 1:9-11). Knowing the geographical region in which a writing arose may help in understanding the political and social situation better and thereby serve to clarify certain features of the text.

Another major concern of historical criticism is authorship, including both the identity of the author and the author’s method of composition. A writing may be anonymous (e.g., Genesis, the Gospels, Hebrews), but quite often within the text itself the writing is attributed to a named person (e.g., Deut. 1:1-3; Isa. 1:1; Jer. 1:1; Ezek. 1:3; Hos. 1:1; Joel 1:1; Amos 1:1; the Pauline Letters [e.g., Rom. 1:1]; James 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1; Rev. 1:1, 4, 9). Some biblical writings are pseudonymous, that is, they were written in one period but attributed to an illustrious figure of an earlier period (e.g., Ecclestiastes, Song of Solomon, Isa. 40-66; the pastoral Letters).

Many biblical writings are composite works, either because various sayings or writings of a single author have been collected and edited into a single work (e.g., most of the shorter prophetic books perhaps; John, Romans, 2 Corinthians, Philippians) or because the works of several authors or editors have been edited together into a single work (e.g., the Pentateuch, Isaiah). To be sure, some writings were written by a single author in one particular time and place (e.g., Philemon).

Closely related to authorship is the question of the sources that have been employed in the composition of a biblical work. So important has this stage of investigation been that it has emerged as a subdiscipline of historical criticism in its own right and is referred to as source criticism.

Biblical source criticism was first systematically employed in the eighteenth century, when it was discovered that the Pentateuch was based on at least two separate documentary sources (J and E), distinguishable by their consistent use of separate divine names, Yahweh (Jahveh in German) and Elohim. Further investigation eventually led to the detection of two additional sources, one reflecting a priestly outlook (P), the other a Deuteronomic outlook (D). From this emerged the consensus view that the Pentateuch, rather than being of Mosaic authorship or even the work of a single individual, such as Joshua, was actually a composite work based on at least four separate literary sources.

Once it was established that biblical writings had their own history of composition, source criticism was extended to other books. One of the clearest instances of this is the way in which the Chronicler, the editor of 1 and 2 Chronicles, utilized the earlier biblical writings of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings as sources for his work.
Similar methods of historical analysis came to be applied to the NT writings as well, especially the Gospels. In the nineteenth century, the Gospel of Mark came to be generally regarded as the earliest written Gospel and was seen as a literary source upon which the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were based. This led to the proposal that Matthew and Luke had used a second source, designated as Q (German Quelle, ‘source’), which contained material common to them but absent in Mark. This became known as the Two-Source Hypothesis and is still widely used to explain the interrelationship of the synoptic Gospels. Source analysis was also extended to other parts of the NT, most notably John and Acts, but with less assured results.

Also closely related to authorship is audience: to whom was the work addressed? This may be clearly stated (e.g., Deut. 1:1; Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1; the Pauline Letters; Rev. 1:4, 11) or remain unstated (e.g., Genesis, the other Gospels, Hebrews). It is not simply a matter of identifying the addressees but trying to determine the circumstances that existed between them and the author that prompted the writing.

Literary Criticism: If historical criticism is concerned with the historical circumstances in which a text was written, literary criticism is concerned with the text as a finished piece of writing. The questions here are not so much how the text came to be written or what we can know from outside the text to account for what is in it, but what we can learn from what is said in the text itself. In this sense, the text constitutes a ‘world’ in its own right and as such serves as an object of investigation in all its aspects.

The study of the language of a text includes looking at the words of the text and their various meanings or shades of meaning. Various disciplines of learning, such as philology and lexicography, provide essential tools for such analysis. Individual words, however, are not the sole vehicles through which meaning is expressed. Words are arranged in larger units or patterns of meaning ranging from phrases to sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and sections. To analyze these, it is often necessary to examine the grammar of a language, which includes the arrangement of words (syntax) and how their forms are changed (inflection or accidence). At this level of investigation, literary criticism is helpful in noting various patterns of sentence structure, such as parallelism (a b a« b«) or chiasm (a b b« a«).

Closely related to the use of language is the literary style reflected in the text. Quite obviously, the vocabulary used in the text reflects this, whether the words are simple, well-known words or whether they are more complex, less familiar words. Not only the choice of words but how they are arranged and the effect they achieve contributes to literary style. In judging a text, one might ask whether the style is sophisticated or ordinary, calm or excited, narrative or argumentative.

