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Historical criticism or higher criticism is a branch of literary analysis that investigates the origins of a text: as applied in biblical studies it investigates the books of the Bible and compares them to other texts written at the same time, before, or recently after the text in question. In Classical studies, the new higher criticism of the nineteenth century set aside "efforts to fill ancient religion with direct meaning and relevance and devoted itself instead to the critical collection and chronological ordering of the source material,"[1] Thus higher criticism, whether biblical, classical, Byzantine or medieval, focuses on the sources of a document to determine who wrote it, when it was written, and where. For example, higher criticism deals with the synoptic problem, the question of how Matthew, Mark, and Luke relate to each other. In some cases, such as with several Pauline epistles, higher criticism confirms the traditional understanding of authorship. In other cases, higher criticism contradicts church tradition (as with the gospels) or even the words of the Bible itself (as with 2 Peter).

The Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466? - 1536) is usually credited as the first to study the Bible in this way.[2]

The phrase higher criticism is used in contrast with Lower criticism (or textual criticism), the endeavour to determine what a text originally said before it was altered (through error or intent).

Higher criticism treats the Bible as a text created by human beings at a particular historical time and for various human motives, in contrast with the treatment of the Bible as the inerrant word of God.

History of higher criticism

The phrase "the higher criticism" became popular in Europe from the mid-18th century to the early 20th century, to describe the work of such scholars as Jean Astruc (mid-18th cent.), Johann Salomo Semler (1725-91), Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752-1827), Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), and Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918).[3] In academic circles today, this is the body of work properly considered "the higher criticism", though the phrase is sometimes applied to earlier or later work using similar methods.

Higher criticism originally referred to the work of German Biblical scholars, of the Tübingen School. After the path-breaking work on the New Testament by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the next generation which included scholars such as David Friedrich Strauss (1808–74) and Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) in the mid-nineteenth century analyzed the historical records of the Middle East from Christian and Old Testament times in search of independent confirmation of events related in the Bible. These latter scholars built on the tradition of Enlightenment and Rationalist thinkers such as John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Gotthold Lessing, Gottlieb Fichte, Georg Hegel and the French rationalists.

These ideas were imported to England by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, in particular, by George Eliot's translations of Strauss's The Life of Jesus (1846) and Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1854). In 1860 seven liberal Anglican theologians began the process of incorporating this historical criticism into Christian doctrine in Essays and Reviews, causing a five-year storm of controversy which completely overshadowed the arguments over Darwin's newly published On the Origin of Species. Two of the authors were indicted for heresy and lost their jobs by 1862, but in 1864 had the judgement overturned on appeal. La Vie de Jésus (1863), the seminal work by a Frenchman, Ernest Renan (1823–92), continued in the same tradition as Strauss and Feuerbach. In Catholicism, L'Evangile et l'Eglise (1902), the magnum opus by Alfred Loisy against the Essence of Christianity of Adolf von Harnack and La Vie de Jesus of Renan, gave birth to the modernist crisis (1902–61). Some scholars, such as Rudolf Bultmann, have used higher criticism of the Bible to "demythologize" it.

Theological responses

The questions of higher criticism are widely recognized by Orthodox Jews and many traditional Christians as legitimate questions, yet they often find the answers given by the higher critics unsatisfactory or even heretical. In particular, religious conservatives object to the rationalistic and naturalistic presuppositions of a large number of practitioners of higher criticism that lead to conclusions that conservative religionists find unacceptable. Nonetheless, many conservative Bible scholars practice their own form of higher criticism within their supernaturalist and confessional frameworks. However, the most traditional Christian exegetes examine the Bible chiefly through the Bible itself, believing that clear places in scripture give the best help in explaining the less clear places. Other biblical scholars believe that the evidence uncovered by higher criticism undermines such confessional frameworks. By contrast, religiously liberal Christians and religiously liberal Jews typically maintain that belief in God has nothing to do with the authorship of the Pentateuch.

