The use of higher criticism to fuel doubts about the Bible has obscured its significant contributions.

Early in this century Christians hotly debated the validity of higher criticism. Some Bible students declared it would destroy Christian faith and undermine the churches. Others, insisting it provided a valuable step forward, asked, “Why should we be afraid of scientific fact? How could Christian faith be harmed by treating the Bible the same way as other books?”

The phrase “higher criticism” came into wide use in the eighteenth century. The term did not imply superiority to “lower criticism,” but simply that it dealt with a different aspect of literary study. Lower criticism tried to determine the correct text of ancient documents and is now generally called “textual criticism.” Higher criticism dealt with authorship, dating, and unity, so in itself the term conveyed no idea of anything harmful.

At the close of the Middle Ages, that period we now call the Renaissance, many were interested in the study of ancient documents—secular as well as biblical. Students were thrilled as a new universe seemed to open before them. The first impulse was to accept anything in an ancient manuscript as necessarily true, but then scholars began to search for frauds among these manuscripts and higher criticism became a useful tool.

Higher Criticism and Frauds

In one of its earliest successes, higher criticism discovered in the fifteenth century that the so-called Donation of Constantine was not genuine. For centuries this document had been taken as proof that the first Roman emperor to become a Christian had turned over a large part of Italy to the Roman bishop when he himself moved to his new capital at Constantinople. In 1440 Lorenzo Valla presented evidence that the Donation contains references to historical events that occurred several centuries after Constantine, and therefore could not be genuine. Although scholars disagree over the perpetrator of the fraud and his purpose, all now agree the document was a fraud. So indisputable was Valla’s work that seven years later Pope Nicholas made him an apostolic secretary. In the next century, after the Reformation had begun, Luther used Valla’s evidence as part of his polemic against papal claims.

In postbiblical Christian works, we may illustrate the success of higher criticism by looking at material from the second century. Nine writings supposedly from Justin Martyr have come to light, but critics are now convinced that only three of these are genuine: the two Apologies, and the Dialogue with Trypho. The others may be frauds or later unsigned works, mistakenly ascribed to Justin.

In certain instances, therefore, higher criticism has been valuable in detecting fraudulent literature. We are grateful for its service to the church and to scholarship in separating authentic works of early Christians from later productions.

Higher Criticism and the Bible

The story of higher criticism as applied to the Bible is, unfortunately, far less happy. Although some critical scholars have attempted to show that one canonical book or another of the Bible is fraudulent, no one has ever proved the case.

In 1805 W. M. DeWette declared that Deuteronomy was written not by Moses, as the Bible says, but by the Jerusalem priests in the time of Josiah, to increase their power and emoluments by centralizing worship at Jerusalem. His idea won rapid acceptance among critics, so liberal scholars commonly came to speak of the book as “a pious fraud.” This view of Deuteronomy was held by most critical scholars until well into the present century. Then archaeologists began to show that many parts of Deuteronomy reflect a period earlier than Josiah’s. Today most liberal scholars believe that the book as a whole was gradually put together nearer to the time of Josiah than to that of Moses, but few if any would now consider it “a pious fraud.”

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If the evidence indeed proved Deuteronomy to be a fraud, all who love the truth would, of course, accept it. But if such proof were found, evangelicals would be greatly confounded as the book itself claims to be written by Moses and the internal evidence from the book generally fits in with a Mosaic authorship. The New Testament, moreover, often quotes it as his work. Jesus accepted the entire Old Testament as God’s Word, free from error and thoroughly dependable. One who accepts the lordship of Christ, therefore, can rest assured that Moses was the primary author of Deuteronomy, though its last chapter may have been added by another. This would be true even if its vocabularies had been updated in later centuries.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, great skepticism prevailed regarding all ancient documents, including the Bible. Some scholars held that any such document must be assumed fraudulent unless proved true. But the situation today is quite the reverse as far as general literature is concerned, largely because of the rise of archaeology.

Higher Criticism and Authorship

Detection of fraud, however, was only one portion of the work of higher criticism. Determination of authorship was another. Its task here is much more difficult. Various theories about the originator of the Donation of Constantine have led to no solid agreement. The same is true of many other proven forgeries.

Some books of the Bible are anonymous (for example, Genesis, Samuel, certain of the Psalms, Hebrews), and the stated authorship of others has been challenged. What has higher criticism to say about the real authors of these books?

