From  "Canonical Criticism" by  Gerald T. Sheppard. In Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1: 861-866.  New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Please note that the numbers in red brackets refer to the upcoming page number of the article.  The latter will help for citation purposes.

[861] CANONICAL CRITICISM. The term "canonical criticism" does not adequately convey the range of approaches or the variety of methodologies employed by scholars who are often associated with it. Even scholars who have come to reject the term, e.g., Brevard Childs, may still be regarded by other scholars as its leading practitioners. What is clear is that canonical criticism is less a formal "criticism" than an approach or series of approaches that seeks to raise neglected questions about the form and function of scripture, both Jewish and Christian.

A. Introduction
B. "Canon" and Canonical Approaches
    1. Canonical Dimension and Biblical Interpretation
    2. "Shape" of Biblical Books
    3. Examples of a Canonical Approach
C. Conclusion

A. Introduction
        Approaches currently associated with "canonical criticism," regardless of how it is specifically defined, presuppose the triumph of historical criticism over premodern historical notions about the authorship and formation of biblical books. While many of the proposals associated with a canonical approach rejuvenate traditional questions about the nature and authority of scripture, they do so only through significant innovation and with the hope of a greater degree of historical precision than one could have expected of similar premodern treatments. In this way, biblical fundamentalists find that some subjects neglected by older historical critics are taken up once again, though expressed in the light of critical historical conclusions alien to fundamentalist views regarding the history of the Bible. Canonical criticism, regardless of the theological spectrum that may find it appealing, is a response from within a more liberal, rather than a conservative, assessment of the biblical prehistory.
        Canonical approaches in general strive to articulate a perspective on the relationship between biblical studies and the study of religion and theology. In premodern Christian Studies of the Bible, both Roman Catholics and Protestants agreed that the "literal sense" of scripture provided the principal authority for Christian doctrine and that this sense, as distinguished from "spiritual senses," could be identified, at least in part, with the "author's intent." Since the 15th century, Nicholas of Lyra and many other Christian exegetes resorted to the idea of a double "literal sense," especially for the OT: one aimed at a grammatical, historical, and religious dimension common to both Jews and Christians; the other based on the role of the OT within Christian scripture as a norm of distinctly Christian doctrines. In the early modern period, biblical scholars frequently sought through a "historical" approach to secure neutral, scientific consensus regarding what a biblical text "meant" distinct from ecclesiastical or sectarian assessments of what it "means." This allegedly neutral meaning of the Bible often became identified with the traditional religious goal of describing the "literal sense" of scripture as a prior step to theological interpretation.
        In the past few decades, the confidence that the literal sense of scripture can be equated with the results of historical criticism has been seriously reexamined. At the outset, biblical criticism has convincingly shown that the Bible is a multilayered, editorial composite of diverse texts and traditions. Any effort to describe the "original" historical traditions, as against the "secondary" one now preserved with them in the Bible, is highly speculative and, more significantly, must isolate older traditions away from their context within scripture. Such historical analysis leads properly to an effort to recover the "original" form and function of ancient Israelite traditions and to conjecture about the original prebiblical social settings in which they were once heard or read. If the "literal sense" is identified rigorously with the intent of the first "authors" of such traditions, then the intent will, in most instances, be prebiblical in so far as these authors rarely, if ever, "intended" to write "biblical" traditions. Many of these traditions only became identified as "biblical" at a later time and were publically established as such when they were assigned a place within a scripture by editors. Consequently, the "meaning of the biblical text" cannot be equated uncritically with the historical intent of a modern conception of [862] the "original" authors, without losing precisely what the traditional formulation sought to preserve.
