Diachronic interpretation is a general designation for methods that seek to determine the stages and processes by which biblical texts developed into their present forms. Part of the broader “historical-critical method,” diachronic (lit., “through time”) interpretation focuses on the traditions, sources, and strata that may underlie the text, as well as the different phases of composition and editing through which it emerged. In recent years, diachronic interpretation has included renewed interest in the final form of biblical books as whole literary compositions.

The major methods that have constituted diachronic interpretation are source criticism, form criticism, tradition criticism, and redaction criticism. The perspective represented by these methods should be distinguished from synchronic interpretation, which foregrounds elements of the text’s final form and concerns of readers and the reading process. Even so, recent scholarship increasingly recognizes that the distinction between diachronic and synchronic approaches has often been overdrawn (see Assessment and Contribution later). John Barton (2007, p. 44) contends that diachronic interpreters throughout the twentieth century were often interested in the text’s final literary shape and have been driven by an essentially literary goal—to find the level at which a text has literary coherence when such coherence is not present on the surface of the text’s final form. Additionally, the diachronic methods considered here should be distinguished from other historically oriented modes of study that nonetheless do not focus extensively on questions of the text’s origins and development through time. These include historical criticism generally, which has sought to use the biblical texts as evidence to reconstruct historical events and to locate the texts within particular historical settings. Likewise, the “history of religions” approach, which studies comparative ancient Near Eastern religious texts; the “social-scientific interpretation” approach, which seeks to locate texts within particular social settings and dynamics; and the “new historicism” approach, which blends social and ideological considerations in the examination of the writing and reading of history, all foreground historical dimensions but not primarily those related to the text’s prehistory. Historical philology, which examines grammar and lexicography to trace the growth of languages, and textual criticism (traditionally called “lower criticism”), which attempts to retrace textual transmission through studying the available manuscripts (see McCarter 1986; Metzger 2005), come the closest to the diachronic methods under consideration here (traditionally called “higher criticism”). Recent text criticism in particular has begun to examine the various manuscript traditions as indicators of different social, theological, and hermeneutical contexts within the history of Jewish and Christian tradition (see Epp 2005; Ehrman 2006). Still, these methods lack a sustained concentration on the text’s prehistory of sources, traditions, authors, and editors.

History and Development.

Diachronic interpretation of the Bible began in earnest in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as new developments in science and other disciplines led to new ways of approaching scripture (see Hayes 2003; Rogerson 1985). The impulses that gave rise to such perspectives, however, initially emerged in conjunction with the European Renaissance’s interest in returning to the earliest sources for literary study and the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the ability of individuals to investigate scripture apart from ecclesiastical tradition (see Barton 2007; Freiday 1979 ; Scholder 1990). Diachronic methods flourished within early critical work on the origins and composition of the Pentateuch and the Synoptic Gospels. At one level, early diachronic investigations often served efforts at historical reconstruction, as many interpreters sought the literary prehistory of the Pentateuch or the Synoptic Gospels as a means of reconstructing the religious and political history of ancient Israel or the earliest sayings and stories of the historical Jesus (e.g., Wellhausen 1994 [orig. 1878]). At another level, the diachronic interpretation in these early studies was an essentially literary investigation. Interpreters sought to read biblical texts such as the Pentateuch as coherent wholes, but found elements in the text’s final form (doublets, contradictions, etc.) that worked against literary coherence. In response, diachronic interpreters posited that one could find literary coherence in the sources and traditions that stood behind the text’s now composite form (Barton 2007).

Early pioneers of the diachronic study of the Pentateuch included Isaac de la Peyrère (1596–1676), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), who highlighted literary features such as anachronisms in order to propose that the Pentateuch was a composite work from the period after Moses. These initial impulses developed into detailed theories of the Pentateuch’s literary sources throughout the latter seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries. The French Catholic priest Richard Simon (1638–1712), in an attempt to show the necessity of church tradition and discredit the Protestant notion of sola scriptura, posited a literary prehistory for the Pentateuch in which scribes created documents that recorded various events and were used as sources by biblical authors. The French physician Jean Astruc’s Conjectures sur les Mémoires (1753) offered the more developed theory that Moses had used four written sources that could be distinguished on the basis of the different Hebrew names for God. Throughout this period, much diachronic interpretation also came from Protestant scholars with apologetic aims. Far from attempting to undermine the Bible or Christianity, many diachronic interpreters sought to offer a reasonable explanation of the character and complexity of the biblical text, albeit in nontraditional ways.

