Historical criticism or higher criticism is a branch of literary analysis that investigates the origins of a text: as applied in biblical studies it investigates the books of the Bible and compares them to other texts written at the same time, before, or recently after the text in question. 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," Thus 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 where. For example, higher criticism deals with the synoptic problem, the question of how Matthew, Mark, and Luke relate to each other. 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 Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466? - 1536) is usually credited as the first to study the Bible in this way.
The phrase higher criticism is used in contrast with Lower criticism (or textual criticism), the endeavour to determine what a text originally said before it was altered (through error or intent).
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.
History of higher criticism
The phrase "the higher criticism" became popular in Europe from the mid-18th century to the early 20th century, to describe the work of such scholars as Jean Astruc (mid-18th cent.), Johann Salomo Semler (1725-91), Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752-1827), Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), and Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). 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.
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.
Roman Catholic view
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: "[T]extual 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.
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 - instead it was to be evaluated like any other book.
Around the end of the 18th 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.
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 Evangelical 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
The influence of higher criticism
As an example of the influence of higher criticism on contemporary thought, 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..."
"In view of the relative certainties more recently attained by textual and higher criticism, it has become increasingly desirable that contemporary translations of the sacred books into English be prepared in which due reverence for the text and strict observance of the rules of criticism would be combined. The New American Bible has accomplished this in response to the need of the church in America today. It is the achievement of some fifty biblical scholars, the greater number of whom, though not all, are Catholics."
Types of higher criticism
Higher criticism is divided up into sub-categories, including primarily source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism.
Source criticism is the search for the original sources which lie behind a given biblical text. It can be traced back to the 17th century French priest Richard Simon, and its most influential product is undoubtably Julius Wellhausen's Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (1878), whose "insight and clarity of expression have left their mark indelibly on modern biblical studies."
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.Tradition history is a specific aspect of form criticism which aims at tracing the way in which the pericopes entered the larger units of the biblical canon, and especially the way in which they made the transition from oral to written form. The belief in the priority, stability, and even detectability, of oral traditions is now recognised to be so deeply questionable as to render tradition history largely useless, but form criticism itself continues to develop as a viable methodology in biblical studies.
Radical Criticism, around the end of the nineteenth century, typically tried to show that none of the Pauline epistles are authentic; that Paul is nothing but a controverted authorial token. This group of scholars often postulated the ahistoricity of Jesus and the apostles.
Scholars of higher criticism have sometimes upheld and sometimes challenged the traditional authorship of various books of the Bible. Some examples of higher critical hypotheses can be found below:
Author according to tradition
Author according to scholarship
Torah (Pentateuch, Books of Moses, i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers)
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 BC, final form achieved c. 450 BC.
Fragmentary models (e.g. Rolf Rendtorff, Erhard Blum): Torah the product of the slow accretion of fragmentary traditions, (no documents), over period 850-550 BC, final form c. 450 BC.
A Hebrew poet of the third or second centuries BC 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)
Three main authors and an extensive editing process: Isaiah 1-39 "Historical Isaiah" with multiple layers of editing, 8th cent. BCE Isaiah 40-55 Exilic(Deutero-Isaiah), 6th century BCE Isaiah 56-66 post-exilic(Trito-Isaiah), 6th-5th century BCE
Both higher and lower forms of criticism are carried out today with the religious writings of many religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
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.
Islamic history records that Uthman collected all variants of the Qur'an and destroyed those that he did not approve of.
Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J. American Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A History from the Early Republic to Vatican II, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1989, ISBN 0-06-062666-6. Nihil obstat by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., and Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.
Rutgers University: Synoptic Gospels Primer: introduction to the history of literary analysis of the Greek gospels, and aids in confronting the range of factors that need to be taken into consideration in accounting for the literary relationship of the first three gospels.
↑Ehrman, Bart D. (2004). The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York: Oxford, p.385; Beverly Roberts Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, p.93; Vincent M. Smiles, First Thessalonians, Philippians, Second Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Liturgical Press, 2005, p.53; Udo Schnelle, translated by M. Eugene Boring, The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 315-325; M. Eugene Boring, Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004 p652; Joseph Francis Kelly, An Introduction to the New Testament for Catholics, Liturgical Press, 2006 p.32