Ipsissima Verba and Ipsissima Vox

Ipsissima verba is a Latin expression translated as “the actual words”, i.e. of a particular author or speaker. It has been used primarily in Gospel studies, applied to the sayings of Jesus (see below). It can also be applied to any of the narrative portions of Scripture (including most of Genesis through Esther, the four Gospels and Acts), as well as to the oracles and sayings of the Prophetic and Wisdom books, and even to the (superscriptions of the) Psalms. The expression can be understood or qualified two ways:

    1. In a strict sense—the exact words in the exact language
    2. In a looser sense—the actual words, but in translation, or modified/edited slightly in context

The first is a matter of linguistics and source-criticism. In fact, the words of the speakers in many of the Biblical narratives would not be considered their “actual words” (ipsissima verba) in the strict sense. For example, nearly all of the speakers in Genesis through Samuel would have spoken a language (or dialect) often very different from the Hebrew in which their words have come down to us—this is certainly true, say, for Abraham and Moses (the traditional author of the Pentateuch). In the New Testament, it is generally assumed that Jesus would have done most of his normal speaking and teaching in Aramaic; if so, then the Greek of the Gospels does not preserve Jesus’ “actual words” in the strict sense (except in the rare instances of transliterated Aramaic, Mark 5:41, etc). The same could be said for the words of Peter, James, etc (and even Paul, to some extent) in the book of Acts. Anyone who has attempted to translate Hebrew (or Greek) into a very different language (such as English) knows how difficult it can be to capture and transmit accurately the detail (and even the basic sense) of the original—a strict word-for-word, or otherwise ‘literal’, rendering can, at times, be almost impossible. The idea of ipsissima verba (in this strict sense) is, to a great extent, the result of an interest in trying to “recover” the original Aramaic of Jesus’ sayings; however, as I point out below, this has been rendered largely obsolete by modern trends in New Testament scholarship.

The second, looser, sense of the expression ipsissima verba is of far greater interest, from the standpoint of historical criticism. It has to do with the question of whether, or to what extent, the words of the speakers in the Scriptures are: (a) authentic and (b) (historically) accurate. Here it is worth mentioning the corollary expression ipsissima vox (“the actual voice“)—by this is meant that, though they may not represent the speakers “actual words” (in either a strict or loose sense), the words preserved in the Scripture do reflect the substance of what was actually said. In this regard, let us consider the two characteristics mentioned above:

    • Authenticity—i.e., the speaker really did say, in whole or in part, something similar to what is recorded. Again, this concept is most prevalent in Gospel studies, where scholars have sought to defend, disprove, or otherwise determine, whether sayings of Jesus are authentic. Critical scholars have developed a number of so-called “criteria of authenticity”, some of which are more useful (and convincing) than others.
    • Accuracy—i.e., on the whole, to a varying degree, the recorded words are reasonably close to what the speaker actually said (even if given in translation); to this may be added the qualification that the words may (or may not) have been spoken in the exact historical context (the place and position) indicated within the Scripture narrative.

A special difficulty arises with regard to the extended speeches in Biblical narrative—in the New Testament, most notably, the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John and the speeches in the book of Acts. As I discuss the latter in a study series (soon to be posted here), I will use the speeches of Acts as an example. Traditional-conservative scholars would tend to accept the speeches as representing the “actual” words of Peter, Stephen, Paul, etc, whereas many critical scholars believe the speeches are largely the product of the author (trad. Luke). A moderate critical position would see the end product as essentially Lukan, but built, to some extent, upon authentic tradition. Consider for the moment, the idea that the speeches do represent the ipsissima verba (as at least some tradition-conservative commentators would hold)—how exactly could this be? There are two possibilities: one natural, the other supernatural.

    • Natural—Luke (or the author of Acts) has access to a source (written or oral) of the speech, a stenographic record preserved by eye/ear-witnesses.
    • Supernatural—God (by the Holy Spirit) has somehow vouchsafed to the author a (perfect) stenographic record of the speech.

