historical criticism


As someone pointed out, this question was probably the high point of an otherwise strange session I chaired this afternoon at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. How did we get there?

‘Twas a panel on a book I edited, Secularism and Biblical Studies, with some of the contributors speaking and then two respondents, James Linville and Russell McCutcheon. This ensured the debate was spirited, precisely the sort of the thing the initial and necessarily incomplete edited volume set out to do. But the strange thing was that despite the discussion continuing in many smaller groups well after the session finished, a strong sense of oddness pervaded people’s impressions afterwards. As chair I was not in a position to enter the debate fully, in which I would have sided with Hanna Stenström’s position. So these are perhaps some of the things I would have said in response (I leave aside the strange desire to foster an objective, apolitical, analytical and ultimately revived historical critical analysis of the ‘Bible’, as one among any number of sacred scriptures. And I leave aside the curious effort by McCutcheon to insert Jonathan Zed Smith (who should always be given a zed) into the debate, since all that did was reaffirm my sense that Mr Smith is less an innovative scholar than an extraordinarinarily – and that’s a very emphatic extraordinarily – traditional one).

The most puzzling argument, from McCutcheon, was that the ‘Bible’ is a discursive artefact – and by discursive he meant a discursively religious artefact. Or rather, the most curious thing about it was the assumption that a discursive artefact is somehow unreal, that as soon as you say it is a discursive artefact, you have thereby dismissed it and the discipline of biblical criticism. The only proper form of scholarship is thereby to analyse the discursive practice by which it became such an artefact. So a question came from the floor: how would you analyse a fossilised turd? To which the answer was that you analyse the dinosaur that produced the turd and not the turd itself.

Now, this answer showed up the problem of arguing that the Bible is a discursive artefact (and indeed social and historical artefact). To begin with, this position has been pretty much standard among intelligent biblical scholars for at least 30 years, so it is strange to find it regurgitated as an issue now. Further, the suggestion that the ‘real’ thing for scholarship is to analyse the social, historical and religious issues that produced such an artefact seems to be a call to revisit complex analyses have engaged in this analysis for some time (Philip Davies’s Scribes and Schools is but one example among many, as is George Aichele’s The Control of Biblical Meaning). But perhaps the most significant point is the assumption that such an artefact is somehow ‘unreal’, for this is a curious misreading of poststructural scholarship from some years ago. A discursive construct is, if anything, more real, than the fossilised turd. Or rather, if we locate the category of ‘discursive’ within the much longer and richer history of Marxist analysis, for which social construct is a key breakthrough, then a social construct is far more powerful and pervasive than any supposedly ‘concrete’ object. One might say the same about ‘Plato’ or ‘Shakespeare’. Ultimately – and using an immanent analysis – the need to make such a move says more about the the context of North American turf wars between religious studies and theology, if not struggles over the Bible itself.

All of which led me to suggest to Philip Davies that he might name his next article: ‘Is the Bible a Fossilised Turd?’

I missed most of the debate over the senile splutterings of Larry Hurtado (here, here, here, here and here – for starters). For those not up on this little tiff on the corner of New Testament scholarship, the man who hails from Edinburgh, the gulag evangelico, argues that biblical training should focus on Hebrew, Greek, Latin (desirable), English, German and French – since all of the ‘worthwhile’ scholarship is in these languages.

I don’t want to rehearse the arguments made already, which boil down to the sheer reductionism of Hurtado’s position. Instead, I would add that Hurtado gives voice in his way to what may be called the closing of the western mind. Again and again in my travels through western Europe and North America, that closing becomes ever more noticeable. Cultural defence of the supposedly glorious ‘western’ culture is ever more strident, politics more xenophobic, and borders ‘securitised’. Hurtado’s troubled reflections on the changing nature of his own little plot – New Testament studies – reflects the same mentality: a reactionary defence a perceived golden age that has passed.

After slipping by without notice, my little piece ‘Against Reception History‘ over at Bible and Interpretation has put the wind up both Christopher Heard and John Hobbins. Heard, webmaster for the Blackwell Bible Commentaries (and hailing from that toothpaste-sounding university, Pepperdine) has penned a longish piece on the actual Blackwell site called ‘In Defense of Reception History’. Hobbins, meanwhile, reckons Heard has ‘corrected’ my little misunderstandings – here at Ancient Hebrew Poetry.

The criticism boils down to saying that I created the proverbial straw man – reception history – whom I then cut down. But reading the posts by these worthy gentlemen, it seems that the straw men have come out to play. Except that the straw men disagree with one another.

