The Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466? - 1536) is usually credited as the first to study the Bible in this light, although many of his methods are also found in the much earlier writing of Saint Augustine (354 - 430).
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). Once lower critics have done their job and we have a good idea of what the original text looked like, higher critics can then compare this text with the writing of other authors.
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. Lower criticism is used for attempts to interpret Biblical texts based only on the internal evidence from the texts themselves.
As an example, 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...
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.
Higher criticism originally referred to the work of German Biblical scholars, of the Tübingen School. After the path-breaking work on the New Testament by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the next generation which included scholars such as David Friedrich Strauss (1808–74) and Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) in the mid-nineteenth century analyzed the historical records of the Middle East from Christian and Old Testament times in search of independent confirmation of events related in the Bible. These latter scholars built on the tradition of Enlightenment and Rationalist thinkers such as John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Gotthold Lessing, Gottlieb Fichte, Georg Hegel and the French rationalists.
These ideas were imported to England by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, in particular, by George Eliot's translations of Strauss's life of Jesus (1846) and Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1854). In 1860 seven liberal Anglican theologians began the process of incorporating this historical criticism into Christian doctrine in Essays and Reviews, causing a five year storm of controversy which completely overshadowed the arguments over Darwin's newly published On the Origin of Species. Two of the authors were indicted for heresy and lost their jobs by 1862, but in 1864 had the judgement overturned on appeal. La Vie de Jésus (1863), the seminal work by a Frenchman, Ernest Renan (1823–92), continued in the same tradition as Strauss and Feuerbach. In Catholicism, L'Evangile et l'Eglise (1902), the magnum opus by Alfred Loisy against the Essence of Christianity of Adolf von Harnack and La Vie de Jesus of Renan, gave birth to the modernist crisis (1902–61). Some scholars, such as Rudolf Bultmann, have used higher criticism of the Bible to "demythologize" it.
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.
A group of German biblical scholars at Tübingen University formed the Tübingen school of theology under the leadership of Ferdinand Christian Baur, with important works being produced by Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach and David Strauss. In the early 19th century they sought independent confirmation of the events related in the Bible through Hegelian analysis of the historical records of the Middle East from Christian and Old Testament times.
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, some 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 infallibe rule of interpretation of scripture is the scripture itself..." WCF 1.9
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.
|Book|| Author according to|
| Author according to|
|Torah (Pentateuch, Books of Moses)||Moses, c 1300 BC||Documentary hypothesis: Four independent documents (the Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and the Priestly source), composed between 900-550 BC, redacted c 450 BC, possibly by Ezra 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.|
|Joshua||Joshua with a portion by Phinehas or Eleazar||Deuteronomist using material from the Jahwist and Elohist|
|Ruth||Samuel||A later author, writing after the time of David|
|1 Samuel||Samuel, Gad, and Nathan||Deuteronomist as a combination of a Jerusalem source, republican source, the court history of David, the sanctuaries source, and the monarchial source|
|1 Kings||Perhaps Ezra||Deuteronomist|
|1 Chronicles||Ezra||The Chronicler, writing between 450 and 435 BC, after the Babylonian captivity|
|Ezra||Ezra||The Chronicler, writing between 450 and 435 BC, after the Babylonian captivity|
|Nehemiah||Nehemiah using some material by Ezra||The Chronicler, writing between 450 and 435 BC, after the Babylonian captivity|
|Tobit||A writer in the second century BC|
|Judith||Eliakim (Joakim), the high priest of the story|
|Esther||The Great Assembly using material from Mordecai||An unknown author writing between 460 and 331 BC|
|1 Maccabees||A devout Jew from the Holy Land.||An unknown Jewish author, writing around 100 BC|
