How Textual Criticism Resembles Geology

A geology major in my New Testament Survey course asked about textual criticism. This gave me an excellent opportunity to combine two of my passions: Theology, and science.

Geology fascinates me, and has since I studied earth sciences in eighth grade. I enjoyed learning about the geological processes that continue to mold our planet.
Over the years, I’ve learned that geology relies on the knowledge of other fields of science to understand those processes more thoroughly. For instance, chemistry explains the chemical composition of minerals and the bonds between elements that compose minerals. Physics explains how certain processes work; for instance, physics tells us the effects of gravity in a landslide. Chemistry and physics together help us learn the age of the planet and the rocks we study.

However, chemistry and physics have their limits. A geologist understands how to take the knowledge of those two fields and incorporate it into an explanation that makes sense. Geologists also understand other areas of the field that chemists and physicists simply don’t try to explain, e.g. seismic faults, lava flows, magma chambers, and such. A physicist may explain the results of an earthquake, but a geologist can explain what caused it in the first place and what happened during the earthquake.

Now, let’s turn to textual criticism.

For centuries, people assumed the Scriptures belonged only to the theologians; theology was considered the “queen of sciences” in the Middle Ages. If anyone else ever touched the Scriptures, it was the philosophers. Philosophers and theologians vigorously studied the Scriptures and debated the lessons they found there. If you’ve taken Western Civ I or a Church History course, you’ll remember hearing about some of those debates.

In the Enlightenment period, beginning in the 18th century, people began to realize other fields could contribute to the study of the Scriptures. History, especially, can greatly enhance our knowledge of the Scriptures. After all, the events recorded in the New Testament actually occurred. Jesus really did live: He was really born of the Virgin Mary, He really walked through the land of modern Israel and taught the people, He really clashed with the Pharisees, and the Romans really crucified Him. Jesus really died.

Jesus also really rose from the dead. I’ve seen the empty tomb. I’ve walked into it. You can go to Jerusalem and visit the tomb.

History helps us better understand the New Testament.  I required my students to read a lot of history about the “Intertestamental Period.” Why should a New Testament course involve a study of things that happened centuries before anyone wrote a word of it?

Think about it for a moment. Who were the Pharisees? Where did they come from? What did they believe? We don’t find Pharisees anywhere in the Old Testament; they didn’t exist. However, we turn to the New Testament, and we see Pharisees everywhere. One of them (St. Paul) wrote most of the books of the New Testament. A Greek physician (St. Luke) wrote more of the New Testament by content than anyone else. Why does a Greek doctor care about this stuff?

History answers these questions. History tells us the story of the Pharisees. History explains why everyone in Jesus’ time spoke and wrote in Greek. History tells us why and how the Romans ruled the entire region with an iron fist. Therefore, any serious student of the Scriptures must first understand the historical context in which those events occurred. Textual criticism emerged when historians began trying to understand and explain the events in the context in which they occurred.

However, while every field can contribute to another field, the contributions can go only so far. At some point, those better versed in the field must apply what they’ve learned from other fields and — just as importantly — remember that every field has its limits.

History records the miracles of Scripture, but many historians, influenced by others, refuse to believe in anything they cannot explain. I found a good quote on that: “Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all, and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.” If you’ve ever read the book Dracula, you recognize the line. Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897. People were already debating the limits on certain knowledge in certain fields.

I love science. I’ve studied it since I was in elementary school and earned an Associates Degree in Chemistry before I changed my major. I want rational, scientific explanations for everything. Unfortunately, those explanations don’t exist; the science hasn’t progressed far enough yet. We have more to learn. Faith tells me we may never fully explain the miracles that baffle so many people.

Here, we can return to geology. Imagine trying to explain continental drift to a chemist who doesn’t believe (and refused to believe) in plate tectonics. Frankly, I couldn’t do it.

Now imagine trying to explain miracles to someone who flatly denies the possibility of a miracle. Theology, based on the authority of the Church, believes in the miracles recorded in Scripture. We believe in the miracles by faith, because we see so much of the Scriptures verified by other fields. We apply the contributions of history and other fields to the studies of the Scriptures, but we also have to explain to the historians that the lack of an explanation they’ll accept in no way eliminates the reality of the event.

Therefore, I believe in the miracles. The fact I cannot explain them merely reminds me again of my ignorance. I believe in the historical accuracy of the Scriptures because I know the history of the first century A.D. I also know the history of civilization since the first century A.D. No one can explain the history of the past 2,000 years without accepting the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.

I’m reminded of this story:

“The Age of Reason was dawning, and an anti-Christian intellectual named Lepeau was desperate for advice. He had created a rational new religion, Lepeau told French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, but, despite its superiority to Christianity, it had failed to catch on. Might Talleyrand have any suggestions? ‘M. Lepeau,’ the diplomat dryly replied, ‘to ensure success for your new religion, you need only two things. Arrange to have yourself crucified, and three days later rise from the dead.’” — Source:, Last accessed 7 June 2014