Bible Study Lessons


 Part 1The Incredible Good News of the Gospel 

Part 2

Experiencing the Power of the Gospel

 Part 3Biblical Doctrines in the Light of the Gospel 

Part 4―Last Day Events (Eschatology)

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The use of Higher Criticism (page 2)

II. The Documentary Hypothesis view


Julius Wellhausen in 1895 added the finishing touches to a hypothesis which is prevalent in modern biblical circles. The hypothesis is known as the Documentary Hypothesis.  Using literary criticism as its basis for argument, this hypothesis sets forth the idea that the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy) was not written by Moses, as the Bible claims, but was completed years after Moses died.[1]


Those adhering to the Documentary Hypothesis teach that the first five books of the Bible were written close to one thousand years after Moses' death and were the result of a process of writing, rewriting, editing and compiling by various anonymous editors or redactors.[1]


Writing was virtually unknown in Israel during Moses' time and consequently Moses could not have written the Pentateuch.[2]  Wellhausen himself said: "Ancient Israel was certainly not without God-given bases for the ordering of human life; only they were not fixed in writing."[3]


Answers to this argument:


The British Assyriologist A.H. Sayce evaluates this late date of writing theory.  He claims that "this supposed late use of writing for literary purposes was merely an assumption, with nothing more solid to rest upon than the critic's own theories and presuppositions.  And as soon as it could be tested by solid fact it crumbled into dust.[4]


First Egyptology, then Assyriology, showed that the art of writing in the ancient East, so far from being of modern growth, was of vast antiquity, and that the two great powers which divided the civilized world between them were each emphatically a nation of scribes and readers.[4]


Centuries before Abraham was born, Egypt and Babylonia were alike full of schools and libraries, of teachers and pupils, of poets and prose-writers, and of the literary works which they had composed.[4]


A.J. Evans found evidence of pre-Mosaic writing on Crete.  Not only were Egypt and Babylon writing in hieroglyphic and cuneiform respectively, but Crete had three, perhaps four systems, i.e. pictographs, linear symbols, etc.[5]


Albright, speaking of the various writing systems that existed in the ancient Orient even during pre-Mosaic patriarchal times, says: “In this connection it may be said that writing was well known in Palestine and Syria throughout the Patriarchal Age (Middle Bronze, 2100-1500 B.C.). No fewer than five scripts are known to have been in use:[6]


1) Egyptian Hieroglyphs

used for personal and place names by the Canaanites;

2) Accadian Cueniform


3) the Hieroglyphiform Syllabary of Phoenicia

used from the 23rd century or earlier;

4) the Linear Alphabet of Sinai

three inscriptions in which are now known from Palestine (this script seems to be the direct progenitor of our own);

5) the Cuneiform Alphabet of Ugarit

used also a little later in Palestine, which was discovered in 1929.


This means that Hebrew historical traditions need not have been handed down through oral transmission alone.”[6]


Cyrus Gordon, formerly professor of Near Eastern Studies and chairman of the Department of Mediterranean Studies at Brandeis University and an authority on the tablets discovered at Ugarit, concludes similarly:


The excavations at Ugarit have revealed a high material and literary culture in Canaan prior to the emergence of the Hebrews.  Prose and poetry were already fully developed.  The educational system was so advanced that dictionaries in four languages were compiled for the use of scribes, and the individual words were listed in their Ugaritic, Babylonian, Sumerian, and Hurrian equivalents.[7] 


The beginnings of Israel are rooted in a highly cultural Canaan where the contributions of several talented peoples (including the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and branches of the Indo-Europeans) had converged and blended.  The notion that early Israelite religion and society were primitive is completely false.  Canaan in the days of the Patriarchs was the hub of a great international culture.  The Bible, hailing from such a time and place, cannot be devoid of sources.  But let us study them by taking the Bible on its own terms and against its own authentic background.[7]


The archaeological evidence serves not only to refute the older critics’ antequated theory but also serves as positive evidence to support the probability that Moses kept written records.[8]      ***See more archaeological findings***


In summary conclusion comments:


This issue constitutes a major upset for skeptics of Bible history.  Sayce said it well when he asserted: “Moses not only could have written the Pentateuch, but it would have been little short of a miracle had he not been a scribe.”[9]


