Historical criticism

Branch of literary criticism that investigates the origins of ancient text

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Historical criticism (also known as the historical-critical method or higher criticism) is a branch of criticism that investigates the origins of ancient texts in order to understand “the world behind the text”[1] and emphasizes a process that “delays any assessment of scripture’s truth and relevance until after the act of interpretation has been carried out”.[2] While often discussed in terms of ancient Jewish, Christian, and increasingly Islamic writings, historical criticism has also been applied to other religious and secular writings from various parts of the world and periods of history.[3]

The primary goal of historical criticism is to discover the text’s primitive or original meaning in its original historical context and its literal sense or sensus literalis historicus. The secondary goal seeks to establish a reconstruction of the historical situation of the author and recipients of the text. That may be accomplished by reconstructing the true nature of the events that the text describes. An ancient text may also serve as a document, record or source for reconstructing the ancient past, which may also serve as a chief interest to the historical critic. In regard to Semitic biblical interpretation, the historical critic would be able to interpret the literature of Israel as well as the history of Israel.[4] In 18th century Biblical criticism, the term “higher criticism” was commonly used in mainstream scholarship[5] in contrast to “lower criticism” (textual criticism).[6]

Historical criticism began in the 17th century and gained popular recognition in the 19th and 20th centuries. The perspective of the early historical critic was influenced by the rejection of traditional interpretations that came about with the Protestant Reformation. With each passing century, historical criticism became refined into various methodologies used today: source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, tradition criticism, canonical criticism, and related methodologies.[7]


Historical-critical methods are the specific procedures[1] used to examine the text’s historical origins, such as the time and place in which the text was written, its sources, and the events, dates, persons, places, things, and customs that are mentioned or implied in the text.[4]

“Historical” and “critical” approaches[edit]

The sense of the historical-critical method involves an application of both a critical and a historical reading of a text. To read a text critically

means to suspend inherited presuppositions about its origin, transmission, and meaning, and to assess their adequacy in the light of a close reading of that text itself as well as other relevant sources … This is not to say that scripture should conversely be assumed to be false and mortal, but it does open up the very real possibility that an interpreter may find scripture to contain statements that are, by his own standards, false, inconsistent, or trivial. Hence, a fully critical approach to the Bible, or to the Qur’an for that matter, is equivalent to the demand, frequently reiterated by Biblical scholars from the eighteenth century onwards, that the Bible is to be interpreted in the same manner as any other text.[2]

By contrast, to read a text historically would mean to

require the meanings ascribed to it to have been humanly ‘thinkable’ or ‘sayable’ within the text’s original historical environment, as far as the latter can be retrospectively reconstructed. At least for the mainstream of historical-critical scholarship, the notion of possibility underlying the words ‘thinkable’ and ‘sayable’ is informed by the principle of historical analogy – the assumption that past periods of history were constrained by the same natural laws as the present age, that the moral and intellectual abilities of human agents in the past were not radically different from ours, and that the behaviour of past agents, like that of contemporary ones, is at least partly explicable by recourse to certain social and economic factors.[2]


Application of the historical-critical method, in biblical studies, investigates the books of the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament. Historical critics compare texts to any extant contemporaneous textual artifacts, i.e., other texts written around the same time. An example is that modern biblical scholarship has attempted to understand the Book of Revelation in its 1st-century historical context by identifying its literary genre with Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature.

In regard to the Gospels, higher criticism deals with the synoptic problem, the relations among Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In some cases, such as with several Pauline epistles, higher criticism can confirm or challenge the traditional or received understanding of authorship.[citation needed] Higher criticism understands the New Testament texts within a historical context: that is, that they are not adamantine but writings that express the traditio (what is handed down). The truth lies in the historical context.

In classical studies, the 19th century approach to higher criticism set aside “efforts to fill ancient religion with direct meaning and relevance and devoted itself instead to the critical collection and chronological ordering of the source material.”[8] Thus, higher criticism, whether biblical, classical, Byzantine or medieval, focuses on the source documents to determine who wrote it and where and when it was written.

Historical criticism has also been applied to other religious writings from Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam.


Diagram of the Documentary Hypothesis.

* includes most of Leviticus
includes most of Deuteronomy
Deuteronomic history“: Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings

Historical criticism comprises several disciplines, including[4] source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, tradition criticism, and radical criticism.

