Historical Criticism: Reading the Bible in the Enlightenment

The Reformation was an unprecedented crisis in the Western Christian world — a crisis in religion, culture, and politics, certainly, but also a crisis of authority. Rome continued to insist that holy tradition was authoritative, but used that to justify some practices many found unjust and unjustifiable. The Protestants insisted that the Bible was authoritative, but could not agree about what it said. This crisis led to schism, inquisitions and the exile or execution of ‘heretics’, and a century of open warfare. It should come as no surprise that this situation was profoundly unsatisfactory to many, who sought alternative sources of authority. Building off of the humanism of the Renaissance and led by Rene Descartes, with his famous dictum, “I think therefore I am,” what emerged from this crisis of authority in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was rationalism and its cultural and intellectual manifestation, the Enlightenment. This movement led to incredible developments in science, technology, and education, and, as we shall see in today’s post, also had a profound impact on the study and interpretation of the Bible.

Modern biblical criticism can be said to begin with the musings of seventh-century philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Spinoza. Perhaps strangely to us, the question that got it all started was to what extent it could be said that Moses “authored” the Pentateuch (Torah). According to tradition, Moses authored all of it, with the possible exception of his death narrative. But, a close reading of these texts led people to question this tradition. There were doubles of stories, sometimes radical differences in grammar and word choice, notes that seem refer to a much later situation (such as the many references to sites or circumstances that are said to exist “to this day,” see for example Genesis 26.33), and even apparent contradictions in what it was God wanted (such as the stories establishing altars throughout the land versus the command in Deuteronomy 12.13-14 to worship at one site alone). These features of the Pentateuch seemed to be evidence against there being a solitary author. Subsequent generations of biblical scholars pursued these differences, believing that understanding the origin of the text would lead to a better understanding of the text itself.

The most influential of these was Julius Wellhausen, who built on previous work to propose four independent traditions that were later edited into what we now know as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (Wellhausen’s hypothesis actually also covered the book of Joshua). These sources were:

  • ‘J’, or ‘Yahwist’: an early source (ca. 10th C BCE) likely centered in Jerusalem at around the time of Solomon, marked especially for its literary quality, nationalistic outlook, and use of the divine name YHWH;
  • ‘E’, or ‘Elohist’: a slightly later source (ca. 9th C BCE) centered in the Northern Kingdom, marked by its focus on Joseph (father of the leading northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh), moralizing impulse, and preference for the term Elohim to refer to God;
  • ‘D’, or ‘Deuteronomist’: a later source (ca. 7th C BCE) centered in Jersualem after fall of the Northern Kingdom and during King Josiah’s reforms, marked for its strict monotheism, centralizing impulse, and theology of covenant, blessings and curses;
  • ‘P’, or ‘Priestly’: the latest source (largely post-exilic) focused on the Temple and its liturgical and sacrificial life.

While this specific theory applies most specifically to the first five (or six) books of the Old Testament, the methodology was also applied to other texts. So, for example, noting the similarity in theological outlook, scholars began to speak of not just Deuteronomy but the ‘Deuteronomistic history’ including Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and the books of Samuel and Kings as representing a common editorial voice. And in an opposite direction, the integrity of our book of Isaiah has been questioned (with near-universal acceptance among scholars) because of a clear change in circumstances, differences in style, and the absence of the prophet’s name after chapter 39.

Source criticism was also applied to the Gospels. Among the four, there are clear similarities among Matthew, Mark, and Luke (called ‘the Synoptics’, since they tell the story of Jesus from a shared perspective), as compared with John, which stands apart in themes, style, the stories it tells, and the internal timeline of the passion narrative. Within the Synoptics, scholars noted that Matthew and Luke share a lot of material that is not found in Mark, and so posited that they used Mark and another, hypothetical, document (called ‘Q’ in the literature), as their source material.

There is a lot to commend this general approach, as it helpfully teases out different strands of thought found within the Biblical texts. But the devil is, as they say, in the details. Source critics could not agree on which source to assign given passages to, split some of the sources into even more hypothetical sources, and some ended up atomizing the text to the extent that different pieces of a sentence were assigned to different sources. Additionally, there was only circumstantial evidence (at best) to support the narratives scholars assigned to each of the purported sources. And when the deciphering of cuneiform writing allowed scholars to compare the Old Testament with other Ancient Near Eastern writing, they found that some of the apparent problems with the texts that had been used as evidence against their integrity of authorship — such as the doubling of stories and characters going by different names — were in fact common features of the larger cultural world in which the Bible was written. Finally, as it turned out — and most devastating for the movement as a hermeneutic endeavour — understanding the history of a text did not actually provide insights into its meaning. The end result of source criticism was at best, ‘Oh that’s interesting. But so what?’

