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Introduction to Modern Bible Criticism Concerning the Human Authors of the Bible and Other Issues

This article is an introduction to some of the issues  involved  in the modern controversy over the human authors of the books of the Bible and the methods of modern Bible Criticism in general, and why we generally reject most modern scholarship conclusions and hold to the traditional views regarding the issues of authorship, date and other related subject matter. 

Updated Feb 2008.  Expanded Dec 2008.

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What is Bible Criticism?

The traditional view of the Bible authors, timelines and other subject matters passed down from the church fathers were accepted without question until the past few centuries.  Then came the Enlightenment from the 18th and 19th centuries, essentially an anti-Christian movement in which most of its thinkers tended toward atheism (or at best, deism).  The influence of their philosophy, that all truths should be determined by reason and rationalism, has led to our modern day critics of the Bible.

“Higher Criticism” vs “Lower Criticism”

We note that Bible Criticism does not refer to an attempt to criticize or find fault with the Scripture, although it often dissolves into that mode.  Bible Criticism in its purest sense, is the academic treatment of the Bible as a historical or literary document, seeking to evaluate and determine the circumstances (who, how, why etc) in which it was produced.  “Higher Criticism” is a mostly secular movement originating from the Enlightenment and Romanticism era.  Higher critics generally attempt to discredit the Bible by using speculative human philosophy and reasoning.  “Lower Criticism” (aka “Textual Criticism”) is primarily concerned with the Bible text itself.  Lower critics examine the preservation, transmission, related dates and circumstances of the various manuscripts in order to determine the most reliable text (closest likely match to the non-extant original autographs) among the minor discrepancies between the existing manuscripts.   A more recent discipline, “Statistical Criticism” assists the other disciplines by using statistics to help evaluate the minor variant readings between the manuscripts.

Unfortunately, most modern higher critics, under the pretense of being concerned with the questions of the integrity and credibility of the Bible texts, have the hidden agenda of deliberately undercutting traditional Christian doctrine.   Rather than letting the Biblical texts speak for themselves, they bring their biased presuppositions to the table, automatically rejecting any Scripture which speaks of miracles or supernaturalism.  To be fair, we must say that most Bible apologists (including ourselves) come to the table with the presupposition that the Bible is the inspired, authoritive, inerrant Word of God.  Our pre-suppositions are that the Bible is the inspired, authoritative, inerrant Word of God.  It is fully God and fully human in that, while “God-breathed” by the Holy Spirit, it also reflects the literary styles of its individual human authors.  Our position is not based on human philosophy, but on the testimony of the Holy Spirit and Sacred Scripture itself, unity of its message, fulfillment of its prophecies without error, number of surviving manuscripts, historical and scientific accuracies, archaeological evidence, accounts of non-biblical authors and much more.  We all have presuppositions, and even the philosophy of claiming not to have a pre-supposition is a presupposition in itself, so the issue becomes, which supposition coincides with reality and is supported by the evidences.

Before we examine some of the issues, we must make it clear that we are certainly not advocating the abandoning of modern scholarship.  We support the lower critics who basically took some of the better methods of higher critics, but without their presuppositions.  It is not so much the methods of the higher critics that cause a problem as much as their suppositions.  These methods, when properly applied, have yielded much scholarly information, such as increased knowledge of the meaning of Biblical words, including how they were used in a historical sense, what minor alterations were made by scribes (no doctrines or meanings were altered), how the text was preserved, more information on the oral traditions,  new insights into the culture and more.  In addition, we are continually receiving new historical evidences from archaeological findings, and new discoveries of ancient texts have resulted in better lexicons of the original languages than ever before.  New technology puts more information at our fingertips, particularly with regard to Statistical Criticism.  We must continue in our efforts to better understand the Holy Scriptures and apply them to our lives.  What we must not do is deliberately and dishonestly attempt to undermine or alter the eyewitness accounts recorded under the divine influence of the Holy Spirit.

We'll next briefly examine some of the most popular forms used by the higher critics.  From this point in the article, all references to to modern or bible critic or criticism refer to the “higher” critics or criticism unless noted otherwise.

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Old Testament Criticism?

