Many religious Students often come to college religion classes unprepared for the way that their religion professors deal with the Bible. To the religious student, often of very conservative religious backgrounds, their professors seem to be treating the Bible with utter disdain and disrespect. Now, we can talk about whose fault this is at another time, for today I want to take a quick break from our discussion of gospel authorship (parts I, II, III, and IV), though today's topic is very relevant to that series, to discuss higher criticism, its relation to science, and why I, as a religious believer, engage in higher criticism.
Let's start with my last question first: Why do I engage in higher criticism of the Bible? Well, I think the answer goes back to my childhood and is as deeply a part of me as is my personality. From the very beginning, I have had an insatiable curiosity and drive to know the truth. As a kid, I loved to take things apart to see how they worked. If something broke, I would take it apart to see if I could fix it. In high school I bought a Jeep that needed an engine swap. With a little help from friends, I swapped the engine. I just need to know how things work and why they are the way they are. Now, this insatiable curiosity could have served me in many different careers, but I was also a devout Christian with a call to ministry, so I channeled my pursuit of truth to the one thing that was most important to me: my faith. I wanted to know the truth about my faith, about theology, about the Bible. So, many years, and three degrees later, I am still channeling this desire to understand into my profession as a scholar and teacher of the Bible.
Following this drive to understand no matter what has a couple of consequences. One of the first is that no question is off limits in the pursuit of truth. There are no "truths" which are unassailable. There is no human doctrine that is "off limits" with regard to questioning it. And this comes from the scientific revolution of the 1500s-1700s and the Enlightenment that followed. Higher criticism in biblical studies was a logical outflow of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. Question everything, seek the truth.
Recently a colleague of mine who teaches in the Biology department made an off the cuff comment that I found somewhat offensive. No offense was meant, and I did not make an issue, but the professor said something like the following: "I always tell my [Biology] students that the difference between Biology and what is taught in the Religion department is that in Biology we deal with facts." Like I said, I do not think that this professor, who is a good friend and a believer, meant any offense, but the comment implied that what biblical scholars do is just make things up, while scientists seek the facts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Biblical scholars seek the facts as well. So, I want engage in a brief comparison between what I do as a biblical scholar engaging in higher criticism and what scientists do.
First lets do a quick refresher on the scientific method taught in elementary school. Here is an image. I consider higher criticism in biblical studies as a modified scientific method which, in its modern form, was solidified in the scientific revolution and Enlightenment by Francis Bacon and Renee Descartes. Like Scientists, biblical scholars begin with (1) observation. So for example, a biblical scholar will observe the gospels and notice the titles. They might make a second observation that nowhere within the gospels do the authors self identify (formal anonymity, discussed here) (2) Biblical scholars will ask a question: do these titles represent the names of the gospel authors or is something else going on? (3) Form a hypothesis. For example: I hypothesize that the gospel titles represent the names of the authors. (4) Conduct an experiment. Oops, at this point biblical criticism must diverge from the scientific method. We cannot conduct an experiment on the gospel authors. They are all dead. We cannot recreate the first century in a lab. So, biblical scholars must come up with another way to test their hypothesis (which is what an experiment is designed to do). So, what substitutes for an experiment for biblical scholars is the rigorous collection of data. Biblical scholars will attempt to gather all of the relevant data in an effort to get the fullest possible picture of the situation. Unfortunately, this is a poor replacement for an experiment. Would that we could run an experiment and create a full data set, then run the experiment again to recreate the data set. But alas, it is not so. Therefore, we must to the best we can with the data we have. We cannot create new data. But we can always search for more. Biblical scholars draw on all sorts of historical data and facts. We draw facts from ancient writings, archaeology, inscriptions, physical forms of manuscripts, etc. So, contrary to my colleagues comments, we are in fact dealing with and constrained by the facts. The main difference is that we are limited by the recoverable data, which often times is very incomplete (as with the data regarding gospel titles, see here). (5) Draw conclusions. At this point, biblical scholars must interpret the data to draw the best possible conclusions to determine what probably happened in the past. I say probably because the data set is never complete. Therefore these conclusions are always somewhat tentative, not nearly as secure as conclusions based upon repeated scientific experiment. This is why there is such vigorous debate on many issues in biblical studies. Often the data set is just too incomplete to draw firm conclusions. But, other times the data set is sufficient to produce scholarly consensus (as is the case with Markan Priority in the synoptic problem). (6) Report your results. Biblical scholars do this through publishing books and articles, arguing for their conclusions and seeking academic discussion and debate.
To these I would add (7): Repeat. Biblical scholars must constantly repeat this process, never rest easy, never cease to ask questions, must search for new data, and re-evaluate their conclusions in the never ending quest for the truth.
So, while biblical criticism is certainly not a "hard" science, our method is derived from the scientific method and attempts to be just as rigorous with regard to "facts" as any scientist would be. The difference comes from the fact that science can create data through experiments, historical research has to work with the data we can recover from the past.