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In recent times authorship of Biblical books has been called into question by modern scholars.

It is believed that Isaiah didn't write Isaiah, John didn't write John, Matthew didn't write Matthew, and so on. A little concession is given to us by conceding that Mark did write Mark, but he wasn't an eyewitness so his testimony doesn't matter anyway.

My question is -

  1. How much weight does this kind of textual criticism have? What logic/principles are used to arrive at such kind of results? (Can you give an example?)

  2. What should be the Christian response to such claims? What can a Christian do to educate herself on these matters?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Flimzy, curiousdannii, fredsbend, Mr. Bultitude, Dick Harfield Jun 20 '15 at 4:45

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Read Chesterton! If you can get a hold of this month's issue of Gilbert magazine there's an amusing aside of a plethora of G.K. Chesterton's commentaries on the "higher criticism". The only one I remember is something to the effect that "the higher criticism says Jesus and Mithras are very much alike, especially Mithras". – Peter Turner Jun 20 '12 at 13:26
@PeterTurner do you have a link? – user1054 Jun 21 '12 at 12:15
@dan you get the magazine if you join the American Chesterton Society I re-read it last night and all the quotes seem to be in his articles taken from the 30+ books of his complete works published by Ignatius Press – Peter Turner Jun 21 '12 at 13:07
There are some concerns raised here.… Also, books of the bible didn't have titles as we expect today. They gave some name to the bible and for instance, they called Mark's book "Mark". – The Freemason Jun 19 '15 at 18:14
Many higher critics today start with the premise that God is not a God of the miraculous, so that anything that seems miraculous in the Bible needs to be discredited or explained away with something from the natural. When they begin from this premise it is clear that their eyes are blinded to the truth. While it certainly is important to consider other view points and understand our own viewpoints, when we begin to put stock into the views of those who are blind to the truth it can become an issue of the blind leading the blind. In Matthew 15:14 Jesus tells us to leave such people alone. – kojow7 Jun 21 '15 at 0:08

You need to deal with them on a case by case basis. For one, it is helpful to understand that all claims of authorship are always uncertain, even and especially those made by textual critics. As Christians we accept a tradition about who wrote the books along with whatever authorship may be claimed therein.

In the case of the Gospel writers, we can take note of two problems in 'identifying' the author using textual criticism:

  1. The authors shared material and did not have a notion of 'plagiarism' - so some stuff may have been shared directly. Additionally there is believed to have been a 'Document Q' which was an early record of many of Jesus' sayings written down by his disciples. It did not survive though most or all of it may actually just be in Matthew, Mark and Luke. This could make analyzing the text for style and origin difficult and subject to a lot noise that would make precise identification impossible.

  2. In the case of John, it is traditional that he did not write his Gospel (or Revelation) by hand but in the prior case, the witness - the Gospel - is John's account. The end of the Gospel communicates this, not necessarily that John is sitting there writing (he was old at the time, it is believed that Prochoros was the actual writer) but that he is the witness of these things. With Revelation we know for sure he was having the vision and telling Prochoros about it, who was writing it down. So the result would be a mixture of John and Prochoros, not John alone.

With Hebrews, Paul is traditionally accepted as the writer. Textual critics, in their attempt to identify authorship, may forget that an extremely learned man such as Paul was fully capable of concealing his identity in his writing, as well as utilizing different styles for various purposes. Perhaps they assume that ancient people were all non-self conscious and didn't have the ability to choose words and phrases that were different than their normal style or pattern for some purpose of their own.

For Isaiah, we must remember again the problem of scribes - so to say Isaiah didn't 'write' Isaiah doesn't say much! How could a prophet write his vision while having it? So with Isaiah we may easily have a collection of works from different eras in Isaiah's life written down by different scribes. Trying to be exact about it simply makes it less clear.

In general, Christians must remember that 'Sola Scriptura' is a recent invention and is not the basis for traditional faith. Even the original holders of Sola Scriptura held to various oral and written traditions about the scriptures - such as the ever-virginity of Mary - that are not directly witnessed by the scriptures themselves.

