In Defense of Higher Criticism

Leningrad Codex

“You may wish to rethink accepting this offer to pursue your graduate work at Brandies,” said my professor, “because you’ll have to take courses from David Wright, and though he would never be unkind to you because you’re LDS, the fact that he teaches at Brandeis signifies the type of critical approach to the Bible you’ll be forced to explore that as a ‘believer,’ you won’t feel comfortable with.”

To be honest, I was shocked, and really quite disappointed.  Brandeis was the only graduate school I had applied to!!  In my estimation, the school’s reputation for serious Old Testament/Hebrew Bible scholarship made Brandeis the only program I was at all interested in, and the fact that I had been accepted was incredibly exciting, to say the least!

“Well,” I responded, “I’m a bit concerned about it, but I really want to understand how scholars understand these issues.”  “But don’t worry,” I assured him, “I’ll never buy into an idea like the Documentary Hypothesis!”  Famous last words.  Despite my religious convictions, it took less than just a couple of weeks of actually reading the Hebrew Bible carefully in my graduate classes to realize that there were serious inconsistencies in the biblical laws and narratives and that as an interpreter of the text, I somehow needed to explain these issues.  Despite my initial resistance, source criticism was really the only way I could make any sense of these issues.

I’m not going to sugarcoat the experience.  This was all very difficult for me personally, to say the least.  Yet at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel excited by my newfound observations.  For the first time ever, complicated books like Isaiah, not to mention Deuteronomy and Genesis, really, really made sense!

Today, I strongly believe that Latter-day Saints (and other Bible believers) should not fear to explore the academic approach to biblical studies known as “Higher Criticism.”  Higher Criticism refers to a scholarly attempt to explain inconsistencies in the Bible by identifying its original sources.  As an interpretive tool, Higher Criticism is an important part of what scholars today refer to as the “historical-critical method.”  This expression refers to an approach to biblical interpretation that seeks to read the text “historically,” meaning in accordance with its original historic setting, and “critically,” meaning independent from any contemporary theological perspective or agenda.  It does not mean that we are criticizing the Bible!

In terms of this approach, Latter-day Saints can actually turn directly to Joseph Smith as a guide.  Joseph Smith loved the Bible.  He believed that it was the inspired word of God.  But Joseph’s testimony did not keep the prophet from recognizing that there were at times serious inconsistencies in the text.  In spite of his religious convictions, the prophet taught that in the creation of the Bible, “ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests… committed many errors.”[1]  Throughout his efforts to understand and explain the text, we find in Joseph’s sermons a variety of references to alternate translations from the KJV (including the German), as well as allusions to the original Hebrew of the Old Testament.  Joseph was a critical reader.  “There are many things in the Bible,” he declared, “which do not, as they now stand, accord with the revelations of the Holy Ghost to me.”[3]  And the prophet wasn’t afraid to point them out!

One LDS leader to recognize this point was Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  Regarding Higher Criticism and the Latter-day Saints, Elder Widtsoe wrote:

“In the field of modern thought the so-called higher criticism of the Bible has played an important part. The careful examination of the Bible in the light of our best knowledge of history, languages and literary form, has brought to light many facts not sensed by the ordinary reader of the Scriptures. Based upon the facts thus gathered, scholars have in the usual manner of science proceeded to make inferences, some of considerable, others of low probability of truth…

“To Latter-day Saints there can be no objection to the careful and critical study of the scriptures, ancient or modern, provided only that it be an honest study—a search for truth. The Prophet Joseph Smith voiced the attitude of the Church at a time when modern higher criticism was in its infancy. ‘We believe the Bible to be the Word of God as far as it is translated correctly.’ This article of our faith is really a challenge to search the scriptures critically. Moreover, the Church had just been established, when Joseph Smith under divine direction, set about to revise or explain the incorrect and obscure passages of the Bible. The work then done is a powerful evidence of the inspiration that guided the Prophet.

“WHETHER UNDER A SPECIAL CALL OF GOD, OR IMPELLED BY PERSONAL DESIRE, THERE CAN BE NO OBJECTION TO THE CRITICAL STUDY OF THE BIBLE… The results of all sound scholarship are welcomed by Latter-day Saints. Higher criticism is not excluded.” John A. Widtsoe, In Search of Truth: Comments on the Gospel and Modern Thought (1930), 81-83.

