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Literary Criticism

Since many religious traditions have sacred writings (scriptures), 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 compares and seeks to explains differences among copies of a text. Keep in mind that 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 and 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.

One well-know example from the Christian scriptures (the New Testament) is found in the Gospel of John. In the third verse of the fifth chapter it is reported that a great number of disabled people used to lie near a pool in Jerusalem. A few versions of this verse add these words to the end of the third verse:

"and they waited for the moving of the waters. From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he had."

Why the difference? Most textual critics have concluded that the longer verses are not original to the Gospel of John. Rather, a scribe added them to explain to the readers why those needing healing were at the pool. Moreover, it explains a later comment by an invalid at the pool, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred." In this case, it is fairly certain that the earliest manuscripts of John lacked the longer explanation in verses 3 and 4. In attempting to explain and understand the differences between the two texts, one must necessarily establish which text is more original.


B. Documentary or 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 that the book of Isaiah in the Hebrew scriptures may be from different authors in different times. A careful analysis of style, historical references, and other factors have led most scholars to conclude that chapters 1-39 come from the 8th Century BCE while chapters 40-55 reflect events of the 6th century BCE.

The scriptures of Islam, the Qu'ran, provide an interesting challenge for the source critic. In this case, there is almost no question that all of the Qur'an are the revelations that Muhammad recited to his early followers. The Qu'ran is the collection of those revelations. The collection, however, is not in chronological order. The work of the source critic is thus to try to determine which revelations correspond to various times and events in the prophet's life.


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.? The form of texts may also shed some light on its unity and the process of formation. An example we will be looking at later in this course, is the book of Job found in the Hebrew scriptures. The beginning and ending of the book are written as a prose narrative and the speeches that make up the majority of the book are in poetry. This may suggest a different origin - or, at least, a different purpose, for the two parts.


D. Redaction Criticism: Redaction criticism attempts to uncover the how and why a text was edited and shaped into its current state. 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 (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) that apparently tell the same stories in more or less the same sequence? These three Gospels are known as the synoptic Gospels (synoptic is from Greek, meaning "to see 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. Although you are free to explore any or all of this site, you are only required to read the page linked above.


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.




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