Biblical criticism and interpretation.

From Zondervan’s Handbook to the Bible, 1999:
‘The text and the message’, pp. 58-59
Excerpt from ‘Studying the Gospels’, pp. 546-547

The text and the message
Craig Bartholomew

Academic study of the Bible (‘biblical criticism’) has been dominated by a number of different emphases, each in turning coming to the fore.

The first is a historical emphasis. The historical-critical method, developed in Germany in the 19th century, was taken up by scholars in Britain and the United States early in the 20th century.

This method was critical, in the sense that it read and evaluated the biblical text from the perspective of the modern worldview. It was historical, in the sense that it used the historical tools that emerged out of modern philosophy of history. It was also historical in its concern, not so much with the text in its present form as with the history of the text and the events it referred to.

The main types of analysis of biblical texts that emerged out of this approach were:
*textual criticism, concerned with the establishment of the most reliable Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old and New Testaments
*source criticism, concerned with the sources underlying the text
*form criticism, concerned with the form or genre of small units of text and the origin of their genre in the societal life of Israel
*traditional criticism, concerned with the origin and development of biblical themes in the life of Israel
*redaction criticism (from the German word for editor: redactor), concerned with the way in which the text has been edited into its final shape.

A serious weakness of the historical-critical method is its failure to focus on the books of the Bible in their present form.

Not surprisingly, in the 1970s, a literary emphasis developed in response to this failure. This new emphasis focused on the biblical books as literary texts and explored them from this angle. The narrative shape of much of the Bible received fresh attention and questions such as the role of the narrator, the shape of the plot and the portrayal and development of characters were explored.

By the late 1970s some radical new developments were taking place in literary theory. Movements such as ‘post-structuralism’ and ‘deconstruction’ raised questions such as, ‘Do texts have meanings that we can discover, or do readers construct those meanings, so that there are as many meanings for a text as there are readers?’

Because of the literary emphasis in biblical studies it was inevitable that these new movements in the theory of literature would soon have an effect. And in the last few years these new questions have been applied to the Bible.

Because they represent a reaction to modern theories these new approaches are often known as postmodernism. Postmodernism has raised complex questions about texts, authors, readers, and the world, suggesting that texts do not have single meanings and that their meaning largely depends upon the reader/s.

Under the general category of postmodernism it has become commonplace for scholars to made deconstructionist, feminist, and other readings from biblical texts. A deconstructionist reading will, for example, look for places in a text where there are tensions between the overall message and what a small section of the text may be saying. In this way deconstruction exposes contradictions that it looks for and expects to find in all texts. A feminist reading will examine how women are or are not portrayed in biblical texts.

The effect of postmodernism on biblical studies has been to undermine the dominant historical criticism, leaving no one main method in its place. The impression often given nowadays is of a smorgasbord of interpretive approaches which we can choose from and enjoy, simply as a matter of personal preference. In the broader scholarly community there is no agreement about how to read the Bible or how to move forward in biblical studies.

Biblical interpretation is in crisis!

Most recently, there are signs of a theological emphasis coming to the fore, with some scholars arguing that biblical studies require a Christian theory of interpretation. This means our approach to the Bible should be rooted in a biblical understanding of the world, and that we ought to read the Bible above all to hear what God is saying to us through it.

Two points in particular should be noted about this history of different emphases:
*The Christian story or view of the world relates to the whole of life: so a biblical theory of interpretation ought to be shaped by the Christian story. In this sense the theological emphasis is right.
*We need an integrated approach to biblical interpretation. The historical, the literary and the theological are all important aspects of biblical texts. A proper understanding of the Bible means being alert to all these, and how they relate to one another—drawing on their different insights, and integrating them within a Christian theory of interpretation.

In my opinion this is best developed by taking what may be called a communication model and understanding the biblical text in terms of:


If Scripture is primarily God’s Word to us, that should be the framework within which we read it.

However, we hear God’s Word through the message of the original sender and it is here that the hard interpretive work has to be done.

A communication model of biblical interpretation will focus attention on the text in its final form, employing all its energies to help us understand the message

Analysis of the sources of the text is an important element in this process. The biblical texts were written in very different times and cultures from today and knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and associated languages, knowledge of the cultural context in which the text was written, and so on, are vital elements in interpretation.

The examination of sources must, however, be subsidiary to helping us understand the message of the text. And study of sources must be related to understanding the text as we have it.

Knowledge of the context also plays an important role in assessing the type of the text we are dealing with—whether it is wisdom, narrative or prophecy, for example. But this too must help us focus on the particular text and its individual structure.

