What is “Historical Criticism” of the Bible?

Today we begin a first in a series of occasional posts, looking at the “historical criticism” of the Bible, the good and the bad of modern thinking habits about Scripture…..

A decade or so ago, some popular news magazines would publish eye-catching cover articles around Christmas and Easter, featuring scholars who would challenge traditional Christian doctrines, like the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus. Now, in the age of social media, we are bombarded on our cell phones with stories almost all of the time, that tell us that everything we once knew about the Bible is completely wrong.

The intellectual force behind this skepticism has a track record over the last few centuries. It all comes from the rise of “historical criticism” of the Bible. Historical criticism is generally associated with what is taught in nearly every university department of religion today.  Ironically however, very few churches, even evangelical ones, talk about it. But with the advent of the Internet, where your typical Sunday sermon can be fact checked in less than a minute with a Google search, the fruits of historical criticism scholarship become readily available to anyone having a SmartPhone in their pocket.

The development of “historical criticism” of the Bible has shifted the way Christians, and the culture at large, has viewed the Bible, in both positive and negative ways. What is “historical criticism” all about?

Defining “Historical Criticism” of the Bible

Yet what exactly is historical criticism of the Bible? Historical criticism seeks to understand the origins of ancient texts in order to better get at the world “behind the text.” Some refer to historical criticism as higher criticism,” or the “historical critical method,” terms which broadly speaking are synonymous. Some conservative evangelical responses to historical criticism are completely in the negative, as historical criticism is often associated with denying the accuracy of the Bible and rejecting the supernatural character of the Scriptures. But the story with historical criticism is really more complicated than that.

As Baptist New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner writes in an essay for the CSB Apologetics Study Bible, “Has Historical Criticism Proved the Bible False?,” the rise of historical criticism “has also benefitted the church.” The Christian faith is historically rooted, so we need not fear historical research into the origins of the Bible. For example, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, archaeological and literary research into the Ancient Near East, and the study of the Greco-Roman world has given us invaluable information that helps us to better appreciate the historical context in which the Bible was written (read Dr. Schreiner’s full essay here).

Historical criticism has also helped to correct some wrong assumptions about how the Bible works. Many Christians have wrongly assumed that the New Testament was somehow mystically downloaded into the brains of New Testament writers in some “special ‘Holy Ghost’ language,” which was then transcribed onto papyrus. The following may sound like a caricature, but it is not too far from how many church-going people think about biblical inspiration:

It is as though the divine inspiration of the Bible means that the Apostle Paul would somehow fall into a trance when he wrote his letters, to find that his hand was moving with pen, without his control, only to wake up later from his trance, and then wonder out loud, “Maybe I should read what I just wrote!”

While this type of “divine dictation” thinking about so-called “biblical inspiration,” or “divine download,” as Dr. Michael Heiser describes it, might appeal to science-fiction lovers, etc., it is really more reflective of a New Age Movement view of the Bible, as opposed to a truly Christian view of biblical inspiration. To our benefit, historical criticism has “demonstrated that the NT was written in the common Greek of the day,” says Dr. Schreiner, using styles of literary genre that were relevant to that time period.

Biblical inspiration really means that instead of overriding the mental faculties of the Scriptural author, God used the personalities and thought processes of folks like the Apostle Paul to reveal divinely authoritative truth, and historical criticism has helped to confirm this. Furthermore, according to Dr. Schreiner, careful research has given us more accurate English translations of the Bible as newer manuscripts discoveries have brought us closer and closer to the original text of the New Testament.

Some call this particular quest for more accurate Bible translations “lower criticism” of the Bible. This quest uses the basic tools of historical criticism, and the advances we have in this field partly explains why we keep seeing new English translations of the Bible popping up on the book market, every few years or so.

Nevertheless, historical criticism has also sadly introduced certain habits of mind that have caused many to lose confidence in the veracity of Holy Scripture. Despite the above benefits noted by Dr. Schreiner, historical criticism has at times introduced certain ideas that have “threatened the faith of evangelical believers” over the last few centuries.

For example, 19th century German scholar Julius Wellhausen popularized the so-called “documentary hypothesis,” that challenges the traditional idea that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, by claiming that the Pentateuch was actually derived from at least four different sources, that were later assembled together by some unknown editor, after the Babylonian Exile, centuries after Moses even lived. Now, almost two centuries later, Wellhausen’s ideas continue to have an enormous influence on today’s scholarship. However, these ideas also have been met with a healthy amount of criticism, as new insights challenge old assumptions.

As Schreiner describes it, “the ‘assured results’ of scholarship in one generation are often vigorously challenged by the next.” So, while the debate among scholars concerning historical criticism continues, the existence of the debate itself continues to have a broader impact on both the culture at large and the church in particular, by implanting certain habits of mind that can distort how we read the Bible. What are these habits of mind, associated with historical criticism, that can influence how even Christians today read the Bible, and where did these habits originally come from?

I will save the answer to that question for the next blog post in this series. In this series, I will be reviewing some books that fill out the story of “historical criticism,” offering ways where misguided historical critical methodologies have led people astray in their approach to the Bible, as well as examples of how historical criticism can actually help people better appreciate the Bible. Along the way, I will include some in-depth case studies that show where a not-so-critical approach to historical criticism (pun intended) can sometimes get people into trouble, without needing to.

Stay tuned. I will post the next installment in about a week or so.


Other posts in this series:

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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