Biblical criticism is any examination of the Bible for accuracy, authenticity, authorship, dating, or anything else that bears on the Bible's reliability as a historical source against which one might legitimately judge other sources.
The traditions of the last century or more have divided Biblical criticism into two main areas, called the higher and the lower. While the lower criticism (including textual criticism) deals with the provenance of the text and the faithfulness of the present text to the lost originals, the higher criticism deals with the heart of the Bible itself: whether it is, in fact, historical, and if not, exactly how ought one to read it.
The higher or historical criticism of the Bible (not the criticism of the Bible throughout history, but rather the criticism of the Bible as history) deals with whether the Bible is, or is not, a valid source of history. The German higher critic Johann Gottfried Eichhorn coined the term.
Higher criticism asks whether the Bible is consistent with extra-Biblical archaeological finds and with what is known of the languages in which it was written. Inevitably higher criticism must face squarely the question of whether Divine inspiration exists or not, and whether supernatural causes or events are admissible or not. These can only be presupposition. For that reason, at least two divergent schools of thought have always existed in higher criticism. Their differences are irreconcilable, because one school believes that anything supernatural is to be rejected out-of-hand, and the other school is not so sure of that. These "non-rationalistic" thinkers tend to divide between Protestant and Catholic schools of thought. Higher criticism also claims to examine the internal evidence of the Bible and whether certain parts of the Bible are properly consistent with other parts.
History of higher criticism
The Catholic Encyclopedia includes an excellent treatment of the full state of higher criticism until 1908. It shows that higher criticism, as such, began earlier than the Enlightenment. The Constantine-era bishop Origen holding, for example, that Paul was not the same man who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. Origen's student Dionysius held on linguistic grounds that the man calling himself "John" who wrote Revelation was not the same man as the Apostle named John. Higher criticism contemporary to Ussher explored such questions as whether Moses was the true author of the first five books of the Bible, called the "Books of Moses" in the King James Version.
Then in the early nineteenth century a group of French and German scholars began evaluate the internal style of the Bible and to test its historical claims against other historical documents and archaeological finds. They drew their inspiration from the new fields of historiography, archaeology, and linguistics.
Analysis of the Old Testament and the New Testament tended to have vastly different emphases, with Old Testament criticism centering on questions of language and competing historical records, and New Testament criticism looking at authorship and the interrelations of texts, including non-canaonical and apocryphal texts. Of special concern was the authorship of of the Epistles.
The claims made in the field of Assyrian chronology, and specifically as regards alleged synchronies between Assyrian rulers and certain kings of the Northern Kingdom, became popular toward the end of the nineteenth century. This is the criticism that informed Edwin R. Thiele's thesis that the writers of the Kings and Chronicles books used reign synchronies and lengths that were incomplete.
There is a small group of atheists who try to revive some theories from the 19th century that most scholars now dismiss. They started the Journal of Higher Criticism and billed it as "a forthright attempt - in a time of scholarly neo-conservatism - to hark back to the bold historical hypotheses and critical interpretations associated with the great names of F. C. Baur and Tübingen."
Biblical criticism understood to support Christian supernatural beliefs
The Catholic church gave its approval to some forms of Biblical criticism in its 1943 Divino afflante spiritu issued on the fiftieth anniversary of Providentissimus Deus, which had actually condemned the use of higher criticism. Two catholic scholars who help usher in the 1943 and later acceptance were the Dominican Marie-Joseph Lagrange and the Jesuit Augustin Bea. Notable Protestant biblical scholars also holding Christian supernatural beliefs include A. S. Peake, a member of the United Methodist Church, and William Robertson Smith, a member of the Free Church of Scotland. 
The lower or textual criticism of the Bible starts with the premise that the Bible is reliable history. Unhappily, none of the original Hebrew texts of the Old Testament remain. (Even the Dead Sea scrolls do not qualify, though they come close.) The situation with the New Testament is arguably worse, in that no agreement has been possible as to which of the many manuscripts of various New Testament books is actually original. Hence, textual criticism strives to determine which copies of the Old Testament are the most faithful to the original, and which manuscripts of the New Testament are either original (if such can ever be found) or at least faithful and correct.
