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Biblical criticism is an umbrella term for those methods of studying the Bible that embrace two distinctive perspectives: the concern to avoid dogma and bias by applying a non-sectarian, reason-based judgment, and the reconstruction of history according to contemporary understanding. Biblical criticism uses the grammar, structure, development, and relationship of language to identify such characteristics as the Bible’s literary structure, its genre, its context, meaning, authorship, and origins.
Biblical criticism includes a wide range of approaches and questions within four major contemporary methodologies: textual, source, form, and literary criticism. Textual criticism examines the text and its manuscripts to identify what the original text would have said. Source criticism searches the texts for evidence of original sources. Form criticism identifies short units of text and seeks to identify their original setting. Each of these is primarily historical and pre-compositional in its concerns. Literary criticism, on the other hand, focuses on the literary structure, authorial purpose, and reader’s response to the text through methods such as rhetorical criticism, canonical criticism, and narrative criticism.
Biblical criticism began as an aspect of the rise of modern culture in the West. Some scholars claim that its roots reach back to the Reformation, but most agree it grew out of the German Enlightenment. German pietism played a role in its development, as did British deism, with its greatest influences being rationalism and Protestant scholarship. The Enlightenment age and its skepticism of biblical and ecclesiastical authority ignited questions concerning the historical basis for the man Jesus separately from traditional theological views concerning him. This “quest” for the Jesus of history began in biblical criticism’s earliest stages, reappeared in the nineteenth century, and again in the twentieth, remaining a major occupation of biblical criticism, on and off, for over 200 years.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, biblical criticism was influenced by a wide range of additional academic disciplines and theoretical perspectives, changing it from a primarily historical approach to a multidisciplinary field. In a field long dominated by white male Protestants, non-white scholars, women, and those from the Jewish and Catholic traditions became prominent voices. Globalization brought a broader spectrum of worldviews into the field, and other academic disciplines as diverse as Near Eastern studies, psychology, anthropology and sociology formed new methods of biblical criticism such as socio-scientific criticism and psychological biblical criticism. Meanwhile, post-modernism and post-critical interpretation began questioning biblical criticism’s role and function.