Roman Catholic view

Pope Leo XIII (1810 - 1903) condemned secular biblical scholarship in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus;[4], but in 1943 Pope Pius XII gave license to the new scholarship in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu: "[T]extual criticism ... [is] quite rightly employed in the case of the Sacred Books ... Let the interpreter then, with all care and without neglecting any light derived from recent research, endeavor to determine the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the age in which he lived, the sources written or oral to which he had recourse and the forms of expression he employed." [5] Today the modern Catechism states: "In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression."[6]

Protestant Christian view

Martin Luther, Zwingli, John Calvin and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation believed strongly in a literal interpretation of scripture.[7] Luther wrote, "The Holy Ghost is the all-simplest writer that is in heaven or earth; therefore his words can have no more than one simplest sense, which we call the scriptural or literal meaning."[8] The Reformers rejected the church tradition of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the allegorical interpretations associated with it. They held to the principle of Scripture alone as the divinely inspired authority for Christians.

The foundation for Protestant historical-criticism included the movement of rationalism and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Rationalism held that reason is the determiner of truth, and later rationalists also rejected the authority of Scripture. Spinoza did not regard the Bible as divinely inspired - instead it was to be evaluated like any other book.[9]

Around the end of the 18th century Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, "the founder of modern Old Testament criticism", produced works of "investigation of the inner nature of the Old Testament with the help of the Higher Criticism". Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher also influenced the development of Higher Criticism.

A group of German biblical scholars at Tübingen University formed the Tübingen school of theology under the leadership of Ferdinand Christian Baur, with important works being produced by Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach and David Strauss. In the early 19th century they sought independent confirmation of the events related in the Bible through Hegelian analysis of the historical records of the Middle East from Christian and Old Testament times.[10][11]

Their ideas were brought to England by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, then in 1846 George Eliot translated David Strauss's sensational Leben Jesu as the Life of Jesus Critically Examined, a quest for the historical Jesus. In 1854 she followed this with a translation of Feuerbach's even more radical Essence of Christianity which held that the idea of God was created by man to express the divine within himself, though Strauss attracted most of the controversy.[10] The loose grouping of Broad Churchmen in the Church of England was influenced by the German higher critics. In particular, Benjamin Jowett visited Germany and studied the work of Baur in the 1840s, then in 1866 published his book on The Epistles of St Paul, arousing theological opposition. He then collaborated with six other theologians to publish their Essays and Reviews in 1860. The central essay was Jowett's On the Interpretation of Scripture which argued that the Bible should be studied to find the authors' original meaning in their own context rather than expecting it to provide a modern scientific text.[12][13]

Today, many Evangelical Protestants oppose the methods of the higher criticism, and hold that the Bible is divinely inspired and incapable of error, at least in its original form.[14] According to the Westminster Confession of Faith (an historical Presbyterian document), "The infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is the scripture itself..." WCF 1.9

The influence of higher criticism

As an example of the influence of higher criticism on contemporary thought, consider the treatment of Noah's Ark in various editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In the first edition, in 1771, the story of Noah and the Ark is treated as essentially factual, and the following scientific evidence is offered, "...Buteo and Kircher have proved geometrically, that, taking the common cubit as a foot and a half, the ark was abundantly sufficient for all the animals supposed to be lodged in it..., the number of species of animals will be found much less than is generally imagined, not amounting to an hundred species of quadrupeds... ." By the eighth edition, however, the encyclopedia says of the Noah story, "The insuperable difficulties connected with the belief that all other existing species of animals were provided for in the ark are obviated by adopting the suggestion of Bishop Stillingfleet, approved by Matthew Poole...and others, that the Deluge did not extend beyond the region of the earth then inhabited..." By the ninth edition, in 1875, there is no attempt to reconcile the Noah story with scientific fact, and it is presented without comment. In the 1960 edition, in the article Ark, we find the following, "Before the days of "higher criticism" and the rise of the modern scientific views as to the origin of the species, there was much discussion among the learned, and many ingenious and curious theories were advanced, as to the number of animals on the ark..."[15]

According to the preface of the New American Bible,[16]

"In view of the relative certainties more recently attained by textual and higher criticism, it has become increasingly desirable that contemporary translations of the sacred books into English be prepared in which due reverence for the text and strict observance of the rules of criticism would be combined. The New American Bible has accomplished this in response to the need of the church in America today. It is the achievement of some fifty biblical scholars, the greater number of whom, though not all, are Catholics."

Types of higher criticism

Higher criticism is divided up into sub-categories, including primarily source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism.

Source criticism

Diagram of the Documentary Hypothesis.

