Errors in the New Testament? The Historical-Critical Method

“The scribes changed scripture in ways that we do not. . . . they, like us, were trying to understand what the authors wrote while also trying to see how the words of the author’s texts might have significance for them, and how they might help them make sense of their own situations and their own lives.”

Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), 218.


Errors in the New Testament? The Historical-Critical Method
Posted by Clark Bates
December 10, 2016


This is the second article in our series on errors in the New Testament.  In the last article, we began by commenting on certain presuppositions and methodological choices made by textual critics, and the need to identify these prior to discussing any alleged contradictions or errors.  It’s important to know what each person, secular or believer, bring with them into the room prior to examining and interpreting Scripture.  In acknowledging these starting points, it becomes possible to appreciate why someone like Bart Ehrman might examine the same text as someone like his mentor Bruce Metzger, and yet both come to completely different conclusions.

Having discussed the Christian doctrine of inerrancy in the last article, it should be clear that for evangelicals, the approach to Scripture is necessarily theological.  We believe that the God that is, is a God who has communicated with His creation through the writings of the Old and New Testament.  This being the case, the “words of God” are imbued with the attributes of God, i.e. without error.  This can only be said of the original autographs, in a sense, however the multifocality of transmission and accuracy of the manuscript evidence provide us with an unparalleled confidence that the “original text” contained in the original autographs has been faithfully preserved to the present day.  It is because of this conviction that the doctrine of inerrancy can, and is, still maintained in spite of the lack of a physical, original document.

Higher Criticism and the Historical-Critical Method

This article will now discuss the methodological approach that has fueled much of the criticism in the last two centuries.  An approach that has come to be known as higher, or historical, criticism.  These two terms are often used interchangeably, but what distinguishes historical criticism from the evangelical methods of the past is that it, “asserts that a reality is uniform and universal and that one’s present experience supplies an objective criterion for determining what could or could not have happened in the past.”[1]

While scholars like Bart Ehrman regularly implement the historical-critical approach to New Testament studies and presently hold the mantle of most-notable New Testament critic, this process came about initially by the work of German theologian F.C. Baur.  Bauer brought more than a little philosophical naturalism (i.e. he was averse to admitting any appeal to the supernatural in any historical questions), and he advanced reasons for dating the various New Testament books on the assumption that his re-creation of early church history was correct.  This early history, he claimed, saw the church emerge as a minor Jewish sect, then a major Jewish sect, then a peculiar Jewish sect in that it was admitting Gentiles under a variety of conditions; eventually it broke from Judaism to take on a life of its own.[2]

ferdinandchristianbaurAt this point, it should be mentioned that much of Bauer’s recreation of the history surrounding early Christianity has been dismissed, but oftentimes merely the repetition of a position is enough to establish it as fact.  Much of Ehrman’s skepticism can be seen mirrored in Bauer and has become the framework by which the majority of academic criticism approaches the New Testament.


Developing the historical-critical method from Bauer’s writing, many negative overtones arose.  The combination of a rigidly developmental reconstruction of early church history and a fairly radical naturalism meant that the New Testament documents could not be thought of as revelatory in any proper sense. According to higher criticism, they give evidence not only of historical and theological development but of something more: the various layers prove historically interesting but in some ways mutually incompatible.  For the same reason, they could not be viewed as theologically binding.

According to higher criticism, all religious movements and the documents they generate are themselves shaped by other religious movements and documents, whether the new ones merely taken over by antecedent material, or modify it, or react against it. . . historical criticism is a deployment of critical reason that refuses to appeal to supernatural causes to account for the documents that make up the Christian Bible.[3]  Contrasted with what has been said, both in the last article and above, the common approach of scholars in academia toward the New Testament is anthropological, whereas the approach of the modern evangelical (especially those holding to inerrancy) is theological.  This makes all the difference.

While it is commonly asserted, and rightly so in many cases, that higher criticism often is associated with a destructive undermining of biblical authority rather than an objective analysis and evaluation of the biblical literature, it should be noted that there are some aspects of the historical-critical method that have benefited evangelical scholarship.  For instance, we are far more aware of the complexities of synoptic relationships.  Through careful evaluation of the cultural, literary and textual styles within which they occurred and engaged, we are more sensitive to the individual emphases and nuances of each canonical gospel.  Tempered use of the historical-critical method has grown the evangelical church, refusing to allow us to read the Gospels and preach them as if they came to us in a tight “Harmony of the Gospels” instead of what they are: individual books, each with distinctive accents.  If we as evangelicals are serious about truly understanding the word of God as it has been given us, and desirous to truly know the message it endeavors to relay, we must embrace the process of examination and use it in a manner that glorifies the Author of Scripture.  To quote G.J. Wenham,

“The evangelical theologian is compelled to investigate the human means that God employed in revealing his nature, purposes, and demands to individuals and groups.”[4]

Certainly, the practice of higher criticism has come to bring negative connotations to the Scriptures.  It’s most dangerous aspect is the atomizing of individual texts to such a degree that any larger message becomes indiscernible.  Surely it cannot be denied that there is a clear level or interdependence among the synoptic gospels, with Luke admittingly using source materials and Matthew possibly borrowing from Mark.  2 Peter, clearly borrows from Jude, or vice versa depending on which might be dated first, but this does not, as men like Bauer and Ehrman might suggest, leave the thoughtful reader with only two alternatives: abandon any search for meaning in texts, which is tantamount to abandoning reading itself, or find meaning in the interplay between the reader and contradictory ideas sparked by a text.


“Those with a confessional stance toward the New Testament must engage both with the text of Holy Scripture and with the way it is discussed in their own generation, bearing in mind some of the long heritage that has gone before.”[5]  But to treat each book of the New Testament separately is absurd, because each book provides too little information to enable an interpreter to reconstruct the entire theology of its author.  While Bauer’s work remains influential to some and was very influential within a few decades of its time, not all German scholars agreed with his approach.  Adolf Schlatter recognized the historical nature of the New Testament documents, but also that they insisted that God had acted in history and therefore that a commitment to philosophical naturalism could not deal fairly with the evidence.[6]

So too must modern day Christian scholars acknowledge, as Blomberg stated above, that a great history of circumstances and styles have been used by God to interpret the message of the New Testament and the text cannot be divorced from this, but so too must we see that what is communicated finds its origin in divine inspiration.  As this series continues, it will become patently obvious that many of the objections raised to the New Testament in light of existing discrepancies come from the anthropological view of Scripture, steeped in the historical-critical method, but they are not without answer.  The final, introductory article in this series will address the type of literature which should classify the Gospels as a means of understanding potential errors and address the first of several alleged discrepancies in the New Testament.

[1] R.L. Schultz, “Higher Criticism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 555.

[2] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 49.

[3] Carson, New Testament, 50.

[4] G.J. Wenham, “Place of Biblical Criticism in Theological Study,” Themelios, 14/3, 87.

[5] Craig L. Blomberg, “Where Should Twenty-first Century Evangelical Biblical Scholarship be Heading?” BBR 11, (2001):171.

[6] Adolf Schlatter, Die Theologie des Neuen Testaments, (Stuttgart: Verlag der Vereinsbuchhandlung, 1909-10).


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