The Evolution of Biblical Criticism

As a former grad student in theology, the history of theological education can be broken up into two genres: theology (as a philosophic-intellectual enterprise) and biblical studies. At Yale, I ended up in a unique disposition among my fellow students and friends. I was educated or trained in the history of theology: from the patristic period up through the Puritan reformation, ending with Friedrich Schleiermacher and biblical criticism. While it is true that the mid-nineteenth century saw the rise of new movements of theology, and while it is also true that the mid-twentieth century saw the pushback of early twentieth century liberalism in the form of Neo-Orthodoxy (whose preeminent theologian was Karl Barth) and the rise of Reformed Reconstructionism, my education sort of stopped at the end of the eighteenth century and I transitioned to fill the rest of my graduate work in biblical studies (though I have personal acquaintances with modern theology, especially Reformed theologies). Unlike biblical studies students who are often entirely ignorant of the theological tradition and unlike pure theologians who may only have a bare knowledge of contemporary trends in biblical scholarship, I straddled both worlds.

The problem, however, with biblical studies is that it is ongoing and often always shifting. Many people on the internet, sadly, who fancy themselves armchair experts, are really ignoramuses who have seen a few shoddy mythicist videos and blogposts that are thoroughly repudiated by all serious biblical scholarship (“secular” and “religious” alike). The mythicist school which has risen to niche popularity among internet exvangelicals and atheists was itself an outgrowth of Hellenism in biblical scholarship, a movement within German philological and comparative literature scholarship which sought to divorce Jesus and the New Testament (even the Old Testament) from its Semitic/Jewish milieu. While this movement never gained majority traction in biblical studies, it is often the most commonly referred position in our digital age: Jesus is akin to a Greco-Roman mythic figure. You’ve probably come across this argument at some point and possibly even believe it yourself even though 99% of biblical and New Testament scholars would roll their eyes at anyone peddling this illiterate ideological agenda.

Biblical criticism—“historical criticism”—came into its own in the nineteenth century with the publication of Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Israel. While Wellhausen’s substance is now largely rejected, his basic framework, known as the Documentary Hypothesis, still serves as basic model for methodological interpretations of the Bible. Wellhausen posited four sources in the composition of the Pentateuch: J, E, P, D (Jahwist/Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomist) that were largely unitary text traditions that were brought together in the chronological form we have sometime during the Deuteronomic reforms.

The basic framework remains today but with drastic revisions from Wellhausen’s argument: for instance, the Elohist source(s) is now considered older than the Jahwist(s); the Deuteronomist is considered much more substantial than the Priestly; and the basic framework of a unitary documentary agenda is further called into question by the “fragmentary” theory which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s which is now the prevailing theory in Old Testament scholarship with a stronger emphasis on the Deuteronomic reforms of the post-exilic period and sees many sources within the four broad camps the genres of the Old Testament can be labeled with.

The origins of biblical criticism are also as old as Christianity itself. Patristic writers called into question New Testament authorship, and Augustine of Hippo articulated the first systemized theory of New Testament literary influence: the “Augustinian hypothesis” posited that Matthew was the oldest gospel and influenced Mark and Luke. (This view is soundly rejected by today’s scholars, but the point is to show how the earliest Christians were, in fact, engaged in primitive forms of biblical criticism—that is, trying to understand who wrote the texts now considered canon and how they influenced each other.) But the modern origo of biblical critcism is the late Renaissance and early modern period in the rise of classical scholarship at Cambridge and Oxford and the German universities which called into question the authorship of classical antique texts then moved on to elaborate critiques of biblical authorship picking up where Renaissance scholars had left off. This skepticism toward received authorship (i.e. Moses wrote the Torah as conventionally inherited and the Bible was free of human agendas) led to Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis and the quest for a historical Bible began.

Biblical scholarship can be seen as emerging in epochs with their own agendas. First is what we can call the Quest for a historical Bible. This school of scholarship, associated with late nineteenth century biblical criticism, asserted that the Bible was a product of history and should be understood as a product of history. Hence Wellhausen’s biblical thesis contained in a history book about Ancient Israel. (There is an implicit influence of Hegelianism in the thesis as well as Hegelian theories of history were the intellectual rage in mid- and late nineteenth century universities.)

At the same time as Old Testament scholarship sought a historical approach to the Hebrew Bible, New Testament scholarship pivoted in the same direction: The Quest for a Historical Jesus (notably with David Strauss and Albert Schweitzer). The model for a historical Bible broke down in the early twentieth century, or, perhaps, was revised after Schweitzer’s critique of the impossibility of finding a historical Jesus. This led to the brief “Christ Myth theory” which never gained much prominence in academic studies but remains popular in pseudo-intellectual circles on the internet. But an aspect of the Christ Myth theory did lead to Mythological School of biblical interpretation (often called Astro-Mythological interpretation in the early twentieth century scholarship).