Source criticism[edit]

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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 undoubtedly Julius Wellhausen‘s Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (1878), whose “insight and clarity of expression have left their mark indelibly on modern biblical studies.”[9]

Source criticism: diagram of the two-source hypothesis, an explanation for the relationship of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Form criticism[edit]

Form criticism breaks the Bible down into sections (pericopes, stories), which are analyzed and categorized by genres (prose or verse, letters, laws, court archives, war hymns, poems of lament etc.). The form critic then theorizes on the pericope’s Sitz im Leben (“setting in life”), the setting in which it was composed and, especially, used.[10] Tradition history is a specific aspect of form criticism, which aims at tracing the way in which the pericopes entered the larger units of the biblical canon, especially the way in which they made the transition from oral to written form. The belief in the priority, stability and even detectability, of oral traditions is now recognised to be so deeply questionable as to render tradition history largely useless, but form criticism itself continues to develop as a viable methodology in biblical studies.[11]

Redaction criticism[edit]

Redaction criticism studies “the collection, arrangement, editing and modification of sources” and is frequently used to reconstruct the community and purposes of the authors of the text.[12]


Historical criticism as applied to the Bible began with Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677).[13] When it is applied to the Bible, the historical-critical method is distinct from the traditional, devotional approach.[14] In particular, while devotional readers concern themselves with the overall message of the Bible, historians examine the distinct messages of each book in the Bible.[14] Guided by the devotional approach, for example, Christians often combine accounts from different gospels into single accounts, but historians attempt to discern what is unique about each gospel, including how they differ.[14]

The phrase “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 (1684–1766), Johann Salomo Semler (1725–91), Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1827), Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860), and Wellhausen (1844–1918).[15] In academic circles, it now is the body of work properly considered “higher criticism”, but 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 groundbreaking 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), analyzed in the mid-19th century the historical records of the Middle East from biblical times, in search of independent confirmation of events in the Bible. The latter scholars built on the tradition of Enlightenment and Rationalist thinkers such as John Locke (1632–1704), David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Gotthold Lessing, Gottlieb Fichte, G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) and the French rationalists.

Such ideas influenced thought in England through the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, in particular, through George Eliot‘s translations of Strauss’s The 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 Charles 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, they had the judgement overturned on appeal. La Vie de Jésus (1863), the seminal work by a Frenchman, Ernest Renan (1823–1892), 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[citation needed] (1851–1930) and La Vie de Jesus of Renan, gave birth to the modernist crisis (1902–61). Some scholars, such as Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) have used higher criticism of the Bible to “demythologize” it.

John Barton argues that the term “historical-critical method” conflates two nonidentical distinctions, and prefers the term “Biblical criticism”:

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Historical study… can be either critical or noncritical; and critical study can be historical or nonhistorical. This suggests that the term “historical-critical method” is an awkward hybrid and might better be avoided.[16]

Evangelical objections[edit]

Beginning in the nineteenth century, effort on the part of evangelical scholars and writers was expended in opposing theories of historical critical scholars. Evangelicals at the time accused the ‘higher critics’ of representing their dogmas as indisputable facts.[citation needed] Bygone churchmen such as James Orr, William Henry Green, William M. Ramsay, Edward Garbett, Alfred Blomfield, Edward Hartley Dewart, William B. Boyce, John Langtry, Dyson Hague, D. K. Paton, John William McGarvey, David MacDill, J. C. Ryle, Charles Spurgeon and Robert D. Wilson pushed back against the judgements of historical critics. Some of these counter-views still have support in the more conservative evangelical circles today. There has never been a centralised stance on historical criticism, and Protestant denominations divided over the issue (e.g. Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, Downgrade controversy etc.). The historical-grammatical method of biblical interpretation has been preferred by evangelicals, but is not held by the preponderance of contemporary scholars affiliated to major universities.[17] Gleason Archer Jr., O. T. Allis, C. S. Lewis,[18] Gerhard Maier, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Robert L. Thomas, F. David Farnell, William J. Abraham, J. I. Packer, G. K. Beale and Scott W. Hahn rejected the historical-critical hermeneutical method as evangelicals.

Evangelical Christians have often partly attributed the decline of the Christian faith (i.e. declining church attendance, fewer conversions to faith in Christ and biblical devotion, denudation of the Bible’s supernaturalism, syncretism of philosophy and Christian revelation etc.) in the developed world to the consequences of historical criticism. Acceptance of historical critical dogmas engendered conflicting representations of Protestant Christianity.[19] The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in Article XVI affirms traditional inerrancy, but not as a response to ‘negative higher criticism.’[20]

On the other hand, attempts to revive the extreme historical criticism of the Dutch Radical School by Robert M. Price, Darrell J. Doughty and Hermann Detering have also been met with strong criticism and indifference by mainstream scholars. Such positions are nowadays confined to the minor Journal of Higher Criticism and other fringe publications.[21]

See also[edit]

