Historical-Criticism: Friend or Foe?

The following post includes review and discussion of three books. I am grateful to BakerAcademic for providing me with copies.

I have had an interesting relationship with historical-critical study of the Bible. My upbringing and seminary experience in a conservative Baptist setting promoted a historical-grammatical approach to Scripture. We took historical context seriously. At the same time, study was often bent toward apologetics to prove historical reliability of the Bible, and we often read the biblical narratives as unilateral accounts of history. Extra-biblical sources from the ancient Near East and Graeco-Roman world were deemed less important. The world in the text was valued above the world behind the text. On one level, this makes sense. All history is written from a certain perspective. The biblical authors provide an interpretation of events. This interpretation of history is what is considered inspired. On the other hand, not attending to the world behind the text can lead to a wooden reading of the Bible. As one example, the biblical authors sometimes framed the Canaanites as sexually depraved, leading readers to believe the ancient Near East was rife with perversity. Yet, extra-biblical evidence indicates that sexuality was often similar to ancient Israel: patricentric with tight control of women’s relationships. This suggests that the biblical authors may have engaged in hyperbolic language to make a point.

While at Duke Divinity School and Marquette University, I delved more deeply into historical-critical study to the point that I started to lose the ability to engage in theological interpretation. As I dissected a book from a text critical perspective or compared Scripture with Ugaritic literature, I couldn’t get past the sense that scholarly historical reconstruction was more “true” or “correct” than theological “extrapolations.” When reading a theological interpretation, an inner voice would say, “Yeah, but that is not exactly what happened. This is reading into the text preferential views of God.” How could I spiritualize the Israelite conquest if I was also considering the historical possibility that the Israelites engaged in disturbing war practices? But, the more my studies were strictly historical, the less compelling the research was for me. I love history and study of the ancient Near East, but that is not why I went into biblical studies. I wanted to study Scripture to learn more about God and spiritual realities that I could base my life on.

The tension between historical-critical study and theological interpretation is a common one. Some argue that “never the twain shall meet.” But I don’t see how one can stand without the other. Scripture is a sacred text and as such finds its meaning in the history of interpretation, including the biblical authors’ interpretation of their experiences. Jewish and Christian believers accept the authors as witnesses that do say something about the Divine. And that witness is fleshed out by the additional voices of tradition through the ages as faith communities have considered their own contexts through a biblical lens. At the same time, the biblical accounts do convey historical circumstances. The authors did not write their words in a cave, but in the context of what was happening around them. Without understanding the human contribution to Scripture, we risk a distorted reception of their words. The Bible becomes an otherworldly book that fell from heaven, rather than the thing that it is: writers seeing through a glass darkly and prophesying “in part” (1 Cor 13:9). Their culturally derived rhetorical strategies and perceptions of the world all affect how we ought to understand what is written. Pure theological interpretation treats the Bible as though it is solely a divine document. Pure historical-criticism treats the Bible as though it is solely a human document. In reality it is both human and divine, a mysterious collaboration.

To consider how Scripture can be read with both historical-critical and theological methods, I want to briefly review three books: Ancient Israel’s History edited by Arnold and Hess, Old Testament Theology by Moberly, and Reading the Historical Books by Patricia Dutcher-Walls.

  1. Bill T. Arnold and Richard S. Hess, eds., Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

In the introduction to this book, Hess argues that we should study the history of Israel because history is a “means of identifying where we have been and thereby of understanding where we are going” (p. 2). That ancient Israel had a very different culture than modern America does not diminish the importance of historical study as there remains enduring commonalities based on our shared humanity. We can relate to some of the same life concerns of those in antiquity. Studying ancient Israel can help us identify common values, gives us an ability to see things from a different perspective, and also informs us on the development of Western civilization. Hess does not mention theology. In some ways this reinforces the dichotomy between historical-critical and theological method. However, if theology is meant to tell us something about God and what it means to be human in relation to the divine, then perhaps we can glimpse that in historical study based on our shared humanity with the Israelites.

