What is historical criticism?

What is Historical Criticism?

Historical criticism (also known as historicism or higher criticism) refers to the study of literary texts, particularly ancient texts and especially the Bible, in terms of their historical origins and development within those contexts.  It is an umbrella term which describes the dominant method of study used by biblical scholars today. Technically, this term refers specifically to questions about the historical character of a work, but, as it is impossible to do this without studying the literary character of a work, this article will also address questions of literary criticism as they relate to historical criticism and the Bible.

Historical criticism is not criticism in the sense of disapproval or the examination of faults and mistakes, but instead is an analysis of the text in the hope of better understanding it.


What is the goal of Historical Criticism?

Historical criticism seeks greater understanding of biblical texts by analyzing the historical and social contexts in which they developed.  The goal of historical criticism, traditionally, has been to try to understand the text’s meaning in its original context and to answer questions about the text, such as:

* Who wrote it?
* When was it written?
* What else what happening at the time of its writing?
* How did it come to be in the form we have it today?
* What did it mean to the people who first read or heard it?

Historical criticism has also often sought answers to the ever-elusive question of what is called “authorial intent”: What did the author intend for this text to mean in his or her time and place?


Methods of Historical Criticism

Scholars use a variety of methods in attempting to answer these questions, all of which draw on other fields of biblical and historical scholarship, such as linguistics and archaeology.

Three of the most widely used methods are:

  1. Source criticism.  Source criticism questions whether texts came from a singular source, author, or historical context, and seeks to untangle the sources present within any given text.For example, source criticism reads the gospel of Matthew with an eye towards what material came from other gospels or from Matthew’s own tradition.  The gospel of Matthew shares some material with the gospel of Mark, and other material with the gospel of Luke; a source critic would be interested in which material is shared and how.
  2. Form criticism.  Form criticism seeks to understand the claims of a text by analyzing its linguistic patterns.For example, form criticism reads the Gospel of Matthew with an eye towards how certain words and expressions, like “the kingdom of heaven,” reflect the broader claims of the text.
  3. Redaction criticism.  Redaction criticism analyzes how redactors (i.e., editors) wove together various traditions into one whole.For example, redaction criticism reads the Gospel of Matthew with an eye toward how Matthew changes or uses material from other traditions (like the gospels of Mark and Luke) to fit the text’s broader claims.


The History of Historical Criticism

Historical criticism has roots in both the Protestant Reformation and the European Enlightenment.  Prior to this era, there was a tradition of reading biblical texts allegorically:  every part of the story was symbolic.  For some texts in the Bible, this was certainly the case — like the parables of Jesus, where a lost sheep was symbolic of a sinner whom God was seeking.  Allegorical readers, however, insisted on this kind of symbolism in all stories — suggesting, for example, that the two coins that the Samaritan gives to the innkeeper in Luke 15 stood for the two sacraments of baptism and communion.  The Protestant Reformation brought back an attention to the literal or “plain” meaning of the text, aided by new tools for and interest in studying the Bible in its original languages.

The Enlightenment, for its part, brought with it the questioning of traditional beliefs and a new focus on human reason and scientific objectivity, to which theological and biblical study was now no longer immune.  People started to question more vigorously the relationship between what the words of the Bible said and the actual historical events it was supposed to describe.  For example: Did Moses really write the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible)?  Were prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah writing before or after the events they describe?  Was the Resurrection an actual historical event?  Scholars around the world explored these questions, but perhaps nowhere with greater gusto or to greater effect than in Germany.

Nineteenth century German scholars such as W. M. L. de Wette and Julius Wellhausen tackled the problem of Pentateuch authorship by developing the Documentary Hypothesis using a source-critical method (see above).  They suggested that rather than one author (Moses), the Pentateuch was composed of sources from at least four different authors or traditions!  This is just one example of the early work done by biblical scholars using historical criticism.

However, this work grew to be highly controversial.  By applying historical and literary principles to the study of the Bible, these scholars and others presupposed that the Bible is made up, at least in part, of human documents whose historical reality can be questioned and determined.  For some Christians, this approach was dangerous or harmful to the authority of scripture as the authoritative Word of God, especially since it negated some long-held traditions about biblical authorship (such as Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch).