Consider the case of the books of Moses - given the potential age of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - plus the history itself witnessed by the scripture - we cannot be fully certain (ever) that what we have is word-for-word of what Moses either dictated or wrote. Our trust is in the witness of the Spirit, not in the inerrant words of this or that human (guess what, no humans are inerrant.) If you learn a bit about how human beings interpret visionary works (such as prophecy) it becomes clear that perfect word-for-word accuracy does not necessarily mean accuracy on many points.

Thus it becomes nearly impossible to debunk the scripture - all attempts have failed really - because on the points on which our faith hangs, such as the divinity of the Son of God, the incarnation of Him, his death, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit, the witness doesn't vary. It is possible that Genesis 3 was added later during the Babylonian captivity (Genesis certainly reflects two different writings, but whether they come from the same person or not cannot be established) but whether it did or not doesn't matter. One reason for this idea is that it attempts to undermine the Christian belief in the fall. But consider how it fails to do so: If it was added in the Babylonian times, that indicates that the teaching of the Fall of Man has been in the people of God since before then, and it is also consistent with other teachings in the scripture.

Textual Criticism - inasmuch as it is a tool to undermine Christian faith - can really only undermine faith based on literal scriptural inerrancy. Those who hold to a tradition (kergyma) about scripture may or may not find such things interesting, depending on their background and talents, but they do not pose a challenge to the faith, since the faith is not just the Bible, but the people (the Church) who have been witnesses of God since the beginning of time. Even if the fall part of Genesis is a later addition, it is consistent with the teaching of the Church and is thus part of the faith anyway. Those 'additions' if they were, were just as inspired as the text they added to.

It also helps to remember that nobody is going to rediscover the 'real faith' of the Bible at any time. It still exists and continues and most attempts to radically reinterpret the scripture are, as they have been since the time of Christ, the work of Gnostics.

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Point of order; the "written down by his disciples" is entirely misleading - this is a hypothetical document, and has no particular authorship. Even if it existed, there is exactly nothing to suggest anything about disciples being involved. – Marc Gravell Jun 21 '12 at 6:38
According to my professor of Early Christian studies, it is assumed that it would have been written down by his disciples. So, if this document did exist (which they are fairly certain of) it would have been written down by his disciples, because many of the quotes were spoken in private and thus, only to those within his following at the time (as the Scripture itself indicates numerous times.) – user304 Oct 3 '12 at 13:31

Differing Conclusions

It is believed both that John did not write John AND that John did write John. There are people on both sides of the issue (as well as Matthew and Isaiah). Both sides point to evidence for their claims and strongly defend their positions.

The distinction typically lies in a person's view of Scripture and not with the evidence. Those that believe the Bible is "God-breathed" and divine in origin typically accept the evidence for John's authorship of John and the early dating of its writing. Those who view the Bible as less authoritative, of human origin, or who disregard the Bible altogether will accept the evidence that suggests other authorship, later dates of writing, etc.

Higher Criticism is not Infallible

The "Higher Criticism", however, is is no way without its own criticism and those that deny traditional authorship are not without their own biases. It's important to keep in mind that this issue is not one that anyone can come to without some bias, and most approach it with very strong bias. The fact that someone who dies the divine authorship of the Bible embraces ideas that undermine the divine authorship of the Bible really goes without saying. Of course they do, but that doesn't make their beliefs legitimate.

It is interesting to note that those who are 2,000 years removed from the situation believe that they can know more about the authorship of the books of the Bible than people who lived during or very close to the times when the books were actually written. We should ask, "Why did people in the 2nd and 3rd centuries believe that John wrote John?" We don't have all the resources that they did at that time, specifically the body of knowledge that had just been passed along from the original sources. It would seem that the burden of proof would be on the one who is further separated from such knowledge to demonstrate that those much closer to the events themselves were, in fact, wrong. Eyewitness accounts are much more credible than accounts of people who read about events long after they occurred.