        A modern understanding of the form and function of a scripture implies a shift in the semantic import of its antecedent traditions. The canonical context of the Bible exhibits moments of both formal preservation and contextual modification, both historical retention and ahistorical, or topical, reorientation. Just as the semantic force of words is not secured solely by appeal to their etymologies but gains specific import within the context of a 'particular sentence, so the context of scripture inevitably influences how earlier traditions come to make sense as a part of scripture. This transformation in the meaning of texts and traditions occurs through a complex, sociopolitical process of literary production leading to the public recognition of both a particular religion and the canonization of its scripture. This process is historically serendipitous, but reflects in general terms a dialectical relationship between canon and community, between the formation of a scripture and the identification of the community of faith that treasures it. In sociological terms, a scripture may be considered a social contract between differing groups that assume a common purpose and status before God. While the context of a scripture establishes a restrictive framework in which religious interpretation takes place, the context itself is composed of the favored traditions of different groups, ordered in, at times, a remarkably unharmonized fashion.
        In sum, the semantic function of a scripture often exceeds or contravenes the original intent of various historical authors/redactors who can be reconstructed within the prehistory of the canon. In the place of a modern reconstruction of historical authors, Jewish and Christian scripture presents key figures - Moses David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Luke, John, Paul-as "biblical" persons whose "intents" can only be found in the canonical context. The very realism of these biographical presentations, together with some degree of modern historical support for their historicity, may tempt interpreters to replace the biblical portrayal with more historically "accurate" biographies. However, such a substitution usually sacrifices the context of scripture and misses the possibility of a biblical anthropology. Only the biblical context warrants such a wedding of word and persona that presumes to render the nature of ultimate reality through the reception of scripture as a human witness to divine revelation.

B. "Canon" and Canonical Approaches
        As early as the 2d century, Christians could speak of the Bible as "canonical," as well as divinely "inspired." Only later did Athanasius (ca. 350 C.E.) identify la biblia ("the books" of scripture) with the noun kanon (a list of normative books). The same usage in Judaism belongs only to the modern period, though, as in Christianity, Jewish scriptures possesses a special normative quality-it is "spoken by God" and "defiles the hands." In both Christianity and Judaism, the identification of books belonging to scripture preceded by several centuries the determination of a textus receptus, or fixed textual tradition. Prebiblical uses of the word "canon" reflect well the ambiguities attendant to the formation of a "normative" scripture.
        As a Semitic loan word transliterated into Greek and Latin, "canon" can denote (1) an ideal, standard, central criterion, or essential summation and/or (2) a list, catalog, or measure. Something "canonical" may not yet be situated in a fixed list or collection of similar canonical things. So, biblical traditions and even whole books may be viewed as "canonical" long before they belong to a fixed "canon" or list of such books. A scripture is, of course, only one special type of canonical text or tradition. Other canons may include oral Torah, magisteria, special exegetical traditions, the inspired interpretation of a rabbi, or a contemporary word of Christian prophecy. These extrabiblical canons may seem more immediately influential for practical religious life than the scripture. The practice of religion is, of course, further subject to still other secular authorities or canons. Nonetheless, scripture is, at least in theory, assigned a superior place as a norm of faith within Judaism and Christianity.
        Premodern handbooks or introductions usually began by considering the subjects of text and canon. As the more rigorous historical orientation of the modern period came to dominate, canonical issues seemed to belong only to the last steps in a long process, at great distance from the original historical events upon which the revelatory claims of a religion depends. Therefore, modern scholars, whether conservative or liberal on questions of biblical history, tended to shift the treatment of these subjects to the back of introductions, following the lead of such major orthodox interpreters as J. G. Carpzov (1721). This same priority of biblical history to biblical text informed much of the recent "Biblical Theology Movement" which often focused the theological worth of the Bible to the "acts of God in history" or defined the biblical witness in terms of an "actualized" report about a historical event. The canon could be viewed, according to this model, as merely a late and flawed premodern effort to preserve efficacious "confessions" about history. A canonical approach challenges the assumption that the earliest historical events play such a determinative role in the capacity of scripture to have authority or to render reality. Without denying the value of information gained by means of any critical investigation, a canonical approach seeks to understand a different issue: how a biblical text is normative within religious interpretation, that is to say, how the context of ancient traditions within scripture functions as an arena in which certain religious questions are asked and answered. In this approach, one seeks to recognize the textual warrants and rules whereby a scripture makes specific religious claims, perpetuates paradoxical and ambiguous expressions of faith, engenders the need for repeated interpretation, and imposes upon the reader a vision of the world that God has made.
