The Biography of the Bible, by Ernest Sutherland Bates, , at sacred-texts.com
THERE IS no particular mystery about the so-called "Higher Criticism." It is simply that study of the meaning of the Bible which employs the same combination of textual and historical criticism that is used today in the study of all ancient literature.
Originally, the term referred to any criticism concerned primarily with meaning as contrasted with "lower" or merely textual criticism. Owing to the fact that the study of the meaning of the Bible proved to be so peculiarly significant, the term eventually came to be restricted to it alone, although, of course, textual investigation was always one of the chief resources of Biblical Higher Criticism.
As usual, the philosophers were the first to come forward with a rational attitude. Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (1651), discussing Biblical dates and authorship, ventured a number of shrewd conjectures which lagging scholarship was to verify only after two centuries. He pointed out many passages
in the Pentateuch clearly not of Mosaic authorship; the historical books were evidently written later than the events they recorded; Psalms and Proverbs, at least in their final form, were late. Hobbes glimpsed the fundamental truth that the Bible was a compilation of many books that were put together and revised by other hands than those of the original authors.
The Jewish philosopher, Benedict Spinoza (Baruch de Espinoza), went much further. Looked upon in his precocious youth as the coming glory of the Amsterdam synagogue, he had early mastered the Talmudic interpretations of the Bible and from them advanced to the more inspiring study of the Jewish medieval philosophers, Maimonides, Levi ben Gerson, Hasdai Crescas, Ibn Ezra, and Moses of Cordova. From them he acquired an independent habit of thought which soon brought him into collision with the authorities of the synagogue—for orthodoxy, Jewish or Christian, was everywhere equally intolerant. At the age of twenty-four, Spinoza was tried for heresy and excommunicated according to a formula which was a veritable masterpiece of gruesomeness.
"With the judgment of the angels and the sentence of the saints, we anathematize, execrate,
curse, and cast out Baruch de Espinoza, the whole of the sacred community assenting, in presence of the sacred books with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts written therein, pronouncing against him the malediction wherewith Elisha cursed the children, and all the maledictions written in the Book of the Law. Let him be accursed by day, and accursed by night; let him be accursed in his lying down, and accursed in his rising up; accursed in going out and accursed in coming in. May the Lord never more pardon or acknowledge him; may the wrath and displeasure of the Lord burn henceforth against this man, load him with all the curses written in the Book of the Law, and blot out his name from under the sky; may the Lord sever him for evil from all the tribes of Israel, weight him with all the maledictions of the firmament contained in the Book of the Law; and may all ye who are obedient to the Lord your God be saved this day.
"Hereby then are all admonished that none hold converse with him by word of mouth, none hold communication with him by writing; that no one do him any service, no one abide under the same roof with him, no one approach within four cubits length of him, and no one read any document dictated by him, or written by his hand."
Thus cut off from the Jewish community, Spinoza withdrew to the outskirts of Amsterdam where he earned a frugal living as a grinder of lenses, devoting his leisure to thinking and writing and refusing all the offers of patronage and financial assistance that became more frequent as his reputation gradually extended. In the first of his works, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (published anonymously in 1670), he outlined in some detail the proper method for the historical study of the Bible, and, like Hobbes, he pleaded for an interpretation based upon the Bible itself instead of upon extraneous dogmas. But knowledge of the Bible itself included in his eyes a knowledge of its natural environment: ". . . that is, the life, the conduct, and the studies of the author of each book, who he was, what was the occasion, and the epoch of his writing, whom did he write for, and in what language." Further, Spinoza demanded an inquiry "into the fate of each book: how it was first received, into whose hands it fell, how many different versions there were of it, by whose advice was it received into the Bible, and lastly, how all the books now universally accepted as sacred, were united into a single whole."
Here was a complete outline for the science of
[paragraph continues] Higher Criticism. But it came a hundred years too early.
The eighteenth century proved to be critically minded but not historically minded. Advances in physical science had led to the conception of a lawful universe difficult to harmonize with the primitive scientific notions of the early Hebrews. The miracles, formerly urged as a proof of revelation, now became a stumbling block, needing defense in their turn. Skeptics such as David Hume pointed out that if miracles were breaks in the order of nature they needed to be supported by extraordinarily strong evidence, whereas in reality the evidence was extraordinarily weak unless one previously admitted the idea of revelation which the miracles themselves were supposed to prove. Apologists such as Bishop Butler usually attempted to meet this argument by denying that miracles were breaks in the order of nature: they were to be explained either as natural events misinterpreted by the narrators (this explanation supporting the events at the expense of the narrators) or as elaborate metaphors for moral or religious truths (this supporting the narrators at the expense of the events). Both these explanations explained away, since neither of them upheld the genuineness of the
miracle as it was actually reported. Thus the literal authority of the Bible was undermined as much by its defenders as by its critics. Neither party had the faintest glimpse of the importance of the miraculous, precisely because it was miraculous, in all primitive thought.
