The Implicit Humanism of Biblical Criticism

It is often said that biblical criticism, or higher criticism, has its antecedent roots in the late Enlightenment, the latter half of the eighteenth century, before coming into its mature form in the nineteenth century in Wilhelmine Germany. In a scholarly sense, this is true. The core features of modern biblical criticism: the Documentary Hypothesis, Deuteronomic reform and redaction in Biblical composition, and multiplicity of authorship, emerged in its broadly accepted form in the late nineteenth century. The problem with this view is it discounts the underlying humanistic spirit to biblical criticism.

By humanism I do not mean the humanism of the Renaissance. Although during the High Renaissance some of the basic theories of contemporary biblical criticism emerged like the questioning of textual authorship. Cleric-scholars like Erasmus were the leading figures of the day raising questions of Pauline authorship (Erasmus declared Saint Paul wasn’t the author of the Book of Hebrews; though going back even into the patristic period there were doubts about Pauline authorship raised by churchmen like Hippolytus of Rome, Tertullian, Origen and others; anyone with in-depth familiarity of patristic biblical criticism knows that debates over authorship are, in fact, as early as the Church itself). But the High Renaissance concern over authorship was aimed at facticity. While the same can be said for contemporary higher criticism, the real underlying basis for contemporary biblical criticism isn’t facticity (as it was in the patristic and Renaissance eras) but humanism.

The underlying assumption of modern biblical scholarship is humanistic progression in consciousness which can be detected in the evolution of the biblical texts as time goes on. This, in fact, is part of Julius Wellhausen’s thesis, the man generally credited with establishing the basic framework for the Documentary hypothesis. In charting out the different authorial traditions that composed the Pentateuch (Torah), Wellhausen’s Yahwist was primitive but egalitarian, standing in contrast to his Priestly and Deuteronomic sources, which were more codified and hierarchal owing to their Temple authors during the Josian reforms. Wellhausen’s thesis, indirectly, reveals human agendas in the composition of the Bible. This is now what contemporary scholarship tries to unpack.

Fast forward to modern biblical scholarship. It too carries Wellhausen’s human agenda notion (in of itself). But it also goes beyond Wellhausen. Wellhausen’s Yahwist source was the oldest, most primitive, but most egalitarian. The later sources were more rigid and hierarchal. This gives the impression that the older material is more “progressive” and the later material more “reactionary.” Modern biblical criticism makes the opposite overriding argument (with a revision of the documentary hypothesis into the fragmentary hypothesis). The older texts are more exclusive. Later texts, especially during the “Prophetic Revolution,” become much more inclusive (just look, for example, at the declarations of Isaiah envisioning Jews and Gentiles, lions and lambs, coming together as one).

Contemporary biblical criticism, implicitly and explicitly—pending on the scholar or author—maintains that the real treasure of understanding the long and complicated history of the Bible’s composition is in how we can detect the change of human consciousness in relationship to the Big Questions of life: God, meaning, ethics, international relations, etc. We find, for instance, in the older textual tradition a combative and exclusionary mentality. The authors celebrate the confrontation with Gentiles (cf. Zechariah 14); the authors want only the chosen people to dwell in the Temple with God (cf. Ezekiel, especially 40-48); the authors celebrate the possibility of peace with the Gentiles (cf. Isaiah 66, or “Third Isaiah”); the authors want Jews and Gentiles to come together in harmony (cf. Isaiah); the authors affirm that Jews and Gentiles spent time together (cf. Acts).

Through the shifting statements of the Bible we find supposedly “contradictory” statements (this is a common argument from atheistic critics). In reality, even atheistic and agnostic scholars don’t see “contradictory” views. Instead, they see evolving views as time goes on. Zechariah and Ezekiel are older texts than Third Isaiah, written during the post-exilic period, just as the New Testament Book of Acts which clearly indicates that “God-fearing” Gentiles were with Jews in, or around, the Synagogue, is written after Trito-Isaiah. For modern biblical critics, what this shows is the evolving ingenuity and spirit of humanity in its wrestling with the Big Questions of life that were broadly recorded for us in the Bible (and other religious texts). We find an earlier (older) view of exclusionary religious ethics and practice, then we find a later (newer) view of inclusionary religious ethics and practice.

The movement toward greater inclusivity, peaceable relationships, social justice, and the ethics of non-violence as found in the progression of the Bible is also something these scholars celebrate as part of the ongoing changes in human consciousness and relations. Their views are analogous to: Look! See how much progress our ancestors made! This gives us hope and inspiration for our own future dealing with many of the same problems as the Biblical authors were dealing with!

Within the walls of contemporary biblical criticism there is an implicit spirit of humanism that motivates the scholarship. God changed, for the better. Ethics changed, for the better. Our understanding of ourselves, sin, and place in the cosmos changed, for the better. Always for the better. To modern scholars, the Bible’s thousand-year history of change and composition reveals human progression and evolution. Detecting these changes and being awed by these changes is something that modern critics and scholars implicitly celebrate. Those scholars part of this tradition who are also religious (and there are many), also want contemporary believers to be part of this “living” tradition. But if Wellhausen and his heirs sought to unpack the competing human agendas in biblical composition, those of us who also study the historiography of biblical criticism should also seek to unpack the human agendas of the scholars.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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