Guest Blog: Higher Criticism and Catfish for the Rest of Us

Dr. Mike Russell from In Search Of Arete recently wrote this excellent series on higher criticism based on a question I posted on Theologica. The posts poke fun while doing a great job explaining the different forms of higher criticism applied to Scripture. He graciously allowed me to repost them here at The Bible Archive.

In the erudite and ethereal discussions that tend to pop up around here now and then, people use terms such as “historical-critical method,” “form criticism,” “source criticism,” and “redaction criticism” – phrases that exclude most of us from the essence of the conversation. We are left on the sidelines like eunuchs in a harem, knowing that something is going on but not sure exactly what.

Hoping to expose the mystery of so-called higher criticism (at least for myself), I have undertaken to shed some light on the matter by answering a simple question: What if we treated one another’s written statements in the same way many people treat the Bible, i.e., through the lenses of higher criticism? I am not saying that higher criticism is bad – far from it! – but only that more pedestrian documents and writings should be able to enjoy the same scrutiny and privilege as does the Bible. It could serve to further our understanding of both higher criticism and what is actually being said. But what would that look like?

Well, let’s see. Let’s take something said elsewhere on Theologica and subject it to higher criticism, perhaps thereby ennobling the common to the glorious and correcting the misleading to the truth.

I will use the following petition of Rey to clarify my point:

I started cooking too late tonight and it’s too cold and dark out to turn on the grill. Does anyone have a CatFish [sic] recipe for stove top or oven?!!? I hope people are online.

I might conclude from this unexamined passage a number of things: Rey is hungry, it is late, Rey is afraid of the dark and dislikes cold weather, he likes to eat catfish after cooking them, he has no catfish recipes of his own other than those that require a grill, he has strange hopes. But without closer inspection or the corrective lenses of higher criticism, I could be perilously wrong. In fact, in the opinion of more than a few higher critics, I definitely am wrong.

There are three primary types of higher criticism: form criticism, source criticism, and redaction criticism. I’ll give a quick explanation of each before applying them to Rey’s cry for help.

Form Criticism (FC) examines the previous forms a document might have been in prior to what is now in front of us. We know, for example, that prior to the synoptic Gospels being written they existed in an oral form. FC looks at the effect previous forms have upon the final product.

Source Criticism (SC) seeks to find other documents, both real and hypothesized, that might have been used by a writer in producing the text we have. Again, with the synoptics, it is believed by some that Matthew and Luke may have used Mark as source material for their own gospels, and/or relied upon an unknown source (Q) for information.

Redaction Criticism (RC) tries to determine the theological purposes of the writer by looking at how they used the materials to organize or otherwise emphasize things in their books. It assumes, rightly, that each author has a particular perspective and purpose in writing that is not limited to historically reporting what has happened.

We’ll begin our search for the true truth about Rey’s catfish petition in the next post.

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