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

April 15, 2010

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

Part I

Part II

Part III

So far in this conversation we have been considering some of the presuppositions and assumptions that biblical scholars have concerning ancient texts. The first assumption of scholars I noted was 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. 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.

At this point then, in a nutshell, scholars “assume” that texts can be located historically, and that they give us some clue as to authorship and audience.

Very likely these assumptions would be welcome in most seminaries or conservative Christian schools. While there are some other assumptions we could probably mention I think it would be profitable to move towards some of the procedures that scholars use in their academic investigations.

So let’s call this Procedure One: If there is one thing that scholars do very well it is to read texts very closely. In fact, I think that the critics of higher criticism do not realize how closely scholars read a text, and quite often, this reading is informed by a close familiarity of the genre. Scholars will take a book and read it, read it again, translate it, think about it, look at the relationship of the different parts… and read and re-read some more! One of the elements that I usually come away impressed by after reading good scholarship is how intimately familiar a scholar can be with his or her source material.

The importance of this can not be stressed enough. Many of the more controversial theories that come from higher criticism are not built on a tendentious aim to “destroy the Bible!” but rather, are usually the end product of spending many hours, days, weeks, months, and years with a certain text. Add to this peer-review, editing and re-writing of hypotheses and papers, and you usually have formidable observations built on good data.

So what does this look like? I want to give you two examples, but seeing as this is a blog post I will try to keep them as brief as possible, however, you should get the basic idea.

1 Enoch

First, an extremely important sacred text(s) for some groups during the Second Temple period was 1 Enoch. One of the formative myths from this book tells the story of angels lusting women from heaven, coming down to earth and marrying the women, and then having giant babies that are evil (cf. Gen 6:1-4). However, upon a closer reading of the Enochic materials it appears there is two competing versions of the story woven through the different booklets that comprise 1 Enoch, and competing versions of the myth even in the first booklet the Book of Watchers (BW) itself.

In the one form of the myth, Shemihazah is the leader of angelic forces that make a pact in heaven to go and get their angelic freak on with the daughters of men. This leads to improper sex and global impurity that God must rectify with a flood. In the second version of the myth interwoven through the material, an angel by the name of Azazel is the leader of the angels that are primarily ‘bad’ because they reveal improper knowledge to human beings. George Nickelsburg writes, “The identification of Asael as the archdemon marks the beginning of a tendency in most of the strata of 1 Enoch and in other Jewish literature: (a) to continue to mention the descent of the watchers and the procreation of the giants; (b) to expunge the name of Shemihazah; (c) and to emphasize the name of Asael/Azazel, though not necessarily the sin of angelic instruction.” (1 Enoch 1, p. 172)

Digression: A diachronic study of the myth that includes its re-employment in Jubilees would very likely lead to some interesting observations as to the formation and function of myth in the social and cultural memory of Second Temple Judaism… oh wait, that’s what I’m doing for my MA thesis! As an added bonus, no one cares about the “inerrancy” of 1 Enoch, and therefore, one can engage in the fullness of the academic process, deconstruct the text at every level, posit many theories as to the human authors and the community “behind” the texts, and no one–that I know of at least–minds in the slightest.

Anyways, the main point here is that different forms of the Watchers myth were told and re-told during the Second Temple period and at some point this material was written down and finally redacted into BW and the other texts that comprise the Enochic corpus. Without boring you with a ton of evidence (you can read Hermeneia yourselves!) this conclusion is built upon good solid scholarship and a very close reading and familiarity with 1 Enoch.


Another text that scholars think had multiple authors and bears evidence of different sources is Genesis. This, of course, is a tad more contentious issue than 1 Enoch for some people! The classic formulation of this theory is called the Documentary Hypothesis, and is also known as JEDP.

I want to demonstrate to you a couple of the reasons scholars would arrive at such a conclusion from Genesis 1-9.

First, there are two creation stories: a P account from 1:1-2:4, and a J account from 2:5-3:24. Before anyone dismisses this out of hand as possibly coming from two sources I would ask you to do two things: one, read out the narrative in Genesis one and try to draw it at the same time; and two, write out the order of which things are created in both stories and compare them (if you have a keen eye you could also compare day 1 and 4, day 2 and 5, and day 3 and 6 in chapter 1). If you know Hebrew you can also look at some of the keywords that appear in either narrative.

Second, there are two genealogies: a J genealogy in chapter 4 and a P genealogy in chapter 5. As hard as it is for moderns to believe ancients loved genealogies and they said a lot to those who understood their context; however, I definitely won’t bore you with an intro to ancient genealogies, but notice for the time being: two genealogies.

