History of Biblical Criticism


Definition. The term is used in Biblical studies for the examination of the lit. according to principles established from the study of other lit. Since the whole idea of criticism in relation to the Bible has so often been misunderstood or misapplied, a careful understanding of its scope and purpose is indispensable. The word “criticism” is itself ambiguous in meaning, for a critic may be either one who passes objective judgment or one who merely finds fault. Although both functions are usually closely allied, they need not necessarily be so. Much Biblical criticism has unfortunately led to skepticism, giving the impression that criticism itself is essentially negative. But the use of the critical faculty in assessing evidence is not only desirable, but indispensable. Criticism covers two fields; lower criticism, which deals with matters affecting the transmission of the text, and higher criticism, which investigates origins, authorship, purpose, and the general character of the Biblical books.

Textual criticism.

The purpose of this discipline is to ascertain as near as possible the original form of the Biblical text. This involves a detailed examination of the MS evidence, a classification of the different text. streams, and the construction of a provisional text. The amount of material available for the OT text is relatively sparse, but this has been augmented in recent years by the numerous OT MSS found among the DSS. In OT text. criticism, interest centers in the state of the Heb. text and in a comparison with the LXX text.

In NT text. criticism the history of investigations can be summarized under three main periods. The first period saw a developing interest in critical principles, but as yet no attempt to edit the TR (the text supported by the great majority of MSS). There was no particular objection to the collation of variants in a critical apparatus, but edd. refrained from making any emendations to the text itself. During the second period, which began in the early 18th cent., text. criticism entered a phase in which principles were enunciated for the editing of the text, but still considerable opposition existed for any change in the TR. The third period was that during which the necessity for editing the text on the basis of a scientific assessment of the evidence was fully accepted. The careful critical work of Westcott and Hort inaugurated this new era and placed the NT text on a more secure basis. Many modifications have since been introduced to their ed. text and also to some of their critical principles, but since their time text. criticism has become an established and unchallenged procedure.

Literary criticism.

In the development of higher criticism Ger. scholars have generally been more radical than their British or American counterparts. Moreover, the development came earlier in Germany (early 19th cent.) than elsewhere. Whereas the basic idea of higher criticism is the study of origins—involving questions of authorship, date, and kindred problems—an element of speculation was introduced which tended to give it a destructive aspect. It was this that not only roused considerable opposition, but caused the principles of criticism to be regarded with such suspicion that in some circles the more balanced contribution to positive scholarship was often overlooked.

In the first part of the period of higher criticism both supporters and opponents tended to go to extremes. During the pre-critical period, approach to Biblical problems was subservient to dogmatic considerations, whereas the rise of criticism tended to submerge all theological considerations in the interests of scientific principles. Much misunderstanding would have been avoided had the real basis of the principles of criticism been clearly defined.

Historical background.

Biblical criticism developed against a background of 18th cent. rationalism, with the result that much of the early criticism was rationalistic. This was prompted by the desire to make Christianity relevant to contemporary trends, which invited the employment of rationalistic techniques in dealing with the text of Scripture. This was particularly evident in radical Ger. criticism, which worked on the assumption that all evidence must be regarded as suspect until it could be proved valid. But such an approach could not avoid falling into skepticism. Any miraculous elements in the Biblical texts must, on this view, be rejected. It seemed more rational to dispute these elements than to accept them. This became the guiding principle in the interpretation of the Biblical texts, a notable example of which has been the approach to the miracles of Jesus. The result was that Biblical criticism adopted an increasingly negative approach, at least in the Ger. schools of thought. Although most of the more radical positions of the earlier critics have since been abandoned, Ger. criticism has never shaken itself free of negative influences. It was not until the latter part of the 19th cent. that the more radical type of criticism gained any foothold in either Britain or America.

Another important influence upon Biblical criticism was evolutionary philosophy. When Darwin’s theory of the origin of species was transferred from the realm of nature to that of history, it at once introduced a new element into the techniques of criticism. OT history had to be fitted into the evolutionary scheme, which meant a radical reconstruction of the history of Israel. Such tendencies in criticism were to have a profound effect on Biblical authority, and although many of the original positions have been modified or abandoned, there still remains a connection between some Biblical criticism and evolutionary philosophy. The major weakness of late 19th cent. criticism was the failure to examine the validity of the evolutionary philosophy as a basis for historical and literary Biblical studies. Insufficient attention was paid to the uniqueness of the content of Biblical revelation. These tendencies obscured the real value of Biblical criticism and caused some to reject the method altogether because of its frequently radical results. As long as criticism is kept within its proper confines, and as long as the basic presuppositions are clearly enunciated and are themselves subject to examination, the positive contribution that criticism can make to an understanding of the Bible will be increasingly appreciated.