The religious arguments of the eighteenth century turned on the scientific authority of the Bible rather than on ultimate moral or religious questions. Most of the critics, such as Bolingbroke, John Toland, Samuel Reimarus, Voltaire, Volney, Rousseau, and Paine, were deists, believing in a perfect deity, considered to be the creator of nature and its beneficent laws. Even when they were atheists, such as Diderot, Holbach, and the early Shelley, they were devoted to the Christian doctrine of the brotherhood of man. Looking back upon the conflict today, one is impressed by the fact that the critics of the Bible possessed much more of its true spirit than did its orthodox defenders. The critics were social reformers, fighting as had the Hebrew Prophets against the injustice of aristocratic and ecclesiastical domination; the apologists, on the other hand, were primarily concerned to defend the vested interests of Church and State. Thus, as during the Reformation, the
discussion of the Bible was incidental to a larger social revolution, and the same classes who had once tried to suppress popular knowledge of the Bible, now, having taken the Bible over and established a private monopoly in it, consistently opposed any further extension of knowledge about it. In both instances, the conservative dread of new ideas was motivated by the fear of social change.
On the main question of the scientific authority of the Bible the rationalists of the Enlightenment were, of course, victorious. More logical and more intellectually honest than the eighteenth-century apologists, the rationalists were on the side of progress. But so far as specific knowledge of the Bible was concerned, they could do no more than pave the way for it; they could tell what the Bible was not; they could not tell what it was.
The situation is illustrated by the most famous of all the eighteenth-century attacks, The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine, written during the stormiest period of the French Revolution when the author was in danger of his life. Paine believed in God, in personal immortality, and much more than most Christians in human brotherhood. But when he found errors in the Bible he considered them to be instances of deliberate falsehood; when
he found repetitions, he scented plagiarism; when he found books ascribed to the wrong authors, he talked of forgery; in a word, he treated the Bible as if it were a contemporary eighteenth-century production, and denounced it for what, measured by the customs of his own time, seemed grave moral evils. As against his antagonists who reasoned from the same premises but denied the existence of the errors, repetitions, and wrong ascriptions of authorship, Paine was in the right, although most of his positive conclusions about the Bible itself were wide of the mark.
The Age of Reason, with its forceful, if occasionally vulgar, use of irony and wit, was welcomed by the disaffected of Paine's generation, and it continued to enjoy a kind of succès de scandale throughout the nineteenth century, giving rise in America to agnostic groups who continued to repeat Paine's arguments long after they were utterly outmoded. So, in the last quarter of the century, Paine's views, without Paine's sincerity, were echoed in the meretricious rhetoric of Robert Ingersoll. Meanwhile, unknown to both the professional agnostics and their Fundamentalist opponents, there had arisen in Europe a new school of criticism which made all this noisy disputation meaningless.
The effect of the eighteenth-century attacks upon the Bible had been to lead European scholars at last to follow the advice of Hobbes and Spinoza to try to find out how and when and where and why the Bible actually was written. A beginning was made as early as 1751 by a French Roman Catholic physician, Jean Astruc, who proved from the internal evidence that there were at least two separate documents combined in the Pentateuch. In the same year Lowth discovered the system of parallelism in Hebrew poetry and thus began the study of the Bible as literature. But the real father of Higher Criticism was J. G. Eichhorn whose monumental Einleitung (1780–83) laid a sure foundation for future scholarship. Eichhorn distinguished between the priestly legislation of Leviticus and the popular legislation of Deuteronomy, showed that parts of the Book of Isaiah could not have been written by that Prophet, and gave a late date to Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, and Daniel. After Eichhorn the fruitfulness of the historical method in the study of the Bible could no longer be intelligently questioned.
