Who in Germany was the father of Higher Criticism in its most important form?

The Higher Criticism is a term referring to a particular movement in Biblical Studies which probably began with Desiderius Erasmus, but which only became fully visible with the work of several German scholars during the late eighteenth / early nineteenth centuries.

Early forensic investigation of Scripture had focused exclusively either on interpreting the text (deciding what the Bible means) or (more rarely) on trying to discover whether the text had become corrupt, and trying to restore original meanings.

The Higher Criticism began to treat Biblical Texts the way other ancient texts had always been treated; asking questions like:

  • Who wrote the Scriptures? (Is the Gospel of Luke the work of Luke the Apostle? Most modern scholars would say no).
  • When were the Scriptures written? (Is the Gospel of Luke contemporary with Christ? Again most modern scholars say No)
  • How do the Scriptures reach us? (Has there always been agreement on the canon of the Scriptures? These days even young teens ask questions about the Gospel of Thomas).

At first treating Holy Writ as not necessarily Divinely Sanctioned was an explosive issue.

Friedrich Schleiermacher's work suggested that the Gospels might each have multiple authors. The very suggestion had him branded an anarchistic atheist (which he certainly was not) and socially ostracized.

A generation later the English novelist George Eliot was criticised for merely owning a copy of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity (Feuerbach had suggested that it might be worthwhile to investigate the historical Jesus).

Schleiermacher was the most important champion of the Higher Criticism, Feuerbach its most influential. Without their work there might never have been any Biblical archaeology (it would not have been deemed necessary), and certainly nothing approaching the current controversy over scanty remains of a sufficiently early town of Nazareth.