        Though various canonical approaches explore the same neglected perspective on the nature of a biblical text, their chief interpreters (to not always agree on terminology, on methods of analysis, or on the practical implications for the future of biblical interpretation and commentary. James Sanders first coined the term "canon criticism" and popularized it through his Torah and Canon (1972). Through the study of interpretations within the Bible, which he calls "comparative midrash," Sanders sought to find a "canonical hermeneutic" that would explain why the same normative traditions could properly be interpreted [863] with contradictory implications at different times and places. Later, in Canon and Community (1984) he changed the terminology from "canon criticism" to "canonical criticism," stressing its alignment with other critical methods. Brevard Childs, for one, initially used the term "canon criticism" in the 1970s (e.g., Exodus OTL) but dropped it as a misleading label for his own approach. It does not occur in either his Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (IOTS) or The New Testament as Canon (NTC). For Childs, "canon criticism" wrongly suggested a "criticism" parallel to other standard biblical methodologies (e.g., source, form, and redaction criticism).
        Childs prefers to speak of a "canonical approach," highlighting how "the canonical shape" of a biblical book established possibilities and limits to its interpretation as a part of Jewish and Christian scripture. He starts with "the final text" of scripture; without uncritically accepting the textus receptus, and makes observations about how diverse, even contradictory, traditions share a canonical context together. Rather than allowing the reader to pick and choose what elements of traditions seem the most appealing, this canonical context deepened the demand for interpretation in specific ways and in certain significant theological directions. Leaning more in the direction of Childs than Sanders, Rolf Rendtorff's The Old Testament An Introduction (1983, ET 1986) finds evidence of additional unifying "literary" features in a Kompositionsgeschichte ("composition criticism" or "history of composition") for each biblical book. Rendtorff stresses the inability of form criticism to account for how the "literary" dimension of the biblical text extended the audience and often detached traditions from their historical moorings for the purpose of establishing another theological way of receiving these traditions within Judaism and Christianity.
        Related studies include I. L. Seeligmann's seminal study of "canon conscious" exegesis within the Bible. Nahum Sarna and Michael Fishbane have elaborated cases of "inner-biblical" interpretation that similarly presume plays upon fixed normative traditions, anticipating in some instances later types of Jewish midrashic interpretation of scripture. More radically, the French school of "anthological midrash" (e.g., A. A. Robert, R. Bloch DBSup 5: 1263-81) sought to describe a particular type of inner-biblical interpretation that reemploys words and phrases from canonical traditions in order to compose whole portions (e.g., parts of Proverbs 1-9) of some late biblical books. A number of redaction-critical studies, such as those of Ackroyd, Blenkinsopp, Clements, and Sheppard, have called attention to the special nature of canonical traditions from the perspective of later editors. Certain "canon conscious" redactions tell readers how some biblical books should be read in the context of others (Sheppard EncRel 3: 62-69). An editor's use of certain esoteric techniques in the alteration and placement of a tradition suggest self-conscious terms of restriction and freedom in how biblical authors/editors handled the preceding normative traditions. These traditions can be seen to function within the formation of the Bible with a special "semantic depth" (Clements), "vitality" (Ackroyd), "adaptability" (Sanders), or within an implicit "scriptural vision" (Fishbane), or with a special potential for "actualization" (Childs). This highly tendentious sketch of scholarly activities that are often associated with "canon criticism" illustrates some of the diversity in the present debate. In order to convey what is at stake in these newer approaches, a more general discussion of the canonical dimension will be followed by some examples of implications for assessing biblical literature.

