Monday, 3 June 2013

A critique of Biblical Criticism as a scholarly discipline

"Is not anyone engaged in history or in the search of Sitz im Leben aware of the tentative, surmised character of any depiction of the past events and institutions?" - Yair Hoffman

In this critique I look into the scientific nature of Biblical Criticism - in what sense can it be viewed as a scientific discipline and how valid are the claims made by it? I am especially interested in the roots of the discipline in modernist times and the impact that these roots have on the discipline. I look at its presuppositions regarding the nature of reality, the credibility of the literary tradition and the possibility of obtaining an objective perspective on history. How does these impact on the paradigmatic parameters of the discipline? And what is the implications of contemporary developments in hermeneutics for the discipline?      

Biblical Criticism is the academic discipline directed to the study of the Biblical text using certain critical methods developed over the last few hundred years. Although it is not the only academic approach to the study of the Bible, it has gained wide acceptance in academic circles as an (some would say the only) authoritative discipline on par with other such disciplines. There are even parts of society (especially in the mainstream media) who view it as the only discipline who can make authoritative statements about the Bible. This discipline has, however, been viewed with much skepticism (to say the least) in the traditional Christian community and there had been a long struggle in many church denominations for it to gain acceptance as being in agreement with church teaching - leading eventually to it becoming part and parcel of ministerial education in many mainstream churches all around the world.

But what is the scientific status of this discipline? How valid are the methods used and approaches followed in this field of study? And to what extent can these scholars claim that their findings have validity over those in the more traditional schools of Biblical scholarship? Although I am not a Biblical scholar, I have a live interest in this field of study. I believe that my own perspective, coming from a philosophy of science background, could be of value because it stands outside the paradigmatic constraints unconsciously imposed on its practitioners. Such a philosophical critique concerns both the scientific nature of the discipline as well as the limits of its claims. Although no such study could be without any paradigmatic preconceptions, it does bring a fresh perspective on the scientific character of the discipline - asking the type of questions that practitioners of the discipline sometimes overlook.

In this article I give an overall critique of the discipline, starting with its roots in modern times. These roots had an enormous impact on the discipline and the study thereof is of paramount importance in any critical study, especially since the early scholars worked under the assumption that their discipline could be established as an empirical science. Various presuppositions were made regarding the nature of reality, the credibility of the literary tradition and about the possibility of achieving an objective perspective. Once it is recognized that this is a hermeneutic (interpretive) discipline, the various critical approaches developed in the discipline should be reconsidered in this light. Throughout this critique I include the voices of more traditional scholars in an effort to place the discipline within the larger framework of Biblical studies. Finally I ask the question: in what sense could this discipline be viewed as superior to traditional scholarship?

The problem of modernist roots

The origins of Biblical Criticism go back to the modern epoch which lasted from the seventeenth until the early twentieth century. This was the period when Enlightenment man (women were not yet emancipated) discovered the power of reason. It seemed to the people of that age that there would be no limits to the reach of reason. They also found the courage (in the spirit of their new-found freedom) to direct their reason against long held beliefs that suddenly seemed primitive and just plain wrong to the modern mind. It was a period during which empirical science replaced religion as the measuring stick of reality. It was a period of great innovation – when man developed all sorts of new hypotheses and theories. And it changed the world – especially the religious world – forever.

It was in this atmosphere that Biblical Criticism was born. Although there had been various earlier critical voices of the Bible, the first person who really subjected the Bible in its historical dimension (i.e. how it came into existence) to "critical judgment" was Richard Simon (1638-1712) who wrote Critical history of the Old Testament (1678), followed by Critical history of the New Testament (1689). The two important ingredients found in his works, namely "historical" and "critical" later became the defining terminology associated with this discipline – which over time developed what became known as the "historical-critical" method of Bible interpretation. It is this method that to a large extent distinguishes it from traditional Biblical scholarship.

The early pioneers of this discipline followed in the footsteps of the rationalists of the modern epoch. They believed that the Bible should be approached rationally and critically – in the same manner that scholars at the time approached all ancient literature. They believed that such a critical approach would establish their evolving discipline on a scientific basis. This "scientific treatment" of the Bible [1] only accepted as facts those things which could be positively established – looking to the new-born field of archaeology to provide such confirmation. In this they followed the "positivism" of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) who believed that the only valid knowledge was scientific knowledge based on empiric evidence. This attitude was typical of the modern man who was so smitten with science that he supposed that all of life should be brought under the measuring stick of science.

This approach went directly against the traditional view that the Biblical text was not just a text like any other – that it was divinely inspired. In the view of these scholars only those events that seemed rationally plausible and could be verified, could be accepted as fact. These scholars therefore rejected the Biblical claim of divine revelation as well as all references to supernatural events in the Biblical narrative. Some of the early scholars in this discipline were quite clear about this. Abraham Keunen of the Leiden School of modern theology wrote in his book Prophets and Prophecy in Israel (1875): "As soon as we derive a separate part of Israel's religious life directly from God, and allow the supernatural or immediate revelation to intervene in even one single point, so long also our view of the whole continues to be incorrect... It is the supposition of a natural development alone which accounts for all the phenomena" [2].

