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Biblical Criticism

The word "criticism" is often taken by the public to imply negative judgment. Hence "biblical criticism" is often taken to mean negative judgment against the Bible. Yet it is not necessary to gather this meaning from the use of the word "criticism." When the various types of biblical criticism are considered carefully it becomes clear that biblical criticism helps us to arrive at a clearer understanding of the meaning and relevance of the Bible.

Scholars use the word "criticism" in a slightly different sense than that which is implied in common use. By this word scholars do not mean negative judgment but simply judgment or discernment. The task of the biblical critic, then, is not to find fault with the Bible but to understand it more fully. We will now examine how the various types of biblical criticism adds to our knowledge of the Bible.

True, the connotative meaning of the term is much worse than its denotative meaning. The Bible has undergone considerable analysis and criticism throughout the centuries. Many people, including me, have come to Christ after failing to "disprove" the truth of the Gospels. However, there is one question that I would ask Mr. Ally: would you subject the Qur'an to the same criticisms or do you simply accept it as a priori "truth" which does not require critical analysis?

The Penguin Dictionary of Religions lists eight types of biblical criticism. Each type helps us to appreciate the true worth of the Bible.

The first mentioned type is textual criticism. The purpose of this endeavor is to determine as much as possible what text left the pens of the inspired authors. Over time scribal errors are bound to result from even the best human attempts to produce hand-written copies of the Bible over the centuries. Today we have thousands of manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments from which to reconstruct what must reasonably have been the ancestor from which these texts descended. Since the desire of every Bible believer is presumably to hold on to the one text which God condescended to reveal to us, it is difficult to see why textual criticism should not prove to be of positive benefit.

There are scribal errors in the Bible, however, the question is: do these errors affect doctrine? Out of over 15,000 lines in the New Testament only 40 are in some doubt while the others are established beyond all reasonable doubt, as authentic. Most important is the fact that no Christian doctrine depends on any of the 40 doubtful lines.

I believe that it is wonderful that Christians honestly admit that there are some doubts about a few portions of text in the New Testament. Sadly, Muslims seize on this, in order cast doubt on the entire text, as well as the message of the Gospels. The manuscript evidence for the Bible is overwhelming and is a far more reliable witness to the faithful transmission of Christian scriptures than anything Muslims can show for their book. Please remember, since all of the Qur'anic variants were burned, you will have to live with the nagging question that the others might have been very different from today's Qur'an. In fact, many of the textual variants can be found in the commentaries of the early Muslim scholars who still knew the other codices before they were burned. Therefore, it is impossible for Muslims to establish the original text of the Qur'an because all of the variants were burned under Uthman and Muslim are stuck with the scribal errors made by Zaid. Muslims do not have any manuscripts to compare, with the modern Qur'an text, in order to determine what might have been a scribal error.

Christians, by comparison, have several hundred old handwritten copies of the New Testament including many with the correct version and also some with errors, but the textual critics can trace the errors and, with very high confidence, establish the original text. This is because the Christians did not burn their books therefore we can restore the original text even from "corrupted" manuscripts. That is a very important difference between Bible and Qur'an.

The second type is source criticism. We understand that the inspired authors were inescapably products of their environments. There exists no reason for excluding the possibility that in composing their works they drew upon existing sources and documents. The author of the third Gospel explicitly makes known in his introduction that he did so exactly draw upon other works (Luke 1:1-4).

We need to take a look at this passage:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

The earliest preaching of the Gospels consisted of a brief summary of the facts of the earthly history of Jesus and notes were taken and digests were put into circulation. Luke refers to these narratives of what was to believed on sure grounds by Christians, and drawn up from the testimony of eye-witnesses and ministering servants of the word. Luke was simply being a good researcher and author.

This type of criticism helps us to understand our existing documents by isolating within them as far as possible the traces remaining of the sources from which they drew. Thus we are better able to understand Genesis, for example, when we come to realize that the book was composed from three main sources. Otherwise much of Genesis would be puzzling if not incomprehensible. The sources are combined in such a fashion that our resulting document which appears in the form of a continuous narrative is actually riddled with repetitions which on occasion contradict each other. Hence the creation of the heavens and the earth is described twice in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. Whereas in chapter 1 we learnt that the man was the last item of God's creating, we learn from chapter 2 that animals were created after the man. Without the help of source criticism here we would be at a loss to understand how a single sane author could have written such a book. Now we can appreciate that our present Genesis is a result of careful scholarly work that went into combining, retaining, and editing existing documents.

