What is higher criticism and the historical critical method of examining the Bible?

Higher criticism, which is also known as the historical-critical method, is a method of examining the Bible that seeks to discover what was originally meant in the various documents as they were penned in their culture and time. This approach assumes a secular perspective and denies the supernatural inspiration of Scripture.  Therefore, its conclusions must be in harmony with a secular, non-supernatural worldview.  This automatically negates the possibility of prophecy and inspiration from God. Higher Criticism is in contrast to Lower Criticism which is the examination of the physical texts, their origin, the reliability, and the transmission.

An example of higher criticism is the Documentary Hypothesis which is an attempt to explain the origin of the first five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The documentary hypothesis proposes four main authors to the Pentateuch: J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), P (Priestly), and D (Deuteronomic). This is also known as the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. This theory proposed that there are sections within the first five books that demonstrate a variety of styles and word concentrations. As an example, it asserts that there are places in the Pentateuch where the word Yahweh occurs more than Elohim.  This is because one author tended to use one word or phrase more than another author and these linguistic differences demonstrate multiple authors. This methodology is not without its problems.  See Answering the Documentary Hypothesis for a brief response.

Higher criticism, again also known as the historical-critical method, treats the ancient texts of the Bible from an entirely secular perspective. The presupposition of secular necessity to the exclusion of supernatural possibility regarding the origin of the documents means that any texts that have a prophetic nature to them and also seem to find fulfillment in the events must have been written after the events occur.

"The critical study of the literary methods and sources used by the authors of (esp.) the Books of the OT and NT, in distinction from Textual (‘Lower’) Criticism, which is concerned solely with the recovery of the text of the Books as it left their authors’ hands. The phrase, which is little used now, came into currency from its use by W. R. Smith in The Old Testament in the Jewish Church (1881; p. 105)."1

History of

The criticism of the Bible as a reliable and authentic document began as early as the second century A.D. with the Gnostics who, among others, doubted the authenticity and Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). The criticism of the biblical scriptures surged in the 18th and 19th centuries with the "two author" theory of the origin of the Pentateuch consisting of E (Elohist) and J (Yahwist) and then with the "four author" theory (Documentary Hypothesis).2


2 Timothy 3:16–17, "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work."

If someone presupposes that God does not exist or that the Scriptures cannot be inspired, then all kinds of theories must be raised to account for the fingerprints of the supernatural that are written into the biblical text such as the prophecies of the birthplace of Jesus, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his crucifixion, his resurrection, etc. Those whose presuppositions are secular will find answers in higher criticism where Christians who hold to God's existence will have no problems acknowledging the miraculous authorship of the Bible.  The Christians are not limited by this strenuous requirement of secularism that is an unfounded filter put upon the Bible.

  • 1. Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • 2. Ref. Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.