In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biblical Criticism

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • One-Volume Commentaries
  • Syntheses
  • Hermeneutical Theory
  • Hermeneutics and the Bible
  • History of Biblical Interpretation
  • Origins
  • History
  • Radical Historical Critics
  • Critics
  • Recent Catholic Approaches
  • Textual Criticism
  • Biblical Language
  • Bible as Literature
  • Rhetoric
  • Form Criticism
  • Social-Scientific Criticism
  • Historicity
  • Archaeology
  • History of Ancient Israel
  • Early Judaism
  • Jesus and History
  • Early Christianity

Biblical Studies Biblical Criticism
Daniel J. Harrington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0066


The term “biblical criticism” refers to the process of establishing the plain meaning of biblical texts and of assessing their historical accuracy. Biblical criticism is also known as higher criticism (as opposed to “lower” textual criticism), historical criticism, and the historical-critical method. The word “criticism” need not be interpreted negatively, as if the task were mainly criticizing the Bible or pointing out its errors. Rather, “criticism” indicates the effort at using scientific criteria (historical and literary) and human reason to understand and explain as objectively as possible the meaning intended by the biblical writers. While the modern versions of biblical criticism have roots in patristic, medieval, Reformation, and Renaissance biblical interpretation, the earliest full statement of the approach came from the philosopher Baruch/Benedict Spinoza in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Spinoza urged that the Bible should be treated like any other book, that it should be read in the light of the rules of philology and history, that one must attend to the context of a passage within Scripture and establish the circumstances in which the book was written, that the Bible’s truth (or untruth) can be recognized by the light of natural reason (without need of tradition or ecclesiastical interference), and that its miracle stories should be interpreted in terms of the physical laws of nature. Much in Spinoza’s declaration can be explained by its author’s historical circumstances (excommunicated by the local synagogue) and philosophy (his idea of nature as a substitute for God). However, it has been possible for biblical scholars and churches to ignore Spinoza’s philosophy and to develop a historical-critical methodology that does not deny the basic tenets of Judaism and/or Christianity—so much so that the historical-critical method shorn of Spinoza’s dubious philosophical assumptions has been repeatedly described in recent, official Roman Catholic documents as “indispensable” (though not completely adequate in itself) in interpreting biblical texts.

Introductory Works

Spinoza 1989 sets forth the basic principles mixed in with that philosopher’s own debatable assumptions. Barr 2000 offers a critical reflection on current Old Testament study, and Barton 2007 defends the historical-critical method. Both Krentz 1975 and Fitzmyer 1995 show how the method has been accepted and adapted in mainline Christian biblical interpretation; Krentz does so from the dual perspective of classical philology and New Testament study, while Fitzmyer was one of the architects of the Catholic document on which he comments. Barton 1998 provides seminal essays on various aspects of biblical criticism. Barton 2010 offers an accurate snapshot of where biblical criticism stands today, while Collins 2005 looks toward its future in view of the emergence of postmodernism.

  • Barr, James. “Biblical Criticism.” In History and Ideology in the Old Testament: Biblical Studies at the End of a Millennium. By James Barr, 32–58. Hensley Henson Lectures for 1997. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Describes biblical criticism as analyzing a text in its historical setting and assessing the accuracy of its depiction of events, persons, and teachings.

  • Barton, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    Twenty essays by British and American scholars on the methods of biblical interpretation and on the biblical books in modern interpretation.

  • Barton, John. The Nature of Biblical Criticism. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007.

    Understands biblical criticism as establishing the plain meaning of the text, with the tools of literary and historical analysis. The best modern statement about the topic.

  • Barton, John. The Bible: The Basics. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

    A concise, reliable, and accessible guide to the results of modern biblical criticism.

  • Collins, John J. The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.

    In the wake of postmodernism, biblical theology and ethics remain viable but will have to be more skeptical and self-critical.

  • Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Biblical Commission’s Document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.” Subsidia Biblica 18. Rome: Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1995.

    The document’s description of the historical-critical method and Fitzmyer’s commentary and bibliography are among the clearest statements on biblical criticism today.

  • Krentz, Edgar. The Historical-Critical Method. Guides to Biblical Scholarship. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975.

    Traces the rise of historical-critical study against the background of classical philology and describes its goals, techniques, presuppositions, and achievements.

  • Spinoza, Baruch. Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Translated by Samuel Shirley. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1989.

    The earliest (1670) comprehensive treatment of biblical criticism, by a famous philosopher. Gebhardt edition, 1925.

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