Textual Criticism - Uncovering Biblical Meaning

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First, let's discuss what Biblical Criticism is not. It is not the equivalent of Biblical Skepticism. The skepticism perspective of analyzing the Bible is an attempt to find flaws within the accuracy of the texts and compilation of the Bible in an effort to damage its theological and/or authoritative credibility.

The criticism reference in the title of Biblical Criticism is not to be misunderstood as having a negative connotation: in other words, it is not meaning to be critical in a negative sense. Rather, the purpose of Biblical Criticism is to evaluate the biblical text in a variety of ways in an attempt to uncover the meaning behind what an author wrote, identifying exactly what words the author wrote, and how the text became valued to the point that it was included in the Bible.

There are various types of methodologies for studying the Bible. The methodologies are referred to as criticisms. These definitions are direct abstracts from Harper's Bible Dictionary.

Textual Criticism
The aim of this field of biblical criticism is to establish the original wording or form of the biblical text insofar as this is possible. In dealing with ancient texts, it is more difficult to determine what an author actually wrote for several reasons:

- Various copies of surviving ancient manuscripts differ in their actual wording due to errors by scribes.
- In some cases, entire sections of the original have been lost.
- In other cases, only portions of the original text have been preserved, often because other authors have quoted only certain passages.
- The autograph originals no longer exist.

It is the task of textual criticism to collect and study these various writings in which a text has been preserved, determine the changes that have occurred in the wording and arrangement of the text, assess the significance of such changes, and restore, if possible, the original wording or form of the text. In every case, textual criticism seeks to establish a reliable text that can serve as the basis for serious study and reflection. Textual criticism is foundational to the other forms of inquiry.

Historical Criticism
Every biblical writing arose in a particular historical setting or perhaps even developed over time in one or more historical settings. Consequently, a biblical writing may be said to have a history of its own, which includes its time and place of composition, the circumstances in which it was produced or written, its author or authors, how it came to be written, and the audience(s) to which it was addressed.

A crucial part of determining the history of a text is to establish its date of composition. References to events in the text itself sometimes aid this process. When this is not possible, external resources such as Archaeological evidence or nonbiblical writings from the same period are utilized.

Authorship is another concern of historical criticism, including the identity of the author and the author's method of composition. Some books have one author; some books are composite writings.

Source Criticism
One aspect of historical criticism is Source Criticism. This is the attempt to identify the sources of which were used by an author for some of the composition. An example of the use of source criticism is the famous Pentateuch division between source J and E. They are distinguishable by the use of Yahweh and Elohim. Two additional sources were later proposed: P for priestly, and D for Deuteronomic.

Literary Criticism
Here the concern is with the text as a finished piece of writing. The questions here are not so much how the text came to be written or what we can know from outside the text to account for what is in it, but what we can learn from what is said in the text itself. In this sense, the text constitutes a "world" in its own right and as such serves as an object of investigation in all its aspects. The study of the language of a text includes looking at the words of the text and their various meanings or shades of meaning. Words are arranged in larger units or patterns of meaning ranging from phrases to sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and sections. To analyze these, it is often necessary to examine the grammar of a language, which includes the arrangement of words and how their forms are changed (inflection or accidence). At this level of investigation, literary criticism is helpful in noting various patterns of sentence structure.

Also involved is the study of literary style reflected in the text. In judging a text, one might ask whether the style is sophisticated or ordinary, calm or excited, narrative or argumentative. Literary criticism also recognizes the existence of a variety of literary forms or genres in which a biblical text may be written. In some instances, entire books belong to a single genre, such as historical narrative (I Samuel), poetry (Psalms), wisdom (Job), prophetic oracle (Amos), Gospel (Matthew), letter (Romans), or apocalypse (Revelation). Yet, within these larger works are found smaller literary forms: genealogies, legal codes, parables, warnings, etc…

Why is it important to classify biblical texts according to their literary form? The literary form of a text is often a clue to its meaning. For example, how we interpret Genesis 1 - 3 depends on whether it is read as a creation myth, allegory, or scientific history. The meaning we see in a text often derives from our prior judgment about its literary form. Properly recognizing a literary form enables us to compare the text with similar literary forms in both biblical and nonbiblical writings. Such comparison often enables us to see things in a text we would otherwise miss.

Form Criticism
This is a hybrid of historical and literary criticism. It begins with the recognition that a portion of a text may have a history of its own, independent of the larger work in which it is located. Reconstructing this process of development is known as tradition history. This is possible because in some instances the same biblical text occurs in different parts of the Bible in different forms.

Redaction Criticism
This examines the way a portion of text has been edited. The redaction critic's task is to analyze the individual instances where the editor has redacted an earlier text or tradition assess the overall significance of such changes, and interpret these in the light of the editor's literary and theological purpose.

Canonical Criticism
Places greater emphasis on the final form of the canonical text.

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