One of the early examples of this new approach – where rational analysis, empiric evidence and the most advanced theory of the day were applied to the study of the Biblical text – was its application to the question of Biblical "sources" (also called "source criticism"). Some of the early pioneers were especially interested in the process through which the Bible came into existence in the historical context of that time. They proposed that various hypothetical documents were used in the compilation of the Pentateuch. In doing so, they formulated what became known as the Graf-Wellhausen reconstruction of the history of Israel's religion (named after Karl Heinrich Graf (1815-1869) and Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918)).

These scholars developed an evolutionary theory of religion, which they believed were scientifically supported, and applied it to Israelite religion. According to this view Israelite religion went through various phases in its development, namely from animism through henotheism to monotheism. The patriarchs worshiped the spirits of trees, stones, springs etc., pre-prophetic Israel worshiped a tribal deity (a fertility god like Baal) and the prophets eventually developed the idea of ethical, and later universal, monotheism [3].

According to this theory the phases in the development of Israelite religion enable us to date the various sources which were supposedly used for the compilation of the Pentateuch. They distinguished four hypothetical sources (more hypothetical sources were later added by other authors), namely the Jahwist (characterized by the name Yahweh, written in 900-850 BC), Elohist (characterized by the name Elohim, written in 750-700 BC), Deuteronomist (written in 650-625 BC) and Priestly (characterized by priestly matters, written in 525-425 BC).

The Yahwist source was thought to contain a history of the tribe of Judah from creation to their settlement in Canaan, whereas the Elohist source supposedly originated from the North (giving prominence to Joseph), containing a distinctive religious and moralistic emphasis. The moral nature of the Book of Deuteronomy implied that it was written late – and the agreement between the legislation in this book and the reforms of king Josia suggested to these scholars that it was in fact this book that was "found" during that time in the temple (they proposed that it was a "pious fraud" written at that time). The details of the measurements of the Tabernacle and Noah's Ark ascribed to the Priestly source suggested to them that this source was from an even later period. With this theory the traditional view regarding the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch was dismissed and the date(s) of its compilation drastically altered.

This view became well-established and eventually institutionalized after Wellhausen's Prolegomena to the History of Israel (1883) which popularized it. The theory provided the groundwork for all future studies in the discipline and had an enormous impact on all that came after it – to this day many scholars at universities hold to the basic ideas that evolved during that period. From these modernist roots the tree of Biblical Criticism grew. And herein lies a problem: none of the original presuppositions of these early scholars are valid today! The world has changed dramatically since those early days and the modernist mindset had been replaced by other ways of thinking. Philosophers of science has done away with the idea that disciplines like textual studies, of which Biblical Criticism is a branch, could be viewed as empirical sciences. All the early efforts to establish it as a science have failed for the simple reason that it is not in any sense an empirical science. There is no way that any of the hypotheses in this field of study can be empirically verified under controlled circumstances as is done in the empirical sciences.

The "positivist" approach of the past has been totally discredited for the reason that even if certain facts could be positively established, there is always the possibility that new facts would come to light that could totally overturn the previous interpretation of those facts. This is especially true for the one discipline to which Biblical Criticism has traditionally looked for support in this regard, namely archaeology. After the failed efforts of the "New Archaeology" of the nineteen-sixties to establish solid empirical foundations for archaeology, archaeologists have discarded that approach and replaced it with other approaches.

The failure in this regard could be spectacularly demonstrated for the Graf-Wellhausen theory (also called the "documentary hypothesis") – especially regarding its dating of the various parts of the Biblical texts. Central to this theory is a particular view on the evolution of religion. At that time, with the little archaeological evidence available, it seemed such a logical conclusion. But today, we know that the theory is wrong. Archaeological evidence has shown that the God El was worshiped very early in Mesopotamia and Canaan and that the Biblical account of his worship in patriarchal times corresponds with this picture. The high ethical values that they thought were a late development in Israel, are not too different from those included in the Code of Hammurabi (~1800 BC) or the Hittite or Old Assyrian Codes (1400-1200 BC). The circumstances under which the "book of the law given by Moses" (2 Chron. 34:14) was discovered after the reign of Manasseh, during which the temple worship fell into disrepair, suggests that the discovery of that book was a credible account of what happened (i.e. that it was not a "pious fraud"). And the detailed measurements of the hypothetical Priestly source are not too different from those found in the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic which dates from Old Babylonian times (1800 BC) [4].

Although the discipline came a long way since those early days, there can be no doubt that these early ideas had an enormous impact on it. It established a certain academic paradigm (see Kuhn [5]) in which the basic assumptions of the historical-critical approach established the parameters of research and study and formed various generations of scholars to this mindset. Many of the widely accepted views regarding the overall approach to the text, the accepted ways to read and interpret the text, and the established views on the dating of the texts have grown out of these early roots. This should be a matter of serious concern for all Biblical Criticism scholars – but, given their paradigmatic attachment to some of these views, it seems that many scholars have thus far largely ignored this problem. Although many valuable insights regarding textual, compositional and historical questions have been gained through the historical-critical method, this aspect seriously undermines Biblical Criticism's credibility as a scholarly discipline.

