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III. Historical Biblical Criticism

For at least the last couple of hundred years, there has also been a quite different kind of scripture scholarship: historical biblical criticism (HBC). There is much to be grateful for with respect to HBC; it has enabled us to learn a great deal about the Bible we otherwise might not have known. Furthermore, some of the methods it has developed (form criticism, source criticism, others) can be and have been employed to excellent effect in traditional biblical commentary. It differs importantly from the latter, however. HBC is fundamentally an Enlightenment project; it is an effort to look at and understand biblical books from a standpoint that relies on reason alone; that is, it is an effort to determine from the standpoint of reason alone what the scriptural teachings are and whether they are true. Thus HBC eschews the authority and guidance of tradition, magisterium, creed, or any kind of ecclesial or “external” epistemic authority. The idea is to see what can be established (or at least made plausible) using only the light of what we could call “natural, empirical reason.” The faculties or sources of belief invoked, therefore, would be those that are employed in ordinary history: perception, testimony, reason taken in the sense of a priori intuition together with deductive and probabilistic reasoning, Reid’s sympathy, by which we discern the thoughts and feelings of another, and so on—but bracketing any proposition one knows by faith or by way of the authority of the church. Spinoza (1632–77) already lays down the charter for this enterprise: “The rule for [biblical] interpretation should be nothing but the natural light of reason which is common to all—not any supernatural light nor any external authority.”461461   Tractatus Theologico-politicus, 14.

This doesn’t preclude, of course, a rational argument (an argument from reason alone) for the proposition that indeed there has been a divine revelation, and that the Bible (or some part of it) is precisely that revelation: exactly this is the Lockean project (see above, pp. 79ff.). Nor does it preclude a direct argument, one that proceeds independently of any claim to revelation, for the central claims of Christianity. Indeed, many critics of the Christian faith seem to take it for granted that if Christian belief were to be rationally acceptable, it would have to be held on the basis of just such argument. Christian belief would have to be or be like a scientific explanation (as they think of it): any rational justification or warrant it enjoyed would have to be by way of its being a good explanation of the observed phenomena.462462   See, e.g., John Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, pp. 186ff.), and Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), pp. 152ff.; see also my “Is Theism Really a Miracle?” Faith and Philosophy (1986), and “Dennett’s Dangerous Idea: Darwin, Mind and Meaning,” Books and Culture (May-June 1996); and see above, pp. 329ff. From this point of view, a 387Christian must presumably be thinking along the following lines: “What is the best explanation for all that organized complexity in the natural world and the characteristic features of human life and all the rest of what we see about us? Well, let’s see, perhaps there is an omniscient, omnipotent, wholly good being who created the world. Yes that’s it; and perhaps this being is one of three persons, the other two being his divine son and a third person proceeding from the first two (or maybe just the first), yet there are not three gods but one; the second person became incarnate, suffered, was crucified, and died, thus atoning for our sins and making it possible for us to have life and have it more abundantly. Right; that’s got to be it; that’s a dandy explanation of the facts.” The critics then conclude, naturally enough, that Christian belief leaves a good bit to be desired.

This project or enterprise is often thought of as part and parcel of the development of modern empirical science, and indeed practitioners of HBC like to drape about their shoulders the mantle of modern science. The attraction is not just that HBC can perhaps share in the prestige of modern science, but also that it can share in the obvious epistemic power and excellence of the latter.463463   To understand historical criticism and its dominance properly, says David Yeago, one must understand “the historic coupling of historical criticism with a ‘project of the Enlightenment’ aimed at liberating mind and heart from the shackles of ecclesiastical tradition. In the modern context, claims to ‘Enlightenment’ must be backed up with the claim to have achieved a proper method, capable of producing real knowledge to replace the pre-critical confusion and arbitrariness of tradition” (“The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” Pro Ecclesia 3, no. 2 (Spring 1994), p. 162.) It is common to think of science itself as our best shot at getting to know what the world is really like; HBC is, among other things, an attempt to apply these widely approved methods to the study of Scripture and the origins of Christianity. Thus Raymond Brown, a scripture scholar than whom none is more highly respected, believes that HBC is “scientific biblical criticism”;464464   The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press, 1973), p. 6. it yields “factual results” (p. 9); he intends his own contributions to be “scientifically respectable” (p. 11); and practitioners of HBC investigate the Scriptures with “scientific exactitude” (pp. 18–19).465465   See also John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991), vol. 1, p. 1.

