The arguments of the higher critics are based upon the idea that the theology of the early church was gradually developed over a period of time in order to meet the needs of the early church.
Higher criticism begins with exactly the same texts and procedures used in the preparation of our modern translations of the New Testament. It is not a matter of actually having any additional evidence, but rather a theoretical progression which becomes increasingly speculative and subjective in its conclusions the farther it is followed. These stages are briefly outlined below:
- a) Textual criticism
- This is the same process followed in producing virtually all modern translations of the bible, whereby extant manuscripts are carefully compared in order to establish a reading as close as possible to the original document.
- b) Literary criticism
- This seeks to analyse the text from the standpoint of word usage, grammar, style and meaning. There is much of value in such an analysis: but there are potentially serious pitfalls, as the analyst can all too easily impose their own interpretation on the text, or fail to recognise where a writer's use of terms differs from conventional usage. Another common problem is that literary style often varies depending on content: this has often led to overly-elaborate claims of multiple authorship.
- c) Historical criticism
- This focuses on trying to answer the question of where and when the text was written, by whom, to whom, and under what circumstances. Again, this can be very useful: but it is necessary to be aware of the nature of the evidence used in this process and the relative weights being given to the various clues. All too often, critics with an axe to grind have chosen to ascribe more weight to an inferred meaning or connection than to a plain statement of the text itself or to the testimony of sources such as the church fathers. The destruction of the Jerusalem temple is a classic example.
- d) Source criticism
- Another stage in the process is to theorise as to the possible source documents and traditions upon which the document is based. In the case of the NT documents, it is generally accepted that there were earlier writings and verbal traditions (cf. Lk 1:1-4) and similarities between the first three gospels indicate that they all made use of such sources. But it must be noted that there are no surviving copies of these documents. The alleged reconstructions, such as 'Q', are hypothetical and not without their shortcomings, in some cases running contrary to the available historical evidence.
- e) Form criticism
- The foundations of form criticism are almost entirely speculative. It begins from the assumption that the gospels were pieced together from small oral or textual units, known as pericopes, which were circulated independently and adapted or even created as required to meet specific needs of the church. These may have been in the form of legends, tales, myths, parables or sayings. Historical detail and chronology are regarded as later editorial additions of no particular factual importance. In effect, at this point, historical evidence from within the text itself is simply discarded. Of course, if these historical details were later fabrications, we would not expect great historical accuracy. But the NT documents contain an embarrasing wealth of historical detail; and confirmation of this information from recent discoveries has been one of the principal reasons for increased scepticism about the higher critics' claims.
- e) Redaction criticism
- This builds on the assumptions of form criticism, by seeking to analyse the supposed motivations of the postulated later editors (redactors) of the text. Of course, if form criticism is speculative, this procedure is even more so.