How to Study the Bible Like an Atheist: Part 2
by Bryan Bergman
In Part 1 of this two-part series, I explained the difference between a Biblical text’s original meaning and its meaning for Christians. Though the believing community can benefit from “plain readings” and by “interpreting Scripture with Scripture” (such methods offer profound encouragement for believers worldwide), these approaches are unable to answer historical questions about what the authors originally intended to communicate. Therefore, we must abandon our religious presuppositions and approach the Bible like an atheist if we want to understand its original intended meaning.
We don’t actually have to become atheists, but we must not appeal to divine revelation in order to prove what the authors meant. So when James writes that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24 ESV), we shouldn’t look for a convenient reinterpretation just because Paul seems to say the opposite and because it is impossible for divine revelation to be contradictory. No, we cannot appeal to divine revelation here. Whatever we want to say about James’ intended message will require the support of critical methods.
I already mentioned several tools for Biblical criticism, and I will present more methods used by Biblical scholars below.
Here lies the real value of source, form, and tradition criticism. Drawing on theories of a text’s pre-development, redaction critics try to account for the ways an author has changed, edited, or redacted his textual and oral sources. This is often done with the goal of highlighting an author’s theological tendencies and intended message.
Redaction criticism has been used fruitfully in study of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Building from a source-critical theory of Markan priority (Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source), scholars have noted the ways Matthew or Luke omitted, revised, or restructured the text of Mark as they composed their Gospels. Redaction critics will try to account for phenomena like Luke’s replacement of the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34 ESV), with his own, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Lk. 23:46). Perhaps Luke found Mark’s cry offensive. Perhaps, since Luke adds a heavy emphasis on the Holy Spirit, the author wanted to emphasize Jesus’ spirit in keeping with this theme. It is hypotheses like these that redaction critics use to reconstruct each evangelist’s (Gospel-writer’s) particular theology.
For studying the Synoptic Gospels, scholars primarily rely on a synopsis—a book showing the Gospels in parallel. With a synopsis, it is easy to quickly spot the differences between the gospels and start forming explanations.
Though not every text has written sources for us to consider, redaction criticism can overlap with tradition criticism as it considers how any Biblical author adopts, discards, or reshapes the oral tradition that preceded him…
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