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What Is Historical Criticism?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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Historical criticism is a specific kind of literary analysis that looks at a text in its entire historic context. This kind of analysis is also often called higher criticism. In historic criticism, researchers often consider comparable texts from the same time period, utilizing other resources to come to a greater understanding of how a specific text interacted with its environment when it was written.

Lower criticism is often contrasted with historical criticism, or higher criticism. According to research experts, lower criticism looks at the meaning of text. By contrast, historical criticism looks more at the environmental factors that influenced the writing.

One example of using historical types of criticism is in the analysis of that wide category of historic writing commonly referred to as “sacred texts.” This includes the analysis of the Bible, a book that informs much of Western civilization in various ways. The use of historical analysis or criticism applied to the Bible has generated a considerable amount of controversy in societies that value this book.

Experts point out that universities in Western nations have adopted the practice of using historical criticism to examine the many books of the Bible, which is essentially a compilation of many diverse texts written at different times. One of the main uses of this type of criticism applied to the Bible is the evaluation of the synoptic Gospels, four books that share a unique relationship in history. Another major element of biblical historical criticism relates to the Old Testament. Many academics have engaged in researching the different origins of the books that make up this part of the Bible in order to better understand not only the meanings, but the applied uses of these texts.

In societies where the “lay person” often has a passionate relationship with the Bible, it has been controversial to examine the book through historical types of literary criticism. Even though, as religious experts explain, historical criticism is used in seminaries, it is not popular in non-academic environments, where many people choose to avoid higher analysis altogether. Some of the findings of historical criticism applied to the Bible may be ultimately rejected by the greater population of a society.

Researchers also apply historical analysis to other kinds of religiously classified historic writing. For example, the Qumran scrolls or the Dead Sea Scrolls might also receive this kind of analysis. Other sacred texts like the Koran may also be analyzed this way. Historical criticism can also apply to historic fiction, ancient records, and many other forms of writing.

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Discussion Comments

By donasmrs — On Oct 19, 2014

@burcinc-- The translation of the Qur'an I read has some notes of historical criticism underneath. I actually find it very useful. It's easier to understand how things developed when one knows the major historical events at the time.

By ZipLine — On Oct 19, 2014

I think historical criticism may also be the criticism of various historical sources to determine the most likely version.

I watched a show on TV the other day where a historian was talking about how a significant historical event has often been described very differently by different sources. Actually, many sources on history that were written during the time of the event were intentionally manipulated because people did not want to make themselves look bad.

Other times, people who wrote these things actually had little information themselves and had to theorize some things along the way. So when historians look at various existing sources on history, they have to criticize them to figure out what really happened and whether the information is completely truthful.

By burcinc — On Oct 19, 2014

By definition, to criticize means to judge or find faults with something. If we see historical criticism in that way, it's easy to see why some people would be upset with the idea of the Bible being criticized. How can the word of God be criticized. But the other meaning of criticism is to analyze something. In this sense, the criticism of a religious narrative ought to be thought as interpretation of the text based on the historical incidents of the time.

This is not necessarily a bad thing because it sheds light on a lot of topics that may otherwise be difficult to understand or confusing for people. Of course, we should never take criticism too seriously. It's merely one person's opinion. If it helps us understand something, that's good, but it shouldn't be taken as the ultimate truth. It's just another interpretation.

If we think about it this way, we won't be so shocked with the idea of historical criticism of the Bible.

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