The presupposition problem

1. Metaphysical presuppositions. The impact of this modernist roots is observable in many of the assumptions underlying the scholarly endeavor which constitutes this discipline. The most basic assumption relates to the question of reality. What is the nature of reality? In the physical sciences all study is directed towards material reality. This, however, does not imply that material reality is the only existent aspect of reality. Although there are many scientists who believe that all reality could be reduced to the material aspect, this is not supported by any proof but is a matter of metaphysical belief. On the contrary, the basic assumption in Christian religion is that the material aspect only constitutes a part of reality. Most Christians assume the existence of a greater reality in which God, the angels and human spirits exist. It is within this framework that the divine inspiration of the Biblical text as well as supernatural events and abilities (like prophecy) has traditionally been understood.

The metaphysical beliefs of the early pioneers had a lasting impact on this discipline. As mentioned above, many of them tried to exclude all supernatural aspects from the text. To this day this is the basic point of departure in the discipline. We for example read in the Handbook of biblical criticism (third edition, 2001) that the historical-critical methodology assumes that reality is uniform and universal, that it is accessible to human reason and investigation, that all historical and natural events are interconnected and that humanity's contemporary experience of reality can provide "objective" criteria to what could or could not have happened in past events [6].

The problem with this presupposition about reality is that it beforehand (because of it's assumptions) determines the outcome of all studies done in this manner – once it is presupposed that supernatural events are not part of reality, it is impossible to uphold the reality of such events, even of some of the basic Christian beliefs like the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although many of the Christian scholars who feel uncomfortable with this assumption ignore it, it nevertheless has a dramatic impact on every aspect of the discipline. It effectively established Biblical Criticism as a secular discipline which make pronouncements about a religious text - effectively establishing conflicting interests.

Take, for example, the impact of this presupposition on the dating of texts. If one accepts (as in Biblical Criticism) that humans do not have the ability to foresee the future and that prophecy about future events therefore does not exist in reality, then you would assume that all "correctly" prophesied events in the Bible were mentioned only after those events had taken place. When we read, for example, in the Gospel of St Luke that Jesus foretold the fall of Jerusalem, it is to be assumed that the author of this gospel wrote after the event took place. This place the time of writing after 70 AD. In this regard, Robert A. Spivey and D. Moody Smith wrote in their book Anatomy of the New Testament [7]: "the earliest date for Luke would therefore have to be sometime after Jerusalem's fall in AD 70".

If, on the other hand, it is assumed (as is typically done in traditional Biblical scholarship) that Jesus did in fact correctly prophesied about the fall of Jerusalem, a totally different picture emerges. In this case it is possible to take the internal evidence from the Acts of the Apostles into account when dating the Gospel of St. Luke. The narrative told in Acts ends with St Paul in prison, two years after his arrival in Rome – from which it can reasonably be deducted that this was the time when the narrative was written, namely in 62 AD.  Many other reasons are added to support this date: internal evidence, for example, suggests that the author was indeed St Luke, the companion of St Paul (Col. 4:14, Phil. 24, II Tim. 4:11) who wrote his narrative (at least the latter part of it) in the first person ("we") [8].

In this case traditional scholars accentuate the information at the beginning of Acts, namely that the same author also previously wrote the Gospel of St. Luke (see Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1) – which imply that this gospel was in fact (as stated in the beginning thereof) a collection of eyewitness accounts written some time before 62 AD (probably in 60 AD). And since the Gospels of St Mark and St Matthew are normally assumed to have been written before that of St Luke, this implies that they were written even earlier. From this it can be deducted that the gospels are trustworthy accounts of the life and work of Jesus Christ. This shows how important the metaphysical views of the scholars are in determining every aspect of their discipline.

2. The credibility of the literary tradition. Another modernist presupposition, central to the Graf-Wellhausen theory, was that empirical evidence should always be given preference over the historical claims in the literary tradition. Those early scholars who lived during the Enlightenment had a general distrust in all tradition – especially in Church/Biblical tradition – which they assumed to be full of superstitions. They therefore accepted only the historicity of those events for which clear empirical evidence could be provided. The result was that most of the Biblical narratives about the early history of Israel was radically doubted and eventually rejected as unsubstantiated. Wellhausen, for example, wrote in Prolegomena to the History of Israel that Abraham should not be regarded as a historical person, but rather "as a free creation of unconscious art".

Later scholars dated the hypothetical sources of the Pentateuch even later than Wellhausen, assuming that the Mesopotamian motifs in the Book of Genesis originated during the Babylonian exile. The tendency was to date the texts as late as possible. Eventually a scholarly consensus developed that the historical information in the Pentateuch, and even in most of the other Biblical texts, could not to be taken seriously – it is rather the general message of the authors that should concern us. Many of these scholars assume that it would be wrong to even try and find archaeological evidence for many of the "historical" narratives – the task of the scholar is rather to focus on the message, theology and so forth of those people. 

