REL 113: Old Testament Faith and History.  Handout on “Biblical Criticism.”  RJDKnauth

A fuller discussion of all of this may be found in Friedman, in Hill ch. 1 and appendix, and in Anderson ch.1 (pp. 18-27), on reserve.

Modern biblical scholarship seeks to answer a number of different questions about the biblical texts:
        Who would have written this and why?  Who benefits from such a text?
        What was its historical background?  Out of what cultural context did it arise? 
     Why was it preserved?  How was it shaped over time?

In answering these, various different approaches are used, most generally grouped under the label “Historical-Critical Method.”

1.        Textual Criticism:  What was the “original” (final/canonical) text, based on the various existing versions?

2.        Literary/Source Criticism (Wellhausen):  When and by whom and for what purpose was the text originally written down?

3.        Form Criticism (Gunkel, Mowinkle): What oral precursors are discernable behind the text? What was its “life-setting”? Genre?

4.        Tradition Criticism: What was the process by which this tradition was passed down and shaped through history?


5.        Redaction Criticism: When and by what process (of collecting and editing) did it reach its final literary form?


6.        Rhetorical/Literary Criticism: What are its literary forms, structures and themes? How does it function to accomplish its purpose?


7.        Canonical Criticism (Childs): How, why, when did this text gain ‘canonical’ status as a sacred text? How does it function as such?

The final job of the scholar is Interpretation: What was the meaning of the text to its original audience?  Or what was its original intended meaning?  Answering these questions involves linguistic issues, historical background provided by archaeological data, related historical texts, comparative cultural background of surrounding peoples, theological issues, and questions of literary genre and form.  A further question of Application may then ask what this text may mean to us today.  This should be done carefully on the basis of the above.

The above represents the questions that the scholar needs to bring to the text in figuring out how to interpret it.

Below we will follow the process by which the text takes shape, noting the categories affected.  Note there is considerable overlap.

                The Hebrew scriptures took shape slowly over the course of millennia.  It began with diverse oral traditions arising from many different life settings.  There were many traditional hymns, prayers, blessings, credos and ritual pronouncements from religious settings.  There were traditional laws and lawsuit formulae from the court milieu.  There were traditional proverbs and wisdom sayings, riddles, jokes, and parables.  There were traditional stories about ancestors and legendary heroes.  There were traditional stories connected with certain places, or explaining certain recurrent phenomena.  There were remembered genealogies and lists of relatives.  There were poems and ballads and traditional laments – and much more.  Form Criticism seeks to understand the different genres, forms and life-settings of each.  Tradition Criticism seeks to understand how all of these traditions developed over time. 

                At a certain point then (possibly when the original function or setting of the tradition was changed such that it was feared the tradition might otherwise be lost), various of these traditions were collected within their settings and written down.  In the case of the Pentateuch, Literary Critics have discerned four major literary sources which have been later combined to make up what we now know as the Pentateuch.  According to this theory, in the 10th century BCE (during the United Monarchy, ca. 950), a sort of national history was put together in the southern part of Israel – beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the point of entry into the land of Israel, or possibly on into the institution of the monarchy and the building of the first temple (“J”).  In the 8th century BCE (after the split into northern and southern kingdoms but before the fall of the North, ca. 750 BCE) a similar epic history of national origins was created in the new northern kingdom of Israel (“E”).  After the fall of the northern kingdom (ca. 700 BCE), these two epics were combined into one, using “J” as the basis but supplemented by “E” when there were significant differences or when the topic was not already covered by “J” (“J/E”).  According to Friedman, “P” was formed shortly after this in the time of Hezekiah to present an alternative “Priestly” version of the “Epic,” supplemented by older collections of legal material, rituals, lists of various kinds, and other materials to which he had access.  The core of the book of Deuteronomy (“D”) was still a separate unit, rediscovered during the time of Josiah (ca. 650 BCE), when its basic principles were used as the basis for writing a major national history using various royal “annals” (the “Deuteronomistic History:” Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings), beginning with the conquest of Canaan and ending with Josiah.  This history was then extended and re-edited during the exile.  According to Friedman, Jeremiah the prophet was responsible for both writing and editing this history, using the royal “Annals” and other sources.  Also during the exile (6th century – ca. 538 BCE), a Priestly Redactor thoroughly edited and reshaped the collection of writings which became the Pentateuch, beginning with “P,” which he edited in respectful ways, combining it with the “J/E” epic, and adding some new material as well, providing a basic framework for the whole, to which an edited version of Deuteronomy was appended, forming the full Pentateuch  or Torah (the “Law of Moses:” Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).  In the meantime, separate collections of prophetic writings and wisdom writings were also being formed.  During the restoration period, a second major history was written from this new perspective, based on earlier written sources (the “Chronicler’s History:” Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah). 