By the nineteenth century, diachronic interpretation largely centered in German Protestantism and the development of source theories for the Pentateuch had gained the primary place (see Rogerson; Hayes 2003). The notion of sources that could be identified on the basis of internal literary criteria and related to developments within Israelite history gradually displaced other theories of the Pentateuch’s composition that posited multiple unconnected fragments or only a single primary source. These currents led to the emergence of full-blown “source criticism,” represented most significantly by the work of W. M. L. de Wette (1780–1849) and Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) (see Source Criticism later). De Wette argued for a late dating of Deuteronomy in conjunction with the reforms of King Josiah of Judah in the seventh century B.C.E. (2 Kgs 22–23), and Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Israel (first published in German in 1878) attempted a full articulation of four Pentateuchal sources (J, E, D, P) and their relationship to various periods of Israelite political and religious history. Wellhausen’s work set the agenda for the next century of study of the composition of the Pentateuch, solidifying the conviction that texts reveal historical information only about the periods in which their sources were composed and not necessarily about the time of the events they describe.

In this same period, diachronic interpretation gained prominence outside of the Pentateuch through the work of scholars such as Bernard Duhm, whose 1892 commentary on Isaiah developed earlier ideas into the theory of a three-part composite nature of the book’s origins and composition (Duhm 1892). Similar source-critical work took place on other books such as 1 and 2 Samuel and Jeremiah, accompanied by the increasing discovery and decipherment of comparative ancient Near Eastern texts that added to biblical scholarship’s focus on historical contexts and compositional processes. Within New Testament studies, diachronic interpretation played its most important early role in the study of the so-called “Synoptic Problem”—the effort to establish the literary and historical relationships and common sources among the Synoptic Gospels (see Source Criticism later). The historical interests of scholars such as G. E. Lessing (1729–1781) and David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874) and the analyses of F. C. Baur (1792–1860), G. G. Wilke (1786–1854), and H. J. Holtzmann (1832–1910) eventually led to the prominent nineteenth century two-source theory for the Gospels. This theory identified Mark as the earliest Gospel, used in different ways as a source by Matthew and Luke, who also used a shared sayings source (Q or Quelle, “source”) (see Streeter 1961 [orig. 1924]; Longstaff and Thomas 1988).

In the first half of the twentieth century, diachronic interpretation’s focus on literary sources broadened into the methodologies of form criticism, tradition criticism, and redaction criticism (see Techniques and Practices later). This movement produced new interest in the significance of tradition (both oral and written) and community for understanding the origins and character of both the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament (HB/OT, and NT) (Hayes 2003, p. 49). Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932) introduced a new emphasis on the identification of the form/genre of biblical texts, the relationship of genres to various social situations in which they originated, and the development of texts from their earliest oral phase to their final literary form. Subsequent scholars such as Martin Dibelius (1883–1947), Rudolph Bultmann (1884–1976), and Hans Conzelmann (1915–1989) within NT and Albrecht Alt (1883–1956), Martin Noth (1902–1968), and Gerhard von Rad (1901–1971) within HB/OT developed these emphases into new methods for investigating how the traditions underlying the biblical texts emerged through various historical phases and what theological significance they carried in those different stages. In the following decades, investigations sought to identify the editing process by which various traditions were included in the final form of biblical texts and what that process reveals about the theological interests of the Bible’s writers and editors.

From the 1970s to the present, each of the major diachronic approaches has continued to function but has been reexamined and reformulated, resulting in an altered landscape of diachronic study today (see Assessment and Contribution later). In some cases, such as the quest for sources that underlie the Pentateuch, many scholars have worked within the paradigm popularized by Wellhausen, often postulating increasingly refined theories of sources and literary growth, while others have suggested moving outside the notion of discreet literary sources altogether (see Rendtorff 1990; Blum 1990). Likewise, the methods of form and redaction criticism have acquired new emphases on the connections between oral and written material and the importance of the biblical books as whole literary works in their final form, with increasing attention being paid to the formative role of the Persian period (538–333 B.C.E.) in the production of the HB/OT texts in particular (see Buss 1999; Sweeney and Ben Zvi 2003). Alongside these developments, however, both philosophical and methodological critiques, as well as the rise of synchronic methods of biblical study, have questioned the established assumptions, procedures, and, for some scholars, plausibility of diachronic interpretation.

Techniques and Practices.

Several methods of diachronic interpretation emphasize different aspects of the development of biblical texts through time. The methods encompass various attempts to identify potential sources (oral or written) used by biblical writers, particular forms (oral or written) employed in texts, theological traditions that influenced the work of writers and editors, the elements and character of the editing process, and the dynamics of the final literary compositions produced. In spite of the impression given by the methodological sophistication of these approaches, the criticisms used in diachronic study are best seen not as pseudoscientific methods whose procedures yield predictable outcomes, but in a more humanistic vein, as means of seeking the literary coherence and character of biblical texts whose present form does not immediately yield such coherence (Barton 2007, p. 62).

Source Criticism.

