Quartz Hill School of Theology

Tradition Criticism

The final method we will investigate is tradition criticism. This method is simply what its name implies. Tradition criticism seeks to understand how the traditions of the Bible are used by other Biblical writers. That is, how is the Exodus understood by other biblical authors? How do the Prophets view the wilderness period? How are the sayings of Jesus used by the Apostles? Tradition criticism is a fascinating method because it is in essence the Biblical author's commentary on the traditions of Israel!

When one performs tradition criticism, one:

1. Finds the earliest reference to the tradition being investigated. This does not necessarily mean in Genesis or Matthew. Rather, one must be familiar enough with the chronological development of the Bible that he or she can determine where the earliest reference to a tradition is. For example, Hosea was written well before Exodus; thus the earliest reference to the Exodus is in Hosea, and not in Exodus! The student must be thoroughly familiar with these issues in order to accuarately trace the traditions of the Bible!
2. Examines the similarities and the differences in the accounts of the tradition. For example, in Jeremiah the wilderness period is viewed as a time of faithfulness and obedience while in Numbers it is seen as a period of constant disobedience. Why the differences? What could the theological or historical reason for these differences be?

In practicing tradition criticism, one needs to ask the following particular questions:

a. What is the "word" which embodies the tradition- and what is the broader "word field" used to describe the event? For example, "passover" is also called the "feast of unleavend bread". Are these the same? Or different?
b. Is there a formulaic structure which is always used when the tradition is described? I.e., when the Prophets speak for God, the text generally says "thus says the Lord'. is this formula always present in the prophetic traditions? Is it left out? Why?
c. Are there parallels? A famous example of this is David's Census (in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 22). The passage in Samuel says:

"Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go, count the people of Israel and Judah."

In Samuel, the Lord incites David, but in Chronicles, it is Satan who does so!

"Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel"

What is one to make of this? How is the tradition of the census altered by the Chronicler? Why?

Another example of the use of tradition criticism is made clear when we examine how the New Testament writers were able to so intertwine the Old Testament traditions that only those well familiar with the Old Testament are able to discern these traditions. To illustrate, the following passages are offered:

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters;

he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil; for you are with me;

your rod and your staff -- they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

In this text the Lord is described as a shepherd who feeds his flocks on the green grass of the pleasant pasture. This tradition is adopted by the writers of the Gospels when they describe the feeding of the 5000!

Notice, too, the story of Elisha in 2 Kings:

2 Kings 4:42-44

    A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some heads of new grain. “Give it to the people to eat,” Elisha said.

    “How can I set this before a hundred men?” his servant asked.

    But Elisha answered, “Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the LORD says: ‘They will eat and have some left over.’ ”

    Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the LORD.

Again, compare it to the story of the feeding of the 5000. Such similarities are not accidental.

Mark 6:30-39

    The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

    Now many who saw them leaving recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

    When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat."

    But he answered them, "You give them something to eat."

    They said to him, "Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?"

    And he said to them, "How many loaves have you? Go and see."

When they had found out, they said, "Five, and two fish."

    Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass."

Note: the disciples have pity on the people because they are like sheep! And they sit on the green grass to eat! The adoption of the Psalm tradition cannot be doubted by any serious student of the Bible.

Tradition criticism is a very useful method. The student of the Bible should surely make use of it; but this can only be done when one is thoroughly familiar with the development and content of the Biblical text.


Trace the passover tradition from its earliest Old Testament mention through the New Testament's use of it at the Last Supper. List all the texts in which the tradition is found; compare them; and contrast them. As with all of the assignments in this course, send your completed work to the instructor.

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Quartz Hill School of Theology
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