Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Higher Criticism Has Gone Bankrupt

by Valentine Long, O.F.M.


This article discusses the turning point concerning our fundamental methodologies for interpreting biblical texts and how liberal biblicists continually fail to acknowledge the authorship of Moses, Isaiah, and St. John concerning their Bible passages.

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Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, October 1982

An expert on the disappointing "higher criticism" of the Bible said a few years ago in 1978: "It is ironic that just at a time when the limitations of the historical critical method are being discovered in Protestantism, Roman Catholic scholars should be bent on pursuing that method so relentlessly." What occasioned the remark happened to be Father Raymond Brown's book, The Birth of the Messiah, which Reginald H. Fuller had been reviewing. Its irony gave the remark a saliency too tempting for the Protestant reviewer to omit from his critique. He used it there, in reference to Catholic biblical scholars in general, to good effect. It has been widely quoted.1

Fuller, knowing of the shifting trend as a student of current exegesis, deserves credit for admitting it. Not that he has the credit all to himself. A growing number of experts on the subject have admitted the same. "We are at a turning point concerning our fundamental methodologies for interpreting biblical texts," agree collaborators Paul J. Achtemeier and Gene M. Tucker. As for the way the higher critics have cut up the first five books of the Old Testament into a literary crazy quilt as if Moses counted for little or nothing in the writing, R. Rendtorff sees "clearly signs of great unanimity in the abandonment" of such documentary guesswork. "The view of the development of the Pentateuch that has been hitherto held" he rejects. But it is Walter Wink who with a single word delivers the knockout blow in his declaration that the historical critical method is "bankrupt."2

A book which brings all this to light — The Consciousness of Christ—arouses a special curiosity in that its author remains one of the few Catholic biblicists nowadays not to let an antiquated higher criticism dictate his interpretations. He knows its limitations. Like the already quoted Protestant scholars who have seen through its pretenses, he is not taken in by them. "Form criticism," writes Father William Most, "never strictly proves anything whatsoever, since it depends exclusively on internal evidence." And that presupposes speculation, which can err, as it does when it runs counter to the defined doctrines of the Creed. There we have the starting principle of a Catholic biblicist who follows the recommendation of Pope Pius XII to use "the historical, archaeological, philological and other auxiliary sciences . . . insofar as they aid the exegesis"—to do what? To "set forth in particular the theological doctrine in faith and morals of the individual books or texts. "3

Fabrication Revealed

That certainly grants no scholar a permit to follow the anti-supernatural lead of a Bultmann who disbelieves in the Bible's inerrancy, disallows its miracles, disregards its prophecies, fictionalizes its plain history, and of course denies objective truth while dogmatizing against dogmas without apparently realizing he has thereby set up a dogma of his own. Here follows an enigma. Those Catholic form critics who are claiming permission from Divino Afflante Spiritu to dispute whatever doctrine does not fit their research—a permission not there—at the same time give evidence of their failure to keep pace with the advances of archaeology and philology, which the encyclical has indeed requested them to do. The two sciences could have taught them how woefully out-of-date their documentary exegesis is.

Archaeology has been digging out the biblical past to expose to the light of day buried civilizations and in the process has brought discredit to the misnamed "higher critics" who thought they had all the answers and the Fathers of the Church had none. They were wrong. Their method, in which they had an unwavering confidence, trapped them in a labyrinth of fabricated nonsense. By the tenacity of a new science they have been shown up.

The Critics Knew Better

They did not come to their task haphazardly. They intended to do a thorough job. They would go the whole way. They would dissect the Bible, book by book.

The more eager beavers among them tackled the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. They repudiated the unbroken Judaic-Christian Tradition that Moses had a hand in the writing of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They dared to contradict Scripture itself in a variety of passages. That in Exodus "the Lord said to Moses, 'Write this as a memorial in a book,' " did not convince the superior critics. Nor in reading of the Israelites on the move did they believe that "Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the Lord," which is what Numbers records. Nor, again, did they believe with Joshua that the Law of Moses had been written by Moses. Nor, still again, did they believe the evangelists or St. Luke in the Acts or St. Paul when these inspired writers refer to Moses as also an inspired writer.4

Worst of all by far, the sophisticates were disappointed in Jesus for taking for granted the authorship of Moses. Let St. John quote the good Lord to that effect to his heart's content, it simply could not be true. The critics in question knew better. They apparently read without a qualm, without a sense of their own arrogance, the shattering rebuke to the arrogant of an earlier day: "If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?"5

Recent Discovery Challenges

Did Moses really write? No, according to the bolder of the liberal exegetes. Our omniscient Lord evidently went wrong there. Perhaps he was misquoted. Anyhow, the five books ascribed to Moses were not even partly his work, but the work of much later redactors. It just had to be. Hold your breath, be prepared for the tremendous deduction of a whole school of headstrong scholars: Moses could by no stretch of the imagination have written anything at all because in his day writing had not yet been invented.