After trying a weak encirclement movement – ‘but you too are doing reception history, my dear Roland, but you simply don’t realise it’ – Heard’s singular criticism is that I misrepresent what all those worthy reception critics are doing. How so? Do they give priority to determining the meaning of the text in its original setting (whatever the fuck that might be)? No, no, no, says Heard: they simply allow every interpretation equal validity. In fact, to quote that lovable fossil, John Sawyer, the text doesn’t really ‘exist’ without a reader.

What is also new is the notion that the reception of a text is more important than the text itself, and even that a text doesn’t really exist until somebody reads it.

Um, Chris, my dear smiling man: that used to be called reader-response criticism. But does that mean we are all caught in that dreadful mush sometimes called ‘post-modern’ (so Hobbins)? No, no, no, says Heard:

To be sure, reception history treats biblical texts as ‘originary’ with respect to later uses thereof, but only in the undeniable and rather uninteresting sense that a biblical book must exist before it can have any effects or influence precisely as a book, just as you can’t use a dictionary or be affected by a sentimental love song until those textual objects exist.

Now Heard simply refuses to see the philosophical issues at stake in the very use of the terms Rezeptionsgeschichte and Wirkungsgeschichte, issues that were at the core of Gadamer’s method and the very meanings of those terms. While Heard bends over backwards, forewards and sideways to show that reception history is really just as postmodern as the rest of us, that those dreadful German biblical critics no longer call the shots, Hobbins is less than impressed with Heard’s gymnastics.

For Hobbins, reception does indeed refer to everything that comes after that beautiful, glistening original moment of the text itself. And you should indeed aim to find out what a text meant in its original context:

I defend the right of an ancient text to have a meaning specific to its time and place, a meaning that deserves to be understood as primary even if we can only seek to recover it, as opposed to know it for certain down to the last detail.

I might defend the right of animals to become clergy, or perhaps for amoeba to vote, but that doesn’t mean it is realistic. Come on, John, do you really believe that crap? Citing the old Renaissance slogan, ad fontes, betrays your hand: the very possibility of imagining an originary text in its time and place, and the desire to understand it as such, is itself enabled by the conditions that assumption denies in its universalist pitch. In other words, the very method Hobbins espouses is itself anachronistic and alien to the text’s ‘original’ situation. So we are back with that old, worn and highly suspect search for pristine origins – the bane of biblical scholars, theologians … and Renaissance men. It is a nice interpretive fiction, but dangerous if you believe it.

All of which leaves me with one last question for Heard-Hobbins (sounds like Bilbo Baggins), wtf is reception history?

For some reason, the editors at Bible and Interpretation have given me free reign to let rip. The target this time: the problematic category of ‘reception history’ in biblical criticism. As you will see, those friggin’ German biblical critics will have much to answer for at the final judgement …

Over at Bible and Interpretation a small debate is underway between Niels Peter Lemche and Hector Avalos. Now, while I see some problems in Hector’s arguments and some noisy but unexamined ghosts, Niels Peter’s piece is one of the most problematic I have read for a long time. In brief, it is Eurocentric, elitist and given to interpretive tunnel-vision, thereby not seeing the cosy relationship with theology in what he champions.

I think it was Remy’s comment on April DeConick’s post that set me in a metacommentary mood: why the intense energy over the apparent divide between biblical historical criticism and ‘postmodern’ approaches?

First, a recap. It began with an article by George Aichele, Peter Miscall and Richard Walsh in the Journal of Biblical Literature (which unfortunately you can’t access unless you’re a member of the SBL) called ‘An Elephant in the Room: Historical-Critical and Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible’. I know these guys rather well and they are a thoughtful and gentle bunch. They wanted to spark a dialogue between the two sides – in that they succeeded spectacularly, so the article has already achieved its main aim. However, the nature of that response was a surprise. John van Seters came out with a somewhat arrogant and dismissive response, accusing ‘postmodern’ approaches of not being anywhere close to a method. Deane Galbraith at the Dunedin School posted some thoughtful comments, tending to side with van Seters (here, here, here and here), at least initially. April DeConick came out with another dismissal, defending objectivity, science and reason over against what she saw as the quasi-theological nature of postmodern approaches. So I stirred things up a little with a small post suggesting that April had little idea of what postmodern means. And then things went ballistic, aided by the classicist, Chris Weimer, who kept things boiling along.

