Biblical Criticism, including Form Criticism,
Tradition Criticism, Higher
Biblical criticism is an umbrella term covering various techniques
used mainly by mainline and liberal Christian theologians to study the meaning of Biblical passages. It uses general historical principles, and
is based primarily on reason rather than revelation or faith.
Form criticism is an analysis of literary documents, particularly the
Bible, to discover earlier oral traditions (stories, legends, myths, etc.) upon which they
Tradition criticism is an analysis of the Bible, concentrating on how
religious traditions have grown and changed over the time span during which the text
Higher criticism is "the study of the sources and literary
methods employed by the biblical authors." 1
Lower criticism is "the discipline and study of the actual
wording" of the Bible; a quest for textual purity and understanding. 1
Biblical Criticism, in particular higher criticism, deals with why and how
the books of the Bible were written; lower criticism deals with the actual teachings
of its authors. The word "criticism" must be one of the all-time least
appropriate religious terms. Theologians do not engage in actual criticism - at least as
the word is commonly understood. They analyze the Bible in order to
understand it better.
Biblical criticism originated with anti-Christian writers who valued reason and logic
over faith and revelation. Their goal was to discredit and ridicule the Bible and
Christianity. Their analysis techniques were picked up by some liberal theologians and
initially used to explain away and discount Biblical accounts of prophecy, miracles,
personal demon infestation, etc. Finally, even mainstream theologians began to use
biblical criticism to determine:
"which are the most reliable and trustworthy texts" of the Bible. 1
how are various of its books related to each other
who were its authors
when were they written
which passages are of real events; which are myth, legends,
folklore, etc. Which are religious
"...what is the relationship of these sources to other oral and written material
of the time?" 1
Theologians use biblical criticism to date when various books in the Bible were
written. This helps them:
detect when, in the early Christian movement, various beliefs (like the
determine whether 1 Timothy, 2 timothy, and Titus were written by
Paul or by unknown persons in the 2nd
century CE, 35 to 85 years after Paul's death.
They look for places in the Bible where the text remains silent. Absences can often
guide the theologian to new understanding of the text. For example:
the "absence from the Hebrew Bible of Adam's disobedience as an explanation for
the absence of Jesus' birth narrative from the earliest canonical gospel, Mark
the absence in the other gospels of the qualifier "sexual immorality"
which is included in Jesus' discussion of divorce in Matthew.
They look for apparent discrepancies between various accounts of the same event. For
The gospel of John describes Jesus' assault on the businesses in the temple at Jerusalem
as occurring near the start of his ministry. The 3 synoptic gospels describe the attack
near the end of his life. Some interpret these passages as referring to two separate
events. Others suggest that the gospel of John makes no attempts to place the events in
chronological order Still others, using Biblical criticism, conclude that John described
the event out of order for a specific theological reason.
The four canonical gospels describe different combinations of women as visiting the tomb
of Jesus on Easter Sunday morning. Some interpret these passages as referring to multiple
visits of various combinations of women. Others, using biblical criticism, conclude that
the various gospel writers are simply recording different oral traditions
propagated by various
They study the style of writing found in the books of the Bible in order to determine
the identity of the authors. For example:
Some Christians believe that the gospel of John, the letters of John and the book of
Revelation were all written by the Apostle John. After all, the books themselves identify
the author as John. But biblical criticism shows that the writing styles in the gospel and
letters match, whereas the style of Revelation did not match the other four documents.
This shows to the investigators that the author of the gospel of John did not write Revelation.
The 13 epistles from Romans to Philemon all state that they were written by Paul. But
analysis of the writing styles shows to the scholars that Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1
Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus were not written by Paul; there is some possibility that
Colossians was not either.
One of the most active groups in Biblical criticism is the Jesus
Seminar. They, and others, have compared the ministry of Jesus as described in the
synoptic gospels with the content of the gospel of John. From the
irresolvable conflicts, they concluded that they had to
reject either John or the synoptic gospels as a guide to understanding the historical
Jesus. They have largely ignored John.
