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Historical criticism or higher criticism is a branch of literary analysis that investigates the origins of a text. "Higher" criticism is used in contrast with Lower criticism (or textual criticism), whose goal is to determine the original form of a text from among the variants.
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 in which location. In biblical studies higher criticism is used to address the synoptic problem, the question of how the texts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are related to one another. 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 documentary hypothesis, which attempts to chart the origins of the Torah, is another key finding of the work of higher criticism.
The work of higher criticism helps modern readers to understand something about the historical context in which the scriptures were written.
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. Lower criticism is used for attempts to interpret Biblical texts based only on the internal evidence from the texts themselves.
The Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466? - 1536) is usually credited as the first to study the Bible in any light, although many of his methods are also found in the much earlier writing of Saint Augustine (354 - 430).
The phrase "the higher criticism" became popular in Europe from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth century, to describe the work of such scholars as Jean Astruc (mid-eighteenth cent.), Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791), Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752-1827), Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), and Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). 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,". 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 (1808–1874) and Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) 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 judgment overturned on appeal. La Vie de Jésus (1863), the seminal work by a Frenchman, Ernest Renan (1823–1892), 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 (1902–1961). Some scholars, such as Rudolf Bultmann, have used higher criticism of the Bible as part of a project to "demythologize" it, explaining the "supernatural" elements in natural terms.
As an example, 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..."
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 but as a book to be evaluated like any other book.
This view has met with objections from some adherents of religion. 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.
Pope Leo XIII (1810 - 1903) condemned secular biblical scholarship in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus;, but in 1943 Pope Pius XII gave license to the new scholarship in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu: "Textual 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." 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."
Martin Luther, Zwingli, John Calvin and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation believed strongly in a literal interpretation of scripture. 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." 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.
Luther wrote, "All the articles of our Christian faith, which God has revealed to us in His Word, are in presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd and false." But at other times, he accepted the authority of reason, so long as it did not contradict scripture. "Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason… my conscience is captive to the Word of God." He even used some of the methods that would later be called "higher criticism" in his study of the Bible. He wrote, "The discourses of the Prophets were none of them regularly committed to writing at the time; their disciples and hearers collected them subsequently. … Solomon's Proverbs were not the work of Solomon."
Around the end of the eighteenth 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 nineteenth 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.
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. 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.
Today, many 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. 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
Higher criticism is divided up into sub-categories, including primarily source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism.
Source criticism, as the term is used in biblical criticism, refers to the attempt to establish the sources used by the author and/or (editor) of the final text. A premise of source criticism is that the closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it as an accurate description of events. In the Bible where a variety of earlier sources have been quoted, the historian seeks to identify and date those sources used by biblical writers as the first step in evaluating their historical reliability.
In other cases, Bible scholars use the way a text is written (changes in style, vocabulary, repetitions, and the like) to determine what sources may have been used by a biblical author. With some reasonable guesswork it is possible to deduce sources not identified as such (e.g., genealogies). Some inter-biblical sources can be determined by virtue of the fact that the source is still extant; e.g., where Chronicles quotes or retells the accounts of the books of Samuel and Kings.
The Documentary Hypothesis is based on source criticism.
Some trace the discipline of source criticism back to the 17th century French priest Richard Simon, others to the 18th century with the work of Jean Astruc, who adapted the methods already developed for investigating the texts of Classical antiquity (Homer's Iliad in particular) to his own investigation into the sources of the book of Genesis. It was subsequently considerably developed by German scholars. Its most influential product is undoubtedly Julius Wellhausen's Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (1878), whose "insight and clarity of expression have left their mark indelibly on modern biblical studies."
Redaction criticism, sometimes referred to as Redaktionsgeschichte, Kompositionsgeschichte, or Redaktionstheologie, is a critical method for the study of biblical texts. Redaction criticism regards the author of the text as editor (redactor) of his source material. Unlike its parent discipline, Form Criticism, redaction criticism does not look at the various parts of a narrative to discover the original genre; instead, it focuses on how the redactor has shaped and molded the narrative to express his theological goals.
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. It recognizes that the books of the Bible were not written in the way a novelist writes a novel, but rather more like a historian works, drawing from earlier, previous sources. The repetition of common themes or literary motifs, or the use of vocabulary represents the contribution of the editor.
