Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Biblical Criticism

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Every so often, the regular reader of the Holy Bible will come across some writing or opinion about the Holy Bible that will throw his mind into utter disarray. The number of extraordinary opinions held by biblical scholars these days, both secular and Christian, is enormous; and each odd opinion seems to give birth to three odder opinions before it itself dies away. And too often the ruckus of opinion (much of which is based on "scholarship") gives rise to unnecessary disquiet in the heart of the believer who is simply searching for the truth.

It is possible that there is not a field of biblical studies that has caused more storm than that of Biblical Criticism. It must be said upfront that this essay is not meant to be a direct attack on the study; rather, the aim is to clarify its methods and to assess its value in the life of the believer. Despite its name, the purpose of biblical criticism is not to criticize or invalidate the Holy Bible as such. It is instead an offshoot of a much wider field of literary scholarship, which seeks to analyze literature and other written works in a scientific and methodological manner.

Among the flood of different critical approaches that have developed during the past two centuries (e.g., Philological criticism, Literary criticism, Tradition criticism, Form criticism, etc.), the two main categories which are of concern to us are "Lower" and "Higher" criticism. "Lower" criticism deals mostly with the text itselfdetermining whether a certain word belongs here or there, or whether the style and grammar of a particular chapter matches the rest of the book. If the Holy Bible were compared to a river, this sort of study examines the waters "lower" down the stream. Lower biblical criticism has actually made several valuable contributions to biblical studies, since its only aim is to make certain that what we are reading are the actual words that the prophets and apostles wrote.

The "higher" biblical critic seeks to penetrate higher up the stream, nearer its source. His aim is to study the origin and sources of the text and to assess its actual ideas and message. His concern is not whether the wording is correct but rather whether the author, time period, and story itself are true (a right most properly reserved for the church). It is this "higher" form of criticism which is capable of the most damage, because is the most prone to having its scholarship mixed with the personal biases of scholars; and so it is the type with which we are primarily concerned here. "Christianity has nothing to fear from scholarship," scholar James D. Dunn once said. "Scholars may be a different matter!"

We may take two quick examples of biblical criticismone from the Old Testament and one from the New Testamentto get a feel for its approach.

The first is regarding the authorship of the Pentateuch (Holy Book of Genesis through Holy Book of Deuteronomy). For all the centuries up to the nineteenth, it was firmly believed by all Christians that Moses was the one who penned the first five books of the Jewish canon. But after fastidious examination of the books wording, especially the way God is addressed in them, critics abandoned belief in Mosaic authorship and formed an alternative view known as the Documentary Theory, a hodgepodge theory which says that a number of different authors wrote it.

This theory uses the initials JEDP to identify what it considers to be four different hands involved in the composition of the Pentateuch, especially Holy Book of Genesis. The J manuscript was named for one supposed authors use of the name "Jehovah" (ca. 850 BC); the E manuscript was named for another authors use of "Elohim" (ca. 750 BC); the D document, containing parts of Holy Book of Deuteronomy, is believed to have been written around 620 BC by Josiah; and the P document was supposedly the work of a priestly writer in the postexilic age. The theory has been slightly modified by archeological pressures which show the ideas in the Pentateuch to be quite old (around Moses' time); and now it is more fashionable to think of the Pentateuch as the culmination of streams of oral tradition that were passed on since the time of Moses.

Quite clearly, such a view would be rejected by conservative scholars and Christians; to throw out such a long-held tradition about scriptural authorship after a relatively short period of modern study reveals a somewhat headstrong attitude. It seems to be based on an evolutionary view of the world (the Pentateuch "evolved" instead of being created all at once by one person), and a disbelief in supernatural revelation (which alone could allow a single person to know about events spanning thousands of years). And there is actually no valid biblical reason to reject Mosaic authorship. The Pentateuch itself attests to his authorship (see Ex 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Deut 31:9), and Old Testament allusions abound (see Josh 1:7-8; 8:31-32; 1 Kgs 2:3; Dan 9:11-13). Significantly, our Lord Himself bears witness to his authorship (Jn 5:46-47). In actuality, the entire Holy Bible makes a pervasive claim to Moses' authorship of the first five Holy Books of the Old Testamenteven if not necessarily that he wrote down every word, but that by far most of the material came directly from him, however it was written.