Note that in his assessment of Higher Criticism, Elder Widtsoe went so far as to identify Joseph Smith as a critical reader of the Bible.  Speaking personally, I agree with Elder Widtsoe.  There can be no objection to studying the Bible critically.  Admittedly, such an approach will prove challenging, and as “believers,” there may be some traditional understandings of the way scriptural texts were produced that we will as a result of this process have to abandon.  But reading the Bible carefully and critically can be a deeply rewarding intellectual and spiritual journey.

Allow me to illustrate my point through a personal experience.  Many years ago, while taking courses for my Master’s Degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, I had an opportunity to take a class on the New Testament from E.P. Sanders, author of the book The Historical Figure of Jesus.  In light of my own religious views, this class, which explored the New Testament from a historical-critical perspective, was both exciting and spiritually challenging at the same time.

Despite my love for the New Testament, I left with an interest and appreciation for scholarship that directly challenged my religious convictions regarding the text.  So even though my own academic focus has been the Old Testament, I have always enjoyed reading a variety of critical assessments of the New Testament and have tried to keep up on scholarly research.

One day, while reading the book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan, I came across for the first time Crossan’s argument that the New Testament figure Barabbas was a made-up figure by the author of Mark, and that the subsequent Gospel writers simply picked up on this fictitious account from Mark’s writings.  As a Latter-day Saint Christian, my initial reaction to reading Crossan’s arguments was to simply give up on the book, since to be honest, I really didn’t like the idea that Barabbas was not an historical person.  If I questioned this point, what about the validity of the other New Testament stories?  But I couldn’t help it.  I was intrigued.  So I kept reading.

By the time I completed the section, I could see Crossan’s points.  They made a lot of sense.  Yet even today, I don’t know whether or not Crossan is correct (and he is certainly not the only scholar to have made this argument), but I do understand his logic.  And it’s OK.  More importantly, as a believer, I actually gained a fascinating insight into the story of Barabbas by not giving up on Crossan simply because I found his arguments uncomfortable.   Crossan went on to explain a literary concept that over the years, I have found really quite enlightening.  Mark identifies Barabbas as a lestes, a Greek term that contextually refers to a social bandit, a revolutionary, a zealot.  Here are Crossan’s own words regarding this New Testament figure and his place in the Gospels:

“[Social bandits] increasing presence always indicates that the oppressed classes are being forced into armed resistance, however sporadic, ineffective, or desperate.  In Greek the technical term for such a rebel bandit is lestes, and that is exactly what Barabbas is called.  He was a bandit, a rebel, an insurgent, a freedom fighter–depending always, of course, on your point of view… [Jerusalem] chose Barabbas over Jesus, an armed rebel over an unarmed savior.  [The] narrative about Barabbas was, in other words, a symbolic dramatization of Jerusalem’s fate.”[4]

In other words, the story of Barabbas serves as a type of foreshadowing, typifying the fact that in the Gospels, Jerusalem chose a violent man over the Prince of Peace.  Jerusalem could have followed Jesus’ concept of kingdom, but instead chose the type of kingdom offered by the zealot, the lestes, and Jerusalem eventually suffered violence as a result.  We see this very concept expressed by Jesus in his statement to the disciple who attempted to protect his Lord the night Jesus was arrested:  “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matt 26:52).

I’ve always loved this insight, and have referred to it often when teaching the New Testament in a Church setting.  But if I had followed my initial instinct and given up on the book because the overall argument made me feel uncomfortable, I would have missed it.

In fact, whether we’re talking Old or New Testament, many of the most exciting ideas that I’ve come across throughout the years in terms of biblical interpretation have come directly from critical scholars.

I share this personal experience because I recognize that some scholarly theories on the development of the Bible will no doubt cause some Latter-day Saint readers to feel a bit uncomfortable.  In my own life, however, I have found that this is not a bad thing.  Speaking personally, I believe that it is healthy for each of us to question our assumptions and to continually use the incredible gift God has given us to search for truth: our brain.  I do not believe that we should be afraid to ask questions and entertain challenging religious issues.  In fact, I can honestly say that I believe that as children of God, we’re supposed to!

