Biblical criticism


The scientific study of the human elements that have entered into the composition and preservation of the books of the Bible. The literary and historical criticism of the Bible considers these human factors as operating in the composition of the sacred writings, while textual criticism considers them as affecting the preservation of the books. Since textual criticism seeks to determine the true reading of the texts, it supplies the material upon which literary and historical criticism works; hence textual criticism is often called “lower criticism” while literary and historical criticism is called “higher criticism.” Textual criticism is made necessary because the original manuscripts of the sacred writers have not been preserved and the earliest copies of them exhibit many different readings. The textual critic gathers and compares these readings from every available source and endeavors to decide exactly what the author wrote. Literary and historical criticism tries to discover who the author of the book was, when and where he wrote, what were his sources, methods, and purpose, and what is the historical value of his work. As a department of purely human science subject to error, criticism is recognized as being subordinate to faith by those who regard the Bible as the inspired word of God and who consequently keep its Divine elements in mind even while studying its human aspects; Catholics, furthermore, believing that the Church is the Divinely-appointed custodian and interpreter of the sacred books and of revelation in general, acknowledge the right of the Church to say the final word on the conclusions reached by criticism.


The importance of biblical criticism ctJmes chiefly from the judgment it is able to pronounce upon the reliability of the Bible as a record of the past, for these sacred books are at the center of religion, and the estimate placed upon their historical trustworthiness cannot fail to influence men’s religious convictions. By establishing the reliability of the books containing Divine revelation criticism may supply the believer with additional reasons for his faith and prepare the unbeliever to accept the truths of revelation; by determining the character and environment of the authors together with their methoda and aims, criticism may lead to a better understanding of the books themselves. In general, biblical critics may be divided into two classes, those defending the historical reliability of the Bible and those attacking it. The defenders of the Bible are often called the conservative or traditional critics, while the others are called the radical, negative, or rationalistic critics; sometimes, though inaccurately, the radicals are called “higher critics.” On the whole the conservatives respect the Divine character of the sacred writings and place a high value on external evidence, while the radicals reject everything supernatural and draw their arguments almost entirely from internal evidence, colored for the most part by their subjective views on philosophy and history. The general results arrived at are quite opposed; the conservatives pronounce the sacred writings trustworthy in all their substantial features, but the radicals find in them at best only a nucleus of fact more or less completely hidden under a mass of poetry, legend, myth, fiction, or fraud.


In his endeavors to restore the original text, the textual critic collects and compares the various readings found in the extant copies of the book, in translations, and in quotations from it by early writers. The evidence secured from these sources is called external; other evidence, called internal, is derived from the book itself by studying the context in which the douhtful readings are found, and the style and character of the author. The earliest Hebrew manuscripts are from the 9th or l0th century, and the Greek from the 4th century. The literary and historical critic also has at his “disposal both external and internal evidence. The external evidence is drawn from written sources outside the sacred writing under discussion; such sources may be later books of the Bible, the writings of ancient ecclesiastical or profane authors, and the information provided by the researches of archæology and general history. The internal evidence comes from the book itself; it may be linguistic, consisting in the vocabulary, grammar, and style of the writer and furnishing material for literary criticism, or it may be the facts recorded or the thoughts expressed, and these when compared with other historical sources furnish material for historical criticism. The external evidence is as a rule far more reliable than the internal and its results are not to be set aside easily. Internal evidence, if rightly used, is often of great value, but its results are chiefly negative, showing what could not have been the case rather than what was actually the case; when not controlled by external evidence, it is apt to lead to conclusions that are merely subjective to the critic. Many critics however rely exclusively on internal evidence and as a consequence they wander off after their own fantasies instead of keeping to facts.


The history of biblical criticism consists chiefly of the attacks made on the Bible by radical critics and of the defense of the traditional position by conservatives. In 1678 Richard Simon, a French priest, arguing from variations in style and from the lack of harmony in parallel passages in the Pentateuch, suggested that these books could not have been the work of Moses alone. Another French Catholic, Jean Astruc, a physician, conjectured (1753) that Moses had made use of two sources, in one of which God was called Elohim while in the other He was called Jehovah (Yahweh). This conjecture was elaborated and extended to the whole Pentateuch by Eichhorn in 1780-1783; in 1853 Hupfeld distinguished four documents in the Pentateuch, none of them by Moses. Out of this documentary theory later radical critics, notably Graf and Wellhausen, evolved the Development Hypothesis; this makes the Pentateuch a “patchwork quilt” of many documents representing different periods in the history of Jewish religion from the 9th to the 7th century B.C. and worked into the present form by many successive editors. The radical attack on the New Testament is rooted in the rationalism of the 17th century whose leaders were the English Deists, especially Hobbes (1588-1678), and Spinoza (1632-1677). The supernatural elements of the New Testament stood squarely against their principles and so had to be explained away. Reimarus (1694-1768) attributed them to fraud, Paulus (1761-1851) to natural causes, Strauss (1808-1874) to myths gradually and unconsciously built up by popular religious enthusiasm, and Renan (1823-1892) to the romantic imaginations of the early Christians. Later critics favor a process of idealization by which the “historic” Christ was idealized till completely replaced by the Christ “of faith.”

Radical criticism asserts that the Old Testament cannot be accepted as historical. Like other nations, the Jews must have passed by natural processes through polytheism to monotheism; this development is disguised in the Bible where the notion of one God appears from the beginning; hence these books could have been composed only in the latter stages of the religious development when the prophets strove to strengthen their position by attributing recent ideas and practises to a remote past. Though the books contain some real history, they have obscured it by including much of a legendary or poetic character after the imaginative fashion of the Orient. One after another, editors patched together various writings and expanded them. The prophets were chiefly reformers; their predictions were made after the events supposedly foretold or were lucky guesses about the immediate future. The Old Testament is the natural product of oriental minds on a par with the religious literatures of other ancient eastern nations. Conservative critics, however, have proved that monotheism was the primitive religion of man; this proof destroys the foundation of the radical theories. It would have been impossible to foist off forgeries on the Jews in the manner described by radicals, especially when the object was to impose the galling yoke of the Old Law. The patchwork theory is untenable; the peculiarities of the biblical narratives are fully accounted for by the oriental tendency to repetition and by minor changes made in the books in their transmission. These books are historically reliable in all matters of importance and their comparative restraint and lofty religious teaching place them immeasurably above other ancient literatures and support the idea of their Divine inspiration.

Radical criticism on the New Testament has labored to reduce Christ to a purely human level. In its extreme forms it has asserted that He never even existed or that He was an impostor or a fanatic; usually however it has striven to extol Him as the perfect man in close communion with God, the preacher of a pure code of morals based on the universal fatherhood of God. The books are not historical; they give the distorted and exaggerated estimate placed upon Christ by His enthusiastic followers long after His death. Conservative critics, however, have established the historical reliability of the New Testament by both external and internal evidence. They have forced most of the radicals to admit that the books were written by Christ’s disciples in the comparatively short period assigned them by tradition (before the end of 1st century), and this admission excludes all theories built on the supposition of a gradual idealization of Christ. They have shown that the real weakness of radical criticism is its prejudice against the supernatural by which it has been led into an unscientific rejection of the evidence. Sanely weighed, this evidence exhibits Christ as the God-Man, and it demands to be received at its full value since it possesses all the requisites of valid human testimony.

MLA Citation

  • “Biblical criticism”. New Catholic Dictionary. CatholicSaints.Info. 18 November 2013. Web. 22 September 2018. <>