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Historical Approaches

Historical Approaches


This lesson explains how historical methods are used in the study of religion.

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Approaches to Studying Religions

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this tutorial on historical approaches to the study of religion. Just like other historical phenomena, we can also study religion historically, whether focusing on key people or movements in the history of religion or using archival documents to track the trajectory of a religion over a period of time, just like we might write a history of, say, the Labor Movement. Or we could write a history of, say, the structure of the family in Victorian England. We can also study religious movements historically by using the same standards that are used in other kinds of historical research.

So let's take a look at the historical critical method for the study of the Bible. Now we're taking the historical approach, and we're applying it specifically to texts-- in this case, Christian texts. In the 18th and the 19th centuries, European scholars started to develop historical critical methods for studying the Bible. And what this method of scholarship assumes is that the Bible is, gosh, just like any other text, which means that it had a community of authors or, in fact, several communities of authors that were working overtime to compile the text of the Bible as it has come down to us today.

There are several different methods of historical critical study of the Bible. One of them is source criticism, where we might be looking at a text and finding out, well, where did this piece of literature come from? What was the inspiration for this particular gospel, for example?

Or next, redaction criticism. Scholars often assume that when, say, a gospel writer is putting together a text, that gospel writer is working from various different textual traditions already in place and editing them and piecing them together. And the assumption is that the later editors will try to smooth out any difficulties in the text. So they often try to go back to see what was the original meaning of this text? And they will do that often by assuming that the more difficult reading is the more historically accurate one-- the assumption being that the editor is going to try to smooth out the reading of the text for us.

Another type of analysis is called textual criticism, where we can do things like, say, vocabulary analysis. So if we're looking at something in Greek, we'll say, well, does this person have an educated vocabulary? Do they have a simple, common vocabulary? Do they use the same words or not? So we can sort of assume that something that is written by the same person is going to have a similar vocabulary.

So this method led to things-- first of all, a greater understanding of the Bible and how it was compiled, but also a certain fundamentalist backlash by those who were offended that the Bible could be analyzed just like any other text, which led to the ideas of inerrancy of the Bible, which is really a relatively late development of fundamentalist Christianity.

So, just briefly, let's take a look at this method as it's applied to the Gospels. So it seems then that the first three Gospels-- that is Matthew, Mark, and Luke-- are called the Synoptic Gospels, which literally means seeing together because they tell the story of Jesus in a similar manner. And everything that is in Mark is also going to be in Matthew. The only difference is that Matthew adds a whole lot of teaching material, like the Sermon on the Mount. So this is often called the teaching Gospel.

Mark is often called the miracle-working Gospel because Jesus is so concerned with miracles. Luke is very concerned with money and material possessions. This is the one where Jesus says, whoever does not sell all they own and follow me is not worthy of me.

So each of the Gospels has different emphases. And this is probably because they were written by different communities of people. And textual scholars also like to use a source called Q, which comes from the German word quelle, which means source. So they posit that there was another source called Q that has now been lost to us and that this informed the creation of both Luke and Matthew.

Now, what about John? Well, it's kind of all over here by itself. And that's because John is not one of the Synoptic Gospels. It has a much different influence. It's probably much later in date. And it's often called the theological Gospel because this is where we get the idea of the Eucharist and this really rich idea of Jesus as the logos.

And Acts is over here, too. Well, Acts is actually continuous with Luke. And it is written by the same person and continues the story where Luke left off. So that's a little bit about source criticism and how it works.

What about other branches of historical criticism? Whether we're talking about historical criticism of the Bible or we're talking about historical criticism of religions in general, it abides by the same disciplinary standards as other historical research, which means that you don't have to be a person of faith to do historical criticism, even if you're translating the Bible. These people-- especially translators-- are trained in perhaps four or five ancient languages. It's very difficult work. And if you have the smarts to do it, you can do it. And it doesn't matter if you belong to a faith community or not.

Another thing that's happening in historical criticism is that that initial European influence is beginning to wane. And historical criticism is going global. This is also happening in a number of other disciplines but I think especially in the study of Christianity because the center of emphasis in Christianity is moving to the global south.

So the center of influence in Christianity is no longer in Europe and the Americas, but it's in South America and Africa, and also perhaps Southeast Asia-- maybe Korea over here. So the center of power is beginning to shift. And now Christianity is post-colonial. And it's going more towards the global south.

So thank you for listening to this tutorial on historical criticism. We're just going to do a brief recap. We talked about historical approaches to the study of religion. And we said that in this approach, we study religion just like any other historical phenomenon by looking at influential people in movements and using archival documents to trace a trajectory over time.

We also talked about historical critical study of the Bible, which looks at the questions of the historical truth of the Bible, its internal coherence, and its textual accuracy. So we can look at the sources for individual scriptures. And we can also look to see whether they conform to the historical record and other types of evidence.

We also said that historical criticism abides by the same disciplinary standards as other historical research and that the initial European influence over historical criticism now expands worldwide. And this is now a global movement in the study of religion. See you next time.

  • Historical-critical Study of the Bible

    An approach that subjects the Bible to questions regarding its historical truth, internal coherence, and textual accuracy.