Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The merits and demerits of historical criticism

In the previous post, we identified internal inconsistencies as a fundamental problem for biblical interpretation. Then we introduced the first attempt at a solution, historical criticism, taking Gerhard von Rad as illustrative of the method.

I had intended to press on to the second attempt at a solution in this post:  i.e., the canonical approach championed by Brevard Childs. But, when I began to write, I found that I still had a great deal of ground to cover with respect to historical criticism.

Canonical criticism will have to wait. In this post I will consider historical criticism in more detail.

The promise of historical criticism

Israel testifies that God has made himself known via historical events. The Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and the conquest of the promised land are key, formative events. But even the subplots of the biblical narrative have a revelatory function:  e.g., the Akedah (binding) of Isaac, or the consequences of Achan’s sin.

By rooting its testimony in history, Israel exposed it to critical investigation. Did the revelatory events actually happen? Is there a core of historicity underlying the narratives, even if they are unreliable (or merely unverifiable) at the level of detail?

Historical criticism set out to answer those questions. Many scholars — perhaps most — began from a position of faith. They did not set out to debunk Israel’s testimony, but rather to establish it on a secure foundation. And so, as we saw in the previous post, Gerhard von Rad isolated certain traditions which he regarded as both ancient and normative (non-negotiable).

Historical criticism arrives at a dead end

Regrettably, historical criticism didn't achieve what its practitioners had hoped to achieve. I'm finding it difficult to summarize the results of historical criticism to date, but I hope the following observations will be helpful:
  1. Many parts of the biblical narrative cannot be confirmed by extra-biblical evidence. For example, Abraham is not mentioned in ancient sources other than the Bible. Nor are Joseph and Moses, who might have been expected to appear in Egyptian records.

  2. When biblical protagonists are mentioned outside of the Bible, it can be a mixed blessing. For example, consider the following inscription which makes reference to David:
    … I slew [seve]nty kin[gs], who harnessed thou[sands of cha]riots and thousands of horsemen. [I killed Jeho]ram son of [Ahab] king of Israel, and [I] killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram kin]g of the House of David. …1;
    This inscription, chiseled in black basalt, was discovered at Tel Dan in 1993. It was a very important discovery because sceptics had argued that David never actually existed. The inscription not only confirms that there was a "house" (dynasty) of David; it also confirms that King Jehoram (of Israel) and King Ahaziah (of Judah) were killed together.

    But, in one significant detail, the inscription contradicts the biblical account. 2Ki. 9:14-27 says that Jehu was responsible for the deaths of Jehoram and Ahaziah. In the inscription, King Hazael of Aram takes credit for killing the two kings. Thus the inscription both corroborates and contradicts the biblical narrative.

  3. The biblical accounts tend to betray an ulterior motive. For example, consider the biblical description of David's relationship with Saul.

    Saul regarded David as a pretender to the throne. No doubt, after Saul's death, some of Saul's fellow northerners continued to regard David as a usurper. But the biblical account maintains that Saul sought to kill David without cause. David is depicted as extraordinarily innocent in his dealings with Saul. Is the account historical, or is it an instance of political "spin", designed to legitimate David's reign?

    Similarly, the account of Solomon's succession to the throne served to legitimate his reign vis-à-vis his older brother, Adonijah. (See 1Ki. 1:5-53 and, for Adonijah's perspective, 1Ki. 2:15.)

    In general, historical criticism has been successful in recovering what Hermann Gunkel called the "Sitz im leben" (setting in life) of the text. Interpreting the phrase broadly, Sitz im leben refers to the function of a given text in subsequent generations:  in this instance, the legitimation of David's dynasty.

    Historical criticism has found it exceedingly difficult to penetrate further back, beyond the Sitz im leben to the events themselves. This is an important point, to which we will return.

  4. Historical criticism was unable to isolate one ancient source that appeared to be closer to the historical events. Instead, scholars identified four primary sources. Conventionally referred to as J, E, P, and D, the four accounts were woven together in the final edition of the Hebrew scriptures.

    Scholars believe that J and E originally offered rival accounts of Israel's history. The Yahwist (who wrote J), lived in what became the southern kingdom, Judah. The Elohist (who wrote E), lived in the northern kingdom, Israel. Norman Gottwald explains:
    As long as the northern and southern kingdoms stood as rival Israelite kingdoms, the Yahwist and Elohist versions of the national epic were firm competitors. After the destruction of the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.E., the Elohist lost its home setting and a redactor in the southern kingdom joined the two documents, or, more correctly stated, supplemented J extensively with parts of E. For this reason, E is much less completely preserved than J. … The effect of joining J and E was to affirm the national political tone of J but to permeate and leaven it with the religious and ethical qualifications of E.2
    In other words, J and E were both polemical documents, spinning the national epic in accordance with their authors' socio-political agendas. This tendency to "spin" events is equally obvious in the case of the other two sources, P and D.

    We return to the point made above:  scholarly investigations tend to dead end at the Sitz im leben of the texts. Scholars come up short of an objective description of the historical events.

  5. Let me make the same point in yet another way:  the original source material was repeatedly edited and re-edited over a period of centuries, long after the historical events had taken place.

    At some point in Israel's distant past, there were no extended accounts of history. There were only oral traditions, or brief documents, that the authors of J and E were able to utilize. But they didn't incorporate the source material verbatim; they edited it in accordance with their distinctive objectives.