The earliest of the major diachronic methods was source criticism, known until the mid-twentieth century as “higher criticism” or “literary criticism.” It attempts to identify the literary sources used by biblical writers to construct a text and the ways in which those sources have been combined in the text’s present form. The starting point is the recognition of elements in the final form of the text that suggest a composite nature for the text at hand (doublets and other repetitions, inconsistencies in thought, style, and terminology, disjointed transitions, etc.). Beginning from the assumption that the biblical writers would aim to be consistent in style, terminology, and perspective, source criticism interprets inconsistencies in these matters as evidence of the combination of different sources. The method then attempts to isolate each prior independent source, describe its defining characteristics, identify its date and provenance, and explore how it has been combined with other sources in the text’s final form.

Source criticism emerged in earnest within the study of the Pentateuch in the nineteenth century (see History and Development earlier), receiving particular popularization through Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Israel (orig. German 1878). Prior to Wellhausen, scholars had identified multiple sources (commonly four) that had been combined in the Pentateuch, typically concluding that the priestly source, with its legislation concerning sacred rituals and priestly practice, reflected the oldest period of Israelite history. Wellhausen’s “documentary hypothesis,” however, posited that the priestly source was a late reflection of postexilic Israelite religion, and thus offered a new explanation of the order and characteristics of the Pentateuch’s four sources. With various modifications, the general tenets of Wellhausen’s source analysis remained the accepted view of the Pentateuch’s composition until the 1970s. More recently, a number of proposals have moved away from the traditional documentary hypothesis, proposing new dates and configurations of the standard sources (Van Seters 1975) or altogether new explanations that posit the gradual development of individual traditions into increasingly larger accounts (Rendtorff; Blum). Source criticism of other HB/OT texts has built upon clues such as the explicit references to sources in the historical books (e.g., “the book of the annals of the kings of Judah” 2 Kgs 23:28) to propose that books such as 1 and 2 Samuel may also consist of originally independent narrative sources (e.g., the ark narrative in 1 Sam 4:17:2).

Within NT studies, source criticism primarily developed through the interpretation of the Gospels (see History and Development earlier). The question of the composition and relationship among the Synoptic Gospels (“Synoptic Problem”) produced numerous proposals for the books’ order and interdependence, as well as the possibility of other prior sources utilized by the Gospel writers. Source criticism led to the common scholarly explanation that Mark was the earliest Gospel written and Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. Commonalities between Matthew and Luke outside of their use of Mark’s material also led to the hypothesis of the so-called “Q” (Quelle) source, typically understood as a collection of sayings compiled between 50 and 70 C.E. (for an early articulation, see Streeter). Likewise, some scholars have proposed potential sources for the Gospel of John, including an independent “signs source” that may explain John’s inclusion of Jesus’s seven miracle stories, while others have suggested possible sources underlying such texts as the accounts of Paul’s church visits and the “we” memoir passages in Acts (see Gillingham 1998, p. 12).

Form Criticism.

Traditionally, form criticism has paralleled the search for potential written sources used by the biblical writers, but has been focused on the nature of the material within the smaller units of the text and the possible connections of that material to social settings within the contexts of ancient Israel and early Christianity (see McKnight 1969; Tucker 1971). The working assumption is that there are identifiable units within the text that can be distinguished from their larger literary context and had an independent, often oral, existence related to the social life of the community prior to their inclusion in the final composition. Form criticism attempts to classify those units into specific genres and set forth the potential settings and processes within human life and society in which those genres may have functioned. At the most basic level, the method searches for patterns of language within the text, identifying the typical structure, content, and setting associated with each pattern.

In form-critical terminology (see Sweeney 1999, p. 59), “genre” (German, Gattung) designates a conventional type or pattern of material that has a typical structure and content. Commonly identified genres within the biblical literature include etiological narrative, proverb, law, parable, controversy story, and miracle story (see Barton 2007, p. 64). The phrase “setting in life” (German, Sitz im Leben) designates the earlier social settings with which form critics have associated these genres. These settings are recurring, communal, often institutional occasions of human experience, rather than specific historical situations. Interpreters seek to identify the discreet genres within the text and then posit that those units had been earlier oral traditions from social settings within shared human experience. In this way, the method reconstructs the hypothetical oral prehistory of a biblical text.

The primary work on form criticism began with Hermann Gunkel’s studies of Genesis and Psalms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (see History and Development earlier). Gunkel drew upon an emerging interest in oral literature and folklore studies to classify the genres of material in these books and posit that the earliest stages of the genres were simple, oral forms that became more developed over time. His work (Gunkel 1998 [orig. 1926]), for instance, identified five major psalm types, including various kinds of hymns, laments, and royal psalms. More significantly, he argued that one could penetrate behind the earliest written sources of the Pentateuch to recover the oral stage in which the material originated and was transmitted. He proposed that many of the Bible’s traditions originated as oral etiologies, especially for religious institutions and social practices. Gunkel’s approach, then, addresses a dilemma created by Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis (Di Vito 1999, p. 95). In its classic form, the documentary hypothesis concludes that sources such as J, E, D, and P can provide historical information pertaining only to the times in which they were written (e.g., the monarchical period or the postexilic period). By contrast, Gunkel proposed that form criticism could recover earlier oral sources and that the literary sources were the product of reliable oral tradition. Hence, one can gain access to earlier historical realities prior to the time of the written sources.