While the Bible designates Moses as the author of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it makes no such statement about Genesis. Jesus refers to statements in these other four books as the work of Moses, but makes no such reference to Genesis. Did Moses write Genesis, or did Joseph? Perhaps Abraham wrote the history up to his time; then Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, or others added to the account then being preserved among the Hebrews; finally, Moses may have joined it to the four Pentateuchal books he wrote. If higher criticism could give us provable information about the writer of Genesis, such information would be welcome. But information of this nature would not bear on our conviction that Genesis, like the rest of the Pentateuch, is God’s Word and free from error. This conviction rests ultimately not on who wrote the book but on the authority of Christ, who expressed full confidence in the entire Old Testament.

Those who believe the Bible to be the true Word of God accept its own witness to the authorship of the biblical books. But in some cases the name of a book indicates its subject rather than its author. Many psalms are anonymous, although the psalm headings name an author in a majority of cases. Nearly half claim David as author; one names Moses, and two, Solomon. Several ascribe their authority to Asaph. We do not know for sure that the names of all of the authors specified in the headings were really attached to the original psalms. In any case, many other psalms are anonymous.

Higher criticism has tried to determine at least the period in which these psalms were written. Some of them use terminology that suggests the Babylonian exile. Fifty years ago higher critics taught that many supposedly Davidic psalms reflected Maccabean times, many centuries after David lived. Today few would say any were written so late.

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We have no clear evidence as to the authorship of Hebrews. Thirteen epistles specifically state that Paul is their author, but Hebrews nowhere says who wrote it. Some have suggested Paul, and others, Barnabas, Apollos, or even Nathaniel. We would be grateful if higher criticism could give us a convincing answer (though again, it would not affect the book’s reliability).

A further complexity in authorship arises where the author used a scribe or assistant. Toward the end of the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul indicates that he was writing with his own hand, perhaps implying that this was not his usual custom. He may have been following a procedure also used in parts of the Old Testament where the material was dictated to a scribe. Jeremiah, for instance, dictated his prophecies to Baruch. Nor can we rule out the idea that on occasion a writer may have given an assistant a general idea of what he wanted, telling him to put it into written form. In such a case, he would have checked it over to be sure it represented what he wanted to say, and therefore he could truly be called its author. The Holy Spirit would have guided the entire process so that what was finally written expressed the ideas God desired his people to have.

Probably Paul seldom followed this latter procedure, since he was highly educated and must have had confidence in his ability to express himself in Greek. But the situation may have been different in the case of Peter and John. The styles of First and Second Peter differ so considerably that some critics have suggested one is a fraud. Yet Peter could well have written one book in Greek himself (II Peter?) and, for the other, expressed his thought in Aramaic to an associate who was more experienced in writing Greek (I Peter). This associate could then have written Peter’s ideas in his own style, afterward making alterations Peter might have suggested. The two letters would thus differ in style; yet, under the direction of the Holy Spirit both would express Peter’s thought as truly as if Peter had dictated every word. John Calvin held such a view, but had no doubt that both presented Peter’s thoughts accurately. Higher criticism has, however, been insufficiently cautious in drawing conclusions about fraud from stylistic data.

Style is an especially poor guide to authorship if the subject matter of the texts differs greatly. Styles vary with different subjects. Fifty years ago many Americans were charmed by the writings of “David Grayson,” who wrote such books as Adventures in Contentment, The Friendly Road, and other beautiful idylls of country life. Another group of Americans was greatly interested in the economic and political writings of Ray Stannard Baker, who edited the Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson and wrote such books as The New Industrial Unrest and Woodrow Wilson and the World Settlement. Few if any would have guessed that both sets of books came from the same author. Knowing his books would appeal to different groups of people. Baker used a pseudonym, David Grayson, for some of them. The two styles differed greatly because of the great difference in the subjects.

Reflecting on the use of different styles by the same author, Gilbert Highet of Columbia University declares that while Gibbon had only one style (and therefore becomes monotonous) most good writers have many styles. Cicero, he points out, had at least six.

So differing styles are no proof of different authors, for the same author often can and does employ different styles. Yet an identical style found in two lengthy pieces of writing is support for a single author. The book of Isaiah is a case in point. The author claims in the text to be Isaiah the prophet, and New Testament references support this. Despite the different subjects discussed, moreover, the language of all sections of Isaiah is strikingly similar. This author possessed unique literary gifts, and they are evident throughout the book. If one were to listen to 10 consecutive verses from almost any part of Isaiah, and then to 10 verses from almost any other part of the Bible, he would have no difficulty in determining which series Isaiah wrote.