So, whenever there is any question regarding the Bible or Christianity, we should

  1. Identify our own biases.
  2. Examine the evidence on both sides of the issue.
  3. Draw a reasoned and rational conclusion.
  4. Identify the level of certainty that is legitimate regarding the evidence.
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How should a Christian deal with destructive higher criticism of the Bible?

As a believer who also happens to be a rhetorician, about the only element I can add to River C's and Narnian's answers is the importance of the role of rhetoric in determining which side of the fence one is on regarding any controversial issue in general, and the issue of higher criticism in particular. In a nutshell, the role of rhetoric is significant in critical and often overlooked ways.


First, there is nothing wrong with being fully persuaded of one's point of view. Just as the Apostle Paul was fully persuaded that God was able to keep whatever Paul had committed unto Him until the day of Christ's return (see 2 Timothy 1:12), we too should be unashamed to be fully persuaded there is indeed something special about the Bible in both its historicity and the authoritative nature of its claims in all things pertaining to life and godliness.

Just as an aside, which probably resembles more of a criticism of higher critics than an aside, I suggest there are more godly people on the side of those who believe in the inspiration of the Scripture than on the side of those who believe the Bible cannot be taken at face value. That alone is significant, I feel. With that said, let us proceed.


Second, persuasion, if it is truly heartfelt and ethical, and not simply conjured up to take advantage of people, requires some bedrock assumptions or presuppositions. If it lacks them, persuasion could not exist, since to persuade someone of something, one needs to have been persuaded of that something in the first place, unless of course one is simply posturing, for whatever reason(s).

Think about it. Even a purely informational type of speech, whether it concerns how to fix a kitchen faucet or how to construct a nuclear weapon, is grounded in certain assumptions, not the least of which is that words when strung together actually make sense and have real-world implications.

In the English language, for example, the words Allen wrench and Allen screw correspond to a common tool and part, respectively, that are used in repairing some kitchen faucets. Not so coincidentally, the right sized wrench fits the corresponding axial hexagonal hole in the screw's head perfectly, whether to tighten it or to loosen it! If the speaker who is imparting this crucial information were not fully convinced of this fact, he would not be speaking in the first place, unless of course the faucet he's informing us how to repair does not contain an Allen screw! But I digress.


Third, persuasion is at the heart of any pronouncement, whether it is overtly persuasive (e.g., Aristotelian-style rhetoric), informative, inspirational (e.g., epideictic oratory), or legal (e.g., forensic oratory). We commonly call the form this persuasion takes assumptions or presuppositions. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one's perspective, these presuppositions are often taken for granted. Personally, I think this is a good thing, since in virtually any communication, written or spoken, it's nice not to have to re-invent the wheel, so to speak, every time you open your mouth or commit some words to paper!

For example, in discussing the Bible with fellow believers, I need not defend my use of the word "Paul" whenever I quote a verse from one of his letters in the New Testament. Chances are better than good that my peers assume the words I quote to have originated in the Apostle Paul and that whether or not they actually came from Paul is in a sense immaterial or moot, since the words are authoritative anyway!

In discussing the Bible with antagonistic unbelievers, I need to take a completely different tack, since we do not likely share the same assumptions about the authoritativeness of that verse from Paul's letter. I would then need to make my presuppositions clear and hope that my interlocutors would do the same. Chances are, we would likely need to agree to disagree agreeably, at least on my part. (After all, I'm the Christian, right?!)

This is not to say that it would be unseemly for me to engage in good-natured debate with my interlocutors and appeal to their rational faculties by delving into bibliographical proofs (i.e., the existing manuscript evidence for the historicity and accuracy of the Bible); internal and external evidences as to the people, places, things, events, and dates contained in the manuscripts of both the Bible and non-biblical sources as well; the occasional touch of humor, satire, ridicule, and even sarcasm (read this article for practical guidelines in this regard); and, finally, anecdotal evidence of people whose lives have been transformed, sometimes radically, by believing the Bible is in fact God's word and not some cobbled-together hodgepodge of historical, hortative, and histrionic elements (those are my three H-words, by the way!).