The second Chapter of Genesis repeats the first Chapter with greater detail. Also, what about the Qur'an? Can this book be understood without the "traditions" (Hadiths)?

A third type, form criticism, helps us to detect the way in which the material developed over time through oral transmission until final inclusion in our present documents. Since it is clear that many of our documents were written long after the events they describe, it is reasonable to assert that the oral material must have been somewhat fluid. Gospel material, therefore, would have been given shape by the situations that the early church experienced. Thus when the early church preached the message about Jesus the teaching about him took on various shapes. Conflict stories, for example, developed to explain why the early church is now in conflict with Jewish leaders. The explanation is cast in the form of a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. Hence we find that a conflict should mean more for the situation of the early church than for an understanding of Jesus' life - situation is represented in Mark 7 as already having occurred during Jesus' ministry. Jesus is said to have there already declared all foods clean, whereas we know from Acts and Paul that the question of clean versus unclean foods was an unanswered question for the early church.

The Qur'an also suffers from the same dilemma since it was written after the death of Muhammad. Arab culture also influenced the early development of Islam as well. In fact, there is a revolution in Western scholarship on Islamic civilization. This [new] secular approach gives us the hypothesis that Islam (as we know it) took over 200 years to formulate and evolve. Islam, according to this new trend, did not instantly and spontaneously come from Muhammad.

The positive contribution of this type of criticism is that it helps us to retrace the development of the material about Jesus over time. Often we can understand more about a finished work if we can see the process by which it reaches completion. We do not have this advantage with the books of the Bible, since all we have here are the finished documents. Form criticism helps us to retrace what must have been stages of development along the way.

Not true! There are, as I mentioned earlier, many old manuscripts of the New Testament. The Qur'an is really "the finished product" since Uthman destroyed all of the older manuscripts.

A type of criticism not unrelated to form criticism is tradition criticism. Whereas form criticism provides insight into how teaching material were cast into more or less fixed forms, tradition criticism helps us to understand how the initial stories acquired later changes. Such changes would reflect again the needs of the Christian community arising at a time later than that which gave shape to the initial teaching. To illustrate tradition criticism at work, consider the story of Jesus' baptism as narrated in the four Gospels. We notice a progressive tendency among the later Gospels to minimize the implications of the fact that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Mark had simply mentioned the brute fact without caring for the implication that the baptizer had an advantage over Jesus (Mark 1:9-11). Luke, writing later, minimizes mention of the baptizer by using the passive form of the verb to say that Jesus was baptized (Luke 3:21). Matthew has the baptizer declaring Jesus' superiority (Matthew 3:14). John, writing last, has the baptizer at once raising the banner of Jesus and lowering his own. Jesus becomes greater, the baptizer becomes lesser (John 3:30). This explains why John never clearly asserts that Jesus was baptized. We see that as we go from Mark to John the story of the baptism is reshaped to suit the later needs of the community. Christians may have found the implications of the baptism of Jesus to be at tension with the later claims about Jesus' divinity. The way to avoid such tension was to modify the tradition. We get a better understanding of what the authors of the Gospels are saying from this insight into the growing tradition. It helps us to see the various stages of early Christian apologetics at work.

John the Baptist is portrayed as a messenger who came before Jesus in all four Gospels. John did not have "the advantage" over Jesus in the Gospel of Mark where John said:

"After me will come one more powerful than I, the throngs of whose sandal I am not worthy to stoop down and unties." Mark 1:7

Historical criticism is the fifth type to consider here. This area of study raises questions having to do with authorship, date, and place of composition of the documents. Most of the Bible would have little meaning for us unless we knew who wrote what when and where. Often we do not have all of this information, but knowing what information we lack also helps us better than if we had not raised the questions in the first place. Knowing, for example, that Hebrews was not written by Paul now leaves us powerless to determine who wrote it. Yet the knowledge that Paul was not the author reduces our chances of misunderstanding Paul and his message which is to be found in his own letters. We can also understand Hebrews better knowing now that we would be unwise to force-fit its theology into a framework of Pauline teachings.

We know when the events occurred, but I am not sure why it is important to know who wrote a particular document. Incidentally, if you read Syed Maududi's commentary on the Qur'an, you will notice that there is considerable disagreement concerning the dating of many Suras in the Qur'an.

