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Does Higher Criticism Attempt to “Destroy the Bible”? Part III

April 9, 2010

If you’re just joining this conversation you might want to read these first.

Part I

Part II

In this series of post I have begun to consider whether the purposes, assumptions, and aims of biblical criticism attempt to “destroy the Bible!” The first assumption of scholars I noted was that historical critics maintain that the texts which comprise the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament have not existed forever. The second presupposition I noted was a belief that all texts, by their very nature, have to be written in a certain literary genre, and that genre can inform a reader as to some meaning of the text.

Today I would like to consider a third assumption: If texts did not always exist, and if they are written in a specific genre and human language to aid comprehension, then they must have been written down at some point by a person or group. For each of the books, laments, letters, Psalms, etc. of the Bible there must be a human author, authors, or a redactor that originally penned or edited what has come down to us. Higher criticism merely seeks to posit theories as to the human level of involvement in the creation and promulgation of the different texts.

In the first post of this series I mentioned the ancient book of Jubilees. Whomever the author of Jubilees was, effectively what he attempts to accomplish is to remove “authorship” from Moses to the heavenly realm. Another interesting ancient document is the Temple Scroll which presents God as its literal author, and for all intents and purposes, I guess “floats down from heaven.” These ancient documents take divine inspiration into the realm of divine authorship.

Scholarly investigations into authorship are interested in no such speculation. Mainly, this is not an attempt to challenge tradition or negate inspiration, but rather, the recognition that such speculation cannot be proven or quantified. However, what might have transpired on the human level may more profitably be investigated.

Closely associated with investigations into authorship is another assumption: if someone wrote these things down they must have written them down with a purpose for someone. i.e., an audience. Thus in determining the author(s) of Isaiah a scholar will try to determine the audience(s). In trying to determine an author for Revelation considering the community is most profitable.

Here is a brief, contextless, idea of what this looks like as pertains to Romans. At this point we are moving more from presuppositions to procedures of higher criticism, which is intentional as in the next few posts I would like to examine more fully what the actual procedures of higher criticism look like, and again, whether they attempt “to destroy the Bible.”

While this is not very well done, and rather hastily thrown together, it is meant to stand as a truncated example that what scholars are trying to investigate at certain points is author and audience. Period. They seek to understand who wrote a certain book and who the intended audience was. That is the “goal”. The aim or presupposition is not to destroy the Bible.

View this document on Scribd

As in the above example, considering authorship and real or implied audience can significantly impact the dating of a text as well. In fact, it is almost impossible, I would think, to separate the three considerations. For example, going back to Jubilees, the social, religious, and political events of the second century BCE significantly affect where scholars locate the date, authorship, and audience of the book. From these determinations–which often need to be held lightly–scholars will often try to posit a theory as to the purpose(s) of the letter or book.

Ultimately what has sparked this series of posts is this statement from a supposedly thinking person: “there is no compelling or even reasonably decent argument for supposing the procedures and assumptions of historical biblical criticism are to be preferred to those of traditional biblical commentary.” At this point in our discussion I would submit that the “assumptions” of higher critics are very much in accord with the exegetical process of even the most conservative seminarians (I am excluding fundamentalist whack jobs from this discussion!). Many students are trained in the exegetical process following probably something close to the Fee exegetical model which includes for every genre an investigation into the historical context in general (Step one!), and the historical-cultural background in particular (step eight). At this stage there would be little difference between the assumptions of higher criticism and “traditional biblical commentary.”

So what’s the problem then? Why is “higher criticism” so dangerous, so malicious to the Christian faith that sheep in wolves’ clothing will try and convince Christians that there is no reason whatsoever to even consider anything they have to say or do? (and here I am reminded of the AIG/Ray Comfort mantra: there is absolutely no evidence for evolution! So there you go. Plantinga is to biblical studies as Comfort is to science. I like that.)

Alvin Plantinga is to actual biblical studies as Ray Comfort is to science

Well, first we may have to look at some procedures. In the next post I want to quickly demonstrate some procedures using two books. One book not many people care about and could care less what sort of procedures and conclusions scholars come to concerning it: 1 Enoch. The second, many people are quite concerned what procedures and conclusions are reached concerning it: Genesis. However, what is most interesting, to me anyways, is the similar observations that can be made concerning both books while at no time “attempting to destroy the Bible.”