Rather than take a position in the debate – mine is clear from those earlier discussions – I realised that the fact the debate is happening now is itself symptomatic. The Aichele-Miscall-Walsh article was published in the flagship journal of the SBL, something that obviously annoyed some, since the journal has been the stalwart of historical-critical approaches. It was like a strike deep in the shrinking home territory of historical-critics and their response indicates that they can no longer put the wagons in a circle, hoping that the new critical approaches to the Bible will simply go away. Now they need to position themselves in relation to these critical approaches. In itself that signals a profound shift.

April DeConick has waded into the debate over historical criticism and ‘postmodern’ approaches. It’s an unfortunate post, not merely because April has no idea what ‘postmodern’ means, but she rolls out the moth-eaten arguments that historical criticism is scientific, objective and rational. It reinforces the impressions historians and literary critics get when they ponder that form of biblical criticism: it is locked into outmoded assumptions at home in antediluvian institutions.

Over at the Dunedin School, Deane Galbraith responded to my previous post with:

What they used to call “literary criticism” in older usage was a virtual synonym for historical criticism (or literary-historical criticism). That’s because literary critics, a century or so ago, used to be mainly into philological and source criticism (in Homeric studies, etc). But literary criticism has branched out since then. This results in the strange result in biblical studies that the modern approaches have now taken the term “literary criticism”, in distinction from anything to do with sources, by adopting the modern meaning in opposition to the older meaning. This is yet another complication. It’s messy, and there isn’t any simple answer. I agree that defining your precise approach is the way to go. But a label like “rational criticism” sounds like some Kantian Enlightenment project.

So, in response:

Actually, Deane, your last post has hit the nail pretty much on the head, without a thumb too close by. They did call it ‘literary criticism’, since they borrowed the assumptions from other literary critics outside biblical criticism. The problem from there is twofold: first, the approach became ossified within biblical studies, so much so that when I speak with historians or literary critics today, they find it a strange beast, locked into outmoded assumptions concerning both history and literature. For all their great work, varied scholars like Niels Peter Lemche, John van Seters and John Barr are all beholden to this warped tradition. Second, somewhere along the road it was forgotten that the approach arose through a process of borrowing. So when other biblical critics continued – or perhaps began anew – to find out what literary and historical critics were doing in other disciplines, they were and are accused of applying anachronistic methods, of abandoning proper biblical criticism and so on.

Round three on historical-criticism – a reply to DG

Deane, we are talking about two different things.

Your position, inspired in part by Barton’s wayward argument, is that ‘historical-criticism’ is based on reason (logos) versus faith/theology/tradition (mythos) and reading a text in terms of looking what is objectively there.

You’ll have to stop calling it ‘historical-criticism’, since that would be to make Plato, the troubled champion of logos, a ‘historical-critic’. Far better to call it rational criticism, or simply interpretation.

In that light, historical-criticism – a specific, German-inspired method of biblical criticism – is one method among other methods of interpretation. I couldn’t agree more. The problem is that to use ‘historical-criticism’ for what you are proposing effects a sleight of hand, since it sounds like a defence of historical criticism as it is commonly understood: a search for the history of the text and the history behind the text via the three great approaches and their derivatives (source, form and redaction). In other words, h-c doesn’t actually read the text.

However, to return to your own proposal for interpretation, based on reasoned objectivity, we face the problem first traced so well by Horkheimer and Adorno, namely that the faith/theology/tradition that is supposed to hobble such an approach is part of its very definition.

Deane Galbraith has posted a defence of biblical historical-criticism as ‘the necessary, although not sufficient, condition for reading‘.

Lurking behind your comments, Deane, is an ideal method that does not always live up to its ideals. I would prefer to think of it as a method that can exist only because of those limits and perpetual failures. However, what arguments like van Seters and yours to a lesser extent neglect is – to engage in some historico-ideological analysis – the specific and limited nature of historical criticism. It has an origin in Europe in the late 18th and 19th centuries, within a Protestant context, arising out of a peculiar confluence of German economic and political backwardness (the time when Marx and Engels were also developing their theories), and it drew heavily from literary criticism outside itself to gain some grip. On this basis:

a) It is facetious to argue (as van Seters does) that it is archaic, not merely because that it an ingenious argument that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but because such an answer perpetuates a search for origins.

b) It is also a furphy to argue that if only it could be rid of its tradition-bound, theological nature, it would be true to itself, for that theological tradition is ingrained within historical criticism. To remove that would be to cut out its own heart.

c) How on earth can it be the basis, the necessary condition for reading – the Bible I presume? It is one mode of reading, with its promises and limits and traps. Why not allegory, for example?

d) Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly happy to engage in historical critical interpretation, but as a contingent and limited approach that may answer a few questions. Any claim to absoluteness is itself a theological claim.

Next Page »