A “natural” word-for-word (or otherwise accurate) source for speeches (especially lengthy ones) given years prior can be extremely hard to obtain, as Thucydides clearly admits (cf. The Peloponnesian War I.22.1); to expect a record of the ipsissima verba of such speeches by entirely natural means would seem to be quite unrealistic. A “supernatural” source is often assumed simply on the basis of a belief of the divine inspiration of Scripture (for many believers, this includes the idea of verbal/plenary inerrancy). However, it is often unclear just how this works, especially in the case of historical speeches (as in Acts). Most of the clear examples of divine inspiration (or, more accurately, revelation) described in the Scriptures themselves refer either to: (a) God’s own original words (of instruction, prophecy, etc), or (b) foreknowledge of future events (including things people will say). It is hard to find many definite instances where inspiration functions by preserving a perfect record of what was done/said in the past. A “synergistic” theory, whereby the Spirit of God guides and superintends—enhancing, if you will—the natural process and development of historical tradition appears far more realistic. Along these lines, I might recommend a variation of the moderate critical view of the speeches in Acts: they accurately record a substantive tradition regarding what was said at the time (i.e. ipsissima vox), but are, to a significant degree, expressed by the author’s own (Spirit-guided) artistic style and wording. Clearly, the end result is not a mere stenographic record, but a powerful, dynamic work of literary art.

On the ipsissima verba of Jesus and Gospel Studies

As mentioned above, the expression ipsissima verba has been used primarily in terms of criticism and study related to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels (primarily the Synoptic Gospels). In the late 19th-century through to the middle of the twentieth, there was a particular interest among many New Testament scholars in the relationship between the current Greek of the Gospels (and Acts) and the Aramaic with which many of the original sayings and traditions are assumed to have been expressed. This interest and emphasis can be seen in the work of scholars such as Gustav Dalman, Adolf Harnack, C. C. Torrey, Matthew Black, and many others. To a large extent, this involved an effort to ‘recover’ or re-establish the “original” Aramaic, by way of, e.g.—

(1) textual criticism, working back from textual variants and other details in the text to find examples where the Greek may translating (or mis-translating) an Aramaic original
(2) comparative analysis, working with the Syriac versions, the Targums, etc., sometimes involving attempts to convert (retrovert) the Greek into a possible Aramaic original
(3) historical and critical study regarding possible (original) Aramaic versions and/or sources of the Gospels and Acts

In more recent decades, New Testament scholars have largely abandoned such efforts, along with a growing recognition that theories involving Aramaic sources for the Gospels and Acts are highly speculative and questionable. Scholars with an Aramaic speciality (such as J. A. Fitzmyer) have offered incisive criticism of earlier methodology, such as the use of later Jewish Aramaic sources to establish the Aramaic of the first-century. A greater emphasis on form-, genre- and literary-critical approaches has also tended to focus scholars back to the Greek text (of the Gospels and Acts) as it has come down to us, and away from pursuing source-critical Aramaic theories.

Gospel: Meaning and Background of the word

I am beginning a series of daily notes dealing with the word eu)agge/lion (euangélion) and the eu)aggel- word group in the New Testament and early Christianity. This series will lead into various notes and articles dealing with the ministry of Jesus and the related Gospel Tradition, to be posted in the time prior to the Lenten/Easter season. The very word “gospel” is central to any study of this Tradition—it features prominently in Jesus’ first recorded words in the core Synoptic tradition, and, indeed, introduces the Markan Gospel itself:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mk 1:1)
“The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near—repent and trust in the gospel” (Mk 1:13)

Let us begin with this English word “gospel”. It is a Germanic word, existing in Old English as gœdspel, meaning good (gœd) speech (spel), i.e. a good talk or telling (tale). As such, it corresponds reasonably well with the Greek word eu)agge/lion. The close correspondence between gœd and the word which came to express the idea of deity (god) was fortuitous, as it allowed for a bit of wordplay so that “godspel/gospel” could be understood as “talk/speech of/about God”.

English godspel/gospel would have been used to translate the Greek eu)agge/lion, already in the Old English/Saxon versions. Let us now consider this Greek term. Actually, there are three closely related words (or forms): the feminine noun eu)aggeli/a (euangelía), the neuter noun eu)agge/lion (euangélion), and the plural form of the latter, eu)agge/lia (euangélia). There is also the related verb eu)aggeli/zw (euangelízœ). These form the primary eu)aggel- word group.

