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Biblical criticism

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Biblical criticism is any examination of the Bible for accuracy, authenticity, authorship, dating, or anything else that bears on the Bible's reliability as a historical source against which one might legitimately judge other sources. A postmodern exegesis within Biblical criticism may bring scrutiny in the form of alleged contradictions.

The traditions of the last century or more have divided Biblical criticism into two main areas, called the higher and the lower. While the lower criticism (including textual criticism) deals with the provenance of the text and the faithfulness of the present text to the (unhappily) lost originals, the higher criticism deals with the heart of the Bible itself: whether it is, in fact, historical, and if not, exactly how ought one to read it.

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Higher criticism

The higher or historical criticism of the Bible (not the criticism of the Bible throughout history, but rather the criticism of the Bible as history) deals with whether the Bible is, or is not, a valid source of history. The German higher critic Johann Gottfried Eichhorn coined the term.

Higher criticism asks whether the Bible is consistent with extra-Biblical archaeological finds and with what is known of the languages in which it was written. Inevitably higher criticism must face squarely the question of whether Divine inspiration exists or not, and whether supernatural causes or events are admissible or not. These can only be presuppositions. For that reason, at least two divergent schools of thought have always existed in higher criticism. Their differences are irreconcilable, because one school believes that anything supernatural is to be rejected out-of-hand, and the other school is not so sure of that. These "non-rationalistic" thinkers tend to divide between Protestant and Catholic schools of thought. Higher criticism also claims to examine the internal evidence of the Bible and whether certain parts of the Bible are properly consistent with other parts.

The combined problems detailed above militate against the various schools of thought ever agreeing on common principles or rules of evidence—a situation quite similar to that prevailing in the debate between evolution and creation.

History of higher criticism

Arguably the first person to use the Bible seriously as a historical document, and to integrate the history it records with other recorded histories, was James Ussher. His work was so influential that for three and a half centuries most editions of the King James Version of the Bible carried top-margin dates derived from Ussher's magnum opus, The Annals of the World.

The entry Biblical Criticism (higher) in the Catholic Encyclopedia gives an excellent treatment of the full state of higher criticism until 1908. It shows that higher criticism, as such, began earlier than the Enlightenment. The Constantine-era bishop Origen held, for example, that Paul was not the same man who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. Origen's student Dionysius held on linguistic grounds that the man calling himself "John" who wrote Revelation was not the same man as the Apostle named John. Higher criticism contemporary to Ussher explored such questions as whether Moses was the true author of the first five books of the Bible, called the "Books of Moses" in the King James Version.

Then in the early nineteenth century a group of French and German scholars began to test the Bible against other historical documents and archaeological finds. They drew their inspiration from the Rationalist school of philosophy and other schools of thought that developed during the Enlightenment period. But at that point the criticism of the Old Testament and the New Testament tended to have vastly different emphases, with Old Testament criticism centering on questions of language and competing historical records, and New Testament criticism directly attacking the Divinity of its Central Character, Jesus Christ, and the authenticities of the various Letters of Paul and the general epistles of John, James, and others.

The claims made in the field of Assyrian chronology, and specifically as regards alleged synchronies between Assyrian rulers and certain kings of the Northern Kingdom, became popular toward the end of the nineteenth century. This is the criticism that, some say, informed Edwin Thiele's thesis that the writers of the Kings and Chronicles books used reign synchronies and lengths that were incomplete. (Thiele's successors, most notably Leslie McFall, have since disavowed any direct attack on Scripture or even any suggestion that Scripture itself was in error.)

Current state of higher criticism

Modern higher criticism (since 1908) is informed chiefly by the principle of atheism—the proposition that no such Person or Thing as God exists. By no coincidence, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, one of the most prominent higher critics in the German school, was one of the two major philosophers (the other was Immanuel Kant) who provided the greatest influences on Karl Marx, the originator of Communism. The no-God principle received further impetus in more modern times from Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously said that "God is dead."

Since then, most higher-critical efforts have been directed at destroying the foundations, not only of the Divinity of Christ, but also of the story of the creation of the world. This is the intellectual environment that allowed the widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution and all its corollaries, even by churches. Yet not all who reject the original creation story, as stated, are evolutionists. Old earth creationism takes as its central premise that the Biblical account, while not literal, has an enduring symbolic importance—and that in any case, classical Darwinian evolution cannot adequately explain the "first causes" of the universe or of life.

In 1994, a group of forthright atheists started the Journal of Higher Criticism and billed it as "a forthright attempt - in a time of scholarly neo-conservatism - to hark back to the bold historical hypotheses and critical interpretations associated with the great names of F. C. Baur and Tübingen." The phrase "scholarly neo-conservatism" is probably an attempt to link an apparent renewal of belief in God with a resurgence of political conservatism in the United States that culminated in a sharp reversal-of-fortunes of the two major political parties in the Federal Election of 1994. This Journal ceased publication in 2003, but the original site is still an active domain and has a recent (2007) copyright notice.

Textual criticism

Main Article: Textual criticism

Textual criticism is the attempt to piece together surviving fragments of copies of manuscripts, in order to represent accurately the original manuscript or what is called the autograph.

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Higher Criticism

Lower Criticism


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