Question: "What is source criticism?"
Answer: Source criticism is a specialized field of biblical studies that seeks to determine the sources used to develop the final form of the biblical text. The source critic reads the book of Genesis, for example, and asks, “Where did the author get this information? What written documents and/or oral traditions contributed to the stories recorded here?” Source criticism was used first to analyze secular literature, but in the eighteenth century Jean Astruc began adapting the source critical method for use with particular books of Scripture.
Because of source criticism’s development within academic circles, it has often been used without regard to important theological concerns such as the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. Further, some researchers have developed radical theories regarding the development of some portions of Scripture, leading conservative scholars to criticize the use of source criticism in biblical studies.
Most notably, source criticism has been used to analyze the Torah, Isaiah, and the Gospels. Regarding the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, some scholars have arranged the contents to fit a theory of four unique sources (labeled J, E, D, and P). In doing so, these source critics deny Mosaic authorship of the Torah in favor of their idea that the books were developed by many writers/editors over many years.
Because of the major transitions within the book of Isaiah, the second longest book of the Old Testament, many source critics speak of a “second” (and even “third”) Isaiah. Their belief in more than one author of Isaiah was based primarily on diction and literary structure. However, their theory has been increasingly difficult to support since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Isaiah scrolls found in the caves of Qumran date from as early as the second century B.C. and confirm that Isaiah is a single document, not an amalgamation of multiple authors.
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have been a major focus of source critics. The Gospels contain varied accounts of similar events, and some accounts do not mention important events. For example, the birth of Jesus is found only in Matthew and Luke, with both Gospels revealing a very different part of the story. What is the best explanation for these differences? What sources were utilized?
In the twentieth century, a so-called Q document was popularized to explain similarities within the Gospels. According to this theory, both Matthew and Luke used the content of Mark’s book plus an unknown Q document to compile their accounts. This would explain why Mark did not mention Jesus’ birth—that story was in the Q document, which only Matthew and Luke used. Many source critics consider the Q source as the only “true” account of Jesus’ life and a “lost book” of the Bible. While there were written accounts of Jesus’ life before some of the Gospels were written (see Luke 1:1), there is absolutely no record of a Q document in history. The existence of Q has never been proved, and there is no way to confirm that any of the Synoptic writers culled from a common source. Q is a theory, nothing more.
Bible-believing Christians are right to be concerned with the skeptical assumptions of source criticism. However, this type of study can lend some valuable information. For example, Luke clearly states that he used different sources in his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4). No doubt Luke interviewed Mary, the mother of Jesus, and it is very likely that he used the content of Mark as a starting point. Most New Testament scholars agree that Mark was written before the other Gospels. None of this detracts from the inspiration or inerrancy of God’s Word.
Ultimately, the Holy Spirit is the source of the biblical text. “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). As the human authors of Scripture wrote, the Spirit led them to include only what was true. All inaccurate sources were rejected. God’s Word “never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).