The Nature of Biblical Criticism

by John Barton

Westminster John Knox, 206 pages, $24.95

John Barton, professor of Holy Scripture at Oxford University, is a leading biblical scholar. This is not because he has written a number of leading monographs that have changed the way we read a biblical book or two. (Although his work on late prophecy, Oracles of God , is outstanding by any measure.)

Rather, he has made his fame as an exceptional commentator on what the nature and function of biblical criticism is. For years I have used his Reading the Old Testament in my introductory classes. He introduces the various methods that have flourished in biblical studies (form, literary, and redaction criticism, among others) in an engaging and intellectually serious fashion. What separates him from other writers is his deep familiarity with how scholars of great literature read texts. He knows the world of textual hermeneutics inside and out.

In his most recent book, Barton takes up the question of what biblical criticism is all about. One of his major theses is that biblical scholars put most of their emphasis on the literary nature of the text as opposed to the historical. A great strength of The Nature of Biblical Criticism is that Barton provides a representative sample of what biblical scholars do when they embark on the act of interpretation. As I followed his argument, I remembered the words of Moshe Greenberg, the great Israeli scholar who had argued that it was a category mistake to read the Bible solely as a work of history.

The same point was also argued by Hans Frei, and it became one of the central planks of what has become known as the Yale School among contemporary theologians. Frei’s point, however, was more normative than descriptive. For Frei, a great theological challenge arose when the truth of biblical narrative was gauged on the grounds of how accurately it reflected historical events. Because the reconstruction of Israel’s history would forever be a contested matter, the reading of the biblical narrative would”as Frei astutely noted”remain on shaky ground.

But as attractive as a literary approach is, some questions still remain. For one, Barton claims that the literary character of the critical method is simply a description of how biblical scholars work. I do not agree. One of the major theses in Frei’s influential work The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative is that the literary approach was far more common in German circles than in English-speaking contexts. In the latter, there has been a clear preference for historical reconstruction. Given Barton’s prodigious reading, I was surprised that this book never takes up this discussion. The impact of historical scholarship perdures in the infamous Jesus Seminar and among those Old Testament scholars known as biblical minimalists (who argue that 90 percent of the Bible was written in the exilic period and that everything we know about figures like Moses, David, and Solomon is pure, unadulterated fiction).

It should also be said that, whatever the importance of the literary character of the text, there are some issues that require religious readers to consider historical accuracy. For the Christian, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ would be one such issue. We cannot simply lay bare what Luke thought the resurrection was about ; the theological reader must affirm the event as well.

One of the topics Barton engages most productively is the question of what constitutes plain sense. For him, the plain sense requires that the interpreter see a textual unit as a literary whole that possesses its own internal logic. He has read Francis Young’s work on the role of the Bible in early Christianity, and he realizes that some of the Church Fathers were quite critical in their modes of interpretation. Origen, for example, was not satisfied with a reading of John that harmonized this gospel with the three synoptics. The historical implausibility of the Johannine narrative pushed Origen to see a deeper purpose. To the degree that Origen resisted the temptation to harmonize and allowed the difficulties of John’s narrative to stand on their own, he anticipated what was to become the critical stance toward holy writ.

This interest in the integrity of specific scriptural sources reached a dramatic new height with the arrival of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Part of the interest here was clearly anti-Catholic; the plain sense of Scripture became a weapon that one could employ against the Catholic Church. But it was not only Protestants who could wield a new hermeneutic as a weapon. Barton makes the interesting point that the seventeenth-century Catholic thinker Richard Simon used biblical criticism to score points against the Protestants. In Simon’s view, the fact that the Pentateuch contains discordant voices shows “the dynamically changing nature of the Bible and its lack of fixity.” And, if Scripture shows such theological unevenness, then the Church could “never be content with sola scriptura as its basis, but needed the authority of the magisterium.” Though Simon was not rewarded by the hierarchy for his efforts, his arguments nevertheless show us how difficult it is to separate the plain sense from a theological program.

Barton’s efforts fail, however, when he turns to assess our present predicament. Most theologians and pastors complain about the indifference of contemporary biblical scholars to the question of the application of their work to the Church. In Barton’s mind, though, the problem is just the reverse. Biblical scholars, he argues, are more likely to be “skewed by religious commitment than by hostility or indifference to religion.”

This surprising observation may be due to the fact that Barton works in a British environment. Since the rise of departments of religious studies in the United States, the discourse in biblical studies has become radically secularized. Even if one is a believer, one has to modulate one’s speech in the classroom and in print so as to filter out even a scintilla of religious belief. The same kind of standards may not be in effect at Cambridge or Oxford, even though the scholars who teach there are not likely to be any more or less religious than their American counterparts.

But on one point I cannot excuse Barton. He is exceptionally critical of those voices in contemporary scholarship for whom theological intent is the motivating feature of their exegesis. Here he has the figure of Brevard Childs and his students in his crosshairs. For some reason, his normally measured voice and scrupulously fair judgments suffer considerable impairment. On his reading, the work of such scholars as Childs, Seitz, and Moberly represents a major departure from the task of uncovering the text’s plain sense. “One cannot establish what the Bible means,” he declares, “if one insists on reading it as necessarily conforming to what one already believes to be true”which is what a theological reading amounts to.”

Yet, if this were the case, why is it that both Seitz and Childs are so insistent that the Old Testament needs to be heard independently of the New? Why do Childs and Seitz insist, for example, that the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 does not point univocally to Jesus of Nazareth? Seitz, in particular, takes great pains to show who this servant was in light of the history of Israel.

This opens up a larger problem with Barton’s project in The Nature of Biblical Criticism ”a problem he shares with a man from whom he draws a considerable amount of inspiration, James Barr. Neither of these figures wants to reckon with the fact that the Christian reader of the Bible is faced with a hermeneutical challenge of a high order: how to relate the Old and New Testaments.

This is the more surprising given that Barton does not eschew the term Old Testament in favor of its more secular alternative, Hebrew Bible . Yet what Barton likes to call the plain sense would fit much better within a social setting that identified these books simply as the Hebrew Bible. As Seitz has cogently argued, the advantage of retaining the term Old Testament is that it compels the interpreter to take cognizance of the fact that the canon is composed of two parts. And this two-part composition is a fact that every pastor and priest must grapple with when it comes time to deliver a homily.

Barton, given his severe reduction of what the plain sense amounts to, cannot address this matter. Indeed, from the context of this work one would not even know it is a problem. This must be due to the social context in which Barton understands himself”the secular academy. Childs, instead, always understood his work to be in the service of the Church and thus saw the two-testamented Bible as a nonnegotiable issue that any plain-sense reading had to address. What is remarkable about Childs and his intellectual heirs is their hermeneutical desire both to respect the voice of the various speakers in the Old Testament and to bring it into conversation with the identity of Jesus as the Christ. The way in which this problem is framed in Child’s work cannot be reduced to the evaluation Barton gives it: Childs does not find in the text what he already knew beforehand.

This is not to say that Barton is a secularist himself. But what emerges from his work as the theological goal for the exegete is unsatisfying. Bracketing one’s theological notions of what is true in order to encounter the otherness of a text is not necessarily a bad thing. When that becomes the highest goal of critical reading, however, something essential has been lost.


Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.