Finally.…the documentarians’ presuppositions that we have examined must be regarded as invalid.…Another of these presuppositions (an a priori distrust of the Old Testament record) must be rejected since it flies in the face of an accepted cannon of criticism that has stood the test of time.…and the assumption that there was no writing in Israel during the Mosaic age, have been soundly refuted by archaeology.[10]


The reason for the widespread acceptance of the theory:


Why it may be asked, if the Documentary Hypothesis is as invalid as this investigation has attempted to show, was it so eagerly received and defended in most scholarly circles throughout continental Europe, Great Britain, and the United States?[11]


W.H. Green answers this way: "A large number of eminent scholars accept the critical partition of the Pentateuch in general....It has its fascinations, which sufficiently account for its popularity.  The learning, ability, and patient toil which have been expended upon its elaboration, the specious arguments arrayed in its support, and the skill with which it has been adapted to the phenomena of the Pentateuch and of the Old Testament generally, have given to it the appearance of great plausibility."[12]


"The novel lines of inquiry which it opens, make it attractive to those of a speculative turn of mind, who see in it the opportunity for original and fruitful research in the reproduction of ancient documents, long buried unsuspected in the existing text, which they antedate by centuries.  The boldness and seeming success with which it undertakes to revolutionize traditional opinion and give a new respect to the origin and history of the religion of the Old Testament, and its alliance with the doctrine of development, which has found such wide application in other fields of investigation, have largely contributed to its popularity."[12]


Green continues: "Its failure is not from the lack of ingenuity or learning, or persevering effort on the part of its advocates, not from the want of using the utmost latitude of conjecture, but simply from the impossibility of accomplishing the end proposed."[12]


III. The Oral Traditionists view


Form Criticism assumes that before the Gospels were written there was a period of oral tradition.[13] 


Martin Dibelius, author of "From Tradition to Gospel"....was one of the first renowned form critics [and] comments: "The literary understanding of the synoptic [gospels] begins with the recognition that they are collections of material.  The composers are only to the smallest extent authors.  They are principally collectors, vehicles of tradition, editors.  Before all else their labour consists in handing down, grouping, and working over the material which has come to them."[14]  


Floyd Filson notes that the form critics were the first to make an intensive study of oral tradition.  Filson notes the effect of this study on the Gospel tradition (note the discounting of eyewitnesses):[13]


Moreover, not only is the function of the final editor of the material minimized, but the former tendency, still widely dominate, to bridge the decades between Jesus and the actual writing of the Gospels by some one eyewitness for each Gospel, is seriously discounted.  Instead for example, of seeing Peter as the sufficient guarantor of what Mark contains, there is a tendency to see in Mark the deposit of a collection of units of continually repeated oral tradition.” [15]


Answers to this argument:


E.L. Abel comments on this: The late T.W. Manson held firmly to the view that “a great deal of information in the Gospel of Mark comes directly from Peter the apostle....Mark made no mistake when he wrote down some things as he remembered them.  He intended only one thing, to omit or falsify nothing which he had heard.”[16]


The Oral Tradition was made public through the knowledge of the christians in the Church, and because it was made public, the accuracy of it is sound….“He continues that, it is reliable to believe that the church services and their construction of transmission was very trustworthy.  In the services the stories of Jesus were repeated so often that these stories had to be well known.  In light of this the Church would be unlikely to permit any kind of change in form or content.”[17]  


E.L. Abel comments on this by referring to Taylor: Those Christians who had lived to see both Jesus and the Gospels written would have been able to prevent imagination from spreading into the Gospels.  Taylor proclaims that “....the presence of eyewitnesses, for at least a generation, would serve as a check on corruptions innocently due to imagination....”[16]


Taking into account the chronological considerations, McGinley comments: 

"First of all, eyewitnesses of the events in question were still alive when the tradition had been completely formed; and among those eyewitnesses were bitter enemies of the new religious movement.  Yet the tradition claimed to narrate a series of well-known deeds and publicly taught doctrines at a time when false statements could, and would, be challenged."[18]  


"Secondly, even though christianity had widespread growth, the traditions of the gospels were so well formed that 30 years after Jesus' death, the Gospel of Mark, influenced by Peter, was instantly accepted in Rome."[18]    


