John Barton on Biblical Criticism

For those who read frequently in the areas of biblical scholarship, the name John Barton is undoubtedly a familiar one. He has written prolifically over the course of his nearly half-century career, producing such volumes as The Nature of Biblical Criticism (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) and, more recently, A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book (Viking, 2019). In addition to all this, Barton has made his first contribution to TheTorah.com in a piece entitled “Biblical Criticism: A Common-Sense Approach to the Bible.” In it, he offers a crash course in the history of biblical criticism, a term he laments as “an unfortunate one.” But as he shows, biblical criticism is vital if we want to understand these ancient texts. This is because it addresses three specific areas: 

  • the origin of the texts, 
  • the contexts in which they were written (both historical and literary), and 
  • the genre(s) to which a given text belongs. 

Some of these issues are easier to address than others. For example, we have numerous examples of the sorts of wisdom literature from other ancient Near Eastern societies that we find in the book of Proverbs.[1] But what of the book of Proverb’s origin? That, as it turns out, is far more complicated a matter.[2]

In his piece, Barton traces the history of biblical criticism beginning with the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, moving to Julius Wellhausen, and concluding with more recent scholarship (including a dissection of some of Wellhausen’s more problematic views regarding the P source and the evolution of Israelite religion). He concludes by writing that “once one has seen the excitement of asking critical questions about the Bible it is impossible to block them out of one’s mind.” My own journey confirms this, as the Bible has become even more fascinating to me as an atheist than it ever was when I was a Christian. By moving beyond the easy and, quite frankly, wrong answers to some of the issues mentioned above (e.g., “Who wrote the Torah?” “Moses wrote the Torah!”), the ancient texts come alive as complicated, dynamic modes of communication. Conservatives may balk at this but it nonetheless remains that the Bible, whether it is inspired by a god or not, is complex and requires an appreciation of nuance to properly understand. Barton, of course, shows that one need not reject theism to appreciate the Bible. As an Anglican priest, he is fully committed to a religious worldview that no doubt informs his personal morality and expectations for the future. But he demonstrates that nowhere is it written that those who profess faith in Jesus need to embrace the simplistic answers of fundamentalism or some factions of evangelicalism. (See endnote 12 in Barton’s piece for a list of resources on just this subject). 


[1] For examples, see Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East, third edition (New York: Paulist Press, 2006), 283-317.

[2] For an introduction to the book of Proverbs, including the origin of the various collections found within it, see John C. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical Books, second edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 507-523.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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