The noun eu)aggeli/a is made up of two components: the noun a)ggeli/a (angelía) and the prefixed eu@ (eu), an adverb meaning “good, well”. The noun a)ggeli/a and the related verb a)gge/llw are part of an a)ggel- word group with the fundamental meaning “tell, declare, proclaim” (TDNT 1:56-57ff). The word a)ggeli/a refers to what is told or proclaimed, i.e. the message. Thus, eu)aggeli/a essentially means a good message, often rendered in English as “good news”. The neuter eu)agge/lion refers primarily to the response to a good message, i.e. a reward or offering of thanks, etc; it is thus fundamentally tied to both the messenger and the content/effect of the message. The plural form of eu)agge/lion ([ta] eu)agge/lia) is rather more common in Greek (though not in the New Testament!). The messenger (a&ggelo$, ángelos) is primary, and the one who brings the good message or tidings is called eu)a/ggelo$ (“good messenger, messenger [of] good [news]”). Interestingly, this noun does not occur in the New Testament; instead, we find eu)aggelisth/$, from the verb eu)aggeli/zw, i.e. “one who brings/proclaims the good message”.

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, the noun eu)aggeli/a was used to render hr*c)B= (b®´œrâ), which occurs 6 times in the Old Testament (2 Sam 4:10; 18:20, 22, 25, 27; 2 Kings 7:9); eu)aggeli/a renders it in all but one instance (2 Sam 4:10), where the neuter eu)agge/lion (plural) is used instead. The Hebrew noun is derived from the root rc^B*, a relatively common Semitic verb meaning “bring (good) news”. The verb is more frequent in the Old Testament (24 times), often used in a military context (reporting on the outcome of a battle, etc), or for other important events (such as the birth of a son). It is nearly always translated in Greek by eu)aggeli/zw (“give/bring a [good] message”), which occurs 23 times in the LXX (the middle form eu)aggeli/zomai being more common by the time of the New Testament). This Old Testament usage, and its influence on the New Testament and early Christian expression, will be discussed in the notes.

Largely due to the Christian usage, the Greek eu)agge/lion was borrowed in Latin as evangelium, and it is this Latinized form which made its way into English and our evangel word group, which has been used almost exclusively in a Christian context. The word “evangelism” is related to “evangelist” (properly from the Greek eu)aggelisth/$, euangelist¢¡s), and refers to preaching/proclaiming the Gospel. The word “evangelical” means “belonging, or related to, the Gospel”; unfortunately, this meaning has become somewhat distorted today, and often refers more to socio-political identity than to the Gospel message. The modern-day usage of “evangelical” ultimately stems from the Protestant Reformation, where it was essentially synonymous with “Protestant” and “Reformed”, and quickly took on partisan religious (and political) connotations. In the late-19th and 20th centuries, especially in America, it came to refer to a particular idea of mainstream (traditional-conservative) Protestant Christianity (and Christian identity). Currently, however, as noted above, it often connotes socio-political conservatism as much as anything to do with historical Christianity.

On the Interpretation of Prophecy

It may be helpful to outline various ways Christians have sought to deal with the (predictive) prophecies found in the Old Testament Scriptures—as these are still the primary methods for applying such passages today. A particular difficulty comes in regard to those Scriptures taken by early Christians (and even the New Testament authors themselves) to apply to Christ and the Church—events often centuries removed from the original historical context, and, not infrequently, with a meaning quite different from that of the original passage.

Bear in mind, these interpretive approaches only relate to those readers and commentators who wish to maintain the validity of both the original meaning of the Old Testament passage (according to the grammatical-historical sense) and the traditional (and/or New Testament) Christian interpretation.