Failure to acknowledge the Holy Spirit's involvement:


Another area of conflict in the treatment of Form Criticism and oral tradition has been its failure to acknowledge the role of the Holy Spirit.  Robert Mounce has commented that "Form Criticism has little or no place for the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and His role in the origin and transmission of the teachings of Jesus."[19]  


G.E. Ladd has offered his support to the concept of an oral tradition: "We may conclude therefore, that the contention of form criticism that the Gospel tradition was preserved in oral form for a generation by the church is not only a fact which is attested strongly by the New Testament, but is also a fact of great theological importance.  Not only was the Holy Spirit active in the writing of the books of the New Testament; he was also active in the history of the Gospel tradition before it assumed written form.  This theological fact is seldom recognized by form critics, for they usually work as historians, not as theologians."[20] 


In summary conclusion comments:


The form critics hold that the Gospel traditions were passed on in oral form for at least one generation after the death of Christ.  Other scholars contend that there was not enough time between the death of Christ and the writing of the Gospels for the traditions to develop in the way the form critics propose.[21]   


James Martin in The Reliability of the Gospels has remarked that: "as a matter of fact, there was no time for the Gospel story of Jesus to have been produced by legendary accretion.  The growth of legend is always a slow and gradual thing.  But in this instance, the story of Jesus was being proclaimed, substantially as the Gospels now record it, simultaneously with the beginning of the Church."[22]    


Paul L. Maier writes that "arguments that christianity hatched its Easter myth over a lengthy period of time or that the sources were written many years after the event are simply not factual."[23]    


The assumption that there was an oral period before any of the gospel material came to be written down has been questioned by H. Schurmann.  He suggests that during Jesus' ministry his disciples may have written notes on main aspects of his teaching.[24]  



1. Josh McDowell, (1993). Evidence that demands a verdict (vol.2), p.29. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

2. Josh McDowell, (1993). Evidence that demands a verdict (vol.2), p.68. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

3. Julius Wellhausen, (1885). Prolegomena to the History of Israel, p.393. Translated by Black and Menzies.

4. A.H. Sayce, (1904). Monument Facts and Higher Critical Fancies, p.28-29

5. A.H. Sayce, (1904). Monument Facts and Higher Critical Fancies, p.41

6. W.F. Albright, (Apr 1938). "Archaeology Confronts Biblical Criticism." The American Scholar (vol.7), p.186

7. Cyrus Gordon, (23 Nov 1959). “Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit.” Christianity Today (vol.4), p.133-134

8. Josh McDowell, (1993). Evidence that demands a verdict (vol.2), p.70. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

9. A.H. Sayce, (1904). Monument Facts and Higher Critical Fancies, p.42-43

10. Josh McDowell, (1993). Evidence that demands a verdict (vol.2), p.86. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

11. Josh McDowell, (1993). Evidence that demands a verdict (vol.2), p.169-170. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

12. William Green, (1895). The Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch, p.131-132

13. Josh McDowell, (1993). Evidence that demands a verdict (vol.2), p.205. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

14. Martin Dibelius, (1935). From Tradition to Gospel. Translated by Bertram Lee Woolf, p.3

15. Floyd Filson, (1938). Origins of the Gospels, p.93, Abingdon Press.

16. E.L. Abel, (Oct 1971). “Psychology of Memory and Rumor Transmission and their bearing on theories of Oral transmission in Early Christianity.” Journal of Religion (vol.51), p.273

17. James Martin, (1959). The Reliability of the Gospels, p.65&61, London: Hodder and Stoughton.

18. Laurence McGinley, (1944). Form Criticism of the Synoptic Healing Narratives, p.25

19. Robert Mounce. Interview (2 July 1974).

20. G.E. Ladd, (1967). The New Testament and Criticism, p.153, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

21. Josh McDowell, (1993). Evidence that demands a verdict (vol.2), p.213. Thomas Nelson, Inc.

22. James Martin, (1959). The Reliability of the Gospels, p.103-104

23. Paul Maier, (1973). First Easter: The True and Unfamiliar Story, p.122

24. W.E. Barnes, (1936). Gospel Criticism and Form Criticism, p.159



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