Higher Criticism - Bible

Sayce on Higher Critics (1891)

Excerpt from: Sayce, Higher Criticism, Expository Times,
Vol III. ed. J. Hastings (Oct 1891-Sept 1892) p. 15fwd

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Prologue: - Introduction to Prof. A. H. Sayce

Article: - Biblical Archaeology and Higher Criticism

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Archibald Henry Sayce was born on 25 September 1845 in Shirehampton, not far from Bristol. His parents were Mary and Henry Samuel Sayce, perpetual curate of Caldicot in Shirehampton. Despite frequent ill health as a child, he was a voracious reader, studying Virgil and Xenophon at the age of ten, and Hebrew and comparative philology by fourteen. He entered Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1865, receiving his B.A. degree in 1869, again in spite of ill health. That year he became a fellow there, and one year later became a college tutor.

Sayce became deputy professor of philology in 1876, already established as an authority in his field, having delivered lectures to the Nineveh Society of Biblical Archaeology and contributing weekly to The Times and the New York Independent. The University of Oxford used him as a representative in the Old Testament Revision Company for a decade beginning in 1874. During this period he took frequent sabbaticals, travelling extensively, visiting most of Europe and Asia, the Far East, North Africa and the Americas. In 1879 he resigned from his role as college tutor in order to free up time for exploration, and in 1890 relinquished his professorship. In the following year he was instrumental in founding the Alexandria museum in Cairo. After a year of life in Egypt, however, he returned to Oxford to take up a professorship in Assyriology. He remained in this capacity until 1915, travelling and working in the meantime to Sudan, Ethiopia and the Far East. His retirement was spent in Edinburgh, Oxford and Egypt, and he continued to publish during this period.

Sayce is best known for his work on the Assyrians. His early works, Assyrian Grammar (1872), Elementary Grammar with Reading-Book of the Assyrian Languages (1875) and Lectures upon the Assyrian Language and Syllabary (1877), generated interest in the study of the Assyrians and legitimised it. He was offered the first Chair of Assyriology. Sayce’s work in Assyriology and related areas was not just philological in the narrow sense but in the rather wider sense in which he extensively covered history, religion, literature and the people themselves. His work was heavily relied upon in Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Egypt (1896). He also gave the prestigious Hibbert lectures on Babylonian religion in 1887, and later the Gifford lectures on the religions of ancient Egypt and Babylonia in 1902.

Sayce was a pioneer, and an expert in the wide area of knowledge in which he immersed himself, yet he was flawed. He could write in more than twenty ancient and modern languages, and successfully deciphered and translated the Urartian inscriptions with no bilingual text to aid him. Yet his work on the Hittites was poorly received, generally regarded as outmoded and irrelevant, and, in the case of his deciphering their hieroglyphs, simply unsuccessful. In the later part of his life, he was seen as something of a pretender to the reputation he once had. Academic progress has overtaken him, and he did not adapt. Nevertheless, Sayce is responsible for many important developments in not only Assyriology, but oriental philology, archaeology and many related areas. Despite being beset by many periods of illness throughout his life, his output was considerable. In 1919 his achievements were recognised in his being elected a corresponding member of the Institut de France. Sayce died in Bath on 4 February 1933. He had never married.

His works include:

Assyrian Grammar for Comparative Purposes (1872),
Principles of Comparative Philology (1874–1875),
Babylonian Literature (1877),
Introduction to the Science of Language, (2 vols., 1880),
Ancient Empires of the East (1884),
Introduction to Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther (1885),
Assyria (1885),
The Hittites (1889),
Races of the Old Testament (1891),
Higher Criticism and the Verdict of the Monuments (1894),
Patriarchal Palestine (1895),
The Egypt of the Hebrews and Herodotus (1895),
Early History of the Hebrews (1897),
Israel and the Surrounding Nations (1898),
Babylonians and Assyrians (1900),
Egyptian and Babylonian Religion (1903) and
Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions (1907).

He wrote an autobiography, Reminisces (1923).

- Sam Addison
University of Aberdeen

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Sayce on
Higher Criticism


Taken from: The Expository Times, Vol III.
ed. J. Hastings (Oct 1891-Sept 1892) p. 15fwd,
Biblical Archaeology and the Higher Criticism
By A. H. Sayce, LL.D., Prof. of Assyriology, Oxford

Headings have been added for clarity and navigation purposes.