  1. The grammatical-historical sense of the passage, focusing on the original context alone, is the (only) proper mode of interpretation as such (or is by far the most important, primary mode). All other ‘interpretations’ are secondary applications or adaptations (whether unconscious or intentional) to the circumstances of later readers. From a theologically conservative point of view, such interpretations in the New Testament are still valid, but in a qualified sense as “inspired applications” in light of subsequent revelation.
  2. There are two equally valid sets of meaning for the original passage: (1) one present, i.e. related to the circumstances and worldview of author and ancient audience, (2) the other future (primarily christological or eschatological) applicable to a far distant time (age of the New Testament or present day, etc).
  3. The original historical context is maintained as primary (and exclusive) for the ancient author and audience, but the inspired text contains ‘hidden’ within it a special meaning (which is, or becomes, primary) for future audiences. In this regard, some might debate whether: (a) the inspired prophet knew or glimpsed this future meaning, or (b) was essentially unaware of it, being the secret work of the Spirit (that is, he spoke ‘even better than he knew’).
  4. The primary meaning of at least certain passages is futuristic (that is, related to Christ, the Apostolic age, or the present day), and it is actually the ‘original’ historical context that is secondary or incidental to the circumstances, language and thought-world of ancient author and audience.
  5. One should also perhaps mention the so-called dispensational method—that each prophecy applies specifically (that is, exclusively, or at least primarily) to a particular period in time (or ‘dispensation’), sometimes identified with specific covenants established throughout biblical history.

One could perhaps delineate other kinds of approaches, however, I suspect they would end up being just slight variations on the five (particularly the first four) I have outlined here.

Approach #2, would, I think, be favored mainly by traditional-conservative commentators concerned with upholding the doctrinal view that all of Scripture (Old & New Testament) is equally inspired. As such, I would consider it valid, with a few possible exceptions, only in a terminological sense. Practically speaking, it can be extremely difficult to maintain, especially for instances where a New Testament author cites an Old Testament passage in a completely different (even opposite!) sense from its original meaning and context.

#4 was, effectively, favored by many theologians and commentators in the early (and medieval) Church, particularly those who gave emphasis to an allegorical-typological or spiritual-mystical mode of interpretation, virtually to the exclusion of the grammatical-historical sense (as we would seek to establish it). This sort of emphasis has largely been abandoned today—indeed, the pendulum, often enough and sadly, has swung overly far in the opposite direction!

#5 has been (and remains) popular in many circles, whether applied loosely or in a highly systematic fashion. However, in my view, the common modern “dispensational” approach, is highly flawed, and the attempt to fit prophecies into specified ‘dispensations’ (often in an eclectic manner) tends to create more problems than it solves.

In my estimation, #1 and #3 are much to be preferred, in every respect, both as a method of interpretation, and as an aid in treating the question of the nature and extent of inspiration. Approach #1, on the whole, is probably closer to being correct, as long as one emphasizes that the creative adaptation of Old Testament passages by New Testament authors (and other early Christians) is a vital aspect of the nature (and extent) of inspiration (in the theological and doctrinal sense). However, I must confess that aspects of #3 are most attractive and should not be ignored, as this approach is, I think, relatively close to the New Testament authors’ own understanding of the matter (3a moreso than 3b).

Pseudepigraphy and Pseudonymity

Pseudepigraphy refers to written works “falsely ascribed” to an author. Pseudonymity refers to works “falsely named” by an author. I prefer to regard pseudonymity as a type of pseudepigraphy. For works generally considered “pseudepigraphic”, one may distinguish several types, broadly speaking:

  1. Pseudonymous works—that is, works in which the (true) author has written under the guise of a more famous figure. Such writings today are often referred to as literary “forgeries”.
  2. Works which are anonymous, or where the authorship is otherwise unknown or uncertain. In the process of transmission and preservation, scribes and editors would occasionally ascribe such writings to a presumed author; sometimes the attribution simply developed as part of a wider tradition.
  3. Works which are written as representing the words of a main character (usually a central, and famous figure). This is distinct from pseudonymity, though related to it in some ways.
  4. Works which present additional events and exploits of a famous character as authentic historical or biographical material. In other words, these are narrated from the point of view of an eyewitness, as opposed to legendary accounts or “historical fiction” in the modern sense.

While these criteria can be applied to any writing, they relate specifically (and primarily) to discussions of ancient and medieval literature. Things are further complicated by the fact that the term “Pseudepigrapha” tends to be used in a very definite sense: referring to a collection of Jewish (and Christian) writings (c. 300 B.C. to 700 A.D.) which draw heavily upon the Old Testament (hence the qualifying label “Old Testament Pseudepigrapha”). These writings are centered on the Patriarchs of Israel, the Prophets, David and Solomon, and so forth, often purporting to be (or at least written as they are) their authentic words. Much of this literature can be classified as apocalyptic—as meant to convey special revelation of future events; in such instances the Old Testament personage is really a literary device to couch the prophecies within the context of biblical (and/or world) history.

