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What Is Higher & Lower Textual Criticism?
What Is Higher & Lower Textual Criticism?

When I was in High School, I competed in a speech and debate league called STOA. Amongst their many categories of speeches you could perform in, my favorite was Apologetics. Just like regular apologetics, the theological discipline of arguing for a biblical concept, the Apologetics category for public speaking was comprised of giving a short, six-minute speech on some theological concept. We were given three options from a master list, and we had to choose one to perform in front of a panel of judges.

One of those options was to answer the question, “What is the meaning and significance of higher criticism and lower criticism?” The normal response to receiving this prompt was: “…OMG whut.”

Once I researched these disciplines, I realized that higher and lower textual criticism are not what they seem. Perhaps you yourself are thinking that these two disciplines entail psycho-analyzing the biblical text in order to prove the Bible is wrong and contradictory. These disciplines are not discussed from the pulpit nor in Christian circles, so just the sound of them conjures up images of a scholarly journal for those really, really, really smart people. (But not for us, of course.)

In reality, higher and lower textual criticism have nothing to do with “criticizing” the Bible. They’re also pretty easy to understand. Simply, higher and lower criticism are techniques used to study the meaning and context of biblical passages. Plain and simple.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, higher textual criticism is, “The critical study of Biblical texts with regard to questions of their character, composition, editing, and recollection.” In layman’s terms, higher criticism is the study of the sources and literary methods employed by the biblical authors. This includes studying the date each text was written and published, its literary style and structure, its historical context, and its authorship.

I’ll give you an example: When I was writing our Proverbs 31 Woman Bible Study, I read that Hezekiah might have written Proverbs 31. Uh, Hezekiah? Isn’t that kind of a random guess? Later, I read that when Bible scholars studied P31 in-depth, they realized the literary style and structure was akin to that of Hezekiah’s time period. Although it is difficult to prove that Hezekiah wrote the passage on mere literary style alone, the argument has convinced many that the passage could not have been written in Solomon’s time.

Did you know that you do higher textual criticism? Every time you research who wrote a Book of the Bible, or research its time period and culture, you are engaging in the discipline of higher textual criticism. It’s that simple, folks.

Ok, so what is lower textual criticism? According to Webster’s Dictionary, lower criticism is, “Textual criticism and verbal examination of a written work, especially the Bible.” Although it is similar to higher criticism, which studies the style of the text to determine the context, lower criticism examines the style to determine its authenticity.

Lower textual criticism attempts to restore our Bible to its original wording and structure. Norman Geisler, one of my favorite theologians, explains in his book From God To Us,

“[Lower criticism] deals with three key issues for a biblical passage: genuineness and authenticity, manuscript evidence, and variant readings in the text. Genuineness is used in the matter of textual criticism as it relates to the truth of the origin of a document, that is, its authorship. The multiplicity of manuscripts produces a corresponding number of variant readings, for the more manuscripts that were copied, the greater the possible number of errors made by copyists.”

Now, can we engage in lower criticism? Well, of course – but it’s a lot  harder. You would need to know Classical Hebrew and Classical Greek (as in, not the versions of Hebrew and Greek that are spoken today) in order to translate parts of the original biblical texts. Instead, I would suggest reading a translation of the Bible (NIV, ESV, NASB, etc.) that you feel has been accurately translated from its original language. People often mock the Bible, saying how could it be “the Word of God” when it has been translated so many times over thousands of years? Well, that’s why we have Bible translators who take lower textual criticism very seriously. They ensure what we are reading in our Bibles is as close as possible to the original text, by comparing them to the original manuscripts.

Ok friends, you are now officially biblical critics! (In a good way, of course.) Tell me in the comments your thoughts about these disciplines. I’d love to hear them!

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