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Critical categories

21 June 2013

Henry Wansbrough reads an introduction to scholars' methods


Biblical Criticism: a guide for the perplexed
Eryl W. Davies
Bloomsbury £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT426 )

METHODS of approach in biblical studies are somewhat confusingly called "criticisms". This is not primarily because they are criticising in the sense of scolding the Bible, but they can be ways of penetrating to the truth of its message, understanding how it works. Thus "redaction criticism" is an investigation of the ways in which the individual authors have edited their material in order to express their message. Perhaps the most comprehensive review of such methods is still the 1993 document of the Roman Catholic Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.

Dr Davies gives a history and explanation of four such methods, with a brief glance in a concluding chapter at three more: rhetorical criticism, canonical criticism, and ethical criticism. Only in this last does he point out the importance of criticism in the sense of evaluating the message of the Bible.

Reader-response criticism is situated in the context of the contention of literary criticism since the 1960s that a text has no single meaning, but rather can be read differently according to the position of the individual reader. As an example, he analyses how the Gospel of Mark leaves signals for the reader, especially the irony of the failure of the disciples to understand the message of Jesus, and particularly the unreliability of Peter, the "Rock". One such clear signal is the disciples' amazement at the Feeding of the 4000, despite the closely preceding Feeding of the 5000! The analysis is enlightening, but it does seem to me to be an excellent example of redaction criticism rather than of reader-response criticism.

Feminist criticism is traced from 1887, showing the struggle of women to make sense of a male-orientated text in which women are routinely oppressed, if not caricatured. Three approaches are especially highlighted: the rejectionist (the Bible is so twisted that it can only be totally rejected), the revisionist, and the womanist. Perhaps the most interesting treatment illustrated is that of Phyllis Trible, reading the creation-story as a feminist manifesto.

Ideological criticism investigates how different ideologies can be imposed on a reading of history. For instance, a large part of the biblical story of King David is slanted to be propaganda for David; "revisionist" modern scholars maintain that - if he existed at all - he was merely a petty tribal chieftain. The story of the entry of the Israelites into Canaan is slanted to justify their land-grab from the "depraved" Canaanites.

A special case of this is post-colonial criticism, which exposes the use of the Bible to justify apartheid, slavery, and colonial imperialism - or, indeed (though this is not mentioned), the yearning of Afro-American slaves for liberation.

The book is clearly written, with a warmth and gentle humour that make it a pleasure to read.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet's Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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