My Problems with Historical Criticism

historical criticsmI have never been enamored with the process of historical criticism when it comes to the text of Scripture.

What is Historical Criticism?

Historical criticism is the process by which modern scholars examine the text of ancient documents and try to determine when they were truly written and whether or not they were authored by the person whose name is on the document.

When applied to Scripture, the usual results of historical criticism are that most of the books of the Bible were not authored in the time they claim, nor by the authors whose name they bear. So Genesis-Deuteronomy was not written by Moses and not during the time of the Exodus from Egypt. 1-2 Chronicles was not written during the era of the Kings of Judah. Jonah was not written by Jonah. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not write the Gospels that bear their name, etc., etc., etc.

I recently read a book called God’s Word in Human Words by Kenton Sparks, which is purportedly an evangelical defense of critical biblical scholarship. I suppose it was one of the best defenses of critical scholarship I have read, and if someone is going to adopt the practices and conclusions of historical criticism of the Bible, they should follow the practice proposed by Kenton Sparks.

I, however, was not convinced.

My Primary Problem with Historical Criticism

My problems with this book are the same problems I have with nearly all books about biblical criticism: I believe the presuppositions of most of those who engage in biblical criticism are inherently flawed, and as a result, short-circuit the creative thinking that is necessary to discover solutions to the so-called problems in the biblical text.

Let me put it another way…

Someday I would love a Bible critic to apply historical criticism to the texts of a modern Bible critic, and in so doing, show why and how one or more of the books and articles by this critic could not have been written by him. They could point to differences in terminology and word usage, “errors” of the text which “pre date” or “post date” the author, and why certain elements of his book show clear evidence of redaction and editing. All of this could easily be done to any author or blogger who has published more than one piece of writing.

historical criticsmUsing the methods of historical criticism, it would be easy to prove that my own writings from ten years ago were not written by me.

If you compared my writing from ten years ago with the writing I do today, I use different terminology, different approaches to proving my point, different vocabulary, and I even have different theological beliefs, supported by reading passages of Scripture in different ways, all to accomplish different goals in the minds and hearts of those who read.

It would be a simple thing to use historical criticism to prove that the Jeremy Myers who wrote sermons and articles ten years ago is not at all the same Jeremy Myers who is writing blog posts, commentaries, and books today. Nearly everything about these two authors are radically different, and so therefore, the scholarly consensus would be that they are two different authors.

But they aren’t! Though the writings from Jeremy Myers of ten years ago is radically different in all aspects from the writings of Jeremy Myers today (and most likely both will be radically different from the Jeremy Myers ten years in the future), they are still all the same Jeremy Myers!

It would also be easy to prove that some of the things which were supposedly written by Jeremy Myers in 2003 did not match most of of the other writings by Jeremy Myers in 2003, and therefore, those sermons and articles from ten years ago were actually written much later, maybe by the Jeremy Myers in 2013, or even by the Jeremy Myers in 2023.

So also, historical criticism, when applied to modern authors, could prove that nearly any author did not write the books and articles that bear their name, and could further prove that the books were written well after the date that is found on the copyright page.

We could even look at “revised” editions of some of the books, proving that there are “errors” in the text because the two editions do not agree. We could argue that their books were written by several different authors over a period of several decades, all of whom had competing interests and goals, most of which involve self-advancing propaganda and fictional tales of the supposed author’s life and ideas. We could point to examples of semantic structure, grammatical style, references to culture, and a whole host of other historical critical standards to prove by scholarly consensus that the author whose name is on the book did not actually write it.

This is ridiculous, right? But we do it to the Bible all the time!

If modern authors can change in their theology, terminology, goals, focus, vocabulary, verb tense usage, and so on, and be allowed to revise, edit, and redact their own works, why can we not allow the same freedom and flexibility to the authors of Scripture?

The problem is even greater than this, though.

