Literary Criticism and
Since many religious traditions have sacred writings, literary
analysis is an important tool for scholars of religion. Literary
analysis of sacred texts can be divided into several sub-disciplines:
|A. Textual Criticism tries to determine the
most original version of a text. All
ancient texts were copied by hand.
During copying, changes could be made to the text.
On the one hand, some changes were accidental: the scribe simply
misread a word or made an honest mistake. On the other hand, some
changes may have been intentional to try to produce a reading that
made more sense (at least to the copyist). The textual critic compares
different readings of the same text, evaluates them, tries to explain
the differences and attempts to determine the most “original”
A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls
B. Documentary/Source Criticism tries
to determine if the work is a composite work; that is, does the entire
book come from one author or one period of time? A well known conclusion
of source criticism work is found in the first five books of the Hebrew
Scriptures. Long sections of narrative refer to the God of Israel as
Yahweh while other long passages refer to God as Elohim. Does this
suggest that the Torah is drawing on two different but related sources?
In a similar way, scholars have tried to discern the various sources
that the writers of the Christian Gospels may have used. For the Qur'an,
scholarship has often focused on the question of when and where the
various oracles were received by Muhammad. In addition, the
Qur'an makes reference to many stories and events from both Judaism and
Christianity? Were these from written sources, oral traditions or
C. Form Criticism seeks to discern the form or genre of a text. Is a text a hymn, a poem, a prayer or a narrative?
Determining the form of a text is important to understanding its
social context: was it used in worship, in private meditation, in
creating a history, a court of law, as an explanation for a phenomenon,
D. Redaction Criticism
: If a text is made up of different sources, who put them together
and why? In other words,
redaction criticism seeks to discover the purpose of the editor(s) of a
text. What was their purpose in putting the material together in a
particular manner? For example, why are there three Gospels that apparently tell
the same stories in slightly different ways?
These three Gospels are known as the synoptic Gospels; synoptic
is from Greek, meaning "seen together." The answer is that each Gospel writer is editing material for his
own purpose: Matthew is writing for a predominantly Jewish audience;
Luke is writing for a Roman audience and Mark may be addressing an early
Christian community facing persecution. The purpose determines how each
writer/editor weaves the material together
|To gain an appreciation for literary criticism
and its insights into the purpose and formation of scripture
Synoptic Gospels Primer
Notice that this article is combining documentary and
redaction criticism. In other words, it is both
identifying different sources for the Gospels and explaining how
they were edited together.
E. Reader Response analysis focuses on the interaction between the text and the reader.
What the original author intended and what a reader understands
may be quite different. A
reader’s response may be determined by a wide variety of factors:
biases, culture, presuppositions, historical setting, etc. How is it
that two people can read the same text and have quite different
reactions to that text? In the ante-bellum South, the Bible was used by
whites to argue that slavery was not only justified, it was divinely
sanctioned – mandated by God’s Word.
At the same time, slaves who heard the stories in the Bible heard
a message of freedom and liberation.
The responses are determined by the reader’s situation. On a
more personal level, you might ask, “What feelings, thoughts, ideas
does the text elicit from me?” Why?
Is that what the author intended?
Reader response recognizes that we are always in dialog with the
text, that it is dynamic and alive rather than static; it will mean
different things to different people in different times.