At the turn of the 20th century, in the face of the perceived threat of historical criticism, some Protestant Christians in the United States recommitted themselves to the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith (including the inerrancy of the Bible).  These Christians, along with many Roman Catholics, rejected historical criticism as a legitimate form of biblical scholarship.  Modernist Christians, on the other hand, embraced historical criticism.  Protestant theologians from traditions that embraced this new form of biblical scholarship have wrestled with its implications for the authority of scripture ever since.

Other important names in the development of historical criticism include: Karl Graf, Hermann Gunkel, Ernst Troeltsch, Charles A. Briggs, and Rudolf Bultmann.  A well-known off-shoot of historical criticism is the “quest for the historical Jesus.”  Important early scholars in that field included D.F. Strauss, Adolf Von Harnack, and William Wrede.


The Influence of Historical Criticism

The rise of historical criticism in biblical scholarship was one of the touchpoints in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy in the United States in the early 20th century.  American Christianity is in many ways still divided between the fundamentalists, who rejected historical criticism, and the modernists (who primarily make up mainline Protestantism) who embraced it.  However, over the past century, many of those in conservative traditions that initially rejected the historical-critical method (such as Roman Catholics) have come to accept, at least in part, its conclusions and methodology as useful for illuminating the historical context of the Bible and some of its texts.  Historical criticism remains the predominant method used by biblical scholars today.


Historical Criticism and the LGBTQ Community

In recent decades, scholars have used the historical-critical method in new ways on texts that have been used to ostracize members of the LGBTQ community.  Historical critical scholarship has called into question many of the assumptions made by contemporary readers about these texts.

For example, in his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that men “men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another” (1:27).  Historically, this text has been used to condemn same-sex intimacy as sinful.  A historical-critical approach questions the use of the text to condemn homosexuality and instead seeks to place the text within the broader argument of Romans and Paul’s historical worldview.  Romans scholar Beverly Gaventa notes that “Paul did not have an understanding of homosexuality as a sexual orientation or sexual identity… same-sex intercourse was not understood as an indication of a different sexual identity but as evidence of an intemperate sexual drive.”  By placing this text in its historical context through analyzing first-century understandings of same-sex intercourse, Gaventa argues that use of this text to exclude gay and lesbian persons from the church is incompatible with Paul’s message.


Historical Criticism Today

While the historical critical method has been the preferred tool of biblical scholars for some two hundred years, it has recently come under critique from postmodern thinkers, especially feminist, womanist, queer, liberationist, and Latino/Latina scholars.  These scholars have questioned the supposed historical and scholarly objectivity of the historical-critical method.  In other words, these scholar doubt whether the historical critical method can retrieve the “original” meaning of the text in any objective way.

Many postmodern scholars believe that, despite our best efforts, we can never fully grasp the historical context or authorial intent of a text because our own experiences and biases influence our readings and study of biblical texts.  While many postmodern scholars use the tools and methods of historical criticism, they also argue for the importance of naming and claiming our own perspectives and for a recognition of their impact on the biblical text and its meaning(s).


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Further Reading

James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (See especially Chapter 1, “The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship,” for a basic introduction to the place of historical criticism within the history of biblical interpretation.)

Van A. Harvey, “Biblical Criticism,” in A Handbook of Theological Terms

Historical Criticism,” Oxford Biblical Studies Online, Oxford University Press

John J. Collins, The Bible After Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age

Christine Hayes, “Lecture 5. Critical Approaches to the Bible: Introduction to Genesis 12-50,” Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), Open Yale Courses.  (An introductory lecture on modern critical study of the Bible, including the development of the discipline and different methods within historical criticism.)

Sylvia Bull and Joseph Schattauer Paillé

SYLVIA BULL is a 2015 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div/M.A.) and a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She currently works as a graduate research assistant for the Confirmation Project, a Lilly-funded grant to study confirmation in five Protestant denominations in the United States. In 2015-2016, she will serve as the vicar of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Boone, NC. JOSEPH SCHATTAUER PAILLE is a 2014 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find his writing at OnBeing.org and in The Cresset. He lives in the Bronx.