In the years following Gunkel, HB/OT form criticism ran parallel to the study of the history of religions and its interest in the origins and development of particular religious ideas and practices, as scholars analyzed such genres as HB/OT law and wisdom in comparison to similar forms in ancient Near Eastern texts. Within NT studies, form criticism remained more focused on the reconstruction of the oral forms and stages of development behind the Synoptic Gospels. The initial work of Martin Dibelius, a student of Gunkel, identified six kinds of materials in the Gospels (sermons, parables, tales, legends, passion story, myth; see Dibelius 1971 [orig. 1919]; Gillingham, p. 163), and Rudolph Bultmann divided the Gospel materials into the broad categories of “sayings” and “narratives,” seeking to identify the sociological setting of each passage and the ways that various forms have been taken up by the Gospel writers (Bultmann 1976 [orig. 1931]). In recent years, ongoing reexamination and critique have resulted in a variety of formulations of the method, the newest of which move away from strictly diachronic concerns (see Sweeney and Ben Zvi). Under the umbrella of form criticism, one finds some approaches that simply provide genre analysis, others that trace the history of a particular genre or reconstruct the history of a tradition using genre considerations, and others that focus on the present structure of a whole text (see Buss). Significant critiques have questioned the hypothetical nature of the original oral forms that supposedly stand behind the present texts, as well as the older assumptions that such forms were initially simple and associated with specific cultic and institutional settings. Interpreters have moved away from a strict distinction between oral and written forms and employed form criticism in both diachronic and synchronic ways, as well as from aesthetic and socio-rhetorical perspectives (Wilder 1964; Robbins 1996; Sweeney, p. 58). Recent work has been particularly literary-oriented, focusing on the ways that certain genres contribute to the function of the present form of the text (rather than its origin) and examining the overall literary structure and character of larger compositions such as entire biblical books (see Sweeney and Ben Zvi).

Tradition Criticism.

The method of tradition criticism attempts to reconstruct the transmission history of specific traditions that appear within biblical texts and articulate the import of those traditions for the present literary compositions of which they are a part (Di Vito, p. 91). Tradition criticism shares the assumption of form criticism that the present biblical texts are the end-products of a dynamic process of the growth and adaptation of older materials. The method’s primary goal is to trace the full range of a given tradition’s development by recovering the meaning that the tradition (“traditum”) may have had at each stage of its evolution (“traditio”) and thereby to reconstruct the growth of particular biblical texts or themes that draw upon or further develop that tradition (see Knight 2006). This full history of transmission includes possible oral and written stages, as well as the meaning attached to a tradition by its present literary context in larger compositions (e.g., the Deuteronomistic History, Gospel of Mark) and specific texts. Interpreters have sought to identify the ways that persons and communities adapted the traditions at each stage of their development and how those adapted meanings became part of the tradition itself as it was passed on to new tradents and settings.

The origins of tradition criticism go back to Gunkel’s form criticism and the notion that earlier oral materials could be recovered behind the Pentateuch’s written sources (see Jeppesen and Otzen 1984). Form criticism provides the means to identify older units of tradition within a text and the potential settings in life from which they emerged, yet Gunkel focused on identifying the smallest, earliest forms that began the process of transmission. Subsequent scholars developed these ideas by seeking the full sweep of the traditioning process that produced the larger literary themes and structures within the biblical texts (Di Vito, p. 96). The work of Gerhard von Rad and Martin Noth in the mid-twentieth century sought the origins of the eventual literary sources of the Pentateuch in the development of individual traditions at different times and places in ancient Israel. Von Rad (1938), for instance, identified brief confessions of faith within the pentateuchal texts (e.g., Deut 26:5–9; 6:20–24) that he believed originated within Israelite worship and gave rise over time to the Pentateuch’s major traditions. Similarly, Noth (1981 [orig. 1948]) proposed that the Pentateuch’s literary sources developed through the gradual unification of originally independent themes (e.g., guidance out of Egypt, guidance in the wilderness) that emerged from various contexts within Israel’s premonarchic period. Throughout the twentieth century, scholars continued to search for the origins and development of HB/OT traditions such as the exodus from Egypt, creation, and Zion, often seeking their origins in oral performance within ancient Israel’s social or cultic institutions. While most interpreters pointed to the development of these traditions into written forms, an important group of Scandinavian scholars (e.g., Sigmund Mowinckel, Ivan Engnell) maintained the vitality of the purely oral transmission of HB/OT traditions until the latest stages of the Bible’s development. Although the length of time available for the transmission of traditions was significantly shorter for the materials of the NT, tradition criticism has found a place in NT studies, especially within the redaction criticism of the Synoptic Gospels. The focus has been on the extended process of oral preaching and teaching that preserved the materials from which the Gospels were created, although the extent to which the traditioning process altered those materials remains debated. Other NT materials that have received tradition-critical analysis include possible hymns (e.g., Phil 2:6–11; Col 1:15–20), summaries of Christian preaching (1 Cor 15:3–5), and portions of creedal statements (e.g., Rom 3:21–26; 1 Cor 8:4–6) that may predate the text’s final form.

