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The End(s) of Historical Criticism

What developed in the mid-eighteenth century was not a new awareness of the “human” or “historical” character of the Bible. Rather, it was the realization that the Bible was no longer intelligible as scripture, that is, as a self-authorizing, unifying authority in European culture. Its only meanings were confessional meanings: Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed.

See: Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

By Michael C. Legaspi
Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies
Phillips Academy
Andover, Massachusetts
September 2010

The term “historical criticism” is problematic. On the one hand, it designates a very specific set of practices for ascertaining the date and origin of a text or document—practices closely associated with Renaissance humanism and the study of law, classics, and literature. But when we refer to “historical criticism” in the context of theology and biblical scholarship, we usually mean something else. We use the term “historical criticism” as an umbrella term, one that is synonymous with modern biblical criticism or the dominant mode of academic biblical scholarship in the West over the past two hundred years. The reasons for this are not hard to surmise. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the historical backgrounds of the Bible, whether accessed through philology, textual criticism, archaeology, or source criticism, stood at the center of scholarly efforts to make sense of the Bible. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to identify modern biblical criticism with historical criticism because this equation misrepresents biblical scholarship and derails effective discussion of its connections to non-academic interpretive modes.

Historical questions about the Bible, important as they have been, do not bring us to the core of what modern biblical scholarship is or has been. Despite what conservative fundamentalists and liberal fundamentalists have said in the past about the high theological stakes of historical research, the central concern of modern scholarship is not history. The issue turns not on the historicistic intellectual program that animated modern scholarship in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries but rather on the cultural character of modern criticism as an institutional outgrowth of the progressive German Enlightenment. As the eighteenth-century roots of modern scholarship show, the real point of separation between modern biblical criticism and the confessional modes it was designed to replace is not an intellectual evaluation of what history says the Bible is but a political and cultural orientation toward the question of what the Bible is for.

A brief look at the origins of modern criticism bears this out. One must be careful to avoid the genetic fallacy here since something as complex as modern biblical criticism surely cannot be judged solely according to what it was when it began. Yet we are now in a position to see that modern scholarship, chastened by late- and post-modern criticisms of historical positivism, owes a great deal more to its eighteenth-century roots than its nineteenth-century stem. The point is that biblical studies—long identified with historical criticism—survives today as a discipline even though skepticism about the veracity and value of historical knowledge itself has become an accepted feature of our disciplinary discourse. Because we are living in the twilight of historical criticism, we are able to discern its purpose with clarity and objectivity. As Hegel reminds us, the owl of Minerva flies at dusk.

From Scripture to Text

For over a millennium, Western Christians read and revered the Christian Bible as Scripture, as an anthology of unified, authoritative writings belonging to the Church. The scriptural Bible was neither reducible to a written “text” nor intelligible outside a divine economy of meaning. It was not simply the foundation of the Church’s academic theology; it also furnished its moral universe, framed its philosophic inquiries, and fitted out its liturgies. It provided the materials for thought, expression, and action, becoming what Northrop Frye famously called the “great code” of Western civilization.1 As the book at the center of Western Christendom, the Bible functioned scripturally.

However, in the wake of the traumatic religious divisions of the sixteenth century, the fractured Church ceased to be a unified body capable of maintaining a coherent claim on the Bible as its Bible. Because both Roman Catholics and Protestants claimed the Bible, in different ways, as their own, the Bible could no longer function unproblematically as Scripture. Its nature and authority had to be explicated and legitimated with reference to extra-scriptural concepts, whether juridically, as among Catholics, or doctrinally, as among Protestants.

Over the course of the post-Reformational controversies, the Bible showed itself to be a contested legacy for Western Christians, ultimately devolving into a multiplicity of bibles with distinct canons, separate ecclesial contexts, and prolific theological superstructures. What had functioned centrally in the life of the Church became, in the early modern period, a kind of textual proving ground for the legitimacy of extra-scriptural theoretical understandings: at first theological and polemical and then, over time, literary, philosophical, and cultural. As a text, an object of critical analysis, the Bible came into clearer focus; however, as Scripture, the Bible became increasingly opaque.

