Friday, January 10, 2014

Title page of Richard Simon's "Critical History" (1685),
an early work of biblical criticism.-wikimedia
In my own teaching, I have recently noticed that I have stopped referring explicitly to something called the Historical Critical Method.  I am not sure when this happened, but on reflection I see that I now teach it simply as the general way we approach scripture, not as a specific approach among other options.  My question, 'Does The Historical Critical Method Still Exist?,' is not to say that in some way we have moved past the approach, but rather I wonder if it is still somehow distinct, as though you could do biblical studies without it.  

In their Handbook of Biblical Criticism, Soulen and Soulen note that the historical critical method (HCM) emphasizes that what has happened before is analogous to the present and is accessible to reason and investigation.  Basically, our experience of reality can help us understand what may or may not have happened in the past.  Essentially, the HCM is a group of methods, primarily textual criticism, source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism.  Each of these deserve their own treatment but, briefly, textual criticism focuses on manuscripts, form criticism focused on pre-literary forms and orality, source criticism tries to establish the sources used by the author(s) of a text, and redaction criticism, which examines editorial choices and compositional elements used by the author.

David Law points out that even the term 'historical' in the HCM is problematic.  What is meant by 'history?'  Is it the history of the text? What the text meant in the historical context in which was written? The historical accuracy of the account? Or even, the application the methods used by historians?

Further, the terms 'critical' and 'method' are difficult.  The contemporary meaning of 'critical' in the United States is not what was meant by the critical scholars, and method is problematic because it implies that there is some sort of formula that will produce a result. (Thanks to John for that point.)

The history of the HCM, like so many things, is complex.  People attribute it to the emphasis on reason that emerges during the age of enlightenment, or the Reformation's focus on the Bible, or even the Renaissance's new understanding of nature and the emergence of science.  In a very real way, the fundamentalist movement of the very late 19th and early 20th centuries are a reaction to the HCM.  Many felt that the Bible was under attack by critics who sought to 'disprove' it and, in reaction, emphasized biblical inerrancy.  But now, even very conservative scholars are generally comfortable with the methods.

It seems to me to now simply be foundational for the discipline.  In order to be a biblical scholar, one needs to be a scholar of the ancient Near East.  I think we can add to this foundation the emphasis on social sciences. A distinct social-scientific approach also seems odd to me, as though you could study this material without understanding social dynamics and practices.  

I wonder what we will be adding to this in the future?  Will we have to be students of neuroscience, anthropology and evolutionary psychology to better understand the ways in which humans speak, hear, write, tell stories and develop narratives and identities?  I would be glad to hear any thoughts on this, with regard to teaching or the discipline in general. 

Isaac M. Alderman
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