Biblical Criticism

For two quarters, I have been teaching the Book of Isaiah to the adult Bible class. I covered the entire 66 chapters in one quarter and then rotated classrooms and repeated the same 13 lessons to a different group of adults. It has been a tremendous learning experience.

People unfamiliar with the nuances of the biblical text are often surprised at what the text actually says and does. Take Isaiah for example:

  • In chapters 1-39 we are rolling along discussing the world in the 8th century B.C. (740-701). Assyria is threatening, Israel is falling, Judah is being sacked.
  • In chapter 40 we are suddenly transported 200 years into the future. Babylon has conquered the world, the Jewish people are at the end of their captivity, and Cyrus, king of Persia, is about to take over the world.

What is amazing is that the text does not bat an eye. It simply makes the shift and assumes the reader will come along for the ride with no question.

However, careful modern readers have many questions. First, what happened and why was I not warned of this sudden shift in time and space?

Second, now that you have rocked my world, why is there no explanation of what just happened?

Third, how is it possible that the person who was alive to witness and report the events of chapters 1-39 now appears to be alive and reporting on events that are happening 200 year later?

To add to the mystery, Jesus cites Isaiah chapter 40, which is reporting events that are happening around 540 B.C., and ascribes that writing to “the prophet Isaiah” (Matthew 3:3). Is this the same Isaiah who wrote chapters 1-39, which describe events occurring 200 years earlier? How is that possible?

I am confused. Very confused.

More than confused, I am afraid to even ask the question. Why? Because I’ve seen people who point out these nuances of our sacred text accused of “not believing the Bible.”

Huh. I believe the Bible. I devoted my life to teaching and preaching our sacred text. I just believe the Bible is filled with mysteries that cannot be explained away with a simple, “says what it means and means what it says.”

It says a lot. It does a lot. And it does not always make perfect sense to my little pea brain. I have lots of questions – sometimes more questions than answers. But my questions relate to the nuances and mysteries of the sacred text, not the God who inspired the text.

The God who inspired the Bible is a glorious and worthy God. He has gone to extreme lengths to rescue me from my confusion and distress. He rescued Israel by sending His Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12) to accomplish His mission. And that rescue mission was for more than just the people of Israel – it was for everyone, me included!

For that I will always serve Him. I will always preach and teach His holy word. But be warned, as I labor in this earthly vessel, I may not be able to fully explain everything I know about the nuances of our sacred text.


The saying, “If you love sausage, don’t ever learn how it is made,” hits home with me. I love sausage and don’t care to ruin my enjoyment of the greasy stuff by finding out how it is made. Some people take this approach to the canonization process. They embrace the Bible as the inspired Word of God (as I do and as it should be embraced, IMHO). And yet, when confronted with the rather messy (i.e., very human) way in which it came into being, these same people may become a little exercised.

For several decades the kerygma (the essential elements) of the Christian story was shared among the churches primarily through oral tradition. The Apostles, particularly Paul, wrote letters to help the churches in matters of doctrine, but, for the most part, the gospel story was transmitted orally.

As the Apostles began to die off, the need for written documentation of the gospel story became acute. This need was met with both authentic and spurious writings. The process by which the wheat was separated from the chaff is referred to as the canonization process. In a word the central issue was that of authority.

  • How could orthodoxy be solidified, defended and propagated?
  • How could heterodoxy be minimized, localized and corrected?
  • How could heresy be identified, isolated and eradicated?

The two primary criteria for entry into the Canon appear to have been: (1) apostolic origin and (2) orthodoxy; however, it is also apparent that writings were admitted into the canon without a sound and uniform application of these criteria. For example, Matthew’s gospel made it in because it was apostolic and, therefore, orthodox as a matter of definition. Mark’s gospel (not apostolic since Mark was not an Apostle) apparently made it in because it was so closely tied to Peter’s preaching. But what can be said of Luke’s writings? Luke-Acts is the product of a Gentile who had never even seen the Lord.

The whole process was surrounded by controversy, discord, and heated debate. It was not until the third council of Carthage (A.D. 397) that an agreement was reached ratifying the Canon of the New Testament as it is now universally accepted.

So if my faith is dependent upon my belief that the Bible came into being through a perfect, sterilized, miraculous process then I had better not investigate the process very deeply; however, upon examination of the process it becomes clear that God used human beings to bring the canon of Scripture into the world.  And, as with anything involving human beings, there are a few rough edges here and there.

          What is biblical criticism? Contrary to its unfortunate and yet quite widely communicated connotation, biblical criticism should not be understood as the process whereby skeptics critically examine the text of the Bible in order to prove that it was not inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. Although these methods of biblical study have been and still are utilized by some critical scholars in order to support (i.e., prove) their own “liberal” (i.e., those which deny the possibility of the supernatural) presuppositions, not all students of the Bible who use the various critical methods of examination are doing so in order to criticize the text in this way. Simply put, biblical criticism refers to the procedure whereby the student approaches the text by asking it precise, critical questions.

          What is the Synoptic Problem? Again we encounter an unnecessarily abrasive term and a term that is somewhat misleading. The synoptic problem is not a problem with the texts at all. The problem lies in the fact that there is obviously some literary relationship between the three accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke and biblical “scholars” are unable to figure out, or at least to agree upon, exactly what that relationship is. Students stumbled upon this literary relationship not necessarily because they were “criticizing” the Bible but because they were investigating it closely.

           Examining the texts of the synoptic gospels closely enough to allow the “synoptic problem” to come into view is truly an exciting revelation. Although Matthew includes large blocks of teaching material into his gospel which appear to be original to him (i.e., not taken from any known source), according to most scholars Matthew also incorporates almost ninety percent of Mark’s gospel into his own. Furthermore, Matthew uses Mark’s chronological framework almost verbatim. It is the investigation of these features, along with the investigation of the striking similarities in grammar and word usage and the glaring omissions of Mark’s material from Matthew’s account, that makeup this entire area of inquiry. In other words, the Synoptic Problem came into sharper focus during this type of penetrating and critical examination of the text.

           The truly fascinating, and profoundly fruitful, benefit of this type of critical inquiry comes when one tries to understand why Matthew did what he did with Mark’s account. This leads to the revelation of the underlying theological purpose (tendenz) for Matthew’s writing and pays huge dividends in the thorough and accurate understanding of the theological message of his writing.

           At the same time, a new issue arises: what about those large blocks of material which Matthew includes in his gospel but are not taken from Mark? What is the source of these traditions and sayings? Beginning in the late 1700’s and continuing up to the present day, biblical scholars have been discussing (debating, arguing about) this source issue and have put forth various theories in order to explain this phenomenon. The most widely accepted hypothesis is the existence of a theoretical document referred to simply as “Q” which provided the non-Markan material contained in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. That material found only in Matthew’s gospel (“M”) is accounted for by concluding that he either knew it from personal experience or discovered it from personal research. That similar material found in Luke (“L”) is accounted for in a similar fashion.

           Regrettably, perhaps partially because of its unnecessarily offensive terminology, this entire method of biblical research has been associated with liberal scholars (i.e., those who deny all that is supernatural) for almost two centuries. It is time we changed that perception. This approach to biblical investigation has produced and will continue to produce profoundly useful insight into the theological meaning of not only our synoptic gospels but our entire sacred text as well.