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Critical Approaches to the Bible

How do we interpret the Bible?

  • “Why me, Lord? Where have I gone wrong? I’ve always been nice to people! I don’t drink or dance or swear! I’ve even kept kosher, just to be on the safe side. I’ve done everything the Bible says, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff! What more could I do?” – Ned Flanders, “Hurricane Neddy”
  • Commonly Misinterpreted Verses (Psalm 14:1; Jeremiah 29:11; Matthew 24:40-41 or Luke 17:34-35; John 8:32; 1 Corinthians 10:13; 1 Timothy 6:10; Revelation 3:20)
  • Cultural Distance: Food laws (Leviticus 11; Acts 11:1-18; 15:19-21), Household Codes (Colossians 3:18-4:1; Ephesians 5:21-6:9; 1 Peter 3:1-7), Head Coverings (1 Corinthians 11:1-16)

Introducing Hermeneutics or the “Art of Interpretation”

  • Hermes was the messenger for the gods of Olympus. The Greek word hermēneus meant an “interpreter” or “expounder” and hermēneuein meant “to interpret.”
  • The Hermeneutical Circle: Presuppositions, Exegesis, Application, Presuppositions…

The World Behind the Text

  • Textual criticism: critically examining and comparing biblical manuscript witnesses to try to determine the earliest reading of a text on the basis of external and internal evidence.
  • Historical criticism: investigating the authorship, date, and provenance of a text and interpreting it in light of the reconstructed historical context. It also involves uncovering the oral or written sources underlying a text or the editorial changes made to earlier sources or traditions (e.g. source, form, redaction criticism).
  • “Social–scientific criticism of the Bible is that phase of the exegetical task which analyzes the social and cultural dimensions of the text and of its environmental context through the utilization of the perspectives, theory, models, and research of the social sciences” – John H. Elliott, What is Social Scientific Criticism? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 7.

The World of the Text

  • Narrative or Literary Criticism: bracketing hypothetical questions about the world behind the text (authorship, dating, provenance, sources), this approach studies the biblical writings as narrative wholes and examines literary features such as plot, characters, narrator point of view, literary structure, genre, rhetorical devices, and so on.

The World in front of the Text

  • Reader-response criticism and reception history: critically examining what readers bring to the act of interpretation and how different meanings have been drawn out of the text by changing communities of readers through the centuries.
  • Ideological criticism: reading from a particular vantage point that has been historically marginalized and searching for the voices that have been hidden or suppressed by the dominant ideology of a text or its interpreters. Examples include liberation theology, feminist criticism, and post-colonial criticism.


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