Destructive Criticism and the Old Testament

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Dr. Richard E. Friedman, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California (San Diego), has attracted considerable publicity in recent years with his radical claim that Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe (Jeremiah 36:4), authored much of the Old Testament. Friedman’s book, Who Wrote the Bible?, argues—on the basis of language analysis, structure, and the style of the book of Jeremiah (all subjective criteria)—that there are remarkable similarities between this document and several other Old Testament books.

Friedman has concluded that not only was Baruch the author of Jeremiah’s prophecies, but also major portions of other Old Testament books (e.g., parts of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and the books of Kings and Chronicles). Moreover, the professor opines that no serious scholar today accepts Moses as the author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). He suggests these documents were probably compiled in Babylonia during the fifth century by weaving together the work of two or three other authors.

Dr. Friedman’s approach to the Old Testament is typical of the liberal twist of mind that has seized many religious teachers in the so-called scholastic community. It is fraught with ignorance—eclipsed only by arrogance—and is diseased with dishonesty.

Higher Criticism

The expression “higher criticism” has to do with the study of sources, times, and the authorship of ancient literary documents. Many of the biblical “higher critics” have been grossly influenced by German rationalism. Accordingly, they have been “destructive” in their approach to the study of the Bible. Their investigations have proceeded along lines buttressed with biased presuppositions that are grossly inaccurate, and which have been repeatedly and thoroughly discredited by reputable scholars.

Let us consider some of the bases upon which the destructive critical theories rest:

Higher Critics Deny the Miraculous

There is a denial of the miraculous elements of Scripture which result from naturalistic assumptions. The Bible is viewed as merely a collection of myths and legends. The accounts regarding the creation, the fall of man, the flood, etc., are, with a proverbial wave of the hand, dismissed from the realm of factual history.

We are patronizingly told that these “charming stories” contain lessons for us, but are not to be understood as literal history. One writer, for example, has explained the Genesis record of creation as “something that never was, but always is.” Such is the typical nature of modernistic mumbo-jumbo.

A classic example of this sort of perspective is found in The Broadman Bible Commentary. Therein Adam, the first man, is treated as a mere “symbol” of mankind, rather than as an historical person.

Joseph Callaway of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary writes: “If we rob Adam of his symbolic meaning and simply literalize him, then we reduce him to one historical individual for the anthropologist to study.” Professor Callaway goes on to suggest that if this is our view of Adam, in reality, “We have lost man!” (1973, 47-48).

Consistent with the foregoing suppositions, therefore, is the notion that there can be no such thing as predictive prophecy (since this would involve a miracle). No Old Testament character could have foretold the details of particular events many years before their actual occurrence.

Characteristic of this mode of thought was the statement of Professor A. B. Davidson: “The prophet is always a man of his own time, and it is always to the people of his own time that he speaks, not to a generation long after, nor to us” (1902, 118).

Noted scholar J. A. Alexander (of Princeton) was quite correct when he observed that about the only matter upon which the critics really agree is that there simply “cannot be distinct prophetic foresight of the distant future” (1953, 24).

Consider this example: Since the book of Daniel contains clear statements as to the fate of certain empires (e.g., Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, etc.), it is alleged that the narrative could not have been penned by Daniel; rather, the document supposedly was authored by some unknown scribe of the inter-biblical era (ca. 167 B.C.).

Porphyry, a pagan philosopher of the late third century A.D., was the first to deny the genuineness of Daniel’s prophecies. He wrote fifteen books against Christianity, the twelfth of which was intended to depreciate the predictions of the inspired Daniel. But, as Jerome, an ancient scholar (ca. A.D. 348-420), once noted, such oppositions to the prophecies are “the strongest testimony of their truth. For they were fulfilled with such exactness, that to infidels the prophets seemed not to have foretold things future, but to have related things past” (Newton 1831, 202).

A denial of Old Testament prophecy, of course, flies directly in the face of Jesus Christ. Without belaboring the point, we merely mention that the Lord affirmed the Old Testament prophets spoke and wrote about him (cf. Luke 24:44; John 5:39, 46-47). The destructive critics would indict Jesus as being a victim of the ignorance of his day—or else nothing more than a dishonest charlatan.

Evolutionary Influences

The “higher critics,” considerably influenced by Darwinism, assume that the biblical narratives developed along evolutionary lines. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a radical modernist, wrote: “We know that every idea in the Bible started from primitive and childlike origins and, with however many setbacks and delays, grew in scope and height toward the culmination of Christ’s Gospel” (1924, 11).

It is argued, for example, that material which appears technical must be assigned a late date—even if a great variety of evidence reflects an earlier period of composition. Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), a prominent leader in the critical movement, contended that the Israel of Moses’ day could not have possessed a code containing the complicated civil and social laws that are reflected in the Pentateuch. Accordingly, the law necessarily must have arisen at a later date.