The most common criticism involving the OT is called the Documentary Hypothesis, one of the leading proponents being Julius Wellhausen in the 19th century.  This theory teaches that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses, but by several authors and redactors, and compiled into their final forms about 1000 years after the death of Moses.  Advocates of this theory, also known as JEDP, assert that there were at least four documents, “J” (a writer referring to God as YHWH, or Jehovah), “E” (a writer referring to God as Elohim), “D” (a writer of Deuteronomic code claimed to have been found in 621BC), and “P” (a priest or group of priests from Babylon who supposedly added this material during or after the exile).   

We immediately detect two categories of problems for accepting the Documentary Hypothesis as fact.  The first is the internal and external evidence for the Mosaic authorship.  There are numerous references in the Pentateuch which clearly proclaim portions were written by Moses.  There are also references throughout the Old and New Testaments, including many from the words of Jesus.  Despite the skeptic’s claims, nowhere do we find even a hint of Jesus mentioning a redactor writing about Him.  Instead, He specifically proclaims that "Moses wrote about me" (Jn 5:46).  In addition, early Jewish and Christian traditions, historians Josephus and Philo, the Talmud, the Apocrypha and many church fathers attributed these books to Moses

The second set of problems stems from the Hypothesis' methods themselves.  OT scholar Gleason Archer writes, "It is very doubtful whether the Wellhausen hypothesis is entitled to the status of scientific respectability.  There is so much special pleading, circular reasoning, questionable deductions from unsubstantiated premises that it is absolutely certain that its methodology would never stand up in a court of law... Any attorney who attempted to interpret [documents] in the bizarre and irresponsible fashion of the critics of the Pentateuch would find his case thrown out of court without delay."  (Survey of the Old Testament, 1974).

There is also the issue of lack of physical evidence.  Even supporters of the theory must admit that not one manuscript has been found containing evidence of writing from any of the proposed individual writers.  It has also been demonstrated that any of the four documents could not stand alone, but would require the others to be coherent.  Furthermore, it has also been shown that the methods used would lead to belief of multiple writers when applied to any diverse document, even those known to be written by a single author.  The Jewish playwright, Herman Wouk wrote "Literary analysis has been used by obsessive men to prove that everybody but Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.  I believe the method could be used to prove that I wrote both David Copperfield and A Farewell to Arms.  I wish it were sound."  (This is My God, 1959).

Another popular target of the critics is the book of Daniel, written about 550BC, which contains prophecies fulfilled in the second century BC.  Liberal critics claim Daniel was written between 150-100BC, after the prophecies became history.  Once again, the facts dispute these claims.  First, the book of Ezekiel, written later in the sixth century BC, makes several references to Daniel, mentioning him along with Noah and Job.  Jesus also refers to Daniel as a prophet in Matthew 24:15.  Finally, the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) was completed in Alexandria about 300BC.  If we flip through the Septuagint, we notice that it contains the book of Daniel, clearly refuting the claim that Daniel was written much later.

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New Testament Criticism?

The best known and most important criticism against the New Testament is sometimes known as Historical Skepticism, or Form Criticism, an attack on the record of the historical Jesus.  This criticism also involves the authorship of the Gospels, claiming they were not written by the apostles, but later written by members of the church who twisted Jesus' words to conform to and justify the authors' visions for the early church.  The critics concluded that, since the authors were biased, any statement which benefited or painted the church in a positive light must be rejected as an actual saying of Jesus.   Wellhausen was also a major player in this movement, along with Albert Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann.  Bultmann stated that "I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either..." (Jesus and the Word, 1934).  This prompted CS Lewis to remark "Through what strange process has this learned German gone in order to make himself blind to what all except him see?" ("Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism", Christian Reflections, 1967). 

One of the major weaknesses of the method is its neglect of eyewitnesses, including their ability to verify and safeguard the teachings.  It also neglects the traditional writings of the church fathers, relying instead on existentialism.  The method's contributions have provided us with additional information on known subjects, however, when claiming new revelations contrary to existing knowledge, the method fails miserably.  Laurence McGinley, Professor of Religion at Fordham University, who accused Bultmann of "mutilating the gospel picture", writes "At best, what is true of form criticism is not new and much of what is new is not true." (Form Criticism of the Synoptic Healing Narratives, 1944).

