The Promise and Perils of Historical Critical Method in Biblical Studies
How is it that access to modern tools of learning which evidently has help many Christians deepen their understanding of the Bible results in some losing their confidence in its historical reliability? It seems we have a classic case of the paradox of knowledge of good and evil which brings blessings and curses in a fallen world. Wonder drugs work miraculous cure but if taken excessively, would poison the body. Atomic energy generates massive electric power but it can also be used for weapons of mass destruction. Historical criticism which enhances our understanding of ancient scripture can also destroy faith – if it is applied without regard for the object of its investigation, the Bible with its self-attested divine authority. In this article I shall examine the process, promise and perils of the historical critical method for the study of the Bible.
Christians today can access many tools of modern knowledge to study Bible. Obscure words are clarified using Greek and Hebrew lexicons, strange ancient customs are explained by Bible encyclopedia and puzzling passages are illuminated in Bible commentaries. Understanding of the Bible becomes more concrete with new knowledge gleaned from recent archaeological excavations.
Leaders in the Malaysian evangelical churches in Malaysia welcome these tools as they will spur vigor and enthusiasm in systematic study of the Bible. After all, the evangelical churches have traditionally prided themselves as a Bible-centred movement. However, there is concern that some scholars have cast doubts on the evangelical doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration and infallibility of the Scripture as they deem the doctrine to be inconsistent with modern scientific study of the Bible that is promoted vigorously in the Western liberal academia.
[For the purpose of this article, I shall focus narrowly on the criteria of scripture to define the difference between evangelicals and liberals. Briefly, evangelicals believe the Bible is fully the revealed word of God and affirm the verbal plenary divine inspiration of the Bible. Liberals believe the Bible contains the word of God. That is to say, parts of the Bible may contain the revealed word, but it also contains fallible human teachings. The Bible displays the genius of the Jewish religious mind, enhanced by wisdom literature and inspiring poetry, but mixed with quaint myths embodying dated knowledge that besets pre-scientific cultures].
The classical historical method which arose in Germany in the 17th century critically analyzes the Bible in the same way classical scholars studied ancient texts. The goal of the method is to determine the historical origins, sources, authorial purposes of the different genre of literature in the Bible, using a variety of procedures like source criticism, form and tradition criticism, and redaction criticism. Its presuppositions are 1) principle of criticism: Human reason must be free from tutelage of any authority (human or divine). It is autonomous and sufficient to subject all truth claims to human criticism and value judgment, 2) principle of correlation: that events are a historical nexus of natural cause and effect accessible to human reason and investigation, (3) principle of analogy: present experience is the basis to explain the past. For example, in present times we don’t see people walking on water or rising from the dead. Analogically, there cannot be such similar events or miracles even though they are reported in the Bible. The combination of these three principles results in the rejection of supernatural explanation in the classical historical critical method.
Liberal critics using the classical historical critical method have questioned and rejected the historical veracity of major Biblical events, the existence of prominent Bible characters and the relevance of major Biblical doctrines. The traditional teaching of the Mosaic origin of the Pentateuch is discarded. Critics further assert that pivotal historical events like the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan under Joshua simply did not happen. The Old Testament history from Kings to Chronicles is supposedly nationalistic royal court propaganda, containing at best a kernel of historical truths enclosed by a husk of accreted myths, as these ‘histories’ were compiled centuries after their alleged occurrences. Further collateral damage include relegation of Job, Jonah and Daniel to fictional figures. The book of Isaiah was compiled long after the destruction of Jerusalem by two or three unknown redactors later during the Babylonian exile. It is not prophecy foretelling future events as it is ‘vaticinia ex-eventu’ (prophecies from the event). Finally, the Book of Daniel should not be read as 6th century BC prophetic literature, but as 2nd century BC apocalyptic writings, a form of underground literature written for an oppressed community. In this case, history in the book of Daniel would have been written backwards, but presented as prophecy moving forward. Daniel is then convenient fiction, albeit for the purpose of assuring an oppressed community desperate to be assured that God is in control of their history and destiny.
