A reply to Deane Galbraith’s defence of biblical historical-criticism

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.


4 thoughts on “A reply to Deane Galbraith’s defence of biblical historical-criticism

  1. I don’t think there is a single historical critical method. Is this what you’re suggesting? Wherever are it’s origins, 200 years ago or 2000, it has certainly developed along the way and there isn’t today a single definable way to do historical critical method. I wouldn’t identify my approach as the same as the approaches of historical critical scholars I critique.

    1. That’s right, Stephanie. Who cares about the conclusions and biases of Nineteenth Century German scholars? Their attempt at what has come to be known in biblical studies as historical critical method might have concluded all sorts of strange creatures, such as “a Q community” or a “Yahwist”. (And what about them nomads?) But we can be critical today without buying into their particular biases and conclusions. George Aichele tries to lock it down and caricaturise it as recovering earlier sources, and Roland Boer has a bee in his bonnet about early German historicizing fetishes. I suspect they’ve never gotten over having to argue against what was, by 1970 or so, a monolithic and dogmatic devolution of true criticism, creating mythical Qs and Js and Pgs and whatever just as dogmatic and uncritical as the mythical Gospels and Torah these ideas originally sought to rationalize. It’s thinly-veiled bitterness, you know. Hang-ups are no good for clear thinking. I’m glad I only got 5 minutes on the historical critical method in all of my Hebrew Bible courses.

      I’ve replied to your questions, Roland, where I first found them over at D School:

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