But it had been—long before his day. Excavations at Sumer in ancient Babylonia, and at Sinai in Egypt, prove that. The Hittites, whose buried civilization was now unearthed, became thereby the embarrassment of critics who had dismissed them as a nonentity, a mere legendary people, since Holy Scripture alone made mention of them.6 These alert critics were sure that the sacred text had a predisposition for myths and fables and legends and other fictitious forms to the neglect of history. But archaeology has exposed their ignorance, proving the Hittites to have been as real as their deniers, an intelligent people whose writings not only antedated Moses, but even used the same literary patterns as the Pentateuch.

Thus did the great exposure proceed. Monuments bearing inscriptions in various languages were discovered here and there, as well as early manuscripts, to discredit the biblicists who blindly followed the dictate of Julius Wellhausen: that God's Covenant with Israel could not have occurred during the lifetime of Moses but had to wait until there existed a scriptor to record it. What irony! 7

A recent discovery at Tell Merdikh challenges anew the extreme higher criticism. Italian and Syrian archaeologists have unearthed there at least 15,000 cuneiform tablets bearing inscriptions in the Semitic language, and dating back several hundred years before the Old Testament patriarchs. The tablets carry a description of the Flood, legal codes, economic directives, and such familiar names of the Bible as Hazor, Megiddo, Gaza, Sodom, Gomorrha and (what is probably Jerusalem) Ursalem. The theory that the Pentateuch could have been done only by redactors long after Moses has met a final setback from these tablets, which preceded him. Their discovery cannot but mean "a real shakeup in liberal scholarship," thinks Dr. David Noel Freedman, the eminent archaeologist.

Philology Deals A Blow

I wonder if it will. Within the past year certain biblical scholars have stood at lecterns to question the reality of the Flood, to naturalize the miracles of the exodus, to suggest the impossibility of other scriptural allusions which archaeology has proved believable. Although the more moderate of such critics are shrewd enough to allow Moses some share in its authorship, they insist on breaking up the remainder of the Pentateuch into sections, allotting to each a different unknown author of later date, as if the magnificent opus were so much mishmash. Nor do they recognize its historicity, which they mistake for fiction. Perhaps word from Dr. Freedman has not reached them yet.8

Philology has also dealt the documentary hypothesis or theory a staggering blow. To say now that a given book of the Old Testament consisted of several originally distinct and separate documents by different authors may well provoke a sneer from the linguistic expert. A similar dissection of the profane classics has long been discontinued for being mostly guesswork. As C. S. Lewis has observed, "There used to be English scholars who were prepared to cut up Henry VI between a dozen authors and assign his share to each. We don't do that now."9

Right here let it be acknowledged, in accord with the teaching Church, that the authenticity of a canonical book does not depend on whether or not its human author is known, for the Holy Spirit would anyhow have been its principal author to give it the same inerrancy as the rest of Sacred Scripture. Nonetheless, when the text goes to the trouble of naming its human author repeatedly, it deserves belief. This does not mean that Moses did the Pentateuch all alone, without help from collaborators. He may have had them, as indeed Shakespeare had in his later plays, without destroying the unity of the product. The Pontifical Biblical Commission so decided on June 17, 1906.

In the Acts, St. Paul uses a quotation from the Old Testament, fully aware of its human author while acknowledging him to be merely the secondary one. Disappointed with the Jews in Rome, who would not listen to him, he hurls at them the words: "The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: Go to this people and say. You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive."10 Trying to make converts in the proud capital of the Empire, the apostle felt drawn to the writings of Isaiah. In Romans he quotes the prophet five times, mentioning him by name each time.

But such evidence from Scripture in favor of Isaiah's having written his own prophecies, not to mention the longstanding tradition to that effect, stirs in the more stubborn higher critics disdain. They are of a mentality to think that no writer can vary his style, adapting it to the demands of his immediate subject. They think that no writer of the sacred text can foresee the far distant future and that, if a correct prediction has been made of the near future, it is because the symptoms were already there to read. So, when the last 27 chapters of Isaiah look different in form and treat intimately of the Babylonian Captivity, which occurred long after the prophet's death, the theorists conclude that by no means could he have written that particular series of chapters. It is a false conclusion. They have simply disallowed the power of prophecy under God to foresee doomsday with no greater difficulty than the imminent future.

