Biblical criticism

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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.

Higher criticism

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.[1]

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.

The combined problems detailed above militate against the various schools of thought ever agreeing on common principles or rules of evidence--a situation quite similar to that prevailing in the debate between evolution and creation.

History of higher criticism

Arguably the first person to use the Bible seriously as a historical document, and to integrate the history it records with other recorded histories, was James Ussher. His work was so influential that for three and a half centuries most editions of the King James Version of the Bible carried top-margin dates derived from Ussher's magnum opus, The Annals of the World.

The Catholic Encyclopedia includes[1] 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 to test the Bible against other historical documents and archaeological finds. They drew their inspiration from the Rationalist school of philosophy and other schools of thought that developed during the Enlightenment period. But at that point the criticism 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 directly attacking the Divinity of its Central Character, Jesus Christ, and the authenticities of the various Letters of Paul and the general epistles of John, James, and others.

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.

Current state of higher criticism

Modern higher criticism (since 1908) is informed chiefly by the principle of atheism--the proposition that no such Person or Thing as God exists. By no coincidence, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, one of the most prominent higher critics in the German school, was one of the two major philosophers (the other was Immanuel Kant) who provided the greatest influences on Karl Marx, the originator of Communism. The no-God principle received further impetus in more modern times from Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously said that "God is dead."

Since then, most higher-critical efforts have been directed at destroying the foundations, not only of the Divinity of Christ, but also of the story of the creation of the world. This is the intellectual environment that allowed the widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution and all its corollaries, even by churches. Yet not all who reject the original creation story, as stated, are evolutionists. Old earth creationism takes as its central premise that the Biblical account, while not literal, has an enduring symbolic importance--and that in any case, classical Darwinian evolution cannot adequately explain the "first causes" of the universe or of life.

In 1994, a group of forthright atheists started the Journal of Higher Criticism[2] 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." The phrase "scholarly neo-conservatism" is probably an attempt to link an apparent renewal of belief in God with a resurgence of political conservatism in the United States that culminated in a sharp reversal-of-fortunes of the two major political parties in the Federal Election of 1994. This Journal ceased publication in 2003, but the original site is still an active domain and has a recent (2007) copyright notice.

Textual criticism

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.[3]

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 Masoretic Text, 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.[4]

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[5]
  • The person of the verb endings used in the Song of the Twenty-four Elders[6][7]
  • The true length of the Gospel According to Mark

The reception of Westcott and Hort's has varied from cordial to hostile.[8] 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.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Biblical criticism (higher) in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1908)
  2. Journal of Higher Criticism at the Atheist Alliance. Has multiple additional links.
  3. Biblical criticism (textual) in the Catholic Encyclopedia
  4. Williams, Fred, Meticulous Care in the Transmission of the Bible, retrieved March 25, 2007
  5. John 8:1-11 (NIV)
  6. Revelation 5:9-10 (KJV)
  7. Revelation 5:9-10 (NIV)
  8. The Reliability of the Bible Texts at

Additional References

See Also

Dual-user Provenance

This is a dual submission of a work of sole authorship. I am the same person as User:Temlakos on CreationWiki and this article is based on this version of the CreationWiki article, which is entirely my work.