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After some higher critics had generally accepted the idea of “a second Isaiah” on the ground that predictive prophecy was impossible, some of them continued to marvel at its great similarity of style to “first Isaiah.” One even said that this second Isaiah wrote in such a way as almost to make one think that he was actually Isaiah come back from the dead! Higher critics who have adopted a naturalist framework on which to stretch the books of the Bible have not done well in helping us to determine the author of the biblical Book of Isaiah. The same could also be said for the Book of Daniel.

Any light that higher criticism can therefore shed on the authorship of a book of the Bible, or on the circumstances of its writing, is desirable. Yet we must take great care to avoid being misled by antisupernaturalists who rule out the activity of God in directing the writers.

Christians are interested in every fact that can be discovered about the books of the Bible. When the author is explicitly named in the text, we do not bury our heads in the sand and refuse to consider evidence that a biblical book might be a fraud (but we are convinced that, as a matter of fact, no biblical book is fraudulent). And when authorship is not stated we are interested in any valid evidence that can help us determine who the author is and the circumstances in which he wrote.

Higher Criticism and Literary Sources

During the last two centuries higher criticism has devoted an even larger portion of its activity to dividing books into alleged original source documents written by a variety of authors. Much of this activity has focused on two groups of material, the writings of Homer and the books of the Bible, but most other ancient or medieval books such as those of Shakespeare have been similarly treated.

Until recently it was common for critics to claim that they could separate out of Shakespeare’s plays portions he had written himself and portions from others; some even claimed that almost everything came from others. The extreme reached by this type of “source criticism” was somewhat ironically described by George Steiner in 1962:

“In the late nineteenth century dismemberment was all the rage. In a single chapter of Luke, textual analysis revealed five distinct levels of authorship and interpolation. The plays attributed to that illiterate actor Shakespeare appeared to have been compiled by a committee that included Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, Marlowe, recusant Catholics, and printers’ devils of extraordinary ingenuity. This fine fury of decomposition lasted well into the 1930s. As late as 1934 Gilbert Murray could discover no reputable scholar ready to defend the view that a single poet had written either or both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Today the wheel has come full turn.… To Professor Whitman of Harvard, the central personal vision and ‘ineradicable unity’ of the Iliad are beyond doubt” (Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays, George Steiner and Robert Fables, editors, Prentice-Hall, 1962).

The attitude that was so widespread in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries has now largely disappeared. Literary criticism has become more and more a study of the value and meaning of literary works than an attempt to divide them into sources or to determine what brought them into being. In The Business of Criticism (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1959) Prof. Helen Gardner of Oxford described the change: “The modern scholar or critic concentrates in the first place on making what he can of his text as it has come down to him. There has been a strong reaction against the study of even extant and known sources, much more against the discussion of hypothetical ones.… The importance of the single author and the single work dominates literary studies.”

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An interesting result of this change of attitude in secular literary criticism has been the almost total disappearance from secular books of the term “higher criticism.” On examining the index of many recent books on literary criticism one rarely finds the term included at all, and when it does occur it generally refers only to the theories of the biblical critics. The fifteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, under the heading “Higher Criticism,” simply says, “See Literary Criticism, Biblical.”

Although secular critics have almost totally abandoned the attempt to divide a book into sources, theories produced by such outmoded methods are still presented in most biblical and theological courses as established fact.

An Example: Wellhausen’s Theory

In biblical studies, higher criticism’s search for source documents has centered in the Wellhausen theory of the Pentateuch. Today the evangelical world largely ignores it, but its main features are still taught as established fact in nearly all the older theological seminaries and in most university courses in religion. In evaluating Wellhausen’s theory, we need to note three factors:

1. The theory leaves no room for divine revelation. Wellhausen claimed that by rearranging the materials in the Pentateuch he could show how the religion of Israel grew from very primitive ideas into more abstract beliefs, and how simple acts of worship had been changed into a highly involved system of ritual.

2. Wellhausen explicitly declared that we can learn nothing from the Pentateuch about the history of patriarchal times, but only about ideas, customs, and rituals that came into being many centuries later. He said that “the inner and outer features of this later age are here unintentionally projected into remote antiquity.… Abraham is certainly not the name of a person, as also Isaac and Lot; he is in any case rather indistinct; of course he is not to be considered as a historical person; he might rather be thought of as a free creation of unconscious art. He was probably the youngest figure in this group and was not put before his son Isaac until a comparatively late period.”

