For the last 80 years the study of the Old Testament has been characterized by certain well-recognized methods which have become known collectively as the “critical approach.” An analysis of this methodology shows that there are three major forms of criticism, namely, textual or “lower” criticism, literary or “higher” criticism, and historical criticism.

The first of these has as its chief task the responsibility of establishing a correct text. It goes without saying that this form of criticism is of fundamental importance to the student of Scripture, regardless of the particular “school” to which he may claim allegiance. Despite scrupulous care on the part of the Jewish scribes, occasional obscurities have crept into the Hebrew text. Biblical scrolls from the Dead Sea region have demonstrated the high degree of fidelity with which the Old Testament text was transmitted, and incidentally have given some indication of possible emendations which reflect the original more accurately.

Among biblical students of a more conservative bent, the second form of criticism has acquired the greatest notoriety over the years. The Graf-Wellhausen Pentateuchal analysis furnished a mechanical system of criticism that gave impetus to a wide range of literary analyses of Old Testament books. The highly subjective nature of this pursuit became evident in the writings of scholars, and there were numerous occasions where subjectivism was pushed to extreme lengths.

The third form of criticism was actually the means of changing the attitude of many scholars with regard to the Old Testament. It introduced a new emphasis, namely that of the historicity of events mentioned in the Old Testament. For example, as successive archaeological discoveries demonstrated the essential historicity of such peoples as the Hittites, and showed that the personages of the Patriarchal period fitted firmly into the historical background of early Mesopotamian life, it became clear that the appraisals of Wellhausen were no longer adequate to the situation.

It is almost a commonplace today for Old Testament scholars to admit that recent archaeological discoveries have demonstrated the essential historicity of events mentioned in the Old Testament. While we would probably agree that Wellhausen and his followers would not have published the devastating critical opinions attributed to them had they been in possession of present-day archaeological knowledge, it is equally true to say that they did not make full use of the archaeological material which was available for study in their own generation, and which, if considered, would have modified their opinions at the very outset.

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The modern writer who approaches the Old Testament from a background of liberal scholarship will be forced to concede that the critical picture has altered beyond description in the last 20 years. Even in the early thirties, Dr. S. A. Cook was proclaiming to his English contemporaries that Old Testament studies were “in the melting pot” once again. His prophetic foresight was amply vindicated by the discovery of the Qumran scrolls some 15 years later.

Nowadays a liberal scholar is forced either to maintain positions which have been long outmoded, or else to adopt a more conservative attitude towards his task than his earlier training furnished. That many scholars of liberal persuasion have taken significant steps in this direction is testimony to the manner in which the critical climate has altered in recent years.

Obscurantism And Obstinacy

Of course there are still those who continue to view the Old Testament from the standpoint of a criticism which has changed but little since its inception. This is an obscurantist attitude which is unworthy both of the name of scholarship and of Old Testament study alike. An eminent British scholar in a recent review of a book on Hebrew history, which had been written by a German professor, complained that the author had approached his task with almost complete disregard for the archaeological achievements of recent years. While the reason for this may be understandable, it is certainly not commendable.

Among biblical scholars who have lately departed this life, R. H. Pfeiffer has furnished an example of this kind of obscurantism which is so unbecoming to a gifted scholar. To the best of the present writer’s knowledge and belief, Pfeiffer never conceded that the relationship between Belshazzar and Nabonidus had been cleared up satisfactorily by the discovery that the former was regent in Babylon while Nabonidus was living in semiretirement in Arabia, as indicated by R. P. Dougherty in 1929. But whether it is considered good form for a Harvard man to acknowledge the validity of research which proceeds from Yale is not for the present writer, an Englishman, to say.

Even a casual perusal of recent studies dealing with the Old Testament from a critical standpoint will reveal a striking poverty of new ideas and an allegiance to opinions which were expressed several generations ago and which in many instances have been challenged successfully. Dr. E. J. Young in the introduction to his study of the book of Daniel stated how noticeable was the way in which successive writers had incorporated earlier critical notions about Daniel into their own work with monotonous repetition and an almost complete disregard for later researches.

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Positive Role Of Criticism

In all biblical study, and not least in the perusal of the Old Testament, it must be remembered that there is a positive side to “criticism” which can never be gainsaid. Despite all that has been written about the negative results of biblical criticism, this movement of thought presented a new approach to the study of the Bible. It is true that the methodology itself was open to serious objections, and that in irresponsible hands it produced extreme and fanciful results. But at the same time it proclaimed that Holy Scripture was a proper object of inquiry on the part of the human mind. The fact that intellectual treasure has ever been contained in earthen vessels was in no small part responsible for the abuse of the privileges and responsibilities connected with such an inquiry.

The exercise of Old Testament criticism must consequently never be interpreted as the prerogative of any one school of thought. Even the most conservative Old Testament scholar should be, and indeed must be, a critic if he is to achieve a measure of success in his intellectual and spiritual goal. An act of inquiry is a basic necessity if an occidental scholar is to begin to understand the subtleties of the oriental semitic mind. The plain fact is that the Hebrew scriptures did not have the twentieth century man in their purview. Consequently they need to be studied carefully in the light of their historical, social, and religious background.

Such considerations ought to pay particular attention to the nature of contemporary semitic and non-Semitic sociological factors in an attempt to determine the significance of the social and moral undertones which in all ages help to shape the literary productions of the day. The desirability of such an approach has been amply vindicated by the new light shed on the Patriarchal narratives through a careful study of contemporary social structures at Mari and Nuzu.

The kind of criticism that we are advocating, therefore, will result in a deeper appreciation of what the Old Testament actually has to say to us. So often scholars have imagined that the sole function of criticism was to impose some form of artificial occidental scheme upon ancient oriental writings. This kind of methodology is completely false to the historical situation, and in consequence is hardly calculated to attune the ear to the deeper message of the Old Testament.

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I like to think of biblical criticism in terms of the old Greek phrase akribos exetazein which conveys the idea of “careful scrutiny” of the subject under survey. The importance of a text which corresponds as nearly as possible to the original autograph cannot be overemphasized since it is basic to all other aspects of Old Testament study. As we have already noted, the Qumran biblical manuscripts have furnished striking testimony to the consistently high degree of accuracy maintained in the transmission of the traditional Hebrew text, and at the same time they have provided a few rather attractive variant readings which may well help to clear up obscurities in the original. These manuscripts are in general accord with the tenor of other archaeological discoveries over the years, which confirms rather than denies the traditional witness of the Old Testament and reinforces the testimony of the Christian Church to the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture.

Old Testament criticism of the kind just mentioned is by no means a facile matter, however. It demands long hours of study involving original languages, obscure religions, and apparently irrelevant historical and social data. For it is only as we have a comprehensive picture of the situation from the standpoint of the original writers that we can begin to appreciate the significance and value of their contributions to spirituality, a result which will not be achieved by a rather casual perusal of some English translation of the Old Testament.

It is in the nature of the situation that fashions in criticism come and go. But there must always be criticism of an interpretative kind if Western man is to discover the riches hidden in the Old Testament. The Bible, as Gladstone long ago observed, does not need to be defended. It merely desires a proper opportunity for proclaiming its undying message to man. This, it seems to me, is the particular responsibility and the peculiar joy of the Old Testament critic.


R. K. Harrison has been head of the Department of Hebrew at University of Western Ontario, and Hellmuth Professor of Old Testament at Huron College since 1952. He holds the B.D., M.Th. and Ph.D. degrees from University of London, and is author of three books, two of which are Teach Yourself Hebrew and A History of Old Testament Times.

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