LDS Church leader Elder B.H. Roberts recognized the importance of this concept.  And I’ll simply conclude this post by citing his words.  Concerning the Book of Mormon and Higher Criticism, Elder Roberts wrote:

“The Book of Mormon of necessity must submit to every test, to literary criticism, as well as to every other class of criticism; for our age is above all things critical, and especially critical of sacred literature, and we may not hope that the Book of Mormon will escape closest scrutiny; neither, indeed, is it desirable that it should escape. It is given to the world as a revelation from God. It is a volume of American scripture. Men have a right to test it by the keenest criticism, and to pass severest judgment upon it, and we who accept it as a revelation from God have every reason to believe that it will endure every test; and the more thoroughly it is investigated, the greater shall be its ultimate triumph. Here it is in the world; let the world make the most of it, or the least of it. It is and will remain true. But it will not do for those who believe it to suppose that they can dismiss objections to this American volume of scripture by the assumption of a lofty air of superiority, and a declaration as to what is enough for us or anybody else to know. The Book of Mormon is presented to the world for its acceptance; and the Latter-day Saints are anxious that their fellow men should believe it. If objections are made to it, to the manner of its translation, with the rest, these objections should be patiently investigated, and the most reasonable explanations possible, given.”[5]

[1] Teachings, 327.

[2] “I am going to take exceptions to the present translation of the Bible in relation to these matters [interpreting prophecy].  Our latitude and longitude can be determined in the original Hebrew with far greater accuracy than in the English version.  There is a grand distinction between the actual meaning of the prophets and the present translations” Teachings, 290-291.

[3] Teachings, 310.

[4] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus a Revolutionary Biography (San Franscico: HarperSanFrancisco,1994), 143.

[5] B. H. Roberts, “The Translation of the Book of Mormon,” Improvement Era 9 (April 1906): 435-36



In Defense of Higher Criticism — 33 Comments

  1. Thank you, Gary. Given my long held respect for your work, I appreciate the comment. In light of the fact that Book of Mormon draws upon the Bible (both Old and New Testament), I believe any serious analysis of the text must take into consideration Higher Criticism. I’ll explain this in the final chapter of the book I’m writing for Kofford on this topic. It explores the ramifications of Higher Criticism for the Book of Moses, Book of Abraham, and the Book of Mormon and offers ways in which a believer might make sense of these insights in light of his or her spiritual convictions. I would also say that I am really quite fond of my friend Mark Thomas’ book Digging in Cumorah where he explores the Book of Mormon from this angle.

  2. I had a negative view of higher criticism for a while before considerably softening my view. I’m glad I did because it has considerably enrichened my understanding and, indeed, faith.

  3. Great post — thanks for sharing this.

    I’m not going to sugarcoat the experience. This was all very difficult for me personally, to say the least.

    I don’t understand why this was a difficult experience for you and why it is for so many Mormons (and I certainly can’t understand your BYU professor’s warning). The difficulty must be our own fault — to the extent that we buy into unnecessary fundamentalist readings of scripture, we set ourselves up for such difficulty.

    If we bring up our children with an understanding of the DH, source criticism, or even just a basic awareness of the development of text and the editorial process (well attested even internally in the case of the Book of Mormon) from the beginning, there would be little room for “difficulties” like this at Brandeis or anywhere else, including in Sunday School at church.

    But to the extent that we as Mormons unnecessarily follow the practice of fundamentalist Evangelical Christians and require a belief that God himself wrote the entire Bible and that not a jot or tittle is out of place, that nothing included is the product of an editor, compilor, redactor, or committee writing with nationalist or other historical considerations in mind, then we prevent ourselves from deeper understanding of the text itself (as you noted, “[f]or the first time ever, complicated books like Isaiah, not to mention Deuteronomy and Genesis, really, really made sense”) and we set ourselves up for disappointment or even make ourselves ripe to raise accusations later that we’ve been “lied to” or “betrayed”.

  4. I’ve only recently encountered higher criticism and I find it all really, really fascinating. My exposure to the subject comes mostly through Robert Price’s podcast, The Human Bible. Have you heard it? Any thoughts about Price’s approach? I was interested to see that he has a few books published by Signature. I’m interested to read his Pre-Nicean New Testament, but given my lack of experience in the field, I’m not sure how much stock I should put in his work.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. I have not, Gary. But thanks for your interest. Should be available by the end of the year.



