Chasing the Amber Witch

Bestsellers like “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart Erhman and “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens are presented with all the fanfare of revolutionary new scholarship.  These antichristian polemics are hawked as “revealing the hidden contradictions of the Bible” and “how religion poisons everything” yet the issues expressed are neither concealed nor venomous. While sensational titles and viral marketing may reap revenues the vast majority of their contentions are the long discredited canards of 19th century German higher criticism being recycled to a new generation.

Erhman’s brand of criticism is derivative of German writer David Friedrich Strauss (1808 – 1874) who scandalized Europe with his interpretation of the “historical Jesus”. Strauss had been trained in Hegel’s dialectic philosophy (thesis + antithesis = synthesis) not only denied the deity of Christ, he asserted that the Gospels were “myths,” a synthesis between the facts of Jesus’ life (thesis) and the disciples’ faith (antithesis). Ehrman is basically following suit in the 21st century.

Like Erhman’s best sellers Strauss’ “The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined” was a sensation. One reviewer called it “the Iscariotism of our days” and another “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.”   When Strauss was elected to a chair of theology in the University of Zürich, his selection provoked such a hullabaloo that the school retired him before he began his duties. In contrast, today Erhman chairs the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina deep in the Bible belt.

Liberal higher criticism treats the Bible as a flawed piece of religious propaganda created for various human motives. A major presupposition of higher critics is that they can confidently determine authorship and authenticity.  For instance, the scholars of the Jesus Seminar have determined that only twenty percent of what the Gospels attribute to Jesus was actually said by him[i].  Are they really that good?

A Dusty Old Manuscript

While digging around in the church basement, Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold (1797-1851)  claimed to have discovered the long lost manuscript of a 17th century minister, Abraham Schweidler. The manuscript spins an enticing yarn.  The Reverend almost loses his only child Maria to a plot by a unrequited suitor accusing her of witchcraft. Under the threat of torture Maria, entirely innocent, confesses to being a witch. While on the way to her doom, she is rescued at the last minute by a young hero who reveals the evil plot against her. Described as “the most interesting trial for witchcraft ever known”, church leaders had apparently urged Meinhold publish the story for its instructional value.[ii]

The Amber Witch is a Gothic novel written in 1839 by Meinhold. Because the old manuscript was incomplete, Meinhold allegedly supplied details in the style of author and finished the story for dramatic purposes.  In a direct challenge to the “modern documentary critics” Meinhold wrote in the preface to the novel:

I have therefore attempted, not indeed to supply what is missing at the beginning and end, but to restore those leaves which have been torn out of the middle, imitating, as accurately as I was able, the language and manner of the old biographer, in order that the difference between the original narrative and my own interpolations might not be too evident. This I have done with much trouble, and after many ineffectual attempts; but I refrain from pointing out the particular passages which I have supplied, so as not to disturb the historical interest of the greater part of my readers. For modern criticism, which has now attained to a degree of acuteness never before equalled, such a confession would be entirely superfluous, as critics will easily distinguish the passages where Pastor Schweidler speaks from those written by Pastor Meinhold.[iii]

The Critics Love It

When it first appeared the German critics believed it to have been an authentic historical document. The work then attracted critical notice, not only for the dramatic nature of the narrative, but also for the arguments as to which parts of it were original and which ones were Meinhold’s own reconstructions of the original 17th-century style. Sound familiar?

It was a hoax! Meinhold had indeed written the whole thing. The forgery was done with great skill and detail using the language and expressions that would be common to the period it is set in.  The author’s intention had been to set a deliberate “trap for the disciples of David Strauss and his school who pronounced the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be a collection of legends from historical research assisted by internal evidence”. Even when he admitted that it was a deliberate hoax the critics argued against him for its authenticity!  It soon became obvious that The Amber Witch was a hoax. As the popular press reported in the late 1840s:

“Meinhold did not spare them [Strauss and his disciples] when they fell into his snare and made merry with the historical knowledge and critical acumen that could not detect the contemporary romancer under the mask of two centuries ago, while they decide so positively as to the authorities of the most ancient writings in the world.”[iv]

He made a brilliant example out of Strauss and his school of criticism. This begs the question:  if these critics could not accurately detect a very recent text, why should we trust atheist scholars’ opinions over those of the disciples and early church fathers? Perhaps when Jesus refers to one Isaiah as having written the book of Isaiah and Moses as the author of the Torah, we should simply take him at His word.  Can the Jesus Seminar or Bart Ehrman really determine what Jesus did and did not say?