Reaction of conservative Christians to biblical criticism:
The Bible, in its original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek does not contain deceptive
All verses in the Bible are useful for personal guidance. In an apparent reference to
the Hebrew Scriptures, the author of 2 Timothy 3:16 wrote: "All
Scripture is given by inspiration of God [literally God-breathed], and is profitable for
doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness..."
Biblical verses should normally be interpreted literally. Only in the case of apparent conflicts
between passages may some verses be considered symbolically or in a restricted sense.
Thus, the name of the author, the date of writing, or the relationships between books
is of little interest. Religious conservatives strongly embrace lower criticism, the detailed
analysis of the authors' words and thoughts.
Most conservatives disagree with biblical criticism's rejection of miracles,
prophecies, etc. Some have warned that biblical
criticism may threaten an individual's faith:
Ankerberg and Weldon believe that "miracles
and the supernatural are inherently a part of what God does in history, because God is a
supernatural being. The Bible is checkered with miracle from beginning to end, from
creation, the fall, and the flood to the exodus, conquest, prophets, captivity / return to
the Gospels, Acts, epistles and Revelation." 3
describes higher criticism as: "a truly dictatorial regime in theology."
It results in "an uncritical and unjustified denigration of the Biblical text"
and a "godless technique that eroded the Word of God itself."
Maier stated: "It is not only an absolutely useless
but also a manifestly sinful and extremely dangerous exercise...to take the gospels in
hand and then to discard vital and substantial portions of the sacred text as though these
were records of deliberate fabrications, mythological formulations, and misunderstandings
on the part of the early Christian communities...It is...fraught with the gravest
spiritual consequences." 5
When two or more verses in the Bible appear to be in conflict, religious conservatives
normally attempt to harmonize the passages. They will often select the clearest and most
specific passage(s), and interpret them literally. Explanations are then sought for the
remaining verses which are apparently in contradiction. For example, consider the virgin birth of Jesus. Matthew and Luke state specifically that
Mary was a virgin at the time that she conceived Jesus. But other passages in the
Christian Scriptures by Paul and the author(s) of the gospel of John seem to imply that
Jesus' birth was unremarkable. In addition, the gospels of Mark and John do not contain a
birth story at all. Conservative Christians might harmonize these apparent conflicts by:
Accepting the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke which state clearly that Jesus was
born of a virgin.
Explaining that the author(s) of the gospel of John may have wished to emphasize that
Jesus was the son of God and thus did not specifically mention Jesus' virgin birth.
Believing that the author of Mark wished to emphasize Jesus' adult ministry and thus did
not include a birth narrative.
Believing that Paul wanted to emphasize Jesus' resurrection and thus did not refer to
Jesus' virgin birth.
Once the passages are harmonized, the birth stories of Matthew and Luke can be
emphasized; the other references to Jesus' birth can be ignored.
On the other hand, advocates of biblical criticism would emphasize differences and
conflicts among various passages in an effort to understand why they disagree. They might
Paul's writing (circa 50 to 65 CE) and Mark's gospel (written circa 70 CE) did not
mention the unusual nature of Jesus' conception because the Christian movement had not
created the belief prior to 70 CE.
Matthew and Luke added a birth narrative because church tradition had invented the
virgin birth by the time that those two gospels were written (80's or 90's CE).
The author(s) of the gospel of John knew of the widespread belief in the virgin birth
when he/they wrote the gospel circa 90 to 100 CE. But it was rejected as invalid. Thus
he did not include it in the gospel.
Apparent conflicts between Bible passages motivate conservative Christians to try to
harmonize the verses. Discrepancies are useful to liberal theologians. They believe that
they can use Biblical criticism in order to improve their understanding of the origin of
religious beliefs and the development of religious traditions.
Other essays on this website which discuss Biblical criticism: