Chapter 1 Introduction

Eugene H. Merrill

A Definition of Terms

The curricula of nearly all seminaries and graduate schools of religion include courses in subjects called "Old Testament Introduction" (or "Criticism"), "New Testament Introduction" (or "Criticism"), and the like, but few beginning students understand the various nuances of these terms. Usually the assumption is that "introduction" refers to a preliminary study of Bible content and "criticism" refers to an assessment of the nature of the Bible, one that is commonly negative if not destructive. However, as used in biblical scholarship the words "introduction" and "criticism" have meanings quite different from these or at least more refined. Though used interchangeably by some practitioners—and with some justification—the terms should nevertheless not be construed as synonyms but rather as symbols suggesting different emphases. It will be helpful to look at definitions of each as revealed by both etymology and long-standing usage.

"Introduction" may be defined as "a part of a book or treatise preliminary to the main portion" or (and more relevant to our subject) "a preliminary treatise or course of study." That is, an introduction to the Bible is composed as a work preliminary to the study of the Bible itself. According to its Latin etymology (introducere), its purpose is "to lead (ducere) into (intro)," that is, to conduct the student from a position outside the Bible to one inside it. The desired end is that the reader, having been introduced to the Bible, will feel at home with it and come to be on friendly terms with it.

The focus of an "introduction" is thus on familiarity and understanding and not so much on evaluation. The latter is properly the province of criticism, "the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature." A less prejudicial definition, one more in line with traditional use in biblical scholarship as a virtual synonym of "introduction," is "the scientific investigation of literary documents (as the Bible) in regard to such matters as origin, text, composition, or history."

"Criticism" is therefore an inherently neutral term, but because of its association with more than 300 years of essentially negative assessment of the biblical writings it has become pejorative in conservative circles and will generally be avoided as a proper term for describing the subject matter of this book as a whole. Indeed, works on this subject, even outside conservative circles, are now universally described as "introductions."

Scholars differ in their opinions on the nature of what we are calling "introduction." The following few examples demonstrate the broad spectrum of understanding that attends the subject.

In a statement not intended to define introduction as an entire genre, Brevard S. Childs offers a succinct description of his own work as one that "seeks to describe the form and function of the Hebrew Bible in its role as sacred scripture for Israel." S. R. Driver, explaining the significance of the title of his book—An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament—says that what he "conceived this to include was an account of the contents and structure of the several books, together with... an indication of their general character and aim." Otto Eissfeldt suggests that whereas at one time "introduction" could consist of anything necessary or desirable for the understanding of the OT, by his time (1965) it had "limited itself to areas covered by these three questions: the origin of the individual books, the growth of the canon, and the history of the text." Of these the first "takes decidedly the largest place."

Horace Hummel proposes that "introduction" "occupies somewhat of a middle position between Bible survey and exegesis." He asserts that "misunderstanding at this point would be greatly lessened if we could revive the more technical term, 'isagogics,'" a term that "concerns itself primarily with questions of date, authorship, occasion, and purpose of writing." J. Alberto Soggin provides the following definition: "We may term that discipline Introduction to the OT, which sets out to present, where possible, the information needed to identify the authors of a text, its literary genre, the milieu from which it derives and so on, making it comprehensible against the background of the events and the problems which have shaped it." In keeping with more modern trends, Walter Brueggemann defines introduction as "a study of the literature of the OT and a consideration of the theological claims it makes." E. J. Young, a leading conservative scholar of a generation ago, defines introduction as "that science or discipline which treats of certain subjects that are preliminary to the study and interpretation of the contents of the Bible." This last definition best squares with both the etymology of the English word and with the thrust of this present volume.

Though the term "criticism" is synonymous to some people with certain destructive approaches to the OT, and therefore is inappropriate as a synonym for "introduction," it cannot and must not be avoided as a legitimate and evangelically appropriate way of viewing various aspects of introduction. Each type of criticism must be judged on its own merits. Thus if classical "source" criticism is deemed invalid (for reasons to be discussed later), other criticisms such as form, redaction, rhetorical, and "new literary" will be seen as not only frequently tolerable but positively essential to a correct assessment of the purpose and message of the OT. Far from resisting the term "criticism," then, this introduction will attempt to show just how important a sound and "sacred" criticism is to the whole task of providing an introduction to the OT Scriptures.

The Subject Matter of Old Testament Introduction

Many of the definitions of "introduction" in the preceding section include topics found in standard textbooks, such as biblical backgrounds; the setting, authorship, and dates of individual books; canon; text criticism; and so forth. Lately other kinds of literary analysis have come to the fore, ranging from classical literary criticism to rhetorical criticism to modern theories of social-scientific criticism, structuralism, narrative criticism, reader-response hermeneutics, and feminist and socioeconomic criticism. Some practitioners of these new methods have come to the task with overarching ideological or theological schemes within or against which the biblical data are viewed. Brevard Childs, with his "canonical" criticism, is a notable case in point. Another (and much more idiosyncratic) approach is by Richard E. Friedman who, in his book Who Wrote the Bible?, answers the question by suggesting that it was Ezra in the final analysis, a solution he offers in order to explain the Bible as "a continuous story." Generally speaking, not only the subject matter of an introduction but also the shape it takes and the way it interprets the biblical text will be dictated largely by the assumptions brought to the task by the scholars who undertake it. Thus the critic who views the OT as merely ancient Near East (ANE) religious literature will reach certain predictable conclusions about the nature of the material, whereas the proponent of a more traditional stance will see it in an altogether different light. Both may claim objectivity, but the same data read against different premises will inevitably result in different conclusions or even in what should or should not be included in a book on introduction. A glance at the tables of contents of books on the subject from across the confessional spectrum clearly supports this observation.

Despite the mixed situation just discussed, it is still customary to speak of a distinction between so-called "higher" criticism and "lower" criticism and between "general" introduction and "special" introduction. To deal with the latter first, the concern here is with the issues that affect the entire OT—canon, text, the variety of literary-critical approaches, etc.—as opposed to those that pertain to the individual books or collections of books—authorship, date, provenance, contents, and the like. At a practical level this time-honored way of addressing the subject is sound and, indeed, indispensable.

As for "higher" versus "lower" criticism, such loaded terminology might better be replaced by something like "literary" as opposed to "textual" criticism. On the other hand "higher" is helpful in distinguishing the relatively subjective enterprise of seeking to reconstruct processes of origination, transmission, redaction, and formation of biblical texts (on the basis of little or no objective evidence sometimes), and the comparatively scientific integration of manuscript and version data that can be seen and therefore can be more objectively analyzed and synthesized.

Moreover, "literary" also has fallen on hard times because of its association with early criticisms—now largely abandoned—such as the documentary hypothesis, which also was designated "literary criticism." Many scholars therefore opt for something other than "literary" as a descriptor, choosing instead the awkward "new literary criticism," the rather limited and/or misunderstood "rhetorical criticism," or, as in Childs's case again, "canonical criticism," a phrase that implies a particular agenda.

As a result of such a conundrum in terminology, the present work attempts to avoid misleading terms and, by default perhaps, to deal only with text criticism on the one hand and "everything else" on the other.