Not at all, they are only chasing the Amber Witch.

[i]Wilkins, Michael J., and J P Moreland. Jesus Under Fire. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995.p.12

[ii]Laurita, Paula. The Amber Witch Hoax. (accessed 04 22, 2010).

[iii] Meinhold, W. The Amber Witch: The most Interesting Trial for Witchcraft Ever Known. London: H.G. Clarke and Co., 1844.

[iv] Agnew, John Holmes, and W H Bidwell, “The Author of the Amber Witch.” Eclectic Magazine: Foreign Literature Science ad Art Vol 21, September 1850: 419.

Re: Does Higher Criticism Attempt to “Destroy the Bible”?

This is in response to: Does Higher Criticism Attempt to “Destroy the Bible”? First off, that’s a little presumptuous. Satan has been working on it for 3000 years and the Bible is still the best seller of all time.  Some, like UNC’s own Bart Ehrman, certainly do all they can to undermine it.  We actually do pray for Bart here in NC. Others, like the author of the above, enjoy patronizing sincere believers by presenting ridiculous beliefs that the average Sunday school kid would know better than, as the general consensus of us poor uneducated fundamentalists.  Wow who would have thunk the Bible had authors?

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. ” (Hebrews 4:12, ESV)

What is Higher Criticism?

Criticism falls into two categories. First, lower criticism, also called textual criticism, deals with the actual text with a view of determining the original manuscript. The second is higher criticism, dealing with the area of authorship, sources, dates, and historical matters. Both conservative and liberal theologians deal with lower and higher criticism. There is nothing inherently wrong with either. I am very grateful for critical scholars like: Daniel B WallaceDr. John Sailhamer and Dr. Micheal Heiser of Logos bible software. The presuppositions a person brings to the Bible and their conclusions will determine their theological position.

Despite the claims of both Moses and Jesus Christ concerning the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, it is widely accepted among liberal higher critics today that the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the OT) is the product of four or more writers. A German scholar, Julius Wellhausen, concluded that the five books of the Pentateuch could not have been written by Moses because writing did not exist at that time. This foundational assumption has been completely disproven by archeology. Wellhausen also worked  from the assumption that repetition or duplication of similar accounts shows separate sources and that different names for God in the text indicate different authors. Good scholars have refuted these assumptions.

Wellhausen was a product of the 18th century and heavily influenced by Hegelian philosophy. This philosophies edict was “the rational alone is real,” completely denying the possibility of miracles or the supernatural. Hegel’s dialectic approach went hand in hand with Charles Darwin’s evolutionary model set forth in his The Origin of Species. Riding on the coat tails of Darwin, Wellhausen’s view met with almost immediate acceptance. This view is called the Documentary Hypothesis (or Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis). It theorizes that the Torah is a composite of four documents (JEDP). The order and dates of the documents were established

  • the Yahwist source: written c. 950 BCE in the southern kingdom of Judah.
  • the Elohist source: written c. 850 BCE in the northern kingdom of Israel.
  • the Deuteronomist: written c. 600 BCE in Jerusalem during a period of religious reform.
  • the Priestly source: written c. 500 BCE by Aaronid priests in exile in Babylon.
  • The Redactors: first JE, then JED, and finally JEDP, producing the final form of the Torah c.450 BCE.

(Redact means to put a literary work into appropriate form for publication)

Where Do They Get This Stuff From Anyway?