Third, there are two flood accounts; however things do get a little trickier here. The creation narratives and genealogies are fairly easy to identify as they are distinct blocks, but it appears as if the flood accounts have been interwoven. To save you some time I have separated them according to Speiser’s work. This is no mere “flight of fancy” on the part of scholars, as even a cursory reading rather quickly evidences the consistency of the two stories on their own once they have been untangled.

P Flood Narrative

View this document on Scribd

J Flood Narrative

View this document on Scribd

There are a myriad of issues that could be studied at this point but we will keep it brief here. In the two flood narratives you could ask questions such as when did Noah go in the Ark, how many animals did he take in with him, how long was the flood, and what happened after the flood (once again the keen reader could compare the language from the P creation account to the P flood story [be fruitful and multiply!] and the J to the J, and start to posit theories as to the differences). Once the many differences in details, language, and theology are considered the question that must be answered: is it more likely that this is the work of a single consistent author, or of more than one author?

Digression: Just for the record: there are those that have affirmed more than one author for Genesis and still have their “faith” quite intact and view the Bible as inerrant Scripture. They also consider their theological convictions for doing so intellectually satisfying and spiritually healthy. (Of course, others not so much! But hey…)

While this post has been much longer than what I normally do here, the point has been to demonstrate that the procedures of scholars are not built on some tendentious attempt to “destroy the Bible!” or challenge “inerrancy.” Rather, from very close readings scholars try and arrive at reasonable theories and conclusions that account for the greatest amount of data and are sustainable under peer-review. This means then that the scholar must often “follow the evidence” so to speak.

At this point then we may be coming closer to an answer as to why some view biblical scholarship as so problematic that they will encourage the uninitiated to avoid it altogether. I envision two more posts: the first concerning something as to reason and epistemology, and the second concerning something about the criteria for applicability for “faith,” which is perhaps the ultimate issue. Hopefully, we will arrive at some sort of a conclusion soon!

As always your thoughts and interpretations are welcome as I “think out loud” here on the blog, as what makes sense in my head on a first typing may need more clarification for you the reader.


22 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2010 12:03 pm

    “Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” ” (Luke 24:44, ESV)

    Luckily Jesus saved us hours of scholarly research by calling the Torah the Law of Moses verifying its authorship. Sure Joshua recorded Moses death and scribes did some redacting of the Moses source material but no one who believes Jesus really need bother with the JDP sophistry, it’s a waste of time.

    • April 15, 2010 2:54 pm

      You are a willfully ignorant person (ignorant in the sense of uniformed) with little to no grasp of the task at hand hiding behind a deductive shield slinging mud.

      You ignore the process and the data and cling to your presuppositions without any ability to probe them. Typical fundamentalist rhetoric: try and bait and switch by labeling something so they don’t have to use their brains or consider any data.

      The fact that you consider yourself an apologist is frightening. Apologist should be able to do a little more than spew outdated straw men built on total ignorance.

      It’s “JEDP”… and the only sophistry in this entire conversation is what you have displayed in your uniformed and ignorant arguments.

      Because you most likely do not understand, the above is not an ad hominem attack. I’m not attacking you, but your clearly and obvious sad, dilettante, ignorant comments. So uniformed; lacking any signs of critical thinking whatsoever.

      If you went to any school other than Liberty I’m guessing you wouldn’t like your grades very much… F+!

      Please stop commenting on what you clearly have no idea or grasp for.

      This is my last comment to you. You have no idea what is going on here. Your arguments are below convincing and poorly, poorly made.

  2. April 15, 2010 3:45 pm

    nice… But see it is you who are addressing this piece at the average Christian, who you are accusing of believing that “higher critics try to destroy the Bible”. They certainly try to undermine its integrity. So I have pointed out why the average Christian has little use for higher criticism. Higher critics assume the Bible is guilty until proven innocent. Most of them are deny the supernatural and the deity of Christ. For the average Christian the fact that Jesus believed and taught Moses wrote the Pentateuch is enough.

    The documentary hypothesis is the product of German higher criticism and a rationalist deistic approach that is entirely antichristian. Wellhausen denied miracles a priori. So yes Christians do understand what you are doing, we just don’t believe you. We choose to believe Jesus over deist or atheist scholars. I’m sure Jesus loves you and will forgive you in spite of your false theories. Perhaps you should ask him to help you to really understand your Bible. It’s much more than academics.

  3. Sean permalink
    April 15, 2010 4:20 pm

    A similar question is repeated often. “Does science attempt to destroy the bible.” Science is supposed to be objective, but evidence is mostly presented subjectively and there are some very famous (infamous?) examples of those who have an axe to grind.