Literary criticism also recognizes the existence of a variety of literary forms or genres in which a biblical text may be written. In some instances, entire books belong to a single genre, such as historical narrative (1 Samuel), poetry (Psalms), wisdom (Job), prophetic oracle (Amos), Gospel (Matthew), letter (Romans), or apocalypse (Revelation). Yet within these larger works are found smaller literary forms: creation myths; genealogies; narratives relating the stories of individual figures, such as Abraham or Joseph; legal codes; testaments; psalms; proverbs; prophetic oracles; miracle stories; parables; prayers; hymns; exhortations; and warnings. This list is not comprehensive, but it does suggest that the Bible, rather than being a single literary genre, contains many genres and subgenres.

Why is it important to classify biblical texts according to their literary form? First, the literary form of a text is often a clue to its meaning. For example, how we interpret Genesis 1-3 depends on whether it is read as a creation myth, allegory, or scientific history. The meaning we see in a text often derives from our prior judgment about its literary form. Second, the literary form is often a clue to its life setting. If we recognize that a text is in the form of a hymn, this allows us to relate it to the liturgical setting out of which it arose. Third, properly recognizing a literary form enables us to compare the text with similar literary forms in both biblical and nonbiblical writings. Such comparison often enables us to see things in a text we would otherwise miss.

Another area of study is the unity and integrity of a text. As noted earlier, historical criticism often investigates this question, but it is also an important concern of literary criticism. In looking at a finished piece of writing, the literary critic must often judge whether it is a unified whole or a composite work, whether certain portions (interpolations) were added earlier or later, and whether they all stem from the original author.

Literary criticism also asks questions that would be appropriate to interpreting any literary work, especially narrative. These would include questions about character, such as how characters are portrayed in the text, how they interact with each other, how they develop through the narrative. One may also analyze the plot, asking how the plot or story line is developed, how tension is introduced into the narrative, and how it is resolved, if at all. Another concern is the literary mood of the text, and one might ask what emotions the text is intended to elicit from readers. Literary critics have also analyzed biblical texts in terms of the literary perspective of the writing: whether the writing, especially narrative, is written by a participant in the story or by an outside observer; or whether the author is sympathetic, unsympathetic, or neutral with respect to the story that is told.

Form Criticism: This is a hybrid of historical and literary criticism. It begins with the recognition that a particular biblical text, or a portion of that text, may have a history of its own, independent of the larger work in which it is located. This ‘prehistory’ may include both oral and written stages. The text may have originally circulated in oral form and may have gone through several stages of oral development. Then it may have been written down and possibly have gone through several written versions before it finally appeared in the biblical text.

Reconstructing this process of development is known as tradition history. This is possible because in some instances the same biblical text occurs in different parts of the Bible in different forms (e.g., the Decalogue in Exod. 20:1-17; Deut. 5:6-21; cf. Exod. 34:17-26). We may surmise that these different forms reflect different stages of use and development within the communities in which they were used.

Form criticism also employs literary criticism as well. Combined with this recognition of the prehistory of a text is literary analysis, which classifies various parts of the biblical writings into literary forms, or literary genres. Usually, the focus here is on smaller literary units within a larger writing rather than on the entire book itself. This type of literary analysis was first systematically applied to the Psalms, which were classified according to distinct literary forms, such as enthronement psalms (e.g., Pss. 2, 110) or individual laments (e.g., Pss. 22, 130). But along with this literary classification (what is the literary form of the text?) went historical analysis (in what life setting did the Psalm originate?). This close connection between the form of the text and its life setting led to a completely new way of interpreting the Psalms as well as understanding the worship of Israel.

Similar methods of analysis were later applied to the Gospels, beginning in the early part of the twentieth century. Here, too, literary and historical analysis were combined in examining the smaller literary units of the Gospels. Systematic efforts were made to classify the Gospels into literary forms. Basically, two types of material were detected: narrative material and sayings material. Narrative material includes those passages that relate stories about Jesus, including the entire Passion narrative, but also individual stories in which he performs a miracle (miracle stories, makes a pronouncement (pronouncement stories), or in which he is the center of a divine action (legends). The sayings material includes all the words and sayings attributed to Jesus, such as one-line pronouncements, parables, prayers, sermons, proverbs, and wisdom sayings.

