Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous
JETS 51:3 (September 2008) p. 615
The Nature of Biblical Criticism. By John Barton. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007, x + 206 pp., $24.95 paper.
John Barton is Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford. Barton has been studying about and writing on the subject in view for close to thirty years. His book contains a foreword, introduction (chap. 1), five other chapters (“Difficulties in the Text,” “The ‘Historical-Critical Method,’”“The Plain Sense,” “The Origins of Biblical Criticism,” and “Biblical Criticism and Religious Belief”), a conclusion (chap. 7), bibliography, and an index of authors.
The book is relatively short, dealing with a subject I have studied a good bit, so I was surprised the book turned out to be a rather challenging read, due mainly to two factors: (1) the complexity of the subject that demands explanations that are, by their very nature, convoluted; and (2) the painstaking approach Barton takes to present a truly analytical approach to the subject, something he believes has not really been done (p. 7).
Barton’s intent and approach are quite clear from the introduction. Up front, he reflects how foundational the problems are in understanding biblical criticism by discussing varied ideas about definition. He states his own position succinctly: “Biblical criticism comes down to attention to the plain meaning of the biblical text” (p. 3). He then summarizes possible models (reflecting varying definitions different from his own) indicating how, chapter by chapter, he will deal with each one. He then provides ten theses that summarize the wider implications of his basic view. These theses are key ideas that “emerge as the discussion proceeds” (p. 5).
One could describe Barton’s work as an irenic apology for biblical criticism, rightly understood and practiced. He is convinced that the typical antipathy toward critical studies has resulted from a caricature of the approach. So, for example, critical study of the Bible may be perceived to be focused almost exclusively on finding and highlighting apparent problems and difficulties in the text. Barton’s response (chap. 2) is to assert that good readers of the Bible have always reflected a literary sensitivity that causes them to ask questions of and about the text. In a real sense, then, “critical” issues have been in view from the earliest times, well before the rise of classical historical studies and the Enlightenment. He also emphasizes that the crucial issue in criticism is “how these difficulties are perceived, and what kinds of hypotheses are developed to account for them” (p. 10), thereby implying some inherent positive qualities in its true nature. Barton’s study follows this same patte...
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