To those unfamiliar with historical-critical methods, the world of Biblical scholarship may seem a strange, mysterious realm. Biblical scholars work though passages, such as the Infancy Narratives, using a host of technical terms (such as “early kergymatic formulation”) and discovering a variety of elements which comprise the whole (such as “hymns of the Jewish-Christian Anawim”). How do Biblical scholars arrive at their conclusions? What methodologies do they employ?

Historical-critical methods presuppose that the Christian movement, the Christian perspective and the development and transmission of Christian traditions all existed within specific social, political, economic, religious, and cultural contexts, and, to a greater or lesser extent, were shaped and influenced by those contexts. Historical-critical methods attempt to reconstruct the context in which a writing arose through the use to archaeology, inscriptions, secular and religious literature of the time economic and political documents, contemporary histories as well as any other evidence which might illuminate this context. Once this context is recovered, its influence on the writing is analyzed by studying the affinities of language allusions, references to the context within the writing use of other literature and any presence of contemporary thought-forms and perceptual frameworks.

Literary (or source) criticism seeks to relate a writing to its own period and location as well as to show how the final form of a writing (especially the Gospels) is the result of a complex process of transmission, collection, compilation, writing and editing of oral and written traditions. Literary criticism studies a writing’s structure (Brown’s two diptychs in Luke and his five scenes in Matthew as described in the accompanying article) composition, style (Matthew’s formulaic citations of fulfilled prophecy), use of sources (genealogical lists, Jewish midrashic traditions, hymns of the Jewish-Christian Anawim), and whether it is composed of several separate pieces or is a homogeneous unit (Luke’s later additions to his completed diptychs).

Growing out of literary criticism, form criticism seeks to identify a writer’s use of small literary units (hymns of the Jewish-Christian Anawim) by noting their general existence and use in other literature of the period (Jewish hymns and psalms f the intertestamental period, the thanksgiving hymns of the Qumran community), and seeking to trace the presence of the form back to the setting (Sitz-im-leben) in which it arose (the worship of Jewish pietists who had become Christians), or was regularly employed (praise of God for His saving acts), either orally of as literature.

Growing out of both literary and form criticism, redaction criticism is the study of the way in which an author has creatively joined (Matthew’s union of a narrative of angelic dream appearances, a narrative of Jesus’ birth modeled on the infancy of Moses, and the account of the Magi from Jewish messianic expectation), edited (Matthew’s addition of prophetic fulfillment), and/or modified (Luke’s addition of “future” elements to the Jewish-Christian canticles) his written or oral sources in the development of his work. This is accomplished by comparing the writing with the author’s sources if available, or, when the author’s sources are not available, by attention to repeated phrases, themes, terms, emphases, shifts in form, seams or transitions between elements, editorial remarks, and other such indications. Discerning the author’s redactional activity enables the scholar to hypothesize about the author’s perspective and purpose.

A judicious use of these methodologies, with constant alertness to the danger of intrusion of the scholar’s own biases, can help disclose how a piece of literature was created. But when these methodologies become the bond-slaves of a particular philosophical, rheological, or historical-perceptual framework, their validity and effectiveness is drastically reduced and they become hardly more than contrived evidences in support of the presuppositions of the one who employs them.

For a concise and lucid treatment of these methodologies, see G. E. Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism (Eerdmans, 1966).