For centuries the Bible was interpreted as a book of allegorical stories, a book of virtuous examples and some timeless statements. Stained-glass windows in many a church show the characters of Bible stories in medieval dress. That was not just enculturation of the stories, it was an uncritical attitude about the vast difference between the past and the present. Only with the enlightenment became people really aware that the past was different from the present. They realized that life at the time the Bible was written was different from life in Europe in the 17th century. The books of the Bible began to be explained in relation to mundane causes, historical conditions, and cultural presuppositions. Reason became the main interpretive mechanism. Historical criticism of the Bible developed with the modern discipline of History. Events in the past are explained in terms of known causal links observed in the present. For example, the “natural laws” are held to be just as applicable then as they are now.
Initially, historical criticism was conducted in the tradition of Baruch Spinoza—as the voice of reason opposing faith. But particularly in Germany it also became part of the theological tradition, a tradition that sought to combine faith and scholarly enquiry. The historical approach to biblical interpretation also got an impetus from the popular interest with the antiquities of the Ancient Near East. North America and Europe began to discover the wonders of the ancient cultures amongst which the people of the Bible lived. Discoveries of texts that shed light on the religion and politics of that time were used to draw parallels in the Bible. The interest with the setting of the Bible narratives also encouraged biblical archaeology and brought it to the attention of the public. In part biblical archaeology was also conducted for apologetic reasons to prove that the Bible was reliable. Archaeology has not provided unequivocal support for the accuracy of the biblical account. Indeed, it can be used as the basis of a scathing criticism. But the interpretation of the archaeological data, and their connection with the Bible is open to vast ideological variation.
Even though there is little consensus about the history of biblical times, archaeological and historical investigation has brought to light a vast amount of information. It’s hard to keep abreast of the many new discoveries and detailed studies. I would argue that we now know more than ever about biblical times. We know broadly how the people lived who first heard the Psalms and the Prophets. We know about settlement patters, about trade and economics. We have word studies and comparisons with other ancient literature. There’s plenty to be able to interpret the Bible in its world. And yet, often historical criticism has been abused. We explain away the passages we don’t like and focus on the passages that accord with our own worldview. Historical criticism is only valuable, if it is consistently used, not as a way to pick and choose.
Nevertheless, historical criticism has often been condemned by Christians. Tom Wright was referring to the New Testament, but it is equally relevant to Old Testament Studies.
Much Christianity is afraid of history, frightened that if we really find out what happened in the first century our faith will collapse. But without historical enquiry there is no check on Christianity’s propensity to remake Jesus, never mind the Christian god, in its own image. Equally, much Christianity is afraid of scholarly learning, and in so far as the Enlightenment programme was an intellectual venture, Christianity has responded with the simplicities of faith.
N.T. Wright The New Testament and the People of God. 1992 (page 10)
Many evangelicals insist that God speaks directly to us through Scripture with the aid of the Holy Spirit. We don’t need to try to discern the meaning in its historical context.
On the other side of the spectrum is the post-modern critique of historical criticism. This insists that we can never know what the original author intended or even what the exact historical circumstances were. We should not even try to reconstruct these. Rather, we should focus on the interaction between reader and text.
These are valuable critiques. But I find these approaches somewhat irresponsible. We have so much information. Surely, we can do our best and take the historical context into account when interpreting the Bible. Then it can also become more relevant to us today, rather than being some disembodied text.
Some basic assumptions of biblical historical criticism:
• The whole Bible was written firstly for its immediate, historical audience, and only then also for all people everywhere. The original meaning and intent has primacy.
• Our own cultural, political and ideological situation is different from that of the past. We need historical enquiry to arrive at an understanding of the world of the Bible.
• Once we know the meaning in the historical context, we can understand the message of the Bible more clearly.
• In the witness of the Bible, historically understood, we can see God, the “other”, who is so different from how we want God to be, rather than “my” God.
• We are part of the history of the people of God. God’s actions continue today.
• Our life should be a response to the actions of God, following the witness and the response of the people of God in the past.