The discoveries of archaeology, however, have demolished that allegation. A number of law codes have been exhumed from the ancient past, i.e., the Sumerian systems of Ur-Nammu (ca. 2050 B.C.) and Lipit-Ishtar (ca. 1850 B.C.), the Akkadian Laws of Eshnunna (ca. 1950 B.C.), and the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1792-50 B.C.). These systems, which were several centuries before Moses, were as technical as the Hebrew code (though the Mosaic law is morally superior by far) (Jackson 1999, 43).

It might be noted further that liberals of an earlier generation maintained that Moses could never have authored the Pentateuch, since the art of writing was unknown in his day. Never mind that the Bible clearly indicates otherwise (cf. Exodus 17:14). The claim was made that writing was invented only at about the time of David (ca. 1000 B.C.). Archaeological discoveries, of course, have long since dissolved such misguided charges (Jackson 1982, 30-32).

In his fascinating book, History Begins At Sumer, the late Dr. Samuel Noah Kramer, America’s foremost Sumerologist, has shown in great detail that civilization, complete with schools, writing, etc., was an established fixture in the Mesopotamian world more than a thousand years before Moses was born!

But here is an important point which highlights the lack of integrity on the part of the critics: evidence for early writing was known already in the time of Wellhausen, but it was ignored in deference to the sacrosanct theory!

Reading Between the Lines

Based upon supposed literary “strata,” or sources, critical theorists, through “comparative studies” (again, a highly subjective and speculative concept), have dissected certain biblical books according to alleged authors, times, etc.

The well-known Graf-Wellhausen school of thought, for instance, divides the Pentateuch into four basic documentary sources called J, E, P, and D. These segments supposedly represent Jehovistic, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomic origins. For example, because certain divine names (e.g., “Jehovah,” or “Elohim” [God]) are used in various portions of the Pentateuch, the critics assumed that such “patterns” must imply a variety of sources.

These scholars are totally dominated by the ideology that differences necessitate multiple authors. Such a notion is utterly ridiculous, and it has been demonstrated to be fallacious time and time again.

There now are known to exist numerous documents of antiquity—admittedly unified literary productions—which employ the use of alternate names as a form of stylistic relief. Kenneth A. Kitchen, of the School of Archaeology and Oriental Studies at the University of Liverpool, has discussed this matter in considerable detail in his book, Ancient Orient and Old Testament. He says that “major variations in style” are “universal in ancient texts whose literary unity is beyond all doubt” (1966, 125).

Professor Kitchen further declares that “even the most ardent advocate of the documentary theory must admit that we have as yet no single scrap of external, objective, i.e., tangible, evidence for either the existence or history of ‘J’, ‘E’, or any other alleged source-documents” (23).

Even certain liberals have been forced to admit that the JEPD hypothesis is really without merit. For example, Umberto Cassuto, late professor at the University of Jerusalem, authored a work, The Documentary Hypothesis, in which he confessed the main arguments for this theory are “without substance.” He declared that the system is an edifice “founded on air,” and that it is “null and void” (1961, 5, 100, 101).

Moses H. Segal, professor emeritus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has written: “[W]e must reject the Documentary Theory as an explanation of the composition of the Pentateuch. The theory is complicated, artificial, and anomalous. It is based on unproved assumptions. It uses unreliable criteria for the separation of the text into component documents” (Otten 1965, 179).

There simply is no support for the documentary theories of the higher critics, and there is much evidence against them.

A Legal Test of the Critical Theory

The methodology of the higher critics was highlighted some years ago by an interesting case that proceeded through the Canadian and British court systems. The entire affair is set forth in G. M. Price’s work, Modern Discoveries Which Help Us To Believe. Here are the facts:

A lady named Florence Deeks brought a suit in the Ontario courts against H. G. Wells and his publisher, the Macmillan Company. Allegedly, Wells had plagiarized a manuscript which Deeks had submitted to these publishers, and from which she claimed Wells had borrowed extensively in his celebrated book, Outline of History.

The defendants denied the charge, affirming that Wells’s work had been done in England, and he had never seen Miss Deeks’s manuscript. When the case went to court, Deeks employed D. A. Irwin, M.A., Ph.D., professor of Old Testament language and literature at the University of Chicago, as an expert to show, in detail, the many ways in which her manuscript and Wells’s book resembled one another.

Professor Irwin was delighted to oblige Miss Deeks, since, as he boasted, “this is the sort of task with which my study of ancient literature repeatedly confronts me, and I was interested to test out in modern works the methods commonly applied to those of the ancient world.”

The legal test, however, was a devastating blow to the “critical” procedure. The judge dismissed the case, characterizing the analyses of Professor Irwin as “solemn nonsense.” The jurist further said: “His [Irwin’s] comparisons are without significance, and his argument and conclusions are alike puerile.” In a word, the so-called “critical method” was judged to be just plain silly!

But the case was appealed to the Superior Court of Ontario, and then finally to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of England, the highest legal body of the British Empire. The judges announced that Dr. Irwin’s arguments were “almost an insult to common sense,” and they decried the “utter worthlessness of this kind of evidence.”

