There are several different forms of biblical textual criticism. In some cases definitions overlap as noted below. In our discussions of biblical textual criticism, it is essential to distinguish the differences in each type. The most crucial topic to be aware of is the different forms of textual criticism that we find in commentaries. It is important to know the methodology of each commentary to research and present the correctly interpreted information.

Literary Criticism

Fundamentally, literary criticism is the “study and evaluation of literature as an artistic production.”[1] Literary criticism investigates how literary devices such as figures of speech, buzzwords, story framing, or plot guide the reader to understand the text correctly. Such study was the focus of literary critics in history.[2]

Source Criticism

Source criticism seeks to identify and isolate the sources used by the author of the ancient document.[3] The critic attempts to identify these sources by noting differences in theology, shifts in language or style, or breaks in the flow of a narrative. Based on such analysis, most New Testament scholars today are convinced that Mark was the first Gospel and Matthew and Luke used Mark along with another source (commonly identified as Q) in their Gospels. Source criticism is a necessary preliminary step in redaction criticism (see below). Although some conservatives today object to source criticism, its practice can be consistent with a high view of Scripture. Even the fathers of modern fundamentalism affirm the legitimacy of this approach: “all schools of criticism and all doctrines of inspiration are equally hospitable to the supposition that the biblical writers may have consulted documents, and may have quoted them.”[4]

Form Criticism

Form criticism attempts to identify and classify units of material that circulated orally before the biblical documents were written. It seeks to identify the sociological setting of the community that produced or preserved the material. It explores how the social and cultural environment may have prompted the community to modify the tradition.[5]

Redaction Criticism

Redaction criticism examines how the final author changed the material from their primary documents. It seeks to identify the author’s contributions to work and specify the theological interests revealed by his editorial activity.[6]

Tradition Criticism

Tradition criticism, perhaps the most subjective of the approaches, is the study of the development of traditions, particularly those about Jesus, up until they were firmly established in their final written form. Tradition criticism seeks to determine:

(1) Which traditions can be traced to the historical Jesus;

(2) At what point in the period of oral tradition (which occurred over three to six decades), other traditions began; and

(3) The historical circumstances in the Christian community that were causal in creating the tradition. Tradition criticism overlaps with form criticism and redaction criticism. When form criticism proceeds from a classification of forms to historical analysis of the tradition, it has moved into the realm of tradition criticism. When redaction criticism examines how various Gospel writers adapted oral sources or how cultures shaped oral traditions, it also engages in the exercise known as tradition criticism.

See also: Theological Statements


              [1] Edgar Krentz, The Historical Critical Method (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1975), 49. For introductions to literary criticism, see Norman C. Habel, Literary Criticism of the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1971)

              [2] B. F. C. Atkinson, Literary Criticism in Antiquity (Cambridge: University Press, 1934).

              [3] See E. P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1989).

              [4] Franklin Johnson, “Fallacies of the Higher Criticism,” in Torrey, The Fundamentals, 1:56.

              [5] See Edgar V. McKnight, What Is Form Criticism? (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969).

              [6] Robert Stein, Gospels and Tradition: Studies on Redaction Criticism of the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991); Norman Perrin, What Is Redaction Criticism? (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969).