Ancient Israel’s History is a textbook introduction and it does a fine job of it, covering the latest historical-critical findings, but from authors who do not have an antagonistic relationship to the Bible as sometimes apparent in academia. Fourteen essays from a variety of scholars cover the Genesis narratives through the Hellenistic period. Knowing the historical context of the text can keep the reader from making too wooden interpretation. For example, in 2 Kings, the biblical author describes in graphic detail Jehu’s overthrow of the northern kingdom of Israel, including the decapitation of royal offspring. The biblical author suggests Jehu did this under prophetic inspiration in order to cleanse the northern kingdom of its religious apostasy. However, as Kyle Greenwood’s essay on the 9th century BCE indicates, Hazael of Aram had much greater involvement in this military operation than indicated (p. 307).  An extra-biblical inscription shows Hazael taking much of the credit. Historically, Jehu seems to have been used by Aram against his own people. While the biblical author emphasizes a divine causation, this theological understanding is best interpreted in light of the human causation. The biblical author was providing a particular theological understanding of a traumatic event. A later author, Hosea, took a different view and condemned Jehu’s slaughter. This helps us to understand the nature of Scripture and its complexity. It causes us to dig a little deeper for the enduring theological emphases rather than making superficial assumptions that God simply commanded massacres. What we share with this biblical author is a desire to understand and interpret major events like war. Why did this happen? Where is God in a particular situation?

  1. R.W.L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2013).

In contrast to Ancient Israel’s History, Moberly does not lay out a biblical chronology. He approaches the Old Testament thematically according to the dominant theological emphases he finds in the texts. He starts his discussion with the Shema and monotheism. Noting the historical-critical tendency to date Deuteronomy to the 7th century BCE and Josiah’s reforms, Moberly states that interpreting the Shema within that historical context can have drawbacks because the world of the text may have a meaning distinct from a possible 7th century reform (even if written at that time). There is no mention of Josiah in the articulation of the Shema.  The two contexts should not be automatically conflated—either through solely a 7th century lens or by ignoring that possible context all together. Moberly also refers to the context of the world in front of the text: today’s faith communities who continue to interpret this ancient literature and give it enduring meaning. Moberly says thinking in terms of a single historical context is simplistic. When we ask about context, we have to ask which context as there is more than one possibility. Scripture has over the years, including in its very production, had many contexts beyond a context of origin as the material is reinterpreted and reused over and over.

Moberly places the relationship between historical-critical work and theological interpretation in the framework of development. Specifically, “realizing the implications of the original” or “determining what is compatible with it” (p. 161). On-going theological interpretive activity involves a discussion about those implications and compatibilities. He states we “must both attend to and be constrained by the original meaning, and also not be restricted by the original meaning” (p. 161). As an example, Moberly discusses the book of Isaiah, its original context and its later Christological appropriation. These two contexts are both meaningful. Isaiah’s “day of the Lord” was a vision of overturning human presumptions of grandeur. For Christians, this day of the Lord is the coming of Jesus, who is the “ultimate yardstick” by which human aspiration is measured by God.

  1. Patricia Dutcher-Walls, Reading the Historical Books: A Student’s Guide to Engaging the Biblical Text (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2014).

Dutcher-Walls book is a unique and helpful supplement to the study of the historical books of the Bible. As a student textbook it is easily accessible and provides help in knowing how to read and make sense of the historical narratives. The chapters draw awareness to the reality of Scripture’s socio-historical background, distinctions between modern and ancient ways of writing, literary techniques used by the authors, the fact that the authors have particular interests beyond straight-forward recounting of history, and the way ancient history writing shaped the meaning and stories conveyed. Questions pondered include: What is the Bible as a document? Why was it written the way it was? What do we need to know to understand it well? In considering how the historical intersects with theological interpretation, Dutcher-Walls discussion is helpful in drawing attention to how the very act of writing is a historical phenomenon. In other words, knowing how writing worked in antiquity helps us to read Scripture well. Otherwise, we can misinterpret the text by superimposing modern assumptions about how and why the biblical authors wrote what they did.

How the writers understood their experiences and own history influences the text’s theological meaning. Significantly, the biblical authors were selective in the historical events they relayed (e.g. extra-biblical texts refer to events concerning Israel not mentioned in the Bible). We might consider why some events were more important to preserve in the record than others. Similarly, the biblical texts were written by the elite—government or temple officials. Like many ancient Near Eastern texts, this means content focuses heavily on government affairs such as what king is reigning and what wars are fought. The numerous accounts of war in Scripture does not indicate Israel was more war crazy than any other country (ancient or modern), but that much of the biblical record is recounting the perspective of the State or religious officials and not the average Joe or Jane. Understandably, military events like war were attributed to divine causes (this was common throughout the ancient Near East). However, Dutcher-Walls points out that in later texts, the biblical authors had less of a tendency to attribute tragedy to divine cause (p. 144-45). Thus, we might consider that theological interpretation for today should take into account the diversity of theological perspectives or shifts in Scripture itself.

In conclusion, I do not see historical-criticism and theological interpretation in opposition, but as two horses pulling the same cart. We need them both. Currently, I am most interested in reading the Old Testament biblical authors with attention to what they teach us about love of God and neighbor. How did those two things play out in their own historical experience. What wisdom and insight do they pass on in light of our shared humanity?