“Higher Criticism” of The Bible

It all started in my sophomore year in college. Here is a great reason for you never to send your kid away to school.  He or she could take an innocuous class like “The English Language” which has a unit about the evolution of printing and its effect on language, and your child will begin to question his or her faith!

However, I don’t remember my professor attacking the Bible.

She did not have to.

I do recall her talking about the use of language before the advent of the printing press.

What we are talking about here is the use of hand copying texts. For many years the only Bibles that existed were hand copied manuscripts.

I began to have images of little old monks in dark monasteries bending over desks in dim light. They were taking extant manuscripts and making new copies by hand.

Being a young man and not having wrestled with serious faith questions, I wondered about human error. My professor stated that it occurred.  I remember thinking, but surely not the Bible!

Maybe….maybe not.

Pastor Hamilton in Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White admits that this single point has ignited a firestorm in faith circles in the United States since the 1880’s.  Some Biblical scholars have been willing to admit the fallibility of manuscripts while other Biblical scholars absolutely refuse to admit that error has been made.

Let’s explore the differences in these two points of view and we can see where we fit into this discussion. The scholars who admit the “human factor” in the copying of manuscripts refer to themselves a “higher critics” or to use a more common word, “liberals.”  They see the Bible as a human document that has undergone several different revisions over the ages.   They study the Bible as they would study any ancient book.  They acknowledge that the authors of the Books of the Bible wrote long after events occurred and they may have included material that was not truly historical.   Some state that parts of the Bible are mythological.  Taken to an extreme, this view calls into question many of the doctrines of the Christian faith.

Many of you would view the position of the “higher critics” of the Bible as an extreme position and you may struggle with it. You don’t feel comfortable calling the Books of the Bible into question.

Are they all wrong?

Then you explore the history of the manuscripts we have of the first Bible and you begin to see they are not 100% wrong.


No one has the original first writings of the Bible.

Of course we do have significant fragments of old copies of the Bible, the most famous are the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered between 1946 and 1956 in the ancient settlement at Khirbet Qumran in the West Bank. The caves are located about 2 kilometers inland from the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, from which they derive their name.

How old are these copies?

One of the scrolls was the complete book of Isaiah. Paleographers date the scroll to 125 B.C. Scholar Gleason Archer says “Isaiah copies…proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95% of the text.  The 5 percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling.”  Millar Barrows adds “It is a matter of wonder that through something like a thousand years the text underwent so little alteration.”

Yes, the original Bible does not exist but we do have very old parts of the Old Testament that show very little variation over time when compared to today’s copies of the Bible.

Does this undercut the argument of the “higher critic”?

Not entirely, but it does prove that those manuscript copiers were not just quickly writing some version of the Bible just to put in their eight hour work day. They knew what they were copying and they tried hard to get it right and they did get it almost entirely right.

Were they perfect?

No, the more you dig into the literal word-for-word text, you have to admit that some variance occurred but not much.

Is there so much variance that a high critic gets to call the Bible just any ancient book?

I don’t think so.

But in this post, I am not attacking or defending the high critic; I am just trying to explain him…and how his point of view kind of rocked a college sophomore’s view of God’s word.

For a while…


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