We turn now to another area: redaction criticism. Having considered already how the tradition originated and developed, we can take our study further to consider how each writer used the tradition to meet his own editorial policy. We can see, for example, that although Matthew and Luke both culled sayings of Jesus from a hypothetical Q Gospel, Matthew alone arranged many of those sayings to form a lengthy speech delivered by Jesus while seated on a mountain (Matthew 5-7). Matthew, it would seem, thought it useful to represent Jesus as the new Moses delivering a new law from a mountain. Matthew has also arranged his Gospel into five sections as if to represent by these something new to match the five books of Moses. We understand better what Matthew is trying to say when we recognise his editorial policy, or, to put it another way, how he redacted the material to form his own Gospel.

The Gospels are eyewitness accounts of the life and works of Jesus. Different authors emphasized different issues, however, the same basic message of salvation is found in all four Gospels.

Canonical criticism is the seventh type mentioned in the Penguin Dictionary of Religions. This type has to do with the question of which documents deserve to be included or not in the canon of scripture. This obviously is not a new discipline since the canon is already fixed. Rather, scholars early in Christian history had already recognised the value of at least this type of criticism. The fact of the canon has served, however, to obscure the diversity among the various included documents. Refreshing this discipline may not lead us to revise the canon. But it would give us a chance to evaluate the message of each document understood in its own right. Unless the writers had penned their documents intending them for inclusion within a larger work, the writers could hardly have intended their messages to be understood in the light of someone else's. Canonical criticism can help us to avoid confusion between what is the message of each individual document and what is the message of the canon taken as a whole.

The Canon DOES NOT obscure the diversity of opinions of various documents and authors. Once again, different authors emphasized different issues, however, the same message of salvation is found in all four Gospels.

The last type to consider here is literary criticism. The purpose of this area of study is to uncover what must have been in the mind of the author as he wrote. This type obviously includes all the areas of study already discussed. What is worth mentioning here is the particular attitude adopted in critical studies. The Bible considered as literature is seen to bear the characteristics of other literature. It is thought, then that a careful student should bring to bear all the tools of literary criticism upon the Bible also. The purpose of this endeavor, again, is not to "criticize" the Bible in the negative sense usually understood by the word among laity. The purpose is to understand more fully what the Bible is saying to us.

Now having stressed so much of the benefits of criticism, a word needs to be said about is negative effects. This caution is directly implied from the already mentioned purpose of trying to discover what was in the mind of this or that author at the time of composition. How is this to be known for certain? The various critical methods are hardly scientific. On almost every question scholarly judgment is sharply divided. This alone points to the degree of subjectivity involved in the process. This of course is not to discourage the process. The caution to be expressed, however, is one that should serve to limit the degree of assurance that accompany this or that pronouncement of scholarly judgment. At the end of the day the scholar must feel humbled by the task at hand. A negative effect of this type of study, then, is one which Paul already expressed in the following words: Knowledge puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1).

Leaving aside this possibility, however, we have seen that biblical criticism cannot simply be brushed aside by serious students who seek a better understanding of the Bible. The various methods of study already described above all serve the purpose of discovering what the inspired authors of the Bible were saying. To understand the relevance of the Bible for today we need to first determine what relevance it had back then when various parts of it originated, developed, and were eventually written down. As the New American Bible puts it, the Bible is both God's word and man's. To understand God's messages in the Bible we have to first understand the words of the men who wrote them.

In conclusion, there is nothing wrong in analyzing the Bible, in fact, many [including me] have come to Jesus as a result of attempting to refute the truth of the Gospels. Although there are a few points with which we would disagree, it is overall very refreshing to see a Muslim speak so positively of Biblical criticism. My question is: will the Muslims ever allow the Qur'an to be subject to the same sorts of criticism? Why will Muslims gleefully accept the results of Biblical criticism, but react so negatively to articles such as the one in January's Atlantic Monthly concerning the Qur'an? In fact, Muslims, unlike Jews and Christians, have put an intellectual embargo on the Qur'an which cannot be breached. Even a small degree of analysis can be very dangerous, Nasr Abu Zaid is a recent example of the unwillingness of many Muslims to critcally analyze the Qur'an and their world view, while the murder of textual critic Prof. Bergstraesser, apparently for similar reasons, took place earlier this century.

Andrew Vargo

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