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Explanation of Higher and Lower Criticism in Biblical Studies


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  • Super Moderator

I was going to post this in the theological section, but I have a sneaky suspicion there is going to be some push back that is going to end up with me crossing swords with someone over this.


First and foremost, higher and lower criticism when it comes to biblical studies does not mean let us hate on the Bible. Likely the vernacular "higher criticism" makes one think that it means an all out attack on the Bible, but it does not. Higher criticism is simply a matter of trying to understand the Bible in its historical context, more along the lines of critical thinking and analysis. This field of study regards the Bible as any other ancient texts, and treats it like such foregoing the interpretations and biases of faith. For example, by studying other religions that were prevalent in Southwest Asia, we can get a better idea of how people in that region thought about the world and the powers that might govern it. Archeology helps to put the Bible into context by looking for clues about where the people of Israel came from based on artifacts and writings that came from Israel, as well as other nations that dealt with Israel.


Lower criticism is usually just textual criticism; that is a field of study dedicated to understanding the various texts, and their variants, that has led up to the Bible we have today. Lower criticism would include identifying differences in writing style, use of language, and using forensic techniques to get the facts about how the Bible came to be. A few examples: Everything in Mark past Mark 16:8 was a later addition; there were three to four authors of the Gospel of John; the story of the woman caught in adultery was a later addition, whoever wrote 2 Peter did not author 1 Peter, and Paul likely wrote 7 letters in the New Testament, but the others attributed to him are pseudepigrapha (written by somebody claiming to be someone else).


These fields of study often overlap, and scholars rely on each other to better understand their specific, and often specialized field of study. Here is an example, based on archeology and the records (really the lack of records), we can say with a high degree of certainty that the Exodus story did not happen as described in the Bible. There are no Egyptian records of that many people living in Egypt, and the lack of evidence within the desert simply does not account for 1 million or so Israelis walking through a desert for 40 years, especially when it is only a two week walk.


In reality, scholars believe that the Israelites were a subset of Canaanites who borrowed and refined Canaanite religion in regard to El Elyon (the God most high). There are clues in the Bible that indicate this, as well as a thorough study of ancient Southwest Asia ancient religions.


In my opinion, I have found the scholars who are honest with the text of the Bible (excluding "Christian scholars" who normally have to sign a statement of faith and come to a conclusion that their paycheck relies on) provide way more explanatory power than I ever got from Christian authors and apologist.


*I want to make a caveat, I hold these beliefs as tentative, because that is the intellectually honest thing to do. We might find more evidence in the future that changes our understanding. None of these are dogmatic beliefs about the Bible or the history of Israel, but they are conclusions drawn based on the current evidence we have.

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  • Super Moderator

If anyone is interested in some great textbooks that go into higher criticism, here is a recommended reading list:



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No push-back from me. My journey from non-theist to atheist has been accompanied by delving into Biblical criticism, a subject foreign to me whilst I was a minister. Perhaps I should admit it - it also has fed my prejudices.

Thank you.


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Good post - thanks!  

I didn’t really know the details of the differences between Higher and Lower Criticism, other than the fact the Higher Criticism is practiced by many secular scholars like Robert M Price, Bart Ehrman, etc.  And it seems like Ehrman in particular made it accessible to the layperson.  


At first blush, it might seem that Higher Criticism is done by non-believers whereas Lower Criticism is the province of Christian scholars.  But I don’t think it’s that simple.  John Dominick Crossan is a very liberal Christian but I think he practices Higher Criticism.  Maybe I’m wrong.  

And I suppose even Lower Criticism is a bridge too far for fundamentalist Christians, if it suggests in any way that every jot and tittle of the scripture is not the word of god.  

Having grown up Catholic, without a lot of Bible knowledge, when I was invited to a Church of Christ service by some friends, I was drawn in by the degree to which they read and studied the Bible.  I was curious about the Bible.  Of course their Bible “study” was heavily curated and based on the conviction that it was all from god, word for word.  I would have been far better off reading works of Higher Criticism, if I had only known they existed!

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No problem as far as I'm concerned.  What kind of push back, and from whom, do you think it would come?

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