The historical-critical method at the fringe of the century


Historical criticism, higher criticism, or the historical-critical method is a branch of literary analysis that investigates the origins of a text. As applied in biblical studies it investigates the books of the Bible and compares them to other texts written at the same time, before, or recently after the text in question. In Classical studies, the new higher criticism of the nineteenth century 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." Thus higher criticism focuses on the sources of a document to determine who wrote it, when it was written, and where. For example, higher criticism deals with the synoptic problem--the question of how Matthew, Mark, and Luke relate to each other.

        In some cases, such as with several Pauline epistles, higher criticism confirms the traditional understanding of authorship. In other cases, higher criticism contradicts church tradition (as with the gospels) or even the words of the Bible itself (as with 2 Peter). When applied to the Bible, the historical-critical method is distinct from the traditional, devotional approach. 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. Guided by the devotional approach, for example, Christians often combine accounts from different gospels into single accounts, whereas historians attempt to discern what is unique about each gospel, including how they are different.


       The historical-critical method to studying the Bible is taught nearly universally in Western nations, including in most seminaries. Most lay Christians are unaware of how different the academic view of the Bible is from their own.Higher criticism originally referred to the work of German biblical scholars of the Tübingen School.

       Higher criticism is divided up into sub-categories, including primarily a) source criticism, b) form criticism, and c) redaction criticism. The Roman Catholic Catechism states: "In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression." (Article III, section 110).