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franciscan - September 1996

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

Where is biblical criticism going?

by James Carleton Paget

Standard commentaries on biblical books use what is termed the historical-critical method. In the introduction to such a commentary, the writer usually seeks to answer a relatively standard set of questions: the identity of the author, if that can be known (and in most cases in the Bible it cannot); the date when the work was written; the historical context out of which the book and its author emerged; the purpose for which the book was written; and perhaps the sources that were available to the author. If the book purports to tell a story, then the historical reliability of these accounts will be discussed.

Other subjects which may come in for discussion might be the text of the book, the literary integrity of the book (is there a reason to believe that the book as we have it in our Bible has been added to, or subtracted from, by subsequent editors?) and perhaps the style or language of the author. Drawing on the conclusions reached in the introduction, the commentator will then proceed to a verse-by-verse discussion of the text in question, paying close attention to linguistic details and seeking as far as possible to understand the book as it was intended to be understood by the author.

This method of interpretation has its origins in the Germany of the middle part of the eighteenth century, and was originally conceived of in an intellectual climate that found itself ill-at-ease with the prevailing religious culture. Its aim was to read the Bible in a critical way distilling fact from fiction and, in so doing, disproving the religious givens of the time.

In such an approach, particular stress was placed upon the need for objectivity over against judgements that were apparently based upon faith. In striving after such objectivity, a knowledge of the cultures and contexts out of which the biblical books emerged became important and, in particular, archaeology began to make a contribution to biblical studies. Judgements about the historical reliability, or lack of it, of the Bible varied from scholar to scholar but scepticism, particularly with regard to any account of miracle or other forms of divine intervention, was prevalent.

Later on, as methods of historical criticism developed, scholars became more and more interested in reading the books of the Bible with regard to the intentions of the authors who wrote them. These authors, it was recognised, were theologians with quite specific views which they wished to propagate by means of their writing. In this view of the biblical author as a knowing editor or redactor (a German term meaning editor), attempts were made to determine the intentions of the author and to illuminate the context out of which he emerged. In this vein, particular importance was attached to discovering the sources that were available to the author in order to show how he or she had used such sources. Sometimes determining these sources was easy (so the author of 1 & 2 Chronicles has used 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings to write his history; and Matthew and Luke, it is generally thought, had Mark as a source), but sometimes the source was not itself available in its original, written form and had to be constructed from reading the text itself. So, for instance, it is generally agreed that Matthew and Luke had independent access to a separate source Q, but we do not in fact possess a copy of this mooted source!

This, then, is the historical-critical method. It can either seek to interpret the Bible with a view to gleaning information from it about apparently historical events (e.g. the Exodus) or figures (Moses, Jesus) with special reference to the historical context out of which these events or figures emerged. Or it can seek to read the Bible with a view to determining the intentions of the authors of its individual books. Such a method, in whichever form it appears, stresses the historical nature of biblical books and seeks to read them in such a way as to do justice to this ‘historicality’, this past-ness

.But in more recent times, scholars have begun to question the legitimacy of the historical-critical method. In part, this has arisen out of shifts in the intellectual world at large. A belief in the possibility of attaining objectivity – such a concern of the historical critics – has now all but disappeared. We live in one world with its own pre-suppositions and prejudices and so can no longer think of our minds as antiseptic tanks, which can objectively distinguish truth from fancy. This is particularly so when we are dealing with texts from a period of history very different from our own. This espousal of relativism can be extreme or moderate, but it is a view that has served to shatter the quest for objective knowledge, whether historical or otherwise.

The decline in belief in the attainment of objectivity, and the movement to an emphasis upon the rôle of the prejudiced interpreter and his or her world in the process of interpretation, has led biblical critics in a number of directions. Some have wished to embark upon more literary interpretations of the text, which show how the narrative of a particular story flows, without reference to the historical referent of the text.

So, for instance, the Gospels are read with an awareness of the fact that they are telling a story, with the concomitant implications of such a view. Sometimes, those who espouse such an approach to the Bible argue that their way of reading the text has more in common with the methods employed by our ancient and medieval forebears, for their interests lay principally in seeing the Bible as the story of God’s dealings with the world, without reference to the historical validity of that story. More radical literary readings have also been employed, most notably structuralism and deconstruction.

The movement away from an interest in establishing the intention of the author to an awareness of the necessary and unavoidable rôle of the reader, has led in other directions as well. Some of these have been notably political. The realisation that there is no such thing as an innocent reading has led some scholars to argue that historical critics and others have often read the Bible in such a way as to denude it of its politically radical message. These liberation theologians who seek to rescue the Bible for the oppressed (the poor, women, blacks, etc.), have had a considerable influence. In part, their own views emerge from a prior decision about the nature of social justice and they seek to read the Bible from that perspective. But not all liberation theologians indulge in a type of interpretative relativism. Some of these scholars attempt to justify their conclusions by reference to the old historical methods – the historical Jesus was a socialist, and so on.

Liberation theology takes an essentially positive attitude to the Bible and its contents. But other forms of reading do not. In these, the Bible is simply exposed as a text beyond redemption in which slavery, patriarchy and other forms of oppression are endorsed. Biblical criticism becomes nothing but an exposé of these facts about the biblical world.

The presuppositions, upon which the standard commentary with which we began was based, no longer dominate. Biblical studies has entered a brave new world where the historical critic with a basket full of well-tried and carefully-honed methods is beginning to look like a marginal figure. Historical critics may well complain that their old methods can at least be judged by clearly determined criteria and aims, while the newer methods, literary, deconstruction-ist, etc., with their apparent endorsement of the postmodern agenda, have set up game parks which, like lacrosse pitches, appear to have no boundaries. But their opponents reply by dismissing the historical critic’s confidence in his or her criteria (and sometimes pointing to the numerous different historical interpretations of passage/books, etc. in the Bible) and by asserting that what he or she, the postmodern, does is, in the end, a more realistic and infinitely more playful and productive way of reading the Bible.

In this article, I have attempted to show how Biblical criticism is polarising into two camps. Such a view is by no means comprehensive and one could, for instance, mention attempts to revive a form of biblical theology, something that had its heyday in the 1950’s and 60’s but is now ‘coming back’ in certain quarters. In this form of criticism, a theological reading of the Bible is openly espoused. But, as far as the academy goes, I see the main fault lines as running between the historical critics and the postmoderns of whatever kind. It seems at present that a fruitful relationship does not exist between these two perspectives and that their exponents will simply ignore each other. However, the creation of some sort of a symbiosis is perhaps the challenge for both contemporary and future generations of biblical critics. f

Dr James Carleton Paget is a Fellow of Peterhouse and Assistant Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge.


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