We often deal with people who criticize the Bible for one reason or another. However, some scholars study the Bible and apply what is called biblical criticism. They may be practicing lower criticism (also known as textual criticism) in which they work to determine the correct text of ancient documents. These scholars work with copies of ancient manuscripts of both biblical and non-biblical material to attempt to determine what the original documents said. There is also a method called higher criticism in which scholars deal with the authorship, dating, and unity of manuscripts.
There have been numerous instances over the years in which criticism of these two types has exposed frauds. In the fifteenth century, for example, higher criticism proved that a document called “Donation of Constantine” was not genuine. The events described in the manuscript turned out to be events that happened hundreds of years after the original document was supposed to have been written. Obviously, “donation” was a fraud. In this way, higher criticism can expose frauds and identify claims about manuscripts that could not be true.
At the beginning of the twentieth-century furious debates raged over higher criticism because many viewed it as a threat to the Bible and Christian faith. In our day it has become fashionable to use higher criticism to claim that the Bible is not the inspired Word of God. I confront skeptics in my lectures who use higher and lower criticism to attack the material I am presenting. We need to take a brief look at biblical criticism to understand it and to be prepared to defend the faith.
Higher criticism has sometimes been used to attempt to prove that one book or another in the Bible is fraudulent. In 1805, for example, a scholar by the name of W. M. DeWette tried to prove that Deuteronomy was not written by Moses but by Jerusalem priests in the time of Josiah. DeWette’s assertion was widely accepted until archaeologists proved that many parts of Deuteronomy reflect a period earlier than that of Josiah. In the nineteenth century, it was popular to claim that all ancient biblical manuscripts must be assumed fraudulent unless proven true. Archaeology has mostly removed that negative attitude, but it is not uncommon to run into it even today.
Many proponents of higher criticism attempt to use style as a means of proving a biblical manuscript fraudulent. A good example of this is first and second Peter. The styles of these two books are very different. Why would that be since they are supposedly both written by Peter? Subject matter can make a huge difference in the style of writing. Gilbert Highet of Columbia University pointed out that Cicero had at least six different styles depending upon what he was writing. There is even the possibility that Peter wrote one book in Greek and the other in Aramaic which would automatically produce significant differences in style.
There are questions about the Bible that higher criticism may help us solve. The Bible designates Moses as the author of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy but does not identify the author of Genesis. Jesus identifies Moses as the author of the same four books but makes no mention of the author of Genesis. If higher criticism could verify the authorship of Genesis, it would be a welcomed contribution to our understanding.
However, instead, some scholars have attempted to prove that the first and second chapters of Genesis were written by different authors who disagreed with each other. They ignore the fact that those chapters were written for different purposes and to show different relationships. Higher criticism scholars have also raised questions about the authorship and dates of some of the Psalms and Hebrews. We must remember that higher criticism is the work of people who have preconceived ideas and prejudices that affect their conclusions.
Higher criticism is at best a tool to help us understand some concepts related to God’s Word. If we believe that the Holy Spirit was active and that the Bible was God-breathed, we will not be shaken by the winds of modernism that roar through the religious world today. Excellent and open-minded scholarship has, over the centuries, confirmed and supported the concept that the Bible is the Word of God. Letting the Word speak to us is the doorway to a closer walk with God.
–John N. Clayton © 2018