Tradition-Historical Criticism


Tradition-historical criticism is among traditional approaches in Biblical criticism. It can be defined as the study of the process by which the oral and written traditions underlying the present text of the Bible are developed into their canonical form (see Jeppese, Knud and Benedict 1984). The results of methods such as form criticism (which studies genre to which text belongs- historical tale, proverb, psalm, prophetic saying ? the original setting in life or Sitz Im Leben, the process by which material is passed down), source criticism (a study of the structural investigation of the text), textual criticism (a rediscovery of the earliest stages of a text”s actual wording) and redaction criticism (the discipline devoted to how the final redactors or editors of the Bible not only adopted but adapted the various sources they had at their disposal for their own purposes, are utilized to achieve a comprehensive view of tradition-historical criticism since they are all directly concerned with the course of the Bible”s composition.

It is believed that “tradition-historical criticism should be complemented by greater literary sensitivity” (Carson, Moo and Morris 1992, 83). In other words, there should be a means which should neither be considered an alternative to literary criticism, nor accorded a superior position, but rather be looked upon as a further step subsequent to literary analysis (Fohrer 1965, 30). The characteristics of tradition-historical criticism could be understood by realizing the importance of the oral stage of a tradition”s composition and transmission.

Observing that it is misleading to regard it as a method, Di Vito (1993) opined: “tradition-historical criticism seeks to reconstruct the history of the transmission of the various individual traditions and tradition complexes that are to be found in the Old Testament” (91). Tradition-historical criticism deals with the pre-history of the books of the Old Testament and examines the gradual accumulation of traditions from the preliterary stages until their final form. Its goals, therefore, is to reconstruct a long history of the stages of a particular situation.


Tradition-historical criticism emerged because of the impasse reached as a result of the source-critical studies in the Pentateuch at the end of the nineteenth. Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), universally recognized as the classical exponent of the ”documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch”, had a low view of the reliability of the Pentateuch as history, “though he accepted that a shadowy figure called Moses had in some sense been the founder of Israelite religion” (Bray 1996, 284). Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) later concluded that the documentary hypothesis was inadequate as a theory of Pentateuchal origins. He believed that each of the ”four documents” had a prehistory which stretched back many centuries, into an ancient oral tradition which faithfully reflected many of the conditions of Babylon about 2000BC. Using form criticism, Gungel explored beyond the limitations of the written text observing that “one could hypothetically describe a tradition”s entire history on the basis of the tradition itself, its inner history” (Di Vito, 1993). It is reasonable therefore to recognize him as the chief pioneer of tradition-historical criticism.


Ivan Engnell (1907-64) wrote a detailed refutation of Wellhausen, using the tradition-historical criticism borrowed from Noth. He rejected the idea that there were extensive documents lying behind Genesis-Numbers. Albrecht Alt researched the distinctive nature of patriarchal religion. Gerhard von Rud found ”creeds” originating in Israel”s worship at an ancient shrine at Gilgal. He said these creeds formed the basis of structure of the present Hexateuch. Noth observes that behind the earliest written sources of J and E there already was a unified form with the five major themes of the Pentateuch.

There is widespread disagreement today about the specific object of tradition-historical research. Is it restricted to the phase of oral tradition? Is it all-inclusive? Furthermore, its methods are questioned. While acknowledging that changes in form/content of traditions occurred in course of transmission, Gunkel and his followers insisted on the ”fidelity” of the transmission process over long stretched of time. It is evident that “recent field studies…emphasize that the transmission of oral tradition occurs largely through a process recomposition, or recreation, so that a text never remains unchanged” (Di Vito 1993, 98).

Furthermore, questions are being raised about reconstructuring preliterary stages of a tradition from a written document. It is argued that “form criticism and tradition-historical criticism generally have show that the New Testament is the tradition of the church between 30 and 125″(Fuller 1971, 198).

In spite of the fact that tradition-historical criticism is an approach that deals with the entire sweep of history that a tradition passes through, from its earliest beginning as an independent unit to its final elaboration and expression with the Bible, the researcher doubts the reliability of an approach that relies on oral tradition which has its inherent weaknesses, the most obvious being mutilation in transit. Remaining independent on methods like source and form criticism is also dangerous because it will continually reflect their limitations.


Bray, Gerald. 1996. Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present. Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press.

Carson, D.A., Douglas J. Moo and Leon Morris. 1992. An introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Apollos.

Di Vito, Robert. 1993. Tradition-historical criticism. In To each its own meaning: An introduction to Biblical criticisms and their application, 90-104.

Fohrer, George. 1965. Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Fuller, Reginald H. 1971. A critical introduction to the New Testament. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co.

Source by Oliver Harding

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