Lower criticism vs. Higher criticism
To fully understand German Higher Criticism, one must first examine the social and political situation in Germany and Europe in the mid to late-1800s. To understand the background of these men sheds incredible light on their motivations and lends nothing but discredit to their conclusions.
The German “Higher Criticism” gets is name as a distinguishing mark from the so-called lower criticism. Lower criticism is named because it is the first method of criticism and the foundation for all other criticism. Lower criticism is simply textual criticism of the various early manuscripts of the Bible. Christians should be involved in the study of lower criticism because it attempts to determine the original wording of the original text of the scriptures. Higher criticism then analyzes the text to determine its authorship, date of composition, literary structure, and meaning.
Higher criticism in its basic meaning is just interpreting the text. Anyone who has an opinion on what the Bible means is a higher critic. However, “Higher Criticism” (especially when capitalized) has come to have the connotation of the liberal criticism that began in Germany in the 1800s. The Higher Critics purported to study the Bible as they would any other literary document, but in reality they approached it with a high degree of skepticism attempting to discredit the historicity and reliability of the received texts. Not only are the received texts doubted, but the early dates of composition are interpreted as spurious and the authors as pseudonymous. In other words, the books of the Bible were written at a much later date than claimed in the text by unknown authors using the names of apostles and prophets.
Much of the discussion among today’s liberal critics revolves around methods of interpretation that make the people, places and events of scripture allegorical not intended to be read as history. The fact is that these works were received by ancient Jews and Christians as historically accurate documents by authentic authors. To impute a figurative or allegorical intention on the part of the authors is essentially accusing these men as being false prophets who intentionally and fraudulently forged the names of historical persons on their works in some sort of perverse religious power play.
Up until the 1800s, the view was that the books of the Bible were written by the named authors approximately at the time the events occurred. This wasn’t questioned simply because there was no hard evidence to the contrary. Then came the Enlightenment. Rationalists began to apply the skepticism of modern science to literary criticism. The burden of proof shifted from the skeptic having to prove the Bible was false, to believers having to prove it was true. The persons, places and events of scripture were deemed “guilty until proven innocent.” Therefore, much of the work of the higher critics has been pure speculation. For example, they might try to guess the motivation of the person who wrote the Gospel of Matthew based on conjectural imputations to the author’s character and motivations.
The problem with much of the speculation of liberal higher criticism is that it is based on the idea that the received texts are not authentic and reliable documents. This ignores the fact that “lower” textual criticism began very early. We actually have canonical lists, extensive commentaries and criticisms of the variant texts as early as the second century. The Higher Critics treated these sources skeptically as a basis for biblical interpretation while ignoring the huge amount of data and documents for use in textual analysis.
Prior to the 20th century, the received text from which all English translations were compiled relied heavily on the Latin Vulgate, the Bible translated by Jerome in early fifth century Rome from the Hebrew Masoretic text, the Septuagint and the Greek codices of the New Testament. Codices (singular: “codex”) is simply a name for the earliest books. Up until about the first or second centuries ancient writers wrote on scrolls or tablets. In fact, books in their modern form were probably invented by Christians as a method of collating the various books of the New Testament and other Christian writings.
Jerome relied on the version of the Greek New Testament known as the Western Text. There are several surviving manuscript “families” from the early church era. These codices are derived from the three great centers of Christianity in the early centuries, Byzantium, Alexandria and Rome.
No one today knows exactly what the original autographs of the New Testament looked like, but textual criticism had proven that the text has altered so little over thousands of years, that we can be certain that few changes have entered into the picture. Even if small portions of the text have been altered, none of these changes would be considered significant in changing the overall meaning of a passage. Evangelicals and conservatives accept the authenticity and reliability of the received text which has come to us through the Latin Vulgate with some modern translations making some minor redaction due to a comparison of recent discoveries of early copies of Greek versions of the Western, Eastern (Byzantine) and Alexandrian texts. If we were to compile a list of these variants, we could fit them all on one page.
