What Is Biblical Criticism?

At least a primary knowledge of the nature and service of biblical criticism is indispensable to a proper understanding of the better conception of Scripture of which we are in pursuit. Therefore, before we can go forward into the larger thought, the deeper faith, and the more vital spirituality which wait to reward our study, we must try to learn some simple lessons in this important matter. A brief, untechnical explanation of the need, the history, the methods, and the purpose of this fruitful branch of modern learning may best enable the general reader to form a clear idea of the work of the scholars and of its true significance.

If one were about to visit London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome, he would probably procure a guide-book of foreign travel, or perhaps join some “personally-conducted” excursion party; and he might like also to know in advance whatever he could learn from history, language, literature, and art respecting those places and their people. Why? Because the information thus obtained would so introduce those cities to the traveler as to prepare him to derive the most enjoyment and profit from his tour. It is much the same with the Bible; it needs to be introduced to one’s study by preliminary explanations of its origin and character. The student must wander somewhat aimlessly through its pages, bewildered by its strange and multiform contents, without previous instruction concerning the land and the people that gave it birth, concerning its structure and history, and concerning the representative opinions which have been held regarding its place and value. In other words, there is need of what is technically called “An Introduction to the Study of the Scriptures,” seeking to impart the requisite information to qualify one to approach the Bible with a correct preconception as to its nature and worth.

Now, partly out of the attempt to meet this need, partly out of the effort to satisfy the craving for accurate and complete knowledge, for its own sake, and partly out of the wish to defend cherished, sacred beliefs, there has grown up the science of biblical criticism. Actuated by curiosity, the love of truth, or a deep piety, men have wanted to learn all they could about the Bible—its origin, language, transmission, diffusion, interpretation, and intrinsic merits. Therefore they have bent themselves to make every inquiry that might throw the least bit of light upon the various problems with which they have dealt, some of them of the minutest character; and by all these labors, prolonged and patient, there has been built up a large department of learning which may be properly called a science because it has its specialized workers, its vast accumulation of facts, its definite and reliable methods of procedure, and its verified results that are of great value. As such a department, it is merely a particular field of research lying within the domain of historical and literary criticism in general, to which we are indebted for practically all our trustworthy knowledge of the past. Thus it appears that biblical criticism is simply one of the sisterhood of modern sciences; and surely, when we understand her true mission, we shall feel that her presence is benign and shall rejoice to do her grateful and loving homage.

The word criticism denotes, primarily, a judgment, or an act of judging; its derivation from a Greek verb meaning to discern, or to try, or to pass judgment upon, or to determine, gives it this signification. As applied to literary matters, it conveys the idea, not of fault-finding, but of fairly and justly estimating both merits and defects. In other words, it is simply an impartial judgment, or as nearly such as the given critic can render, on whatever question is under consideration.

Plainly, then, biblical criticism is merely the science and art of understanding the Scriptures. One must understand them in order to appreciate them, that is, to judge them in strict truth. But no one fully understands the Scriptures who does not know all he can about them; and in this sense, of course, nobody can be said to have an absolutely perfect comprehension of them. The little school-boy who can barely pronounce the words on the printed page does not really read his book; he will read it only when he learns to grasp the thought contained in the language. But who best lays hold of the thought of a writer? Clearly, he who knows most about the circumstances and influences that contributed to the production of the work in question, together with the truest sympathy with the author’s spirit or peculiar characteristics. The same principle holds in music, in art, in oratory, in literature generally; and he who gives the most perfect interpretation of a great work, in any of these departments of human life, is hailed as a genius and becomes a real helper of his fellowmen. It is quite so in biblical matters; he is the best interpreter of the Sacred Writings who enters most fully into the thought and spirit of their respective authors; and he alone can do this who possesses, among other qualifications, a large amount of accurate knowledge concerning the times in which they wrote and the interests they sought to subserve. Thus biblical criticism becomes simply a preparation for appreciating the Scriptures?

Such preparation requires two things: (1) a knowledge of the historical conditions under which the authors of the Bible wrote, so far as these can be reproduced to thought; and (2) a knowledge of exactly what they wrote, as nearly as this can be ascertained. Hence biblical criticism naturally divides itself into two branches, called the Lower or Textual,; and the Higher or Literary.