The Mythological School of interpretation flourished from about 1910-1930 as the historical quest broke down during an intermediary period of scholarly exhaustion and confusion. The assertion of the Mythological School, which we can understand as the second phase of modern biblical scholarship or the most aggressive movement within the intermediary period, was that the Bible was a collection of mythic stories and archetypes and should be understood as such. This school of interpretation was strongly influenced by late Hellenism in philology and comparative literature. This school of interpretation is also popular in pseudo-intellectual circles though is largely discredited by contemporary scholars. While the Bible does share some similarities to ancient mythic texts, the similarities are scant and the differences engulfing. Any reader of modern biblical scholarship knows this.

The next epoch of biblical scholarship emerged as a result of archeological discoveries in the post-war era. The 1950s-1970s saw a new Quest for a historical Bible, one that retained the presumptive spirit of the first quest but radically changed the compositional thesis. The Hebrew Bible was best understood through the “Fragmentary hypothesis” rather than a unified documentary hypothesis that evolved over centuries and included many layers of editorial changes that were themselves independent of each other. In short, the Hebrew Bible was compiled over the course of several centuries by many fragmentary sources and agendas solidified only after the Josian reforms had begun. As Old Testament composition came under the influence of the Josian thesis (Deuteronomic reforms) of centralized reform compiling together many fragmentary sources which were eventually codified over a period of about 200+ years. Out of the Josian/Deuteronomic reform emerged the theology of covenant which would be elaborated upon primarily by extra-cultic (outside the Temple) figures like the Prophets. As the Old Testament experienced a revision of scholarly views, so too did the New Testament.

The discoveries at Qumran and the Dead Sea scrolls led to a new historical Jesus quest, one in which Christ was not understood in the backdrop of Greco-Roman mythology and culture but one in which Jesus was to be understood in a post-Maccabean first century apocalyptic tradition and an innovative representative of covenantal theology. The publication of EP Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism cemented this thesis of Jesus as a first century Jewish Palestinian peasant preaching a covenant theology and not a “Myth” figure akin to classical heroes. Furthermore, the new historical quest attempts to reassert the Semitic and Jewishness of the Bible and Jesus rather than cleanse these realities as the intermediary Mythological School did or not be concerned with Jewish theological identity (as the first epoch of scholarship did with its more abstract intoxication on historical theories).

A simple understanding of the evolution of biblical scholarship is this:

First Epoch (c. 1850s-1920s): Quest for a Historical Bible and Jesus; Documentary Hypothesis (independent but largely unified textual traditions united by a Deuteronomic redactor with some comparative influence); Bible is a product of human history and should be understood as a product of human history (in the generalist, abstract, sense). Dominated by concepts of philosophical history and philology.

Breakdown of the First Epoch (1910s-1930s): Rise of skepticism regarding the ability to have any historical validity. Beginning of the intermediary period. Exotic biblical theories begin to emerge.

Intermediary Epoch/Second Epoch (c. 1900s-1930s): Mythic and Mythological understanding of Bible and Jesus; Jesus may not have even existed (minority view); Bible is mostly a collection of mythic stories and archetypal characters and should be understood in the context of comparative literature; attempt to cleanse Bible and Jesus from Semitic and Jewish qualities and culture. Mythic interpretation never gained legitimacy in academic circles. Concentration on Near Eastern influences on the Bible.

Third Epoch (c. 1950s-present): Second Quest for a Historical Bible and Jesus; Fragmentary Hypothesis and redactor criticism (independent and nonunified textual and oral traditions slowly brought together by the Josian reforms and further redacted well into the Maccabean era with further progression into the first century during the time of Jesus); Bible as a product of emerging Judean identity in contradistinction to neighbors; attempt to re-Semitize and re-Judaize the Bible and Jesus. Dominated by archeological discoveries and notions of Judean self-identity and theological innovation.

Contemporary biblical criticism is now only loosely united in quests for authorship and dating; but even this is tenuous. There have been renewed efforts by some scholars (including some of my former teachers at Yale) to revive the Documentary Hypothesis. But the prevailing attitude is largely situated in the understanding of the Bible as a product of, and Jesus best understood within, the context of a new Judean identity that emerged ca. 400 BCE and had various offshoots well into the first century when Jesus lived, preached, and died and would have been a leading figure, or representative, of. The emergence of a post-exilic Judean theological identity is what is mostly concentrated on by reputable biblical scholars. Residual remnants of the documentary hypothesis and redactor criticism remain, but the focus is no longer on “History” but post-exilic Judean identity and self-understanding as the key to understanding both the Old and New Testament source materials.


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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