The next great landmark in Biblical criticism was furnished by the work of the Dutch scholar De Wette, who in 1806–07 proved the correctness
of the guess of Thomas Hobbes that Deuteronomy was the lost book of the law found by Hilkiah in the Temple during the reign of Josiah and further indicated the key position of Deuteronomy as a product of the seventh century. For fifty years, critical debate raged over the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, but in the end the general conclusions of De Wette were vindicated. Through the labors of Reuss, Graf, Kuenen, Wellhausen, and many others on the Continent, supplemented by those of S. R. Driver, T. K. Cheyne, W. Robertson Smith, and others in Great Britain, the various documents of the Pentateuch were disentangled; the traditional order of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Prophets, was replaced by the correct order of Prophets, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Psalms; Leviticus and Psalms were proved to have been postexilic collections; all the books were at least approximately dated; and a totally new understanding of the entire character of the Old Testament was gained. Scholarship has no greater triumph to show in any field.
With regard to the New Testament the situation is somewhat different. There, the critical chapter is still unfinished. At the outset for several generations the Higher Criticism of the New Testament
lagged behind that of the Old Testament until attention was aroused by the challenging Leben Jesu (1835) of David Friedrich Strauss (translated into English by George Eliot). Strauss denied all historical value to the Gospels, tracing their origin to popular mythology and Messianic expectations. Later knowledge concerning oriental religions of the sacrificed god (Osiris, Attis, Adonis), as set forth, for instance, in The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer, has served to revive the "myth theory" of Jesus in recent years. Such able twentieth-century scholars as Loisy and Bultmann accept as genuine only the sayings of Jesus and remain skeptical as to all the recorded details of his life. The extreme myth theory, however, has never gained acceptance among anything like the majority of critical scholars, chiefly because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of reconciling it with the unquestionable historicity of Paul and the disciples of Jesus whom Paul mentions.
Another once influential position now somewhat discredited was that of Ferdinand Christian Baur, founder of the Tübingen School which flourished at about the middle of the nineteenth century. According to Baur and his followers, the point of departure for New Testament criticism should be
found in the conflict between the Judaizing tendencies of the original disciples and the anti-Mosaic teachings of Paul, a conflict finally harmonized in the Gospels and the Acts, which Baur accordingly dated in the second century. That there was a conflict, perpetuated by the Gnostics, is of course evident, but later critics have shown successfully that Baur greatly overemphasized it, and have restored an early date for the three Synoptic Gospels. The second-century date of the Johannine Gospel, on the other hand, is now generally accepted, the most that is claimed by conservative critics being that it contains earlier elements, possibly from the hand of John the disciple. That the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse could not possibly have been written by the same author is all but universally admitted.
Much less ultimately important than the work of Strauss or Baur, both of whom originated fruitful lines of investigation even though these did not bear out their own major conclusions, was the enormously popular Vie de Jésus (1863) of Ernest Renan, of which three hundred thousand copies were sold in France alone. Renan's later works in the long series, L’Histoire des origines du Christianisme (1863–80), and his L’Histoire du peuple d’Israël
[paragraph continues] (1888–94) were more valuable. Through the charm of his style, if not through the profundity of his thought, he exercised great influence upon a whole group of French writers among whom Anatole France, at least, was a world figure.
At the close of the nineteenth century it seemed unlikely that any fresh sources of information about the New Testament would ever be forthcoming. Then, most unexpectedly, excavations in Upper Egypt by Flinders Petrie, Grenfell, and Hunt brought to light a mass of Greek papyri which opened up an entirely new line of approach.
The story of these discoveries is a modern romance. Most of the papyri were found in mummies, having been used as part of their wrappings, but the most important collection of all was unearthed at Oxyrhynchus in a rubbish heap long overblown by sand, where Grenfell and Hunt discovered the contents of a Roman record office. The papyri had been taken to the rubbish heap to be burned, but the fire had died out leaving many undamaged, and the sand blowing over them had preserved them for nearly twenty centuries. To this fortuitous good we owe sixteen quarto volumes of Greek texts, which have revolutionized our knowledge of the New Testament. Later findings were equally
romantic, one of them consisting in the discovery of a number of mummified crocodiles, apparently useless to the explorers until an irritated workman hit one of the sacred reptiles over the head and the gash revealed that they too were wrapped in papyri covered with precious writings of the Roman era.