The reason for these variants is that no ancient or medieval manuscript — even up until the time of William Shakespeare — is without variations. No ancient work comes down to us from an original copy – or “autograph” – and most are derived from copies of copies that are hundreds and even thousands of years older than the originals. Since all books were copied by hand, mistakes in copying entered into the equation. It is also certain that scribes edited or added materials in order to make the text more understandable to the reader, to modernize spellings or numbering systems, to add their own contribution or put a “spin” on the work of literature.
The Hebrew Bible and the Christian scriptures we treated differently. Since the scriptures were considered to be inspired oracles of God, there are warnings in the text prohibiting changes by scribes. Holy Scripture was obviously treated differently than stories and poems told for entertainment purposes and even histories. However, small mistakes and changes for various reasons entered in. For instance, out of the thousands of manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament available for study, there are some manuscripts that are highly corrupted and may be easily separated from what is called the “majority text” which is derived from a comparison between the oldest manuscripts that have the highest degree of agreement.
The most common type of textual corruption in the most reliable manuscripts of the Bible consists of small words, spellings of names, prepositions and numbers. Lower criticism is the process of arriving at a text that is closest to what the original autographs looked like. Since there are thousands more extant manuscripts of Bible than of other ancient manuscripts, we can be more certain about the text of scripture than about any other ancient or medieval work of literature.
It is generally agreed that the majority text derived from the most reliable manuscripts is at least 99.5 percent accurate to what the original autographs had. Such a high degree of reliability is so unlikely, that many Christians see a divine Providence in the preservation of scripture.
The Reliability of the Hebrew Bible
The earliest surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible were originally copied from the so-called “Masoretic text.” Up until 1947, the earliest Hebrew manuscript of the Hebrew text was from about 900 A.D. Since the text was 1copied 200 to 2000 years after than the original autographs, modern critics had legitimate questions as to how many mistakes had entered into the received text. Much of this concern over textual reliability was laid to rest after the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls, which were at least 1000 years older than the oldest surviving copies of the Masoretic text. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, not only do we have portions of all the books of the Old Testament (except Esther) from deep antiquity, but we can compare long portions of these biblical manuscripts to the Masoretic text. To put it simply, the Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed the reliability of the received text of the Hebrew scriptures to a surprising degree.
Unfortunately, even the most durable scrolls and parchments don’t last thousands of year. So if we want to see what the Bible looked like at the time of King David for instance, we have to rely on artifacts other than paper, which are few and far between.
The oldest biblical scroll yet discovered are the two silver scrolls uncovered at Ketef Hinnom near Jerusalem in 1979. This artifact is thought to be at least 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts or perhaps even older. One is inscribed with portions of the Priestly Blessing from the Book of Numbers.
Numbers 6:25—Yahweh bless you and keep you;
Numbers 6:25—Yahweh make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
Numbers 6:26—Yahweh lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
The bold words are missing from the inscription (probably to save space on a small amulet) but this is undoubtedly a quotation from the Pentateuch. The amulet is thought to be from about 725 to 650 B.C. Another silver scroll from the same time period contains allusions to the book of Deuteronomy. At this early date, the combination of two different passages from the Pentateuch proves that a larger document containing these texts was composed prior Josiah’s reform and not after the return from Babylon under Ezra as the Higher Critics maintained.
The existence of this text lays waste to the Higher Critical “Documentary Hypothesis,” the theory that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but that large segments of the first five books of the Bible were written in the period of Ezra, 400 to 500 B.C. The documentary hypothesis arguments revolve around the use of YHWH, the divine name of God, which the Higher Critics claimed was a later innovation after the more primitive names of ELOHIM and ADONAI.
The fact that the silver scrolls contain the name YHWH refutes the entire basis for the theory. Since the skeptical speculations of the Higher Critics have so often been wrong, the burden of proof ought to shift toward the liberal theologians. The hard evidence is in favor of the Bible’s authenticity. Notions of a “Documentary Hypothesis” have been weighed in the balance and found bankrupt. This hasn’t stopped the liberal critics of course. The documentary hypothesis has been simply adjusted to fit the new evidence and is still accepted in many academic circles.
What does the evidence really tell us? When we compare the textual integrity of the Old Testament against comparisons of the manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a few tablets describing the kings of Israel and the two silver scrolls, we can be confident that the text of the Old Testament has remained consistent and reliable for thousands of years.
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Watch a clip from Martin Luther.
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