Study notes: Some approaches to biblical criticism

My study notes on Chapter 6 of ‘The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible’ by Stephen Harris and Robert Platzner.

This was originally going to be a part of my notes on the documentary hypothesis and the authorship of the Pentateuch (my previous post), but I thought it would be better if I separate them.

The methods of studying a text

There are two broad categories that surmise the different approaches to biblical criticism.

  1. Historical approach
  2. Literary approach

For now, the authors state that they are focusing on the former. In the context of studying the Pentateuch and the documentary hypothesis, the textbook says:

Historical criticism investigates such matters as the time and place of a book’s composition; its sources, authorship, and editorial history; the audience for whom it was originally intended; and the social, political, and religious forces that may have influenced the authors’ or editors’ views of their subject. p.112

Studying archaeological data to compare it with the content of the old testament also comes under historical criticism. The lack of extra-biblical data to corroborate the exodus account as given in the bible puts many scholars in doubt over its historicity. Near Eastern writers focused more on telling a narrative to present their own interpretation of received history rather than repeating bare facts.

The pericope

In many cases, scholars have found that the narratives present in the bible (more specifically the Pentateuch) can be broken up into discrete, small units of stories, hymns, genealogies and other bits of content. One of these units is called a ‘pericope’. Theory says that these smaller units existed before the text was written, and the author-redactor brought different pericopes together to create a biblical book. This seems to find support in the documentary hypothesis (see previous post). Scholars generally believe that this usage of previously existing discrete units to create a document is found from Genesis until 2 Chronicles.

Critical methods relevant specifically to the documentary hypothesis

Form criticism

 ‘Form criticism’ attempts to look behind a written text in order to discover older oral traditions which the written text was based on. A form critic tries to ascertain the social and historical context in which the tradition originated from. This context is called the ‘Sitz-im-Leben‘.

Some scholars have argued against the notion that specific biblical texts were woven together from pericopes, rather they argue that the development of the text was primarily oral (it evolved as it passed from generations of storytellers) and then that was crystallized altogether in one written form.

A type of critical approach that is very similar to form criticism is “Source criticism“. Here the aim is to specifically identify and pull apart the different strands of the biblical text. This type of critical approach plays a dominant role in the Documentary Hypothesis (see previous post).

Redaction criticism

Redaction critics look at the role of the author-redactor who pieced together the biblical text. What methods did he use to bring different pericopes together? What aims did he have when he authored his work? Did he exaggerate, change, reinterpret and recast the traditions he was drawing from? All this comes under redaction criticism.

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