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What Is the Historical-Critical Method?

When biblical scholars write, the

historical-critical method, they are using shorthand for a whole collection of methodologies and strategies for understanding the ancient texts in the Bible.

The "Historical" in "Historical-Critical"

It only makes sense that we should interpret ancient texts against the background of what we can know of their historical settings. The crux of historical interpretation is that our conviction that the ancient authors reflected their own historical situation and wrote to address people of their own time and place.

The Book of Genesis in chapters 37 and 39-41 tells us that a Hebrew man named Joseph had an altercation with his brothers and found himself in slavery in Egypt as a result. The book goes on to tell us about how Joseph through his fundamental honesty and an unusual ability to interpret dreams overcame his situation to become the first assistant to the Egyptian king.

The story immediately raises questions. How could a semi-nomad from Palestine rise to such heights in ancient Egypt with or without the ability to interpret dreams? Is this, perhaps, a piece of fiction designed to show how God was able to save the Hebrew people during times of distress?

Maybe. But it just so happens that there was a period, albeit a fairly short period, in which Palestinians did indeed rule in Egypt in exactly the manner suggested for Joseph. These people the Greek historian Herodotus called Hyksos, a name we now understand to mean in Egyptian "rulers from foreign lands." The Hyksos period in Egypt lasted roughly from 1720-1550, but the shepherd kings from Palestine did indeed rule by insinuating their own leader into the position of vizier to the Pharoah, exactly the position Joseph occupies in Egypt.

Does this prove the story is factually accurate? No. Yet it does suggest that whoever penned the story of Joseph we read in Genesis had some knowledge of Egypt's history. The story fits into a known historical period about which we have written resources. Fiction or history, the author did some homework.

It's important, though, to recognize that the author did not write in the 18th century BCE. Far from it. The material largely comes from two authors, J and E, sources we've learned in class stem from the Iron II period, not the Middle Bronze Age. We need to be at least as concerned about their historical situation as about the situation of Joseph in Egypt.

If we are right about the dates for J and E, the Yahwist (J) penned his account in the 9th century as Judah was having to adjust to being a small, third-rate power in the Middle East, a situation far different from the situation under the great kings David and Solomon. J has to address the situation of disappointment and apprehension. When Judah was only one portion of a large empire, it was easy to believe in the future of the Hebrew people in Palestine and imagine the good favor of their God upon them. It was not so easy to believe these things as the country began to shrink into a small, almost landlocked nation with enemies on every side.

E, many believe, was a history that derived from Judah's northern sibling, Israel. Our best estimation is that the author wrote just before the decimation of the nation by Sargon in 722 BCE. Perhaps this work was an attempt to understand the serious peril of the nation. Unlike most of the pentateuchal narrative, the Joseph stories preserve extensive E material, so that we can see this author's mind at work in this section of Genesis as in no other. God was able to save Joseph and bring him to prominence even in the very worst of circumstances and in spite of some very real and very powerful enemies. E holds the view that God has the ability once more to intervene in Israel's history to save the nation, and the story of Joseph might encourage the reader to look for that salvation.

If E wrote before 722 BCE and J wrote ca. 800 BCE, they were describing events which transpired almost a millennium before them. It would be a task similar to somebody today writing a history of the year 1000 CE only without the extensive library and computer resources available to us. The diagram below illustrates the situation.

How did J and E know what had happened? Oral tradition? Possibly. Legends can certainly exist for hundreds of years -- but not without alteration over time. Written records? That's not impossible. Both the court of Judah and the court of Israel employed skilled scribes, and both kept extensive chronicles. Both nations, however, are Iron Age, though. We're still a long time away from The Event. We may imagine all of these possibilities: written records, oral tradition, courtly chronicles. We must not, however, leave out the most important item: human conceptuality. Both J and E have definite points of view, historical points of view. They differ from each other in some important respects, but both share the belief that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is in charge of Israel's history and will save threm from their enemies.

What, then, does our historical method allow us to understand? We understand that both J and E are writing about a period in Egyptian history we know about from independent sources. We know too that they each shape their story to fit their own historical situation. We recover the power of the ancient story to address later generations through our knowledge of their history.

Historical research can seldom prove the accuracy of an account, though it may sometimes reveal an inaccuracy. That leads us, to the "critical" part of the historical-critical method.

The "Critical" in "Historical-Critical"

If we can seldom prove the historical accuracy of biblical texts but may sometimes discover inaccuracies in it, then some might reasonably believe that the purpose of historical criticism is to disprove the historical truth of the Bible. We cannot deny that some early researchers may have been motivated in this way. Research on the life of Jesus in the 19th century, for example,was replete with scholars who wanted to prove that the Gospels were fabrications or, at least, exaggerated accounts of the life of a simple Palestinian teacher. The 19th century scholar F. C. Baur named this approach "negative criticism" and showed the serious limitations of such an agenda. He suggested instead a "positive criticism" whose agenda would the historical understanding of biblical texts against their background, and this approach has won the day among biblical scholars.