In other words, you cannot really talk about presuppositions without getting into apologetics, in which both unbelievers and believers need to be conversant if they want to be taken at least somewhat seriously. I am not advocating, however, that Christians debate the higher critics, for example, by attempting deliberately to embarrass and/or shame them. First Peter 3:15 makes it perfectly clear that Christians should defend their faith by

  1. By reverencing Christ in our hearts (i.e., asking ourselves, "What would Jesus do or say in this situation?")

  2. By being ready to mount a defense (or in Greek, apologia)

  3. By answering everyone who asks, not just nice people but not-so-nice people, too. Notice that Peter uses the word answer, which of course assumes there is a question. Waiting for a question may be difficult, especially if your interlocutor is on the attack. Sometimes a simple, "Is there a question in there?" can be enough to get him or her off their high horse and get them to articulate a question. Patience and diplomacy go a long way in those circumstances. More often than not, I suggest, Christian apologists are better off waiting for a question, at least in non-formal situations, particularly in one-on-one conversations.

  4. By giving an account of the hope we have in Christ

  5. By doing all the above in a spirit of gentleness and reverence, and by keeping a clear conscience, so as not to become a babbling hypocrite (see v.16)


As people of the Word we need to love the higher critics; we need to debate them not only to persuade them of our point of view but to learn from them humbly and to commend them sincerely for whatever legitimate insights they provide; and we need to pray for them and be ready to defend our faith and at the same time realize we cannot convert anyone, since that is the Lord's work and not ours.

Our job is always to be ready to engage people in considering the claims of Christ on their lives. To that end, a drop of honey beats a gallon of gall, or to quote the Apostle Paul, who may or may not have written(!) Colossians 4:6,

"Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person."


At a recent "Pride Parade" (formerly "Gay Pride Parade") in Pittsburgh, I witnessed something disturbing. Several men, all of whom would likely identify themselves as Christians, had cordoned off a little section of a sidewalk on the parade route. They took turns "preaching" repentance to any and all who would listen to them. Their placards, by the way, said things like "Homosexuality Is A Sin," "Hell Awaits All Who Fail to Repent," and so on.

They attracted quite a few vocal detractors and engaged in rigorous "debate" with their interlocutors. (Only the "Christians," however, had a bullhorn!) All I could say to a bystander who saw what was going on was "I thought God loved everybody!" The bystander said to me, "I guess they didn't get the memo." How true!

Yes, repentance is a legitimate and important part of the kerygma, but for Christians to single out one particular sin and harp on it in a spirit of condemnation--often bereft of love--is neither wise nor winsome in the marketplace of ideas.

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It appears that the overwhelming Christian response to textual criticism is to draw back into the shell and become defensive, even critical of the critics, many of whom are, after all, Christians themselves. A defensive response can be self-defeating because it palpably fails every time the higher critic makes a credible statement about the Bible, until only the most committed Christians are prepared to believe the objections put forward against higher criticism. An open an honest acceptance of higher criticism, whenever it provides credible evidence, may be an uncomfortable position, but it is also a position that can more readily convince doubters.

Christians should deal with higher criticism on the basis that higher criticism is not infallible, but nevertheless often enough correct and constructive. This can lead to uncomfortable decisions about traditional beliefs that are secondary in nature, but to do otherwise is to willingly refuse to accept what is in many cases the truth. Taking the example of the authorship of the gospels, there is no evidence that they were really written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John having been anonymous until the second century and only during the course of this century attributed to the persons whose names they now bear. In fact, few New Testament scholars would regard Mark as being the author of the gospel now given his name, but John Dominic Crossan says, in The Birth of Christianity, page 109, a fairly massive consensus of contemporary critical scholarship says that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were substantially based on Mark. Unfortunately, higher criticism also casts credible doubt on the historicity of much that is in Mark's Gospel but, as stated earlier, accuracy of the gospel stories should be seen as secondary to Christian belief.

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