If anyone is still following this discussion let me know how you are processing it as I am sort of just typing a free flow of consciousness, and what is making sense in my brain may not be making it to the screen! So if I need to clarify something let me know.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2010 8:38 am

    I, for one, have been reading your posts and will continue to do so. So far, I find myself in agreement with your assumptions/propositions, so I anticipate forthcoming posts. I don’t know the opinions of all your readers (for your fans are legion!), but do you find that more would hold to these assumptions than not? Just curious.

    • April 9, 2010 10:19 am


      Of course I can’t speak for all who tread here, but I would assume that those involved in historical criticism at liberal arts Universities would be in agreement, and as I stated above I think the majority of seminarians or those trained in an exegetical method at a more conservative Christian college or University would generally be in agreement with the assumptions offered so far.

      I would be interested if someone with a more conservative outlook and training would offer their views as I go through this as well.

      • April 9, 2010 6:45 pm

        Scott: Strange though it may seem, I was trained/am training at a conservative evangelical seminary. A lot of the guys I know from seminary would probably affirm these assumptions, though I can’t be totally sure. Though I never considered myself a fundamentalist, I did possess some beliefs and methodologies that would put a foot in that camp. However, though I have changed my thinking on some of those issues, my view of Scripture, Christ, etc. is higher than it was previously. Go figure!

  2. Chris E permalink
    April 9, 2010 2:44 pm

    Closely associated with investigations into authorship is another assumption: if someone wrote these things down they must have written them down with a purpose for someone. i.e., an audience

    As an aside presumably someone taking the Jubilees approach would also have to rule out all ideas of external context ? This almost sounds like the Islamic idea of tanzil.

    The series has so far motivated me to get the Kugel book – which is proving to be surprisingly readable so far.

    • April 9, 2010 3:06 pm

      No, external context is not ruled out. Just because the book presents itself in a certain way it does not mean it is investigated “at face value.”

      Jubilees presents itself as an angel dictating Genesis and Exodus to Moses from the heavenly tablets. However, there is also an abundance of legal decisions that are not found in the Torah which the angel dictates to Moses as well. These legal decisions are legitimated because they are “written on the heavenly tablets.” Locating these references and identifying their concerns sheds much light on the stance of the author and what he was trying to communicate to his audience (yes, Second Temple Judaism = “his” audience).

      The question then becomes historically: “Why were these issues something the author felt he had to confront or clarify?”

      If I’m not mistaken I believe the Islamic idea of tanzil is closer to divine inspiration as opposed to how these ancient texts present themselves as scribed from the heavenly tablets or actually written by God… but I certainly know very little about Islam so if we have any experts in the house please clarify.

      • Chris E permalink
        April 10, 2010 8:18 am

        No, external context is not ruled out. Just because the book presents itself in a certain way it does not mean it is investigated “at face value.”

        Perhaps I was unclear; I wasn’t talking about how we investigate it now, but more about how the original author was trying to present the material.

        Jubilees presents itself as an angel dictating Genesis and Exodus to Moses from the heavenly tablets.

        That’s pretty much a tanzil like approach – the Quran is said to ‘pre-exist’ and is dictated/read directly to the prophet via the angel Gabriel.

  3. Jake permalink
    April 10, 2010 12:42 pm

    As long as none of this was read out of a hat…

  4. Fr Craig permalink
    April 11, 2010 5:49 am

    I am following with great interest, because it appalls me to think there are f0lks out there who would disagree! Of course, I’m a liberal Episcopalian – but my seminary professors were mostly Yale Phds, folks I tend to trust… keep up the good work!

  5. April 14, 2010 2:02 pm

    Higher criticism can not destroy the Bible. But many higher critics espouse anti-christian theories and that is where the problem lies. For instance, Jesus quotes verses from different chapters of Isaiah and refers to them as written by the same Isaiah, higher critics would have us believe there were two different writers (Deutero Isaiah), so basically they must believe Jesus was wrong. Jesus quotes Daniel the prophet, but most higher critics will tell you the book of Daniel was fabricated long after the fact, making Jesus a liar or a dupe. Christians believe Jesus was God. Sorry but that makes most higher critics wrong and extremely hostile to Christianity.

    You seem all to willing to name call and belittle sincere Christians who you disagree with. I suppose I now qualify as a whack job fundie, thanks for that! Most of the argumentation in this series amounts to burning straw men and ad hominems against people who take the Bible seriously. John MacArthur for instance, does he believe the book of Jubilee’s account of Moses… NO. Does he know it was written by men at a certain time…. YES. Does he understand genre and audience… Yes.

