Source criticism – What is it?
Source criticism is a form of study used by some Bible interpreters to help determine potential human sources used to influence or compile the text of a biblical book. This field of study came to prominence in the eighteenth century when Jean Astruc used the methods applied in source criticism to Homer's Illiad to the text of Genesis. Other scholars have since used similar methods in attempts to discover what sources have been used in the compilation of biblical writings.
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Many conservative Christian scholars have opposed such an approach to the biblical text. They would argue that Scripture is divinely revealed by God and is dependent upon Him rather than other sources. In addition, since many source critics have spoken of "errors" in the text, have suggested non-traditional authors of biblical books, and have referred to the mere copying of other sources in the composition of biblical books, source criticism has often been completely rejected as an approach to biblical study.
However, despite many valid criticisms of the methods of some source critics, there can be helpful reasons to consider the potential sources used in biblical writings. For example, the theoretical Q Gospel may explain the shared material in Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark. However, one need not create theoretical written works to discuss sources. The idea of a common source used by two Gospel writers could have been from oral teaching within the early Christian churches, an early written document (Luke admitted using several sources in Luke 1:1-4), a combination of written and oral sources, or could in some cases be directly from the Gospel writers themselves.
Another example can be seen in some of Paul's writings. In 1 Corinthians 15, for example, he refers to what appears to be an early creedal statement in verses 3-5. Since 1 Corinthians was written about 51, Paul was very likely repeating a verbal or written statement from something within the first few years of the church's existence. This helps to strengthen the early, reliable sources used in the composition of the New Testament at a level unmatched by other ancient sources.
Still another example can be found in many of the words used in the Gospels. Aramaic is widely believed to be the main language spoken by Jesus and His disciples. It is not surprising, then, to find many Aramaic words used in the Gospel accounts as well as phrases that may appear odd in the Greek text that enjoy a clear rhythm and expression when translated into Aramaic.
Despite the many ways source critics have negatively spoken against the integrity of the biblical text, source criticism is sometimes a helpful source in better understanding Scripture. Those who research in this area should be aware of the many agendas often at work by source critics while also learning what is helpful in better understanding the historical and cultural settings of the biblical text.
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