Much publicized in the press was the news that the Oxyrhynchus discoveries included a page of "Lost Sayings of Jesus," probably from an Egyptian Gospel. But the importance of the discoveries did not lie in these probably unauthentic Sayings but in the contents of the record office, including letters, contracts, wills, documents of marriage and divorce, and all manner of legal proceedings. These startlingly revealed the fact that the spoken Greek of the New Testament period was very close to the Greek of the New Testament itself, which hitherto had been usually adjudged to be imperfect literary Greek. The full import of this discovery will be realized when it is said that the style of the New Testament, instead of being like that of the King James version, is much more like that of a well-written modern newspaper.
This had indeed already been suspected by a few clairvoyant scholars, one of whom, Ferrar Fenton,
had published a translation of Paul's Epistles in Modern English as early as 1883. As soon as their conjectures were verified by the excavations, a number of scholars were quick to respond with modern speech translations. First in the field was a Roman Catholic, Francis A. Spencer, who in 1898 published a translation of the Gospels endorsed by Cardinal Gibbons. A similar translation was brought out the next year by F. S. Ballantine. More ambitious was the Twentieth Century New Testament published by a group of twenty scholars, representing various denominations, in 1899–1900. Then came the valuable Historical New Testament of Professor James Moffatt in 1901 and the New Testament in Modern Speech by Richard Francis Weymouth in 1903. The chief criticism to be brought against all of these experiments is that in spite of their titles they were not modern enough; the translators were haunted by echoes of older versions, which filled their pages with annoying suggestions of familiar rhythms and phrases entirely out of keeping with the new style. Of many later attempts in the same vein—there were more than twenty-five in the first quarter century, chiefly in America—the most successful was The New Testament: an American Translation by Professor Edgar
[paragraph continues] J. Goodspeed published in 1923 and republished in 1931 as part of The Bible: an American Translation, in which the Old Testament was translated by a group of scholars under the editorship of J. M. Powis Smith. In literal accuracy, this last edition at present holds the foremost place.
At present. But New Testament criticism was never more alive than it is today, and we have learned to expect surprises. New Testament scholarship is still creative because its problems have not yet been fully solved. Many passages in the original Greek still remain so obscure as to be virtually unintelligible, although this would scarcely be guessed from the translations, since the translators, when in doubt, have simply done the best they could without mentioning their difficulties.
Quite recently, Professor Charles Cutler Torrey of Yale has advanced what may possibly prove an epoch-making solution of this textual problem. Having discovered that many of the obscurities can be explained as Greek mistranslations of Aramaic words or phrases, so that the passages become perfectly clear when rendered into their presumable originals, he has followed this clew to its extreme conclusion, namely, that all four Gospels are compilations of lost Aramaic documents. Believing that
only by translating the Greek into Aramaic and then translating the Aramaic into English could the true meaning be recovered, he himself carried through this tremendous undertaking, publishing its results in The Four Gospels: a New Translation (1933). Obviously, this process of double translation is extremely hazardous, and, unfortunately, its value can be judged only by competent Aramaic scholars of whom there are relatively few. Should Professor Torrey's work be accepted in its entirety, it would bring the original composition of the Gospels close to the time of Jesus and would lend much added weight to the Fourth Gospel. Such good fortune rarely awaits any individual work of scholarship, however, since the achievements of scholarship are directly due to its collective character wherein the conclusions of one are checked and modified by those of his successors. But dramatically, at least, the bold Aramaic theory is a fitting consummation of the long adventure of the spirit that has gone into the making of our New Testament.
The problem of Biblical translation does not seem completely solvable. From the fact that the writers of the New Testament were able to infuse the spirit of a new and thrilling religion into conversational
[paragraph continues] Greek, it by no means follows that this spirit can be recaptured by using twentieth-century conversational English. Modern English is saturated with scientific connotations equally foreign to the Greek of the New Testament and to Elizabethan English; it possesses qualities of force and precision, lacking in the older language, but it is essentially the speech of prose, whereas the prose of the King James version was itself half-poetry. Language forever changes and doubtless a time will come when the King James version will be no longer intelligible. Happily, we are still far from that period. The rhythm and diction and poetic quality of the greatest of all translations as yet remains closer to our hearts than the language of the market which we employ in our daily lives.
No one should any longer dream of consulting the Authorized Version to settle any disputed question of literal meaning. For that we will turn to the modern translations that we already have, or, in due time, to those others still to come. Each such new rendering will be welcomed, some of them with appropriate enthusiasm. But for literary appreciation and enjoyment, and for moral inspiration, we shall still do well to turn to the matchless King James version.