Should you (as Deane Galbraith did recently) wish to contact Tezza himself – now at the University of Lancaster – then you will eventually stumble on this page, where the following appears:

PLEASE NOTE: Terry Eagleton does not use email. If you wish to contact him please write to him at his departmental address: Professor Terry Eagleton, Department of English & Creative Writing, County College, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YD, UK.

However, being an inventive sort of chap and being too polite to contact Eagleton’s (fifth) wife, Deane chatted with his good friend, who suggested the following approach:

Creative writing? That’s pushing it a little, Tezza …

Deane Galbraith, of Dunedin School infamy, but now on the reputable Religion Bulletin blog. A very, juicy post on a tubby, monkishly smirking John Milbank, the new Chair of the Committee for the Reconstruction of Christendom.

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.

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.

And Deane Galbraith over at the Dunedin School is starting to sound remarkably like another blogger who used to be in the blogosphere …