Brethren, Peace and Good to all in Jesus Christ.
Many of you are already familiar with the different approaches to biblical interpretation. There are many because the Word of God is such a versatile collection of writings that no single approach is sufficient to fathom its riches.
Higher criticism and the Bible student
Among the approaches developed in the 17th century that survives to this day is that of “higher criticism.” This approach is really a toolkit of techniques that requires seeing Holy Scripture and its constituent books as primarily literary works made by human beings. Theology and doctrine are secondary concerns to higher critics. In other words, they would focus on the work of human writers as the principal authors of Holy Scriptures, if not always ruling out God as the primary author – but many, in fact, deny the divine authorship or inspiration of the Bible, period.
Among the tools available to the higher critics are textual criticism, or the study of the evolution of a text from as near as the original writing as possible down to the canonical text as received and read today; form criticism, or the study of the oral tradition and communities that may have had a hand in choosing – some say “creating” – discrete sets of “memories” that were later redacted by one or more writers or editors into the canonical text. In fact, the “redaction process” has its own study, redaction criticism, which is the attempt to recreate “the plan” followed by the redactors in putting together what later became the canonical text, as well as the religious, social, and political cultures and realities informing their redaction plan. Finally, literary critics of Holy Scripture explore the different literary genres one often finds in the Bible: poetry, narrative, stories, novels, songs, history, legislation, even translations from older forms of Hebrew or Greek, etc.
Higher critics often also invoke the help of auxiliary empirical sciences to perform their work. As such, the findings – and also often highly interpreted findings – by archeologists, historians, comparative religion scholars, paleographers, paleodemographers, paleontologists, geologists, geographers, language specialists, antiquarians, you name it, often influence the work of the higher critics.
There is nothing wrong a priori with higher criticism. The different criticisms often mutually influence each other, bringing greater clarity to words and meanings of Holy Scripture, resulting in better, more accurate translations and theological insights. The findings from the scientific disciplines mentioned above also enrich these methodologies, helping set the Holy Scriptures in their rightful geographical, cultural, religious, literary, and historical setting.
In fact, the adoption and judicious application of the tools of higher criticism in biblical studies is what distinguishes Catholic exegetes from those who cling to a literal-grammatical interpretation of Holy Scripture, often called “fundamentalists” in the United States. What’s more, even conservative Christians in Protestant ecclesial bodies are increasingly aware of these aids to interpretation aids and the results are showing up on their teachings and sermons.
By this I don’t mean that one needs to be a “higher critic” in order to understand Holy Scripture. The Bible is a singular composition in that respect: its teaching, particularly its moral teaching, can be apprehended plainly and its organic evolution traced throughout the history bound between its cover. Higher criticism, for example, becomes very useful in the elucidation of difficult passages where the received text may record an archaic word, a word borrowed foreign words, or in detecting transposed sections, even entire chapters, where the traditional order preserved such transpositions and “broke the flow” of a given narrative, oracle, etc. It also help us understand the historical setting of the biblical stories, by illuminating the daily life, local customs, laws, and religions of the Middle East, which are often acknowledged, but not described in the biblical text. One final – among the many I can come up with – is that higher criticism helps us to make sense of obscure sayings or proverbs, or of highly symbolic prophecy like that contained in the book of Daniel and Revelation.
All things considered, the higher criticism of Holy Scripture is similar to a surgeon’s scalpel: in the right hands it does a lot of good. However, when does it do evil?
The problem with certain higher critics
Continuing with the scalpel metaphor I used above, higher criticism becomes problematic when higher critics wield the scalpel as a machete, or better still, when these critics see their object of study – Holy Scripture – as a corpse they are performing an autopsy upon. These are the critics who deny what we call a sensus plenior, the salvific meaning of the Bible which we understand by approaching the Bible as the Word of God in the words of men. Higher critics for whom the Bible is just another literary creation in the world of myth and stories of national or religious origins feel no compunction in interpreting the Bible according to particular ideologies or personal or academic prejudices. I can multiple the examples, but in the interest of time and length I’ll just mention two, one for each Testament:·
- Many higher critics engage in a systematic fragmentation of the Pentateuch, following an over-application of the documentary hypothesis, and creating a tabula rasa which the critic fills with his or her own pet interpretive theory. Some critics pretend to discover the motivations of the redactors and describe them in terms of local or international political intrigue or rivalries; or in terms of class warfare: the rich vs. the poor; women against men; nobility vs. common citizens; etc. Once they achieve their preferred interpretive mode, they proceed to thread entire new theologies based upon their findings. We heart then about liberation theology, feminist theology, psychological theology – all the while forgetting, or burying the simple truth under tons of jargon or footnotes, that there is no one shred of empirical evidence substantiating their claim to know the mind of the redactor. Would a pre-exilic redactor of the Torah recognize himself in the claims made about him by some higher critics? Probably not.
