Literary Criticism

We have examined, briefly, the tool called Textual criticism. This tool is called by many "lower criticism" because it is the foundational criticism necessary for Biblical studies. If we do not know what the text says, we can certainl not procede any further.

The tools which follow are called by many, "higher criticism". This Higer Criticism is denounced in some corners because of its supposedly adverse effect on faith. Put simply, nothing could be further from the truth. The tools of Higher Criticism simply ask questions of the text; who?, what?, when?, where?, why? and how? These are the issues that MUST be addressed if the Bible is to be understood.

Literary Criticism attempts to describe the various literary strata, or layers, of a document. The Biblical books were authored and edited. Like any other material. The task of literary criticism is to unravel these strata and to thereby understand the purpose of the author and the editors (or redactors) of the text.

In particular, literary criticism describes various phenomenon found in the text, such as:

1. Doublettes. A doublette is a story that occurs twice. In Genesis there are two accounts of creation (in Genesis 1 and 2). There are two accounts of the flood (in Genesis 6-9, intertwined!). There are two accounts of Jesus' birth (in Matthew and Luke). There are 4 accounts of the resurrection (in the Gospels). These are called, by literary students, doublettes because they "double" the story or repeat it.

2. Commentary. In many Biblical texts there are comments made upon the text and these comments have become incorporated into the text itself. Whenever, for instance, you read in the New Testament that "x, being interpreted, is y", you have stumbled across a piece of commentary.

3. Stylistic Differences. The literary critic seeks to uncover different authorial hands in a document by noticing stylistic and vocabulary differences. For example, the author of Revelation writes in a completely different style than the author of 1 John. Their vocabularies and syntax are utterly different. Literary critics call notice to the differences and suggest that they arise because the authors of these documents are different people.

4. Chronological Varia. In some parts of the Bible one can read such phrases as "what were formerly called "seers" are now This indicates to literary critics that the author wrote "seer" but when the document was edited the word "seer" had become obsolete and so the newer word "prophet" was inserted in its place.

These literary clues lead many to unravel these strands and discover a whole world of literary activity within the Biblical materials. The method of literary criticism is an important tool in Biblical studies simply because it allows us to unravel the threads and see the individual strands which make up the documents of the Bible.

A further development in Literary studies allows us to get a glimpse of how the Bible was understood by the early Church; for the order of the Biblical books has a great deal of influence on how they are read and understood.

For example, in the Hebrew canonical arrangement the Book of Daniel is found in the "writings", the final segment of the Hebrew Bible, whereas in the Christian arrangement it is found in the "Prophetic" segment of the text. This means that Christians read Daniel as a prophet while Jews read him as a sage. This has a great influence on how the book is understood!

How does one perform literary criticism? One simply asks questions of the text.

1. Is this the only time this story occurs? If not, where else is it found? How are the two versions the same? How are they different?

2. Is this segment of text explaining something that has already been said?

3. Does the style of this passage reflect the same style of the surrounding passages?

4. Is this text explaining a chronological issue?

When the critic asks these questions he or she is not simply trying to tear the Bible apart. Rather, he or she is trying to understand the text as it is. This is, as one might suppose, a very important part of understanding the Bible!


Setting Genesis 1 and 2 side by side, note the similiarites and differences. Set Matthew 1 beside Luke 1-3 and note the similarities and differences between them concerning Jesus' birth and geneaology.