* includes most of Leviticus
includes most of Deuteronomy
"Deuteronomic history": Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1& 2 Kings

Source criticism: diagram of the two-source hypothesis, an explanation for the relationship of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Source criticism is the search for the original sources which lie behind a given biblical text. It can be traced back to the 17th century French priest Richard Simon, and its most influential product is undoubtably Julius Wellhausen's Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (1878), whose "insight and clarity of expression have left their mark indelibly on modern biblical studies."[17]

Redaction criticism

Redaction criticism studies "the collection, arrangement, editing and modification of sources", and is frequently used to reconstruct the community and purposes of the author/s of the text.[18]

Form criticism and tradition history

Form criticism breaks the Bible down into sections (pericopes, stories) which are analyzed and categorized by genres (prose or verse, letters, laws, court archives, war hymns, poems of lament, etc.). The form critic then theorizes on the pericope's Sitz im Leben ("setting in life"), the setting in which it was composed and, especially, used.[19] Tradition history is a specific aspect of form criticism which aims at tracing the way in which the pericopes entered the larger units of the biblical canon, and especially the way in which they made the transition from oral to written form. The belief in the priority, stability, and even detectability, of oral traditions is now recognised to be so deeply questionable as to render tradition history largely useless, but form criticism itself continues to develop as a viable methodology in biblical studies.[20]

Radical criticism

Radical Criticism, around the end of the nineteenth century, typically tried to show that none of the Pauline epistles are authentic; that Paul is nothing but a controverted authorial token. This group of scholars often postulated the ahistoricity of Jesus and the apostles.

Hypotheses of higher criticism

Scholars of higher criticism have sometimes upheld and sometimes challenged the traditional authorship of various books of the Bible. Some examples of higher critical hypotheses can be found below:[21]

Old Testament

Book Author according to
Author according to
Torah (Pentateuch, Books of Moses, i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers) Moses, c 1300 BC Documentary hypothesis: Four independent documents (the Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and the Priestly source), composed between 900-550 BC, redacted c 450 BC, possibly by Ezra

Supplementary models (e.g. John Van Seters): Torah composed as a series of authorial expansions of an original source document, usually identified as J or P, largely during the 7th and 6th centuries BC, final form achieved c. 450 BC.

Fragmentary models (e.g. Rolf Rendtorff, Erhard Blum): Torah the product of the slow accretion of fragmentary traditions, (no documents), over period 850-550 BC, final form c. 450 BC.

Biblical minimalism: Torah composed in Hellenistic-Hasmonean period, c. 300-140 BC.

