The examination of the books of the Bible with the resources of historical investigation, archaeology, palaeography, and linguistics. Biblical criticism, or the historical critical method, starts from a conviction that the heterogeneous collection of books which constitute the Bible were written in a variety of genres for different purposes and readerships by human authors. A biblical critic is a scholar equipped with linguistic skills and literary or historical knowledge who tries to shed light on what the authors of the books were saying, given the thought‐world and social and political situations of their own age. The tools for this enterprise have been refined over the past four centuries and are the fruit of the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the 18th‐cent. Enlightenment; but, long before, it was recognized that divine inspiration of scripture did not overrule the humanity of the authors. Origen (185–254 CE), for example, noticed that the letter to the Hebrews could probably not have been written by Paul. The establishment of a canon of scripture itself witnesses to a process of discrimination and assessment. The first task of biblical criticism is to establish a reliable text; to get as near as possible to what the original authors wrote in Hebrew (or Aramaic) and Greek. This was already being done for classical authors such as Homer when Erasmus (1466–1536 CE) began to apply the same principles to the text of the NT, comparing the variations in the ancient MSS that were available at that time. In the centuries since then many important discoveries have been made and much international research undertaken. The technical investigation is known as textual criticism; sometimes, especially in less recent books of NT introduction, it is referred to as Lower Criticism. For the NT it compares the large number of MSS, together with the many quotations of scripture made by the early Fathers, and also translations of the Greek into Latin and Syriac; and the verbal differences, mostly only in small details, are very numerous. In a modern Greek NT some are noted in the apparatus criticus at the bottom of each page. It is apparent that scribes copying MSS occasionally wrote twice (‘dittography’) or omitted a few words, or, in the case of a MS being written from dictation, misheard. It is even possible that scribes sometimes felt at liberty to add something on their own account. The process of tracking down and eliminating such errors is the work of textual criticism. But for all the labour expended, we do not possess the precise words penned by the NT authors. What we can now say with some confidence is that we have the NT text as it was read in the main centres of Christian learning about 200 CE.
Historical criticism, sometimes called Higher Criticism, deals with questions of authorship and date, editorial arrangements of sources, historicity, literary categories (genres), and doctrinal tendencies. Historical criticism acquired a bad name amongst orthodox churchmen because its pioneers were unbelievers, like Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679 CE) in the Leviathan; but early work was also done by Roman Catholics: Jean Astruc, a French professor of medicine (1684–1766 CE), noted that Genesis was a compilation of several earlier documents, following a book (Eng. edn., 1682) of OT history by the Oratorian priest Richard Simon (1638–1712 CE) which pioneered Pentateuchal criticism and was burnt by Louis XIV. These works were translated into German, which in due course led to the establishment of the view that much of the Pentateuch was written after the time of the great prophets. The classical 19th‐cent. view of the source criticism of the Pentateuch was the work of Karl Graf and Julius Wellhausen. The traditional view that these books were written by Moses was shown to be untenable. Archaeological discoveries also suggested that the religion of the Hebrews had marked similarities to that of other peoples. At the same time scientists' work on the origin of species showed that the accounts of creation in Genesis did not correspond to the fact of biological evolution.
Similar investigation of the gospels followed. Since the three synoptic gospels often preserve passages where word after word is the same, who copied from whom? Or did some common source which each used exist? The most widely held theory today is that Mark was written first and was used by both Matthew and Luke, but there is no final solution about the non‐Marcan material which Matthew and Luke share, though a majority of scholars maintain that Matthew and Luke both had access to a body of teaching material, which has been given the symbol Q. The scrutiny of the documents in this way is called Source Criticism.
A degree of frustration with Source Criticism, together with interest in recent explorations of folk literature in various cultures, led several German biblical scholars in the 1920s and H. J. Cadbury in America, to go behind the written sources and try to show how the traditions embodied in the gospels had come to be shaped during the generation when they were passed on by word of mouth. It was suggested that the stories developed out of a particular life‐setting ( Sitz‐im‐Leben) a kind of form which followed patterns, or ‘laws’, which could be inferred. Hence the name ‘Form Criticism’. Fundamental to it was the view that the stories and incidents in the synoptic gospels originally existed as independent units and in course of oral transmission were adapted to the needs of the community. These units were then strung together by Mark and his successors without any reliable information relating to chronological or topographical references.
OT scholarship was no less interested in the life‐situations in which the literature was developed. Several of the psalms were ascribed to the coronation ceremonies of the kings in the Temple. But on the whole Form Criticism of the OT had a more conservative tone than the corresponding NT discipline.
Subsequent reflection on the gospels has moved toward insisting on the careful co‐ordination and structures of the evangelists—as also in OT scholarship much more regard is had for the final editorial result of the books than in breaking them up into their sources. It is recognized that the gospels are compiled in a sophisticated manner to bring out the theological drives of each author. They are theological interpretations of a piece of history, not simple reports of what actually happened. In Britain, this post‐Form Critical outlook was pioneered by R. H. Lightfoot and A. M. Farrer, and in Germany where the name Redaction Criticism became familiar, by Willi Marxsen of Münster and Hans Conzelmann of Göttingen.
The Bible has a central place in the doctrine and the liturgy of all the Christian Churches but it is not venerated as the Qur'an is by Islam. Muslims hold that the Qur'an was dictated to Muhammad by God and that its inerrant narrative and incomparable, incorruptible Arabic has been properly maintained down the centuries. Any thoughts of ‘criticism’ would be blasphemy. Criticism of the OT and NT by Christians is not blasphemous nor does it mean hostile, destructive criticism.
Many in the Churches, however, are content to ignore biblical criticism with its open and unrestricted efforts to reach the truth. There is a fear that once the gospels are assessed for historical reliability and some events judged not to have happened at all, there is no knowing where such free historical enquiry may end. So, inconsistencies and contradictions in the texts must at all costs be tailored into harmony; whereas the critical reponse would be first to enquire about the genre of the text. Nevertheless biblical critics have given impetus and encouragement to ecumenical dialogue in as much as scholarship has undermined untenable prejudices and dogmas. And many biblical critics in the areas mentioned, and also those writing on Canonical Criticism, narrative criticism and Reader‐Response Criticism, did or do participate in the liturgical life of the Churches, and insist that as theologians they are at least as interested in the finished state of the texts as in unravelling their underlying sources.
For after linguistic and historical tools have established the plain meaning of the text for the original authors there follows the question, is it true? Does its cultural context itself need to be scrutinized: what of the self‐criticisms within the text itself—e.g.Jonah 4: 11, Mark 9: 34? What have been the contributions of patristic, medieval, and Reformation exegesis: and of Liberation and Feminist theologies which maintain that some traditional interpretations are unacceptable?