However there is much pseudepigraphic material (Jewish and Christian) beyond the “Pseudepigrapha” proper, including: (a) portions of the so-called (Old Testament) “Apocrypha”; (b) a good number of Dead Sea texts from Qumran; (c) New Testament “Apocryphal” books, many written in imitation of Jewish pseudepigrapha; and (d) a number of prominent Rabbinic works.

Especially sensitive is the question as to whether, or to what extent, pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity occur in the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The traditional-conservative view is reluctant to admit any such occurrence, but many scholars (and most critical commentators) believe that it applies to a good many books. A few examples (the number indicates the type of pseudepigraphy, 1-4, listed above):

  • The Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) is essentially anonymous, but authorship has been traditionally attributed to Moses (#2), and Moses is the speaker of nearly all of Deuteronomy (#3).
  • Again all the books of the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi) are technically anonymous, but clearly claim to represent almost entirely the words of the Prophets whose names are indicated in the opening verses (#3, possibly #2 to a lesser degree).
  • The Psalms are attributed to various authors in the superscriptions, the accuracy (and even inspiration) of which is debated (#2).
  • The Proverbs (much of it), Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs are attributed to Solomon in the text (though the opening verse of the Song does not as clearly indicate authorship); nearly all critical scholars hold that Ecclesiastes and the Song, particularly, were written considerably later (#3, perhaps a bit of #4).
  • The four Gospels, Acts and the Johannine epistles are all anonymous, but the traditional authorship was ascribed to them very early on (early-mid 2nd century at the very latest in the case of the Gospels); it is impossible to judge objectively whether they were applied at the original publication (#2).
  • Critical scholars are nearly unanimous in the view that the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus) and 2 Peter are pseudonymous; many hold the same opinion regarding Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians (#1).

It remains an open question as to whether pseudonymity is, in fact, entirely incompatible with a sound, reaonable doctrine of inspiration. Early Church fathers and officials generally condemned the practice; but it certainly took place, for we have examples of both ‘orthodox’ and ‘heretical’ works from the early centuries which are almost certainly pseudonymous. A famous example from the early middle Ages is the writing of so-called Pseudo-Dionysius—a heady mixture of Christian mysticism and Greek ascetic philosophy, which many later Fathers viewed as authoritative to some degree, due to its apparent authorship by the Pauline disciple Dionysius the Areopagite. If they had ever thought it was a pseudonymous work (a “pious fraud”), orthodox theologians such as Thomas Aquinas would not have tried so hard to make it fit into their system of belief. Subsequent centuries have viewed pseudonymity even more harshly, as an attempt to deceive readers or appropriate another author’s prestige. If seen in this light, pseudonymity would seem to create an ethical problem for any writing purported to be divinely-inspired. However, it is worth asking, to what extent is the pejorative and negative value judgment attending such descriptions as “false”, “fraud”, “forgery”, etc., actually warranted? Should authorship be viewed in terms of literary device or historical fact? These are important questions as we seek to study carefully the text of Scripture with both clear mind and open heart.

“On objective grounds…”

This is a phrase (“on [purely] objective grounds”) I use rather frequently in the notes and articles posted here. The purpose of the phrase is to indicate when a saying, narrative, or other tradition recorded in Scripture may be considered as authentic on the grounds of critical scholarship, without resort to any doctrine regarding the inspiration or historical reliability of Scripture. Similarly, it is used to judge the greater likelihood of various (critical) theories related to the development of tradition and how the Scriptures (the Gospel narratives, especially) came to be composed. For more traditional-conservative commentators, and for many devout believers in general, the accuracy and authenticity of the Scriptures is self-evident—is assumed or taken for granted—and requires no (objective) critical analysis to confirm the matter. However, even for those who hold, or tend toward, the traditional-conservative position, the observations and insights of critical scholarship can be most beneficial: it is foolhardy (in the worst sense) to ignore or disparage them, and, I should say, unworthy of the believer who wishes to be a serious student of the Scriptures.

