Feminist Criticism

Where have all the women gone?

This approach pays particular attention to the place of women in Scripture and in interpretation. It has roots as far back as 1895 with the publication of the Women’s Bible but really came to prominence in the 60s to 80s.  It is famous for its ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ which looks for the silenced voices of women in Scripture and interpretation. 

Questions you could ask of the text using this method

  • Are the main characters male or female?  How are they depicted?
  • What is done to back up or assert the male dominated (patriarchal) structures?
  • Is there anything being done that undermines these structures?
  • Whose position does the text treat as more important (privileged)?  Whose does it undermine?
  • What are the implications for church and society today from this reading of the text?
Form Criticism

Twinkle, twinkle little star .... To whom it may concern ....  Once upon a time ....

When we communicate we use language in different ways for different purposes – a poem is different from a bedtime story. 

Form criticism is one of the earliest of the Biblical criticisms.  It is based on the idea that with certain parts of a text you can “get back” to an original saying or poem or particular form of story (such as miracle stories) that lies behind the current text.  Form criticism focuses on the features of these forms and the way the oral tradition of the text may have travelled around and been affected by the communities in which it was used.  

Questions you could ask of the text using this method

  •  What is the structure of the passage?
  • Does the passage have an identifiable form? (eg narrative, legend, oracle, hymn, parable)
  • Are there any striking literary devices used?
  • Does the passage seem to relate to an identifiable context or setting in the life of the community? (eg liturgy, festival, teaching)



Liberation Criticism

Long walk to freedom ....

Liberation criticism is a ‘stance’ which is concerned with oppression and uses of power.  It highlights the way the poor and marginalized are treated in the text and how the text has been used to sanction their treatment in society.  It reads the text to find signs and methods of liberation.  It has close links to liberation theology.  Liberation criticism is concerned with many different kinds of oppression – gender, class and race. 

Questions you could ask of the text using this method


  • Are there any signs of class relations in the text?
  • What sorts of things do the various classes seem to believe in regard to God and others?
  • Are there ideological positions in conflict in the text?
  • How are people shown as finding liberation?
  • Who is the marginalized person(s) in the text – how are they portrayed as using power?


Narrative Criticism

Let me tell you a story about a man named Jed .....

This method considers Scripture as any other form of literature and looks at devices and categories such as plot, characterization and setting. It looks at the final version of the text and is concerned with the "internal" world of the text rather than its original context. This tool invites you to use (and be aware of your imagination). It looks particularly for unexpected twists or things that catch the characters and the readers off guard (e.g. the parables).

Questions you could ask of the text using this method

  • Who are the characters -- are they well developed or 'flat'?
  • How does the plot develop the characters?
  • What is the emotional impact of the story on the reader?
  • Is there a narrator in the telling of the story? If so, how do you know? Do you find yourself agreeing with the narrator?
  • Is there a 'discussion' between the reader and the narrator that is seperate to the character e.g. are there asides to the reader?





    Postcolonial Criticism

    The empire strikes back!



    Postcolonial criticism looks specifically at how various empires eg Romans, Assyrians, Babylonians are depicted in the Bible. It takes this approach in response to the experience of many people of having been in countries that were deemed to be “colonies” and the effect that this had on their culture and identity.  It is concerned with politics particularly around domination and resistance.  It highlights the experience of the ‘other’ in the text. It draws attention to the way colonizers have taken over the texts and suggests alternate ways of seeing the text.  

    Questions you could ask of the text using this method


    • How does the author portray the empire – as kind or cruel?
    • Does the text support the empire or oppose it?
    • Where do the author’s loyalties lie – with the empire or in resisting it?
    Queer Criticism

    Let's talk about sex, baby ....


    Queer criticism uses sexual identity as the stance from which to view the text and interpretation of Scripture.  It evolved from historical and literacy criticisms, with its uniqueness coming through a viewing of and by the people whose sexuality may differ from what a dominant culture may deem as ‘normal’.  It has lead to a re-examination of the perceived Biblical views of gender and sexual practice.  Overall, it has a particular concern to reverse the damage that other interpretations have done to gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender people. 

    Questions you could ask of the text using this method

    • What are the kinship relationships it assumes?
    • Are there implied sexual norms included in the text?
    • Are there sexual or kinship relationships that don’t ‘fit’ the expected pattern?
    • How has this passage been used to exclude people by the Church or the society?




