Biblical criticism

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Biblical criticism applies the standards of critical thinking to questions raised by the Scriptures.

Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, "Inspired by the Divine Spirit"(1943), §23
Being thoroughly prepared by the knowledge of the ancient languages and by the aids afforded by the art of criticism, let the Catholic exegete undertake the task, of all those imposed on him the greatest, that namely of discovering and expounding the genuine meaning of the Sacred Books.

Lower criticism

Textual criticism deals with handwriting analysis, spelling errors, scribal errors, glosses, omissions, doublets, provenance of manuscripts, etc.

The goal of textual criticism is to determine the original version of the scriptures.

There are many subspecialties in this field: handwriting analysis, physical dating of texts, etymology of words, linguistics (grammar, syntax, spelling), development of historical lexicons and dictionaries, classification of families of manuscripts, comparison with non-sacred texts, etc.

Higher criticism

Form criticism

All interpretation of language depends on assessing the form of speech or literary genre (French, "kind" or "type") being employed. It is a serious error to apply the standards of one form when reading something written in a different form.

  • oral vs. written
  • fiction vs. non-fiction
  • poetry (sung or recited) vs. prose
  • first person vs. third person point-of-view
  • contemporary account vs. history derived from sources
  • Indirect uses of language: irony, sarcasm, puns, humor; metaphor and simile; allusions to other texts; juxtaposition; etc.

Special Biblical Genres

Old Testament
  • cosmic myths
  • history
  • law (early forms of Midrash: Haggadah or Halakah)
  • psalm
  • proverb
  • apocalyptic
  • prophecy
  • Wisdom literature (includes some theological fiction like Jonah, Job, Tobit);
New Testament
  • gospel
  • epistle
  • parenesis (comfort)
  • parable
  • hymns
  • sayings of the Lord
  • miracle stories
  • polemic
  • diatribe
  • hyperbole
  • ridicule

Historical criticism

Historical-critical methods apply the standards of academic history to questions about the development of and material in the Scriptures.

Some historical problems

"Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry…how he entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the showbread?" (Mark).
"Except, Abiathar was not the high priest at that time, Abiathar’s father Ahimelech was!"[1]

Redaction criticism

A "redactor" is an editor (from the Latin redigere, re- + agere, to collect or bring back).

Some of the questions raised by redaction criticism:

  • Who assembled the material in its final form?
  • What was the editor thinking of when changes were introduced?
  • What purpose or purposes were served by bringing disparate stories together?

We can only judge a redactor's contribution to the final form of a story when two or more versions of the same story exist. For those who accept the Q-hypothesis, Matthew and Luke redacted (edited) the gospel of Mark. The second ending of the gospel of Mark (16:9-20) looks like a redaction of the Lucan resurrection stories. John 21 seems to be tacked onto the end of the original gospel of John by another author. There is a peculiar relationship between Ephesians and Colossians--one might be a second edition of the other.

Other forms of criticism

The popularity of Biblical criticism has spawned many children: audience criticism, canon criticism, feminist criticism, etc.

Canon criticism poses these kinds of questions:

  • Who decided that the book was canonical (i.e., who decided that it was to be listed as one of the books "inspired by God")?
  • What influenced their choice of this book to become part of the canon?
  • What difference does inclusion or exclusion of various texts make in the interpretation of the remainder of the canon?


The gospels were not written to be read apart from the Church. They were written by the faithful for the faithful. They were intended to be proclaimed and interpreted in the Church. That is their sitz im leben!

The Church teaches that the Scriptures as we have received them are inspired by God in whole and in all their parts. She does not allow us to pick and choose among them, effectively creating a "canon within the canon." The Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, "has spoken through the prophets," not only of the Old Testament but of the New as well. Even though we can see that all of the New Testament authors wrote from different theological perspectives, addressing different audiences and different concerns using different literary techniques, their theology is normative for all subsequent theologies. We are not empowered by biblical criticism to throw away what the Spirit has inspired.

2 Tim 3:15-17

15 From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

Some biblical critics have created a new Magisterium, that of "the consensus of biblical critics." Instead of the old error of Sola Scriptura, they plunge into a new error that might be called "Solo Exegetico," "by the exegete alone."