I. The Lower Criticism has to do with the text of Scripture. A brief account has been given in the first chapter of the way in which the writings of the Bible came down to us. Previous to the fifteenth century the only mode of transmission was that of hand-made copies. But it is evident that such copies could not be produced, by different persons, at different times, and in different countries, without a multitude of errors creeping into them. It is now known that, as a matter of fact, many thousands of such errors did actually occur, first and last; that is to say, the different manuscripts, large and small, at present known to exist, show a vast number of various readings, running all the way from a single letter, or even an accent or a breathing, to a word, a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph. Of the New Testament alone, 3,829 manuscripts —some of them, to be sure, only little fragments had been catalogued by the year 1901 It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that the “variants” in all these amount to a total of 150,000 or more. Of course the great majority of such differences are extremely slight, and do not materially affect any important fact or truth; but others are of more serious consequence. It is neither possible nor desirable to discuss these here, but it is well for the reader to see how such variations have arisen.

Even the mechanical process of printing does not always insure the publication and transmission of an author’s exact words, as witness the various readings of many passages in Shakespeare’s writings. Much mere liable to variation must be hand-made copies of a literary work, especially when frequently produced in the course of several centuries. The original “autographs” of the biblical books, that is, those bearing the signatures of their authors, undoubtedly perished completely long ago. They were written upon papyrus, which was both fragile and bulky, and which was subject, not only to the wear of much handling, but also to the disintegrating influences of most climates. True, the dry climate and soil of Egypt have preserved to the present day many papyri far older than the Christian era, and there always remains the bare possibility that a rich biblical “find” may yet be exhumed in that region; but all hopes in this direction must be of the feeblest character. The use of papyrus for the Scriptures was gradually discontinued, being superseded by parchment at about the close of the third century. Now, parchment was an expensive material. This fact necessitated the utilization of every sheet and led naturally to the crowding of each page. In some instances different works were joined in the same manuscript, in order to avoid wasting valuable space ; and in others, more rarely, an early writing, deemed of less worth, was erased and a subsequent production inscribed in its place. Occasionally it has been possible, by the use of chemicals, to restore the former composition. Thus the costliness of parchment and the manner of its use opened the way for errors to creep into the successive copies of the biblical manuscripts, while the greater frequency with which the papyrus rolls had to be reproduced increased the liability to variations in their case. Besides, as regards the New Testament writings particularly, they were not at first considered sacred and precious, and nobody had any idea of their preservation and circulation for hundreds of years; therefore, no such pains were taken in transcribing them as attached to the copying of the Old Testament books, or even the Greek classics.

Again, the ancient mode of writing was to run the letters and words close together, without separation or punctuation. Let one imagine himself confronted with even a Printed page having no spaces between the wordsand no punctuation marks, and set to copy it or to translate it; would he be likely to do it without a single mistake? Furthermore, in the case of the Old Testament, the Hebrew was originally written without vowels. Let one imagine himself, again, confronted with a printed page of English having all the vowels removed and the consonants crowded close together; would it be easy to supply those vowels by simply depending upon one’s own judgment as to what they ought to be, and then to transcribe or to translate the writing without error? Yet such is a true hint of the way in which our Old Testament Scriptures have reached us. In view of these facts and the possibilities of deviation which they suggest, the marvel is that the books of the Bible have been preserved and transmitted with so little corruption as has actually taken place.

The different kinds or classes of errors occurring in the process of making numerous copies of the Scriptures, under the general conditions thus described, may be barely mentioned here, but can hardly be illustrated by specific examples. Some arose from a mere slip of the pen, by which one letter or syllable was substituted for another; some, by the accidental omission of a word or a line. Occasionally marginal notes were later copied into the text; and parallel passages in the gospels were sometimes deliberately altered in order to bring them into harmony with one another. Still other errors no doubt owe their existence to the mutilation of manuscripts, or the dimming of words through the soiling or wearing of the material on which they were written, and the necessity thence arising for the copyist to guess at the proper letter, word, or phrase to be inserted.

Now, the problem of the Lower Criticism is to counteract as far as possible these numerous mistakes or various readings, which were bound to occur under the circumstances attending the transmission of the Scriptures through so long a period of time. The object of such criticism is to determine, with the highest degree of probability, what the biblical authors actually wrote. This, as we have seen, is a prerequisite to a true understanding or interpretation of their writings. Most of the work of the textual critics has been done since the invention of printing, and by far the best part of it within the last century. It has consisted (I) in ascertaining and weighing the documentary evidence—that is to say, in discovering, examining, and appraising all the manuscripts, large and small, contained in the university libraries and monasteries of Europe, or elsewhere; (2) in carefully comparing and recording their agreements and disagreements, however minute, and in studying the versions and quotations which might throw any side-lights upon these manuscripts; and (3) in constructing from these various sources a corrected text. The work has naturally divided it-self into two departments for the Old and the New Testaments respectively, and the results may be best summarized separately.