The rest of the Bible is also an important part of the context of each book: exploration of this, too, must help in explaining the message of the individual book.

The aim of a communication model of interpretation is to hear the message of each book of the Bible in the context of the whole of Scripture. If we understand aspects of the history of a text and something about its literary shape but fail to hear the message, our interpretation will be faulty. Our efforts at interpretation must aim to discern the message of the text, first to its original hearers and then to readers today.

There is, rightly, a growing recognition of the role of the reader/s in interpretation. It is recognized that readers bring their own views with them in the reading process. A key question is whether or not there are right views to bring.

In my opinion there are! Scripture is most appropriately read out of a deep conviction that it is God’s Word, and readers best approach it in this way. That does not mean that there are no difficult issues in interpretation: clearly there are. But analysis of the Bible out of a biblical view of the world will allow the real problems to emerge, without creating problems where none exist.

“For many decades Old Testament scholarship has been largely preoccupied with looking through the text to what may or may not lie behind it. Scholars have come to the text as a window…

Exciting things are happening, however. Since the mid-1970s…many books have appeared which have approached the text not as a window but as a picture. They have been concerned to look at the text, at what it says and how it says it. They have encouraged…an engagement with it, an enjoyment of it. The exercise of interpretation they have promoted…has brought the imagination into play, and the emotions… It has asked readers to pay attention to the text.

One great advantage of the approach is that it does not demand an enormous amount of background knowledge before we begin. The ‘ordinary’ reader can have a go.” –Trevor Dennis

— pp. 58-59, from Zondervan’s Handbook to the Bible, 1999.

If you’re ready to “have a go” at interpretation – perhaps the Inductive Bible Study Method will help get you started: If you want to try out the method, compare John 20:19 and Acts 2:14, and answer this question: what explains the change in Jesus’ disciples, from being full of fear, to being full of boldness? Here’s more on biblical criticism… and then something on interpretation specifically…

Different kinds of literary criticism
Richard A. Burridge

Increasingly today a wide range of literary-critical methods are being used to help our understanding of the Gospels.

So ‘compositions criticism’ considers how each evangelist arranges his material—for instance, Matthew’s five great blocks of Jesus’ teaching (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-25) or Luke’s geographical arrangement of Galilee (4-9:50), the journey south (9:51-19:27), and Jerusalem (19:28-24:53).

‘Narrative criticism’ studies how the whole story works, with its plot, characters, tension, irony, motifs and patters.

Structuralist approaches analyze the structure of episodes to see how they actually work, as well as the deeper structure of the whole book.

‘Rhetorical criticism’ considers the use by the evangelists of techniques in ancient oratory to persuade their readers of the truth about Jesus.

Approaches like these, together, show how this most exciting area of literary study of the Gospels reveals the richness of each evangelist’s account.

Who were the Gospels written for?

All books are written for a particular audience or readership. Since not everyone could read in those times, ancient books were made known through public readings, at a dinner party or other gathering.

The Gospels would have been read aloud, in worship or other groups, more than they were read privately by individuals.

‘Sociological analyses’ describe the social or educational level of each Gospel’s intended audience, and reconstruct the kind of church Matthew was writing for, or the ‘Johannine community’ suggested by the argument with ‘the Jews’ and the synagogue in the fourth Gospel. This can become circular—reconstructing the community in the light of the text and interpreting the text in the light of the reconstructed community!

Recently, attention has moved away from the communities to the kind of reader or listener implied within each Gospel, with ‘reader-response criticism[b]’ looking at how each Gospel achieves its particular effect on people.

Dare we ‘criticize’ the Gospels?

Some people are worried by all these different ‘criticisms’ being applied to the Gospels.

Christians believe the Bible to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, as the Word of God. Are these approaches not about the words of human beings? Yes, they are. But God has communicated His Word through inspiring human beings to write and compose, to read and pass on these stories—and He can also inspire the humble biblical scholar trying to understand them!

The Gospels are not interpreted as magic books floating down from heaven, nor should we expect them to conform to modern notions of reporting and writing. Criticism need not be negative; rather, the use of these critical tools helps us understand more fully the depths and riches of these books, how God inspired the first Christians to tell the story of Jesus in their day as we seek to do the same today.
–excerpt from ‘Studying the Gospels’, pp. 546-547, Zondervan’s Handbook to the Bible, 1999.

Two good sites which handle biblical criticism and apologetics:

Spiritual Meaning
Gerald L. Bray

exerpt of “Interpreting the Bible down the ages”
pp.55-56 Zondervan’s Handbook to the Bible (1999)

There have always been those who have thought that the Bible is not a straightforward message from God, but a hidden riddle which has to be deciphered, usually in some highly complex and mysterious way.