1. Canonical Dimension and Biblical Interpretation
        The present diversity in canonical approaches has led to a variety of proposals regarding the future of biblical int pretation. Sanders' and Fishbane's concern with "inner biblical" interpretation suggests a continuity between prebiblical interpretation of normative traditions and later postbiblical interpretations of scripture in Judaism and Christianity. As Fishbane finds anticipations of later Jewish midrash, so Sanders detects a midrashic "canon hermeneutic," already forged among Israel's ancient prophets and continuing into the postbiblical period. Sanders argues that contemporary theological exegesis should employ the same hermeneutic he has found here and there in ancient Israel and throughout the process of canonization. In religious terms he identifies this hermeneutic with "the ancient struggles of our ancestors in the faith to monotheize, to pursue the oneness of God, over against all kinds of polytheisms and fragmentations of truth" (1984: 17). The canonization of scripture represents the freezing of only one imperfect moment within that same process of interpretation. In Sanders' view, this hermeneutical criterion allows one to distinguish true from false prophecy in ancient Israel and can be applied similarly today to discern true and false biblical preaching in Christian churches.
        Conversely, Childs, Rendtorff, and Sheppard have emphasized elements of discontinuity between the prescriptural functions of ancient traditions and the new roles they play within "the canonical context" of Jewish and Christian Bibles. While acknowledging different levels of authority and canonicity in the prehistory of the Bible, these scholars start with the canonical context as a way to assess how earlier traditions have been put together to form a new literary entity. Because the historical forces behind the formation of biblical books are so heterogeneous, Childs concludes: "The history of the canonical process does not seem to be an avenue through which one can greatly illuminate the present canonical text" (IOTS 67). Only the present "shape" (Childs) or "composition" (Rendtorff) of a biblical book survives as evidence of how the community of faith ordered past traditions as a normative witness to divine revelation. Besides indicating a specific inner-textuality and a unity of subject matter, the canonical context, also, gives permanence to unresolved differences between traditions, delimits functional ambiguities, and perpetuates undecoded symbolism integral to a religion's understanding of divine mysteries yet to be fully revealed.  Clearly, many ancient historical features are retained within this later context, though the formation of scripture tends to insure that "texts are less bound up with particular events and situations" (Rendtorff 1986: 125).
        The hermeneutical significance of the canonical context of scripture depends partly on how a religion construes the relation between the biblical witness and its revealed subject matter. Rabbinic Judaism sought to interpret the written Torah of scripture chiefly through midrashic methods, honoring the parallel testimony of oral Torah (Mishnah)[864] and the Talmud[s]). Christianity moved in another hermeneutical direction. With the addition of a "New Testament" and the transformation of Hebrew scripture into "Old Testament," a new literary horizon emerged. At least by the middle of the 2d century, Christian leaders asserted that priority in dogmatic disputes should be given to a nonmidrashic, "plain" or "literal sense." Similarly, Christians sought to understand the relation of the Torah to the Gospel. A prophetic interpretation often predominated and certain texts lent themselves more readily than others to Christian messianic explication. Though Christianity did not share the oral Torah of Judaism, it did not lack its own extrabiblical authorities in the form of creeds, binding church decisions, local ecclesial laws, and so forth. Though the practice of biblical interpretation differs between Judaism and Christianity, both frequently show it similar concert) for warrants implicit within the canonical "shape" of books. In this respect, crucial religious features of the Hebrew Bible are fully retained in Christian scripture in spite of the semantic transformation that takes place when Christians appropriate tire Hebrew Bible as the "Old Testament" within the context of the "New." At a minimum the canonical context is a highly significant factor, but not the only one that may influence the nature of biblical interpretation.

2. "Shape" of Biblical Books.
        Childs has chosen the term "shape" to describe the distinctive features of biblical books when they are read as scripture. This trope may connote too readily a trait of harmony or full coherence of traditions in books, comparable to geometric symmetry. Nevertheless, Childs uses "shape" carefully to describe the boundaries and orchestration of semantic possibilities of traditions within a biblical book from the perspective of its form and function as scripture. From the 1st centuries of Christianity up to the modern period, Christians have often sought to preserve the same scriptural dimension by an appeal to the "scope" of a biblical book. At times, the "scope" (skopos) has pertained to an element in the church's "rule of faith," as in Athanasius' refutation of the Arians' use of Proverbs; at other times, it denoted a more literary appeal to the beginnings and endings of biblical books, to titles, and other transitional markers within a biblical text. The latter usage call be readily seen in the rules of Flacius in the middle of the 16th century and commonly among English Protestants in the late 16th century until the end of the 19th. The indices of the scope of a text were supposed to provide cities regarding the normative "purpose" of the text, coinciding with the "intent" of the inspired author.