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  1. ^ a b .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit;word-wrap:break-word}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:”””””””‘””‘”}.mw-parser-output .citation:target{background-color:rgba(0,127,255,0.133)}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-free.id-lock-free a{background:url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/65/Lock-green.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .id-lock-free a{background-size:contain}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited.id-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration.id-lock-registration a{background:url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Lock-gray-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited a,body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration a{background-size:contain}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription.id-lock-subscription a{background:url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/aa/Lock-red-alt-2.svg”)right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription a{background-size:contain}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:url(“//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Wikisource-logo.svg”)right 0.1em center/12px no-repeat}body:not(.skin-timeless):not(.skin-minerva) .mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background-size:contain}.mw-parser-output .cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:none;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{color:#d33}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#2C882D;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right{padding-right:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .citation .mw-selflink{font-weight:inherit}html.skin-theme-clientpref-night .mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{color:#18911F}html.skin-theme-clientpref-night .mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error,html.skin-theme-clientpref-night .mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{color:#f8a397}@media(prefers-color-scheme:dark){html.skin-theme-clientpref-os .mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error,html.skin-theme-clientpref-os .mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{color:#f8a397}html.skin-theme-clientpref-os .mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{color:#18911F}}Soulen, Richard N.; Soulen, R. Kendall (2001). Handbook of biblical criticism (3rd ed., rev. and expanded. ed.). Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 78. ISBN 0-664-22314-1.
  2. ^ a b c Sinai, Nicolai (2017). The Qur’an: a historical-critical introduction. The new Edinburgh Islamic surveys. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 2–5. ISBN 978-0-7486-9576-8.
  3. ^ Oliver, Isaac (2023). “The Historical-Critical Study of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Scriptures”. In Dye, Guillame (ed.). Early Islam: The Sectarian Milieu of Late Antiquity?. Editions de l’Universite de Bruxelles.
  4. ^ a b c Soulen, Richard N. (2001). Handbook of Biblical Criticism. John Knox. p. 79.
  5. ^ Hahn, Scott, ed. (2009). Catholic Bible dictionary (1st ed.). New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-51229-9.
  6. ^ Soulen, Richard N. (2001). Handbook of Biblical Criticism. John Knox. pp. 108, 190.
  7. ^ Law, David R. (2012). The historical-critical method: a guide for the perplexed. Continuum guides for the perplexed. London New York: Continuum. pp. viii–ix. ISBN 978-0-567-11130-2.
  8. ^ Burkert, Greek Religion (1985), Introduction.
  9. ^ Antony F. Campbell, SJ, “Preparatory Issues in Approaching Biblical Texts Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine,” in The Hebrew Bible in Modern Study, p. 6. Campbell renames source criticism as “origin criticism”.
  10. ^ “BibleDudes: Biblical Studies: Form”. bibledudes.com. Archived from the original on 2011-09-28. Retrieved 2008-03-02.
  11. ^ “Review of Biblical Literature” (PDF). www.bookreviews.org. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2021-11-19. Retrieved 2021-11-19.
  12. ^ “Religious Studies Department, Santa Clara University”. Archived from the original on February 28, 2006.
  13. ^
    Durant, Will (1961) [1926]. “4: Spinoza”. The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Great Philosophers of the Western World. A Touchstone book. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 125. ISBN 9780671201593. Retrieved 2017-07-23. …the movement of higher criticism which Spinoza initiated has made into platitudes the propositions for which Spinoza risked his life.
  14. ^ a b c Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted, HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN 0-06-117393-2
  15. ^ The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2007
  16. ^ John Barton, The Nature of Biblical Criticism, Westminster John Knox Press (2007), p. 39.
  17. ^ https://ehrmanblog.org/how-do-we-know-what-most-scholars-think/ Archived 2021-07-30 at the Wayback Machine Quote: “First, what is taught about the New Testament to undergraduates at the colleges and universities that are NOT evangelical? You can pick any type of school you want, and I (and virtually every other scholar in the field) can tell you the answer, simply because I (and they) know (either personally or through reputation) virtually every senior (and many junior) scholar at those places. These scholars pretty much all toe the line that I indicate: about John, 1 Timothy, the dating of the Gospels, and most other critical issues.”
  18. ^ Lewis, Clive Staples (1969). “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”. BYU Studies Quarterly. 9 (1).
  19. ^ “D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Authority of Scripture—We Must Choose Between Two Positions”. Albert Mohler. Archived from the original on 23 October 2021. Retrieved 23 October 2021.
  20. ^ Baptist Church, Duncan Street. “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”. duncanstreetbaptistchurch.co.uk. Archived from the original on 2023-01-22. Retrieved 2023-01-22.
  21. ^ Ehrman, Bart D. (2012-03-20). Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-06-208994-6. Archived from the original on 2022-08-08. Retrieved 2021-11-17.


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  • Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J. American Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A History from the Early Republic to Vatican II, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1989, ISBN 0-06-062666-6. Nihil obstat by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., and Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.
  • Robert Dick Wilson. Is the Higher Criticism Scholarly? Clearly Attested Facts Showing That the Destructive “Assured Results of Modern Scholarship” Are Indefensible. Philadelphia: The Sunday School Times, 1922. 62 pp.; reprinted in Christian News 29, no. 9 (4 March 1991): 11–14.

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