Every writing in the OT and NT emerged from a particular social, political, and cultural environment over the course of many centuries, and historical criticism is a modern and tested method of exploring their various origins and tracing their development and significance within their specific historical contexts. This discipline has not been rendered otiose by literary and narrative criticisms. Dates and events, as well as people and places mentioned in the narratives, have all to be scrutinized. The scriptures were certainly studied in detail by the Fathers with abundant use of typology, as by Justin Martyr (c. 150 CE), for whom the OT is primarily a type-source for the NT in his Apology and Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. Inconsistencies between the gospels were noted, and Origen was aware of the necessity of textual criticism. Medieval theologians also found an application or meaning beyond the literal, through allegorical, typological, and mystical interpretations. But with the Renaissance there came a determination to give to the Bible that same rigorous scrutiny of what purported to be history as that which was already being applied to the classical literature of Greece and Rome. The first known critic was a French Roman Catholic priest, Richard Simon (1678–1712 CE). He thought that the uncertainty about scripture brought by criticism undermined Protestant dependence upon it, from which Catholicism was happily free. After him most of the great names are German.

The method involved an examination of the texts to check their authenticity and to establish their probable authorship. Comparison is made with documents from other sources and with external evidence provided e.g. by archaeology. Motives, tendencies, interests, presuppositions will all be taken into account. Vocabulary and style must be scrutinized. A major achievement of the 19th cent. was the recognition by Karl Graf and Julius Wellhausen that the Pentateuch was compiled from different sources and reached its final form after the time of the great prophets. Other books were seen to be later than had been supposed: Daniel apparently describes events of the 6th cent. BCE but has been shown to come from the middle of the 2nd cent. in virtue of its accurate account in ch. 11 of Antiochus Epiphanes; the book of Isaiah has been divided to reflect at least two historical periods. Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932) was the founder of OT Form Criticism after a study of the laws of folk-behaviour in passing on traditions. The OT exhibits characteristics similar to those of early Scandinavia; there exist in the OT recurrent literary categories with a related form, and the social situation in which they were produced can be sought, and the functions which the traditions served can be surmised. Gunkel's OT method was applied to the NT by his pupils, e.g. Rudolf Bultmann.

The first attempt to map a consistent historical study of the NT was also made in Germany. F. C. Baur (1792–1860) used the terms thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (Jewish Christianity met Gentile Christianity and gave birth to Early Catholicism). J. J. Griesbach (1745–1812) was a pioneer in synoptic criticism. Research into the life of Jesus took a sceptical turn with D. F. Strauss's Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835), which argued that the apparent historical form of the gospels was but the clothing for legends. Much further work on the quest for the historical Jesus continued with J. E. Renan, Adolf von Harnack, and William Wrede; until more recently Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), Gunther Bornkamm (1905–98), and Hans Conzelmann (1915–89)—who were two of the many workers in this field—laid the foundations for their successors in the 21st century. Scholars in America and Great Britain have been no less active.

It has always been important to determine both the date and authorship of each composition, which is done sometimes by indications within the text itself or, sometimes, by archaeological evidence. The dates of 1 Cor. and 2 Cor. are established by the discovery of an inscription at Delphi proving that Gallio was proconsul of Achaia in 51/2 CE. Many hypotheses and guesses have been offered for the places where the books of the NT were compiled: Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Rome. Sometimes fragments of an author's work have been collected together and edited, and sometimes editorial work has combined several sources into a composite whole, as with the Pentateuch. Historical criticism is therefore closely related to this kind of analysis, and the effects on historical criticism of Form Criticism were very marked: it suggested that the gospels consist of collections of small units which have passed through a stage of oral tradition shaped according to the needs of the community. Hard on the heels of Form Criticism came Redaction Criticism, which emphasized the overriding theological ideas of the evangelists which governed their selection and placing of the available material, and this method too had important implications for the historicity of the narratives. To what extent did the aim of interpretation (e.g. about eschatology) affect the narratives of the teaching of Jesus? Or the necessity to invoke the authority of the OT to buttress the claim for the Messiahship of Jesus? Thus the gospel of Luke is not written to prepare for the imminence of the Parousia but to teach Christians to live in the continuing future. The gospel of Matthew, especially in chs. 11 and 12, contrasts the new era which Jesus has brought with the old which preceded it, which is part of the doctrine of Messiahship.

Historical-critical scholarship continues to be alive and well in the 21st cent., but there is also a vigorous group of literary critics who believe it is possible to move on: biblical texts have an historical context but all texts also have an after-life and convey a new meaning to new generations of readers.