What is "critical" in historical criticism is the application of our historical knowledge to the ancient text unfettered by religious or ideological strictures that would destroy the light history can shed upon the Bible. Biblical scholars have not only ressisted the restraints of organized religious bodies but have also questioned their own dogmatic assumptions about the biblical text. Some of the most important works of biblical scholarship have addressed the ideology of scholars not clerics. Perhaps most important in this regard was Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus (Von Reimarus zu Wrede, 1906; ET: 1911) that questioned the romantic notions scholars had about the life of Jesus. Even the venerable historical-critical method itself has undergone questioning as in Walter Wink's The Bible in Human Transformation (1973).

"Critical" does not mean debunking scripture, and it does not mean proving its truth. Religious people should and will find truth in their scriptures, but they may also be interested to learn something about where their scripture came from, who wrote it, and how editors collected it for them to read. For that only a historical-critical inquiry will do the job. As we increase our knowledge of the editorial process by which our Bible came to us, we may come to understand how others found meaning in its pages and applied that meaning to new situations as did J and E. People of faith will likely find themselves in dialogue with ancient people of faith. Secular folk will find themselves coming into dialogue with the biblical writers much as they come into dialogue with Socrates and Plato in a classics course.

Other Criticisms

Other scholarly approaches can take the name "criticism" as well. To the untutored this name may suggest a critique or doubting of the scriptures, but this is far from the way scholars employ such critical tools. We distinguish two fundamental kinds of criticism:

  • Lower Criticism

Textual Criticism

This is the study of the transmission of the text, not its content. The Gospel of Mark, for instance, begins with the words, "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God." Or does it? Some excellent manuscripts lack "Son of God," most notably Codex Sinaiticus as the scribe originally wrote it. (Later, as infared examination shows us, a later hand inserted these words.) The study of the text is exceptionally important for New Testament studies because the Christian scriptures circulated widely and rapidly in the ancient world without much control over the uniformity of their contents. The Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, is remarkably stable although there are important variant readings in manuscripts and translations of the Hebrew Scriptures as well. For an interesting introduction to the study of textual transmission in the Middle Ages see "A Brief History of Scriptoria" from the Benedictine Monastary in the Desert.

  • Higher Criticism

Source Criticism

We use the word "source" in biblical studies to refer to written texts employed by ancient authors. J and P, for instance, are sources for the Book of Genesis. The authors of Matthew and Luke both employed Mark as their basic story of Jesus. So Mark is a source for both Matthew and Luke.

Form Criticism

Form Criticism stems from the pioneering work of Jakob (1785-1863) Wilhelm (1786-1859) Grimm in the study of folklore led to the development of a critical method called in German Formgeschichte and in English "Form Criticism." The pioneer of Form Criticism in the arena of Hebrew Bible was Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932). In New Testament studies three important scholars share the spotlight: Martin Dibelius (1883-1947), K. L. Schmidt (1891-1956), and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). The interest of these scholars was to penetrate behind the written text to discover the oral form of the biblical tradition. They believed that associated with each form was a definite human situation or Sitz im Leben. So it was important not only to recognize the oral forms encapsulated in the written sources but also to associate these forms with specific situations in the life of ancient Israel or the early Christian church. Form Criticism has been especially helpful in understand Psalms and prophecy as well as the Synoptic Gospels.

Redaction Criticism

Redaction Criticism is sometimes called "editorial criticism." No matter what the oral traditions and written sources lying behind a given passage of scripture, some author, a redactor, shaped those materials into what we read as the biblical text. Redaction criticism teaches us to look at the big picture, at the way in which the author organizes the data to accomplish a literary purpose. Form critically, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a loose collection of sayings, organized principally in ways that will make them easy to memorize. Yet within the whole context of the First Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount is a summary of the Torah that Jesus, the greatest of the Rabbis, taught his students.

Historical Criticism

This is the twofold historical inquiry I've presented to you. The interpreter tries to understand both the historical situation to which the text points and the historical situation of the author. Sometimes these are the same, but most often they are not. There is an ambiguity in using the term "Historical Criticism." At one level Historical Criticism is the whole work of Lower and Higher Criticism. At another level historical criticism is simply one method alongside Source Criticism, Form Criticism, and Redaction Criticism for understanding the text.

Other Criticisms

Depending on their interests, scholars may employ other kinds of criticism to texts. Among the many kinds of criticism are rhetorical criticism, audience-response criticism, feminist criticism, and many forms of modern literary criticism. These have all made valuable contributions to specific areas of biblical study.

Exposition and Exegesis

In this course I am asking you to provide exposition of selected biblical texts. I hope you will provide all of the data you can to support your interpretation of these texts, but by its nature an exposition is open-ended. An exegesis, on the other hand, is a structured exercise usually taught in a theological school that ordinarily has the aim of preparing a passage of scripture for preaching. Exegesis is an exercise in both Lower Criticism and Higher Criticism. As such, only one able to read the ancient languages can do the work of Lower Criticism necessary to do exegesis. Within the realm of Higher Criticism the exegete (one who does exegesis) will attempt to understand the text within its historical, religious, and literary context using the critical tools I've discussed above. Although complete exegesis is not always the rule in the preparation of sermons by clergy, an excellent sermon based on thorough exegesis is easy to spot and almost always enlightening.