The working hypothesis in this regard is often that scholars have some access to the conceptual framework of old Israel and can therefore discern how they understood their own texts. It is then stated as facts that old Israel would not have understood the historical information in their own texts as referring to historical events as such. We, for example, find in various editions of TEO, the academic journal of the Theological Department of the University of Pretoria, that the author say that the Israelites would not have held this or that interpretation of the text. Gerda de Villiers, for example, writes: "This text [about the flood] was never supposed to be taken literal: neither within the context of the theology of Mesopotamia nor that of old Israel" [9]. Now, this is quite remarkable that scholars can think that they are able to know the frame of mind of the ancient Israelites! Needless to say, they are wrong in this regard. They do not recognize that they can do no better than to develop their own ideas about those people's ideas.
The only support from archaeology for this presupposition about the credibility of the literary tradition came in the form of lack of evidence, i.e. that not enough evidence has been found to substantiate the general credibility the literary tradition. But this is problematic since, even though the greatest care is taken, there is no guarantee that evidence of any event or structure will ever be found (or that there would eventually be enough evidence to make any substantial claims about a particular find). There is absolutely no possibility that archaeologists can prove that the data found in most excavations are (even remotely) representative of the historical situation. Archaeological digs are not repeatable like experiments and do not give access to representative samples. We know today that the trust that those early (and even some more recent) scholars placed in the "empirical" evidence was misplaced since archaeology is not an empirical science [10].

Since the basic assumptions of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis is wrong, it could well be that this radical doubt regarding the historical information in the literary tradition is also wrong – implying that the texts could have been written at an earlier date than assumed and that it could contain credible accounts of early events. Various Biblical authors give the impression that great care was taken to accurately preserve their traditions [11]. It is important to note that none of the Mesopotamian motifs in the Book of Genesis (or the Pentateuch, for that matter) includes developments from the post Old-Babylonian period (i.e. after the time of Abraham). There is no Neo-Assyrian or Neo-Babylonian influences per se in the Book of Genesis. This could imply that these Mesopotamian influences entered Israelite tradition at an early stage - much earlier than is generally assumed [12].

Traditional scholars have argued that this radical distrust of the literary tradition is wrong, especially since many of the details in the Pentateuch have since been confirmed, for example, in the patriarchal narratives in the Book of Genesis. Among these are the Elamitic incursion into Northern Syria in Abrahamic times (in 1822 BC [13]) under the leadership of king Kudu-zulu of Susa (the first part of the name, i.e. "Kudu", corresponds well with "Chedor" (or: Kedor) in the name of the leader mentioned in Gen. 14:5, namely Chedor-Laomer), visiting Semitic groups in Egypt (of special interest is the depiction of such a group with Abi-shai/r - an Amorite form of the name Abraham - as leader, in the tomb of Khnumhotep II in 1838 BC [14]), the role of the God El as the father of the gods (corresponding with the Biblical "El-Elyon" [12]), the importance of the accompanying council of the gods in ancient Canaan (mentioned throughout the Old Testament text), the presence of the "Rephaim" in Canaan etc. This data corresponds remarkably well with the Biblical dating of Abraham (according to the Septuagint he left Haran for Canaan in ~1837 BC [15]). Traditional scholars argue that this evidence is more than what could reasonably be expected, given how far back those events date. 
The same could be argued for the Gospels. Once it is assumed that these were written long after the events, it is easy to also assume that they are not primary sources for the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. The distrust of the literary tradition is then also extended to other historical sources regarding the historicity of the Gospel narratives. The tradition mentioned by Papias (60-135 AD) (who is said by Irenaeus to have met St John and was a companion of Polycarp) that St Matthew recorded Jesus' sayings which the Biblical authors then interpreted, and that St Mark was the "recorder" of St Peter, are then also discarded. But even a post 70 AD date (which many traditional scholars reject) does not substantiate this radical doubt in the Gospel narratives. 

3. Achieving an objective perspective. One of the most important modernist presuppositions was that some objective perspective could be obtained about the milieu in which the text originated. This was part of the modern mindset which regarded the discipline as a science – in the sciences scholars are supposed to arrive at objective results, uncontaminated by any subjective opinion. It was therefore believed that the same objectivity could be achieved in Biblical Criticism and scholars went to great lengths to achieve this. 

In this regard the work of Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), who later became known as the founder of the form-critical approach to the interpretation of the Biblical text, is of special importance. The impact of his work on Biblical Criticism is comparable to that of the Graf-Wellhausen theory – it had an enormous impact on the thinking of generations of later scholars. Gunkel believed that 1) the viewpoint of the Biblical authors was primitive since it was part of the conceptual framework of their time (according to him those people, for example, wrongly believed that the traditions delivered to them were grounded in fact) and 2) the modern viewpoint are objective, based on "facts". He wrote in his book Genesis [16]: "Following our modern historical world-view, truly not an imaginary construct but based on the observation of facts, we consider the other view entirely impossible".

Gunkel's approach to the Biblical text was primarily concerned with the oral sources behind the literary tradition (in contrast with the documentary sources which concerned Graf and Wellhausen). He developed a theory about such oral traditions found in the Biblical text, distinguishing various "literary genres" or poetic "forms" (for example prose, letters, laws, court archives, war hymns, poems of lament etc.) in the text (this approach is called "form criticism"). He postulated that these originated from oral traditions which took shape in the framework of certain communities with particular interests and agendas – in a certain Sitz im Leben ("setting in life"). The reconstruction of the place and conditions in which the stories originated would in his view enable scholars to determine the degree to which those accounts are grounded in fact.

Other scholars developed the theory further, aiming to establish the manner in which the oral tradition became incorporated into the written sources (this is called "tradition criticism") as well as the way that the sources were collected, arranged, edited and modified by particular authors and communities (this is called "redaction criticism"). With the development of these techniques it seemed possible to refine the dates for the source documents which the Graf-Wellhausen theory proposed and to more accurately find the settings in which the literary traditions originated.