The Eighteenth Century

It took time and a set of conducive circumstances for the full import of this transformation to become evident. The development of biblical studies as an academic discipline in Germany more than two hundred years after the Reformation was an outworking of what might be called the “death of scripture” in the West. The works of Spinoza, Hobbes, Simon and others bear witness to the fact that the kinds of philological, critical, and historical analyses of the Bible associated with modern biblical studies were already well attested by the latter part of the seventeenth century. What is not well understood is why these did not give rise to an organized, institutional, and methodologically self-conscious critical program until the late eighteenth century.

It was not simply deep curiosity about the language, form, and content of the Bible that spawned the ambitious research programs of eighteenth-century biblical scholars. In the decades surrounding the turn of the eighteenth century, the prestige of the Bible in the Western world was at an all-time low. Skeptics, rationalist critics, and proponents of the new science published widely and influentially on the state of its textual corruption, the unreliability of its historical narratives, the crudeness of its style, and, in some cases, the fanciful, even childish quality of its stories. It was, to many elites, a book no longer worth believing. Richard Popkin has argued persuasively that skepticism toward the Bible had its roots in an intellectual crisis provoked by prolonged, unresolved theological disputes about how to guarantee the truth of Catholic and Protestant hermeneutics.2 The harsh and violent realities of religious division in the centuries following the Reformation featured sharp criticisms of traditional belief, on the one hand, and intensification of confessional interpretation and polemical theology on the other. What developed in the mid-eighteenth century was not a new awareness of the “human” or “historical” character of the Bible. Rather, it was the realization that the Bible was no longer intelligible as scripture, that is, as a self-authorizing, unifying authority in European culture. Its only meanings were confessional meanings: Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed.

If the Bible were to find a place in a new political order committed to the unifying power of the state, it would have to do so as a common cultural inheritance. This was the great insight of German academics working at new and renewed institutions during the age of Enlightenment university reform. They mastered and activated the older scholarship—by then two centuries’ worth of philological, text-critical, and antiquarian learning—in an effort to embed the Bible in a foreign, historical culture. In this way, they introduced a historical disjunction that allowed them to operate on the Bible as an inert and separated body of tradition. They used historical research to write the Bible’s death certificate while opening, simultaneously, a new avenue for recovering the biblical writings as ancient cultural products capable of reinforcing the values and aims of a new sociopolitical order. The Bible, once decomposed, could be used to fertilize modern culture.

In the eighteenth century, biblical scholars at the university sought to recover a universal or catholic Bible, one capable of fostering cultural and social unity. At the university the moribund confessional Bible was reconstituted in academic form. The political goals of the German Enlightenment had a strong academic reflex: many universities were created or remade at this time expressly to serve the interests of the state. German universities still retained confessional identities and vestiges of their ecclesial origins. Yet these confessional identities and the theological faculties traditionally associated with reinforcing them were deliberately suppressed in this period. The goal was to produce rational, tolerant, and tasteful men capable of serving in the churches and governments of progressive rulers in Germany’s territories, kingdoms, and electorates.

Scholars like Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791) of Göttingen succeeded in creating frames of reference that allowed professors and students to engage the Bible and employ interesting frameworks not dependent on religious identity. In the broadest terms, Michaelis’s project was to remake biblical Israel into a classical civilization. There was a great deal of pressure on university professors as employees of the state to contribute to the intellectual and social development or Bildung of their students by modeling a rational, irenic, pragmatic, and civic-minded appropriation of traditional culture. By this light, biblical Israel seemed musty, traditional, and benighted, a theological figment belonging to Judaism and orthodox Lutheranism; but classical Israel as Michaelis envisioned it seemed new and promising, a scholarly creation that could secure a place for the Bible in modern, post-confessional culture.

