biblical criticism

biblical criticism
   The work of scholars such a Erasmus on the biblical text and publication of more accurate Bible translations in the 16th century, coupled with Martin Luther's idea that the Bible's meaning was plain to any commonsense reader, led in the next century to the first suggestions that the Bible could (and should) be read much like any other ancient text, and understood like any other document that attempts to communicate information, that is, in light of its historical context and cultural setting. understanding the biblical text, it was said, begins with asking how a reader at the time of its writing understood it.
   At the same time, challenges began to appear to the accuracy of the commonly used Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament). In the early 16th century, Elijah ben Asher (1424-1549) demonstrated that the vowel points were later additions to the text (Hebrew having no vowels). In the next century, scholars noting differences between the Hebrew Masoretic and the Greek septuagint text called the Masoretic text into question. Meanwhile, variant readings of New Testament texts from ancient manuscripts then available led to continual attempts to reconstruct the best text possible.
   Richard Simon (1638-1712), a Catholic scholar, was among the first who challenged the traditional attribution of authorship of the Old Testament books. He suggested that those books that tell the story of ancient Israel were written not by a single author but by schools of scribes working over decades, possibly centuries. In 1753, Jean Astruc (1684-1766) suggested that Genesis had been constructed from two main and several lesser sources (based upon the variant words used for God throughout the text). Simon's and Astruc's work would lead directly to modern critical studies.
   In the relatively freer atmosphere of the 19th century, these suggestions would be taken more seriously. scholars pondered the problems presented by the belief that the Pentateuch was written by a single author, namely Moses, and was an accurate account of the history of ancient Israel. Major thinking and research was carried out by Karl Heinrich Graf (1815-69) and Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), who developed what has come to be known as the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis or the Documentary Hypothesis. It assumes that the Pentateuch was composed of four major documents, combined in stages. The first two documents were given the name "J" and "E" based upon their use of the name Jehovah (i.e., Yahweh) or Elohim for God. The third document was named "P" as representing the views of the priestly class, and the last was called "D" or Deuteronomic, covering most of the book of
   Deuteronomy, which these scholars believed was the book of the law found during the reign of Josiah, as recounted in 2 Kings 22:3-23:25.
   The theory dates the J document to around 900 b.c.e. and the E document to a century later. The opening chapter of Genesis is considered a typical example of the E document. The J document picks up in Genesis 2:4, where the name of God changes. The P document is seen in chapter 7 of Genesis, where God for a second time instructs Noah about the animals to be taken into the ark and makes a clear distinction between clean and unclean animals, an important consideration for priests who were responsible for animal sacrifices, and a matter ignored in the first set of instructions (Genesis 6:14-22), attributed to E. The final document, D, includes most of the book Deuteronomy.
   The Documentary Hypothesis gained popularity in the late 19th century along with the theory of evolution (which also contradicted a literal reading of the Genesis text). It explained many of the contradictions and peculiarities in the text of the Pentateuch, very evident to those who studied the Bible in any detail. The theory was accepted by a majority of biblical scholars by the early 20th century and became the basis of most future work on the Old Testament.
   Meanwhile, New Testament scholars began to approach the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in the same spirit, focusing on similar problems of apparent contradictions and peculiarities of the texts. Scholars proposed what has become known as the two-source theory for the Gospels, namely the Gospel of Mark (the first written Gospel) and a lost source named "Q." In this reconstruction, Matthew and Luke began their Gospels with Mark and then added material from Q (consisting of the material common to Luke and Matthew but not found in Mark). Q consists largely of sayings of Jesus (as opposed to accounts of his actions). In addition Matthew and Luke each had unique sources of his own. John is largely based on other independent sources.
   Contemporary Catholic and liberal Protestant scholars see the Bible as the product of a communal activity involving a number of editors and scribes. Two new subdisciplines have arisen, form criticism (focusing on the literary forms that appear in Scripture such as poetry, parables, and letters) and redaction criticism (focusing on the work of the editors of the final biblical text).
   The Documentary Hypothesis became an additional bone of contention between fundamentalists and modernists in the 1920s. Conservative Protestants believed it undermined the authority and inspiration of the Bible. In reaction, many intensified their advocacy of the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. Some Evangelical scholars have found a way to accommodate their view of the Bible with biblical criticism, but many have not, including some outstanding Evangelical scholars who have attempted to refute the documentary hypothesis while defending a more traditional approach.
   One artifact of modern biblical criticism is the Jesus Seminar, begun in 1985. It brings together Bible scholars to examine what is known about the historical Jesus in light of the critical work on the texts. Over the years, some 200 scholars have participated. Issues are debated and decided by votes. The often controversial results, representing the most liberal perspectives of modern scholarship, have been widely reported in the media and have resulted in several books.
   Differences over the Documentary Hypothesis sometimes overshadows other, less controversial achievements of modern scholarship. For example, a large number of ancient New Testament manuscripts (from complete codices to small fragment of different books) have been found over the last few hundred years. Much work has been done in classifying them and developing a history of the copying of the New Testament in the centuries prior to modern printing. This work has yielded growing agreement on a critical text of the New Testament books that more closely approaches the original.
   See also creationism.
   Further reading:
   ■ John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1991)
   ■ Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Summit Books, 1987)
   ■ Stephen R. Haynes and Steven L. McKenzie, eds., To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993)
   ■ William Sanford Lasor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1982)
   ■ Ernest Nicholson, The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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