After using source and form criticism to identify potentially older units of material within a text, tradition criticism seeks to define the tradition, reconstruct its oral prehistory within the context of other early traditions and ancient settings, search for comparable ancient Near Eastern or Greco-Roman traditions, and posit how the particular tradition developed into its present written form. The interests of tradition criticism also go further to investigate how individual texts came to be connected with larger literary collections such as the Pentateuch or Deuteronomistic History, and even the canon as a whole. Since the 1970s, however, critiques of the classic tradition-critical approach have emerged, especially of the method’s assumption that extensive oral traditions lie behind the biblical texts and can be accurately reconstructed (see Thompson 2002 [orig. 1974]; Van Seters 1975). Significant debate continues on these issues, even as scholarly interest in the orality of ancient Israelite culture remains high (see Niditch, 1996).

Redaction Criticism.

The approach designated as redaction criticism has traditionally studied the ways by which an editor (“redactor”) has shaped and supplemented older materials into a new composition and what the apparent editorial features reveal about the concerns and interests of the editor and final literary product. The method’s primary concern is to identify evidence of editing within a text in the form of interpretive additions, compositional arrangement, and so on. While sharing some affinities with tradition criticism, redaction criticism in its classical sense returns the focus of analysis to the individual writer or editor rather than the communal traditioning process, concentrating on the creative role and special concerns of the editor but also highlighting the literary and editorial features of the text’s final form. The method presupposes the diachronic results of source and form criticism concerning the existence of earlier materials, yet it offers a corrective to the tendency of these methods to focus only on smaller units of the text and to deemphasize as merely secondary the later editorial elements that produced the text’s present form. Redaction criticism’s interest in these elements is particularly theological in nature, operating with the conviction that the editing, arrangement, and addition of materials in a given text reveal the theological intentions of the writer or editor (Perrin 1969).

Source criticism already implied that a redactor combined the literary sources that constituted biblical texts. Prior to the mid-1900s, however, scholars viewed these redactors as merely collectors and compilers who played no significant role in the shaping of their materials. A new approach emerged with the work of Gerhard von Rad and Martin Noth mentioned earlier, as these scholars identified the so-called Yahwist editor responsible for the J source of the Pentateuch (von Rad 1972) and the Deuteronomistic Historian responsible for Joshua through 2 Kings (Noth 1991) as creative writers and theologians who shaped new compositions with their own significance (see Rendtorff; Blum). Redaction criticism’s most important developments, however, occurred in the 1950s and 1960s within the study of the Synoptic Gospels. While earlier scholars had emphasized the redactional work of the Gospel writers in the study of source hypotheses (e.g., Streeter) or particular themes (e.g., Wrede 1901), the aim was to strip away the redactional elements to recover the earliest, original material. By contrast, pioneering work in redaction criticism appeared in the studies of Hans Conzelmann on Luke, Willi Marxsen on Mark, and Günther Bornkamm on Matthew. These works emphasized the Gospel writers as creative theologians who shaped their source material into new compositions with unique theological perspectives on matters such as eschatology and salvation history (Conzelmann 1982 [orig. 1954]; Marxsen 1969 [orig. 1956]; Bornkamm, Barth, and Held 1963).

Since the mid-1900s, redaction criticism has taken diverse forms that use the method’s insights in various ways, including some critiques that challenge the very notion of editors and editorial composition (Van Seters 2006). Some approaches continue older interests in recovering the most original material (e.g., Funk, Hoover et al. 1993), while others extend the older investigations of the interests and activity of the redactors themselves. Within HB/OT studies in particular, redaction criticism has been especially prominent among German scholars and has tended toward increasingly complex proposals of numerous redactional layers for specific biblical compositions. In the last few decades, however, newer trends have challenged this fragmentation and concentrated on the holistic analysis of the literary and theological dynamics of the final form of biblical books and larger compositions. Particular interest has focused on the HB/OT prophetic books (e.g., Ben Zvi 2005), exploring, for instance, the holistic dimensions of the book of Isaiah as an intentionally unified composition (Williamson 1994) or considering the unifying connections across the Book of the Twelve (Nogalski 1993).

Assessment and Contribution.