1. In the case of the New Testament the available materials for the use of the textual critics are of the three classes just mentioned Greek manuscripts, ancient versions, and quotations from the New Testament books in early Christian writings. Such quotations are numerous because there quickly sprang up a rich Christian literature, increasing from the last quarter of the first century, in which the sayings of Jesus and the teachings of the apostles were widely repeated. These patristic quotations, as they are called, though not always accurate and, therefore, not of the highest value, are nevertheless much esteemed for the collateral evidence which they afford in judging what the original text must have been. Likewise the versions that were early produced, because the new religion rapidly spread among peoples of various languages, and that antedate the oldest manuscripts, are of great worth in helping to determine the still earlier source or sources from which they were made. At least one of these versions, the Syriac, dating from the second century, is of extreme importance. But the principal materials are the manuscripts, of which more than 3,800 are known and catalogued, while it is believed that two or three thousand others exist which have not yet been collated. Among the chief of these known manuscripts there are, as stated in a previous chapter, two which belong to the fourth century—Codex Sinaiticus, at St. Petersburg, and Codex Vaticanus, at Rome. Two others belong to the fifth century —Codex Alexandrinus, at London, and Codex Ephraemi, at Paris. There is still another, Codex Bezae, which some authorities place in the fifth century, and some in the sixth.° All the rest are of later dates»

With such materials at their service, the textual critics have studied them with wonderful patience. The variations have been carefully noticed, recorded and published, along with the evidence supporting them. The interpretation of this evidence opens the way for differences of judgment, and the experts are not altogether agreed on many details; in fact the work of this great department of scientific investigation is still going on. Hence a perfectly satisfactory text has not yet been constructed. Progress is being made, however, and the scholars hope to produce in the course of time a critical Greek text of the New Testament superior to any heretofore in use, and far superior to that from which most of our English translations have been made.

But it should not be inferred from the fore-going remarks that the uncertainties about the text of the New Testament are of serious moment, as affecting our understanding of the essential purport of its various writings. The different readings are, indeed, numerous, but the vast majority of them are of trifling significance, and it may be said with emphasis that the labors of the textual critics have immensely substantiated, instead of invalidating, the sources of our information regarding the teachings of the Christian Scriptures. We know now better than scholars ever knew before what Jesus and the apostles actually did and said.

2. The textual criticism of the Old Testament presents quite a different situation. There are, indeed, as in the case of the New Testament, the same classes of materials, namely : manuscripts, versions, and ancient quotations; and, in addition, extensive paraphrases called Targums, and a great mass of commentary notes and explanations composing what is known as the Talmud. But the extant Hebrew manuscripts are of comparatively recent date, the oldest being no earlier than the ninth century of our era; and these are not in the same form, or even in exactly the same language, as those which the Old Testament Scriptures originally bore. The ancient Hebrew which was spoken and written by the’ Israelites prior to the Exile, and which the earliest and most important books of the Old Testament employed, was greatly modified by the breaking-up of the nation and its contact with other peoples through the Babylonian captivity and subsequent events. While this purer language continued to be used in writing and copying the sacred books, so that they were all produced and preserved in it down to the Maccabean period, yet it was gradually superseded by the Aramaic dialect, both in common speech and in ordinary writing. Hence it became the tendency and the practice to trans-literate the Scriptures into the Aramaic, and in the time of Christ they probably existed altogether in this language, except the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Greek translation, called the “Septuagint.” The Samaritan Pentateuch, dating from the fourth century B. C., preserves the ancient Hebrew with slight modifications, while two other similar specimens of it are found in the inscription on the Moabite Stone (about 890 B.C.) and in that on the Pool of Siloam (about 700 B.C.).

Now, in the course of this transition of the Scriptures from the ancient Hebrew to the Aramaic and thence to the Greek, and also by reason of the vicissitudes of the Jewish nation through which many precious literary works were lost, the text undoubtedly experienced some serious corruptions. The labors of the scribes became very important and were of a painstaking character; yet they exercised considerable editorial freedom, and introduced certain changes which remained permanently. It does not appear that an attempt was made to establish an official text until after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A. D., or at about the time of the closing of the third section of the Old Testament Canon. Thereafter this established text prevailed, during the Talmudic period, until the era of the Masoretes (between the fifth and the eighth centuries).