Joshua Joshua with a portion by Phinehas or Eleazar Deuteronomist using material from the Jahwist and Elohist
Judges Samuel Deuteronomist
Ruth Samuel A later author, writing after the time of David
1 Samuel Samuel, Gad, and Nathan Deuteronomist as a combination of a Jerusalem source, republican source, the court history of David, the sanctuaries source, and the monarchial source
2 Samuel
1 Kings Perhaps Ezra Deuteronomist
2 Kings
1 Chronicles Ezra The Chronicler, writing between 450 and 435 BC, after the Babylonian captivity
2 Chronicles
Ezra Ezra The Chronicler, writing between 450 and 435 BC, after the Babylonian captivity
Nehemiah Nehemiah using some material by Ezra The Chronicler, writing between 450 and 435 BC, after the Babylonian captivity
Tobit A writer in the second century BC
Judith Eliakim (Joakim), the high priest of the story
Esther The Great Assembly using material from Mordecai An unknown author writing between 460 and 331 BC
1 Maccabees A devout Jew from the Holy Land. An unknown Jewish author, writing around 100 BC
2 Maccabees Based on the writing of Jason of Cyrene An unknown author, writing in the second or 1st century BC
3 Maccabees An Alexandrian Jew writing in Greek in the first century BC or first century AD
4 Maccabees Josephus An Alexandrian Jew writing in the first century BC or first century AD
Job unknown[22] anonymous, possibly by two different authors, one writing the prose section and the other the poetic section, 5th century BC.[23]
Psalms Mainly David and also Asaph, sons of Korah, Moses, Heman the Ezrahite, Ethan the Ezrahite and Solomon Various authors recording oral tradition. Portions from 1000BC to 200BC.
Proverbs Solomon, Agur son of Jakeh, Lemuel and other wise men An editor compiling from various sources well after the time of Solomon
Ecclesiastes Solomon A Hebrew poet of the third or second centuries BC using the life of Solomon as a vista for the Hebrews' pursuit of Wisdom. An unknown author in Hellenistic period from two older oral sources (Eccl1:1-6:9 which claims to be Solomon, Eccl6:10-12:8 with the theme of non-knowing)
Song of Solomon Solomon Unknown, scholarly estimates vary between 950 BC to 200 BC[23]
Wisdom Solomon An Alexandrian Jew writing during the Jewish Hellenistic period
Sirach Jesus the son of Sirach of Jerusalem
Isaiah Isaiah Three main authors and an extensive editing process:[23]
Isaiah 1-39 "Historical Isaiah" with multiple layers of editing, 8th cent. BCE
Isaiah 40-55 Exilic(Deutero-Isaiah), 6th century BCE
Isaiah 56-66 post-exilic(Trito-Isaiah), 6th-5th century BCE
Jeremiah Jeremiah unknown, possibly Baruch ben Neriah.[24] This book has some affinities with the Deuteronomist author
Lamentations Jeremiah Disputed and perhaps based on the older Mesopotamian genre of the "city lament", of which the Lament for Ur is among the oldest and best-known
Letter of Jeremiah Jeremiah A Hellenistic Jew living in Alexandria
Baruch Baruch ben Neriah An author writing during or shortly after the period of the Maccabees
Ezekiel Ezekiel Disputed, with varying degrees of attribution to Ezekiel
Daniel Daniel, sixth century BC An editor/author in the mid-second century BC, using older folk-tales for the first half of the book
Hosea Hosea, mid eight century BC An unknown author, writing in the eight century BC or later[23]
Joel Joel unknown
Amos Amos, eight century BC An unknown author, writing after the sixth century BC[23]
Obadiah Obadiah An unknown author, writing in the sixth century BC or later[23]
Jonah Jonah Possibly a post-exilic (after 530 BC) editor recording oral traditions passed down from the eighth century BC
Micah Micah The first three chapters by Micah and the remainder by a later writer
Nahum Nahum An unknown author, writing in the sixth century BC or later[23]
Habakkuk Habakkuk An unknown author, writing in the sixth century BC or later[23]
Zephaniah Zephaniah Disputed; possibly a writer after the time period indicated by the text
Haggai Haggai, late sixth cent. BC An unknown author, writing in the fifth century BC or later[23]
Zechariah Zechariah Zechariah (chapters 1-8); the later remaining designated Deutero-Zechariah, were possibly written by disciples of Zechariah
Malachi Malachi or Ezra Possibly the author of Deutero-Zechariah

New Testament

Book Author according to
Author according to
Gospel of Mark Mark, follower of Peter; mid 1st century anonymous, perhaps Mark, follower of Peter; mid to late 1st century; the first written gospel
Gospel of Matthew The Apostle Matthew An unknown author who borrowed from both Mark and a source called Q, late 1st century
Gospel of Luke Luke, companion of Paul Luke or an unknown author who borrowed from both Mark and a source called Q, late 1st century
Gospel of John Apostle John An unknown author with no direct connection to the historical Jesus; John 21 finished after death of primary author by follower(s); the last written gospel[25][26]
Acts of the Apostles Luke, companion of Paul Luke or an unknown author who also wrote the Gospel of Luke
Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Epistle to Philemon Paul the Apostle, see Pauline epistles Paul
Ephesians Paul the Apostle Paul or edited dictations from Paul
Colossians Paul the Apostle Disputed; perhaps Paul coauthoring with Timothy
2 Thessalonians Paul the Apostle pseudepigraphal, perhaps an associate or disciple after his death, representing what they believed was his message[27]
1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, see Pastoral epistles Paul the Apostle pseudepigraphal, perhaps someone associated with Paul, writing at a later date
see Authorship of the Pauline epistles
Epistle to the Hebrews Paul the Apostle(disputed) An unknown author, but almost certainly not Paul,[28] c 95
James James the Just pseudepigraphal; a writer in the late first or early second centuries, after the death of James the Just[29]
1 Peter Apostle Peter, before 64 (Peter's martyrdom) pseudepigraphal or perhaps Silas, proficient with Greek writing, 70-90
2 Peter Apostle Peter, before 64 pseudepigraphal, likely not Peter,[30] perhaps as late as c 150 AD, the last-written book of the Bible
1 John Apostle John An unknown author with no direct connection to the historical Jesus, late 1st century, possibly the author of the Gospel of John
2 John, 3 John Apostle John (sometimes disputed) An unknown author with no direct connection to the historical Jesus, final Editor of John 21, c 100-110, possibly the author of the Gospel of John
Jude Jude the Apostle or Jude, brother of Jesus A pseudonymous work written between the end of the first century and the first quarter of the 2nd century[31]
Book of Revelation Apostle John(sometimes disputed) distinct author, perhaps John of Patmos (not the same author as the Gospel of John or 2 & 3 John)
see Authorship of the Johannine works

Higher criticism of other religious texts

Both higher and lower forms of criticism are carried out today with the religious writings of many religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.


