Historical criticism

The methods of historical criticism continue to be practiced by New Testament scholars, just as by their colleagues in Old Testament studies. But the results are often quite different from those familiar in the scholarship of thirty or forty years ago. Source criticism of the Gospels, for example, no longer operates uniformly with the old assumption that the Synoptic Gospels are composed from four sources (Mark, 0, M, and L - the latter two representing the material unique, respectively, to Matthew and Luke). The very existence of 0 is being called in question by many, at the same time as the 0 "industry" continues to produce full-scale studies of this hypothetical source. The possibility that one or other of Matthew and Luke read the other's work - derided by critics in the earlier twentieth century - is now regarded by many as a serious option. Meanwhile the independence of John, part of the whole basis for speaking of "Synoptic Gospels" by contradistinction from the Fourth Gospel, is no longer accepted by all (see the discussion in Brown 19 79). Even such bizarre ideas (bizarre by older standards) as that Luke used John are no longer unthinkable for all, though they would represent clearly minority positions. And John itself is widely seen as composite, the putting together of sources or strata just as diverse as those used by the Synoptists.

Form criticism is also no longer in the ascendant. The normal form-critical supposition, worked out in detail by Rudolf Bultmann and a host of followers, was that each pericope in the Gospels had an independent existence as a story told liturgically in the early Church. Only much later were all these pericopae honed down into their present form, and eventually strung along a narrative thread by the evangelists. But this is under attack from two sides. On the one hand there are literary critics of the Gospels who think that the evangelists themselves favored the pericope-by-pericope method of telling the story of Jesus, not because the units already existed but because that was how they naturally wrote. On the other are conservative voices urging that the stories may have been written down much earlier than used to be thought, and that they may even represent eye-witness testimony simply copied into the Gospels as we now have them (cf. Gerhardsson 1979).

Redaction criticism, similarly, is put under strain by newer ways of seeing the Gospels. Redaction critics depended for their life-blood on source and form criticism, for to study the Gospels' redaction is to study what the redactor has made of previously existing materials - whether these are seen as earlier written sources or as independent units transmitted orally over a long period of time. By comparing the (reconstructed) original contents of sources or small "forms" with the finished Gospel one could then, it was supposed, see the interests the evangelist himself had and how he had shaped the material he had inherited. One problem with this was always that we had no independent access to the evangelist's sources: they had to be reconstructed from the very finished product we would later go on to study, a process clearly prone to circularity! But in any case people have come to think that there may have been an element of over-sophistication in much redaction-critical work. Can we really be so sure that we can identify the particular features of Mark's Christology, say, enough to distinguish it plainly from Matthew's or even John's? Maybe we are asking the material to yield more answers than it is adapted to do.

Thus at the same time as historical criticism of the Gospels has continued, scholars have become much more tentative in their commitment to its results. There is a certain wariness in New Testament studies today, not unlike the effect of challenges by historical minimalists in Old Testament studies. It is not that the questions historical critics ask are unreasonable, or that we should not like to have answers to them; it is simply a feeling that in many cases answers may not really be available.

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