Higher criticism

Higher criticism is a branch of philology that investigates the origin of a text, especially the text of the Bible. Higher criticism in particular focusses on the contributing sources of a document and determine the authorship, date, and place of composition of the text. This term is used in contrast with lower criticism or textual criticism, which is the endeavour to establish the original version of a text. Excesses of radical higher critics in the 19th century caused some moderates to label their endeavor as the science of introduction.

Higher Criticism and Radical Criticism

Higher criticism originally referred to the practice of a group of German Biblical scholars centered in Tübingen, including Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), and Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), who began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to analyze the historical records of the Middle East from Christian and Old Testament times, in search of independent confirmation of the events related in the Bible. They are the intellectual descendants of John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Gotthold Lessing, Gottlieb Fichte, Georg Hegel, and the French rationalists. These ideas travelled to England with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and more with George Eliot's translations of Strauss's Life of Jesus (1846) and Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity (1854). La Vie de Jésus (1863), by a Frenchman, Ernest Renan (1823-1892), continued the same tradition. But three years earlier before the appearance of La Vie de Jésus, liberal Anglican theologians had begun the process of incorporating this historical criticism within the spectrum of Christian doctrine in Essays and Reviews (1860). In Catholicism, L'Evangile et l'Eglise (1902), by Alfred Loisy, against the Essence of Christianity of Adolph von Harnack and less inspired than Renan, gave birth to the modernist crisis (1902-1961).

For some people, higher criticism of the Bible was used to demythologize the Bible (see Rudolf Bultmann); this endeavour is seen as threatening to Judaism by Orthodox Jews, and to Christianity by many Christians. Traditional Christians and Orthodox Jews contend that higher criticism is heretical. Scholars and liberal religious Jews and Christians respond by pointing out that belief in God has nothing to do with belief in whether a certain text, such as the Bible, has more than one author. Further, they point out that it is circular reasoning to use claims within the Bible to "prove" the authenticity of the Bible.

Higher biblical criticism suggests that the current text of the Torah was redacted together from a small number of earlier sources; see Documentary hypothesis.

Higher Criticism of Other Religious Texts

Both higher and lower forms of criticism are carried out today in regards to the religious writings of many religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.


Modern higher criticism is just beginning to be carried out on the Quran. This scholarship questions some of traditional claims about its composition and content, contending that the Quran incorporates material from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and that the text of the Quran has developed over time. For example, Islamic history records that Uthman collected all variants of the Quran and destroyed those that he did not approve of. Parts of certain Hadith collections refer to chapters (suras) that are no longer extant in the Quran.

What is the Koran?

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