It’s an exciting and empowering time to be doing theological study. We’ve made some striking discoveries in our first semester. And if you’ve never thought about doing this kind of study, now is the time!
Some Christians have rightly been nervous of theological study. For more than a century, the field of biblical studies has been dominated by a particular framework of assumptions. The Bible is not continuous. The content of the Old and New Testaments is not unique but arises from pagan origins. The real background of the Bible is a far cry from traditional Christian beliefs.
At the core of this ‘liberal’ framework is an approach known as historical criticism. Historical criticism is concerned with the origins of biblical texts: how were they authored and assembled? This approach generally assumes that biblical texts have changed significantly over time because they’ve had multiple authors and editors. This means that biblical texts can never be taken at face value, which has led scholars to try pinpointing editorial layers that can be peeled back, revealing a ‘true history’ hidden behind the text. In other words, meaning cannot be found in the text itself but behind it. For example, this approach might tell us that while a man called Jesus did exist, the Jesus found in the Gospels is mostly an invention, which obscures the ‘historical Jesus’.
All of this might seem pretty off-putting for Christians. Certainly, historical criticism raises big questions for anyone reading the Bible. It confronts us with a not-so-sacred text and forces us to think seriously about the validity of our beliefs.
However, historical criticism has become an academic dead end. It has proven to be a pretty haphazard task — there hasn’t been much agreement on exactly how to find any editorial layers, and at times it even feels like there’s a different method for every scholar.
Now, some of these long-held ‘critical’ assumptions are being seriously questioned in biblical studies. There is now a lot of interest in the meaning carried in the text itself. This ‘new criticism’ arises largely from literary studies and focuses on texts in their final form. Approaches like narrative criticism and rhetorical criticism are asking about the story of the text rather than authorship. Instead of simply asking who the historical Jesus might have been, these approaches focus on Jesus as he actually appears in the Gospels.
This is having a significant impact in biblical studies. For example, we traditionally talk of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) in contrast with the Gospel of John. This idea has been reinforced by historical criticism, which has always underplayed the historicity of John and highlighted its differences to the other gospels. Now, John is being seen in a new light, as Paul N Anderson argues in The Fourth Gospel and the Quest for Jesus: Modern Foundations Reconsidered (2006).
The big questions in biblical studies have shifted. The questions asked by historical criticism haven’t disappeared, but they’re no longer the big deal.
It really is a great time for Christians to start theological study! The new criticism certainly isn’t a simple validation of traditional Christianity, but it’s asking the kind of questions that Christians can quickly get inspired by, and it’s providing some angles that are immediately useful for ministry. Studying the Bible now ties in with building your faith and serving the world like never before.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.