The discipline of biblical criticism, which those of us who read the bible depend upon, often without realizing it, every time we pick up the bible. The very text we read, both the source texts in the original languages and the translations that based on these texts, comes to us as a result of these practices. In its origins the modern discipline of biblical criticism was based on the idea that one could take a scientific view of the biblical text(s) and discern meaning, context, purpose, date, authorship. The academic discipline of biblical criticism ranges over a wide territory, incorporating taken together cover much ground. They incorporate a wide variety and forms of intense biblical study that range from textual to source, from post-critical to womanist. Some practitioners are people of faith seeking to better understand the text of scripture so that it can speak to their own era, but others come to the text purely from scholarly interests. So wide a set of disciplines is this that we, the non-specialists, require guidance in discerning how these disciplines influence and affect the way we read and interpret scripture in the modern era (or post-modern if you prefer). What we need is a handbook like that written by Richard and Kendall Soulen.
Richard Soulen is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at the Virginia Union University School of Theology; while Kendall, an ordained United Methodist minister, serves as Professor of Systematic Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary.
Now in its fourth edition (the third edition appeared in 2001), this handbook will prove to be a handy reference for clergy, bible study leaders, and really anyone truly desiring to get a full understanding of the biblical text and story. The authors note that they intend this book for the beginning and intermediate students. They intend for it to provide an “initial overview and orientation in the field of biblical criticism.” The book is laid out alphabetically, but there are eight types of entries: overviews, methodologies and interpretive approaches, technical terms and phrases, theological terms, names of scholars (all deceased), research tools and texts, English translations of the Bible (if you’re looking at purchasing a new translation, you will be assisted greatly by their brief reviews of each translation), Abbreviations (found at the end of the book are lists of abbreviations of Latin words used in biblical criticism and journals/books that are central to the critical task). At the back of the book, inside the cover, the reader will find a very helpful foldout diagram of the forms and practices of biblical criticism. Each form is placed along a continuum that asks these questions: 1) Whence? (the world behind the text); 2) What/What About? (the world of the text); 3) Whither? (the world in front of the text). Some forms of critical analysis cross categories, while some stay on fairly narrow course. Having the diagram helps us understand how all of this fits together.
This book covers just about every possible area of concern, though the authors note that much has changed in the nearly forty years since the first edition was published. The authors note that when the first edition was published the field of biblical studies was still dominated by German scholars concerned with historical reconstruction. Although there still are German scholars at work and many scholars focus on historical reconstruction, the field has broadened considerably. They write in the preface:
Along one axis this expansion can be described as a shift of interest from the world behind the text to the world in front of the text; along another axis it can be described as the spread of biblical studies from theological faculties of church related universities in the old world to departments of religion, literature, and philosophy in secular universities around the globe; and yet another as the inclusion alongside liberal Protestant scholars of Catholic, Jewish, Orthodox, evangelical, and Pentecostal ones (not to mention secularist, atheistic, and agnostic scholars as well); and along still another as the advent of women, African Americans, Africans, Asians, Latinos/Latinas, and others into a scholarly guild long dominated by men of European descent. (p. v).
These are exciting times in the field of biblical studies. The number and variety of voices, methodologies, and perspectives has expanded in ways that can both confuse and enlighten. For people of faith, when we understand the methods, our understanding of the text is expanded and thus we're better able to hear the message(s) found in these ancient texts that remain such a part of our lives.
What these two authors have done in this relatively brief volume is offer us a tool so that the non-specialist, the person not having a doctorate in biblical studies, can enter into the conversation and be enriched by that conversation. I only wish I had purchased an earlier edition of the book, but thanks to WJK Press I now have the most up to date edition and will turn to it often as I engage the text that for me is normative to my faith.