Examining the Contested Issues:
1) The Mosaic origin of the Pentateuch: Evangelical scholars traditionally ascribe the authorship of the Pentateuch to Moses while acknowledging there are elements of redaction or ‘editorial updates’ in the process leading to the final compilation of the Old Testament. The liberal theory which was classically formulated by Julius Wellhausen as the “Documentary Hypothesis” views the Pentateuch as a combined effort from several unknown sources/authors (JEPD) in a process stretching over centuries, and finally compiled during Israel’s exile. More importantly, the historical distance between the purported Exodus event and the late compilation of the Pentateuch would belie the appearance of the Pentateuch as a reliable historical record. Indeed, the Pentateuch comprises community myths disguised as history, as the small Jewish community in exile and resisted pressures to assimilate into the Babylonian society by resorting to ‘invention of tradition’ [stealing an idea from E. J. Hobsbawm and T. O. Ranger] to strengthen later Jewish identity and religion.
The primary evidence for the “Documentary Hypothesis” based on linguistic evidence which assumes that the different divine names in the Pentateuch point to different sources/authors (JEPD sources) has effectively been refuted by the mid-20C (e.g. by Umberto Cassutto, The Documentary Hypothesis (1941) reprinted by Shalem Press 2006). But liberals cling to the theory rather than reconsider the traditional theory of Mosaic author, as their naturalistic scholarship inspired by the European Enlightenment precludes the acceptance of supernatural intervention, such as divine revelation and supernatural plagues embedded in the story of Moses. Liberal just ignore the devastating critique by conservative scholars and continue to talk about the JEPD sources as if the “Documentary Hypothesis” remains intact. In the words of Yehezkel Kaufmann, “Wellhausen’s arguments complemented each other nicely, and offered what seemed to be a solid foundation upon which to build the house of biblical criticism. Since then, however, both the evidence and the arguments supporting this structure have been called into question and, to some extent, even rejected. Yet biblical scholarship, while admitting the grounds have crumbled away, nevertheless continues to adhere to the conclusions” [Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (Chicago UP 1960), p. 1].
2) The reality of the Exodus event: Liberal scholars insist that the Exodus did not happen, as there was no existing Egyptian records of Jewish slaves and their subsequent escape. Naturally, liberals reject the report of miracles following the Jews in the Sinai wilderness. In contrast, evangelical scholars are mindful of the high stakes involved in defending the historical reality of the Exodus as the theme of Exodus pervades the Old Testament. If there was no Exodus, then most of the Old Testament would be based on pious fraud. Ironically, liberals are hesitant to deny the historical existence of Moses (who is also not attested by ancient Egyptian archaeological records) as there seems no other plausible explanation for the improbable emergence the nation of Israel. One could say that liberal historians would be forced to invent a historical Moses even if there was none.
A corollary for the non-occurrence of the Exodus would be that the depiction of the invasion and conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua is false. To be fair, the archaeological evidence remains controversial. In this regard, the jury is still out regarding the actual date, the scope and the process of Jewish conquest settlement of Canaan. But the stakes are high for, “If Jericho was not razed, our faith would be in vain.”
3) Prominent Old Testament figures: The skeptical attitude towards the foundational historical narratives of the Old Testament are next extended to several prominent figures in the Old Testament. For the liberals there is no historical Job with its unbelievable account of Satan in the presence of God and no Jonah who is swallowed by a fish and still lives. If there can be no revelation of the future given to prophets then one cannot accept the Book of Isaiah as a genuine record of prophecies given during the original ministry of the prophet Isaiah at the time of King Hezekiah in the 7th century BC. Critics suggest that any correspondence between alleged prophecy and historical event is evidence that it was written with hindsight after the events had already happened. Liberal scholars, impressed by what appears to be different literary qualities found in the second part of Isaiah (chapter 40-66) conclude that this section was composed by some unknown authors/committees one century later in the Babylonian exile. Indeed, there could even be a third Isaiah. As an aside, a naturalistic reading of the book of Isaiah would lead to denial of the prophecised messiah in Isaiah.