    Reader Response Criticism

    Who goes there? Who are you reading this note?


    Reader response criticisms are a result of the critical study of literature. It moves away from the author and the text to the reader.  (Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation [DBI]).  This group of approaches emphasises the role of readers as active agents in completing the meaning of a text.  This is unlike the historical criticisms where the tools are used to unearth the meaning in the text itself. In these tools, the readers are considered as creators of the meaning of the text – sometimes the reader is seen as an individual and other times as the community of readers. 

    Questions you could ask of the text using this method

    • What factors affect you as reader when you interpret this passage – eg psychological state, gender, socio-economic status, theological position?
    • How might these factors determine the meaning you obtain from the text?
    • Who forms the community in which you are reading this text – classmates, teachers, other congregation members, those outside of a particular faith tradition?


    Redaction Criticism

    A+B=C or more likely a little bit of Luke, a little bit of Mark, mix them all together and what do you get?


    Closely linked to Source criticism, this tool looks at how the various sources are combined in the text. When texts are compared, it can be seen that details have been included or omitted; or the order of events has changed or placed in a different setting – think about the Gospels and how the story of the Jesus' birth is told.  Redaction criticism is particularly interested in these and other changes to the sources and in understanding how this impacts on the theology of the text.

    Questions you could ask of the text using this method

    • How has the writer used the sources?
    • In what way and for what purpose have the sources been modified?
    • How have the writer’s own perspectives influenced the editing of the passage?
    • What words and themes are of special significance for this writer?



    Rhetorical Criticism

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that ....          Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears ....


    With Rhetorical Criticism, how something is said is as important as what is being said.

    This is a tool where the text is analysed for how the writer is attempting to convince or influence the reader/hearer to do something differently.  It uses a variety of tools from both historical and literary criticisms to identify the issue being addressed and how the writer is trying to convince the reader/hearer to change. 

    Questions you could ask of the text using this method

    • How does the author present an argument in the text? 
    • Does the author use any devices such as repetition, drama etc to make a point?
    • Does the text call for a response from the reader?
    • Are there key issues, persons or previous discussions that have given rise to this text – why is this argument being made?



    Source Criticism

    Looking for the sticky fingerprints.


    Source criticism looks for various sources that an author used when putting together a text.  Often this deals with a hypothesis or theory that there was an independent source(s) that existed and was available to the authors in their time but that may no longer exist.  In the New Testament it is particularly important for dealing with the similarities and differences in Matthew, Mark & Luke.  A parallel gospel is a useful tool when considering source criticism’ as it lets you see the common verses easily.

    Questions you could ask of the text using this method


    • Has the writer used any sources in the passage?
    • Are there repetitions or inconsistencies?
    • Are these significant for determining the writer’s course or are they merely stylistic?
    • Are there signs of rewriting or editing?
    Textual Criticism

    A comma here, a full stop there, singular and plural words - does it really matter?


    For those using textual criticism it does matter!  This method uses detailed comparisons between text versions and passage versions to investigate what may have been in the original manuscripts, and then to suggest theories about what these differences might mean.  You’ll see traces of this method in some versions of the Bible which use footnotes in the text to signal to the reader that there might be alternate meanings to particular words within the text.

    Questions you could ask of the text using this method

    • What are the differences between translations that may point to differences in original manuscripts?
    • Does this passage appear in more than one place in the Scriptures, what are the differences between them?
    • What might these differences point to in terms of authorship, meaning of the passage and why the passage is included (or excluded)?



    Historical Criticism

    Historical Criticism asks questions about the historical and social context of the biblical texts, and has its roots in the European Reformation. It uses other methods to try to understand the text’s meaning in its original setting. Methods used include archaeological, linguistic and historical information, incorporating Source criticism, Form criticism and Redaction criticism.

    Questions you could ask of the text using this method


    * Who wrote it?
    * When was it written?
    * What else what happening at the time of its writing?
    * How did it come to be in the form we have it today?
    * What did it mean to the people who first read or heard it?

    Historical criticism has also often sought answers to the ever-elusive question of what is called “authorial intent”: What did the author intend for this text to mean in his or her time and place?

    Further Reading


    For further reading please see the articles on each of these forms of Criticism in The New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible. This book is available in the Reference section of the library.  BS440 ABI NI