Higher Criticism and a Parody

In order to expose the utter folly of the so-called “critical” methods, J. W. McGarvey authored (in 1893) a piece titled, “A Literary Analysis of an Ancient Poem.” The hilarious satire throws a floodlight upon the absurdity of the critical ideology. The well-known poem, analyzed by Professor McGarvey, reads as follows:

Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard,
To get her poor dog a bone.
When she got there, the cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.

Pursuing the same sort of methodology as that employed by those who dissect the Bible into its alleged literary sources, Professor McGarvey presented the following parody of this nursery rhyme. [Note: We have paragraphed McGarvey’s composition for easier reading.]

In the uncritical ages of the past, this poem was believed to be the composition of a single person—a very ancient English woman by the name of Goose. Whether we should style her Mrs. Goose, or Miss Goose, we have no means of deciding with certainty, for the stories which have come down to historical times concerning her are mostly legendary. It might be supposed that the title “mother” would settle this difficult question; but, as in certain convents of our day, venerable spinsters are styled Mother, so may it have been in the days of Goose.

But, leaving this interesting question as one for further historical inquiry, we turn to the poem itself, and by applying to it the scientific process of literary analysis, we find that the document did not originate, as our fathers have supposed, from a single author, but that it is a composite structure, at least two original documents having been composed within it by a Redactor. This appears from the incongruities between the two traditions which evidently underlie the poem.

One of these traditions represents the heroine of the poem, a venerable Mrs. Hubbard, as a benevolent woman, who loved her dog, as appears from the fact that she went to the cupboard to get him some food. If we had the whole story, we should doubtless find that she did this every time the dog was hungry, and as she surely would not go to the cupboard for the dog’s food unless she knew there was some in the cupboard, we can easily fill out the story of her benevolence by assuming that she put something away for the dog when she ate her own meals.

Now, in direct conflict with this, the other tradition had it that she kept the dog “poor;” for he is called her “poor dog;” and, in keeping with this fact, instead of giving him meat, she gave him nothing but bones. Indeed, so extreme was her stinginess toward the poor dog that, according to this tradition, she actually put away the bones in the cupboard with which to mock the poor dog’s hunger.

A woman could scarcely be represented more inconsistently than Mrs. Hubbard was by these two traditions; and consequently none but those who are fettered by tradition, can fail to see that the two must have originated from two different authors.

For the sake of distinction, we shall style one of the authors, Goose A, and the other, Goose B. In these two forms, then, the traditions concerning this ancient owner of a dog came down from prehistoric times. At length there arose a literary age in England, and then R [Redactor] put together into one the accounts written by the two gooses, but failed to conceal their incongruities, so that unto this day, Mother Hubbard is placed in the ridiculous light of going to the cupboard when there was nothing in it; of going there, notwithstanding her kindness to her dog, to tantalize him by getting him a mere bone; and to cap the climax, of going all the way to the cupboard to get the bone when she knew very well that not a bone was there.

Some people are unscientific enough to think, that in thus analyzing the poem, we are seeking to destroy its value; but every one who has the critical faculty developed can see that this ancient household lyric is much more precious to our souls since we have come to understand its structure; and that, contradictory as its two source documents were, it is a blessed thing that, in the providence of God, both have been preserved in such a form that critical analysis is capable of separating and restoring them (1910, 34-36).


There have been many efforts across the centuries to destroy the integrity of the biblical record. Some attacks come from militant skeptics—who make no apology for their in-your-face assaults. Other efforts are more subtle. They issue from those who profess a friendship with the Scriptures, but who, in reality, are enemies as deadly as the rabid atheist. The conscientious Christian need not be distracted by their fanciful dreamings.

  • Alexander, J. A. 1953 reprint. A Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Callaway, Joseph. 1973. The Broadman Bible Commentary. Clifton J. Allen, ed. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
  • Casuto, Umberto. 1961. The Documentary Hypothesis. Jerusalem, Israel: Magnes Press.
  • Davidson, A. B. 1902. A Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 4. James Hastings, ed. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
  • Fosdick, Harry Emerson. 1924. The Modern Use of the Bible. New York, NY: The Macmillan Co.
  • Friedman, Richard E. 1997. Who Wrote the Bible? San Francisco, CA: Harper.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 1982. Biblical Studies in the Light of Archaeology. Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 1999. The Code of Hammurabi. Christian Courier, March.
  • Kitchen, Kenneth A. 1966. Ancient Orient and Old Testament. London, England: Tyndale Press.
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah. 1959. History Begins At Sumer. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • McGarvey, J. W. 1910. Biblical Criticism. Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing.
  • Newton, Thomas. 1831. Dissertations on the Prophecies. London, England: B. Blake, Bell-Yard, Temple-Bar.
  • Ottem, Herman J. 1965. Baal or God. New Haven, MO: Leader Publishing.
  • Price, G. M. 1934. Modern Discoveries Which Help Us To Believe. New York, NY: Fleming H. Revell Co.