- Mainstream higher critics of the New Testament – or at least, the ones who get the most media coverage – are stuck with a fundamental premise they seldom challenge, at least in public: that there is little or nothing in the New Testament that gives us ground facts attesting to the historical Jesus, his acts and words, much less his miracles and resurrection. These critics see, the Gospels as the product of a complex interactions between early Christian communities which, after receiving the early kerygma – early apostolic teaching – and bits and pieces of oral tradition that may have had bits of historical data about Jesus – and much exaggeration – and created their own narratives to fit their own understanding of the kerygma. Author-redactors then consolidated the stories and contributed their own theological understanding to form the Gospels as we know it. The author also invested the Gospel with his own cosmology, mythic understanding of the world, and his social, cultural, and class prejudice. As a consequence we see the rise of all sorts of controversies: the unending quests for “the historical Jesus”; the “invention” of Christianity by Paul and the supposed mutual opposition between “Pauline communities” and “the Jerusalem Mother Church”; the elevation of heterodox movements to the rank of “alternative Christianities”; the characterization of one Gospel as “more historical” than another; and the expunging of every hierarchical ecclesiology in the New Testament smacking of Catholicism. The problem is: there is no archeological, textual, or otherwise empirical proof for the existence of such “creative” communities, redactors, and conflicts. Nada, zero, zilch. These entities are nothing but hypothetical constructs existing only in the mind of these critics.
What’s the result of these approaches? Utter confusion among the masses, particularly when these views are popularized in documentaries in the History, Science, Smithsonian, or National Geographic channels. The impression given by these documentaries and other publications aimed at the public is that “orthodoxy” is a political construct, concocted by either the Pope or “the imperial Church” or other theological class enemy, aiming at the destruction of the other “Christianities” and to the oppression of women, the enforcement of monastic and then clerical celibacy, and enforced by persecution, excommunication, banishment, etc.
These critics have help recast Christian theology as a quest to restore these other Christianities, e.g., the Gnostics, Monophysites, Nestorians, and other sects; and to empower women; the variously disenfranchised; and those who hold to “alternative sexualities” or genders, to embrace their self-defined identities as wholesome and good, over and against the antique, oppressive, obsolete, and “patriarchal” dictats proposed as true and binding for all ages by orthodox Christianity.
These are the problems and the challenges we believers face in today’s marketplace of ideas. The other side has recast the entire Gospel in the name of “science” into postmodern narratives of freedom and liberation. Meanwhile, they’ve sidelined those who hold to the Gospel as originally preached to the margins of ridicule, bigotry, and oblivion.
There’s good, there’s bad
I finish with some brief recommendations. Check out the website of The Society of Biblical Literature. The society groups scholars of all persuasions to foster research into the Bible using the toolkit I described above. Their sheer number of participants brings by itself a balanced view of today’s trends in biblical scholarship. Also, if you want to know what it takes to write a peer-reviewed research paper on biblical interpretation, this is the place to go. If you are Catholic, please don't forget to visit The Sacred Page, an excellent blog about biblical interpretation and scholarship.
Read two authors that bring the latest biblical scholarship to Christian theology who actually strengthen historical Christian claims: the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright and Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI. If you want to attain competence on the subject of higher criticism and its fruitful application to central issues in theology, they are your men.
Don’t buy into the theses put forward by The Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, and Elaine Pagels. The last two star in many of the most popular documentaries about the Bible you see on TV. I don’t tell you not to read anything by them – I am not a censor – but, be skeptical. “Criticize the critics,” I would say. Take whatever they say with a grain of salt.
And may Almighty God, Father, Son, and +Holy Spirit be with us as we pursue a greater knowledge of Him through Sacred Scripture.