Here is a short article I have written for the new edition of Exploring the New Testament vol 2 giving an overview of critical methods.
Critical methods in the study of the New Testament
In order to help to answer some of the questions raised here, New Testament studies as a discipline has developed a range of approaches. Very often these are borrowed from neighbouring disciplines within the university, making theology something of an interdisciplinary subject.
Historical criticism, sometimes called the historical critical method, is concerned with establishing historical realities that might affect our understanding of what a text means. It grew out of the development of interest in classical history and archaeology in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and as part of a quest for more ‘objectivity’ in biblical interpretation. So, for example, we might be interested in the social make-up of the population of Corinth, and its reputation for (what we would now call) entrepreneurial initiative, in trying to find a context for Paul’s discussion of group rivalries in 1 Cor 1 to 4.
This approach, more commonly used in study of the gospels, is concerned with the form that passages take, and what this might tell us about their use prior to inclusion within the written texts as we have them. So it is commonly held that both Phil 2.6–11 and Col 1.15–20 consist of pre-Pauline hymns that Paul has incorporated into his letters—purely on the basis of their written form.
Again, this discipline is most concerned with the source documents of the gospels, but also is used in the study of letters. We have seen that most scholars believe that what we call 2 Corinthians is composed of two or more earlier documents which have been brought together (see pp 92–95). There are also several theories about the composition of the Book of Revelation, either as originating as a series of visions over a long period of time, or as a text which has been editing once, twice or even three times!
This focuses on the way an author has made use of his (or her) sources and shapes the material to offer a distinctive perspective, so again has been made use of in relation to the synoptic gospels. But there continues to be considerable debate about the relation between Paul’s portrayal of himself in his letters and the way Luke edits his sources to depict Paul in Acts, highlighting some of Luke’s particular concerns already evident from his gospel.
We have literally thousands of manuscripts and manuscript fragments from the early centuries, and these have some variations in them. Textual criticism is the discipline of deciding which is the most likely original text. For the vast majority, there is little significance in the variations, and these do not affect any key doctrinal issues. But on some occasions the variations contribute to discussion of an important issue. For example, we have already noted (p 87) that some early manuscripts do not include Paul’s injunction for women to be silent in 1 Cor 14.34–35, and this is a continuing subject of debate.
‘Canon’ is the Greek word for reed or measuring rod, and the ‘canon’ of Scripture refers both to the rule of life that Scripture invites us into, but also the ‘rule’ governing what we include in what we call Scripture. Canonical criticism is concerned with reading one part of the New Testament in the context of what else the New Testament (and, ultimately, the whole Bible) says. Thus we need to read what James says about faith, works and the example of Abraham (James 2.14–26) in the light of what Paul says about faith, works and the example of Abraham (Romans 4) and vice versa.
This is the name given to a range of approaches which have become important in the last 40 years and derive from more general approaches to literature. They are concerned with understanding the shape and effect of the text as we have it. Narrative criticism looks at the key features of stories and how they work. Of particular importance to the NT letters, rhetorical criticism is concerned with the shape and effect of texts as arguing a case. For example, in 1 Cor 15 we can find either three categories of rhetoric according to Greek thinking, or four categories according to Latin thinking, and this gives important insights into the way Paul is making his case. For another example, see the discussion of rhetoric in Philippians on pages 135–6.
An important area of recent development, this approach seeks to combine aspects of literary criticism and historical criticism, in exploring the rhetorical impact of texts for their first audience. Championed particularly by Ben Witherington III, it involves attending both to the rhetorical shape of the text and what we know of the expectations of original readers in their historical context. (It is distinct from so-called ‘social-scientific’ reading, which is more controversial.)
Reception History and Reader-response Criticism
The study of a text’s ‘reception history’ is concerned not so much with the text itself, but how it has been read and interpreted over the centuries. The Book of Revelation has been read in an almost bewildering variety of ways, many of which have been highly influential in the church and in culture, and this gives us some clues as the nature of the text. Closely related to this, reader-response criticism explores the ways in which readers have or might have responded to a text.
Ideology criticism covers a number of approaches in which the ideological perspective or convictions of the critic form a key part of the approach to the text. This ideological position might be in relation to wealth and poverty (liberation readings), issues of gender and sexuality (feminist and gay readings) or global politics (post-colonial readings). These approaches highlight the fact that no reader approaches texts from a ‘neutral’ point of view, but brings intellectual, philosophical and cultural assumptions which shape the task of interpretation.
These approaches are best understood as addressing issues in different stages of the writing and reading of the New Testament, exploring either the world ‘behind’ the text (historical, form, source, redaction), the world ‘of’ the text (textual, canonical and literary, with socio-rhetorical bridging these two worlds) or the world ‘in front of’ the text (reception, reader-response and ideology criticism).
None of these methodologies is value-neutral, in that they all make assumptions about the nature of reality and how we can be confident about the truth of assertions made about the texts in question. However, the different methods make assumptions in different ways. For example, historical critical approaches make assumptions about what kind of evidence may be used in reconstructing the nature of (for instance) the first-century world. At the other end of the spectrum, ideology criticisms will usually make ideological assumptions, such as prioritising the experiences or perspectives of a particular group, though this is often done to bring a counter-perspective to what is seen as the previously dominant interest group in reading these texts.
2 thoughts on “Overview of critical methods in studying the NT”
Thank you for an insightful contribution to my New Testament Study Methods studies. Your paper has highly contributed to my studies.
Glad to hear it!