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Biblical Criticism  

Richard Briggs

The Bible as a text can be read with or without reference to its compilation as a theologically constructed collection of sacred Jewish and Christian books. When read without such framing concerns, it may be approached with the full range of literary and theoretical interpretive tools and read for whatever purpose readers value or wish to explore. Less straightforwardly, in the former case where framing concerns come into play, the Bible is both like and unlike any other book in the way that its very nature as a “canon” of scripture is related to particular theological and religious convictions. Such convictions are then in turn interested in configuring the kinds of readings pursued in certain ways. Biblical criticism has undergone many transformations over the centuries, sometimes allowing such theological convictions or practices to shape the nature of its criticism, and at other times—especially in the modern period—tending to relegate their significance in favor of concerns with interpretive method, and in particular questions about authorial intention, original context, and interest in matters of history (either in the world behind the text, or in the stages of development of the text itself). From the middle of the 20th century onwards the interpretive interests of biblical critics have focused more on certain literary characteristics of biblical narratives and poetry, and also a greater theological willingness to engage the imaginative vision of biblical texts. This has resulted in a move toward a theological form of criticism that might better be characterized as imaginative and invites explicit negotiation of readers’ identities and commitments. A sense of the longer, premodern history of biblical interpretation suggests that some of these late 20th- and early 21st-century emphases do themselves have roots in the interpretive practices of earlier times, but that the Reformation (and subsequent developments in modern thinking) effectively closed down certain interpretive options in the name of better ordering readers’ interpretive commitments. Though not without real gains, this narrowing of interpretive interests has resulted in much of the practice of academic biblical criticism being beholden to modernist impulses. Shifts toward postmodern emphases have been less common on the whole, but the overall picture of biblical criticism has indeed changed in the 21st century. This may be more owing to the impact of a renewed appetite for theologically imaginative readings among Christian readers, and also of the refreshed recognition of Jewish traditions of interpretation that pose challenging framing questions to other understandings.