Bible Literary Criticism: Higher Criticism

          If someone asked you, “Who wrote the Pentateuch?” the first five books of the Bible, would your answer be that it was written under the inspired hand of Moses or under the redacted hands of unknown authors, J, E, P, and D? The answer you give would depend on if you accept God-breathed inspiration, truth and inerrancy – the belief that the Bible is accurate and free of error. In recent years, a school of thought has arisen that has come to challenge the thinking of individuals who ascribe to the belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Designated as “Higher Criticism,” this originally benign term meant the study of historic origins, dates, and authorship of the books of the Bible.

          Higher Critics, as they are now called, have since transformed the original meaning of the term “Higher Criticism” to imply that the Old Testament is a collection of inaccuracies, untruths, and fables written by a number of unknown authors, at supposed dates which surpassed that of the time of Moses. They remove Moses as the author of the Pentateuch and assign it to J, E, D, and P, which they believe were later edited and made into one continuous, story-duplicating document. This reassignment of authorship is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. A Wikipedia article for the Documentary Hypothesis explains how the theory got its start:

“In an attempt to reconcile inconsistencies in the biblical text, and refusing to accept traditional explanations to harmonize them, 18th and 19th century biblical scholars using source criticism eventually arrived at the theory that the Torah was composed of selections woven together from several, at times inconsistent, sources, each originally a complete and independent document.”1

          The Higher Critics also use archaeology as grounds to dismiss what is in the Bible as mere stories and legends. By creating these fallacies, the proponents of Higher Criticism are attempting to usurp the authority of the Scriptures and place doubt in the minds of the believers. The belief that different hypothetical sources used different names for God and duplicated Biblical stories appearing intertwined with each other in Scripture, are mistaken beliefs that are held by some Higher Critical scholars, under the name of the Documentary Hypothesis, to devalue the integrity of the Pentateuch.

          The Documentary Hypothesis is a waning theory held by the Higher Critics that dismisses Moses as the author of the Pentateuch. It postulates that J, E, D and P were ancient sources that were pieced together to make up the first five books of the Bible, completing the Pentateuch we now know today nearly 850 years after the time of Moses. In his book The Bible With Sources Revealed, Richard Elliott Friedman describes the four sources, J, E, D and P, which were developed by Julius Wellhausen. He states that “J” refers to God by the proper name of YHWH (Jahwe in German), “E” refers to deity simply as God, which in original Hebrew is Elohim, “D” because it takes up most of the book of Deuteronomy, and “P” was produced by the Jerusalem priesthood as an alternative to the history told in JE.2 Using different fonts, italics, and colors, Friedman separates the first five books of the Bible into these and other categories using what he calls his seven main arguments as evidence. One of these evidences is the difference in terminology used in the different sources. He states the following:

“…the different sources have a different idea of when the name YHWH was first revealed to humans. According to J, the name was known since the earliest generations of humans. Referring to a generation before the flood, J says explicitly, ‘Then it was begun to invoke the name of YHWH’ (Gen 4:26). The use of the name by humans may go back even earlier in J, because Eve uses it when she names Cain (Gen 4:1). But in E and P it is stated just as explicitly that YHWH does not reveal this name until the generation of Moses… And God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am YHWH. And I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shadday, and I was not known to them by my name, YHWH.’ (Exod 6:2-3)”3

          What Friedman fails to realize is that the different names associated with God, are not two distinct names, but one name YHWH or Jehovah and a title, Elohim or El Shadday, “El” in Hebrew meaning “of God.” After the name of God was revealed to Moses, he could have used either the title or the name to tell the story written in the Pentateuch as it fit the circumstances. George Frederick Wright points out in an article that not only did he intersperse the title and the name, but he also used them in conjunction 23 times as “Jehovah Elohim,” meaning Lord God, in the second and third chapters of Genesis.4 When the evidence is viewed in this light, the writing of the Pentateuch does not need to be separated into different authors in order for it to make sense. The use of the name and title together puts under suspicion this argument of Pentateuch source separation.

The duplication of stories that are assigned to different sources also does not stand against the evidence. Friedman continues to claim that when the different sources are separated by using the different names of YHWH (Jehovah) and El Shadday (Elohim), we can read each source as a flowing, sensible text, and have it read as a complete, continuous story with only an occasional gap or interruption from the P source.5 If the authors of the different sources, J and E, compiled their narratives apart and at different times avoided duplication, the argument can be made that the redactor purposefully ignored this distinction and combined the two stories, creating a confusing interchange of information that we now read.

The story of Noah’s Ark has been used to support this idea of intentional story duplication. It is suggested that the story is interwoven between the J and P source, switching back and forth between them twelve times, from Genesis 6-9. This reasoning is faulty since it must be pointed out that by dividing the story of Noah’s Ark into these two source documents, two full and coherent stories do not result. In fact, there are a number of inconsistencies that are created. The J source never identifies how Noah is to build the ark, while the P source gives those instructions. The J source tells how the flood is on the Earth for forty days while the P source says it rained for forty days and forty nights, but that the water remained on the Earth for 150 days. Again, the J source states that Noah opened the window of the ark after forty days and let out a dove, while in the P source, the bird Noah sends out is a raven. These inconsistencies disappear or are explained when the story is read as a whole.