3. The theory rests ultimately on the idea that the Pentateuch can be divided up into a number of interwoven documents, and that these documents can be shown to have had an original separate existence.

We should note that no one has ever discovered either an ancient copy of any one of these alleged documents or an ancient reference to the separate existence of any one of them. The assumed existence of such sources is purely hypothetical and is based largely upon the claim that the religion of Israel evolved from very simple to very complex features. In fact, probably no scholar living today would still accept all the main features of Wellhausen’s theory of how Israel’s religion developed. Further, we have no evidence that a similar development occurred elsewhere. Archaeological findings and newly discovered facts about the ancient world make the development he assumed seem more and more improbable.

Among the basic arguments for the theory is the assertion that the Book of Genesis contains repetitions that would hardly occur in normal writing.

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This claim overlooks the use of repetition for emphasis, which is probably far more common in ancient writings than in English. Certain elements in the story—the corruption of mankind, the tremendous nature of the flood, and the eventual drying of the earth—are thus repeated for emphasis. Each of these is repeated several times, not only in the Genesis account, but (and this is specifically damaging to the theory) in each of the two documents into which it is divided by the critics.

The devil never tempts us with more success than when he tempts us with a sight of our own good actions.

—Thomas Wilson

The theory further asserts that the Genesis text can be divided into interlaced documents, each of which by itself provides a complete and continuous narrative. Thus it is said that the story of the flood in Genesis 6–9 is composed of two integrated documents and that it can be divided so as to produce two complete stories. However, this does not prove out because features of the story mentioned only once in Genesis fall to one or the other of the so-called J and P documents, producing two stories that do not flow smoothly and that omit vital information.

For example, the theory assigns to the so-called P document the warning to Noah that a flood is coming, the order to build an ark, and the description of its specifications. All these are omitted from the so-called J document which never mentions the ark until it abruptly announces that the Lord said to Noah, “Come thou and all thy house into the ark.” Thus neither alleged document really gives the complete story.

According to W. F. Albright, Wellhausen never showed any interest in the discoveries of archaeology. He probably did not know that a cuneiform tablet had been discovered, which contained an ancient Babylonian flood story (probably composed about 2200 B.C.) remarkably similar to the Genesis account. It doubtless represents a somewhat corrupted recollection of what actually occurred. Compared with the biblical account, however, it includes all the elements of both documents. All parts of the two alleged documents, J and P, are needed to produce the complete account, and they are paralleled in the single Babylonian story.

It seems impossible that the flood story (which existed in unity in the earlier Babylonian story) later became divided into two independent accounts (J and P) each of which contained half the facts, and finally that these two independent accounts were welded into one in our Book of Genesis just like the unified flood story extant in Babylon a thousand years earlier. The single instance in which we have documentary evidence to check the theory, therefore, shows Wellhausen’s attempt to discover J and P sources in Genesis to be clearly mistaken. Since he and liberal higher critics used exactly the same methodology to trace sources in other parts of Genesis, this analogy casts serious doubt on their conclusions as well as their methodology employed throughout the Pentateuch.

In an article reprinted in CHRISTIANITY TODAY (June 9, 1967) C. S. Lewis declared that he had often read reviews of his books and books written by his intimate friends in which the reviewers stated opinions as to the way these books had been written. However, Lewis says, he did not find one case in which the reviewer was even partially correct. Source criticism, when tested by its handling of contemporary evidence, has failed to reach any dependable result. When biblical study entered the area of source criticism, it usually became involved in a maze of unfounded speculations and guesses.

In sum, the work of higher criticism in detecting fraud has been commendable. Its effort to determine authorship has often failed. Its entrance into the field of source criticism, based on erroneous assumptions, has led it into shaky territory and usually brought it to conclusions quite unsupported by the facts. Dissatisfaction with the futility of such efforts when applied to general literature has led most literary critics to lose interest in it, so that they no longer use the term “higher criticism” except in reference to the theories of biblical critics. To continue to use the outmoded term only in referring to critical studies of the Bible seems prejudicial, and we would do well to drop the term altogether and employ the contemporary term “literary studies” for legitimate investigation of author, background, origin, style, and character of any biblical composition.

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Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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