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We continue our discussion of Kent Sparks’s book God’s Word in Human Words (GWHW) moving into Chapters 2 and 3:  Historical Criticism and Assyriology and The Problem of Biblical Criticism. 

Before diving into the topic of Biblical Criticism, Sparks considers Historical Criticism in the context of the study of the history and languages of ancient Mesopotamia, a truly fascinating topic. This is my kind of light reading. I have Kramer’s The Sumerians (a great book), Woolley’s The Sumerians, Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia, Dalley’s Myths from Mesopotamia and several others on the book shelf next to me as I write this post.

Sparks draws three basic conclusions from the considerations of chapter 2.

1. Historical criticism is a rigorous and scholarly endeavor.

Historical-critical judgments are products of academic expertise, in which intellectually gifted scholars apply their respective trades to very complex linguistic and archaeological data from the ancient world. … Consequently a certain humility is warranted when those outside a discipline wish to inquire about and evaluate the tried and tested conclusions of scholars in that discipline. (p. 70)

2.  Human communication – both verbal and textual – is often something other than it appears at first glance.

Ancient texts are particularly rich in these ambiguous and deceptive qualities, since they were composed in genres quite different from our own and in contexts unfamiliar to us. According to historical criticism, the best way to compensate for our literary ignorance is to examine the texts with a critical eye and to attempt, as best we can, to situate the texts within the ancient world that produced them. (p. 70-71)

3. Modern critical scholars do not approach the biblical texts with more skepticism than other ancient texts. Historical criticism, plain and simple, is nothing more or less than reading a text in light of its context.

Sparks ends the chapter with two questions – the first leads into chapter 3: What are the results when the same methods are applied to biblical texts? The second is the question we need to consider as we read both these chapters (and the ones to follow).

To what extent is it legitimate to read the Bible through the lens of historical criticism?


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Our faith is grounded in human history – a history with remains that can at times be read, touched, excavated, and even played in. This real history is subject to analysis by standard scholarly method. The third (rather long) chapter of GWHW presents an outline of the results of historical criticism applied to the text of the Bible with an introductory context:

If modern biblical criticism is to be proved right (or at least partly right) in the eyes of confessing evangelical Christians, then it must be proved right by taking the Bible seriously. … On this score, one thing is clear: Scripture presents itself both as the words of God and, often, as the words of human authors. (p. 76)

One more point before we get started. None of the perspectives that I present below are embraced by every critical scholar; in some cases even I have questions about the critical conclusions. So biblical scholarship is not something that offers us a long list of assured results. Nevertheless, as a rule, the views described below are widely held by scholars, and, in many cases are essentially matters of consensus. But more important in my opinion is that not a single view presented below fails to take the biblical evidence very seriously. I find this true even where I end up disagreeing in some measure with the standard viewpoint. (p.77)

Sparks then proceeds through a discussion of the problems within the Pentateuch; the problems of Israelite historiography in Samuel-Kings and 1-2 Chronicles; the three authors of Isaiah (pre-exile, exilic, and post-exilic); Ezekial’s prophecy about Tyre; the problem of the Gospels; the problem of the pastoral epistles; the problem of Daniel and Revelation; the problem of the Bible’s theological and ethical diversity; the  problem of the Bible’s exegesis; and the role of propaganda. All covered in some 53 pages (p. 77-129) with footnotes, a few tables, but no pictures – as an outline of the issues, not an exhaustive treatment (of course).

If you have questions read the book.  Sparks is a good writer and lays out the material in a readable fashion.  Many of the issues he discusses are not particularly subtle. Some of them are issues that confront the lay reader even without particular training in biblical studies.  It can be difficult to read the Bible in the light of common knowledge and retain a standard evangelical view of inspiration. Of course most evangelical scholars do have a more sophisticated view of scripture and inspiration. Yet there remain flashpoints that cause dissension and strife. Sparks includes some of these in his discussion as well.

According to Sparks the conclusions of biblical criticism, even with a  good dose of epistemological humility

  1. Challenge traditional dating and authorship
  2. Raise serious questions of historicity for key events
  3. Suggest that scripture presents diverse theological views
  4. Question motives and insights of the biblical authors

These concerns must be reckoned with. As Sparks says: If the practitioners of biblical criticism are right on even a modest portion of their claims, then God’s written word certainly reflects more humanity than traditional evangelicals might expect. (p. 132)

Some dismiss the questions with the claim that “biblical criticism is pass? at best and dead at worst.” But this is not a very realistic claim (Perhaps not even for historical Jesus studies). 

The overly optimistic claim to be able to get behind the text to the real Jesus, dissect Q into layers of development, or provide a complete reconstruction of the process of the composition of the Pentateuch are dead or mortally wounded – and rightly so.

The move by some to a postmodern antirealism (where the text can mean almost anything – the importance is not audience and author, but present perspective) is not worth serious consideration (although it can resemble in some ways the allegorical approach of early church fathers). 

But it is equally true that the traditional literal reading of scripture is an intrinsically antirealist approach. If we can trust the evidence of our senses and our reason the pentatuech is not univocal (one author); the earth is not six to ten thousand years old; there was no global flood; and while we can argue about details of purpose and design, common descent is as nearly proven as anything can be in modern biology…

Ultimately we all are – or act as if we are – practical realists. We believe we can trust the evidence of our senses and our reason. In the field of biblical studies this means taking a chastened and more realistic approach to the text we have through the methods of historical criticism:

In practice this kind of scholarship does not look very different from the older brand of historical criticism. It weighs out the evidence, draws conclusions, and then decides how convincing those conclusions finally are; and it is not afraid to speak with confidence when confidence is warranted. But scholars who fully embrace this postmodern approach tend to be interested in different kinds of academic questions, and tend to be more attentive to the way in which their own perspectives affect their scholarship. Ideally they are also more open to reconsidering their scholarly convictions in the light of new evidence or arguments. (p. 130)

So what does this mean for the church?

This leads us to one of the most important questions confronting our evangelical church today. How do we incorporate modern historical criticism into our reading of scripture? To suggest that we should read the bible through the lens of historical criticism (or science) is, in my opinion, to deny the nature of the text as inspired by God, through his Spirit, for his purpose. On the other hand, to ignore the results of historical criticism (or science) and read the text in the traditional literalistic sense is an inherently antirealist approach. It prevents true understanding of the text by eliminating historical context from real consideration, it ignores the very real evidence of the text itself, and I suggest that it diminishes the very power of our faith.

Don’t we need to read the Bible as story, through the lens of faith, and informed by historical criticism?

What do you think?

One approach to work some of this out is the subject of the next several chapters of GWHW.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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