4) The prophet Daniel suffers no less a grievous fate at the hands of the critics who assert that belief in an historical Daniel is politically naïve since it assumes a high ranking court official could survive a change of rulers. For these critics, the Book of Daniel is not prophecy looking forward, but apocalyptic literature for an oppressed Jewish community under persecution during the 2nd century BC. In this case, an unknown 2nd century author imaginatively situates himself in the 6th century BC and artificially creates ‘prophecy’ that would match what everyone would know to be the flow of historical events leading to the 2nd century. The original recipients of the apocalyptic book of Daniel would be comforted by the hope (albeit somewhat mistaken) that the God of Israel had already foreseen and directed history to an apocalyptic end with final deliverance of Israel.
It may be acknowledged that there are elements of apocalyptic in the book of Daniel, but this does not justify the tendency of liberal critics to ignore the prophetic elements in the book. John J. Collins, the current doyen of OT apocalyptic literature gives a definition apocalyptic literature that is widely accepted by liberals – a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another supernatural world (see, “Apocalyptic Literature”, The Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds (IVP 2000). As can be seen, this definition does not rule out that “apocalyptic” can be “prophetic” at the same time. Once prophecy is acknowledged, scholars have no need to resort to pushing for a late date for the book of Daniel.
Bruce Waltke argues for an early date of the book of Daniel after examining the Qumran manuscripts for linguistics evidence of Persian loan words and historical references. He concludes – But the question naturally arises, “If the evidence for a sixth century date of composition is so certain, why do scholars reject it in favor of an unsupportable Maccabean hypothesis? The reason is that most scholars embrace a liberal, naturalistic, and rationalistic philosophy. Naturalism and rationalism are ultimately based on faith rather than on evidence; therefore, this faith will not allow them to accept the supernatural predictions. Archer states the point well: “The committed antisupernaturalist, who can only explain the successful predictions of Daniel as prophecies after the fulfillment… is not likely to be swayed by any amount of objective evidence whatever.” The Date of the Book of Daniel,” BiblioSac 133 (1976): 319-329.
Caution about the Historical Method
One wonders how evangelicals who are sympathetic to these critical conclusions could reconcile them with belief in the Bible as an authentic and accurate historical record, much less the infallible Word of God. But the more important issue is to understand how these scholars end up abandoning their evangelical faith. There is no question that these scholars had more than notional assent to evangelical faith which they testify to be experientially significant for them in their younger days. One may call to mind such Old Testament scholars like Peter Enns and Kenton Sparks, and New Testament scholars like Bart Ehrman.
It may be surmised that one sociological factor contributing to the loss of evangelical faith could be because scholars are open to pressures to conform to the conventional wisdom that is forcefully pushed by liberal scholars who dominate and control academic appointments in the Western academia. To be fair, there are evangelical scholars who feel that their faith is robust enough to resists such pressures. Indeed, for them engagement with critical scholars is a matter of maintaining integrity in the academia. However, regardless of such self-assurance, the undeniable result is that some of these scholars have abandoned the evangelical faith.
From the pastoral point of view, integrity would also require these scholars to be open about their doubts when they preach the Bible to the congregation. It can be expected that their teaching will result in confusion, if not devastation of faith when the congregation is told that the Bible comprises a mixture of history and myths.
Constructive and Believing Historical Criticism
Must evangelical scholars then avoid using the historical critical method? Far from it. In one sense, there is no return to original naiveté in our reading of scripture. Neither should we read scripture using the historical method without hermeneutical awareness and pastoral responsibility. One may point to the example of sanctified use of the historical critical method set by the great Dutch scholar and statesman, Abraham Kuyper. When Kuyper found that his liberal preaching was both corrosive to his own faith and incongruent with the spiritual experience of his congregation, he took a critical look at his liberal scholarship. He concluded that the skeptical framework of Enlightenment historical method is inimical to Christian faith. Effectively, he was applying an inappropriate tool which fails to take seriously the Bible’s claim to be the revealed Word of God. More importantly, Kuyper rejected the claim of epistemological neutrality and scientific objectivity of the historical critical method. In this regard, Kuyper anticipates the hermeneutical movements of the late 20th century informed by Thomas Kuhn’s insight that all knowledge is paradigm controlled, or that meaning is located in the narrative world in front of the text, instead of a tentatively reconstructed historical world behind the text (Paul Ricoeur). It would be a great irony if liberal scholars or historical critics refuse to be self-critical when they forget the lesson from the great liberal scholar Rudolph Bultmann, who declared there is no exegesis without preunderstanding or presuppositions.