The Greatest Problem with Historical Criticism

If a person accepts the presuppositions and conclusions of historical criticism when applied to Scripture, then we short-circuit the creative processes needed to properly understand and grasp what the biblical author is saying. When we see a “problem text” we say, “Well, it wasn’t written by the author. It was composed by a later author with a different agenda and different theology.” And then we interpret the Scripture based on this wrong belief that it was written by a later author with a different audience and for different reasons.

In the process, we don’t even consider what message the “original” author was trying to convey, or what issues their audience was dealing with. As a result, we completely miss the message and meaning of the text.

historical criticsmI am sure a lot more needs to be said about this, and the topic really deserves an academic-level research paper, but right now I have neither the time or the interest. I am just tired of “scholarly consensus” undermining the Scripture when the same approaches these Bible critics use to undermine the Bible could also be used to undermine their very own writings.

I know this isn’t the usual fare on this blog, so if you’ve gotten this far, maybe you are interested in this subject also. So here is a question for you to answer in the comment section below:

What are your thoughts about the historical-critical method when applied to Scripture?

Do you agree that the presuppositions and goals of biblical criticism are inherently flawed and could also be used to undermine the writings of any modern author as well? 

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  1. says

    I appreciate your thoughts on this Jeremy. Do I believe the presuppositions and goals about the historical texts of scripture are inherently flawed? Absolutely! I have flaws and the lens typically used for me when I criticize, contextualize, or theorize on any scripture is mostly through my own past experiences that shape my methods of thought and reasoning.(Im probably not the only one!) And as I learned from my dad growing up, experiences don’t necessarily make it true! It is still perplexing to me how our five senses (the carnal mind) continues to be the instrument in which to explain, debate, discuss, or prove SPIRITUAL matters. It seems at the very least a paradox! I also think your discussion made me think of the problem with “proof’-texting” scripture to validate a position or a certain belief about God! In other words, lifting a passage, or simply part of a verse as ABSOLUTE, on its own, without respect for history or at least giving thought to what the speaker was experiencing at the time they wrote/spoke it. There I go with experience again! I think this could be in relation to historical criticism. We debate and argue with history because a paper pope cannot interact and defend its position! Its easy to presuppose on history, know what I mean? On another note, I think the HEART of God can be found in the most vile and deceitful misrepresentations of God whether it relates to scripture or Jesus(God’s Word). I think your argument is valid, or is it? Could we not make a case for Jesus promoting logical paradox in order to encourage critical thinking? Otherwise, Jesus would have just authored a step by step guidebook in order to live life to the fullest and enjoy him! (Although there is a large segment of Christianity that believes God literally dictated the Bible, so my argument doesn’t hold much weight with them)This is the journey, this is the constant search, is it not? I am at a point in my life that I am able to question everything I think I know is true. There was a time when I thought that was never possible, because I believed what I believed and that was it! Believe it or not, I’m more at peace riding the fence on what I used to believe as absolute truth, because my time and energy is no longer devoted to defending my ABSOLUTE beliefs! I can just love people. PERIOD! Know what I mean? (Oh, I still defend Jesus as Truth, but instead of defending Jesus, I just love!)I had to get to this place in order to see Jesus, and ONLY Jesus. Sorry about the tangents, but it’s always a great point in a post to quote the great Thoreau, I think he captures the heart of what I desire in all humanity: “A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.” Henry David Thoreau” In fact dare I say, as my friend Richard Murray says, “Close the Bible and Behold God!” Great posts Jeremy!

  2. says

    by the way, I do have a better understanding of historical criticism, I wasn’t trying to get out of answering your original question! I get out of focus when I talk about God. My only excuse is to blame the Holy Spirit! He made me this way! Thanks for sharing!

  3. says

    Luke Patterson, Great points. We so desperately want to put the Bible (and God) in a box, that we do not allow the Bible (or God) some of the same flexibility in communication that give each other! We are all definitely on a journey, and as you point out, there is so much more joy and freedom on the fence in some of these issues.

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