The New Testament example concerns the authorship of the Holy Gospels. The traditional or conservative view is that each evangelist sat down on his own, and by the Holy Spirit's direct inspiration, composed his version of the Holy Gospel. But after reflecting on the great degree of parallelism that exists between the first three (synoptic) Holy Gospels, biblical critics concluded that one must be the "original" and the other two must have borrowed from it. Due to Marks internal structure and relative "simplicity," it was hypothesized that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke borrowed from him. After that came the "Q Theory" (from the German, Quelle, "source"), which hypothesized that all three evangelists based their writings on a more fundamental "Gospel" that was circulating among the churches.

One of the major problems that sprouted from the Q Theory was that many abandoned belief in St. Matthew's authorship of the Holy Gospel bearing his name. Why would an eyewitness of the life of Christ, they said, which St. Matthew certainly was, depend so heavily on Mark's account? The consensus of modern biblical critics therefore says that the first Holy Gospel was ascribed to St. Matthew not because he wrote it, but only because he contributed to the mysterious Q document (although no trace of such a "Q" source has been found).

Despite the results of biblical criticism, strong arguments persist for the traditional view:

  1. There is a good historical tradition that St. Matthew wrote the Holy Gospel material: Papias, the second-century bishop of Hierapolis, Irenaeus, Origen, and Eusebius all agree that St. Matthew was the writer of the Holy Gospel and that he probably wrote it originally in Hebrew (or Aramaic).

  2. St Matthews occupation as a tax collector qualified him to be an official recorder of the words and works of our Lord Jesus Christ. His job accustomed him to note-taking and record-keeping; and therefore our Lord Jesus Christ might have called him for the specific purpose of recording an account of His teachings for future generations.

  3. The unanimous voice of the Church since the early second century ascribed the Holy Gospel to St. Matthew, one of the Twelve.
There are those who claim that such theories do not really erode ones faith in the Holy Bible, because they do not alter the words of the message in any way; they merely modify ones knowledge of how the words came to be written down. But surely how the words came to be written down and by whom is almost as important as what they actually say. When one tells me that Moses sat down and wrote down whatever thoughts the Holy Spirit poured into his mind, I am sure that it is God's Word. But when one says that Genesis was actually "compiled," and that somewhat haphazardly, over several centuries, mostly by scribbling down the half-remembered oral traditions of peopleand that by four different authors who knew nothing about each otherI come to think of it as merely a work of man's fancy.

And so with the Holy Gospels: If they were writing the inspired Word of God, why would the evangelists have to "rely" on other sources, as if to search for ideas they themselves were unable to come up with alone? Such a notion gives one the inevitable impression of the Holy Gospels as being the product of mostly human labor. But when the Holy Gospels are considered from the divine point of view, it is more likely they were written according to our Lord Jesus Christ's promise: "The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my namewill teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I have said to you" (John 14:26). And the great textual similarity between the Holy Gospels probably stems from the fact that they were a written reflection of the living tradition that was already going through the early churches at the time; that is, their "original source" was the unified faith and tradition of the believers under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Notwithstanding its drawbacks, one should never blindly discount scholarship for the work it does. The toil and sweat of Holy Bible scholars over the years has greatly abetted our knowledge of the background, style, and textual content of the Holy Bible. God is the one, after all, who gave us our brains; He meant for us to use them. And many scholars are using their brains to the glory of God. But there comes a point where the scholar begins to cross the bounds of scholarship and to encroach upon the sacred grounds of scripture.

And so neither the scholar nor anyone else can ever completely rely upon his studies to understand the word of God. For the very heart of the Holy Gospelits deepest depthsis wholly inaccessible to scholarship. If scholarship were required to penetrate the Holy Gospel mystery, then the Holy Gospel would be reserved for only a very select group of people. But now it was revealed by God to all men; and therefore, He has chosen a different criterion for entering the mysterysomething He has graciously given to every soul, if only he or she would cultivate it: faith. A man's wit may have been given by God to discover a few historical facts about the Holy Gospel; but his soul was given him to rejoice in its message. The scholar may indeed stand at the door of the tabernacle and pay his respects: it is only the believer who may enter the Holy of Holies and meet with God face-to-face.

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