Biblical Archaeology and
the Higher Criticism

"Two truths cannot be contradictory." So we are told, and in this abstract form the assertion is, doubtless, correct. But what is meant by a "truth" is generally the statement of what we believe to be the truth, and it will be easily seen that such statements may be either actually or apparently inconsistent with one another. We can never know all the facts connected with a given subject; indeed, the fact itself is but a generalization from a limited series of phenomena.

Hence it is quite possible for two statements to be each of them quite true in its own sphere, - an accurate representation of the facts with which it deals, so far as they are known, - and yet at the same time to be apparently irreconcilable. A certain group of facts, for instance, leads us to conclude that space is boundless; but there are other psychological facts which oblige us just as imperatively to maintain that the universe is finite.

The Contrast between Science and Theology

When modern astronomy first began to take rank as a science, various attempts were made to "reconcile", as it was termed, the records of the Bible with the new scientific teaching. Such attempts are even now made from time to time, though it has at last been recognized that the student of theology and the astronomer or geologist deal with different branches of research, with different sets of facts, and that consequently they must necessarily move in different spheres.

Not until we know all the facts connected with astronomy on the one hand, and with theology on the other, will it be time to form a science which shall embrace all alike. Then and then only will it be possible to solve the seeming contraditions which exist between the conclusions of the two line sof inquiry, and to construct a "harmony" which shall be a harmony indeed.

The New Controversy of Higher Criticism

The controversy carried on between the advocates of science and the advocates of traditional interpretation of the Bible has in these latter years shifted its ground. Theology has at last been content to leave science alone to work out its results in its own way and its own sphere; and science in its turn is ceasing to occupy itself with framing new theological systems. It is no longer the bearing of physical science upon the statements of Scripture that arouses the war-cry of the controversialist, but the character and authenticity of those statements themselves. The "Higher Criticism" claims to sit in judgment on the traditions or beliefs of preceding centuries, and by the application of a more rigorous method of investigation, and of the principles of modern scientific thought to reverse or modify them.

The term "Higher Criticism" is an unfortunate one. It has the appearanc eof pretentiousness, and it may be feared that in some cases it has led to the unconscious assumption of a tone of superiority on the part of its professors and their followers. But in reality the word "higher" is used only in order to distinguish the form of criticism to which it is applied from textual criticism.

Textual or "lower" criticism is mainly mechanical; the "higher" criticism requires a power of sifting and weighing evidence, and of balancing probabilities one against the other.

Historical and Literary Criticism

Its sphere of work is twofold. On the one hand, it investigates the age and composition of the documents with which it deals; on the other hand, the historical credibility of the narratives which these documents contain. In the one case, its object is literary analysis; on the other, historical criticism. But it is obvious that the two objects are closely connected with each other; the historical credibility of a narrative often depends largely on the age of the documents in which it is found, or the character of their authors; while the results of literary analysis can be best verified, in many instances, by an appeal to history.

If for instance, it could be shown by the historical critic that there are two inconsistent accounts of the geography of the Exodus, one placing the passage of the sea in the Gulf of Aqabah, and the other at the head of the Gulf of Suez, and further that the lines of division between the two accounts correspond with the lines of division in the composition of the Book of Exodus presupposed by the literary analyst, we should have an important verification of the accuracy of the literary analysis, at all events in this particular instance.

Criticism of the Old Testament

The general results of literary analysis have had much to do with the judgment passed on the earlier narratives of the Old Testament Scriptures. As long as it was believed that the Pentateuch was written by Moses, it followed that the account of Exodus and of the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert could be accepted without question.

But the case is altered if we accept the conclusions of the most recent school of criticism, and not only regard the Hexateuch as a composite work, but also hold that it did not assume its present form until after the Exile. During the long centuries which intervened between the age of Moses and that of Ezra, the earlier history of the Israelitish people would have had time to be forgotten, and to be replaced by legendary tradition or even conscious fiction.

Deprived of the support of contemporaneous testimony, the story of the legislation in the Wilderness, and the subsequent conquest of Canaan, could offer little resistance to the assaults of historical criticism.

Criticism, consequently, had little difficulty in showing that it was improbable and self-contradictory, borrowing many of its details from a state of things that did not exist until the age of the Exile, and filled with that atmosphere of miracle which we find in the pre-literary traditions of most nations.