        In the premodern period, Christian interpreters commonly assumed that the literal sense of scripture was identical with the biblical author's "intent." What becomes obvious is that in these formulations the "biblical author," the central figure associated with a particular book, is not identical with a "historical author" reconstructed by modern historical criticism. A canonical approach call try to express what the older formulation sought to describe in another way, informed by a modern understanding of history and religion. This alternative expression of how the biblical text relates to its subject matter must take into account a different perception of diachronic dimensions and involves a critical awareness of the semantic import of traditions shifted from their origins, through transmission and editing, to their later places among biblical texts. The shape of a biblical book and its canonical context within scripture provide an essential guide as to how the intents of various historical authors and editors pertain to the presentation of a biblical author and a biblical book.  Moreover, the canonical context indicates how the presentations of key biblical figures have been linked to the "canonical intention" of the biblical text. In these two ways, the aim of the older identification of literal sense with the author's intent is maintained but expressed in new ways that respond to the impact of historical criticism and the contemporary perception of differences ill a biblical text.

3. Examples of a Canonical Approach.
        The form of the Pentateuch ("the book of Moses," Josh 1:7) corresponds to its function as scriptural "Torah" in various ways. First, its Sanders has eloquently shown, it situates the law of God prior to the actual conquest of the land. The Torah could be received by future readers of the Jewish Diaspora as an address to people who themselves yearn to enter into a promised land. The laws, regardless of what we may say about their original historical settings, refer in this context to a revealed Torah rather than to law codes that reflect merely compromises to the experiences of life at various times in the land.
        Second, while "the Torah" denotes a single, coherent instruction from God, it is represented in the narrative form through different Mosaic mediations: as shown in the legal collections of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and, then, those of Deuteronomy. While each of these collections now shares substantially the same Decalog (Exod 20:2-14 and Deut 5:6-18), the other laws contain many disagreements, even within laws governing the same offense. While historical criticism can provide one account for these differences, the canonical context now relates them according to another religious implication.  In the context of the Mosaic Torah, the laws found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers belong to the legislation as given to Moses in the region of Sinai, while the laws presented in Deuteronomy belong to Moses' subsequent "interpretation" of them on the plains of Moab to the next generation (Deut 1:5). Based on the role of these laws in scripture, the historical etymology of these traditions is less important than the canonical context which depicts Moses as "interpreting" the earlier laws to the changing circumstances of a later generation. This contextual precedent was recognized by rabbinic Judaism and perpetuated by the acceptance of the oral Torah (the Mishnah and Talmud[s]), that accompanies the interpretation of the written Torah. It was also allegedly perpetuated by Moses through the Elders.
        Third, Moses appears in these books as a vivid flesh-and-blood figure with strengths and weaknesses like our own. Genesis elaborates the genealogical record leading to his birth in Exodus, and the five-book Torah concludes in the last chapters of Deuteronomy with an account of his death. This presentation of his life provides a key unifying feature corresponding to the unity of the revealed Torah which this five-book collection mediates. Moses' unique status as the prophet par excellence (Dent 34:10-12) indicates the special role these books play within the scripture as a whole. Though modern critics suspect correctly that a [865]historical Moses could not have written all of these traditions, the biblical portrayal of Moses and the events of his life belong to the very syntax of these books in their form and function as scripture. Modern critics have often sought to improve on the historical elements in this presentation by searching for the "historical" Moses. If such a search claims to pursue "biblical" faith, then it has confused uncritically the mode of understanding congruent to the realism of a scripture with the mode of understanding congruent to a realism pertaining to conceptions of a modern "history."