Outmoded Method Still Followed

Two of the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in a Judean cave in 1947, are complete copies of Isaiah: one of the two, to the chagrin of the claiming diehards, rather defeats their claim that Isaiah could not possibly have written chapter 40 and what follows to the end. Contrary to which, Dr. Oswald T. Allis in a book and Rev. James P. O'Reilly in an article on The Unity of Isaiah use the latest evidence in support of their theme. Both point out that the same column (in the scroll) which carries chapter 39 has on its last line the beginning of chapter 40. "Obviously," observes Father O'Reilly, "the scribe who wrote this manuscript was completely unaware of . . . an entire change in authorship."11

Justice demands, without another moment's delay, a distinction to be made. Most scriptural commentators in pulpit or lecture hall, who split up Isaiah into the patchwork of different writers, who especially split off its last 27 chapters to assign them to a later redactor, are by no means to be suspected of bad faith. Followers of an outmoded method of interpreting, they presumably remain unaware of discoveries that have thrown new light on it. They are not the skeptics and certainly not the disbelievers, which the higher critics were.

Miracles Are Out

And it is these who are here under review: the pioneer form critics who could read with a cold eye that the Savior went to his death "like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb," because they could analyze the validity out of the prophecy, or thought they could, but could not. To reduce to a minimum the prophet's authorship of his own book, they contradicted the testimony of the historian Josephus who states that Cyrus recognized himself in Isaiah—the testimony from Sirach with a reference to "the illustrious prophet Isaiah who saw the truth in visions"-the testimony of other books of the Old Testament which consider Isaiah the inspired work of one man—and, in superabundance, the testimony of the New Testament.12

The four Gospels quote the prophet all of twelve times, always naming him the author. St. Mark opens his Gospel with an Isaian passage. And St. Luke, early in his, describes the Son of God standing in the synagogue at Nazareth and reading from the prophet about himself: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor." In his comment on this Messianic prophecy, the all-knowing Messiah does not say with the liberal critic that he might have been quoting someone else than Isaiah.

At least the liberal biblicists, right on down to the present, show no favoritism between the Old and the New Testaments. They maintain an unyielding impartiality, demythologizing the "Infancy Narratives" of St. Luke and St. Matthew with the same zest with which they went to work on the book of Isaiah. They say that neither evangelist, in telling of the virgin birth of Jesus and how it came about, was stating historic facts. It is all midrash. The influence of Rudolph Bultmann lies embedded like a cancer in their fabrications. Any reference to the supernatural must be reduced to the natural level, which means that its miracles are out and that the whole New Testament does no more than reflect the faith of the early Church and does not record actual events and actual teachings.

C.S. Lewis Comments

Nonsense! As if the early Church did not receive from God but originated by its own ingenuity his revealed truths! That, however, does not end the nonsense. The existential exegete, such as Bultmann, has this for another working principle: the Gospels are to be interpreted only in the light of modern experience. If that is not a symptom of mental vacuity, what is?

Of the Gospels it is the fourth that has suffered the most vicious assaults from the higher critics. They argue that, since it disagrees with the other three, John did not write it. But it does not disagree. It is an addition to them. An eyewitness to the public life of Jesus, and repeatedly saying he was, the apostle John reveals in the text a close intimacy with his fellow apostles, has an exact knowledge of Palestine, and gives no reason for the conclusion that he was not, as he claims to be, the true author. He was no alien to his subject matter.

In reply, it is a relief to quote again the renowned philologist who said in a lecture at Cambridge University: "These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussion) the lines themselves." One such interlinear visionary, after other silly remarks about the fourth Gospel, adds insult to injury by concluding that it is "a poem, not a history" and that it must be interpreted as you would interpret Pilgrim's Progress, a parallel work of fiction. Did the expert in literary forms possibly misread the statement? Can he believe his eyes? With an air of resignation C. S. Lewis simply raises a question. "After a man has said that, why need one attend to anything else he says about any book in the world?"13

Pilgrim's Progress admits being an allegory, which its proper names confirm with the blatancy of a shout, and whoever reads it and then reads the fourth Gospel and does not see that Bunyan is telling a dreamer's story throughout, whereas the evangelist is intent on recording what has been done and said in real life—whoever, having read both, fails to see the difference has in the judgment of Lewis "never learnt to read." Except for its parable of the Good Shepherd and its other evident figures of speech, which the sane know to be imaginative illustrations of the truth, the fourth Gospel reads like the literal truth it is. Fantasy it is not.

Claims Unsubstantiated

Lewis found that method of exegesis an unreliable system of guesswork, which defies tradition, which claims to have information beyond what the texts themselves supply, which pretends to know the sources each writer used, the precise time and place in which he wrote, why he wrote and under what influence. The Christian apologist had a personal incentive for distrusting it, having had some of his own books gone over "in just this way"—and almost always erroneously. For example, his essay on William Morris into which he had put most of his heart because he really cared, a higher-critic type of reviewer dismissed as a heartless piece of writing with the reason why: the writer was not interested.