But is it possible to objectively determine the historical context in which the Biblical documents originated? Philosophers of science today accept that there is no such thing as "objectivity" in the hermeneutic (interpretive) disciplines to which Biblical Criticism belong [17]. All aspects of these disciplines involve "interpretation" – and many presuppositions (for the most part merely accepted by adherents of particular views) underlay such interpretations. As Biblical Criticism has shown, historical texts are complicated.  Scholars postulated hypothetical documentary sources, various "forms" in the text going back to earlier oral traditions, later editing done by various possible hands etc. – and on many of the details there are numerous conflicting opinions among scholars.

Different scholars accentuate different aspects of the narrative and find different correlations with the historical situation in which it supposedly originated. Determining the interests and agendas of historic communities is an impossibility – how can we, who live so long after those events, be able to correctly reconstruct such details? How can we be sure that the questions we ask are the ones that they would have asked? We cannot! To suppose that we can know what the authors had in mind when they wrote particular stories is absurd. Scholars can at most reconstruct possible (or hypothetical) interests and agendas – and they would never be in any position to know if they are correct! Scholars would always in some way project their own interests, background and sensibilities onto those historic situations – which is why many possible contexts in which the text could have originated can be reconstructed. We have absolutely no objective way to accurately determine the "correct" context in which the texts originated [18]!

Once it is assumed that the documents were written in a certain period (based, for example on reworkings of the Graf-Wellhausen theory) there is always some possible context that can be found in which it supposedly originated. The relevant historic period is typically of such complexity that some scholar would always be able to come up with some proposal as to how the text could have originated some time during that period. It is always possible to find what one seeks for! This is why scholars always come up with new proposals in this regard.

There are, for example, recently some scholars who date the Yahwist source to the time of the Babylonian exile. A contemporary scholar writes in this regard: "One's dating of the story definitely influences the way you understand it. If the story is placed during the rule of David or Solomon, we must suppose a different group of readers and listeners than when it is placed during the Babylonian exile" [19]. This is generally true. Yair Hoffman from Seminar Hakibuzim College, Tel-Aviv, asks: "Is not anyone engaged in history or in the search of Sitz im Leben aware of the tentative, surmised character of any depiction of the past events and institutions?" [18] And for those traditional scholars who reject the Graf-Wellhausen theory; they would be able to envision other contexts which correspond with their view on the authorship of the Pentateuch.

This could also be illustrated for the Gospels. Many Biblical Criticism scholars argue that the late origin of the gospels imply that the various gospels were written by authors who represent various diverse community interests of Christians who did not had any direct contact with eyewitnesses of those events. These people tried to affirm their own perspective within the diverse spectrum of thinking which constitutes the Christianity of the late-first century Roman Empire. But traditional scholars (even those who accept a post 70 AD dating of the gospels) argue, using the same texts, that the gospels were written by the people who are mentioned in the gospels (St. Mark, St Matthew, St Luke and St. John), who were all part of the same early church – which, although being diverse, still formed a loose unity. They find a context which assume a close connection between Jesus and the authors of the gospels.

Biblical Criticism as a hermeneutic discipline

The modernist roots of Biblical Criticism and the presuppositions that characterize it have serious implications for the validity of the claims made in this discipline. Although I give only a broad overview of the scholarly material – an in-dept study is long overdue – it does show important areas of serious concern. Not only is the discipline not an empiric science as the early scholars assumed; it is not even possible to obtain an "objective" view on the historic context in which the text originated or any other views regarding the "message" presented in the text. The fundamental hermeneutic nature of all textual studies (Biblical Criticism included) imply that all interpretations would always be subjective and colored by the interpreter's own background and preferences. 

Any student familiar with the work of the philosopher of hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), would know that "historical consciousness", as he calls this way of thinking, creates the "dialectical illusion" that one could master the past: "historical consciousness knows about the otherness of the other, about the past in its otherness, just as the understanding of the Thou knows the Thou as a person" [20]. He says that it is an illusion that one can get an objective view on the past. Such an "objective" view provides us with a reductionist perspective which destroys the true meaning of the text (for a good example, see [21]). More than this: the radical doubt of modernism shows fragrant disrespect for the text because it says that we cannot believe anything historical that those authors tell us. When we disrespect the voices in the text, and force our views onto the text, we seriously undermine our own understanding of the text. To the extent that Biblical Criticism is stuck in the modernist framework, it has become divorced from these new developments in hermeneutics [17].

Both basic theories which formed Biblical Criticism as a discipline – and which are still accepted in some form by many Biblical Criticism scholars – have serious flaws. The theory of evolution of the Israelite religion on which the Graf-Wellhausen source theory is based – which formed the basis for the dating of the material in the Pentateuch – is wrong [22]. The assumption that the Mesopotamian motifs in the Book of Genesis is Neo-Babylonian, which was used in reworkings of the original theory, is also wrong [23]. Those motifs (and the accompanying worldview) does not incorporate any material that is Neo-Babilonian per se.