Since its inception, most diachronic interpretation has focused on reconstructing the processes that produced the biblical texts rather than exploring the possible dimensions related to their present forms and their interactions with various readers, communities, and contexts. Given their origins and background, diachronic approaches are subject to the long-standing critiques of historical criticism in general. Their conclusions remain predominantly hypothetical and many observers sense their reliance upon Enlightenment notions of objective historical reconstruction. Postmodernist perspectives have raised significant questions about the ability to recover an author’s or editor’s intentions and the extent to which such intentions are important for a text’s meaning. Rather than abandoning diachronic interpretation as an outmoded Enlightenment-based method, Barton (1998; 2007) has shown that diachronic interpretation throughout the modern period did not exclude other interpretive concerns, such as an interest in a holistic engagement with the final form of the wisdom literature or Pauline letters, and the advancement of scholarship in general does not demand that previous approaches be completely forsaken. Diachronic methods continue to aid contemporary interpreters in closing the historical and cultural distance that separates them from the biblical texts.

In present scholarship, diachronic, particularly redaction-critical, interpretation continues to flourish especially in German-language scholarship on the Pentateuch and prophetic literature. Recent works offer increasingly intricate and sophisticated proposals of redactors and redactional layers from different historical contexts (e.g., Levin 1993 Vielhauer 2007; see Baden 2009; Dozeman and Schmid 2006). Such study has produced comprehensive attempts to reconstruct the literary history of the HB/OT or NT as a whole (e.g., Schmid, 2008; Theissen 2011; Carr 2011). These works highlight diachronic interpretation’s ongoing contribution of paying careful attention to the details of the text as pieces of evidence for the text’s origin and character. Developments in the diachronic methods within the last two decades, however, allow their contribution to go beyond the study of particular details to provide new insights into the literary dynamics and theological functions of even the final forms of biblical compositions. These broader developments suggest that the distinction between diachronic and synchronic approaches has been too rigidly drawn (see Barton 2007, p. 32), and several diachronic and synchronic methods overlap in their interests and procedures (Gillingham, p. 173). For instance, both source criticism and deconstructionist criticism begin from the same perceived inconsistencies and literary seams within the text’s final form, diverging thereafter as source criticism seeks the causes of those elements in the text’s compositional history. Other interpretive methods, such as rhetorical criticism, blend a literary interest in the text’s stylistic elements and formal features with a diachronic interest in the text as an act of persuasion crafted within a specific context (see Kelle 2005).

Diachronic interpretation today, then, can properly include approaches that study various dimensions of the Bible’s historical dynamics, even if these approaches have not traditionally been considered diachronic methods. Alongside the classic interests in sources, forms, traditions, and redactors, approaches such as sociological and feminist explorations of the realities of women’s lives in the ancient world or sociopsychological analyses of the impact of trauma and its effects on the biblical literature may likewise be considered diachronic. In both the classic and newer forms, diachronic interpretation provides an ongoing reminder of the Bible’s dynamic nature, as it leads readers to a recognition of the creative, human processes that produced these historically situated texts and traditions. The methods provide a sense of the complex and cross-generational interactions by which sacred texts were formulated, interpreted, and transmitted.



