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.
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.
See alsoBible .
A term first used by the Biblical scholar William Robertson Smith (1846–94) in his book The Old Testament in the Jewish Church [(Edinburgh 1881) 105] to distinguish the critical literary and historical study of the books of the Old and New Testaments from textual or lower criticism. Questions of authorship, time of composition, sources, theological content, purpose, and related matters are the concern of higher criticism. Textual, or lower criticism, deals primarily with the establishment of the text itself on the basis of a critical examination and comparison of readings found in MSS written in the original languages and in ancient versions. The new term was soon applied to similar critical, literary, and historical studies in the classics and other fields. However, it should be emphasized that the methods of higher criticism and their underlying principles were not new in themselves. The great classical scholar Richard bentley (1662–1742) had really founded higher criticism in his exhaustive literary and historical investigation of the problems of the authorship and date of composition of the Epistles of Phalaris. In the area of Biblical studies, Richard simon (1638–1712), Jean astruc, and Alexander geddes (1737–1802) were all pioneers in applying the method of higher criticism, at least in part, to the study of the Pentateuch and other parts of the Old Testament. Nineteenth-century scholars greatly elaborated the methods and principles of literary and historical criticism especially in their exhaustive investigations of Homer and the Bible. However, too many in both fields tended to adopt extreme positions that were not warranted by the limited and incomplete data on which they were based. Furthermore, in the case of leading Biblical critics, especially in Germany, many were rationalists whose approach to Biblical problems was often colored, as in the case of J. wellhausen, for example, by the principles of Hegelian dialectic. The term higher criticism was thus coined precisely at a time when its methods and results were being challenged by more conservative critics, and it acquired the bad reputation that it still has in certain quarters. However, despite its mistakes and its failures, its employment has led to revolutionary and positive advances in both the philological and Biblical fields. Its methods continue to be developed and refined, and, when applied properly, it is an indispensable instrument of literary and historical research. One may cite among its conspicuous successes, the solutions to the problems of the false decretals, the sibylline oracles, and the time, composition, and character of the works ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite (see pseudo-dionysius). On the Biblical side, it will suffice to mention the great progress made in the interpretation of the Sacred Books by the recognition of their literary genres, their scope, and their purpose. It must be emphasized that the mistakes made in the past by an abuse of the methods of higher criticism have usually been corrected by a proper employment of its own methods.
Bibliography: t. birt, "Höhere Kritik," in his Kritik und Hermeneutik nebst Abriss des antiken Buchwesens (Munich 1913) 213–242. g. garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method (New York 1946) 168–169. h. cazalles and p. grelot, "La Critique littéraire," and "La Critique historique," in Introduction à la Bible, a. robert and a. feuillet, eds. (1959) 1:121–164.
[m. r. p. mcguire]