Even the basic idea of distinguishing such sources in the text has long been abandoned in literary criticism in general because of the highly speculative nature of the exercise. C. S. Lewis wrote: "There used to be English scholars who were prepared to cut up Henry VI between half a dozen authors and assign his share to each. We don't do that now... Everywhere, except in theology, there has been a vigorous growth of skepticism about skepticism itself" [24]. As for Gunkel's theory of poetic "forms", their supposed origin in oral tradition cannot be confirmed – it is impossible to determine if the author used an oral or written source and the context ("setting in life") in which it supposedly originated will always be a matter of conjecture – no "objective" point of view on the historical situation is possible.

The basic presuppositions of the discipline determine the parameters of the discipline. It determines the scholarly view on the dating of the texts, on the supposed context in which the texts were composed, on the credibility of the historical data contained therein and on the supposed way that scholars should (or should not!) read the texts. But what if these presuppositions are wrong? The physical and social sciences can use controlled experiments or samples - which ground the parameters of the paradigms developed in those sciences. But in textual studies no such grounds exist - this is the main difference between hermeneutic disciplines and empirical sciences.

All hypotheses in textual studies which crystallize in theories will always be provisional and would strongly reflect the paradigmatic assumptions of the discipline. Not even archaeology could provide a solid ground because it is also not an empirical science [11]. So it is in principle possible that a discipline like Biblical Criticism could go off in the wrong direction! And this is what the study of the modernist roots of the discipline shows: the credibility of the whole academic paradigm has been seriously undermined by these roots which established a certain modernist mindset and methodology in practice that will not be easy to change.

Some scholars have criticized the above-mentioned theories. R. N. Whybray wrote an in-dept criticism of source criticism [25] and form/historical criticism has also been criticized [18]. The general approach of Biblical Criticism has dramatically changed with the criticisms that post-modernism leveled against modernism. To use contemporary language: the speculations of these "diachronic" (i.e. "through time", historical) approaches have largely been replaced by "synchronic" studies (accentuating the unity of the texts) [18]. But at some universities (in South Africa, for example) it seems that some older (and even some young) scholars are stuck in the past and still try to defend the older perspective. We also find the persistent assumption that some objective perspective could be achieved as Kevin Vanhoozer mentions: "The reader assumed in much historical criticism was a disinterested, objective, apolitical scholar - in short, a myth... (but) the myth of objectivity dies hard " [26].

What I find disturbing is that no comprehensive criticism of the impact of modernism on all aspects of the discipline has been written, as one finds in other disciplines like archaeology. There are even some scholars who give the impression that their views constitute scientific "facts"; this is just plain wrong. When they present their views in such an unscholarly manner to the public, overstating the scientific nature of their work, it brings the discipline in disrepute.

Once it is recognized that Biblical Criticism is a hermeneutic (interpretive) discipline, it immediately follows that all forms of "criticism" are interpretive in nature. And since interpretation varies from scholar to scholar, various possible narratives about the origin of the texts are possible – including some that are not even considered by scholars. It is no wonder that one finds various streams of thought in the scholarly community – each of which typically quote scholars with whom they agree. Although there are still those who are extremely intolerant of other views (especially of more conservative scholars), a broad spectrum of views have developed with a greater openness to other views. Some of these streams evolved from the inclusion of more traditional scholars in the discipline (due to the fact that it became part of ministerial education). But there can be no doubt that the metaphysical presuppositions of Biblical Criticism would always divide those who accept this, and those who ignore it for the sake of scholarly debate.

A much better way to approach the study of the past is through "historically effected consciousness", which starts from an openness to the other, a willingness to listen to the other. Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote: "I must allow tradition's claim to validity, not in the sense of simply acknowledging the past in its otherness, but in such a way that it has something to say to me" [20]. Readers and scholars from our generation are in conversation with the authors of those texts (and with many others who have already throughout the ages participated in this conversation). We, who are imbedded within particular traditions or academic paradigms [5], converse with those authors, who are imbedded in their own tradition. For an open conversation to take place, we must listen to those ancient Hebrew authors and the tradition which they represent. It is this complicated but nevertheless open conversational process between ourselves and the voices from the text that result in interpretation.
This obviously does not mean that we should uncritically accept traditional notions about the literary tradition. But it does mean that we should listen to the voices in the texts (as well as that of the tradition behind the text) which claim that they have gone through great effort to conserve an accurate account of their own history. The narratives in the text take us beyond contemporary speculations [27] back to the historical context with its inter-connectedness with the past, where it is grounded in the continuation of the earliest traditions of Israel. This forces us to consider the possibility that the information in the text was carefully handed down and go back to earlier periods than is generally accepted.

This is dramatically illustrated by the discovery of the ninth century (BC) Tell Dan Stela. Before this discovery, there existed a general consensus among many scholars that the early monarchistic tradition could not be trusted and that David was not a historical person [28]. When this stela, on which the words "house of David" appear, was discovered, it was so directly in conflict with the accepted position that the authenticity of the find was questioned - and even now many scholars try to minimize the implications of this evidence as far as possible (according to the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn [5] this happens all the time because of the paradigmatic resistance against change in the academic community).

Instead of learning from this experience and evaluating the basic presuppositions of the discipline in a more fundamental way, scholars in general only made some small (as small as possible) adjustments without questioning the basic aspects of their approach. In the physical sciences such an outcome - with the data contradicting the theory - would have cast serious doubt on the theory. What Colin Hemer said regarding the Acts of the Apostles, is also true for the rest of the discipline, namely that some have gone so far into the idea of “Lukan theology” that a re-examination of the plain facts in regard to historicity holds no sway with them.