Source Criticism seeks to understand the original sources as they were first written down; Redaction Criticism seeks to understand the process of collecting and editing which brought them to their final form.  All of these various writings were eventually collected together into a (more or less) set canon, and given sacred status.  Canonical Criticism seeks to understand the function of these texts, in their final form, for the covenant community. 

Textual Criticism seeks to determine the original text from among several variant manuscripts and ancient translations, resulting from a slow development of several textual traditions in geographical isolation from each other, as explained below.

After the Restoration, there emerged three major Judaean communities, each of which guarded these collected traditions independently:  one in Babylon (where many remained following the exile), one in Egypt (to which many had fled at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 BCE), and one in Jerusalem (as re-built during the Restoration).  The textual traditions preserved by each of these communities in the three widely separated locations then developed independently, with slight divergences in respect to what material was included, as well as some continued editorial activity and not a few inadvertent errors which were then passed on.

                In Egypt, around 200 BCE, a Greek translation of the Hebrew tradition preserved there was made, known as the Septuagint (LXX), which also contained what we now call the “Apocryphal” books.  The translation was necessary because Greek (and Aramaic) had become the common language of the people, and the community was beginning to lose its ability to understand the Hebrew text.  As far as we can tell, it was the LXX that was most commonly in use in the Roman Palestine of Jesus’ day, and most often quoted in the New Testament.  It is also the basis for the Orthodox Bible.  Although the LXX was later edited on the basis of the Hebrew traditions preserved in Babylon and Jerusalem, it preserves much of the distinct tradition passed down within the Jewish community in Egypt.  During this period of the diaspora and on down to the time of the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E., all three of these traditions were preserved – often side by side – among the Jewish people in Israel, as shown by their inclusion among the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). Other early translations into Latin and Aramaic (the Targums and the Peshitta or Samaritan Pentateuch) were also made, some of which are still preserved in some form. 

Around 90 C.E. at the council of Jamnia, following the destruction of the second temple, a standard Hebrew text was established, choosing among these three existing traditions, but most heavily relying upon the tradition preserved in Babylon.  This has become known as the Massoretic Text (MT), which has been preserved with the addition of vowel indicators but otherwise with very little change until this very day (although, until the discovery of the DSS, the earliest manuscripts of this text type dated from 1000 C.E.).  The MT does not include what we call the “Apocryphal” books. 

In 400 C.E. Jerome made a full Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, based primarily on the MT, but supplementing it with the LXX material not contained in the MT (e.g. the apocryphal writings), and following the LXX ordering.  It was the Vulgate which then became the standard within the Roman Catholic Church, thus including the apocrypha.  The Jewish tradition, meanwhile, kept to the MT which excludes the apocrypha and also uses a somewhat different ordering of books (as in the JPS version).  The Protestant tradition, when it broke away from the Catholic, decided to make its new translations on the basis of the MT as well (which Jerome himself had praised as having greater sanctity).  Thus Luther set the apocryphal books aside as a separate section, while the King James Version excluded them altogether.  Yet both kept the ordering of Jerome’s Vulgate as over against the Jewish ordering.  Many modern protestant translations do include the apocryphal writings as a separate addendum at the end (as in the Harper-Collins NRSV).  Aside from this issue of whether or not to include the apocryphal books, the various English translations differ in how much weight they place on the MT vs. the LXX when these two major texts diverge.  Then there are the other versions such as the Targums, the Samaritan Pentateuch and the DSS, which may have other variant readings for a particular passage.  The process of discerning the best candidate for the original text from among these various versions is known as Textual Criticism, and is the first job of a scholar looking to analyze a particular passage. 

Looking at a number of different English translations, as well as a good commentary, can give you a clue as to the issues involved here for any particular passage. 

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