What is biblical criticism
Biblical criticism is the academic or scholarly study of the Bible using various tools and methods. One website defined it this way, “biblical criticism simply refers to the scholarly approach of studying, evaluating and critically assessing the Bible as literature in order to understand it better.” Biblical criticism is often used interchangeably with the historical-critical method.
Biblical criticism does not start with whether or not the Bible is considered inspired or inerrant. It approaches the biblical text like any other text and begins asking questions such as who is the author? Who is the audience? What type of literature is this? What are the historical circumstances of the writing? How do modern audiences understand the text? What are our assumptions when approaching the text? Some of the tools and methods used include textual criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, narrative criticism, social-science criticism, feminist criticism, reader-response criticism, postcolonial criticism, etc.
What is inerrancy
Inerrancy is the view that the Bible (in the original autographs) contains no errors of fact, not just in areas of faith and morality, but extends to matters of history and science.
Although biblical criticism does not preclude inerrancy it can help us to see whether or not the Bible contains errors of historical or scientific fact. I will argue that scholars have found by using these various methods and tools that indeed there are countless examples of such errors. For brevity’s sake I’ll briefly list two.
The historicity of the exodus
One of the crucial episodes recorded in the Penteteuch is the exodus. After 10 devastating plagues Moses, who was a prince in the royal Egptian family, leads Israel out of slavery to the promised land. When biblical scholars began using the tools of historical research they found that there was no evidence whatsoever of the events surrounding the exodus. Nothing in the records of ancient Egypt of a Moses, 10 plagues, or a mass exodus of Hebrew slaves, nothing in the archaeological record. How do inerrantists respond? Most take it as a matter of faith that something had to have happened, some argue that at best some of the events could have happened or at least are historically plausible when considering the contemporary culture. Another tact is to claim that Egypt would not have memorialized such a event, but even so, we would expect something in the record, even if veiled, perhaps Egypt changing the defeat into a victory or claiming such a defeat to be punishment from their gods (see Sparks, God’s Word, pgs. 155-157). It actually makes better sense when you see this account as a “founding myth” of Israel where Yahweh delivers his people, placing them in his covenant.
The spherical earth
It is alleged by inerrantists that the Bible describes the earth as round or a circle (Isa. 40:21-22; Prov. 8:27; Job 26:10), and hence a sphere and that it is suspended in space (Job 26:7) just as science says. There are multiple problems with this thinking. First, we must be careful that we are not reading modern concepts of cosmology into the ancient texts. Second, the translation of “circle” is not the same as “sphere” and in fact it’s often translated as “horizon” and the word for “earth” often means “the land.” The real problem is one of history. In the 6th century BCE the Greeks first proposed that the earth was a sphere, but it was a matter of philosophical speculation and remained so until the third century BCE when Eratosthenes was able to estimate its circumference. It was gradually adopted from then on. The cosmology of the Ancient Near East (ANE) however sees the earth as a flat disc resting on pillars covered by a solid dome. The various biblical texts from the Hebrew scripture make better sense in the light of their surrounding culture of the ANE. Inerrantists will not be convinced by the evidence seen by the fact that they still claim falsely that the Bible prefigures modern science, when in fact the Bible reflects the surrounding culture during the time it was written.
The findings of biblical criticism have demonstrated that the idea of inerrancy cannot be supported by evidence. This does not tell us if the biblical texts are still in some sense inspired, that’s a matter of faith, but it does tell us that the Bible is a very human book and that we can get to a better understanding of it using the various tools that are at our disposal.
Sources for further reading
Barton, John. The Nature of Biblical Criticism. Westminster John Knox, 2007.
Davies, Eryl. Biblical Criticism: A Guide for the Perplexed. Bloomsbury, 2013.
Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Baker Academic, 2005.
Law, David. The Historical-Critical Method: A Guide for the Perplexed. Bloomsbury, 2012.
Sparks, Kenton. God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. Baker Academic, 2008.
Stark, Thom. The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals when it Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It). Wipf and Stock, 2011.