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Historical criticism, also known as the historical-critical method or higher criticism, is a branch of literary criticism that investigates the origins of ancient texts in order to understand "the world behind the text". While often discussed in terms of Jewish and Christian writings from ancient times, historical criticism has also been applied to other religious writings from various parts of the world and periods of history.
The primary goal of historical criticism is to discover the text's primitive or original meaning in its original historical context and its literal sense or sensus literalis historicus. The secondary goal seeks to establish a reconstruction of the historical situation of the author and recipients of the text. This may be accomplished by reconstructing the true nature of the events which the text describes. An ancient text may also serve as a document, record or source for reconstructing the ancient past which may also serve as a chief interest to the historical critic. In regard to Semitic biblical interpretation, the historical critic would be able to interpret the literature of Israel as well as the history of Israel.
In 18th century Biblical criticism, the term "higher criticism" was commonly used in mainstream scholarship in contrast with "lower criticism". In the 21st century, historical criticism is the more commonly used term for higher criticism, while textual criticism is more common than the loose expression "lower criticism".
Historical criticism began in the 17th century and gained popular recognition in the 19th and 20th centuries. The perspective of the early historical critic was rooted in Protestant reformation ideology, inasmuch as their approach to biblical studies was free from the influence of traditional interpretation. Where historical investigation was unavailable, historical criticism rested on philosophical and theological interpretation. With each passing century, historical criticism became refined into various methodologies used today: source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, tradition criticism, canonical criticism, and related methodologies.
Historical-critical methods are the specific procedures  used to examine the text’s historical origins, such as: the time, the place in which the text was written, its sources, the events, dates, persons, places, things, and customs that are mentioned or implied in the text.
Application of the historical critical method, in biblical studies, investigates the books of the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament. Historical critics compare texts to other texts written around the same time. An example of this is when modern biblical scholarship has attempted to understand the Book of Revelation in its 1st century historical context, by identifying its literary genre with Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature.
In regard to the Gospels, higher criticism deals with the synoptic problem, the relations among Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In some cases, such as with several Pauline epistles, higher criticism can confirm the traditional understanding of authorship. Higher criticism understands the New Testament texts within a historical context: that is, that they are not adamantine, but writings that express the traditio (what is handed down). The truth lies in the historical context.
In Classical studies, the 19th century approach to higher criticism set aside "efforts to fill ancient religion with direct meaning and relevance and devoted itself instead to the critical collection and chronological ordering of the source material." Thus, higher criticism, whether biblical, classical, Byzantine or medieval, focuses on the source documents to determine who wrote it, when it was written, and where.
Historical criticism comprises several disciplines which include:
Source criticism is the search for the original sources which lie behind a given biblical text. It can be traced back to the 17th century French priest Richard Simon, and its most influential product is undoubtably Julius Wellhausen's Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (1878), whose "insight and clarity of expression have left their mark indelibly on modern biblical studies."
Form criticism breaks the Bible down into sections (pericopes, stories) which are analyzed and categorized by genres (prose or verse, letters, laws, court archives, war hymns, poems of lament, etc.). The form critic then theorizes on the pericope's Sitz im Leben ("setting in life"), the setting in which it was composed and, especially, used. Tradition history is a specific aspect of form criticism which aims at tracing the way in which the pericopes entered the larger units of the biblical canon, and especially the way in which they made the transition from oral to written form. The belief in the priority, stability, and even detectability, of oral traditions is now recognised to be so deeply questionable as to render tradition history largely useless, but form criticism itself continues to develop as a viable methodology in biblical studies.
Redaction criticism studies "the collection, arrangement, editing and modification of sources", and is frequently used to reconstruct the community and purposes of the authors of the text.
The Dutch scholars Desiderius Erasmus (1466? – 1536) and Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677) are usually credited as the first to study the Bible in this way. When applied to the Bible, the historical-critical method is distinct from the traditional, devotional approach. In particular, while devotional readers concern themselves with the overall message of the Bible, historians examine the distinct messages of each book in the Bible. Guided by the devotional approach, for example, Christians often combine accounts from different gospels into single accounts, whereas historians attempt to discern what is unique about each gospel, including how they are different.
The phrase "higher criticism" became popular in Europe from the mid-18th century to the early 20th century, to describe the work of such scholars as Jean Astruc (mid-18th century), Johann Salomo Semler (1725–91), Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752–1827), Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860), and Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918). In academic circles today, this is the body of work properly considered "higher criticism", though the phrase is sometimes applied to earlier or later work using similar methods.
