By: J. Luis Dizon

The 18th century enlightenment saw the rise of the historical-critical method of approaching scripture. This method is concerned with “getting behind the text” to determine how the text arrived at its present form, hence its being called a diachronic approach to scripture. This is done through form criticism (the study of how the traditions that are found in the text developed), source criticism (the study of the sources used to produce the text) and redaction criticism (the study of how the text was shaped into its present form). This method also concerns the authorship and dating of the various biblical books, with many proponents developing theories based on the idea that many books of the Bible are not written by the persons to whom they ascribed, but are written much later.

This kind of approach is met with criticism by Evangelical Protestants, who’ve criticised these theories and propose alternatives that preserve the integrity of scripture and traditional views regarding its dating and authorship. The purpose of this article is to provide a short survey of various critical theories that pervade Biblical academia, as well as responses to these theories by conservative scholars, presenting the various flaws in the various historical-critical theories, as well as those of the method itself as applied by most liberal scholars.

First, we will look at various theories that come out of the historical-critical method. One such theory is the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, which is named after Karl Heinrich Graf and Julius Wellhausen. According to this theory, the Pentateuch, rather than being the work of Moses, is actually the result of four documents (the Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomic code and Priestly code) being joined together and redacted into its present form several centuries later. This conclusion was arrived at based on perceived discrepancies in language and style (for example, the Yahwist referred to God as Yahweh, while the Elohist and Priestly code referred to Him as Elohim).[1] Although the roots of the theory go back further than them, Graf and Wellhausen are known for developing the theory and giving it the form by which it is best known.[2]

In addition to this hypothesis, several other theories concerning other biblical books have arisen as a result of the historical-critical method. For example, the Deutero-Isaiah theory posits separate authors for chs. 1-39 and 40-66 of Isaiah, since chs. 40-66 appear to have been written during the exile, nearly two centuries after Isaiah’s lifetime. This later gave way to a Trito-Isaiah theory where a third author is posited to have written chs. 56-66 during Ezra’s time (circa 450 B.C.).[3] A similar theory is proposed for Daniel, which is said to have been written during the second century as a work of historical fiction intended to encourage the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes, on the grounds that the book’s use of language and terminology better reflect that context rather than the context of the Babylonian exile. Similar theories are proposed for the New Testament books; Six out of thirteen of Paul’s epistles are now considered by historical-critical scholars as being pseudepigrephal.[4] The same is said about most of the general epistles, especially 2 Peter, which has been placed by some scholars as late as the 2nd century.[5]

These theories continue to be promulgated in most scholarly circles today, centuries after they were first developed. A notable book detailing these theories as they apply to the New Testament is Bart Ehrman’s Forged. As the title suggests, Ehrman’s contention is that most of the books of the New Testament were not written by the authors to whom they have traditionally been attributed. His distinct contribution to these theories, however, is the rejection of the common idea that the use of a false name was done in good conscience and was not meant to deceive anyone, and the promotion of the thesis that the false attributions of authorship were deliberate acts of deception and forgery.[6]

Evangelical Responses to Particular Historical-Critical Theories

Although these historical-critical theories are predominant in many Liberal scholarly circles, they are challenged within Evangelical Protestant circles. This is enshrined in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (1978), where it states in Article XVIII:

We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.

We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.[7]

Arguments against the positions of historical-critical scholars are provided by numerous Evangelical scholars who are by and large more conservative when it comes to the authorship and dating of the Biblical books. These scholars usually come from reputable Evangelical institutions. It is worth naming these scholars and their arguments against historical criticism’s conclusions in favour of traditional views of Scripture.

First, Evangelical critiques of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis should be examined. Of all the historical-critical theories, perhaps this is the one that has received the most sustained objections. Gleason Archer spends eight chapters of his Survey of Old Testament Introduction tracing the origins of this theory and examining its foundations. The main pillar of this theory is that the alternate usage of Yahweh and Elohim indicate different sources, yet Archer points out that this would mean that passages that are otherwise obviously unified would have to be divided into separate sources (eg. Gen. 21:1-2, 30:23-24).[8]

In defence of Mosaic authorship, Archer points out that the author of the Pentateuch shows great familiarity with Egyptian names and terms, as well as uses phrases that are characteristically Egyptian: “The titles of the court officials, the polite language used in the interviews with Pharaoh, and the like are all shown to be true to Egyptian usage.”[9] He also notes that Deuteronomy follows the form of a Hittite suzerainty treaty. This is significant because this literary form was discontinued at the end of the 13th century B.C., preventing Deuteronomy from being dated much later than that (as most historical critics do).[10]