What is it, exactly, to study the Bible scientifically? That’s not so clear; as we’ll see below, there is more than one answer to this question. One theme that seems to command nearly universal assent, however, is that in working at this scientific project (however exactly it is to be understood) one doesn’t invoke or employ any theological assumptions or presuppositions. You don’t assume, for example, that 388the Bible is inspired by God in any special way, or contains anything like specifically divine discourse. You don’t assume that Jesus is the divine son of God, or that he arose from the dead, or that his suffering and death are in some way a propitiatory atonement for human sin, making it possible for us to get into the right relationship to God. You don’t assume any of these things because, in pursuing science, you don’t assume or employ any proposition which you know by faith.466466   Nor can you employ a proposition which is such that the warrant it has for you comes from some proposition you know or believe by faith; we might put this by saying that in doing science you can’t employ any proposition whose epistemic provenance, for you, includes a proposition you know or believe by faith.
   But is this really true? Why should we believe it? What is the status of the claim that if what you are doing is science, then you can’t employ, in your work, any proposition you believe or know by faith? Is it supposed to be true by definition? If so, whose definition? Is there a good argument for it? Or what? See my “Methodological Naturalism?” in Facets of Faith and Science, ed. J. van der Meer (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1995).
(As a consequence, the meaning of a text will be what the human author intended to assert [if it is assertive discourse]; divine intentions and teaching don’t enter into the meaning.467467   Thus Benjamin Jowett (the nineteenth-century master of Balliol College and eminent translator of Plato): “Scripture has one meaning—the meaning which it had to the mind of the prophet or evangelist who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it” (“On the Interpretation of Scripture,” in The Interpretation of Scripture and Other Essays [London: George Routledge, 1906], p. 36; quoted in Jon D. Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism [Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993], p. 78). Jowett was not a paragon of intellectual modesty, which may explain a poem composed and circulated by undergraduates at Balliol: First come I, my name is Jowett. There’s no knowledge but I know it. I am the master of the college. What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.
) The idea, says E. P. Sanders, is to rely only on “evidence on which everyone can agree.”468468   Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 5. According to Jon Levenson,

Historical critics thus rightly insist that the tribunal before which interpretations are argued cannot be confessional or “dogmatic”; the arguments offered must be historically valid, able, that is, to compel the assent of historians whatever their religion or lack thereof, whatever their backgrounds, spiritual experiences, or personal beliefs, and without privileging any claim of revelation.469469   “The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism,” in The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism, p. 109. (An earlier version of this essay was published under the same title in Hebrew Bible or Old Testament? Studying the Bible in Judaism and Christianity, ed. John Collins and Roger Brooks [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990].)


Barnabas Lindars explains that

There are in fact two reasons why many scholars are very cautious about miracle stories. . . . The second reason is historical. The religious literature of the ancient world is full of miracle stories, and we cannot believe them all. It is not open to a scholar to decide that, just because he is a believing Christian, he will accept all the Gospel miracles at their face value, but at the same time he will repudiate miracles attributed to Isis. All such accounts have to be scrutinized with equal detachment.470470   Theology 89, no. 728 (March 1986), p. 91.

And even Luke Timothy Johnson, who is in general astutely critical of HBC:

It is obviously important to study Christian origins historically. And in such historical inquiry, faith commitments should play no role. Christianity is no more privileged for the historian than any other human phenomenon.471471   The Real Jesus (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), p. 172. (The target of much of Johnson’s criticism is the notorious ‘Jesus Seminar’.) Here Johnson speaks specifically of history; he holds that the historian as such cannot properly employ what he knows by faith. In personal communication he informs me that, in his opinion, history is by its nature limited in this way. Proper biblical scholarship, however, is not; hence the sort of project in which one brackets what one knows by faith is not epistemically superior but, in fact, epistemically inferior to biblical scholarship informed by faith. His view, therefore, resembles the one outlined below, pp. 401ff.

In practice, this emphasis means that HBC tends to deal especially with questions of composition and authorship, these being the questions most easily addressed by the methods employed. When was the document in question composed—or, more exactly, since we can’t assume that we are dealing with a single unified document here, when were its various parts composed? How was the Gospel of Luke, for example, composed? Was it written by one person, relying on his memory of Jesus and his words and deeds, or was it assembled from various reports, alleged quotations, songs, poems, and the like in the oral tradition? Was it dependent on one or more earlier written or oral sources? Why did the editor or redactor put the book together in just the way he did? Was it perhaps to make a theological point in a then-current controversy? Where traditional biblical commentary assumes that the entire Bible is really one book with a single principal author, HBC tends to give us a collection of books by many authors. And even within the confines of a single book, it may give us a collection of discontinuous sayings and episodes (pericopes), stitched together by one or more redactors. How much of what is reported as the sayings and discourse of Jesus really was said by Jesus? Can we 390discern various strata in the book—perhaps a bottom stratum including the actual sayings of Jesus himself, and then successive overlaying strata? As Robert Alter says, scholarship of this kind tends to be “excavative”; the idea is to dig behind the document as we actually have it to see what can be determined of its history.472472   I don’t mean to suggest that the traditional biblical commentator cannot also investigate these questions; if she does, however, it will be in the ultimate service of an effort to discern what the Lord is teaching in the passages in question.

Of course the idea is also to see, as far as this is possible, whether the events reported—in the Gospels, for example—really happened, and whether the picture they give of Jesus is accurate. Did he say the things they say he said, and do the things they say he did? Here the assumption is that we can’t simply take at face value the Gospels as we now have them. There may have been all sorts of additions and subtractions and alterations made in the interest of advancing theological points. Further, the New Testament books are written from the standpoint of faith—faith that Jesus really was the Christ, did indeed suffer and die and rise from the dead, and did accomplish our salvation. From the standpoint of reason alone, however, this faith must be bracketed; hence (from that standpoint) the hermeneutics of suspicion is appropriate here. (This suspicion is sometimes carried so far that it reminds one of the way in which the CIA’s denial that Mr. X is a spy is taken as powerful evidence that Mr. X is a spy.)

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