Skip to main content
Select Source:

Higher Criticism

HIGHER CRITICISM

HIGHER CRITICISM is a term applied to a type of biblical studies that emerged in mostly German academic circles in the late eighteenth century, blossomed in English-speaking academies during the nineteenth, and faded out in the early twentieth. Early modern biblical studies were customarily divided into two branches. "Lower" or textual criticism addressed critical issues surrounding the Bible's extant manuscripts, canon, and variant readings. The other genre was called "higher" criticism, which, as Benjamin Jowett of Oxford University once said, sought to investigate and interpret biblical documents like any other document of antiquity. Higher critics were interested not only in the Bible's primal literary sources but also in the operative and undisclosed assumptions of biblical writers themselves.

Inevitably, the same intellectual energies that fueled the burgeoning historical studies in nineteenth-century Germany and England were applied to the biblical studies as well. By the mid-nineteenth century the term "higher criticism" was employed to describe the application of the historical-critical method derived from other historical disciplines to the Bible and its many authors. These newer biblical studies were also influenced by prevailing Enlightenment presuppositions, especially those espoused by Kant and Hegel. For these reasons, higher criticism came to be viewed as a radical departure from earlier biblical studies in the precritical eras. In established Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious communities, the term came to be associated with the desacralizing of the Bible. Scholars in academic circles, however, employed the newer critical methods while trying to free biblical studies from the heavy hand of theological conviction.

By the 1830s American Protestant scholars in Cambridge, Andover, and Princeton were well aware of the German higher critics. Each of these three academic centers responded differently, however, to the higher critics' writings. At Harvard, Joseph Buckminster and Andrews Norton heeded a donor's generosity and promoted "a critical knowledge of the Holy Scriptures." At Andover Seminary, Moses Stuart and Edward Robinson cautiously endorsed liberal scholarship from Germany. At Princeton Theological Seminary, a young Charles Hodge returned from studies in Germany and mounted a countermovement to higher criticism through his journal, The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review. Other religious communities, such as Protestant theologians in the South, conservative Jewish scholars, and traditional Roman Catholic academics, usually responded to the higher critics with suspicion and distaste.

By the late nineteenth century, increasing numbers of English-speaking scholars viewed the newer critical methods as promising, responsible, and liberating. William Rainey Harper of the University of Chicago, Charles A. Briggs of Union Theological Seminary, Charles Bacon of Yale, and William Robertson Smith in Scotland incorporated the higher critics' revisionism into their writings about biblical hermeneutics. In sharp and deepening opposition, conservative Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish scholars wrote feverishly to counter the growing consensus of higher critics. At stake were contentious issues such as Julius Wellhausen's hypothesis of multiple authorship of the Pentateuch, David F. Strauss's analysis of the role of myth in the narratives about Jesus, and F. C. Bauer's recasting of historical background of the Pauline epistles.

By the end of the nineteenth century two responses to higher criticism seemed inescapable: in academic circles there was no returning to the precritical methods of biblical hermeneutics; in ecclesial circles, however, there was deepening reluctance to trust the "assured results" of higher critics' scholarship. Both of these positions came to poignant focus when the Presbyterian professor Charles A. Briggs of Union Theological Seminary was tried for heresy for his more modernist views about the Bible in 1892–1893. By the opening decade of the twentieth century the term "higher criticism" was deemed too simplistic and amorphous. By then biblical scholars from divergent religious traditions and university doctoral studies were eager to broker the hermeneutical insights adapted from a wider and more secular scholarship in the fields of history, literary criticism, modern philosophy, and science.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brown, Jerry W. The Rise of Biblical Criticism in America, 1800–1870. Middletown: University of Connecticut Press, 1969.

Coggins, R. J., and J. L. Houlden, eds. A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation. London: SCM Press, 1990.

Fogarty, Gerald P. American Catholic Biblical Scholarship. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Hayes, John H., gen. ed. Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation. 2 vols. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1999.

Sarna, Jonathan, and N. H. Sarna. "Jewish Biblical Scholarship and Translations in the United States." In The Bible and Bibles in America. Edited by Ernest S. Frerichs. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.

John W.Stewart

See alsoBible .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Higher Criticism." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Higher Criticism." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/higher-criticism

"Higher Criticism." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/higher-criticism

higher criticism

higher criticism, name given to a type of biblical criticism distinguished from textual or lower criticism. It seeks to interpret text of the Bible free from confessional and dogmatic theology. Higher criticism sought to apply the Bible to the same principles of science and historical method applied to secular works. It was largely dependent upon the study of internal evidence, although available data from linguistics and archaeology were also incorporated. The primary questions concerned the determination of the authenticity and likely chronological order of different sources of a text, as well as the identity and authorial intent of the writers. Higher criticism began most notably with the French scholar Jean Astruc's work (mid-18th cent.) on the sources of the Pentateuch. It was continued by German scholars such as Johann Salomo Semler (1725–91), Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1827), Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860), and Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918). Not only did these scholars dispute one another's findings, they were bitterly attacked by others, who felt their criticisms discredited Christianity. Higher criticism has been increasingly abandoned for other methodologies, such as narrative criticism and canonical criticism, and the term itself has largely fallen into disuse.

See E. Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (1975); J. Rogerson, Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century (1985); H. G. Reventlow, The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World (1985).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"higher criticism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"higher criticism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/higher-criticism

"higher criticism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/higher-criticism

Scofield, Cyrus I

Scofield, Cyrus I. (1843–1921). American biblical scholar, and editor of the Scofield Reference Bible (1909; new edns. 1919, 1967). Its good typography and tacit rejection of all ‘higher criticism’ made it enormously popular in conservative Protestantism, and so secured an audience for its dispensationalist teaching.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Scofield, Cyrus I." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Scofield, Cyrus I." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/scofield-cyrus-i

"Scofield, Cyrus I." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/scofield-cyrus-i