Difficult as it may be, evangelical scholars should deploy the historical critical method, but not within the skeptical framework of critical biblical scholarship influenced by the Enlightenment. In practical terms, critical biblical scholarship in principle takes a critical outlook towards historical sources, disregard the supernatural or miraculous reports and either ignores them or re-explain them in naturalistic terms based on the principle of analogy. In contrast, believing biblical scholarship is prepared to consider the possibility that the eyewitness account could be wrong, but its tendency is to approach the text expectantly, assuming its reliability until proven otherwise. Finally, believing biblical scholarship is prepared to apply the principle of analogy, but argues that general principles, or what is considered normal, cannot rule out the possibility of the unique or miraculous event. Finally, believing biblical scholarship accepts the principle of correlation to explain cause and effect in history, but it rejects the unbelieving critics’ attempt to veto possibility of divine intervention and challenges the presupposition that history is a closed continuum. It should be stressed that believing criticism is not a defensive exercise. Since critical biblical scholarship rules out divine revelation it tends to stop with fragmentary analysis as it sees the Bible as a collection of disparate documents with no unified message. In contrast, believing criticism approaches the Bible as an organic whole with a coherent message. Believing criticism sees unity in the variety of biblical texts that enables scholars to articulate a coherent biblical theology, when due regard is given to the Bible’s self-testimony as the Word of God that is progressively revealed in the history of Israel. I refer to the exemplary model biblical theology in the work of the late Geerhardus Vos from Princeton, whom many conservative and evangelical scholars considers to be the Father of biblical theology.
On the historical method:
James Hoffmeier & Dennis Magary ed. Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture. Crossway 2012.
V. Phillips Long, The Art of Biblical History. Zondevan 1994.
Exodus and related events. Evangelicals are well served by two outstanding Egyptologists
Kenneth Kitchen. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Eerdmans 2006
James Hoffmeier. Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition. Oxford UP 1996.
On the Pentateuch.
For a classic response to the Wellhausen “Documentary Hypothesis” see, Umberto Cassutto. The Documentary Hypothesis, reprinted by Shalem Press 2006.
R.N. Whybray, The Making of the Pentateuch. A Methodological Study. JSOT 1987. A non-evangelical critical evaluation.
T. Desmond Alexander. From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch. Baker 2012
John Sailhamer. The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation. IVP 2009
Robert Dick Wilson, Studies in the Book of Daniel. Putnam: vol.1 (1917) & vol.2 (1938). The late linguist who knew 45 languages, covers all aspects of linguistics and historical evidence in his two volumes gives a robust defence for the early date which has not so much been refuted as ignored by liberal scholars.
Two concise defences on the early date and historical reliability of the book of Daniel:
Joyce Baldwin. Daniel TOTC. IVP 1978
Alan R. Millard, “Daniel in Babylon: An Accurate Record?” in James Hoffmeier & Dennis Magary, Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith. Crossway 2012.
Two recent books which defend the unity of the book of Isaiah in complementary ways.
John Alec Motyer. The Prophecy of Isaiah. An Introduction & Commentary. IVP 1993.
Gary Smith. New American Commentary on the Book of Isaiah 2 vols. Broadman & Holman Pub. 2007, 2009.
Older but no less vigorous critique of the “Documentary Hypothesis” may be found in the following:
Gleason Archer. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. New ed. Moody 2007.
R.K. Harrison. Introduction to the Old Testament. Reprint ed. Hendrickson 2004.