|2 Maccabees||Based on the writing of Jason of Cyrene||An unknown author, writing in the second or 1st century BC|
|3 Maccabees||An Alexandrian Jew writing in Greek in the first century BC or first century AD|
|4 Maccabees||Josephus||An Alexandrian Jew writing in the first century BC or first century AD|
|Job||Moses||A writer in the 4th century BC.|
|Psalms||Mainly David and also Asaph, sons of Korah, Moses, Heman the Ezrahite, Ethan the Ezrahite and Solomon||Various authors recording oral tradition. Portions from 1000BC to 200BC.|
|Proverbs||Solomon, Agur son of Jakeh, Lemuel and other wise men||An editor compiling from various sources well after the time of Solomon|
|Ecclesiastes||Solomon||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)|
|Song of Solomon||Solomon|
|Wisdom||Solomon||An Alexandrian Jew writing during the Jewish Hellenistic period|
|Sirach||Jesus the son of Sirach of Jerusalem|
|Isaiah||Isaiah||Three main authors and an extensive editing process. Is1-39 "Historical Isaiah" with multiple layers of editing. Is40-55 Exilic(Deutero-Isaiah) & Is56-66 post-exilic(Trito-Isaiah).|
|Jeremiah||Jeremiah||Baruch ben Neriah|
|Lamentations||Jeremiah||Disputed and perhaps based on the older Mesopotamian genre of the "city lament", of which the Lament for Ur is among the oldest and best-known|
|Letter of Jeremiah||Jeremiah||A Hellenistic Jew living in Alexandria|
|Baruch||Baruch ben Neriah||An author writing during or shortly after the period of the Maccabees|
|Ezekiel||Ezekiel||Disputed, with varying degrees of attribution to Ezekiel|
|Daniel||Daniel, sixth century BC||An editor/author in the mid-second century BC, using older folk-tales for the first half of the book|
|Jonah||Jonah||Possibly a post-exilic (after 530 BC) editor recording oral traditions passed down from the eighth century BC|
|Micah||Micah||The first three chapters by Micah and the remainder by a later writer|
|Zephaniah||Zephaniah||Disputed; possibly a writer after the time period indicated by the text|
|Zechariah||Zechariah||Zechariah (chapters 1-8); the later remaining designated Deutero-Zechariah, were possibly written by disciples of Zechariah|
|Malachi||Malachi or Ezra||Possibly the author of Deutero-Zechariah|
|Book|| Author according to|
| Author according to|
|Gospel of Mark||Mark, follower of Peter; mid 1st century||anonymous, perhaps Mark, follower of Peter; mid to late 1st century; the first written gospel|
|Gospel of Matthew||The Apostle Matthew||An unknown author who borrowed from both Mark and a source called Q, late 1st century|
|Gospel of Luke||Luke, companion of Paul||Luke or an unknown author who borrowed from both Mark and a source called Q, late 1st century|
|Gospel of John||Apostle John||An unknown author with no direct connection to the historical Jesus; John 21 finished after death of primary author by follower(s); the last written gospel|
|Acts of the Apostles||Luke, companion of Paul||Luke or an unknown author who also wrote the Gospel of Luke|
|Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Epistle to Philemon||Paul the Apostle, see Pauline epistles||Paul|
|Ephesians||Paul the Apostle||Paul or edited dictations from Paul|
|Colossians||Paul the Apostle||Disputed; perhaps Paul coauthoring with Timothy|
|2 Thessalonians||Paul the Apostle||An associate or disciple after his death, representing what they believed was his message|
|1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, see Pastoral epistles||Paul the Apostle|| pseudepigraphal, perhaps someone associated with Paul, writing at a later date|
see Authorship of the Pauline epistles
|Epistle to the Hebrews||Paul the Apostle (disputed)||An unknown author, but almost certainly not Paul, c 95|
|James||James the Just||A writer in the late first or early second centuries, after the death of James the Just|
|1 Peter||Apostle Peter, before 64 (Peter's martyrdom)||pseudepigraphal or perhaps Silas, proficient with Greek writing, 70-90|
|2 Peter||Apostle Peter, before 64||pseudepigraphal, likely not Peter, perhaps as late as c 150 AD, the last-written book of the Bible|
|1 John||Apostle John||An unknown author with no direct connection to the historical Jesus Same as Gospel of John, late 1st century|
|2 John, 3 John||Apostle John (sometimes disputed)||An unknown author with no direct connection to the historical Jesus, final Editor of John 21, c 100-110|
|Jude||Jude the Apostle or Jude, brother of Jesus||A pseudonymous work written between the end of the first century and the first quarter of the 2nd century|
|Book of Revelation||Apostle John(sometimes disputed)|| distinct author, perhaps John of Patmos (not the same author as the Gospel of John or 2 & 3 John)|
see Authorship of the Johannine works