Debunking Higher Criticism
Updated: Jun 8
Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies Undermine Radical Biblical Criticism
A short essay by Dr. Patrick C. Marks
Higher criticism of the Bible is the effort to distinguish the actual authors, sources and historical context of the Biblical text, but when this scholastic exercise is combined with an anti-supernatural worldview and an ignorance or dismissal of the archaeological support for the authenticity of the Biblical record, confidence in the historical accuracy of the Bible can be eroded.
Higher criticism began with a reasonable quest to identify the historical structure within which the Biblical text is embedded. As higher critical thinking developed and became increasingly radical, an anti-supernatural bias began to invade. This invasion came to a peak in the 19th and early 20th centuries under writers such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and Julius Wellhausen, among others. These and other radical or negative higher critics held the pre-supposition that only naturalistic, materialistic explanations for historical events are possible, thus, in their view, any accurate predictive prophecy must be from authors of later time periods and any depiction of a miraculous events must be superstitious inventions rather than eyewitness testimony of real events. At its peak, negative or radical higher critics essentially relegated everything in the Biblical narrative prior to the divided monarchy of Israel and Judah as myth, likely composed by priests after the Babylonian exile in the late 6th century B.C.
Radical higher criticism eventually developed into the documentary hypothesis. This view theorized that there were actually four writers or groups of writers (labeled J, E, P and D) that composed the first five books of the Bible in the middle and late Iron Age rather than the traditional view of the authorship or editorship of Moses as a single writer doing his work in the middle Bronze Age. The result of the popularity and persuasiveness of these radical higher critical theories was an undermining of confidence in the historicity of the entire Old Testament (and later of the New Testament when higher critical theory was applied to it as well). This led to a general lack of confidence among many laymen and pastors trained at seminaries subscribing to these theories that the Bible could be trusted as a supernaturally inspired record of God’s direct intervention in human history.
The radical critics based their theories on purely speculative and subjective analysis of word usage frequency, supposed changes in literary style, a pre-conceived notion of what early or middle Bronze Age peoples were intellectually able to accomplish and based an anti-supernatural bias. But word use frequencies do not prove distinct separate authorship and supposed differences in literary devices or writing styles can be merely a phenomenon of the subjective opinions of the critics rather than an actual difference in authorship. Near Eastern studies have shown that the literary devices and styles seen in the Pentateuch match the style and devices used in other ancient literary examples from the early and middle Bronze Age. These studies show that specific word usage and figures of speech are distinct literary elements from the ancient Near East of the early and middle Bronze Age that could not have been known to writers from the Iron Age. The presence of these distinct literary markers is well attested by other ancient sources such as the Mari tablets and other writings from Egypt, Ebla, Ugarit, Assyria and other ancient Near Eastern cultures. These ancient sources show that the narrative style and cultural references of the Pentateuch match the early and middle Bronze Age precisely. In addition, sections of the Old Testament reputably from the Iron Age match other Iron Age documents in terms of literary style, usage and cultural references as well.
Archaeology demonstrates conclusively that the Biblical references to cities (such as Biblical Sodom), distinct people groups (such as the Hittites) and historical events (such as the invasion of the Levant by Pharaoh Shishak) are historically synchronized to extra-biblical histories, monuments, and other archaeological remains with such attestation that denying the historicity of the Biblical accounts is intellectually dishonest. As a single example, Near Eastern studies have shown that ancient Near Eastern treaties had layouts and features specific to six different recognizable time periods. The Pentateuch’s description of specific treaties in the early and middle Bronze Age match known, specific features of early and middle Bronze Age treaties, a fact that late Iron Age writers, approximately a thousand years past the early and middle Bronze Age, could not have known.
In summary, Near Eastern archaeological studies have substantially supported the historicity of the Old Testament, factually undermining the speculative and biased conclusions of the radical higher critics of the Bible.
Steven Collins, The Defendable Faith: Lessons in Christian Apologetics (Alburquerque, NM: TSU Press, 2012), 210 – 221.
Norman L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics: An a to z Guide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, ©2012), 58 – 62.
K A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, pbk. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2006), 1 – 5.
Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, The Best of Josh Mcdowell: A Ready Defense (San Bernardino, CA: Here, 1990), 134 – 140.
Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, [rev., updated, and expanded] ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: T. Nelson, 1999), 450 – 454.