Developments in OT criticism.

The greatest concentration has been on comparative literary studies, which claimed to be able to dissect the material into literary strata or sources. In the realm of Pentateuchal criticism, this reached its classic expression in the Graf-Wellhausen theory: i.e., the well-known JEPD theory of original sources. Many modifications of this theory have occurred, some extending the sources to the Book of Joshua. Similar methods were applied to other OT books with the resultant tendency to multiply sources.

Early in the 20th cent. Herman Gunkel (1862-1932) developed a new approach to the Psalms which has exerted a considerable influence. His idea was to classify them according to their literary types. Akin to this method is the movement, popularized by Scandinavian scholars, of concentrating on oral transmission rather than on literary sources. Both these movements find their counterpart in the Form critical movement in NT studies. (See Form Criticism.)

Throughout these developments many valuable contributions were made to an understanding of OT lit. by careful examination of historical backgrounds and kindred studies.

Developments in NT criticism.

That there is a close connection between the development of OT and NT criticism is evident from the fact that in the earliest stages J. G. Eichhorn (1752-1827) produced an Introduction to both and carried over the principles applied to the OT to his treatment of the NT. It was, however, Schleiermacher (1768-1834) who prepared the way for a critical assessment of NT books with his attack on the authenticity of 1 Timothy. His religion of feeling undoubtedly affected his approach to Biblical evidence.

The first major school of NT criticism may be said to be that of Frederick Christian Baur (1792-1860), whose presuppositions were conditioned by the belief that early Christian history must be rewritten, stripped of all the accumulated “tendencies” of the existing records. The weakness of his criticism, therefore, was that it rested on the necessity first to accept his speculative system. His presuppositions have been largely rejected, but his methods continue to command some adherents. He paved the way for the thoroughgoing liberal school of criticism represented by such men as H. J. Holtzmann (1832-1910) and A. Harnack (1851-1930). The even more radical school of Dutch critics at the end of the 19th cent. reduced speculative criticism to a reductio ad absurdum by its inherently skeptical approach.

During the 20th cent. the most notable feature has been the variety of critical theories. Source hypotheses, which had run riot in the latter part of the 19th cent. with their innumerable addenda of interpolations and emendations, have found a more sober level. In Britain the field has been dominated by B. H. Streeter’s four-source hypothesis, although Continental scholarship has mainly adhered to the Mark-Q theory of gospel sources. The more powerful movement has been nodetitle, which, although building on the foundations of source criticism, seeks to analyze the processes by which these sources were composed and to establish something of the life-situation out of which they arose. It is this movement which dominates the modern position and will be considered in the next section.

Modern trends in criticism.

In view of the diversity of theories in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the comparative paucity of positive results, a shift of approach occurred in an effort to provide a more constructive theology. The foundations of the older criticism were neither destroyed nor undermined by the new approach. Indeed both the dialectical and existential theologies built upon the basis of literary criticism, or else made it irrelevant. In many ways these two theological approaches are fundamentally opposed, but in the realm of criticism they are allied.

The unsatisfactory character of liberal criticism became focused in the picture of the historical Jesus, a picture built up by the application of the techniques of analysis and editorial interpolation, which enabled its advocates to conform to the contemporary conception of a rational man. Although claiming to present the Jesus of history, it in fact presented a reflection of the critics themselves, with little or no real connection with the historical facts. A strong reaction was inevitable. It was because of the general dissatisfaction with thoroughgoing liberalism that Karl Barth’s dialectical approach gained such influence throughout Europe. By strongly emphasizing the transcendent aspect in contrast to the liberal idea of immanence, Barth lifted faith out of the sphere of history. The Gospel records deal with what is beyond history. Hence the results of Biblical criticism are immaterial to faith. It cannot be conditioned by them. This method of bypassing the adverse effects of Biblical criticism and maintaining the validity of the Christian faith, irrespective of those effects, is characteristic of much modern Biblical theology. Its positive contribution is its attempt to strike a constructive note. The strength and weakness of Barth’s theological outlook cannot be discussed here, but it must be noted that his refusal to root faith in history prepared the way for the more widespread influence of Rudolf Bultmann’s more radical theology, which although a reaction against Barth had certain affinities with the latter’s position.