In a certain sense traditional scholarship is much closer to current hermeneutic thinking in their approach since they value the literary tradition. But they themselves often operate within a modernistic paradigm in which it is assumed that the traditional Biblical approach provide some objective access to the origin of the texts. This could be the reason why traditional scholars have not really been successful in exploiting the serious flaws in the Biblical Criticism paradigm due to its modernist roots.

What traditional scholars need to do, is show that their narratives are in certain respects better than those developed by Biblical Criticism scholars. Acceptance of the divine inspiration of the Biblical text and of supernatural events in the history of Israel, does not exempt them from the basic requirement to develop reasonable narratives that could compete with those of Biblical Criticism scholars in the wider marketplace of public opinion. If this is done, there is no reason why Biblical Scholarship should be viewed as superior to traditional scholarship – both are hermeneutic approaches to the Biblical text; the only real difference is in their metaphysical view of the world.


In this study I develop a critique of Biblical Criticism as a scholarly discipline. The primary focus is on the modernist roots of the discipline and how that impacted on the present academic paradigm. I discuss the early efforts to establish it as an empirical science and how the misplaced trust in positive proof, with a deep distrust of the Biblical text as a valid source of information about the early history of Israel, led to the formulation of various theories as to how the text came into existence. The Graf-Wellhausen theory, based on the now abandoned evolutionary theory of the Israelite religion, led to a dramatic redating of the Pentateuch material. The refinement of this dating based on the supposed Neo-Babylonian origin of the Mesopotamian motifs in the Book of Genesis, is also seriously questionable since no Neo-Babylonian motifs per se are present in the material. From this one can conclude that the whole process which led to the present day dating of that material could be seriously flawed and should be reconsidered.

The Gunkel theory of form criticism assumed that scholars have some objective perspective on the context ("setting in life") in which these texts came into existence. Once seemingly correct contexts have been identified within the framework of the redated periods in which the texts were supposed to have originated, the new perspectives became part of the newly formed paradigm of Biblical Criticism. When scholars eventually became aware of the total subjectivity of this approach - that many possible contexts would give acceptable results - this did not change their assumptions about the dating of the texts or the credibility of the textual tradition. But the raw reality of this is that it is impossible to correctly date the texts (of both the Old and New Testaments) using the historical-critical method! And the tendency to date the texts as late as possible continues. The only reason why this approach have not been seriously questioned in the past, is that archaeological data (which could throw more light on this issue) is to some extent ambivalent and open to various possible interpretations.

Contemporary hermeneutics teach us to listen to the voices in the text, to "allow tradition's claim to validity" [20]. This imply that we should at least carefully evaluate the historical material in the text - and not radically doubt it as was done in the modernist past. We should accept that the correct contexts (there is after all only one correct context!) could be found in earlier rather than later periods. The validity of this position is illustrated by the discovery of the Tell Dan Stela which confirmed - in contrast with the general consensus at that time among many scholars - that David was a historical person. This example shows that Biblical Critical scholars should not be so sure of their own position that they immediately reject all alternative positions. In fact, it shows that the acceptance of the validity of the historical data in the texts (typical of traditional scholarship) could even bring us closer to the real historical situation than the historical-critical approach of Biblical Criticism.

What is needed is a more open-minded (and humble) approach in which other possible options are considered – both regarding the dating of the texts and the credibility of the textual tradition. The acknowledgement that Biblical Criticism is a hermeneutic discipline where various interpretations are possible forces scholars to accept the possibility that other views than their own (especially given the historical positivist bias in the discipline) could even be closer to the historical situation. Instead of a skeptical attitude – "we will never know the truth" which opens the field to any possible interpretation - we should listen to the voices in the text and value them in our interpretation.  Such a renewed alignment with recent developments in hermeneutics could provide strategies to establish well-argued narratives about the Biblical past [29].