Into this situation came ‘form criticism’ in the early twentieth century, which set aside the question of where the texts came from and asked instead what ‘forms’ a text used (units such as stories, prayers, songs, etc.) and how these forms functioned in the religious life of Israel and Judah. This critical methodology provided the study of the Bible with two significant insights: First, the importance of literary genre; and second, the importance of the context (the Sitz im Leben, or ‘Life Situation’) suggested by the text itself. The leading figure of form criticism, Hermann Gunkel, compared Hebrew forms with Ancient Near Eastern literature, which was newly available to scholars due archaeological discoveries and the decryption of cuneiform. By identifying common forms and their functions, Gunkel believed he could uncover the Hebrew people’s religious values that were hidden because of our distance from their time, place, and culture. Indeed, Gunkel was quite often successful. His comparison of psalms with poetry from Israel’s neighbours produced significant liturgical and exegetical insights. Similarly, the study of the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) as a distinct unit demonstrated its archaic language and therefore its integrity as a text predating the writing of Exodus, likely by hundreds of years. The preservation of this song in this archaic form suggests in turn that it represented a tradition close to the centre of the community’s identity.

New Testament form criticism contemplated genres such as parables, prophetic oracles, epistles, speeches and sermons. This allowed the texts, especially the epistles and sermons in Acts (and Hebrews) to be studied within the context of what we know of rhetoric in the Roman Empire.

Despite its successes, form criticism had problems of its own: For one, it tended to overemphasize similarities between the Hebrew and surrounding cultures. One great example of this is the similarity between the creation story in Genesis 1 and the Babylonian creation myth in the Enuma Elish. Form critics were keen on noting the dependence of the biblical narrative on this Babylonian text, but often failed to note the creative and theologically meaningful ways Genesis diverges from it: This is not a case of passive dependence, but a case of intentional creative reworking of the Babylonian story. Form criticism also suffered from the same lack of evidence as source criticism had: Its hypotheses could only ever be educated guesses — hardly representative of the scientific rigour its proponents hoped for. Finally, form criticism failed to take into account the new context placed upon texts by their inclusion and positioning within the canon. This critique was taken up by Brevard Childs, whose canonical critical approach looked at texts within this broader context.

Historical criticism in the New Testament has also been dominated by several so-called “Quests for the Historical Jesus,” as scholars (most famously Baron d’Holbach (late 18th C), Albert Schweitzer (early 20th C), and the infamous Jesus Seminar (end 20th C)) sought to tease out the ‘real’ Jesus from the traditions that developed around him. As laudable as this enterprise may be in theory, the problem is that we have no access to this ‘historical’ Jesus apart from those traditions. Without other corroborating sources, these Quests simply produced a Jesus who looks like what the scholars wanted him to look like.

You may have noticed that, thus far, references to the New Testament have been completely separate from references to the Old Testament. This is actually one of the major consequences of historical-critical methodologies for the study of the Bible: the splitting off of New Testament and Old Testament studies into separate disciplines. From at least the time of Irenaeus in the late second century, Christians had understood the Bible as a fundamental unity: Two testaments, but each telling the same story. This was true even of the more rigorous proponents of sticking to the text, like the Antiochene school and Reformers. The application of critical methodologies to the Bible broke this unity. Even if scholars believed that the Old Testament’s message was connected to that of the New Testament — and many did — this was not relevant to their study: The meaning of Isaiah was to be found in Isaiah’s life and times, not in the life of Jesus. Moreover, it was simply not realistic for one person to have the linguistic and cultural expertise to engage in both Ancient Near Eastern and ‘Classical’ Mediterranean literature.

If we look at these critical methodologies on our integral quadrant map, we see that the efforts are entirely in the upper right quadrant. The sources are the texts themselves, linguistic, historical and cultural analysis, and archaeology. This is entirely an academic, intellectual approach, with no reference to tradition (lower left), authority (lower right), or personal experience (upper left).

So how might we assess the historical critical project? It’s impossible to understand historical criticism apart from its Enlightenment context. This was a time of Big Ideas and bold claims in Western thought. The problem with historical criticism is precisely the problem of all of those bold Enlightenment ideas: They lacked the humility to understand their limitations. Critical methodologies are often very useful and instructive, but within a very limited scope. They rightly demonstrated that our Biblical texts are historical documents, not only in the sense that they address specific historical contexts, but also in that they have their own internal histories. But they were overconfident in our ability to access those internal histories. They rightly demonstrated the importance of genre for biblical interpretation, but missed the mark in their equating of form and function with meaning. At the end of the day, critical methodologies can be wonderful tools for interpreters of the Bible, but very ineffectual masters. This is why, for the most part, they have been, if not wholly abandoned, at least synthesized into a group of possible approaches with far humbler expectations and claims than they made last century.

It should come as no surprise that these methodologies were, and continue to be, controversial among Christians. Pope Leo XIII condemned them in an 1893 encyclical (though Pope Pius XII reversed this in 1943), and the prevalence of historical criticism in the academy was an immediate cause of the rise of Fundamentalism as a trend in Protestant Christianity. It is to this reactionary movement that the next post in this series will turn.

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