Modern higher criticism is just beginning for the Qur'an. This scholarship questions some traditional claims about its composition and content, contending that the Qur'an incorporates material from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament; however, other scholars argue that it cites examples from previous texts, as the New Testament did to the Old Testament.

Islamic history records that Uthman collected all variants of the Qur'an and destroyed those that he did not approve of.

See also

History of higher criticism

  • Alexander Geddes
  • Edwin Johnson (historian)


  • Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J. American Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A History from the Early Republic to Vatican II, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1989, ISBN 0-06-062666-6. Nihil obstat by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., and Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.

External links


  1. Burkert, Greek Religion (1985), Introduction.
  2. Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, p. 125, Touchstone, 1961, ISBN 0-671-20159-X,
  3. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2007
  4. Fogarty, page 40.
  5. Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943.
  6. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article III, section 110. [1]
  7. Kaiser, Walter C; Moisés Silva (2007). Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Rev. and expanded ed ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. ISBN 0310279518.  pages 269-270
  8. Farrar, F. W. Frederic William (1961). History of Interpretation: Bampton Lectures 1885. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.  page 329
  9. Klein, William W. William Wade; Craig Blomberg, Robert L Hubbard, Kermit Allen Ecklebarger (1993). Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Dallas, Tex.: Word Pub. ISBN 0849907748.  Page 43
  10. 10.0 10.1 Glenn Everett, Associate Professor of English, University of Tennessee at Martin (1988). "The Higher Critics". The Victorian Web. Retrieved 2007-11-06. 
  11. "Tubingen School". Retrieved 2007-11-06. 
  12. Glenn Everett, Associate Professor of English, University of Tennessee at Martin (1988). "Essays and Reviews (1860)". The Victorian Web. Retrieved 2007-11-06. 
  13. Josef L. Altholz, Professor of History, University of Minnesota (1976). "The Warfare of Conscience with Theology". The Mind and Art of Victorian England. Victorian Web. Retrieved 2007-11-06. 
  14. Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy
  15. All quotations from the article "Ark" in the 1960 Encyclopedia Britannica
  16. Preface to the New American Bible
  17. Antony F. Campbell, SJ, "Preparatory Issues in Approaching Biblical Texts", in The Hebrew Bible in Modern Study, p.6. Campbell renames source criticism as "origin criticism".
  18. Religious Studies Department, Santa Clara University.
  20. Yair Hoffman, review of Marvin A. Sweeney and Ehud Ben Zvi (eds.), The Changing Face of Form-Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, 2003
  21. Dates for the Sacred Texts of the Jewish and Christian Traditions: Athabasca University
  22. New American Bible: Job
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 23.4 23.5 23.6 23.7 23.8 Dates for the Sacred Texts of the Jewish and Christian Traditions
  24. Miller, Stephen M., Huber, Robert V. (2004). The Bible: A History. Good Books. pp. 33. ISBN 1561484148. 
  25. New American Bible: John
  26. see Signs Gospel for more on reconstruction of original John
  27. Ehrman, Bart D. (2004). The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York: Oxford, p.385; Beverly Roberts Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, p.93; Vincent M. Smiles, First Thessalonians, Philippians, Second Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Liturgical Press, 2005, p.53; Udo Schnelle, translated by M. Eugene Boring, The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 315-325; M. Eugene Boring, Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004 p652; Joseph Francis Kelly, An Introduction to the New Testament for Catholics, Liturgical Press, 2006 p.32
  28. Richard Heard, Introduction To The New Testament
  29. New American Bible: James
  30. Carson, D.A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament, second edition. HarperCollins Canada; Zondervan: 2005. ISBN-10 0310238595, ISBN-13 978-0310238591. p.659.
  31. New American Bible: Jude>