Biblical Criticism: Hard Questions about the Bible

Most people understand vaguely that Christianity in the 21st century is in a different world than it was a hundred years ago. In this series of articles, I hope to highlight the story of how and why we find ourselves in a different world. These are meant to be short reflections about what I believe are key moments when we learned something new and important about the Gospel. I believe that the lessons learned are the tools we need to move forward in this odd time of being church.

This crisis of Biblical criticism was a crisis of assumptions. People who start reading the Bible for the first time often express surprise at its messiness. Because the Bible is inspired by God, we often assume that the message of the Bible should be clear and straightforward, that the stories should be simple and full of wisdom, that the application to help people lead meaningful lives and answer their questions should be obvious.

When they crack open the cover of the scriptures, they express confusion and frustration. Inside, they find four different accounts of Jesus that sometimes match and sometimes don’t. There are long meandering genealogies, laws given by God that make no sense, seemingly interminable poems about other places, terms they haven’t heard of, and disagreement within the Bible about important things. If a perfect God were going to write a perfect book, it shouldn’t be this messy! When I talk to be people about this, I find they struggle with their assumptions about how God SHOULD write the Bible, rather than their acceptance about how God ACTUALLY wrote the Bible.

Biblical Criticism: An Overview

The crisis of Biblical criticism came about in the 19th century, because a group of scholars started claiming that the mess within the Bible was just the tip of the iceberg. They found another whole level of messiness in the process by which the Bible was written, assembled, edited, and emended over centuries.

As I begin to talk about this crisis, it is important to understand that the word CRITICISM in “Biblical criticism ” is not about judging the Bible. The word is meant to be a neutral scholarly word. In this context, it only means using the critical method of objectively analysing a text. The controversial part came when this set of analytical techniques was applied to the Bible.

Erasmus and Biblical Translation

Why did this happen? It began in 1516 with the publication of a new translation of the New Testament into Latin by Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus was the most celebrated scholar of his day. He had connections and friendships in all of the major European courts. When possible, he preferred to stay out of the Reformation controversies of his day, and saw himself as a citizen of the world.

His biblical project began in 1512. Erasmus was an elegant and polished writer and wanted to re-translate the Latin Bible. While the church at that time read the Bible in Latin, that was not the Bible’s original language. The New Testament was written in a form of Greek and the Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew, with a little bit of Aramaic. The Western church used an ancient Latin translation of the Bible by St. Jerome, and it was called The Vulgate. Erasmus felt that Jerome could have done better. So he gathered together all of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament that he could find in order to compare them. What he found was shocking. When he compared the Greek manuscripts side by side, he found hundreds of tiny differences.

Because there was no printing press before the time of Erasmus, all manuscripts of the Bible had to be written out fully by people who knew how to read and write. A span of fourteen centuries separated Erasmus from the time of the writing of the New Testament. During this vast amount of time, many different scribes copied the manuscripts thousands and thousands of times. Over time, they made tiny mistakes, which were amplified by later scribes, until we get to the desk of Erasmus, who tried to decide which one was the ‘right’ manuscript. He made his decision and published his New Testament. But he made so many mistakes in that edition that he was forced to publish a corrected one in 1519. He ended up doing this five times.

Biblical Criticism Since Erasmus

The science of textual criticism has come a long way since the time of Erasmus. In fact, the 19th century was the real heyday of biblical criticism. When Erasmus was comparing Greek manuscripts, he only had seven. By the 19th century, scholars had hundreds.

The problem, of course, is that no one has the original manuscripts. We have nothing actually written by the Apostle Paul. We only have copies that have been made from copies going back a long way. The goal, then, was to find the purest manuscripts. Which ones were the oldest? As all of these were collected, there were surprising finds. For example, the well-beloved story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 was not in the oldest manuscripts. The phrase ‘Son of God’ in Mark 1:1 was also missing.

As scholars poured over these ancient manuscripts, they started to notice all kinds of oddities. They noticed that there were ‘seams’ in the text. It became obvious that a single author had not written many books of the Old Testament, as scholars had previously assumed. Rather, a later editor gathered and assembled collections of stories, written in very different styles and using different names for God, to form these books.

