When we talk about Old Testament history, we must first understand two inherent problems with understanding history in general, and a third problem with biblical historical criticism in particular.
The first problem is with the nature of ancient history itself. We’re not talking about pure history, but historiography.
Pure history is what we’re actually living. As Dr. Melinda Cousins says, there wouldn’t be enough books on earth to contain pure history. What we have is selective historiography. And there’s no such thing as historiography written from an unbiased point of view. All history has an agenda whether it’s an acknowledged agenda or not. The Bible is unashamedly and deliberately biased in telling its story. It has an agenda. The nature of Bible history is theological.
The Old Testament does not set out to prove what happened. It’s set out to call us to respond to the God who is presented to us, working in the lives of people then, and wanting to work in the lives of people now. So asking the right questions of the text is important (Cousin’s comments are from a lecture on video here).
As Old Testament scholar, Peter Enns said this in book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It…
“Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instructional manual—follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force.” (loc. 104 Kindle version)
“The Bible is not a Christian owner’s manual but a story—a diverse story of God and how his people have connected with him over the centuries, in changing circumstances and situations.” (Kindle loc. 2261, emphasis added)
The second problem with understanding ancient history has to do with what I mentioned in part one. A creation myth or story about a particular person in history doesn’t necessarily mean that this person didn’t actually exist. Skeptics like to use this to prove that the Bible is fiction, but that’s the wrong way to understand it. For instance, we have founding myths about our country’s founding fathers here in the U.S., like Washington “never telling a lie.” While no one honestly believes ol’ George never lied, we also never question his actual existence. The tale was meant to teach children in our culture the virtues of honesty.
I will spend a little more time on the third problem. It has to do with Bible scholarship itself and what is known as historical biblical criticism.
“Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt”
The theater, the theater, what’s happened to the theater?
Especially where dancing is concerned
Chaps who did taps aren’t tapping anymore
They’re doing choreography (From White Christmas, Choreography)
Historical Criticism began in the 17th century as a polemic/apologetical. One of its first exponents, Richard Simon, a Roman Catholic, used historical criticism to undermine Protestant dependency on the Bible as the sole source of authority. Hermann Reimarus used it to assault the basis of Christianity itself.
“Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt” was the opening line from Walter Wink’s book, Bible in Human Transformation: Toward A New Paradigm In Bible Study. Besides being a respected Bible scholar, Wink was actively involved the Jesus Seminar, so he’s no evangelical conservative railing against liberal theology. With this opening salvo, Wink launches a devastating blow to what he called the illusion of disinterested objectivity in biblical historical criticism.
“This professed “objective standpoint” from which historical critical scholars approach New Testament texts, Wink asserts, masks the scholars’ unavoidable but unquestioned subjectivity while negating the intention of the texts to address questions of faith arising out of the realities of life as it is lived. It also allows the biblical scholar to avoid being examined by the texts he or she examines, thereby subverting the intention of those texts to examine the examiner, to question the questioner, to interrogate the interrogator….This, together with a certain “technologism” that elevates technique over text, thereby limiting the scope of questions that can be asked and answered, leads to a discipline that, in Wink’s view, has “outlived its usefulness as presently practiced.” This did not make him popular with the guild of biblical scholars. (From Augsburg Fortress Press, retrieved here. Emphasis added)
Wink also notes that “in America the problem has been exacerbated by the struggle to gain standing in religious studies in secular universities previously closed to all religious instruction.” Further on he says:
“Objectivism is a false consciousness because evidence of its error is systematically repressed. It pretends detachment when in fact the scholar is attached to an institution with a high stake in the socialization of students and the preservation of society, and when he himself has a high stake in advancement in that institution by publication of his researches.” (Kindle loc. 155, emphasis added)
While Wink asserts that historical criticism is a good thing, in an of itself, he maintains it must be fundamentally reformed because it has utterly failed to do what it set out to do. Wink makes many other devastating arguments against the way historical criticism is currently used in scholarship today. You can read the first chapter of this book here.
Reading the Old Testament in order to prove its historicity is actually reading against the nature of the text, like we saw in part one. It’s failing to see its transforming power when the observer allows him or herself to be observed by it, for the Word of God is relational in nature. To miss this is to miss the proverbial forest for the trees.
12 For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. (Heb.4:12 NLT)
We will continue digging into this aspect of Old Testament Bible history next time.
Related Post: The nature of Biblical inspiration