  • Astruc, Jean. Conjectures sur les Mémoires Originaux don’t il Paraît que Moïse S’est Servi pour Composer le Livre de la Genèse, avec des Remarques qui Appuient ou qui Eclaircissent ces Conjectures. Brussels: Chez Fricx, 1753.
  • Baden, Joel S. J, E, and the Redaction of the Pentateuch. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 68. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2009. New study of the J and E documents of the Pentateuch that moves away from classic source-critical conclusions.
  • Barton, John. “Historical-Critical Approaches.” In The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, edited by John Barton, 9–20. Cambridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A highly nuanced discussion of historically oriented methods within past and present biblical interpretation.
  • Barton, John. The Nature of Biblical Criticism. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2007. An insightful reconsideration of the definition, character, and practices of biblical interpretation.
  • Ben Zvi, Ehud. Hosea. Forms of Old Testament Literature 21a. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005. Form-critical commentary on Hosea that emphasizes the context of the book as a whole literary composition.
  • Blum, Erhard. Studien zur Komposition des Pentateuch. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 189. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990.
  • Bornkamm, Günther, Gerhard Barth, and Heinz Joachim Held. Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963.
  • Bultmann, Rudolph. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Translated by John Marsh. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. English translation of Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, first published in 1931.
  • Buss, Martin J. Biblical Form Criticism in Its Context. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 274. Sheffield. UK: Sheffield Academic, 1999. A philosophical analysis of the notion of form and its use within biblical form criticism.
  • Carr, David M. The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. A new consideration of the methods for reconstructing the growth of the HB/OT and the reconstruction of the pre-stages of the texts.
  • Conzelmann, Hans. The Theology of St. Luke. Translated by Geoffrey Buswell. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982. English translation of Die Mitte der Zeit, first published in 1954.
  • Dibelius, Martin. From Tradition to Gospel. Library of Theological Translations. Cambridge, UK: James Clarke, 1971. English translation of Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums, first published in 1919.
  • Di Vito, Robert A. “Tradition-Historical Criticism.” In To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, edited by Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes, 90–104. Rev. ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1999. Introductory survey of the history and practice of tradition criticism within biblical studies.
  • Dozeman, Thomas B., and Konrad Schmid, eds. A Farewell to the Yahwist?: The Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Interpretation. Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series 34. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006. Survey of newer European scholars who are advancing an alternate view of the compositional history of the Pentateuch focusing on larger, independent blocks of material.
  • Duhm, Bernhard. Das Buch Jesaia: übersetzt und erklärt. Handkommentar zum Alten Testament 3/1. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1892.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Studies in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament. New Testament Tools and Studies 33. Leiden: Brill, 2006. A collection of studies that exemplify elements of the development of textual criticism within NT studies.
  • Epp, Eldon Jay. Perspectives on New Testament Textual Criticism: Collected Essays, 1962–2004. Supplements to Novum Testamentum 116. Leiden: Brill, 2005. A collection of frequently cited essays over four decades dealing with the history and development of NT textual criticism.
  • Epp, Eldon Jay, and George W. MacRae, eds. The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters. The Bible and Its Modern Interpreters. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989. Survey of major approaches to NT study written by practitioners in various methods.
  • Freiday, Dean. The Bible: Its Criticism, Interpretation and Use in 16th and 17th Century England. Catholic and Quaker Studies 4. Manasquan, N.J.: Catholic and Quaker Studies, 1979. Survey of the development and characteristics of biblical interpretation within pre-Enlightenment England.
  • Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper, 1993. An evaluation of material related to the historical Jesus and the authenticity of sayings associated with Jesus that reflects the procedures and theories of the Jesus Seminar.
  • Gillingham, Susan E. One Bible, Many Voices: Different Approaches to Biblical Studies. London: SPCK, 1998. A highly nuanced survey of the methodological diversity within contemporary approaches to biblical study.
  • Gunkel, Hermann. Introduction to Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel. Translated by James D. Nogalski. Mercer Library of Biblical Studies. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998. English translation of Einleitung in die Psalmen, first published in 1926.
  • Hayes, John H. “A History of Interpretation.” In Mercer Commentary on the New Testament, edited by Watson E. Mills and Richard F. Wilson, 23–53. Macon. Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2003. A detailed and comprehensive account of the history of biblical interpretation from the biblical period through the twentieth century.
  • Hayes, John H., ed. Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation. 2 vols. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1999. Comprehensive collection of essays on major methods and interpreters within the history of biblical interpretation.
  • Jeppesen, Knud. and Benedikt Otzen, eds. The Productions of Time: Tradition History in Biblical Scholarship. Sheffield, UK: Almond, 1984. A collection of papers on tradition criticism, with special emphasis on the Scandinavian emphasis on oral tradition.
  • Kelle, Brad E. Hosea 2: Metaphor and Rhetoric in Historical Perspective. Society of Biblical Literature Academia Biblica 20. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005. An exegetical study of Hosea 2 emphasizing rhetorical criticism with a historical focus.
  • Knight, Douglas A. Rediscovering the Traditions of Israel. 3d ed. Society of Biblical Literature Studies in Biblical Literature. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006. Classic treatment of the development and practice of tradition criticism within OT studies.
  • Knight Douglas A., and Gene M. Tucker, eds. The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters. The Bible and Its Modern Interpreters. Atlanta: Scholars, 1985. Survey of major approaches to HB/OT study written by practitioners in various methods.
  • Levin, Christoph. Der Yahwist. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments 157. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993. A redactional treatment of the Yahwist source of the Pentateuch.
  • Longstaff, Thomas Richmond Willis, and Page A. Thomas, eds. The Synoptic Problem: A Bibliography, 1716–1988. New Gospel Studies 4. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1988. A survey of scholarship related to the Synoptic problem specifically and the question of sources for the Gospels generally.
  • Marxsen, Willi. Mark the Evangelist: Studies on the Redaction History of the Gospel. Translated by James Boyce. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1969. English translation of Der Evangelist Markus, first published in 1956.
  • McCarter, P. Kyle. Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible. Guides to Biblical Scholarship. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986. A general survey of the history and method of textual criticism on the OT.