The humor of an arrogant method almost always going wrong, as applied to his works, brought from Lewis the comment that the scriptural authors so maltreated cannot talk back.14

Why Not Discontinue It?

Another literary expert, who like Lewis saw through the pretenses of the higher criticism, exposed it no less trenchantly, if not so seriously. For in the process Ronald Knox had fun applying its treatment of Holy Scripture to certain English classics. From hidden suggestions in the text and outward similarities between it and the verse of lady authors and by means of the rest of the formidable technique, he concluded without fear of contradiction that, definitely not Alfred Lord Tennyson, but unquestionably Queen Victoria wrote In Memoriam. Again, he proved from the same know-how method of approach that Pilgrim's Progress also came from the pen of some woman, either an Anglican or crypto-Roman Catholic feminist, which left John Bunyan out, and that of course the adventures of Christian the Puritan were in plain truth the adventures of a non-Puritan heroine whose name ought to have been Christiana. Then, best of all in his Essays in Satire, the mimic of form criticism was easily able to argue down the stubborn tradition that Samuel Johnson was an authentic writer since he never did exist. 15

Now for an important distinction from a Catholic scholar who, like Father Most, has followed the guidelines of the Holy See to keep his exegesis free of doctrinal error. Both are wise to the limitations of form criticism, beyond which no prudent biblicist would carry the method. Accordingly, referring to its over-use, Msgr. John E. Steinmueller warns that, "form criticism should not be confused with prudent literary criticism which is a useful tool for all competent exegetes."16 So it is.

But prudent literary criticism, as the venerable biblicist knows with Knox and Lewis, does not break up a book of Scripture into fragments, arguing that the fragments were written in different eras by different authors. That technique was long ago tried and found wanting in the examination of profane texts. Because of its unreliability it has been discontinued. Archaeologists and philologists may well be asking, why has it not been discontinued in the analysis of sacred texts?

Reverend Valentine Long, O.F.M., is a Franciscan of the Holy Name Province. During his teaching years and after, he has written articles for nine different magazines, and for twenty-five years seldom missed a month in Friar. John Cardinal Wright wrote favorable reviews of two of Fr. Valentine's most recent books, The Angels in Religion and Art and The Mother of God. His last article in HPR appeared in the January 1982 issue.


1 The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978) 120.

2 Achtemeier and Tucker: "Biblical Studies" in Council on the Study of Religion Bulletin, Vol. II, #3, p. 73; Rendtorff: "Pentateuchal Studies on the Move" in Journal for the Study of The Old Testament, 3 (1976) 45; Wink: The Bible in Human Transformation. Cf. Rev. William G. Most: The Consciousness of Christ, Appendix. Christendom College Press, Front Royal, Virginia 22630.

3 Divino Afflante Spiritu, Paragraph 24, September 30, 1943.

4 Exod. 17:14: Num. 33:2: Josh. 8:32: Matt. 22:24: Mark 12:19: Acts 26:22; Rom. 10:5.

5 John 5:46-47.

6 Exodus (23:23 etc.) becomes a double embarrassment to the liberal exegete when it has an angel, a superhuman guide no less, leading the Israelites from the Amorites to the Hittites whom the expert form critics declare unreal, nowhere in existence. Cf. The Bible in Its World: The Bible And Archaeology Today by K.A. Kitchen. Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove. Illinois 60515.

7 Cf. George Medenhall's study in a 1954 issue of The Biblical Archeologist. Also: "Impossible Covenant?" by Father William Most in the National Catholic Register, August 18, 1974.

8 Cf. Msgr. John E. Steinmueller: A Companion to Scripture Studies, Vol. 2, Ch. 3. Lumen Christi Press, Houston, Texas.

9 "Modern Theology And Biblical Criticism" in Christian Reflections, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1967. This 1959 lecture has also been published in a book bearing its title, Fern-Seed And Elephants, Collins-Fountain Books, 1975.

10 Acts 28:25-26.

11 Dr. Oswald T. Allis: The Unity of Isaiah, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., Box 817, Phillipsburg, N.J. 08865; Rev. James P. O'Reilly, M.S.: "The Unity of Isaiah Reconsidered" in the Homiletic & Pastoral Review, May, 1981: James Kelso: Archaeology And Our Old Testament Contemporaries, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

12 Isa. 53:7; Sir. 48:22: Luke 4:16-19, etc.

13 "Modern Theology And Biblical Criticism" in Christian Reflections.

14 Ibid.

15 Msgr. Ronald Knox: "A Boswellian Problem."

16 Msgr. John E. Steinmueller: The Sword of the Spirit, Part IV, Stella Maris Books, P.O. Box 11483, Fort Worth, Texas 76110.

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