Historical criticism of the Bible began in earnest in the eighteenth century, flowered in the nineteenth century, and became the dominant approach to the Scriptures in the twentieth century. Historical criticism has at times been rejected by conservatives because it has called into question the accuracy of the Bible. For example, in the nineteenth century, most scholars delving into the life of Jesus provided rationalistic, not supernatural, explanations of Jesus' miracles. New Testament scholar F. C. Baur argued that the theologies of Peter and Paul contradict one another if one reads the NT historically. Old Testament scholars, such as Julius Wellhausen maintained that the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) was not actually written by Moses. Careful literary and historical study, it was claimed, indicated that the Pentateuch had various sources that were written over a period of hundreds of years and that the final document was put together by an unknown editor.
Still, it is important to recognize that the rise of historical criticism has also benefited the church. The Christian faith is rooted in history. God has manifested Himself supremely in the person of Jesus Christ. He lived and ministered in a particular time and place-in Palestine in the third decade of the first century. As Christians, then, we believe that our faith is historically rooted. Paul insisted that Christians were foolish to believe in the Christian faith if the resurrection of Jesus did not actually occur (1 Co 15:12-19). Hence, we have no fear of historical study of God but welcome it, for we believe historical research can assist us in understanding the message of the Scriptures.
The benefits of historical study are numerous. It has cleared up the meaning of obscure terms. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has cast light on the environment within which the NT was birthed. Study of the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world has clarified the extent to which the Scriptures are similar to Mark and dissimilar from documents that came out of surrounding cultures. Historical criticism has also demonstrated that some traditional views were not credible. It was once thought that the NT was written in a special "Holy Ghost" language, but study of sources from the era of the NT has demonstrated that the NT was written in the common Greek of the day. The King James Version of the Bible was an outstanding product of the scholarship in its day, but we now have many more manuscripts for both the NT and the OT, and hence our English Bibles are even closer to the original today because of recent manuscript discoveries and the careful work of scholars in text criticism.
While historical criticism has benefited the church, it also carries with it liabilities. Many scholars who practiced historical criticism imbibed the Enlightenment philosophy sweeping Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their philosophical worldview masqueraded as historical criticism. As described above, they rejected the miracles of Jesus and provided rationalistic explanations. But scholars do not reject miracles on historical grounds. They have accepted a naturalistic philosophical standpoint that presupposed that miracles don't happen. On this view, even impressive evidence to the contrary is beside the point. Rudolf Bultmann is an example of this view. Bultmann defined historical work in such a way that the acceptance of any miracles was excluded. When we read the NT, we see that credible historical reasons exist to support the resurrection of Christ, but many scholars refuse even to consider the evidence, for they are convinced from the start that resurrections cannot happen. This fundamental bias, i.e., naturalistic philosophy, is all too often cloaked as "objective history."
Historical criticism hoped that it would succeed where orthodoxy failed. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, orthodox Christians debated the interpretation of the Bible, leading to several different theological systems (Lutheranism, Calvinism, Arminianism). Historical critics believed that they were more objective that by means of a "neutral" scientific approach they could discover what Bible really taught. But with the arrival of postmodernism this view seems naive to almost all scholars today. And the record of historical criticism reveals that it did not succeed in agreeing upon "the assured results of scholarship." Indeed, a dizzying array of viewpoints and perspectives are present in historical criticism today, and many of them are mutually contradictory.
The work of F. C. Baur and Julius Wellhausen threatened the faith of evangelical believers in the nineteenth century. Yet few scholars today embrace the conclusions of R C. Baur, and the documentary hypothesis of Wellhausen is severely questioned. The "assured results" of scholarship in one generation are often vigorously challenged by the next. Evangelicals, of course, should be open to correction. Perhaps we have misread some parts of the Bible because of our tradition. On the other hand, we need to be critical and savvy and to reject the temptation of embracing the latest fad in scholarship just because it is current.
Though evangelical scholars have often solved problems raised by historical critics, conservatives have not solved them all. This does not mean that the Scriptures are inaccurate in such instances but instead that we could resolve such problems if we had enough information. To make such a claim is not a sacrifice of one's intellect. Comprehensive answers are lacking in every historical discipline since the evidence is fragmentary. We can be grateful to historical criticism since it has helped us understand the Scriptures better. But we must also be on our guard. Often historical criticism has veered off into unsubstantiated allegations about the accuracy of the Scriptures, and it has routinely approached the Scriptures with an antisupernatural worldview. Historical criticism has not demonstrated the Bible to be false. The Bible, rightly interpreted, has stood the test of time.
Extracted from the Apologetics Study Bible.