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Historical Criticism

Historical Criticism

It would be difficult to argue that there was extensive interrelation between the rise of historical criticism and the emergence of modern science. True, both of these developments raised the most serious questions about the viability of traditional theological notions. In addition, the growing confidence in scientific explanations for events in nature, especially from the Enlightenment on, clearly eroded trust in traditional biblical authority. Yet the languages and the trajectories of criticism and science were mainly independent and parallel, as if taking place on the opposite sides of a high fence. And they raised different kinds of problems for the theological enterprise.


Historical criticism of the Bible, sometimes referred to as higher criticism in contrast to the textual criticism that sought to determine the most accurate reading (or original texts) of the received biblical documents, sought to apply to the scriptures the same sort of analysis commonly used for other (especially ancient) literary documentsthough it should be said that biblical scholars contributed perhaps more than any others to the origin and refinement of this kind of literary analysis. Prescinding from the traditional notions about authorship and "inspiration," historical criticism sought to answer anew questions about the origin and development of the scriptural literature, both by internal analysis and by relating the biblical texts to other records of ancient times. Fresh attention was given to such questions as: What is the relation of the biblical books to each other? How and why were they written? By whom? When? What did the writers intend to say? Were there historical causes that might account for the events recorded in the scriptures?

While such methods had been employed even in ancient times by some opponents of the church and by a small minority of Christian scholars, biblical studies in the church had continued to be largely insulated from literary criticism or defensive in reaction to it. Historical criticism began to be most extensively employed after the Renaissance and Reformation. The multiple levels of medieval interpretation, especially the allegorical or spiritual meanings, which through the Middle Ages had been favorite means of dealing with apparent difficulties and contradictions in the texts, were largely abandoned in favor of the "plain" or literal sense. In connection with their insistence on the authority of scripture rather than tradition, the Reformers, especially Martin Luther and William Tyndal, had argued (though not consistently) for the "plain meaning."

Evolution of historical criticism

Early landmarks in the rise of historical criticism can be found in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651), with the implication that the Bible was not the word of God but rather contained the record of some men who had been inspired by God, and with doubts about the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Similarly, Baruch Spinoza, in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), discussed the literary incoherencies, the historical contradictions, and chronological difficulties in Genesis. Spinoza was followed by the French oratorian Richard Simon (16381712), who noted the double accounts of some events in the Pentateuch and suggested a diversity in authorship, as well as the late origin of the present form of the Old Testament (i.e., only after the Exile). Simon is thus sometimes hailed as the true founder of historical criticism.

Application to the Old Testament. The full development of such criticism, however, came in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because the early application was mainly to the Hebrew scriptures, it was thus less threatening to Christian sensitivities. That criticism did not actually function much in the early adjustments to scientific (especially geological) views of the age of the worldfor example, the notion popularized by James Ussher (15811656), the Irish Archbishop of Armagh, that creation had occurred in 4004 b.c.e., was easily abandoned by reinterpretation of the "days" of creation in the Genesis story. Yet historical criticism did raise serious questions about the reliability of the Old Testament chronology. And the uniformitarianism of the new geology of James Hutton in the eighteenth century and Charles Lyell (especially Lyell's Principles of Geology, 18301833) in the nineteenth century gradually replaced the popular catastrophism as a theory for the development of the earth. Equally important was reinterpretation of the nature of the Old Testament writings in general. For example, Johann Gottfried von Herder's The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (17821783) and History of the Education of Humanity (1774), reflected both the Enlightenment critique of religious authority and the newly emerging Romantic movement. This was both parallel to and in protest against the Enlightenment (and especially Kantian) emphasis on the sole authority of the moral in religion.

Analysis of the sources and development of the Old Testament writings can be said to culminate in the Graf-Wellhausen theory (18761877) of the composition of the Hexateuch (the first six books of the Old Testament), which came to dominance by the end of the nineteenth century. To the basic distinction between the names for God in the J ( Jahvist) and E (Elohim) sources were added the D (for Deuteronomic) and P (for Priestly) sources. Thus the famous JEDP documentary hypothesis, with subcategories in each (for some scholars).