    I suggest the same is true regarding Bible scholars.

  4. Zachery Oliver permalink
    April 15, 2010 9:20 pm

    Honestly, I’m not sure what to think about this kind of thing.

    On the one hand, I can’t imagine it is relevant for the majority of Christians – it would just be confusing for them at best. They see such criticism as devastating for a holy book – why bother reading God’s word if it has mistakes in it. It just seems odd that God, creator of the world, would actively attempt to make His message less clear.

    On the other hand, it’s probably worth studying these texts in this way as a historical endeavor. I’m genuinely interested as to the conclusions they arrive at – it doesn’t mean they are totally right all the time (we are all human, after all), and considering we can’t travel back in time, there;s no way to totally verify everything. But, I can imagine we’d be worse off without it.

    Just because we have the whole Documentary Hypothesis does not oppose the idea that the Law might have passed down through oral tradition and whatnot (I may be wrong on this; I don’t claim to be a Biblical scholar, obviously).

    To ask for objectivity in ANY field is a waste of time – nobody can be “objective”, since we all start with presuppositions from where we were born and raised. Just know what author is speaking and where they are coming from will allow one to make an informed decision.

    I still don’t see why it’s destructive to faith; if you’ve got enough faith that a man died and rose from the dead, I can’t imagine any evidence posing a problem unless you didn’t believe in the first place.

    So yeah… complicated stuff.

  5. John permalink
    April 15, 2010 11:45 pm

    Hi, I am from Australia.

    Please find a radically high criticism of the usual self-serving interpretations of the Bible, and of the Bible itself as a text which was created by those who won the early power struggles to define what the life and teaching of Jesus was about—and to thus consolidate THEIR worldly power, and to thus define “heresies” and to thus eliminate (or make toast of) “heretics”.

  6. Jake permalink
    April 16, 2010 1:42 am

    Open question: Is it possible, do you think, for the human race to intellectually regress en mass?

    Just a thought…

  7. April 16, 2010 6:23 am

    I was too flippant in my first post here. Nobody likes their hard work to be so summarily dismissed. But the tone of this series is very patronizing. For anyone that calls themselves a Christian you really need to do a study of all the times Jesus quotes the Pentateuch, he attributes many of these alleged different (JDEP) authors to one Moses. Clearly he believed and taught Moses wrote most of it. Sure scribes arranged and edited it, but higher critics go way beyond that. So is the school of German higher criticism more authoritative than Jesus on this? I sincerely believe your answer to that question is far more important than authorship of the OT.

    • April 16, 2010 9:13 am

      One last post to put my money where my mouth is: In Mark 10:4-8, Jesus quoted Gen. 2:24, which would be J, as coming from Moses. Mark 7:10, Jesus quoted the Ten Commandments, which fall into the E category, as coming from Moses. In Mark 10:3, Jesus refers to Deut. 24:1f, which would be D, as being from Moses. In Matt. 8:4, Jesus quoted Lev. 14, which would be equivalent to P, as coming from Moses. Do not be deceived, there really is an important choice to made here.

    • April 16, 2010 12:49 pm

      Breaking my own rule here, but I’m baby-sitting my nephew with chicken pox and a little bored on a Friday afternoon…

      Cris, the problem is not that you summarily dismissed anything, it’s that you summarily ignored everything. I have no problem with someone dismissing my work; however, in the academy anyways, you must actually read and try to understand someone first, then offer a counter-argument that deals with their evidence and argumentation, and finally offer an alternative theory that uses actual data and not just presuppositional theories. Deductive ideas how things “must” work often beg the question and are circular.

      If you are reading theses series of posts and the voice you are hearing is “patronizing” then I would suggest that has more to do with how you are reading then how I am writing. I will leave it up to others to decide however: does anyone else hear the patronizing voice? Once again though, I don’t think you know what a word means. Why does that keep happening? For an actual example of “patronizing” we actually have to go to your comments “I’m sure Jesus loves you and will forgive you in spite of your false theories. Perhaps you should ask him to help you to really understand your Bible.” Now that’s patronizing!

      I am merely trying to confront the assumption that a goal or aim of higher critics is to destroy the Bible or whether they have an axe to grind. I am not refuting that at times their conclusions are misunderstood or used by others to “destroy faith”; I’ve seen the cognitive dissonance of some who have come face-to-face with some of this work and did not know how to put the pieces back together. I can’t deny that it doesn’t happen. That’s not my concern here (yet). But I am discussing the misrepresentation of some who try to save people from that cognitive dissonance by misrepresenting scholarship and its goals. There are few scholars (I would guess less than 2%) who have any desire to use their work to confront Christians and their “faith.”