One of the most radical of the quests for the Historical Jesus is the Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal professors (many from the Bultmann school) and atheists, convened in 1985 by Robert Funk for the purpose of determining the authority of the words of Jesus.  They did this by voting with colored beads, resulting in their conclusion that only two percent of Jesus' sayings could be regarded as His actual words.  Other conclusions were that the "old" Jesus and "old" Christianity were no longer relevant, Jesus didn't rise from the dead (a dog ate his corpse according to one member), the Gospel canon was late and could not be trusted, and on and on.  Norman Geisler offers these observations from the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, "Truth is not determined by a majority vote", and that "Most of the proofs offered... were often non-existent except for quotes from one another and other liberal scholars."  It is also interesting that the Jesus who was finally unveiled looked a lot like the so-called scholars themselves.  Like most other modern Jesus movements, they have attempted to recast Jesus into their own image.  Yet, when an honest study of the eyewitnesses and other evidence is undertaken, we find that the "Jesus of History", the "Jesus of Faith", and the "Jesus of Scripture" are exactly one and the same.

A new criticism movement known as the "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP) has recently emerged from the writings of EP Sanders.  Sanders, in his 1977 book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism argued that Judaism in the time of Paul was marked by “covenantal nomism”.  This is the Judaic view that salvation of the Jews was a gift from God at birth (due to the Abrahamic  covenant), and was maintained by joyfully keeping the law out of loyalty and gratitude.  Another words, according to the NPP, the Jews were not attempting to earn God's favor or their salvation by keeping the law, but as a sign of their covenant identity.  In addition, Paul’s mentioning of "works of the Law" was narrowly focused only on the covenant aspects such as the Sabbath, circumcision and dietary laws.  Therefore, Paul’s beef was that the Jews were attempting to keep the covenant all to themselves rather than extending it to the Gentiles.  Thus, the NPP is probably more of a new perspective on first century Judaism than on Paul, which is then applied back to Paul’s teachings.  Sanders' analysis suggested that Paul must have been arguing against something other than a legalistic approach to righteousness (that we are justified by faith apart form the law) when he discussed “works of the law” in his writings.  This work has generated extensive research into the character of ancient Judaism and Paul’s concern with the law.  Anglican Theologian NT Wright (who, unlike most modern critics, has an extremely high regard for the authority of Scripture) has been one of the most influential supporters of this theory, basically arguing that the church has erred on the doctrine of justification for the past 1500 years.  One of the best books available on this subject is Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response by Guy Prentiss Waters.  Waters chronicles the history and flaws of the movement, demonstrates how Reformed theology is faithful to Paul, and how the NPP deviates from sound biblical teaching.  For an excellent treatise on the doctrine of justification in relation to the NPP, you might also want to check out John Piper's entry, The Future of Justification: A Response to NT Wright.

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Why are these Methods so Popular?

We must ask why, given the evidence against the critical methods, do scholars cling to them with such conviction?  British scholar HH Rowley refuses to reject Wellhausen's theory simply because he has no other to replace it.  He readily admits to its failings, but sees no other view (other than the Biblical one, which he cannot accept) that would not be similarly rejected.  He has stated that he would cheerfully abandon this method should a more satisfactory one be found.  This reminds me of  a quote from a leading evolutionist, "I realize that there is no scientific proof for the theory of evolution; however, the only alternative I see is a belief in God, and I find that unthinkable".

After Jewish scholar Cyrus Gordon spoke with a professor of the Bible at a leading university regarding JEDP, the professor stated, "I am convinced by what you say, but I shall go on teaching the old system.  Otherwise, I'll have to unlearn, study and re-think.  It is easier to go on with the accepted system of criticism for which we have standard textbooks." ("Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit", Christianity Today, 1959).

Perhaps Herman Wouk said it best, "It is a hard thing for men who have given their lives to a theory, and taught it to younger men, to see it fall apart." (This is My God, 1959).

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Fern-seeds and Elephants

So, we have a choice regarding the authors, timelines, recipients and other data pertaining to each Bible book.  Should we agree with the traditional view passed down from the prophets, apostles, church fathers and leading scholars for two millennia, or with the modern existentialist scholars? 