The Masoretes were Jewish scholars who set out to determine, from the mass of Talmudic notes and comments, the true traditional text; they also supplied the necessary vowel-points, inasmuch as the writings had come down to them only in consonant form; and they recorded the traditional remarks, along with their own explanations, indicating various readings. The school of the Masoretes had its seat at Tiberias, but its labors were not confined to one place and could not be completed in one generation. They were performed with the most scrupulous care and fidelity, and when the work was finished the greatest pains were taken to secure its preservation and its use in the synagogues instead of any and all other forms of the text. It is this traditional or Masoretic text which has come down to our time, and from which the modern translations of the Old Testament have been made.

With these and other materials—the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Greek translation called the Septuagint, made in the third and second centuries before Christ, three minor Greek translations made in the second century A. D., the Syriac Version made prior to the fourth century A. D., the Old Latin Version made from the Greek, and Jerome’s new translation of the Old Testament called the Vulgate—with all these materials, and some of less importance not here included, the textual critics seek to remove errors from the Masoretic Text by the methods of comparison and conjecture which experience and learning enable them to use with great skill. Their work is not yet finished, and perhaps will never be perfectly accomplished; but it has resulted, while proving the existence of mistakes, in demonstrating the essential trustworthiness of the Old Testament Scriptures, as they have come down to us, bringing the great ethical and religious messages which the servants of God so faithfully delivered in the ancient time.

II. The Higher Criticism has to do with the inner substance of the Scriptures. It deals with their literary features, undertaking to judge as to the character and origin of the biblical books, and as to their relation to one another. To this end it studies the style, structure, and thought of each particular writing; seeks to ascertain whether it is the work of a single author, or a compilation; analyzes and dissects it, even to the extent of scrutinizing every word and syllable, every peculiar expression, every allusion to other writings; and tries to determine its date, its reliability, its dogmatic bearings and its spiritual worth. Above all, perhaps, it aims to understand the times and circumstances under which a given portion of Scripture was produced, because this will be Iikely to throw the most light upon its real purport. As Professor George T. Ladd says : “By the Higher Criticism is meant that study which tries to reproduce the influences and circumstances out of which the biblical books arose, and thus exhibit them as true children of their own time.” To the same effect writes Professor W. Robertson Smith : “The critical study of ancient documents means nothing else than a careful sifting of their origin and meaning in the light of history.” 16 And Professor Charles A. Briggs says : “The questions of the Higher Criticism are questions of integrity, authenticity, credibility, and literary forms of the various writings that constitute the Bible.”

The special reason why such a work is necessary lies in the fact that the Scriptures, like other literary remains of antiquity, were produced in an uncritical, that is to say, an unscientific age, when people were not careful about keeping precise records of dates and authorities, and have reached us through many changes of circumstances and form which cannot fail to provoke some question as to their trustworthiness. In common with the productions of ancient historians and poets, the sacred literature of all the great nations of the remote past has been subjected to a rigid scrutiny, in modern times, to determine its real character and value, simply because the temper of our age is not satisfied with tradition, but wants verification ; in other words, it wants knowledge wherever possible, or adequate reasons for its true faith.

But it must not be supposed that the Higher Criticism is entirely of recent origin. Like other significant movements in the realm of thought, it is the culmination of a long preparatory development. It has been growing ever since, in the later days of Judaism in Palestine, enough critical judgment was exercised to decide what writings should be admitted into the Old Testament Canon. Each of the three stages of this great process, determining respectively and successively the Canon of the Law, and then the Canon of the Prophets, and lastly the Canon of the Hagiographa, contributed to the increasing learning and discrimination lying behind what is now a noble science. In the early Christian centuries when the New Testament Canon was likewise slowly forming, criticism made a marked advance, It made another notable advance through the labors of the renowned scholar Origen, who, during his sojourn at Cæsarea (232—254 A.D.), produced his great Hexapla, which laid the foundation for real textual criticism, and who became the foremost teacher of the early Church. Through the work of Jerome, too, it took another stride forward; a thousand years later, the Reformers promoted it still further, through their translations and their observations upon the respective merits of various biblical books; and within the last two centuries it has become a more strictly scientific method of Bible study, striving to free itself from dogmatic prepossession and traditionary bias, and to know the real inner structure, nature, and purport of Scripture as revealed by the historic conditions of its production. The work of the textual critics has thus been supplemented by that of the literary or “higher” critics, whose company embraces a host of brilliant names reaching from the early years of the eighteenth century down to the present time.

