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. Continue reading


Ethics in Ancient Israel

The foremost scholar on ethics in ancient Israel has recently published a book on the topic entitled (unsurprisingly) Ethics in Ancient Israel. John Barton has been working in the realm of ethics and the Old Testament since his dissertation days in the 1970s. His latest book is a much needed and valuable contribution to biblical studies.

Scholarship in ethics and the Old Testament typically take one of two forms: study of Israelite ethics (descriptive) or study of the Bible for ethical application in modern faith communities (normative). The first tends to be historical in its approach and the latter theological. Some scholars see a vast chasm between Israelite and modern ethics, while others find continuity. But, even those who find continuity (such as Christopher Wright) acknowledge that Christians and Jews today do not subscribe to all of the ethical perspectives of the Israelites. This is not so much the result of modern “enlightened” thinking as a difference in cultural circumstances. This of course begs the question, what does it mean for people of faith today who turn to Scripture for ethical guidance? Barton’s latest book does not answer that question directly (his approach is descriptive), but it provides a foundation for further inquiry.
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Are you a Biblicist? A Review of Christian Smith’s Impossible Bible

I recently read Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (2012) published by Brazos Press. My response was simultaneous recognition and alienation. Having grown up in fundamentalism, I understand the problem he is describing. At the same time, I often felt I was reading a book by an outsider who did not capture important nuances.  Continue reading

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, and the Old Testament

JustMercyEvery person in America needs to read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Fresh off the press, this book is as riveting as it is shocking in its exposure of injustice in the criminal justice system. Stevenson is a gifted storyteller and he weaves his own memoir as lawyer for the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative with the stories of incarcerated people he has served. One may ask what this has to do with the Old Testament, the focus of this blog. Everything, actually. Recently, I wrote a post entitled: What is the Kingdom of God? Not a “Ticket” To Heaven. The Kingdom of God is characterized by righteousness and justice. The pillars of God’s throne are righteousness and justice (Psalm 89:14). God betroths us to himself in righteousness and justice (Hosea 2:19). We are to imitate God in cultivating and promoting a culture of righteousness and justice. Even though Stevenson’s book is not being distributed as an explicitly Christian one, it captures the essence of what Scripture means when the prophet Amos said, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (5:24). Continue reading