Before we answer, we should be aware that some data is not as critical as others.  For example, in the Old Testament, concerns about dates and authors don't appear to carry the importance as in modern times.  The writers, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, were more concerned with preserving the message and subject matter.  In the New Testament, Paul attaches his name to most of his writings, and for most of the other authors, we have the early traditions dating within a few years of the writings.  I have seen no evidence to deviate from these traditional views.

Late in his career, CS Lewis wrote a very illuminating article regarding the methods of Biblical Criticism.  The article was originally entitled Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, an essay that he read at Westcott House, Cambridge, in May of 1959.  It was published in Christian Reflections in 1981, and later republished in 1998 as Fern-seed and Elephants.  In the article, he outlined four complaints (or "bleats" as he called them).

His first bleat was men (referring primarily to Bultmann) asking him to read between the lines of the old text, when they had an obvious inability to read the lines themselves.  "They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight."

His second bleat was that "all theology of the liberal type involves at some point, and often throughout, the claim that the real behavior and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by his followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars... Likewise, one was brought up to believe that the real meaning of Plato had been misunderstood by Aristotle and wildly travestied by the neo-Platonists, only to be recovered by the moderns."  He then went on to relay the personal experience that "every week, a clever undergraduate discovers for the first time what some Shakespearean play really meant... This daily confirms my suspicion of the same approach to Plato or the New Testament. The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous."

His third bleat is the pre-supposition that the miraculous does not occur, thus any statement by Jesus involving a prediction of the future is automatically assumed to have been added after the fact.  I'd like to add here (not in Lewis' essay), that this is similar to Bultmann's and the Jesus Seminar's belief that, since those responsible for preserving Jesus' statements were members of the church, any statements benefiting the church must be discarded due to the biased nature of the member (what's wrong with this picture?  By the same reasoning, any statements critical of the church would have to be discarded due to the biased nature of the non-member).  We find the same attitude regarding the hiring of professors of religion at secular colleges.  Many colleges prefer an atheist to teach the courses since they supposedly can be neutral while a Christian would be biased.  Is it any wonder that such a large percentage of students renounce their beliefs after a few years of brainwashing.

We now return to CS Lewis' essay with his fourth and final bleat (also his longest and loudest).  This involves another personal experience in which he warns against the reconstruction of an author's mental thoughts.  He relates how various commentators reviewed his writings and with great certainty, speculated on his influences, the circumstances which gave rise to the article, his targeted audience, his overall intentions etc.  In analyzing these reviews, he came to the conclusion that they were not simply wrong part of the time, or half of the time as he expected, but were always wrong.  He later qualified that remark to say that, because he had not kept a written record, he could not be absolutely sure, but could not recall a single instance of the reviews being correct.  He also noted that, if one didn't know the truth, the reviewers would usually sound extremely convincing.

The point that CS Lewis is leading up to in this fourth bleat is that, if these critics, who lived in the same country, culture, and educational system, spoke the same language and had access to common contemporaries, were always wrong in their attempts to understand his mental thoughts and motivations, this should give us pause.  If these contemporaries are almost always wrong, how can we expect more accurate results from those critics trying to discern the thoughts of authors thousands of years ago, in a foreign land, foreign culture, different race, education, class structures, religious backgrounds and world-view?   Lewis also points out that, no matter what the critics reconstruct, the authors cannot protest.

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So, now we'll ask once more, who do we believe is more credible?  We could rely on the modern critics, who after two thousand years, using questionable techniques and motives, relying on weak philosophical presuppositions and arguments rather than sound historical research, claim to have bridged the time, language, geographical and cultural gap to finally "discover the truth" about the Bible and the mental processes of the authors.  In doing so, they have ignored or rejected the traditional views which have been overwhelmingly held by the church fathers and leading scholars for almost two millennia.  On the other hand, we could believe the prophets who spoke with God, and the apostles who walked and talked daily with the Lord Jesus, then diligently passed the teachings down as they attempted to follow his command to make disciples of all people.

The apostle John, who walked with Jesus for three years, writes That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.  The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ (1Jn 1:1-3).

Likewise, his fellow apostle Peter echoes, We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.   And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.  Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2Pe 1:16-21).

The answer to our credibility question should be clear.

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