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Literary Criticism and the Scriptures


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” readings.


A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls
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 both?

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, etc.? 

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 read 

The 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.