Sunday Afternoon Bookworm: Handbook of Biblical Criticism, Fourth Edition
SouthernGospelBlog.com periodically features book reviews on Sunday afternoons. So that the home page can remain focused on Southern Gospel news, just click the story title or the “read more” button to read the review.The field of Biblical Criticism is, perhaps necessarily, a contentious field. The authors define Biblical Criticism as “an approach to the study of [S]cripture that is centrally concerned with searching for and applying neutral, i.e., scientific and nonsectarian, canons of judgment in its investigation of the [B]iblical text.” As defined by the authors, the term includes historical criticism, and approaches that “do not consider themselves to be methods in any precise sense, but rather to be perspectives that must be a part of any critical interpretation of Scripture, e.g. Feminist Biblical Interpretation.”
Encyclopedic Handbooks are generally expected to be neutral and unbiased. As the definition above suggests, the Handbook of Biblical Criticism is not. As with the above assertion that a feminist perspective must be a part of any critical interpretation of Scripture, authors Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen are not hesitant to present opinions and assumptions as fact. Sometimes they are overt; sometimes they use the passive tense to avoid direct issue advocacy, while choosing wording which leaves their positions clear. Take, for instance, their words on the significance of Karl Barth: “In more recent years, however, Barth has been hailed as the greatest practitioner of theological interpretation in the 20th cent.”
In all fairness, a neutral approach does not appear to be the book’s objective. While it would undoubtedly be possible to write descriptions with so much objectivity that conservative and liberal scholars alike would agree with the accuracy of the portrayal, the authors of the book appear to assume that their audience accepts the assumptions of higher criticism and lower criticism.
In the area of lower criticism (textual criticism), the authors deem the term “Neutral Text” preferable to terms like the “Alexandrian” or “Egyptian” text. They term it “one of only two distinct early text types (with the Western),” not even acknowledging arguments made for the Byzantine Text / Traditional Text to have a place at the table (let alone the case for its superiority.) In the entry for Codex Vaticanus (B), they term it “extremely valuable as a textual source.”
They are equally biased when it comes to higher criticism. They portray Matthew and Luke as a reinterpretation and critical examination of Mark, and take for granted the modern argument that Isaiah had three or more separate authors. They go so far as to conclude that truth cannot be known. In the entry for “criteria of authenticity,” discussing the quest for the historical Jesus, they comment: “The quest for the criteria of authenticity serves as a useful reminder that the quest of the historical Jesus must always reveal as much (if not more) about the presuppositions of the historical inquirer as it does about the earthly Jesus and can never claim to present more than a hypothetical reconstruction.”
While liberal seminaries will undoubtedly appreciate the biases and issue advocacy of the authors, conservative scholars will find little of value in the Handbook of Biblical Criticism.
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