Another scholar, E.J. Young, corroborates this by pointing to excavated business documents from the Hurrians (“Horites” in Gen. 14:6). He notes how many customs mentioned in Genesis, such as designating an adopted son as one’s heir (Gen. 15:3), the validity of oral blessings (Gen. 27:1ff), and bowing seven times towards a superior (Gen. 33:3), are attested in the documents. This shows that Genesis could not be written centuries later by authors who were unaware of these practices.[11]

Similar critiques are raised against historical-critical theories on the authorship of other Old Testament books as well. With Daniel, for example, many arguments raised for a 2nd century date are to be unfounded, as seen in two articles by Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, The Archaeological Background of Daniel and Hermeneutical Issues in the Book of Daniel. In the first, he notes various lines of evidence that have been interpreted as pointing to a 2nd century B.C. dating—the Babylonian names, the use of “Chaldean” as a professional term, the mention of Belshazzar as successor of Nebuchadnezzar, the mention of Darius the Mede, and the presence of Greek loanwords. He shows how these don’t demonstrate a 2nd century B.C. date and could be harmonized with a 6th century B.C. date.[12] His discussion of scholarly studies on the Aramaic of Daniel is particularly enlightening: During 1929, H.H. Rowley did a study of the Aramaic of Daniel and concluded that it is compatible with a 2nd century B.C. date. However, in a similar study, Evangelical scholar K.A. Kitchen refuted many of Rowley’s arguments, and Israeli scholar E.Y. Kutscher later confirmed Kitchen’s findings using 5th century B.C. papyri. The conclusion was that the Aramaic could just as easily support a 6th century B.C. date as it could a 2nd century B.C. date.[13]

In his 2nd article, Yamauchi expands on the critical issues surrounding Daniel and their impact on the interpretation of the book. He discusses the four empires in Daniel 2 and 7, where the empires were traditionally interpreted as referring to the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Hellenistic and Roman empires, whereas higher-critical scholars interpret them as referring to the Babylonian, Median, Persian and Hellenistic empires, on the assumption that the author could not have predicted the rise of the Roman Empire after the time of the Maccabeans. Yamauchi argues that this is an unfounded rationalist assumption which omits the fact that there was never a separate Median empire.[14] He the discusses the prophecy of Daniel 11, refuting the claim that the prophecy must be after the event. Just like with Daniel 2 and 7, the claim that Daniel 11 was written vaticinia ex eventu is based on the assumption that predictive prophecy can’t take place.[15]

In addition to the Old Testament, historical-critical issues regarding the New Testament have also been tackled by Evangelical scholars. Though Markan priority is accepted by most scholars, there is considerable disagreement on its dating and of the other gospels. Carso and Moo in their Introduction to the New Testament conclude based on internal evidence that Mark was most likely written in the late fifties, although they point out that various dates have been proposed between the 40s to AD 70.[16] They also place the date of Matthew and Luke during the 60s,[17] while with John’s Gospel the date is much less decisive, as almost any date between 55 and 95 is possible.[18]

Even though there is a tendency for historical critical scholars to favour later dates, Carson, Moo and Morris point out that there is no compelling reason to favour late dates for any of the Gospels, and that attempts to date the Synoptic Gospels after AD 70 are based on the a priori denial of predictive prophecy (ie. the predictions of the fall of the temple must have been written after the fact).

General Critiques of Historical Criticism

These are just specific examples of how Conservative scholars have given evidence in support of traditional authorship and dating individual books. They have also provided a critique of the general methodology used by historical-critical scholars.

Archer notes that Liberal scholars assume that the Bible is merely another piece of human literature that is the product of the evolution of religious thought, and that this idea is the product of Hegelian views of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The possibility of scripture being inspired and infallible is rejected a priori, and as Archer writes, “even to suggest an investigation of these evidences is absolutely unthinkable in the minds of the Liberal establishment.”[19]

Young makes a similar point when he states that everyone who studies the Bible is influenced by foundational presuppositions which determine the end result of their research. While higher-critical scholars do not think of themselves as being biased, Young points out that their conclusions are affected by Darwinistic and non-theistic presuppositions which a priori rule out the possibility of the Bible being the word of God. He concludes that Christians are to submit to the authority of scripture in faith, and interpret the findings of their historical research in that light.[20]

Finally, one article of interest is Gerhard Maier’s Concrete Alternatives to the Historical-Critical Method, where he points out that modern exegetes who rely on Historical criticism no longer hold to the unity of scripture, and inevitably see contradictions in texts that could otherwise be easily harmonized. He also points out that progress could no longer be made in biblical studies with the historical-critical method as it currently exists due to numerous flaws in its presuppositions.[21]

Suggested Readings

As Historical Criticism involves specialized knowledge in various fields of biblical studies, it is not always easy to get a hold of useful information on these issues. Thus, a list of suggested readings is provided below. Most (though not all) of the books and journal articles listed below have been cited in this article, and they all contain information that is useful for knowing more about Historical Critical methodology, as well the Evangelical response to the theories derived from that methodology.