Closely related to this literary classification of the Gospel materials was historical analysis. As was the case in the form-critical analysis of the Psalms, here too it was recognized that any particular saying or story might have had its own prehistory in which it originated and circulated in oral form and was transmitted through several oral and written stages until it reached its final written form in the Gospel text. As with the Psalms, a central concern is to determine the particular circumstances in which the story or saying originated, whether its ‘life setting’ had to do with preaching, worship, teaching, or polemical argument.

Here again, we see the close correlation between historical and literary analysis. In form criticism, one determines the literary form of the text, tries to reconstruct the historical process or stages of development through which it passed before it reached its final literary form, and in doing so attempts to correlate it with a particular life setting. As this is done, our understanding of the text increases and various aspects of its meaning become clearer.

Eventually, form-critical analysis was also applied to other parts of the NT, most notably the Letters. Here too, smaller units were analyzed with a view to reconstructing their prehistory, but because it is not so easy to establish a clear chronological sequence for tracing stages of development, as is the case with the synoptic Gospels, the results have been less successful.

The overall effect of form criticism was to focus on the smaller units of the biblical writings. Less attention was given to individual authors or editors who compiled the final literary edition, and more emphasis was placed on the community as a formative influence in shaping and preserving the material. For the Gospels, this meant that they were seen as collections of smaller units, and the authors came to be regarded as editors who collected the materials together into a rather loose narrative framework.

Redaction Criticism: This was a direct outgrowth of form criticism and provided an important corrective. As a further refinement of form criticism, it too combines both literary and historical criticism and proceeds on many of the same assumptions. The crucial word here is ‘redaction,’ which applies to the way in which a text or tradition has been redacted or edited. To engage in redaction criticism, one must be able to separate at least two stages of development in the use of a text. This is clearly the case in 1 and 2 Chronicles, where materials from 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings have been appropriated and re-edited by the Chronicler. The redaction critic’s task is to analyze the individual instances where the editor has redacted an earlier text or tradition, assess the overall significance of such changes, and interpret these in the light of the editor’s literary and theological purpose.

Redaction criticism has also been fruitfully applied to the Gospels, because of the possibility of arranging them in chronological order and positing stages of development. With Mark serving as the earliest Gospel and as the source upon which Matthew and Luke draw, the redaction critic can analyze the points at which Matthew and Luke have redacted Mark. The particular emphasis of the redaction critic is to isolate the precise points at which the tradition or text has undergone changes at the hands of an editor, or redactor, and from these to try to determine the theological motivations for the changes.

If such analysis is carried out for a Gospel as a whole, it is possible to establish theological tendencies that occur repeatedly enough to be seen as major themes or preoccupations of the author. For this reason, redaction criticism is less concerned with the smaller literary units and the role of the community in shaping these units, but more concerned with the total effect achieved through the cumulative redaction of the materials at the Evangelist’s disposal. Accordingly, redaction criticism has resulted in a renewed appreciation of the individual authors as theologians in their own right rather than as simply scissors-and-paste editors who loosely stitched together individual literary units into a narrative framework.

Canonical Criticism: This more recent type of biblical criticism builds on the results of earlier methods. Unlike them, however, it places greater emphasis on the final form of the canonical text. It is less interested in the stages of development that led up to the writing of the text or even the various literary aspects of a writing. It seeks to take more seriously the fact that the Bible is a collection of canonical writings regarded as sacred and normative in two communities of faith, Israel and the church.

This emphasis on the canonical form of the biblical text implies several things. First, the biblical writings possess another dimension, one that may not have been there when the text was originally composed but one it has acquired nevertheless. Even if a writing was composed without the initial intention or ex pectation that it would eventually become normative for Israel or the church, the fact that it acquired this status means that it must be read from this added perspective. In interpreting the text, readers must not only ask historical and literary questions about the text, but also how and why the text has addressed communities of faith. Their canonical status means that the texts have acquired a universal audience—communities of faith in every age and place who read them not simply to ask what their original authors intended but what they are saying to the living community of faith in the present.

Second, as part of a collection of biblical writings, a book acquires a canonical context. It is no longer read in isolation but along with the other biblical witnesses in all their variety. As such, it is no longer a single voice to be heard alone but stands as part of a chorus of voices to be heard along with the rest. Interpreters can no longer inquire solely into the message of a single text but must investigate this message as part of the entire canonical message, the sum total of all the canonical witnesses heard together.

See also a topical index on biblical criticism at:


All glossary terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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