The qualifying term “objective” implies verifiable evidence, both internal and external to Scripture, which can be analyzed, agreed upon, and accepted, by all commentators—believer and non-believer alike—apart from what one personally believes or thinks about the Scripture. This is contrasted with (or, one may say, complemented by) interpretation on “subjective” grounds—that is, the personal (whether unique or shared by a wider community) opinion or belief of the commentator. Examples of “objective” evidence include: word usage, the development and particular meaning of a word or phrase, historical parallels to a word or passage, similarities of usage in other writings, signs of historical/literary development in a narrative, and so forth. Complete objectivity may or may not be possible for a scholar or commentator, but it remains a noble goal, and one which ought to be pursued in faith and humility.

“Tradition” and “Authentic Tradition”

The word “tradition” (from Latin traditio, tradere) means that which is “given over, delivered, transmitted, passed on”. In Greek, the corresponding term is para/dosi$ (parádosis), from paradi/domi (paradídœmi), lit. “give along”. A tradition is something which is passed along, i.e. from one generation to the next, within a specific cultural matrix or community. In particular, one may speak of religious traditions passed down within a community. So it is with much of the material which we find preserved in the Scriptures—lists, genealogies, narratives, words and speeches, and any number of related historical and/or tribal/community details. In many instances these traditions were passed down orally, perhaps for generations, taking on fixed or well-established forms, before ever being written; then, several written stages may have occurred before being given definitive shape in the Writings which have come down to us. Often the Scriptures themselves bear witness to a wider tradition (regarding, e.g., the Patriarchs, the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles, etc), of which only a small portion has been preserved.

Gospel Tradition(s)” is a term regularly used by critical scholars, especially, to refer to the various sayings and narratives (and occasional lists, etc) which have been preserved and recorded in the Gospels. “Jesus Tradition(s)” is a parallel term referring specifically to sayings of Jesus, narratives and historical details involving Jesus, which have been preserved—primarily in the four canonical Gospels, but also in other New Testament and extra-canonical writings.

“Authentic Tradition”

For those familiar with the notes and articles posted here, this is a qualified term I use quite frequently. By it I mean a tradition which has been transmitted from the time, and from within the cultural milieu, indicated. For example, an authentic Gospel (Jesus) tradition will have been passed down from Jesus’ own time, originally by his followers (and/or their close associates). An authentic tradition is not necessarily (strictly speaking) historical or factual in every detail—even though such traditions would (originally) stem from persons who may have been ear/eye-witnesses (or nearly so), the possibility of distortion and/or adaptation during the process of transmission must be taken into account. For many Christians, a doctrine of inspiration of Scripture presumes that the process of transmission would (or must) be completely accurate and reliable in (every) detail. However, this rather depends on how one understands the nature and extent of inspiration (a vital question, sadly neglected today), and the force of the claim could certainly be debated.

For the purposes of these notes and articles, I use the term “authentic tradition” in the sense indicated above. It should be pointed out, however, that many (critical) scholars also use the term “authentic saying” (that is, of Jesus) in a specific technical sense. This has been a significant area of Gospel Criticism in the past two centuries, tied to the idea of the “historical Jesus”—authentic (i.e., actual, genuine) sayings and actions of Jesus are often contrasted with sayings and narrative events viewed as (in whole or in part) the product of the early Church. To this end, critical scholars have developed a number of “criteria for authenticity”, several of the most important are:

  • Multiple Attestation: Sayings or episodes which are attested in multiple, unrelated sources (i.e., Synoptics, Gospel of John, Pauline epistles, extra-canonical sources) are more likely to be authentic.
  • Dissimilarity: Sayings/episodes which are significantly different from the language, style, theology, etc. found elsewhere in the early Church (or Judaism of the period) are more likely to be authentic. A subcategory of this criterion is that of embarrassment—i.e., sayings which proved difficult or ’embarrassing’ to the early Church are more likely to be authentic.
  • Coherence: Sayings/episodes which cohere or conform to other material judged to be authentic (on other grounds).

While such analysis has led to many useful insights, I find the search for “genuine” vs. “inauthentic” sayings and actions of Jesus to be, on the whole, exaggerated and overextended, with critical scholars often engaged in considerable speculation. However, in presenting something of the critical approach and viewpoint in these articles, I feel it both it both necessary and helpful to point out when a narrative or tradition can, on objective, critical grounds, be judged as authentic, and where, by contrast (or complement), an early interpretation may be attached to a tradition within the text of Scripture.

“Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative”

I have regularly used the labels “Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative” as a short-hand description for two general approaches to handling and interpreting Scripture. The reality is more complex than the labels would suggest, and, of course, there is a wide middle ground of opinion and analysis; however, fundamental differences exist which are distinct enough to warrant some basic form of demarcation.

“Critical”

For the term “criticism” in general, I would recommend the three-part article Learning the Language, introducing the subjects of Biblical Criticism and, in particular, Textual Criticism. “Criticism” of Scripture simply means informed judgment and analysis of the sacred Writings, in terms of: Text, History (and Historicity), Literary Form and Genre, Composition (and Redaction), Authorial Purpose/Intent, Development and Transmission, etc.—that is, everything meaningful which one could study and analyze about a particular literary document. All commentators engage in “criticism” at some level. What distinguishes a specific “Critical” approach, as such, to Scripture, is the willingness to apply to sacred Writings the same methods and techniques one might apply to any other writing from the ancient world. In so doing, there is no doctrinal presumption, no resort to supernatural agency in explaining how the text came to be—for the most part, entirely ordinary, natural means of production and development are assumed. On the one hand, this allows the commentator freedom in analyzing the text—every aspect (authorship, historical accuracy, theology, etc) can be examined apart from any religious doctrine regarding the text. On the other hand, this detachment can blind the commentator to the very religious and spiritual dimension which caused the text to be preserved and treated as sacred in the first place. Indeed, it is unfortunate that one can read page after page of critical commentary without any suggestion of unique, Divine inspiration (however one understands this precisely) at work in the text of Scripture.

“Traditional-Conservative”

As the label indicates, there are two aspects which I emphasize:

“Traditional”—This implies that the Christian tradition regarding the Scriptures is generally accepted, unless there is strong reason to reject it. This is opposed to the “Critical” approach, which tends to be skeptical, willing to question and examine every tradition (before accepting it outright). In particular, traditions regarding authorship (Moses for the Pentateuch, Matthew/Mark/Luke/John for the Gospels, etc), are assumed. See also the separate article on “Tradition”.

“Conservative”—Because of the highly polemical, partisan nature of this term in many circles, I use it somewhat reluctantly. I mean by it the tendency to accept—to take at face value—everything one finds in the Scriptures. This may be driven by a theological/doctrinal viewpoint, a religious/credal viewpoint, or both. Especially, when authorship is indicated in the Scriptures (e.g., Isaiah, Daniel; Paul in the “disputed” epistles [Pastorals, Ephesians]; 2 Peter), it is accepted more or less without reservation. Most controversial are questions regarding the historicity/factuality of the Old Testament and Gospel narratives; much of modern-day “apologetics” is devoted to defending the details of the Scriptural narratives against critical-skeptical ‘attacks’.

The Traditional-Critical view, at its best, demonstrates a sensitivity to the value of tradition, and to the religious/spiritual environment which produced the Scriptures (with recognition of the reality of inspiration); at its worst, however, it tends to close off important paths of inquiry, and risks distorting and misrepresenting the very sacred text it seeks to defend.

To demonstrate a basic difference between the two approaches, consider the concept of Gospel tradition in relation to the canonical Gospels which have come down to us. The Critical approach generally assumes multiple layers of development in the Gospel tradition, during which many modifications, accretions, interpretive expansions, etc. have occurred:

  • Stage 1: The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  • Stage 2: These words and actions as described and transmitted orally among the earliest believers
  • Stage 3: Early collections of sayings and narratives (oral or written, perhaps translated into Greek)
  • Stage 4: Early Gospels (or Gospel fragments)—sayings and narratives connected within a larger framework
  • Stage 5: The sayings and narratives as recorded in the four canonical Gospels

The Traditional-Critical view, by comparison, would tend to compress these layers so that Stage 5 is more or less equivalent to Stage 1—i.e., the Gospels as we have them preserve (with minimal modification) the words and actions of Jesus just as they originally took place.

The thoughtful and sensitive student of Scripture will recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches—by holding them in balance, in true humility, and under the guidance of the Spirit, we may faithfully explore and expound God’s Word in the Scriptures (and the Scriptures as God’s Word).