Wellhausen and the Origins of the Torah

One of the most famous examples came from a German scholar named Julius Wellhausen. As he read the first six books of the Bible, he claimed he could discern four distinct authors whose works were later stitched together to form the Torah and the book of Joshua. He claimed that there were two early authors that he called the Yahwist and the Elohist based on the Hebrew names these authors used for God, and two later authors he called the Priestly and the Deuteronomist. He claimed that each of these writers had a different intention and agenda. Over the years, his scholarship has been changed and transformed quite a bit, but his main claim still stands: Moses probably did not single-handedly write the Torah. Rather, the Torah originated as stories, groups of laws, and genealogies were collected and edited together at the time of the Babylonian exile.

A Crisis in How We See God

What was fascinating to scholars was shocking to the church. I return to my question at the beginning. What do assume about how God SHOULD work? The church assumed that, since the Bible is the inspired word of God, it should be a simple document. Each book should have a single author who was clearly inspired by God. Each of these books should also have been preserved purely over time. This assumption is behind words such as INERRANT and INFALLIBLE. In fact, these words will become battle cries in the later ‘Battle for the Bible.’ The idea that the Bible has come down to us through a complicated process of writing, story telling, editing and copying offends that assumption.

This crisis generated similar responses to the crisis about science. Some people couldn’t handle the fact that the Bible had a complex history, so they lost their faith. Some people asserted that there were serious flaws with the whole project of Biblical criticism. They started publishing their own scholarship refuting the findings of Wellhausen and others. This group accepted the results of lower criticism (or textual criticism: trying to determine the original form of the text). However, they rejected the higher criticism (the claim about multiple authors and states of development in the Bible.)

New Insights into How God Works

The third group, again of which I am a part, gained powerful insight around the way in which God works over time through messy processes. In hindsight, this shouldn’t have been surprising. This same God is working out salvation by choosing a single flawed human being named Abraham who makes many mistakes. God continues to work with Abraham’s family over centuries, and they also stumble again and again. When God came to earth in Jesus, he embraced all the messiness and suffering of human existence. Following Jesus, the church has gone out in the world doing great things. But it has also made many mistakes, and is still learning and growing. As the Spanish proverb tells us, God writes straight with crooked lines.

The Bible’s messy history tells us that God does not require tidiness and perfection to work out the great, cosmic project of salvation. The Bible’s messy history ends up being no messier than the story of the people who wrote it and lived it.

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2 Replies to “Biblical Criticism: Hard Questions about the Bible”

  1. In re the so-called Higher Criticism, used to discredit the historic accuracy of the Bible, there’s an entertaining science fiction story from the sixties. In the story, a historian in the distant future uses Higher Criticism to analyze whether an event in the 20th century called World War 2 ever really happened. Most records of the 20th century have been lost. The future historian points out that surviving records of this alleged World War 2 make it clear the whole thing is a myth. The names of the good and bad guys are obviously invented for simple-minded people. Chamberlain and Butler (menial servants) try to surrender to the forces of evil, but at the last moment the day is saved by the brave and noble Church-Hill. Church-Hill’s allies include a leader famous for his sunny good nature, Roosevelt (which means Field of Roses); and a man who supposedly personifies France, called with childish symbolism De Gaulle (of France). Other mighty warriors on the good side include Eisenhower (iron worker) and Stalin (man of steel). Obviously mythical super-heroes. The myth even insists that the murderous tyrant dressed his minions in black uniforms with skulls and crossbones on their caps. Time to forget this infantile World War 2 myth, the historian concludes. I never can read some know it all dismissing historical claims without thinking of this brilliant story.

    1. Yes, I love that story! You’ve told it to me before. I think the thing about Biblical Criticism is that like any scholarly endeavour, the critics are all over the place. There are some that deny just about all of the facticity of the Biblical witness and some who would defend much of it. And of course it differs if you are talking about Jesus or about Noah. I tend to enjoy reading moderate scholars like Tremper Longman in the Old Testament and N.T. Wright for the new.

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