    One look at his study Bible confirms all of these but he surely isn’t too keen on the majority of today’s higher critics. Most deny the possibility of the supernatural a priori (like Daniel’s prophecy) and make up ridiculous textual theories to explain it away. So burn straw men and make fun of Ray Comfort, just like Richard Dawkins and crew. After all, birds of a feather…

    • April 14, 2010 2:09 pm

      One, it’s “Jubilees” plural, not “Jubilee’s” possessive

      Two, I’m not really sure you know what ad hominem or straw man means based on your poor argumentation.

      Three, I seriously doubt whether you read the three posts or else you would not have commented something so very dilettante-ish and silly

      Fourth, if John MacArthur said it… it must be true!

      “So burn straw men and make fun of Ray Comfort, just like Richard Dawkins and crew. After all, birds of a feather…” LOL! Seriously, hardest I’ve laughed today. Thanks! 🙂

      • April 15, 2010 8:10 pm

        “Fourth, if John MacArthur said it… it must be true! ”

        Talk about poor argumentation. I never said that, it just that he is an counter-example which exposes your complete straw man festival here. You are pretending to explain higher criticism to those who don’t accept it but all you are really doing is patronizing people for butt slaps from your friends. By all means have a good time, but you are not fooling anyone.

  6. Jon permalink
    April 16, 2010 5:20 pm

    @Cris Putnam…holy crow, dude…seriously? Re: John MacArthur, he knows you didn’t say that…that’s why he’s saying it that way to highlight the ridiculous, fallacious subtext undermining your apologist defense that John MacArthur and his study bible are somehow superior to every textual critic that ever put pen to paper. (You see you implied this without saying it…understand? Also let’s look at some of your finer moments and explore them a bit.

    You said: “Most higher critics are wrong and hostile to Christianity” One wonders if you’ve personally researched “most” of the critics for yourself and what numerical value you attach to the word “most”. 90%, 85% 57%? Also, you assume that this vague cloud of critics cannot entertain certain theoretical notions of biblical interpretation (deutero Isaiah, later date of certain texts) without compromising or denying the deity of Jesus as if that’s the inevitable outcome. It couldn’t be that your understanding of how Jesus quotes the OT prophets could be flawed, right? Or that there is an alternative explanation but we just don’t have it yet or that it’s okay to leave room for ambiguity in matters of faith? But it’s not like God expects us to live by faith or anything…oh, wait.

    And here’s your logic for John MacArthur: John MacArthur takes the bible seriously. John MacArthur doesn’t believe the book of Jubilees account of Moses and divine authorship. John MacArthur wrote a study bible that confirms he knows the difference between “bad” and “good” doctrine concerning biblical authorship. John MacArthur does not agree with many higher critics. Therefore: I’m going to use John MacArthur as proof that someone who is not a “higher critic” can think along more orthodox/fundamental biases than higher critics. You don’t say! That’s not the assumption (or goal) of higher critics so how does this refute them? If their conclusions (however sound or not) exclude a fundamentalist concept or orthodox belief, it doesn’t necessarily follow that *that was their intention*. Thus the point of this series (if I’m tracking correctly). You have to ask yourself WHERE did the fundamentalist and orthodox views came from and are they supported only by faith, tradition or accurate handling of the bible text (or a combination of these?) since the texts did not exist from eternity themselves…there had to be a beginning and an explanation surrounding their emergence and God intentionally allowed this to happen so where does that leave us? I think that’s a fair, balanced and supremely important question to ask ourselves as Christians (in any age).

    You said: “most (higher critics) deny the possibility of the supernatural…” and so does John MacArthur who is a well-known cessationist which means he flat out denies (in his study bible no less) that the gifts of the Spirit exist today. So what was your point again?

    From one dilettante to another…let the scholars talk so we can learn something that might actually help us! Thank you.

  7. Jon permalink
    April 16, 2010 5:23 pm

    I didn’t mean to use the term “subtext” above, but rather “line of thinking”…I realize that this applies to the literary realm (I’m currently reading a “how to” for novelists, sorry).

  8. Jon permalink
    April 16, 2010 6:48 pm

    Not directed at scholars…but is being explained (by its author and some commentators) by someone who is much more a scholar than I am from whom I’d like to absorb as much as possible without them having to digress every 5 seconds to someone’s bad logic. Again, I know you didn’t *literally* say the things I brought up, but they are certainly points one can *infer* from reading between the lines of your argument. Yes, huh. Plus the “You said” parts are actual quotes from your comment so…but anyways, God bless (and no, I won’t point out the fact that you are evading the points I raised though they are perfectly valid and that’s OK!

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