        As Judaism now finds in scripture and in oral Torah different literary manifestations of law as inspired human witnesses to the one Torah that God has given to a chosen people, so Christianity possesses in the NT four different Gospels, as well as Romans and James, despite the confession that there is actually only one Gospel of Jesus Christ. From this perspective the biblical cations do not end interpretation by harmonizing as much as they ground and perpetuate the need for fresh interpretation of the Bible by each generation of believers. Though both Judaism and Christianity resist the expansion of scripture by new revelation, each generation seeks to express the Torah or the Gospel, with the aid of scripture, more precisely and in pragmatically more pertinent ways than preceding generations. Therefore, the scripture harbors in its own contextual ambiguities the potential for a criticism of each believer's current ruling metaphors while, at the same time, it delimits a specific arena in which a grand quest for the revelation of reality can take place.
        In both the OT and NT, collections of tradition outside of the Mosaic Torah and the Gospels have been assigned a special context and function together as parts of scripture. What might be regarded as historical anachronisms frequently contribute to the canonical context and religious import of ancient traditions. Though the activity of many of the OT prophets precedes historically the period when the present Mosaic Torah was formed, the traditions of the prophets have been edited together as scripture in a manner that allows the prophetic books now to be read as commentary on the Torah of Moses. So, too, the Pauline Epistles, many of which precede the time when the Gospels were composed, now are found after the written Gospels as a part of it collection of "Pauline Letters" and provide a commentary upon the same essential message found in the four Gospels.
        The Solomonic books offer a vivid example of how the canonical context alters our vision and reception of ancient traditions when read as scripture. Modern criticism properly questions a direct connection between the historical Solomon and the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Nevertheless, the context of scripture identifies these books in a highly significant manner as Solomonic "wisdom" within Hebrew scripture. Because of its association with Solomon, biblical wisdorn cannot be equated uncritically with a strictly historical conception of ancient Israelite "wisdom" in the Near East. The canon-contextual presentation of Solomon delimits some crucial distinctions between the biblical wisdom traditions and those of the Mosaic Torah. For instance, Solomon epitomizes the wisest person who ever lived (1 figs 4:29-31), but he must, also, obey the Torah of Moses as did his father (1 Kgs 3:14).
        Furthermore, by assigning this "wisdom" literature to Solomon, the canonical context provides its own account for why wisdom literature appears to bracket out self-consciously the idiosyncratic language of faith about the Exodus, the giving of the law of God at Sinai, the covenant, and other historical details regarding Israel's faith in Yahweh. Part of the religions genius of biblical wisdom lies in its affirmation of an international collection of sayings that borrows from and rivals that of other nations, without resolving issues of conflict between different religions. It is the sort of knowledge that inspires the Queen of Sheba to travel to test Solomon with riddles. Biblical wisdom lends itself to an international cooperation in understanding territories not explicitly addressed by the Torah but shared by the wisdom of other religions. This demarcation of wisdom in association with Solomon, distinct from other parts of scripture, naturally invited a debate over how the parts of scripture relate to each other as a guide to the obedient life. Prior to Christianity, Judaism overtly affirmed that the Torah and Wisdom complemented one another and that the one could be read as at resource for refinements in the understanding of the other (cf. Sirach 24 and Bar 3:9-4:4). The manner in which wisdom relates to the Torah and to the Prophets, and how wisdom relates to all of these and to the Gospel, becomes part of the vocabulary that continues to inform the response of both Judaism anti Christianity to issues of practical knowledge, scientific inquiry, psychology, and many other areas of common life.

C. Conclusion
        Canonical criticism has become a popular, though debated, label for a variety of approaches that inquire into the forth and function of tire Bible as scripture. A canonical approach assumes a particular perspective by-which biblical studies can understand the nature of scripture and its relation to the history of religious interpretation and theology. As shown by Childs' commentary on Exodus, this perspective encourages a critical examination of the history of interpretation, both ancient and modern. In my view, attention to the canonical context of scripture is essential for air appreciation of how religions construe reality and how competence in biblical interpretation is recognized in earlier periods. In the larger task of contemporary Christian theological interpretation, canonical approaches offer foundational descriptions of the context of scripture and detect warrants for a reading of the diverse traditions as multiple human witnesses to the same subject matter of faith and revelation.

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