    The same process was repeated after the fall of the northern kingdom, when J and E were combined by an anonymous editor. Later still, P and D were added to the mix. Considerable editorial activity was involved in the process of reducing the several documents to a single text.

    (Phil at Narrative and Ontology has posted an eye-popping diagram of the process here. Good timing, Phil!)

    If Israel ever possessed an objective description of its history (which is doubtful), it was lost forever in the process which produced the biblical texts as they are known to us.

    Israel preserved its history:  and partly for spiritual reasons. But Israel also shaped its history in accordance with the partisan socio-political agendas of certain individuals or (more likely) communities.

I should point out that there has been a backlash against the documentary hypothesis in recent decades. Scholars proposed excessively detailed reconstructions of the text:  for example, parceling out a verse among several sources. Such highly detailed reconstructions failed to generate a scholarly consensus.

At a certain point, the whole project began to resemble a house of cards:  too much infrastructure resting on an inadequate base.3

I am not a scholar, and I am not equipped to defend the documentary hypothesis. However, I am inclined to trust the judgement of those scholars who insist that the core of the hypothesis is sound; that it sheds a lot of light on the biblical texts.

As Walter Brueggemann would say, it is impossible for us to return to an "innocent" reading of the text. But historical criticism is unable to resolve the problem of internal inconsistencies. What, then, shall we do?

If we can't go back, we must find a new way forward.

In 1970, Brevard Childs declared that biblical theology had reached a point of crisis. Childs
proposed that rather than theological interpretation being done according to the schema of historical criticism, it must be done according to the "canonical intentionality" of the text.4
In the next post, then, we will turn our attention to Brevard Childs and the canonical approach to the interpretation of biblical texts.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
1Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition, Free Press, 2006, p. 265.

2Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction. Fortress Press, 1987, p. 140.

3The same objection applies in New Testament studies with respect to certain scholars' overly-confident reconstructions of Q.

4Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy. Fortress Press, 1997, p. 45.


Steven Craig Miller said...

Stephen writes: « Historical criticism is unable to resolve the problem of internal inconsistencies. What, then, shall we do? If we can't go back, we must find a new way forward.»

I have been reading your posts for sometime, largely with admiration. You are smart, articulate, and well informed. I agree with much you have written, and have learned from you too. But I also sense that we have two very different approaches to these problems. In my opinion, the point of historical criticism is simply honesty and fairness, a historical critic should honestly and fairly assess the biblical texts just as he or she would any similar texts from antiquity. In the first volume of “A Marginal Jew” (1991), John P. Meier spoke of a scholarly “conclave” where Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and agnostic scholars might write their historical conclusions together. While such a goal is somewhat idealistic, in my opinion, it is the goal of historical criticism. Thus if historical criticism is unable to resolve the problem of internal inconsistencies, that is not a failure, but rather a success. In my opinion, there is no other goal, and there is no need to go forward. (Whatever that might mean.) The goal of historical criticism is merely the honest and fair interpretation of historical data in such a way that Christians, Jews, atheists, etc. could all reach the same conclusion.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I sense you want historical criticism to do more than that, yes?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

In my opinion, the point of historical criticism is simply honesty and fairness, a historical critic should honestly and fairly assess the biblical texts just as he or she would any similar texts from antiquity.

I agree, unreservedly. But there was a time when I hoped for more from historical criticism. And remember, there was a time when the practitioners themselves hoped they could deliver "assured results".

I was an evangelical Christian for fifteen years. When I became aware of the inconsistencies in the Bible, it was a significant element of a larger crisis of faith for me.

It would have been nice if the historical critics could have found some early traditions that were likely to be reliable. Since you refer to Meier, I will point out that I have spent a lot of time exploring these issues vis-à-vis the historical Jesus. (Though I haven't read Meier.)

For example, I think Jeremias's argument based on Jesus' use of "Abba" as an address to God is very significant. It's a good example of historical criticism making a strong case for a peg that we can hang our understanding of Jesus on. But on issue after issue, scholars have been unable to reach a consensus about the historical Jesus.

Yes, that disappoints me. Similarly, it would be nice if we could establish objective facts about the protagonists and key events recorded in the Hebrew scriptures.

That said, I have reached a place in my spiritual journey where I can accept the considerable uncertainty that remains. We'll get to that later — when I turn my attention from Childs to Brueggemann.

But in response to your comment, I'll say this: it wasn't easy journeying through the turmoil to the place I'm at today. And, if historical criticism is unable to answer our questions, and we can't go back to a place of "innocence" — of course I was bound to look for another approach I could use instead.

Phil Sumpter said...

It's uncanny how we often post on the same topics at the same time. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about Childs. I think what he says about the relation of final form to its diachronic process interesting, and for me it it seems a viable way to deal with the uncertainties you mention. No doubt there's a lot more to the picture, but that's where I'm at on my journey too.

dave b said...

Hey Stephen--I haven't been here in a while. I hope we don't give historical criticism the last word (which I'm sure you won't).
A major problem with HC in my opinion is a shortsightedness--tensions in the text are inevitably interpreted according to critics as "interpolations." However, what recent scholarship is suggesting is that there are alternative explanations. Check out this link and let me know what you think:

dave b said...

that link should be:

dave b said...

I give up--just go to my blog and you will find it there.