      When you write “JDP” or “JDEP” I have to wonder how much you actually have investigated this issue. It’s JEDP. It would be sort of like someone saying the are an expert on Revelations. If you can’t get the name right…

      At this point though I think we get to the real issue. See what you are asking are theological questions. In doing scholarship, rightly or wrongly (and really I’m not concerned with that issue in these posts either), scholars investigate books mainly on their own. Therefore, canonical beliefs must be put to the side as much as possible. At this point you must understand there is really no value judgement on doing this. I’m not saying this is right or wrong but rather what is done. So that’s the scholarship issue.

      As to the theological issue, “Jesus said…” From the earliest Christian thinkers an idea has fiercely been brought to the surface time and again through the centuries. An idea called accommodation. Basically, because God is quantitatively and qualitatively so superior to human beings he must talk a sort of “baby-talk” to human so they can understand him. Applied to Jesus this means he could have referred to the law of Moses because that’s how his audience referred to the books in the Second Temple Period. Ultimately, this allows us to deal with the Bible for what it actually is, not for what we think it “must” be, and still allow for divine inspiration.

      Equally it frees one from the spiritual and intellectual arrogance of telling God how he “has” to act in history, literally and literarily. Speaking theologically, you will notice there were lots of Second Temple Jewish ideas that Jesus did not correct or affirm. Jesus didn’t correct their cosmology nor did he teach them the “cures” to a whole bunch of things. Theologically, Jesus came for salvation not for the promulgation of a book.

      As to your “JDEP” comment… take a look at the ten commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy… yeah, there’s two of them.

      Notice any differences? Why does Moses keep giving us two versions that are different? Bad editing?

      • April 16, 2010 2:05 pm

        You are still doing it, even while denying it. Now I don’t know what patronizing means… drool.

        I think it is very patronizing to assert that people who disagree with higher criticism “believe you are trying to destroy the Bible” I am really curious just who these “Christian “philosophers”, theologians, fundamentalists, and others” are that believe that Moses was dictated the whole thing on Mt. Sinai, think the text existed eternally, don’t realize there are such things as genre’s and authors.

        How many philosophers and theologians argue those points?

        Now look at number two.

        Main Entry: pa·tron·ize
        Pronunciation: \ˈpā-trə-ˌnīz, ˈpa-\
        Function: transitive verb
        Inflected Form(s): pa·tron·ized; pa·tron·iz·ing
        Date: 1589

        1 : to act as patron of : provide aid or support for
        2 : to adopt an air of condescension toward : treat haughtily or coolly

      • April 16, 2010 2:26 pm

        Good stuff about accomodation, which I also think applies to some in the conservative Reformed camp who oppose Waltke & Enns. For Cris’ framework I would also appeal to the Incarnation, of God becoming human and assuming human liminations therein and thus Jesus is very much a first-century Jew. He participated in insider halakhic debates, assumed methods of scriptural interpretation common in Second Temple Judaism and accepted a shared view of the world that is historically distant from our own time. So Jesus acknowledged that he did not know the timing of the end (Mark 13:32) and probably took the cosmological language of “stars falling from the sky” quite literally (contra Wright, France, and a few others) while modern people might refer to as meteorites (which we still call “shooting stars”) or simply stock eschatological imagery that signals judgment (I assume Cris doesn’t think stars will literaly fall from the sky onto the earth). Likewise, Jesus refers to the commonly held tradition of associating the Law with Moses or speaking about Isaiah the prophet or about the story of Jonah to accommodate his audience, and modern theories about JEDP or multiple authorship of Isaiah or the use of different genres in the Bible do not have to be seen as a threat to the inspiration and authority of these books.

        • April 16, 2010 2:46 pm

          Seriously, if you can believe Jesus could make the blind see, walked on water, knew the location of a fish in the sea with a coin in it, and could raise the dead after 3 days but didn’t know who wrote the Torah, that’s some high flying fancy mental gymnastics. I guess they must teach that at Princeton seminary. You guys are right, I’m outclassed, I just can’t compete.

          • April 16, 2010 2:58 pm


            Just when I thought your reading skills and cognitive abilities could not, couldn’t possibly, sink to a new low…

            What you have done is actually create a straw man. So you will understand how to use the term in the future. You have misrepresented someone’s argument so that you can “defeat” it using your “argument.

            The suggestion is not “Jesus didn’t know who wrote the Torah” but Jesus spoke to people within their own understanding of the world. he used their language and assumptions to communicate to them.

            Nice try with the straw man though.

            Hey at least on the bright and positive side, while apologetics certainly are not your thing if there’s ever a “Logical Fallacy Championship” you are a shoe-in champion!