  6. Great article, David, and I agree with john f. that we need to bring up our children understanding that indeed inspired writings are written by human beings and always in a historical context. The very basis of the notion of personal revelation, and the idea that we all can receive it, should make the revelatory process clear, without the need to find Higher Criticism shocking. I find it sad that some would still fear that understanding the scriptures in these terms might lead to a loss of testimony, rather than an affirmation that prophets are the same whether they lived thousands of years ago, or are living today!

  7. Thanks, Brad. To be honest, I’m still kind of old school and haven’t listened to a lot of podcasts, so I haven’t heard it. Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. Pingback: On “Higher Criticism” and the Documentary Hypothesis | Junior Ganymede

  9. Though only providing an introduction to elements of textual criticism, Stephen Robinson’s New Testament classes at BYU gave me a good foundation. When I went to Divinity School I was equipped to deal with difficult questions–much better than my evangelical friends. Divinity School broadened my understanding as it absolutely affirmed my testimony of the need for revelation–even when it comes imperfect, broken, and scattered.

  10. I wish I could give a precise reference for this, but years ago I was flipping through the Juvenile Instructor (the old Sunday School magazine, not the blog)and ran across a fascinating piece of serial fiction featuring a young missionary in Britain. Over the course of half a dozen or so segments, this young man had to confront a crisis of faith engineered by a cynical Church of England clergyman who introduced him to the writings of the German higher critics. On the point of giving up and going home, the young man went to a wise, elderly LDS member who told him something like, “Well, of course the Bible is imperfect. Why do you think we have the Book of Mormon and continuing revelation?” Great stuff from 100 years ago, eh?

  11. Nice essay, David. I am currently reading about women’s religion in the Greco-Roman world. Have you read anything by Ross Shepard Kraemer? She makes the case that Paul was conflicted (and therefore ambiguous) about ecstatic religious experience because it provided the basis for his own authority, while at the same time it challenged his authority. Likewise, scholars like Dennis MacDonald say that 1 and 2 Timothy and the Acts of Thecla represent different and opposing interpretations of the Pauline tradition. These interpretive traditions claim Paul as their authority–that his sayings can be used both to support women prophets or to silence them. I am interested in these questions of authorship and authority, and how prophets’ personal views may or may not appear in sacred texts. I like the fact that the historical-critical method enables us to perceive various readings of holy texts. I admit it’s been uncomfortable for me to realize that LDS scriptures need to be submitted to the same kinds of inquiries, but I am reassured that questions can lead either to answers or to humility–both good things!

  12. I was introduced to this at BYU (just an introduction – not serious or deep) in a Bible as Literature class. Biblical literalism is really out of place in a church that embraces AoF #8, but upon closer inspection it is a bit misleading, too. It’s never the direct word of God; there is always a human author weilding the pen. Also, it states the BOM is the word of God, but there’s also human narrator, human abridger, etc. Every person who writes has bias, even in a documentary or history.

  13. “I am currently reading about women’s religion in the Greco-Roman world.”

    This sounds fascinating. I’ve always been interested in the way women are perceived and treated in the New Testament. And there are in my mind without question multiple voices in the Pauline letters.

    But I’m afraid up to this point in my life, I haven’t had the time to explore these types of issues in the second half of the New Testament to the extent that I would like. Like you, I am deeply interested in these sorts of questions. Thank you for drawing our attention to these two scholars. I can just say superficially that these arguments make considerable sense.



  14. Wonderful. I appreciate this post.

    Its ammo in case anyone criticizes my use of the Anchor Bible and other resources in my Seminary classes.

  15. Fine post on a topic that needs more attention. CES could and should have built on the views of Elder Roberts to establish a more informed approach to the Bible within mainstream Mormonism, but CES somehow came to understand its mission as something other than education.

  16. Bart Ehrman is accessible, readable and a world authority on NT criticism. He has to be read.

    “There are many things in the Bible,” he [Joseph] declared, “which do not, as they now stand, accord with the revelations of the Holy Ghost to me.”