General Information

Brown, Raymond E. and Raymond F. Collins. “Canonicity.” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Prentice Hall, 1990. 1034-54. Provides brief background information on what are the commonly held dates for most of the books by Historical Critical scholars.

Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible (Revised and Expanded). Chicago, Ill.: Moody Publishers, 1986,

Maier, Gerhard. “Concrete Alternatives to the Historical-Critical Method.” Evangelical Review of Theology 6, no. 1 (1982): 23-36. Provides a general critique of the Historical Critical method.

On Old Testament Studies

Archer, Gleason L. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007. A great apologetic resource. Archer provides extensive information on the background issues surrounding each Old Testament book, and is an indispensable resource for anyone who seeks to defend the authenticity of the Old Testament.

Bush, Frederic Wm., David Allan Hubbard, and William Sanford LaSor. Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form and Background of the Old Testament (2nd ed). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996. Generally Conservative in outlook. However, they are supportive of Historical Critical theories for at least some OT books.

Harrison, R.K. Introduction to the Old Testament. Peabody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004. One of the most comprehensive and scholarly Old Testament reference resources available. Highly recommended.

Kitchen, Kenneth A. “Proverbs and Wisdom Books of the Ancient Near East: The Factual History of a Literary Form.” The Tyndale Biblical Archaeology Lecture (1976): 69-114. Provides historical information specific to the book of Proverbs.

Longman, Tremper III and Raymond B. Dillard. Introduction to the Old Testament (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006.

Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Cleveland, OH: Meridian Books, 1965. This is the book that is responsible for popularizing the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis and giving it the form by which it is most well known today.

Yamauchi, Edwin M. “The Archaeological Background of Daniel: Archaeological Backgrounds of the Exilic and Post Exilic Era Part 1.” Bibliotheca Sacra 137 (1980): 3-16. Discusses historical, linguistic and archaeological issues specific to the book of Daniel.

__________. “Hermeneutical Issues in the Book of Daniel.” JETS 23, no. 1 (1980): 13-21. A continuation of the discussion in the Yamauchi article previously listed.

Young, Edward J. Thy Word is Truth: Some Thoughts on the Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957. An older book responding to Historical Critical theories. His arguments are still relevant today, especially with regards to the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis.

On New Testament Studies

Carson, D.A. and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009. An excellent introduction to the issues surrounding New Testament Historical Criticism.

Ehrman, Bart D. Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. New York: HarperOne, 2011. Ehrman provides arguments that are commonly used in support of Higher Critical theories on New Testament dating and authorship.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970. Another Evangelical introduction to the New Testament.

Jensen, L. Irving. Jensen’s Survey of the New Testament. Chicago, IL.: Moody Publishers, 1981. Also presents the New Testament from an Evangelical perspective.

Tenney, Merrill C. New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1985.

[1] Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (Cleveland, OH: Meridian Books, 1965), 6-12.

[2] Archer, Gleason L. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007), 71-78. Here, Archer names several early proponents of this theory who would later influence Graf and Wellhausen, such as Jean Astruc, Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, Eduard Reuss and Hermann Hupfelds.

[3] Ibid., 310.

[4] Raymond E. Brown and Raymond F. Collins, “Canonicity,” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Prentice Hall, 1990), 1044-5.

[5] Ibid., 1048-9.

[6] Bart D. Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 119-123.

[7] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1207.

[8] Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 106-7.

[9] Ibid., 95.

[10] Ibid., 83.

[11] Edward J. Young, Thy Word is Truth: Some Thoughts on the Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957), 201-204.

[12] Edwin M. Yamauchi, “The Archaeological Background of Daniel: Archaeological Backgrounds of the Exilic and Post Exilic Era Part 1,” Bibliotheca Sacra 137 (1980), 4ff.

[13] Ibid., 10-11.

[14] Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Hermeneutical Issues in the Book of Daniel.” JETS 23, no. 1 (1980), 16.

[15] Ibid., 16-19.

[16] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 96-99.

[17] Ibid., 76-79, 116-117.

[18] Ibid., 166-168.

[19] Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 486.

[20] Young, Thy Word is Truth, 189-197.

[21] Gerhard Maier, “Concrete Alternatives to the Historical-Critical Method,” Evangelical Review of Theology 6, no. 1 (1982): 24-25.


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