The first and primary challenge I faced in college was dealing with the “claims of higher criticism.” In short, it said that the Scriptures were not given by God but were rather a compilation of oral traditions redacted by men over many centuries. With regard to the Old Testament, all of the books of the Old Testament, accordingly, were not written by who they said they were written by, nor were they written at that time. Rather, they were edited by scribes during the Babylonian captivity.
This post will not so much deal with the Old Testament higher criticism, but the New Testament higher criticism. Suffice to say a few words responding to the Old Testament critics:
- First, this position is violently anti-semitic (e.g. the Jews were too stupid to leave in all of the embarrassing “repetitions” and the editors forgot to take them out. This is actually a devastating charge because in the Academy if someone even asserts you are anti-semitic, your career is officially over. And in Europe, you will likely end up in jail). It’s like calling someone a racist. It doesn’t have to be true to be effective.
- The men who originally did higher criticism were not familiar with how ancient texts were read. They were all Germans who had originally specialized in Icelandic sagas, which is dandy, but Icelandic sagas are not the same thing as biblical narratives. In other words, they are guilty of the most basic category confusion.
- Reading the bible as narrative: the repetitions in the Bible, therefore, aren’t “oopses” left in their by dumb editors, but rather “leitmotifs” and themes that highlight the tension and release of the narrative itself. This is how any good literature of any time period is read. Cf St Irenaeus’s Adversus Haeresis.
- Honestly, 90% of the literature isn’t even argument. It’s assertion. They presuppose without question from the outset a closed, naturalistic universe (in which God doesn’t speak) and from that unquestioned presupposition, merely assert that “Isaiah couldn’t have prophesied with such uncanny accuracy; therefore, another person claiming to be Isaiah wrote it (e.g., chapters 40-66).” If someone asks, why couldn’t the supernatural be possible and Isaiah did look into the future?” the scholarly academic response is, “Well, he just couldn’t and if you want an A in this course you’ll write what I tell you to write.”
- Even liberals today have given it up. They still accept most of the findings, but the post-liberal school of Yale University (think of George Lindbeck) recognize that however the Bible came down to us, it is supposed to be read as narrative. Even thy prophets testify against thee, Wellhausen!
The same arguments against Old Testament Higher Criticism do not work against New Testament Higher Criticism. Yes, the presupposition of academic unbelief is still there, but since the time frame is smaller (A.D. 33 to A.D 100, give or take 10 years), their claims are much weaker. Usually they will say that some from of oral tradition functioned in the apostolic community until the writing of the first gospel, after that, towards the latter part of the 1st century, other New Testament writings (which the academics think are fictitious) appeared.
The argument goes that St Mark was the first to write his gospel because his gospel is the shortest (if you ask how that necessarily follows, you are met with a blank stare; higher critics would fail logic classes). Mark used some non-existent Q tradition to write his gospel (if you ask the critic to demonstrate evidence of Q, you are met with a blank stare). Other gospel writers felt that Mark left out stuff, so they “added” to his gospel (Matthew and Luke; all sides agree that John did write much later and in a different vein–that’s not a controversial point).
Against their wishes, the higher critics agree that St Paul probably wrote his work (but they deny that St Paul wrote Ephesians and Colossians, since those have a high Christology; again these are mere assertions). Following above, and in response to the higher critics, I observe:
- The critics are actually correct in that there is a body of tradition from which the gospels came. However, and here is the key difference, this body of tradition I take to be proof of the divine truth of the gospels. This gives the church a strong, historical, unbroken link from apostle to liturgy to written word to canon. How did the church function and pass down the faith in the absence of a “New Testament canon” or even a complete New Testament? They did so, as St Paul repeatedly says, by handing down the tradition.
- It is possible to have a strong view of the faith without apostolic succession, but it is difficult. Because without apostolic succession and the handing down of the tradition/faith, the Christian must honestly face up to the claims of the critics: “so, how do you know the faith wasn’t tampered with?” In fact, one of the claims of sola scriptura against tradition backfires: many advocates of SS say that handing down tradition can’t be faithful because the content of a message is tampered with through each transmission of the messages (remember the old game where 20 people stand in a line and each one whispers the “same” content to the next person, only to find at the end that the content was radically changed?). In this case, since even the SS grants that the first writings of the New Testament weren’t extant until at least a decade after Christ, and even when they weren’t extant, they weren’t universal until many, many years later, the advocate of SS must admit that word of mouth transmission was inevitable.
Granting that, how do you know that wasn’t tampered with? They will likely say, “The Holy Spirit preserved it.” To which I respond, “Touche!” That’s precisely the argument for apostolic succession. Except that you don’t have a physical historical link to the apostles. This doesn’t logically prove apostolic succession, but it is a tremendous psychological argument for it.
- Even granting and early date for the completion of the canon (AD 70), some post-apostolic writings actually predated the final apostolic writings (see The Didache). Granting a late date for the completion of the canon, which most scholars do, quite a few writings predate the Revelation of St John (see the writings of Clement).