What is Historical Criticism?

On Saturday there was a fascinating session of papers at SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) called “What is Historical Criticism?”

The presenters were from Jewish and Christian backgrounds: Alan Cooper of Jewish Theological Seminary, Peter Machinist of Harvard, Francis Watson or Durham University, and Michael Legaspi of Creighton University.

The first thing I learned at this session is that I want to read anything Michael Legaspi writes. The guy really impressed me as a thinker and communicator. I learned how smart I am not while listening to him.

Historical criticism, simply put, is the idea of studying the Biblical texts scientifically, which has led to dissecting the Bible into many alleged source texts. You may have heard of JEDP or the documentary hypothesis, the idea that the books of Moses were written by a series of committees over a period of many hundreds of years and in five stages (add H for the fifth stage).

Alan Cooper spoke basically to say that for Jewish readers it is not difficult to uphold historical critical views of the text at the same time as upholding Torah as sacred authority. He traced some history of Jewish thought, showed that so-called pre-modern Jewish thinkers were more than capable of understanding historical critical issues, and so on. I won’t say much about his paper, though it was a good representation of his school of thought (which is, obviously, not mine).

Peter Machinist defined historical criticism as reading the Bible from its human side and seeing it as rooted in historical realities. He traced the development through five seminal thinkers. I would summarize, but the details might prove uninteresting to a lot of readers. I’m not really sure what point Machinist was making. I think he wanted to affirm a both-and approach.

The really interesting papers were the last two.

First, it is important to know that historical criticism has fallen on increasing disfavor. The whole project is so rationalist and assumes the possibility of so much knowledge and the superiority of the modern over pre-modern cultures, that in this post-modern age, the enterprise is looking more and more imperialistic.

Francis Watson of Durham University gave a provocative lecture. He said we should abandon the term historical criticism altogether for the following reasons:

(1) Biblical scholars are not historians and should not imply that we are.

(2) Historical criticism is not a neutral characterization. In its origin the term referred to textual criticism, which is about restoring texts. Historical criticism, by contrast, has been about doubting them. The historical critical movement has had an agenda to criticize, in the harsh sense, other views of the Bible.

(3) Historical criticism has claimed that its methods are objective, neutral, and not about dogma. This has been shown to be a farce.

(4) The real issue has been modernity and rationalism versus tradition.

(5) Historical approaches to a text are far from the totality of the work we do. Much Biblical scholarship is not historical but interpretive.

(6) The distance historical critics claim to put between themselves and the text is illusory.

(7) Therefore, we should talk about biblical studies or scholarship and make the term historical criticism defunct.

I was pretty jazzed after Watson’s presentation and the room was buzzing. But things only got better as Michael Legaspi gave a stinging critique of the whole enterprise of historical criticism.

Legaspi traced the history of historical criticism and its move from seeing the Bible as scripture to seeing the Bible as simply a text.

One step in this journey was the Reformation, in which there arose a question for the first time about which version of the Bible and which selection of Bible books was valid. Before the Reformation, the Vulgate was regarded as the word of God, with no need for translation of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Whose Bible? Whose doctrine? Whose practice? All things were now up in the air.

The death of scripture in the West was solidified in 18th century German universities. German universities were to create ideal citizens for the German state, preparing leaders well-rounded in philosophy, literature, and other academics. The theology departments were pushed to the lowest rank.

German theology departments were tasked with creating a critical, non-confessional Bible, so that the Bible was viewed as literature and not scripture. Israel was viewed as a classical society, like Rome or Greece, and not as the people of God. Part of the critical spirit was keeping religion under control, to combat fundamentalism and violence which resulted from it. Christianity and Islam needed healthy doubt, they alleged, so equalize and relativize ideas and to keep extremism at bay.

Legaspi concluded that academic criticism of the Bible is a failed project. It has not helped society. Its origins involve dubious ideas about knowledge, rejection of tradition, and fake objectivity.


Michael Legaspi emailed and noted that I had summarized him well with one exception. He did not feel historical criticism had completely failed. It had served its purpose in bringing about new discoveries. Rather, his point was that it will not serve the needs of religious communities today. Here is an excerpt in which he explains what he meant:

H-C was successful for a time, quite a long time in fact. My point was simply that it is no longer in a position to function as it once did. I don’t believe it is in an epistemological position inferior to that of confessional modes, i.e. regarding objectivity or tradition. But I believe that the discourse that it has framed is not a promising one for actual religious communities functioning now, in a post-Christian–not simply post-confessional–society.


Further, our society is rapidly becoming post-Biblical, he said. Biblical studies must now change. Causing doubt and combatting fundamentalism, even if they ever were worthy goals, is not so much the issue in a post-Biblical society. Biblical scholarship should ask if it believes society needs the Bible and if so, decide how to communicate it positively.

I asked Legaspi for some recommendations for further reading and I will share with you three books he recommended:

(1) Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (a difficult classic I have not yet read).

(2) George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine

(3) Jon Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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3 Responses to What is Historical Criticism?

  1. Pingback: Notions of History and Memory « Scholarly Bound

  2. tiqun says:

    Historical criticism is still the somewhat venerated “sacred cow” at our faculty it seems. of course, for papers we can choose which method we want to use to analyze a text; yet we have to do a list of certain point which are absolutely neccessary – which means that we have to use the historical critical perpective and can add to it some other, like narrative method.

    personally i appreciate some of the historical-critical method (such as determining the Sitz im Leben, some textual and source criticism) i find that solely focusing on it is not useless, but can be dangerous – like Legaspi said, the scriptures simply become another text from antiquity. i found a certain respect for the scriptures lacking during my biblical studies – they are simply texts to be translated and analyzed – interpretation, or even “worse”, application, has nothing to do with biblical studies and sometimes i found that the results of such analysis would be of not much use to someone wanting to write a sermon, or the believer searching to know more about the Scriptures. sometimes it felt like being in a laboratory analyzing a foreign unknown substance…

    i’ll have to have a look at the books you listed – maybe some will be in the uni library.

  3. Pingback: » An Online Carnival for Biblical Studies Verbum Breviatum

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