Form criticism is a method of biblical criticism that classifies units of scripture by literary pattern (such as parables or legends) and that attempts to trace each type to its period of oral transmission. Form criticism seeks to determine a unit's original form and the historical context of the literary tradition. Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) originally developed form criticism to analyze the Hebrew Bible. It has since been used to supplement the documentary hypothesis explaining the origin of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) and to study the Christian New Testament.
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.
The findings of higher criticism have helped modern scholars and lay people alike to understand the way in which the Bible was written. The Documentary hypothesis of the Hebrew Bible and the Two source hypothesis of the Gospels of the New Testament are but two of the more important accomplishments of Higher criticism.
Scholars of higher criticism have sometimes upheld and sometimes challenged the traditional authorship of various books of the Bible.
|Book||Author according to
|Author according to
|Torah (Pentateuch, Books of Moses, i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers)||Moses, c 1300 B.C.E.||Documentary hypothesis: Four independent documents (the Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and the Priestly source), composed between 900-550 B.C.E., redacted c 450 B.C.E., 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 B.C.E., final form achieved c. 450 B.C.E.
Fragmentary models (e.g. Rolf Rendtorff, Erhard Blum): Torah the product of the slow accretion of fragmentary traditions, (no documents), over period 850-550 B.C.E., final form c. 450 B.C.E.
Biblical minimalism: Torah composed in Hellenistic-Hasmonean period, c. 300-140 B.C.E.
|Joshua||Joshua with a portion by Phinehas or Eleazar||Deuteronomist using material from the Jahwist and Elohist|
|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|
|1 Kings||Perhaps Ezra||Deuteronomist|
|1 Chronicles||Ezra||The Chronicler, writing between 450 and 435 B.C.E., after the Babylonian captivity|
|Ezra||Ezra||The Chronicler, writing between 450 and 435 B.C.E., after the Babylonian captivity|
|Nehemiah||Nehemiah using some material by Ezra||The Chronicler, writing between 450 and 435 B.C.E., after the Babylonian captivity|
|Tobit||A writer in the second century B.C.E.|
|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 B.C.E.|
|1 Maccabees||A devout Jew from the Holy Land.||An unknown Jewish author, writing around 100 B.C.E.|
|2 Maccabees||Based on the writing of Jason of Cyrene||An unknown author, writing in the second or first century B.C.E.|
|3 Maccabees||An Alexandrian Jew writing in Greek in the first century B.C.E. or first century C.E.|
|4 Maccabees||Josephus||An Alexandrian Jew writing in the first century B.C.E. or first century C.E.|
|Job||Moses||A writer in the 4th century B.C.E.|
|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 1000 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E.|
|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 B.C.E. 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|
|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. Is1-39 "Historical Isaiah" with multiple layers of editing. Is40-55 Exilic (Deutero-Isaiah) & Is56-66 post-exilic (Trito-Isaiah).|
|Jeremiah||Jeremiah||Baruch ben Neriah|
|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 B.C.E.||An editor/author in the mid-second century B.C.E., using older folk-tales for the first half of the book|
|Jonah||Jonah||Possibly a post-exilic (after 530 B.C.E.) editor recording oral traditions passed down from the eighth century B.C.E.|
|Micah||Micah||The first three chapters by Micah and the remainder by a later writer|
|Zephaniah||Zephaniah||Disputed; possibly a writer after the time period indicated by the text|
|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|
|Book||Author according to
|Author according to
|Gospel of Mark||Mark, follower of Peter; mid-first century||anonymous, perhaps Mark, follower of Peter; mid- to late first 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 first century|
|Gospel of Luke||Luke, companion of Paul||Luke or an unknown author who borrowed from both Mark and a source called Q, late first 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|
|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|
|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, c 95|
|James||James the Just||pseudepigraphal; a writer in the late first or early second centuries, after the death of James the Just|
|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, perhaps as late as c 150 C.E., the last-written book of the Bible|
|1 John||Apostle John||An unknown author with no direct connection to the historical Jesus Same as Gospel of John, late first century|
|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|
|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 second century|
|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
Both higher and lower forms of criticism are carried out today with the religious writings of other traditions as well, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. In Islam, 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.
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