            And yes, that’s patronizing!

  8. Dustin permalink
    April 16, 2010 10:14 am

    I love how arguments to the contrary always assume that Biblical Scholars are “interpreting” texts as they study them (wrongly of course), but I, somehow, am not as I read a text for devotional or inspirational purposes. I’m just “taking it literally” or “reading what’s there” or whatever logical fallacy you choose to implement.


    • April 16, 2010 12:55 pm

      Good point Dust.

      Simply put, we all have a fore-structure and a whole set of presuppositions that affect any reading. However, this is not a negative thing. Without these, understanding would be impossible; so they are valuable. However, the problem is that we can be unaware of how they affect us or even worse, unaware that we have them and they affect how we create meaning.

      Hermeneutical spiral activate…

  9. Len Borozinski permalink
    April 16, 2010 3:38 pm

    Awesome stuff, Agathos.

    I am so glad that I found your website through Mike Heiser’s links.
    Daily, I look forward to reading comments on the various subjects.

    I’m so glad that the God (Yahweh) that I know through my Lord
    Jesus Christ doesn’t depend on me to defend him.

    Thanks for what you are doing Agathos-keep it up!!!

    In Him,

  10. Jon permalink
    April 16, 2010 6:01 pm

    I just want to say I also found out about you through Michael Heiser’s (awesome) blog, Just my op: being passionate about something doesn’t excuse presumptive use of concepts you don’t really understand. I am terrified of doing just that and was taught to only speak up when you know what you’re talking about…James 1:19 said it best “quick to listen, slow to speak.” (Not to imply I never make errors in logic or am even familiar with many terms of the biblical scholar’s manual…proud dilettante here…actively trying to shed all naivete and climb up the intellectual ladder for the sake of my sanity so pray for me/us!). 🙂

  11. Joshua Chamberlain permalink
    April 30, 2010 12:56 pm

    Scott, I am always looking for works that reflect a “believing criticism” and have read with approval Kent Sparks’ and Peter Enns’ books. So I am not a “fundamentalist.” However, I must say that having an entire series of posts trying to prove critical scholarship is NOT out to destroy the Bible is silly. Whether you’re talking about Alvin Plantinga or Norm Geisler or whoever, none of them argue the INTENT is to destroy the Bible. They argue the EFFECT is destroying the Bible. This then becomes an exercise in SOCIOLOGY not Biblical criticism. Give the continued collapse of the Protestant mainline staring with the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the turn of the 20th century and leading up to the ELCA’s inability (for example) to rally the faithful to oppose the installation of homosexual bishops, I think you have to admit they have a pretty good case that the EFFECT of higher criticism is to destroy the Bible as any source of religious and moral authority.

  12. david elder permalink
    August 23, 2010 1:52 am

    I am an Australian with a scientific training. Theologically I would be somewhere around C S Lewis territory. I am not a creationist or a fundamentalist. I am interested in biblical criticism which in the hands of a Lewis or Drane can clarify the story of God’s education of His people in the Bible. I’m quite comfortable with two creation stories P and J in the opening chapters of Genesis, and with a Deutero-Isaiah. I don’t doubt that there is some compositional connection between the Synoptic Gospels while John represents a separate line of composition. Some problems I do have with biblical criticism:

    1. Some (not all) critics start with a denial of the possibility of the miraculous as Lewis noted in his classic 1959 address on New Testament criticism. (One wonders what such biblical critics understand by revelation?)
    2. Some criticism implies not just non-inerrancy but massive fraud by a biblical writer. For example, it is one thing to say that Moses did not write the account of his own death at the end of Deuteronomy – clearly this at least is the work of a later editor. It is quite another thing to declare (as the D-source theory does) that the whole book was concocted many centuries after Moses under Josiah, supposedly to justify centralisation of worship in Jerusalem – where is the mention of Jerusalem? Why is the book spun out to no less than 34 chapters to make this point, yet doesn’t make it clearly anyway?
    3. As Lewis pointed out, critical reconstructions of the origins of his various works had commonly been made. These reconstructions were often very plausible. But they were infallibly wrong! Lewis knew this because he knew the origins of his own work. If plausible-sounding reconstructions of the work of an author of our own time are radically unreliable, how much more suspicious should we be of confident reconstructions of works of great antiquity? And should we not give at least some weight to traditional views of the origins of such works unless the case for the modern revision is genuinely strong?


  1. The Naked Bible » Does Higher Criticism Attempt to Destroy the Bible?
  2. Does Higher Criticism Attempt to Destroy the Bible? | TheNakedBible

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