Notes and references

[1] In a letter by Julius Wellhausen, cited in Robert J. Oden Jr. 1987. The Bible Without Theology. San Fransisco, CA : Harper and Row.
[2] Keunen, Abraham. 1969. Prophets and Prophecy in Israel. Amsterdam: Philo (reprint).
[3] G. E. Wright. 1947. "The Present State of Biblical Archaeology", in Harold R Willoughby (ed.). The Study of the Bible Today and Tomorrow. Chicago: University of Chicago.
[4] Smith, Colin. 2002. A Critical Assessment of the Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis. On the internet: This text contains lots of valuable data which I incorporated in my essay.
[5] Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago.
[6] Soulen, Richard N. & Soulen, R. Kendall. 2001. Handbook of biblical criticism (third edition). Louisville: John Knox.
[7] Spivey, A. Robert and Smith, D. Moody. 1974. Anatomy of the New Testament, New York: MacMillan.
[8] Hemer, Colin J. 1990. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (ed. Conrad H Gempf). Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
[9] TEO, 7 February 2012. The translation from Afrikaans is my own.
[10] Mc Loud, W. 2012. "A critique of archaeology as a science", posted on 19/8/2012 on the internet: See below.
[11] Averbeck, Richard E. 2002.  "Mesopotamia and the Bible", in Mark W. Chavalas & K. Lawson Younger (jr) (eds.), Sumer, the Bible, and Comparative Method; Historiography and Temple Building.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
[12] For a full discussion see Mc Loud, W. 2012. Op soek na Abraham en sy God. Kaapstad: Griffel.
[13] According to the so-called "high chronology" in Mesopotamia.
[14] This date is based on the observation of the helical rising of Sirius during the reign of Senuseret III and assumes that it was done at Elephantine in the south of Egypt. See the calculations by Krauss, R. 1985. "Sothis- und Monddaten, Studien zur astronomischen und technischen Chronologie Altagyptens". Hildersheimer Agyptologische Beitrage 20.
[15] Exodus 12:40; 1 Kings 6:1; taking 967 BC as the fourth year of king Solomon's reign.
[16] Gunkel, Hermann. 1901. Genesis. Gottingen: Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht.
[17] Hermeneutics has a long association with Biblical Criticism. Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834), one of the early scholars in this discipline, developed a formal theory of hermeneutics. He held the view that the scholar should enter the world and mind of the author of the text (in Hermeneutics: The Handwritten Manuscripts. 1977. Heinz Kimmerle (ed.); James Duke and Jack Forstman (trans.). Missoula: MT:Scholars. This prefigured Gunkel's Sitz im Leben. But hermeneutics has changed drastically since that time. 
[18] Hoffman, Yair. 2003. Review of Martin A. Sweeney and Ehud Ben Zvi (eds). The Changing Face of Form-Criticism for the Twentieth Century. RBL 07/2004.
[19] Spangenberg, Sakkie. 2009. Jesus van Nasaret. Kaapstad: Griffel (my own translation from Afrikaans).
[20] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1994. Truth and Method (translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, second, revised ed.). New York: Crossroad. Gadamer is one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century.
[21] "Biblical prophecy: predicting the distant future?", posted on 2/4/2013 on the internet: See below.
[22] This article does not focus on current variations of the JEDP source theory. Although some reasons for distrusting even these are present in this essay, this is not intended as a final discussion of the topic.  
[23] H Niehr's Der höchste Gott (1990) had a great influence on the dating of Biblical texts to an even later date. He proposed that the writers of the Hebrew Bible used the Canaanite mythology for their conception that Jahweh was the highest God. Central to his thesis, however, is the assumption that the Mesopotamian material used in the Book of Genesis dates from the post-Babylonian period. The problem is that none of this material incorporates anything from the post Old-Babylonian period (even after the eighteenth century BC). A detailed discussion of Niehr's work falls outside the scope of this essay, but I plan to engage in more detail with it in later essays. 
Niehr, H. 1990. Der höchste Gott: allttestamentlicher JHWH-Glaube im Kontext syrisch-kanaanäisher Religion des I. Jahrtausends v. Chr. BZAW 190. Berlin: Gruyter.
[24] Lewis, C.S. 1992. Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism (originally titled Fern-seed and Elephants). New York: Ballantine Books.
[25] Whybray, R. N. 1987. The Making of the Pentateuch: A Methodological Study. Sheffield: JSOT Press.
[26] Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 1995. "The Reader in New Testament Interpretation", Joel B. Green (ed.). Hearing the New Testament. Strategies for Interpretation. Grand Rapids (Michigan): William B. Eerdmans.
[27] The recognition that objective views on the texts are not possible has lead to the directly opposing post-modern view that no interpretation can take preference over another. In a certain sense modernism's silencing of the voices in the texts has opened the field for any possible interpretation being applied to the text according to all sorts of contemporary concerns. But this is to disrespect the texts in exactly the same way that modern man did - in this case the view that "one" objective interpretation could be obtained (according to the modernist presuppositions of the reader) are replaced with the view (which is at least implicitly accepted) that all interpretations are equally valid. Again the voices of the authors of the texts and the traditions they represent are silenced, disrespected and suppressed. What Gadamer's hermeneutics teaches us, is that we should value those voices. Although various interpretations of any text are always possible, these interpretations should at least be grounded in an open conversation in which there is an effort to really listen to the voices in the texts. Since texts always originate in a particular historical situation, an openness to the past holds (at least in principle) the prospect that some interpretations (which correspond the best with that situation) could be established as better than others provided that sufficient data becomes available. Although new data could open new possibilities for reinterpretation, all such interpretation should be done within the framework of an open and honest conversation.
[28] Thompson, Thomas L. 1999. The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. New York: Basic Books. 
[29] Scholars should go beyond mere deconstructive strategies (see note 26). The fact that post-modernism has brought powerful criticisms against modernism does not imply that itself should be accepted as a viable alternative. We should navigate our way between these extremes. Gadamer's hermeneutics enable us to positively develop narratives that are sensitive to the voices in the texts (of both Israelite tradition as such as well as the individual authors) and which place the perspectives in the texts more central in our study of the past.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref. 
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a scientist (PhD in Physics). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science and eschatology. 
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Other relevant articles on this blog:
On the trustworthiness of the Biblical textual tradition: Bible prophecy: predicting the distant future?
On the value of archaeology for Biblical studies: A critique of archaeology as a science
On the South-African context: Om the glo of nie te glo nie...