History of textual criticism
Again, possibly the first person to undertake any form of textual criticism for a practical reason was James Ussher. He needed a reliable text to serve as an anchor for a unified treatment of ancient history. Ussher rejected the Septuagint for various reasons, chief among which was that the Septuagint was a translation into a language foreign to that in which the originals were written, and that the translation was a work by consensus. (Its very name, which translates as Interpretation According to the Seventy, so indicates.) Ussher selected the Masoretic Text, which was an attempt by second-century Hebrew scholars to reproduce a text in its original language.
In addition to Ussher, the Royal Commission on Bible Translation, in the reign of King James I of Great Britain, had to determine a proper text from which to produce a translation of the Bible into English. They worked largely from the Masoretic Text, but consulted the Septuagint occasionally when the meaning of the Hebrew was difficult to discern.
Textual criticism gained new impetus in the nineteenth century with the work of Brook Foss Westcott and Fenton John Anthony Hort. The questions they have raised remain today the subject of great and often bitter controversy.
The Old Testament
No modern scholar claims to have original texts of Old Testament books. Ptolemy II Philadelphus had them translated into the Greek of his day to produce the famous Septuagint at the Great Library of Alexandria. What happened to the originals from which the Seventy Interpreters worked has never been established. Tragically, much of the collections of the Great Library were lost in one or more fires that struck the Library at various times in its history. As a result, the New Testament writers quote the Septuagint, because that was all that was available.
The Masoretes would later correct that lack with their production of the Masoretic Text. That text remained for centuries the best extant Hebrew copy of the Old Testament. However, this text proved quite vulnerable to higher critics who doubted the authenticity or the dating of some of its books. Chief among these was the book of Daniel, which some alleged to have been written after the fact.
In 1947, in the midst of the War for the Independence of the Republic of Israel, came the discovery, at Qumran, of the Dead Sea scrolls. These scrolls have largely backed up the accuracy of the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, with rare exception.
Among the principles that aided the Masoretes (and presumably the Essene scribes who wrote the Dead Sea scrolls) was the elaborate procedures that the original scribes had used. This included checksumming of each line and the insistence that the making of a single mistake required throwing out the entire scroll and starting over.
The New Testament
The situation with the New Testament is much less settled, because no checksumming was ever done with any manuscript of any of its books. In 1611, King James' Royal Commission had available to it a Majority Text, which may or may not be the same as the Textus Receptus, of manuscripts of which more copies existed than any others. This largely included the Byzantine Text family of manuscript copies that, strikingly, seem to agree in every particular with one another.
But Westcott and Hort pointed out the existence of many more manuscripts, including the Codex Alexandrinus and the Codex Sinaiticus, that disagree with the Majority Text in many key areas. Among the points of disagreement are:
- The authenticity of the Pericopa Adultura
- The person of the verb endings used in the Song of the Twenty-four Elders
- The true length of the Gospel According to Mark
The reception of Westcott and Hort's has varied from cordial to hostile. Many Bible defenders roundly condemn New Testament textual criticism, because they see in it the same kind of compromise of the truth that they decry on the part of the higher critics. This led the writers of the Catholic Encyclopedia, in 1908, to despair of ever having a fully reliable New Testament in the Greek language of its original authorship.
- Biblical criticism (higher) in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1908)
- Journal of Higher Criticism at the Atheist Alliance. Has multiple additional links.
- The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, 2000, Oxford University Press, page 298, ISBN 0-1986-0024-0
- Biblical criticism (textual) in the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Williams, Fred, Meticulous Care in the Transmission of the Bible, retrieved March 25, 2007
- John 8:1-11 (NIV)
- Revelation 5:9-10 (KJV)
- Revelation 5:9-10 (NIV)
- The Reliability of the Bible Texts at FoundationsforFreedom.net