Higher criticism originally referred to the work of German biblical scholars of the Tübingen School. After the path-breaking work on the New Testament by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the next generation – which included scholars such as David Friedrich Strauss (1808–74) and Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) – in the mid-19th century analyzed the historical records of the Middle East from Christian and Old Testament times in search of independent confirmation of events related in the Bible. These latter scholars built on the tradition of Enlightenment and Rationalist thinkers such as John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Gotthold Lessing, Gottlieb Fichte, G. W. F. Hegel and the French rationalists.
These ideas were imported to England by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, in particular, by George Eliot's translations of Strauss's The Life of Jesus (1846) and Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1854). In 1860 seven liberal Anglican theologians began the process of incorporating this historical criticism into Christian doctrine in Essays and Reviews, causing a five-year storm of controversy which completely overshadowed the arguments over Darwin's newly published On the Origin of Species. Two of the authors were indicted for heresy and lost their jobs by 1862, but in 1864 had the judgement overturned on appeal. La Vie de Jésus (1863), the seminal work by a Frenchman, Ernest Renan (1823–92), continued in the same tradition as Strauss and Feuerbach. In Catholicism, L'Evangile et l'Eglise (1902), the magnum opus by Alfred Loisy against the Essence of Christianity of Adolf von Harnack and La Vie de Jesus of Renan, gave birth to the modernist crisis (1902–61). Some scholars, such as Rudolf Bultmann have used higher criticism of the Bible to "demythologize" it.
John Barton argues that the term "historical-critical method" conflates two nonidentical distinctions, and prefers the term "Biblical criticism":
- Historical study ... can be either critical or noncritical; and critical study can be historical or nonhistorical. This suggests that the term "historical-critical method" is an awkward hybrid and might better be avoided.
- Soulen, Richard N.; Soulen, R. Kendall (2001). Handbook of biblical criticism (3rd ed., rev. and expanded. ed.). Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 78. ISBN 0-664-22314-1.
- Soulen, Richard N. (2001). Handbook of Biblical Criticism. John Knox. p. 79.
- Hahn, general editor, Scott (2009). Catholic Bible dictionary (1st ed.). New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-51229-5.
- Soulen, Richard N. (2001). Handbook of Biblical Criticism. John Knox. pp. 108, 190.
- Gerhard Ebeling. Word and Faith. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1963
- Burkert, Greek Religion (1985), Introduction.
- Antony F. Campbell, SJ, "Preparatory Issues in Approaching Biblical Texts," in The Hebrew Bible in Modern Study, p.6. Campbell renames source criticism as "origin criticism".
- Yair Hoffman, review of Marvin A. Sweeney and Ehud Ben Zvi (eds.), The Changing Face of Form-Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, 2003
- Religious Studies Department, Santa Clara University.
- Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, p. 125, Touchstone, 1961, ISBN 0-671-20159-X,
- Ehrman, Bart D.. Jesus, Interrupted, HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN 0-06-117393-2
- The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2007
- John Barton, The Nature of Biblical Criticism, Westminster John Knox Press (2007), p. 39.
- Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J. American Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A History from the Early Republic to Vatican II, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1989, ISBN 0-06-062666-6. Nihil obstat by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., and Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.
- Robert Dick Wilson, "Is the Higher Criticism Scholarly? Clearly Attested Facts Showing That the Destructive 'Assured Results of Modern Scholarship' Are Indefensible, reprinted in Christian News, vol. 29, no. 9 (4 March 1991), p. 11-14.
- Rutgers University: Synoptic Gospels Primer: introduction to the history of literary analysis of the Greek gospels, and aids in confronting the range of factors that need to be taken into consideration in accounting for the literary relationship of the first three gospels.
- Journal of Higher Criticism
- From the Divine Oracle to Higher Criticism
- Catholic Encyclopedia article "Biblical Criticism (Higher)"
- Dictionary of the history of Ideas – Modernism and the Church
- Teaching Bible based on Higher Criticism
- "Historical Criticism and the Evangelical" by Grant Osborne
- "From the Divine Oracle to Higher Criticism" from The Warfare of Science With Theology by Andrew White, 1896
- Catholic Encyclopedia article (1908) "Biblical Criticism (Higher)"
- Origins of Christianity: evidence-based history
- Dictionary of the history of Ideas: Modernism in the Christian Church
- Radical criticism, link to articles in English
- Library of latest modern books of biblical studies and biblical criticism