  • McKenzie, Steven L., and Stephen R. Haynes, eds. To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application. Rev. ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1999. A collection of essays treating the major modern and postmodern methods of biblical interpretation written by practitioners of the various methods.
  • McKnight, Edgar V. What Is Form Criticism? Guides to Biblical Scholarship. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969. An introductory survey of the history and practice of form criticism.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. An in-depth study of NT textual criticism and the corresponding manuscript evidence.
  • Niditch, Susan. Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature. Library of Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996. An examination of literacy and oral culture within the ancient world and their significance for the biblical texts.
  • Nogalski, James. Literary Precursors to the Book of the Twelve. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 217. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1993. An early, trendsetting examination of literary links among the Book of the Twelve as a unified composition.
  • Noth, Martin. The Deuteronomistic History. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 15. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991. English translation of Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien, 1–110 in the 2d ed., first published in 1943.
  • Noth, Martin. A History of Pentateuchal Traditions. Translated by Bernhard W. Anderson. Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1981. English translation of Überlieferungsgeschichte des Pentateuch, first published in 1948.
  • Perrin, Norman. What Is Redaction Criticism? Guides to Biblical Scholarship. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969. An introductory survey of the development and practice of redaction criticism through its formative period in the 1960s.
  • Rad, Gerhard von. Das formgeschichtliche Problem des Hexateuchs. Beiträge zur Wissenschaft vom Alten und Neuen Testament 6. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1938.
  • Rad, Gerhard von. Genesis: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972. English translation of Erste Buch Mose: Genesis, first published in 1953.
  • Rast, Walter E. Tradition History and the Old Testament. Guides to Biblical Scholarship. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972. An introductory survey of the development and practice of tradition criticism within OT studies up to the 1970s.
  • Rendtorff, Rolf. The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch. Translated by J. J. Scullion. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 89. Sheffield, UK: JSOT Press, 1990. English translation of Das überlieferungsgeschichtliche Problem des Pentateuch, first published in 1977.
  • Reventlow, Henning Graf. History of Biblical Interpretation Volume 4: From the Enlightenment to the Twentieth Century. Translated by Leo G. Perdue. Society of Biblical Literature Resources for Biblical Study 63. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010. English translation of Epochen der Bibelauslegung, first published in 2001. A comprehensive overview of major figures and trends in the history of biblical interpretation within the modern period since the Enlightenment.
  • Robbins, Vernon K. Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1996. A defining work that outlines a socio-rhetorical approach to NT texts within a form-critical perspective.
  • Rogerson, John. Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century: England and Germany. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985. A survey of the major figures and trends within HB/OT studies in nineteenth-century England and Germany.
  • Schmid, Konrad. The Old Testament: A Literary History. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012. English translation of Literaturgeschichte des Alten Testaments: eine Einführung, first published in 2008. A comprehensive discussion of the task, history, and conditions of the composition of the HB/OT literature.
  • Scholder, Klaus. The Birth of Modern Critical Theology: Origins and Problems of Biblical Criticism in the Seventeenth Century. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM, 1990. A discussion of the origins of elements of modern biblical criticism within the theological developments of the 1600s in Europe.
  • Streeter, Burnett H. The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, Treating of the Manuscript Tradition, Sources, Authorship, and Dates. Rev. ed. London: The Macmillan Company, 1961, first published in 1924.
  • Sweeney, Marvin A. “Form Criticism.” In To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, edited by Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes, 58–89. Rev. ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1999. A thorough survey of the history and practice of form criticism in the modern period.
  • Sweeney, Marvin A., and Ehud Ben Zvi, eds. The Changing Face of Form Criticism for the Twenty-first Century. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003. Insightful collection of essays exploring the past, present, and future prospects of form criticism and its related perspectives.
  • Theissen, Gerd. The New Testament: A Literary History. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011. A comprehensive discussion of the history and conditions of the composition of the NT literature.
  • Thompson, Thomas L. The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham. Rev ed. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2002, first published in 1974. Groundbreaking study that challenged older assumptions concerning the historicity of the patriarchal stories and the source and traditional critical assumptions that supported older views.
  • Tucker, Gene M. Form Criticism of the Old Testament. Guides to Biblical Scholarship. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971. A general survey of the history and practice of form criticism within HB/OT studies.
  • Van Seters, John. Abraham in History and Tradition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975. Ground-breaking study that challenged older assumptions concerning the historicity of the patriarchal stories and the source and traditional critical assumptions that supported older views.
  • Van Seters, John. The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the “Editor” in Biblical Criticism. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2006. A challenge to the commonly held assumptions concerning the editing process and the role of editors within the formation of the biblical literature.
  • Vielhauer, Roman. Das Werden des Buches Hosea: Eine Redaktiongeschichtliche Untersuchung. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 349. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. A new redactional study of Hosea that identifies several redactional layers from different historical periods within the book.
  • Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Israel. Scholars Press Reprints and Translation Series. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994. An English translation of Geschichte Israels I, first published in 1878.
  • Wilder, Amos N. The Language of the Gospel: Early Christian Rhetoric. New York: Harper and Row, 1964. An early example of aesthetic and rhetorical perspectives within NT form criticism.
  • Williamson, H. G. M. The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah’s Role in Composition and Redaction. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994. An example of newer approaches to Isaiah that emphasize the interconnected development and unity across various portions of the book.
  • Wrede, Wiliam. The Messianic Secret. Translated by J. C. G. Greig. Library of Theological Translations. Cambridge, UK: J. Clarke, 1971. English translation of Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien, first published in 1901. A redaction-critical study that identified the so-called “messianic secret” in Mark as a later redactional element not drawn from earlier traditions.

Brad E. Kelle