To create a classical Israel, Michaelis did three things. He severed it from traditional Judaism and confessional Christianity. Michaelis, for example, insisted on the deadness of the Hebrew language, denying its continuity with rabbinic Judaism and refuting the linguistic exceptionalism of Christian Hebraists. Michaelis formalized a program for Hebrew study that relied on comparative use of Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopic and imported scientific standards from the study of Greek and Latin. Second, relying on the work of Robert Lowth, Michaelis used the invented concept of biblical poetry to recover the Bible as an anthology of sublime classical literature. In this way, he created a radically new frame of reference for interpretation. The point of contact between biblical poetry and the interpreter was not loyalty to a canon and community of faith but rather one’s faculties of aesthetic judgment. Finally, in the area of biblical law, Michaelis denied the theological normativity of the Bible, claiming that “God never meant [the Mosaic law] to bind any other nation but the Israelites.”3 In his 1770-1775 six-volume magnum opus Mosaisches Recht, Michaelis offered philosophical and historical analysis of biblical laws that characterized Moses as an ancient legislative genius. Biblical laws became sources of information about the ancient world and contemporary resources for political philosophy. But they ceased, in any traditional sense, to function as laws.

The growth and unification of ancillary disciplines like ethnography, legal history, comparative Semitics, textual science, and biblical poetics constitute the durable legacy of Michaelis and his eighteenth-century cohort. Anyone who has studied the Bible at a modern university will recognize the success of their methodological achievements. In this period, the study of the Bible found a new home in the philosophical faculty. Theologia exegetica became “biblical studies.” The university became the host of a new interpretive mode that, at the time, seemed as rigorous, coherent, and totalizing as traditional and confessional modes had been for centuries. The scattered researches of earlier skeptics and free-thinkers, though every bit as critical, did not coalesce into a compelling interpretive program until unified at the university. Guided by methods and assumptions that reinforced the statism and irenicism of the Enlightenment cameralists, the new discipline of biblical studies allowed practitioners to create a post-confessional Bible by reconstructing a pre-confessional Israel.

Academic Criticism Today

Modern biblical criticism is not a rival to the kind of religious faith once invested in confessional Bibles; it is a successor to it. Though we are in the unfortunate habit of equating biblical studies with “historical criticism,” a long view of the modern enterprise shows that its principal task was the post-confessional management of the Bible’s cultural authority—not the scientific analysis of its historical contexts. As the scholars of the German Enlightenment knew, this form of management not only preserved the academic integrity of biblical studies as a discipline, it allowed critics to commend the cultural authority of the Bible in an irenic way. In the two centuries following the Reformation, men loyal to their confessional identities and their Bibles tore Europe apart. It is not difficult to see why irenicism was an urgent matter in the eighteenth century. Nor is it hard to understand why, in a treatise on the social role of universities, Michaelis recommended the use of critical scholarship to inoculate the German territories against fanaticism and religious violence.

Biblical studies is, at present, still a cultural and social project, one that exists principally as an alternative to traditional and confessional modes of biblical interpretation. John Collins of Yale, the eminent historical critic, has made precisely this point. In a presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature, he suggested that biblical critics can help stem religious violence by “noting the diversity of viewpoints in the Bible” in order to “relativize the more problematic ones.”4 In doing so, scholars prevent readers from adopting any settled convictions about what the Bible actually says. In this way, the critic can demonstrate to any true believers ready to take up the sword that “certitude” about the meaning of the Bible is merely an “illusion.”5 More recently, Collins assessed the relation of postmodernism to modern biblical criticism.6 By arguing that postmodern interpretive strategies can be fully assimilated to modern biblical criticism, Collins aims to redeem the discipline from irrelevance and defend it from methodological supersessionism. In his judgment, postmodern interpretation is only an extension of historical criticism, despite the fact that postmodernists programmatically deny the objectivity, knowability, and truthfulness of history. Postmodern criticism and historical criticism are ultimately compatible, in Collins’s view, because the real value of historical criticism is its usefulness in structuring a nonconfessional mode of discourse. As Collins says, the “historical focus has been a way of getting distance from a text, of respecting its otherness.” It allows “participants” to structure a “conversation” about the Bible according to academic rules.7 Postmoderns may ignore, deny, or even demonize historical research, but their methods are just as useful in structuring academic conversations. As a result, Collins concludes, they are an asset to “historical criticism.”

What is left of Collins’s method after this engagement with postmodernism is not really historical criticism but rather academic criticism. The point here is not to denigrate Collins’s maneuver but rather to benefit from the astute observations behind it. After all, the realization that questions of social location and the politics of inquiry are actually the most urgent ones in contemporary “historical criticism” is a genuine and important insight. It is helpful to realize, furthermore, that these political and moralistic concerns comport nicely with postmodern critiques of conventional scholarship.