It is of special interest that the biblical critical analysis played little or no role in Friedrich Schleiermacher's contention in Der Christliche Glaube (The Christian faith, 1821) that the Genesis stories of the creation and fall had no proper place in the Christian doctrines of creation and sin because those doctrines had properly to be derived strictly from the fundamental experience of utter dependence on God. Thus, for example, the controversy over whether creation is eternal or temporal has no bearing on the content of the feeling of utter dependence and is therefore a matter of indifference. On the other hand, it is plain that the scientific view of the world, or Nature, as a system of interconnected causality is crucial, and it is this which must go back to the divine causality as an explanation of the feeling of utter dependence. Thus cosmology is given over to the scientific view of things, yet the integrity of the religious affirmation is preserved, in what Schleiermacher in the second of his famous letters 1829 to his friend Friedrich Luecke called "an eternal covenant between the living Christian faith and a free, independent scientific inquiry, so that faith does not hinder science and science does not exclude faith" (p. 64). This statement has sometimes been hailed as the precursor of a fundamental dichotomy between the interests of theology and those of natural science that frequently appeared in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Application to the New Testament. The application of the historical-critical method to the life of Jesus really began with German philosopher Hermann Samuel Reimarus (16941768), some of whose writings were published by Gothold Ephraim Lessing in the Wolfenbuettel Fragments (17771778). This became the center of violent controversy with David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (1835). For both of these authors, of course, it was clear that certain events could not have happened in the way they were described in the gospels, because those accounts contravene scientific explanation. Strauss lists this as the first of his "negative" criteria for identifying the nonhistorical account; along with either internal inconsistency or contradiction to other accounts, a narrative can be "irreconcilable with the known and universal laws which govern the course of events" (p. 88). In this way, a scientific view is presupposed by historical criticism.

Closely related to this kind of argument was the rejection of the favorite traditional arguments from miracle and prophecy. The latter was partly a product of biblical criticism, with the recognition that the so-called prophecies in the Old Testament were properly to be understood in relation to current events rather than, for example, to the appearance of Jesus. The rejection of the argument from miracle was classically expressed in David Hume's critique in section ten of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). The argument here was not strictly a denial of the possibility of miracle, as a violation of the laws of nature, but was a devastating attack on the evidential value of such claims. Assumed here, but only in a general way, is the view of natural science as the primary explanatory category.

The historical-critical trajectory with respect to the New Testament continued particularly through varying analyses of the relations of the synoptic gospels, with the most widely accepted view that Luke and Matthew were dependent on Mark and that John was of much less value as an historical account. A culmination of this process was the judgment by the end of the nineteenth century that it was impossible to write a genuine biography of Jesus, for, as one fairly conservative thinker, Martin Kaehler, put it in 1892, we have "only a vast field strewn with the fragments of various traditions" (p. 49) out of which no sure account of the life of Jesus can come.

The most extreme case of the separation of science and theology was doubtless found in the work of the German liberal Protestant theologian Wilhelm Herrmann (18461922). Not only was natural scientific study irrelevant to the interests of religion, though within their limits the methods and results of science were "unassailable." Even metaphysics had to be rejected. So also "historical science," while it could serve the purposes of eliminating "false props" for faith, could have no positive value at all for the certainty or "full assurance" that faith requires.

See also Scriptural Interpretation


harrisville, roy a., and sundberg,walter. the bible in modern culture: theology and historical-critical method from spinoza to kasemann. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans,1995.

hermann, wilhelm. the communion of the christian with god (1892), ed. robert t. voelkel. philadelphia: fortress press, 1971.

hobbes, thomas. leviathan (1651), ed. c. b. macpherson. new york: penguin, 1982.

hume, david. an enquiry concerning human understanding (1748). a critical edition, ed. tom l. beauchamp. new york: oxford university press, 2001.

kaehler, martin. the so-called historical jesus and the historic biblical christ, trans. carl e. braaten. philadelphia: fortress press, 1964.

schleiermacher, freidrich. the christian faith (1821), trans. h.r. mackintosh and j.s. stewart. edinburgh, uk: t&t clark, 1948.

schleiermacher, friedrich. on the glaubenslehre (1821- 1822), trans. james duke and francis fiorenza. atlanta, ga.: scholars press, 1981.

schweitzer, albert. the quest of the historical jesus (1906), trans. william montgomery. new york: macmillan, 1961.

spinoza, baruch de. tractatus theologico-politicus (1670), trans. samuel shirley. leiden, netherlands, and new york: e. j. brill, 1991.

strauss, david friedrich. the life of jesus critically examined, ed. peter c. hodgson and trans. george eliot. philadelphia: fortress press, 1972.

claude welch

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