Bultmann’s approach to Biblical criticism is dominated by his philosophical alignment. His advocacy of an existential approach to Christian faith is an essential presupposition of his critical approach. Existential theology denies that faith is based on historical events and asserts that it is concerned with encounter. Consequently, it is a matter of indifference what Biblical criticism declares. This is not to say that Bultmann shows no interest in such criticism, for the reverse is the case. His critical methods can best be seen in his form-critical exposition of the gospels, for his skepticism leaves little of the material authentic. But this is unimportant if the Christ of faith is not identified with the Jesus of history. While this is diametrically opposite to the older liberal approach, it makes use of similar critical techniques. For instance, Bultmann assumes that there were no eyewitness controls over the earliest traditions, and this leaves him free to postulate the circulation of completely unconnected units. By this means historical considerations are made irrelevant, and it becomes a matter of dispute whether anything can be known about the historical Jesus. In Bultmann’s system Biblical criticism has become the servant of philosophical presuppositions. Its weakness is that it introduces value judgments as a basis for historical pronouncements.

The unsatisfactory character of Bultmann’s assumption that little or no connection exists between the Christ of faith and the historical Jesus has led to an attempt to salvage something from such a skeptical conclusion. Within Bultmann’s own circle of followers a movement has arisen to give more credence to historical evidence, although critical methods are still strongly affected by a skeptical slant. The new quest appeals to various aspects of the life of Jesus as authentic. Käsemann, for instance, accepts certain aspects of the teaching of Jesus, while Bornkamm lays stress upon the attitude of Jesus. As yet, however, there is no common denominator which serves as a basis for the critical principles of those who are attempting to salvage the Jesus of history.

The effects of Biblical criticism.

In the pre-critical period, interest in the historical background of the Bible was minimal. The lit. was mainly considered as the basis for dogmatic theology, and literary values were subservient to this. Where Biblical criticism has concentrated on a constructive examination of the text, valuable light has been shed on the meaning and setting of the books, with a consequent advantage to exegesis. Where criticism has been negative, there have been aftereffects which deserve to be carefully examined.

Destructive criticism has had an undermining effect on the authority of the Bible for various reasons. By an overemphasis on analytical approaches, with dissection of the lit. into multifarious sources, and by the attachment of different degrees of historical value to these various sources, the unity of the book has not only been lost, but assumed to be nonexistent. It is no longer possible under the influence of such criticism to appeal to the authority of any part of the Bible without first taking into account a considerable number of hypothetical propositions which might affect the issue. Indeed, the lack of any concept of unity in the negative forms of criticism has made it impossible to speak in any knowledgeable way of Biblical authority.

The undermining of Biblical authority brought with it a lessening emphasis on Biblical theology and a carte blanche to speculative and philosophical ideas. Speculative thought, with no authoritative court of appeal to restrain it, has imposed few limits upon itself. This has been the main cause of the rift between liberal and conservative criticism. There is a basic difference in presuppositions. In the former the notion of authority must be governed by scientific principles of criticism, whereas in the latter authority is regarded as an essential factor in the whole data of criticism. Too often the charge of obscurantism has been levelled against conservative criticism because its conclusions coincide with traditional opinions. It cannot be assumed that viewpoints held in the pre-critical period are obsolete for no other reason than that. A true Biblical criticism will not exalt tradition at the expense of careful historical and literary inquiry, but it will give some weight to traditionally held positions where they have sound historical basis. At the same time some traditionalists have merited the charge of obscurantism, although it must not be forgotten that liberal criticism has also not been without its obscurantists. Those who on principle reject opposing views without so much as a hearing are equally guilty of an unsatisfactory approach. For Biblical criticism to be placed on a firm basis, it is necessary for the presuppositions of its various advocates to be subjected to examination and assessment. It is one of the most notable features of the whole period of criticism that no thorough investigation of principles has been attempted.

In conservative criticism it is presupposed that the statements of Biblical texts may be regarded as true and authoritative until and unless they have been proved false, whereas liberal criticism does not accept this premise. The latter assumes the probability of falseness, since it treats the Bible on the same basis as any other book. It may be pointed out that both schools of criticism must admit the possibility of the other’s presuppositions, but neither has the right to pronounce on the validity of the other without a thorough examination of all the supporting evidence for the presuppositions. Thus the conservative presuppositions cannot be properly understood and evaluated except in the context of the Bible’s witness to itself and to its authority. A notable distinction between the two methods of approach is the different emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. Conservative criticism takes account of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the production of the lit., which makes it impossible to place the Bible on exactly the same basis as other lit.


T. K. Cheyne, Founders of Old Testament Criticism (1893); E. B. Redlich, Form Criticism (1939); A. Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament (1948); G. C. Aalders, A Short Introduction to the Pentateuch (1949); H. H. Rowley, The Old Testament and Modern Study (1951); A. H. McNeile-C. S. C. Williams, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (1953); J. Knox, Criticism and Faith (1953); R. H. Fuller, Current Trends in New Testament Study (1962); P. Feine-J. Behm-W. G. Kümmel, Einleitung in das Neue Testament, 12th ed. (1963); D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, III vols. (1961-65), 1 vol (1970).