“The rise of biblical criticism” is the title of a section in Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages (Viking, 2005). Those pages are a short and objective introduction to what is variously called biblical criticism, historical criticism, higher criticism, or the historical-critical method. This discussion is sort of a set up for my upcoming review of David Bokovoy’s new book Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis — Deuteronomy (Kofford Books, 2014), which I will be posting in two parts over the next couple of weeks.
Pelikan summarizes the origin of biblical criticism in one sentence:
When the invention of printing was combined with the zeal for biblical doctrine in Reformation theology and with the zest for literary and historical knowledge of the Bible in Renaissance humanism, the combination was responsible for an intellectual explosion and a scholarly revolution. (p. 183.)
Pelikan notes that the development of the Talmud — in specific historical circumstances and over a long period of time, which no one disputed — was suggestive for how the Torah and Tanakh might be approached. That did not, however, lead Jewish authorities to embrace Spinoza’s unorthodox conclusions about the Torah (he was excommunicated in 1656). Catholic scholar Richard Simon (in Critical History of the Old Testament, 1678) likewise argued that “the ‘Five Books of Moses’ could not have been written by him … but were derived from multiple earlier sources” (p. 193).
But Protestants outnumbered both Jewish and Catholic scholars. Protestants like Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791) “could claim to be following in the footsteps of Luther and the Reformation,” using the same sort of “historical-critical scrutiny to which Luther and his fellow reformers had subjected the cherished traditions and doctrines of the medieval church” but applying it more broadly, all the way back to the first centuries of Christianity. More than the controversial results of biblical criticism, however, it was the method itself that became the long-term issue. This remains true right up to the present day. As Pelikan relates:
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nevertheless, several Protestant denominations were torn apart over its legitimacy, with those who eventually acquired the somewhat loose designation of “fundamentalist” rejecting not only the answers but even the very questions of the historical-critical method. (p. 195.)
Two points of interest here. First, this is not a 20th-century problem for the LDS Church or Christianity in general. It goes right back to the dawn of the modern era. Erasmus published the first printed Greek text of the New Testament in 1514, exactly five hundred years ago. The issue of higher criticism is essentially the question of how to read and interpret the Bible in the modern era. It is a question that cannot be avoided, although there are different reasonable answers that one can arrive at.
Second, unlike some denominations, the LDS Church was not split apart by the controversy, which came late to America and even later to the LDS Church (which had other things to worry about in the last third of the 19th century). There was no split because LDS membership and leadership were almost all squarely within the fundamentalist camp, generally rejecting biblical criticism wholesale, notwithstanding the LDS belief in biblical errancy (“as far as it is translated correctly”) and an expanded LDS canon. Philip L. Barlow devotes an entire chapter to the LDS encounter with biblical criticism in his Mormons and the Bible (OUP, 1991). He describes the Mormon response to biblical criticism in the first half of the 20th century using a spectrum, with William H. Chamberlin, a professor at BYU who incorporated biblical criticism into his teaching, on the left; B.H. Roberts, a broad-minded self-taught Mormon intellectual and leader, in the middle; and Joseph Fielding Smith, the long-serving conservative apostle and Church Historian, on the right.
Among the relatively few Saints attuned to the issues, the dominant reaction was negative, accompanied by a sense that the faith of the people was threatened — as, indeed, some traditional conceptions were — by the new thinking. This negative reaction was split between total condemnation of modern methods as “satanic” and a more ambivalent position that was almost half-acceptance, one that allowed higher criticism an important role. In addition, a smaller but disproportionately influential minority applauded the new critical approaches as crucial tools in discerning the permanent from the transient in the religious impulse. (p. 135)
Barlow (writing in 1991) notes that “the center of the spectrum has shifted to the right since Roberts’s generation.” He concludes: “Contemporary LDS views more nearly resemble Southern than Northern Baptists” (p. 143, 145).
Jumping back to Pelikan, here are a few issues that symbolize the support or rejection of biblical criticism.
- Authorship. Why is questioning traditional authorship so controversial? For Christians, the problem is compounded when the New Testament affirms traditional authorship, and for Mormons even more so given statements in LDS scripture. But as Pelikan notes, “if the Holy Spirit of God is the real Author of the whole of Scripture, why should it matter as much as it obviously did whether it was Moses himself who actually wrote the account …” (p. 195).
- Credibility and Historical Accuracy. Inerrancy raises the stakes; if a few biblical statements or claims are shown to be inaccurate of false, the remaining claims are then subject to doubt. Which explains why conservative Christians fight so hard against evolution and higher criticism. But Mormons, rejecting inerrancy, should not be compelled to adopt the same response. But, for various reasons, we tend to do just that. We seem to reject inerrancy in theory but embrace it in practice.
- Historicism. To what extent are the various scriptural writings products of their time and place? To what extent are the ideas and doctrines expressed in those writings similarly products of their time and place? To what degree can inspired writers of scripture transcend their historical circumstances?
That short discussion give some context to the topic. For a good introduction for the general reader, see Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? (HarperOne, 1987). For a series of posts criticizing the documentary hypothesis in particular, written by an LDS scholar (in fact, written in response to Bokovoy’s book), see here.