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Asbury Bible Commentary – Biblical Criticism and Study of the Old Testament
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Biblical Criticism and Study of the Old Testament

Biblical Criticism and Study of the Old Testament

To read and study the OT critically means to do so with a keen discerning judgment. The application of various skills, techniques, knowledge, wisdom, and art to the corpus of OT texts being examined is necessary. Many kinds of biblical research and criticism have been developed since the beginning of the Reformation (a.d. 1517). During only the past thirty years interdisciplinary skills, models, and techniques have become a vital part of the process of criticism, as well as the traditional grammatical-historical and critical approaches to interpretation.

The proper goal of all criticism is to discover the meaning and significance of the OT canonical texts for the purpose of providing authoritative and normative guidance for the people of God in the world today. Textual criticism attempts to establish the original wording of the biblical text and, also, as a result of this, to establish the possible formation and transmission of the text. Every autograph (original manuscript) of every OT book is lost; therefore, the goal of textual criticism is to recover the best “critical text” possible. Most modern translations are based on these resultant eclectic Hebrew and Aramaic critical texts (see Language, Texts, Literature above).

Ancient texts, such as the OT, were copied by hand and human errors resulted. Many kinds of copying errors have been categorized and classified; the textual expert is aware of all of these. Textual criticism per se is also called “lower criticism” because it is literally foundational for all of the other kinds of criticism employed.

The sources available for doing OT textual criticism are scant in comparison to the many manuscripts and other resources available for establishing a critical NT text (see Languages, Texts, Literature above). Briefly, the sources used are, in general, (1) the Hebrew Masoretic Text from c. the tenth century a.d.; (2) the Greek OT in its Septuagintal form; (3) other ancient versions/recensions of the Septuagint; (4) Aramaic Targums; (5) the Samaritan Pentateuch, an ancient Hebrew text itself; and (6) other ancient witnesses of the ancient Hebrew OT text (e.g., Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.). A standard work in this field is The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica by Ernst Wuthwein, Eng. trans. by Escoll F. Rhodes (Eerdmans, 1979).

Historical Criticism attempts to establish the historical milieu of a document. This involves many things and various disciplines are employed, such as linguistics, sociology, anthropology, and comparative studies of various kinds. Certainly it is important to establish the time, place, events, persons, general milieu, and sources. All of this is necessary in order to help the reader understand the literary document. Sometimes historical reasoning has been used in a negative way to argue that humankind's contemporary experience of reality should be the plumbline to establish the meanings and significance of ancient texts, even though these ancient texts recognized a worldview different from that of the modern world. Clearly, this does not allow the manifold witness of the OT to challenge us seriously or to speak to our contemporary worldviews. The OT claims to be a unique record to God's words and acts toward his people. Properly controlled historical criticism has revealed a vast panorama of the environment and world of the OT (e.g., Bright, History).

Literary Criticism (see “The Bible and Literature,” pp. 93ff.) in biblical studies originally, and hence traditionally, referred to the same studies also designated as “source criticism.” According to this discipline many OT scholars held that the Pentateuch was composed of four major documents (J, E, D, P) stemming from different times, places, and persons (or groups) and vastly different in style, meaning, and purpose. This was an unfortunate and inaccurate use of the term literary criticism. This particular view of the composition of the Pentateuch is still held by many OT historical-critical scholars today. But it has undergone major changes during the twentieth century and, in effect, the whole edifice is being seriously challenged at the end of the twentieth century. The original form and presuppositions of the four-document theory have changed radically, and other viable positions are being put forth. Some positions are modified documentary positions; some are radical challenges to the traditionally accepted critical position. However, conservative scholars have resisted, and continue to resist, any form of this theory that reduces the veracity, authority, inspiration, or revelatory character of the OT writings (see Canon, Content, Composition, pp. 118ff.).

“Literary Criticism” today is understood to mean the application to the OT of the canons of literary criticism used to investigate literature of any kind. Poetics, the study of the use of language and style to obtain meaning, has helped to reestablish the unity, the beauty, the integrity, the quality, and the meaning and significance of OT literature. Many subcategories of literary criticism exist: rhetorical criticism, an examination, through the use of language and literary stylistics, of how the author(s) has (have) established his/her meaning; redaction criticism, an examination of a literary document to discover how the author has formed and linked his materials together (edited them), to establish their meaning and significance; linguistics, the formal scientific study of human language, involves the application of some aspects of modern linguistics to the task of biblical exegesis to discover meaning; structuralism is an attempt to discover underlying deep patterns (conventions) of universal meaning and significance in the biblical texts; reader response criticism is a focus on the perspective of the readers and how they create meaning/significance from the text. A new approach seems to come to light nearly each year.

Form Criticism (Hermann Gunkel) originally sought to establish fixed literary patterns (usually small sections) and then to use these patterns to go behind the present text to help establish the meaning/significance of the literary pattern in its current context. Often the final goal was not reached or could not be because, according to this approach, no larger literary context existed within which to interpret the smaller forms. And, many times scholars tended to stress the meaning/significance of a reestablished “original” text rather than the extant text under consideration.

The meaning of “form criticism” has proved to be fluid, and today it tends to fall together with literary criticism, using genres as the interpretational units. An attempt has been made to subsume the more recent literary approaches under the general rubrics of form criticism. The study of the OT using form criticism revealed the marvelous multiplicity of literary styles, forms, and methods in the OT, but tended to atomize the text into isolated units rather than to develop the possible unity of the text.

Canon criticism is relatively new in biblical criticism, but already at least two major different functions and definitions of it are discernible. Brevard Childs works with the final canon of books delivered to the church as sacred Scripture, which are thus normative to some extent for discovering God's word to his people. He stresses the final form of biblical documents as the form to be vigorously analyzed and studied in order to perceive keys to actualizing the sacred text for our day. Another approach that has similarities is fostered by James Sanders, who stresses the authority of the various canonical stages of a historical document as well as its final shape. Thus the diachronic process of canonization itself and insights/helps gained from studying it are on a par with any reading of the final form of the text received by the church.

As a result of these approaches, great emphasis has been put on the need to study the various OT documents as wholes and to study them in relationship to the final contours of the canonical shape of the entire OT/NT itself. However, Sanders' appreciation of the various historical stages of documents as they moved to their final form does give us an added depth dimension for appreciation of the theology of the final form of the text and how it got to be what it is.

No single approach listed above is sufficient of itself to exhaust the task of hermeneutics in interpreting the OT. Many methods and many perspectives must be used, but they must, to have integrity, allow the OT Scriptures to exhibit their true character along with their original genius and inspiration.