    Me either. Paul’s stuff about women is nonsense. Gays? Questionable. The “Law”? Absurd. Why read Paul anyway? Why did God not give us James instead? The answer is that the cult of Rome is based almost entirely upon Paul. The Ebionites (Christians associated with James–at least for a time) were stamped out. (Well, driven and persecuted and finally dying out in Switzerland.) The rest of James’ followers driven also into southern Iraq, the royal priesthood completely wiped out by a plague 200 years ago. (Curiously, they believed in a version of the Adam-God doctrine, practiced baptism for the dead, and had a version–strange, but there–of the Temple ceremony, complete with Temple Robes and everything.)

    We would not recognize “original Christianity” if it bit us in the Ass. Regardless of the Book of Mormon (which is as good a scripture as any).


  17. Why in the world do we care what Widtsoe thought. A careful reading of Widtsoe reveals a less than honest scholar. He would misquote to suit his own purposes. At least Roberts was honest.

  18. “Original Christianity” was Judaism.
    The Priests of Christ’s time were no better than the Catholic Church of the last 2000 years; “destroy any threat to our grip on power no matter the cost.”

    As a native Hebrew speaker, I can attest to Joseph Smith’s declaration;
    “Our latitude and longitude can be determined in the original Hebrew with far greater accuracy than in the English version. There is a grand distinction between the actual meaning of the prophets and the present translations” Teachings, 290-291.

    When reading, I am always a little shocked at the undeniable parallels between the Tanach and The Pearl of Great Price. From the very beginning (no pun in tended) the story of creation and the garden of eden (In the PGP) conveys the original intent of the scripture almost as if I’m reading it in Hebrew.

    If more Mormons read Hebrew and studied the Talmud and Zohar, they would have to take much less and on faith, because that “faith” would become simple, factual knowledge.

  19. Pingback: Sunday in Outer Blogness: Scholarship Edition! » Main Street Plaza

  20. First off David – E.P. Sanders?! Hell ya – I’m jealous!

    Loved the post. I came into contact with Biblical scholarship of all kinds, when I started reading the Bible with Protestants. (I’m no academic) Unlike Mormons, Protestants (esp. EVs) really have much more of a need to know the various approaches and criticisms because of important place of the Bible in their traditions. So, even when reading with well read inerrantists, you can get a grasp of the “academic” approach because of how they develop their own defenses. From there, I just found that a critical approach best fits within my own Mormon view of the Bible. In fact, its greatly enhanced the way I read and study.

    That we’ve become so fundamentalist and literal in our official teaching (esp. in regard to Genesis) is frustrating for me. But, it’s pretty much par for the course right? We have Joseph Smith questioning the fundamentalist notions of the Bible and *at the same time* generating additional scripture that relies heavily on those same notions. Moses, BoA and BoM don’t work as well without it. After I accepted the DH as mostly accurate – Mormon modern scripture never looked the same.(not nec. a bad thing)

  21. ” The rest of James’ followers driven also into southern Iraq, the royal priesthood completely wiped out by a plague 200 years ago. (Curiously, they believed in a version of the Adam-God doctrine, practiced baptism for the dead, and had a version–strange, but there–of the Temple ceremony, complete with Temple Robes and everything.)”

    Strikes me as quite the misreading of Mandaean history.

  22. Does it matter at all that “Barabbas” is Aramaic for “Son of the Father” possibly another name for Jesus.—-Allen, Mandaean? Or, was it Nasoraean? Reading E S Drower might help. She is far and away the best scholar in this field. Butz might help for the general reader. But, what do I know, I am just a librarian, not a specialist. Oh, and read up on the cult of John the Baptist. There are some interesting things there for you.

  23. Drower is great, I’ve read everything that I could lay my hands on. However, she has been deceased for over forty years. Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley is currently the leading expert on Mandaean history and beliefs, she has done amazing work with the colophons in their books, too. Anyway, not only did Lady Drower not suggest that Mandaeans were followers of James, she also pointed out that Nasurai cannot mean a Nazarene.

  24. Pingback: The Nightstand (February 3rd) « The Nightstand @ Weightier Matters of the Law

  25. Pingback: Study Genesis and the Gospels through Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, this weekend only | Times & Seasons