An exposition is a less structured undertaking than exegesis and may have many goals. It is simply the explanation and interpretation you give to a passage of scripture, using all of the tools at your disposal.

Excursus: The Promises to the Patriarchs

The New Interpreter's Study Bible ed. Walter Harrelson. Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2003. Pages 26-27.

God's promises to the patriarchs link the stories of Israel's ancestors and provide a goal toward which these stories point. Delivered first to Abraham, these promises are renewed in each successive generation, first to Isaac and then to Jacob. In the Yahwist's narrative, God makes promises to Abraham on numerous occasions (12.1-3, 7; 13.14-17; 15.1-21; 18.18; 22.15-19) and then repeats them both to Isaac and to Jacob. In Priestly tradition, these promises are introduced in God's covenant with Abraham (17.4-8) and are connected subsequently with Isaac (28.3-4) and with Jacob as well (35.11-12).

The goal toward which God's promises point is reflected in their content, the primary elements of which are the land of Canaan, in which the ancestors live, a multitude of descendants, and blessing so bountiful that others will feel its effects. Together with these primary promises of land, offspring, and blessing are promises of nationhood (12.2; 18.18) and military strength (22.17). Thus the promises to the patriarchs point toward a day when their descendants will make up a populous nation whose wealth and well-being will benefit their neighbors.

According to the biblical story that follows, these promises are fulfilled in the Israelite monarchy, when the people of Israel in fact become an important and influential ancient Near Eastern kingdom (see Josh; Judge; 1-2 Sam; 1 Kings). What the reader must keep in mind is that the ancestral stories in Genesis, together with the theme of promise that unites them, were actually put into the form in which they now exist during this later monarchic period. Therefore, the audience to which these stories were addressed heard them from the perspective of the community that itself represented the fulfillment of the patriarchal promises.

This has two important implications for understanding the promises to the patriarchs. First, they must be read not just as promises that point toward the future, but also as narratives that explained the present realities of the people that heard them. For their audience during the monarchy, these were stories that accounted for their kingdom, their land, their population, and their status and well-being as a people. They communicated the message that these blessings were not a human achievement but were gifts granted by God. Thus Israel understood its existence not as its own accomplishment but as a life grounded in God's benevolence.

The second implication of reading the promises to the patriarchs from the perspective of the community that saw in itself their fulfillment is that they must be red as being directed to a particular historical context. The modern reader must be cautious about removing these promises from the historical setting for which they were intended and relating them to the contemporary political context in the Middle East. The political realities of the biblical world cannot be related to modern political realities without serious and critical reflection. 

Abraham in the New Testamentby Steve Moyise

Abraham is one of the most important figures in the New Testament. Matthew traces Jesus' genealogy back to him (Matt 1:17). Faithful Jews are called "sons" or "daughters" of Abraham (Luke 13:16, Luke 19:9) and are given the promise that he will be there to meet them when they depart this life (Luke 16:22). A summary of his accomplishments occurs in Acts 7 and Heb 11, and two incidents stand out. First, he was willing to leave his own country and trust God to lead him to a new one. Second, be believed God could make him the father of many nations, even though his wife Sarah could not have children. Indeed, James thinks his faith was so great that he would have offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice if that was what God wanted (Jas 2:21). Fortunately, it wasn't (see Gen 22). 

Abraham's faith was also important to Paul, but he uses it to make a different point. Some Jewish Christians insisted that Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised to belong to the people of God (Acts 15:1). After all, Gen 17:12-13 calls circumcision an "everlasting" sign of the covenant, and says that it applies to any foreigners living in their midst. How can these Gentile Christians claim to have faith in God if they are unwilling to do what God requires?

Paul sees it differently. He thinks the demand for circumcision contradicts the gospel, where there is "no longer Jew or Greek ... slave or free ... male and female" (Gal 3:28). But he does not wish a separation between the children of Abraham and his Gentile converts, who can rightly be called children of Abraham because they share the faith of Abraham (Gal 3:6-9). Indeed, Paul can argue that Christian faith is similar to Abraham's faith because both involve believing that God "calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Rom 4:17). Hebrews contains a similar argument, where Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac is similar to faith in resurrection, for he "considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back" (Heb 11:19).

If Paul is correct that Gentiles can be included in the people of God without needing to be circumcised, then God appears to contradict God's own prior commands. Can such a God be trusted? This is the topic of Rom 9-11, where Paul notes that Ishmael was also a son of Abraham but was excluded from Israel. He deduces from this that it is not biological descent that defines God's people but responding to God in faith, precisely what his Gentile converts have done. In his letter to the Galatians, he is particularly daring. He uses the two sons as an allegory of two types of people: those who are free and those who are slaves. Since he thinks the demand for circumcision is a form of enslavement, he suggests that his opponents show themselves to be children of the slave woman rather than children of the promise (Gal 4:22-31).

Steve Moyise, "Abraham in the New Testament", n.p. [cited 9 Mar 2017]. Online:

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