History and Sources

What does the term “historical-critical method” mean?

When Christians study their scriptures they can take any of a number of approaches, as already suggested. A common pastoral approach nowadays reads the scriptures almost entirely as if they are addressed to twentieth-century Christians and are thus in a way “timeless” and not subject to historical conditions. Another approach tries to get behind the words as much as possible to understand their meaning in their original context. This second approach by no means disregards the personal, pastoral, and deeply spiritual implications of the sacred text. But it begins with the assumption that one cannot know those deeper meanings without first understanding how and why the inspired authors wrote as they did.

Historical-critical scholarship looks, for example, at the differences in how even texts as generally concordant as the synoptic Gospels show divergences in vocabulary, major themes, order of events in the life of Jesus, and points of view tailored to different audiences. It notes how the inspired authors, as much editors as original writers, interwove Jesus’ words and actions, telescoping time and space. As skilled literary communicators, the inspired writers also made use of stylized scenes that followed predictable patterns in their description of the main actors, actions, and crowd responses. Combining analyses of the literary, linguistic, and historical elements, the historical-critical method seeks insight into how these documents, two millennia and many layers of culture removed from us, appear to speak in so many distinct voices about the same great spiritual reality.

Underlying it all, the method suggests, are the unique theological insights granted to each of the sacred authors. Each offers a characteristic reflection on the deeper meaning of the “good news” and of Jesus the Christ. For Mark, Jesus was most of all the Suffering Servant; for Matthew, the Messiah; for Luke, the Savior whose ongoing presence is the Holy Spirit; and for John, the Divine Son. These are not exclusive, but complementary insights. Unlike the predominantly spiritualized or pastoral method of interpretation, whose immediate concern is to deal with apparent inconsistencies among the sacred authors by “harmonizing” them into a seamless reconstruction, the historical-critical method seeks a unity of scriptural revelation through the uniqueness and diversity of the evidence.

St. Anselm’s Abbey Church, St. Louis, Missouri, was designed in 1962.


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