With the recent pronouncements of Collins (and the realities to which they point), we have moved beyond the “historical” nineteenth century and returned, I believe, to the “cultural-political” eighteenth. Biblical scholars at the Enlightenment university were employees of the state charged with creating a way of studying the Bible that would allow it to nourish a common life on new principles. Academic criticism not only generated new interpretive frameworks, it also located the study of the Bible in a new place—the philosophical faculty of the university—and gave it a useful social purpose—the reinforcement of religious irenicism. Scholars revivified the Bible in order to enrich and shore up a social and cultural order based on a generic, progressive Protestantism. Like these scholars’, Collins’s principal academic interest is ultimately a moral one. He wants to protect a version of academic freedom and to fight fundamentalism by using scholarship to defeat religious certitude. It is not surprising, then, that Collins sees himself as an heir, most of all, of the Enlightenment.

A Return to First-Order Questions

A clear understanding of the history of modern criticism has important implications for the study of the Bible today: its aims, contexts, and, indeed, its future. It turns, I believe, on the way that the problematic relation between the scriptural Bibles of traditional Judaism and Christianity on the one hand and the academic Bible created and managed by scholars on the other is ultimately negotiated. Too often they are taken, unhelpfully, as symbols of stale antitheses between reason and faith, history and revelation, the secular and the sacred. The history of modern biblical criticism, however, shows that the fundamental antitheses were not intellectual or theological, but rather social, moral, and political. Academic critics did not dispense with the authority of a Bible resonant with religion; they redeployed it in a distinctive form that has run both parallel and perpendicular to churchly appropriations of the Bible.

Fundamentalism and religious violence can have baneful effects. Scholarship no doubt has a role to play in thinking carefully about how to understand and address them. The question, though, is whether the kind of social and cultural mandate described by Collins and embodied in modern criticism is fully adequate for our time. It made sense to work against certitude in an age of superabundant belief, to prune critically the wild outgrowths of religious commitment, and to manage the cultural authority of a Bible threatening to undo the social order.

But in our time, an age of low biblical literacy, diminished belief, and weakened religious commitment, there is less and less cultural authority for biblical scholars to manage—and, therefore, less reason for those still interested in the Bible to pay close attention to them. Those setting out on a journey look for guides not policemen. First-order questions now bear explicit examination. The question today is not ‘What is the real cultural valence of the Bible I grew up with?’ but rather, after the decline of Christendom and the long, slow deconversion of elite culture in the West, “Why have a Bible at all?”

To this question theologians no doubt have differing answers. Historical critics, I fear, have no answer at all. As Max Weber said in his lecture on science as a vocation “academic prophecies can only ever produce fanatical sects, but never a genuine community.”8 Theologians working within their traditions serve genuine communities of faith. Academic criticism, though, was created to form a new, post-confessional community united by faith in the state. If Weber is right, then the social ambition of the modern critical project has largely failed: Wissenschaft cannot sustain a genuine community because, unlike traditional religious belief, it cannot decide what is ultimately worthwhile for us to know. It can only clarify what we want to know. To quote Weber once again: one must either “endure the fate of the age like a man or return to the welcoming and merciful embrace of the old churches.”9 Whether belief in the old churches is as comfortable and quiescent as Weber thinks, I am not entirely sure. But I believe he is surely right to insist that, whatever else one does, he had better do it with absolute integrity.


1 Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1982).

2 Richard Popkin, The History of Skepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

3 Johann David Michaelis, Commentaries on the Laws of Moses. 4 vols. Trans. Alexander Smith. London, 1814; Article 2.

4 John J. Collins, “The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence” Journal of Biblical Literature 122/1 (2003): 3-21, p. 19.

5 Ibid., p. 21.

6 John J. Collins, The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).

7 Ibid., p. 10.

8 Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures: “Science as a Vocation”; “Politics as a Vocation”. Edited and with an introduction by David Owen and Tracy B. Strong. Translation by Rodney Livingstone (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), 30.

9 Ibid.