These brief general statements are wholly inadequate to give an account of the rise and progress of the Higher Criticism, but limits of space do not allow an extended treatment, and only a few very simple examples may now be cited to illustrate its function. They will at least afford an elementary idea of the nature of the questions with which it deals.

1. Let us take the book of Isaiah. Tradition has taught us to suppose that this was all written by the author whose name it bears, who flourished about 739–701 B. C. But a critical examination shows that there are two very dissimilar parts to it, viz., the first thirty-nine chapters, and the last twenty-seven. The former of these parts bears abundant evidence of having been written, with some exceptions, in the Assyrian period, long before the overthrow of Jerusalem by Babylon; while the latter part bears equal evidence of having been produced, with some exceptions also, in the time of Cyrus, king of Persia, whom it mentions by name as the Lord’s “anointed,” who should do his pleasure. Plainly the fact of such mention proves that there must have been a Cyrus to write about at the time; but this was more than a hundred and fifty years after Isaiah’s day, as Cyrus did not capture Babylon until 538 B. c. For this and other strong reasons the Higher Criticism concludes that our present book of Isaiah consists mainly of two distinct works, the authorship of the second of which is unknown. But the fact that it is anonymous does not impair its value. It is just as truly the voice of its age—the highest, clearest, divinest voice of the generation that heard its message originally—as it would be if we were certain of the author’s name. It bears the stamp of its time, and the very mood of the great prophet whose soul gave forth its inspiring word of promise may easily possess the intelligent, sympathetic reader who takes in the meaning of its glowing utterances today.

2. Take the forty-second Psalm, beginning, “As the hart panteth after the water-brooks.” It has been widely believed that David wrote nearly all the Psalms. But surely no one can read this, after the idea has been suggested that it was written during the Captivity, without seeing at once what a new, fresh, earnest meaning it takes on. Listen to the plaintive strain of this mournful Israelite :

My tears have been my food day and night,
While they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?
These things I remember, and pour out my soul within me,
How I went with the throng, and led them to the house of God,
With the voice of joy and praise, a multitude keeping holyday.

There is no difficulty in understanding that this Psalm must have been written at the time of the Babylonian Exile; but this was nearly five hundred years after David’s age.

3. Take another Psalm, cxxxvii :

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst thereof
We hanged up our harps.
For there they that led us captive required of us songs,
And they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing Jehovah’s song
In a foreign land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget her skill.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
If I remember thee not;
If I prefer not Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.

It is clear that this could not have been written at any other time than that of the Captivity. These are some of the more simple cases in which the historical allusions easily enable the critic to determine the approximate dates of the writings under consideration.

4. A more difficult case is that of the Fourth Gospel, assigned by tradition to John the Evangelist, whose name it bears. This document is different from the other gospels. It opens with the expression of ideas belonging to the Logos philosophy prevalent in Alexandria, and these ideas color the work throughout. Jesus is not called “the Son of Man,” as in the other three gospels, but “the Son of God,” and the whole conception of his mission is peculiarly exalted and spiritual. The book is not so much a narrative of the outward events in the Master’s career as it is a report of his attitude, his prevailing mood, his profound thought and feeling; and yet the report is evidently a reflection of the author’s interpretation of it all. These and many other facts raise the question whether the gospel was really written by John, or by some non-Jewish Christian who was deeply influenced by Hellenistic mysticism, writing in the early part of the second century, or whether, indeed, it may not be a composite work, embodying some of the memories of the apostle along with the philosophical ideas and arguments of his own followers. This problem is not yet solved, but it is one which the Higher Criticism has dealt with most industriously and which is still of the keenest interest. Perhaps the issue cannot be determined with certainty, but the whole historic foundation of Christianity has been shown by the discussion to be more solid than it could otherwise have been known to be.

The foregoing instances furnish merely a hint of the task which the Higher Criticism sets itself to perform; namely, to ascertain as exactly as possible the origin, structure, character, and purport of every biblical writing, with the aim solely to discover and make known the truth, in the firm conviction that the truth is of God and may be trusted to do God’s work in the souls of men who are brought to understand it. As a grand result of the critical movement, the entire Bible is speaking to us today with a singular freshness of interest and power. The historic periods in which its various books were produced are brought nearer to us than ever before; our age is put into sympathy with the remote past; our minds and hearts are quickened anew by ancient thought, aspiration, and faith ; and thus, perceiving and feeling the continuity of the mighty spiritual development running through the ages, we are enabled by a knowledge of God’s methods to put our own lives and labors more intelligently into harmony with his vast purposes.






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