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New Testament Criticism

The application to the NT of techniques used by scholars in the study of ordinary literature in the attempt to determine the original wording of the various documents and to decide questions of date, authorship, literary composition, and the like. Although “criticism” has particularly negative connotations in some Christian circles-partly due to the hostility of some leading critics to orthodox theology and partly to an inadequate understanding of the nature of the biblical writings-the task of the NT critic is an essentially positive one. In the broadest sense a critic (from Gk. krisis, “judgment”) is one who seeks to make intelligent judgments about fundamental questions which arise out of a serious study of the NT. Thus the distinction between “the critics” and “Bible- believing scholars” is a false one: anyone who studies the NT in any depth is by definition a biblical critic, for he must deal with the same necessary questions that others face.

For convenience, NT criticism may be divided into the areas of textual, linguistic, historical, literary, form, and redaction criticism. Textual criticism seeks to ascertain the original wording of a book, particularly in the event this has been altered in the process of transmission (as in the case in all documents which have been copied by hand over the course of centuries). The discipline has been developed into a carefully scientific enterprise during the past two hundred years by men such as Griesbach,* Lachmann,* Tischendorf,* Tregelles,* Westcott,* and Hort,* von Soden, and a host of more recent scholars. Textual criticism is sometimes called “lower” criticism, since it represents the primary stage in the study of the NT and is therefore foundational for all subsequent work. Linguistic criticism seeks to understand the nature of the words of a document. Here one is concerned with matters of Greek grammar and philology, idiomatic expressions and connotative overtones of words and phrases, precise relationships of words to one another in a particular context, the special vocabulary of an individual author, and so forth. In this area great advances have been made by scholars like Blass,* J.B. Lightfoot,* Westcott,* Deissmann,* G. Milligan,* J.H. Moulton,* A.T. Robertson, W. Bauer,* and the many contributors to the monumental Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (ed. Kittel- Friedrich, 1932ff.). The language of the NT is now identified as basically the ordinary Greek of the Eastern Roman Empire of the first century, but with a very strong Semitic flavor; this latter element is due both to the Aramaic mother-tongue of the earliest Christians (as also Jesus) and to the profound influence of the OT on the writers' vocabulary and style. Historical criticism is the attempt to understand a document, a concept, or even a word in its historical setting. This is profoundly important, for a failure to grasp the historical background of a text may lead to grossly misleading interpretations. Thus one cannot understand Revelation without knowledge of the situation facing the church in Asia Minor toward the end of the first Christian century, or the fourfold prohibition of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:20, 29) apart from the problem of Jewish-Gentile relations in the early church, or the sayings and parables of Jesus independently of knowledge of the basic features of Semitic rhetoric and Palestinian Jewish customs. The greatest advances have been made in this area during the past two centuries of criticism. Literary criticism-sometimes called “higher” criticism, because it builds on the results of textual or “lower” criticism-is concerned with questions about authorship, sources, composition, literary form, date, and place of writing, etc. As a comprehensive term it includes the whole scope of what goes under the rubric of “NT Introduction.” Redaction criticism represents the latest phase in the development of gospel criticism. It aims at understanding the special contribution of each evangelist, i.e., the way he (the redactor) has shaped the traditional material with which he works and how his approach differs from that of the other evangelists. Form criticism-see separate article.

S. Neill, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1961 (1964); W.G. Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament (ET 1966); G.E. Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism (1967); D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (rev. ed., 1971).