Foundations of Such Critical Work Flimsy

The conclusions of the "higher criticism" were supported by an assumption and a tendency.

The assumption was that writing was unknown to the Israelites, or even to the Canaanites, inthe age of the Exodus. At the most, it was believed, they could engrave inscriptions on wood or stone; books were the product of a later and more cultured time.

The tendency was the extreme skepticism with which the early periods of secular history were regarded. The more exact method of investigating ancient history and demanding adequate evidence for its statements, which had been made popular by Neibuhr, had resulted in making Greek history a blank page before the epoch of Peisistratos, and in refusing credit to the history of Rome before its capture by the Gauls.

In Sir George Cornewall Lewis this tendency reached its extreme point. For him the history of civilization, and therefore of accurately known facts, begins with Herodotus and Thukydides, and the counter-evidence of the monuments of Egypt and Assyria was got rid of by maintaining that they neither had been nor could be deciphered.

Higher Criticism Quickly Disproven by Archaeological Method

But Sir George Cornewall Lewis was scarcely dead before the reaction began. What the higher critics had so successfully demolished was again built up by the spade of the excavator and the patient skill of the decipherer.

Schleimann, strong in a belief which no amount of skillful dialectic could shake, dug up the ruins of Troy, and Mykenae and Tiryis, and demonstrated that the old tales about the splendour and culture of the Akhaean princes, and of their intercourse with the shores of Asia Minor, were, after all, not so very far from the truth.

Undeterred by the a priori demonstrations of Sir George and his reviewers, the decipherers pursued their labours among the inscriptions of Egypt and Assyria, and reconstructed the lost history of the ancient Oriental world.

And what was even more important, they proved that the reading and writing of books was centuries older than the classical age of Greece; that ages before the time of Moses, or even of Abraham, libraries existed where scribes and readers were constantly at work, while literary intercourse was carried on from the banks of the Euphrates to those of the Nile.

Schliemann has been followed by many rivals in the field of excavation, and the small band of Orientalists who ventured to explore the unknown regions of Egyptian and Assyrian research at the risk of being accused of charlatanism, or neglect of exact philology, have now become a goodly company.

Discovery has crowded upon discovery, each more marvellous than the last, until the student has come to believe, that as in physical science, so too in Oriental archaeology, all things are possible.

Naturally, the "higher criticism" is disinclined to see its assumptions swept away along with the conclusions which are based upon them, and to sit humbly at the feet of the newer science. At first, the results of Egyptian or Assyrian research were ignored; then they were reluctantly admitted, so far as they did not clash with the preconceived opinions of the "higher" critics.

It was urged, unfortunately with too much justice, that the decipherers were not, as a rule, trained critics, and that in the enthusiasm of research they often announced discoveries which proved to be false or only partially correct.

But it must be remembered, on the other side, that this charge applies with equal force to all progressive studies, not excluding the "higher criticism" itself.

Historicity of the Old Testament Reassessed

The time is now come for confronting the conclusions of the "higher criticism", so far as it applies to the books of the Old Testament, with the ascertained results of modern Oriental research. The amount of certain knowledge now possessed by the Egyptologist and Assyriologist would be surprising to those who are not specialists in their branches of study, while the discovery of the Tel-El-Amarna Tablets has poured a flood of light upon the ancient world, which is at once startling and revolutionary.

As in the case of Greek history, so too in that of Israelitish history, the period of critical demolition is at an end, and it is time for the archaeologist to reconstruct the fallen edifice.

But the very word "reconstruct" implies that what is built again will not be exactly that which existed before. It implies that the work of the "higher criticism" has not been in vain; on the contrary, the work it has performed has been a very needful and important one, and in its own sphere has helped us to the discovery of the truth.

Egyptian or Assyrian research has not corroborated every historical statement which we find in the Old Testament any more than classical archaeology has corroborated every statement which we find in the Greek writers; what it has done has been to show that the extreme skepticism of modern criticism is not justified, that the materials on which the history of Israel has been based may, and probably do, go back to an early date, and that much which the "higher" critics have declared to be mythical and impossible was really possible and true."


- A. H. Sayce, LL.D.,
Prof. of Assyriology, Oxford

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