A secret code of numbers? For example, in Hebrew and Greek each letter also stands for a number, and so theories developed according to which the Bible was a secret numerical code.

Numerology, as this is called, was very popular in certain Jewish circles, and it has resurfaced from time to time among Christians, although nowadays no reputable scholar or theologian takes it seriously.

Allegory? Around the time of Jesus, Philo of Alexandria (died AD 50) developed the belief that the Old Testament was in large measure an allegory of divine things. Allegory is a literary form in which one thing stands for another, even though there is no real connection between the two.

It became very popular as a way of interpreting the Song of Solomon, which many Christians regard as a picture of the relationship between Christ and His bride the church, or between Christ and the individual believer.

As a method of interpretation, allegory came into the Christian church through Clement of Alexandria (died about AD 215), who took it over from Philo. Clement’s pupil Origen (about 185-254) developed it into a systematic form of biblical interpretation.

According to Origen there were three levels of meaning in Scripture: the literal, the moral and the spiritual. These paralleled the three ‘parts’ of a human being: body, soul, and spirit. Later on, the 4th-century monk John Cassian added another spiritual sense, the ‘anagogical’, which is similar to the spiritual but concentrates on the future life of the Christian in heaven.

Allegory was very popular in the Middle Ages, especially among monks, though serious scholars did their best to keep it under control. However, it seemed to offer a very attractive way of interpreting the Old Testament, which no longer had to be taken literally. The events it describes—the slaying of the Amalekites, for example—were not to be understood as models for Christian behavior but rather as signs, pointing to the fact that we have put sin to death in our lives.

People who adopted this approach often accused Jews of being ‘literalits’ in their reading of the Old Testament, which was supposed to be why they failed to see Jesus in it.

At its best, allegory was a means of finding references to the Saviour in places which at first sight looked highly unlikely (as in the example of the Song of Solomon), and of applying obscure biblical passages to everyday life.

After the Reformation, allegory died out among academic interpreters, but it remained popular in other places. Many hymns used it. In ‘Guide me O thou great Jehovah’, for example, the wilderness journey of the people of Israel stands for the Christian life. This is a favorite allegorical theme going back to ancient times. Negro spirituals, in which the River Jordan stands for death, the Promised Land for heaven, and so on, make great use of allegory. In the 19th century, especially, preachers loved to use allegory.

Different levels of meaning In recent years, increasing attention among scholars to the literary genres used in the Bible has made many people aware of different levels of meaning within the text, and this in turn has given the ancient spiritual interpretation a new lease of life.

Much allegorical interpretation is crude or obviously wrong, but it does at least make us aware that there may be more to the meainging of a passage than meets the eye.

Some modern theories have much in common with allegory, and many attempts to make the Bible ‘relevant’ to women, to people in the developing world, and to other contemporary concerns must obviously go beyond what the actual words of the text say.

Those who study the Bible do not have to choose between the two main types of interpretation: they can borrow ideas from both of them. But it is best to determind the straightforward literary-historical interpretation first.

Christians believe that the Old Testament covenant between God and His people find its fulfillment, and therefore its true meaning, in Christ. That has to be born in mind when we try to apply a particular Old Testament passage to the present day.

Has the coming of Christ altered the conditions in which a particular Old Testament text was originally applicable? If so, the chances are that it must be used differently today. For example, what the Old Testament says about the ancient Temple sacrifices (which are no longer carried out) can throw light on the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross, as a sacrifice on our behalf.

Even in the New Testament, it is important to distinguish what the text teaches as an abiding theological principle from what it simply records as historical fact (the two are not identical). For instance, Christians are called to follow the example—to ‘imitate’—both Christ and the apostle Paul. That means sharing their attitudes and beliefs, and living in a way they would approve—not taking up carpentry or tent-making!

The Bible is the most important book in the history of Western civilization. It has been taken up in many cultures and communities, influencing faith and practice. It is crucial that it be read in a way which appreciates the different kinds of writing it contains.

These are excellent resources to use if you want to dig in to the Word.

I don’t necessarily agree with all the Precept upon Precept interpretations… for example, in Hebrews 6 (falling away). But… if you use the inductive method, you’ll agree where it’s most important.

Crosswalk has a bible search by word or verse, dictionaries, lexicons, multiple translations, etcetera.

An excellent way to make sure your assertions hold water and aren’t just pulled out of thin air…

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