Basically from thin air. There are no source documents representing these alleged authors, it’s pure speculation. They are basing their argument on their own ability to read a Hebrew document that is 3000 years old, divide it up into vocabulary groups for each source, they slice up the concealed divisions into the different documents literally line by line and then they conjure up the mysterious unknown authors. These guys must be able to astrally project through time, see through walls and read minds! Of course, I’m kidding (just a little).  Seriously, I am not a language scholar but  it looks arbitrary to me.  Dr Heiser doesn’t buy it Many scholars don’t buy it either. But you would never get that impression, the elite critics really aren’t tentative about it. To claim to authoritatively extrapolate four different authors by brute force opinion is high theater. At best this is not an exact science and necessarily has a wide margin of error.

I have no problem with the idea that Ezra and scribes redacted writings made by Moses. Deuteronomy records Moses death so obviously Joshua or someone else recorded that incident. Contrary to the Grand Wazoo of higher critics, nobody is actually arguing for the Jewish legend “that an angel dictates to him the books of Moses from the heavenly tablets that have existed for eternity in heaven” and Sunday school kids understand that the bible has different genres. That post is a disingenuous attempt to patronize people that actually believe and take the text at face value. Moses never makes such a claim and conservative scholars do not either.  Still yet, Moses did not attempt to hide the source of his writing, but readily acknowledged that it came from God. “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God; but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).

Should Christians Believe It?

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8, ESV)

If you accept the authority of Jesus Christ then you really need to look at Mark 10:4-8, where Jesus quoted Gen. 2:24, which would be attributed to J, as “What did Moses command you”. Mark 7:10, Jesus quoted the Ten Commandments, which fall into the E category, as “For Moses said,”. In Mark 10:3, Jesus refers to Deut. 24:1f,  allegedly written by D, as being from Moses. In Matt. 8:4, Jesus quoted Lev. 14, which would be attributed to P, as “Moses commanded.”  In addition, before the higher critic can achieve any credibility in the eyes of a Christian who recognizes the Lordship of Christ, the following verses must be explained.

Matt. 4:4, 7, 10; cf. Luke 4:4, 8, 12. Luke 4:16-27. Matt. 5:17, 18, 21-43. Matt. 6:29. Matt. 8:4; cf. Mark 1:44; Luke 5:14. Matt. 8:11; cf. Luke 13:28. Matt. 9:13. Luke 16:29-31. Matt. 10:15; cf. Mark 6:11. Matt. 11:10; cf. Luke 7:26, 27. Matt. 12:3-8; cf. Mark 2:24-28; Luke 6:3-5. Matt. 12:40-42; cf. Luke 11:29-32. Matt. 13:14, 15. Matt. 15:1-9; cf. Mark 7:8-12. Matt. 16:4. Matt. 17:11; cf. Mark 9:11-13. Matt. 19:3-9; cf. Mark 10:2-12. Matt. 19:18-19; cf. Mark 10:19; Luke 10:26-27; 18:20. Luke 18:31. Matt. 21:13-16; cf. Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46. Matt. 21:42; cf. Mark 12:10, 11; Luke 20:17. Matt. 22:28-33; cf. Mark 12:24-31; Luke 20:37-39, Matt. 22:36-40. Matt. 22:34, 44, 45; cf. Mark 12:35-57; Luke 20:41-44. Matt. 23:1-3, 23, 35; cf. Luke 11:51. Matt. 24:15-16; cf. Mark 13:14. Luke 17:26-31. Matt. 24:24, 31. Mark 14:21, 27. Luke 22:37. Matt. 26:53-56. Mark 14:49. Matt. 27:46; cf. Mark 15:34. Luke 23:46. Luke 24:25-32, 44-47. John 3:14; 5:39, 45-47; 6:32, 45; 7:19-23, 38, 39; 8:39-40, 44, 56-58; 10:33-36; 13:18, 26; 17:12, 17; 19:28.

It’s abundantly clear to me (and I hope it is to you) that Jesus believed and taught that Moses wrote the Torah. Now if you have a problem with believing Jesus Christ, I regrettably submit that you have a much bigger problem than the authorship of the Pentateuch. Please choose wisely.


Slick, Matt. Answering the Documentary Hypothesis. (accessed 04 17, 2010).

Towns D.Min, Elmer. Theology for Today. Mason, OH: Cenage Learning, 2008.