          Magnus Magnusson makes a bold claim in his book Archaeology of the Bible that one of the reasons the story of Noah’s Ark cannot be trusted is due to this duplication and being allegedly borrowed from a pagan civilization. He states,

“The quest for Noah’s Ark is self-evidently futile because the Flood story in the Bible is obviously a legend, and a borrowed and garbled one at that (in Genesis there are apparently two Flood stories which have been conflated into one). So what does this do to our understanding of the earlier chapter of Genesis? Does it discredit the ‘authenticity’ of the Bible as an epic document?”6

          Here, Magnusson is referring to the story of Noah’s Ark being borrowed from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian flood story which has many similarities with the Biblical account. It was determined after examination that the Babylonian flood record was a unified account that incorporated both the J and P sources that are supposed to be separate in the Pentateuch. These pagan records were also dated to before the Pentateuch was written, further discrediting the Documentary Hypothesis and the illusion to legend that it represents.7

          By pulling apart the story of Noah’s Ark and the other supposed duplicated stories identified in the Pentateuch, it disrupts the validity of Scripture. Just as a cook combines ingredients to make a dish, the recipe would be different than what the cook intended if an ingredient were left out.

          Further complicating Higher Criticism’s erroneous information used to support the movement, the scholars don’t generally agree on what it is they believe. Jimmy Tuten, a writer for “Truth Magazine,” explains the consensus of this theory among the Higher Critics:

“There is no agreement among the higher critics concerning [the J, E, D, P] analysis. However, there are several things they do agree on: (1) Moses wrote little or nothing, if he existed at all. (2) The Pentateuch consists of unhistorical legends. (3) What is recorded about the Patriarchs (some admit that they did live) is myth. (4) The denial of the truth of the written records.”8

          Not only do these suppositions contradict what is written as fact in the Pentateuch, but it places doubt on the writings of the New Testament. Jesus, in his ministry, quotes from all five books of the Pentateuch. In John 5:46-47 Jesus states, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”9 Jesus names Moses as the author and there is no better witness than he. There are also multiple references in the Pentateuch itself which state the books were written under Moses’ hand. In Exodus 17:14 it says, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this for a memorial…’” and in Exodus 24:4 “And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord.”10

          The belief in Higher Criticism and the Documentary Hypothesis that helps to sustain it, are dangerous ideals to hold if one believes in the inerrancy of Scripture. Using the name and title of God to differentiate and separate the texts into the J, E, D and P sources is an unfounded basis of reasoning. The use of the name and title “Jehovah Elohim” together, no less than 23 times in the Pentateuch, is an indicator that the name and the title are meant to stand together and should not bear a separation. Isolating sections of the text into erroneous sources with unknown authors stands on shaky ground.

          Story duplication is also a tactic Higher Critics use to undermine the accuracy of Scripture. Dividing the stories into their supposed separate units creates gaps and holes and leaves the reader lacking consistency. The idea that multiple stories exist interwoven into one is a fallacy that unlike the story of Noah’s Ark, does not hold water. Instead of clearing up the issue, more inconsistencies appear when separated.

          In Larry L. Walker’s article on the “Results and Reversals of Higher Criticism,” he sums up the result of these faulty beliefs: “The end result of this was that we have in the Bible not God’s thoughts about man but man’s thoughts about God, not a revealed religion but an invented religion.”11 Higher Criticism may have been a term used at one time to merely assign authorship and dates of certain books and study its origins, but it has since morphed into a battle between inerrancy and man’s re-writing of the inspired Scriptures. Those who hold to the truth, must be ready to face the fallacies brought to light by the Higher Critical movement.

1 Wikipedia, “Documentary Hypothesis,” (accessed June 16, 2011)
2 Richard Elliott Friedman, “Introduction”, The Bible With Sources Revealed (New York: 2003, HarperCollins), 3-5.
3 Richard Elliott Friedman, “Collection of Evidence”, The Bible With Sources Revealed (New York, 2003, HarperCollins), 10.
4 George Frederick Wright, The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth: The Fallacies of Higher Criticism, Vol. 1. Chicago: Baker Book House, 2002.
5 Richard Elliott Friedman, “Collection of Evidence”, The Bible With Sources Revealed (New York, 2003, HarperCollins), 13.
6 Magnus Magnusson, “In the Beginning”, Archaeology of the Bible, Simon and Schuster, 1997, 23.
7 Joseph P. Free, “Archeology and biblical criticism, Archeology and higher criticism,” Bibliotheca sacra 114, no. 453 (January 1, 1957): 23-39. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 19, 2011).
8 Jimmy Tuten, “Higher Criticism: The Documentary Hypothesis,” Truth Magazine, (accessed June 17, 2011)
9 The Interlinear NASB-NIV Parallel New Testament In Greek and English, Translated by Alfred Marshall, Zondervan Publishing House, 1993.
10 Holy Bible, The New King James Version, The New Open Bible Study Edition, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990.
11 Walker, Larry L., “Some results and reversals of the higher criticism of the Old Testament,” Criswell Theological Review 1, (March 1, 1987): 281-294. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 19, 2011).

Author: Olivia

I am a mom and a homeschooling teacher of two little ones. I am also a Biblical Studies major with a hobby in Creation Science. I love to research Biblical topics and how science and the Bible live in harmony with each other. I learn beside my children when we read, build, and explore with the help of our glorious classroom - God's green Earth!

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