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Ten years ago I had an experience that made me vividly aware of the two worlds with which the practitioner of the critical study of the Bible inevitably deals. Reading applications for the doctoral program whose faculty I had only recently joined, I was struck by the frequency on the autobiographical statements of a pattern that a form critic might call the “conversion narrative.” Sometimes this narrative assumed a doubled form, first the conversion into a robust but uncritical Christian faith and then, usually in college or seminary, a second conversion marked by acceptance of the historical-critical method and an abandonment of doctrines of inerrancy and the like, though never of Christianity itself. At other times candidates narrated only a conversion of the first sort or otherwise gave an account of their lives that showed no awareness of the nature of the historical criticism of the Bible, the only approach that our doctoral program utilized. Worried about the suitability of such applicants for the program, I broached the issue to a senior colleague, who immediately sought to allay my anxieties. “Don’t worry,” he said. “A lot of our students start out like that, but they change after they have been here two weeks.”

Eleven years earlier, the comparative religionist Wilfred Cantwell Smith had published a scathing attack upon the profession of biblical scholarship in the historical mode. Smith did not argue that the methods employed are in any way false; his critique was not predicated upon a confession of faith in the revealed or inspired character of the documents. His point, rather, was that by concentrating on the period of their composition, critical scholars neglect the assembled Bible and its immeasurable significance in the history of culture. “The analysis of a thing is interesting, and can be highly significant, but only subsidiarily,” Smith wrote; “strictly, the history of the thing begins once its parts are synthesized.” If he was right, then we must confront the salient paradox of historical-critical scholarship on the Bible: it ends precisely when the history of the Bible begins.

The causes of this paradoxical situation are many and complex. One is the tendency of some influential forms of Protestantism to understand Scripture in sharp contradistinction to tradition, even the tradition of the Protestant use and interpretation of the Bible. Without attention to post-biblical tradition, Scripture vanishes before our eyes, for the basis of religion in biblical times was not a Bible: the religion in the Book is not the religion of the Book. The prophets did not preach a book or show any awareness that God had revealed one to Moses on Mount Sinai, and when early Christian documents mention the “Scriptures,” they are referring not to the gospels and epistles but only to what Christians would later come to call the “Old Testament.” That in which the earliest Christian communities put their faith was not a book, but a person. The Book remained the Jewish Scriptures, there being in what some Christians call “New Testament times” no New Testament.

Within the context of those Protestant communions that emphatically set Scripture over tradition, therefore, Smith’s order of priorities would have to be reversed: the Bible itself requires that its analysis take priority over its history, that biblical history be understood only as the history internal to the Bible, not the history of the Bible once it has at long last been assembled and standardized in one form or another.

My colleague’s effort to allay my anxieties suggests, however, that much more than a certain Protestant tradition of anti-traditionalism underlies the equally paradoxical tendency of critical biblical scholars to neglect the history of the Bible. For in all cases the applicants about whom I was worried were more involved with the biblical documents themselves than with the role of the Bible in post-biblical tradition. Indeed, exactly like those whom Smith castigated, these students were thoroughly unconcerned with the history of biblical interpretation within religious communities—with, that is, the history of scriptural interpretation. Those who had converted only once thought that their Bible could be approached directly, without the interposition of an interpretive framework. Perhaps that is what they thought historical criticism was—a framework that is not interposed or interpretive. Those with a double conversion story were in the same degree either ignorant or dismissive of traditional Jewish and Christian commentary. Their second conversion had convinced them that historical criticism alone provides an interpretive framework that is valid. It is to this latter claim that my colleague believed that after only two weeks in the program, all of our doctoral students would assent.

Smith’s description of the way biblical studies are taught captures nicely the nature of the change that those students with the single conversion story would undergo in their first two weeks as advanced students of the Bible. “The courses actually available, and the training of men actually available to teach them,” Smith wrote (in 1971), “are on the whole calculated to turn a fundamentalist into a liberal.” Instead of fighting autonomous historical inquiry, especially the eminently disquieting inquiry into the dates and processes of composition of the biblical books themselves, the fundamentalist born again as a liberal would be able to place the biblical documents into the ancient Near Eastern or Greco-Roman worlds in which they originated and thus to recapture what they meant to their original authors and audiences, authors and audiences who lived before there was a Bible. Perhaps underestimating the vitality and tenacity of fundamentalism, Smith pronounced this transformation of fundamentalists into liberals “hardly any more a relevant task.”

But he did have a more profound objection, and this is one that is even more urgent now than when he wrote over two decades ago. The scholars who are graduated from such programs, Smith observed, “seem on the whole little equipped to answer a question as to why one should be especially interested in those particular times and places, rather than in, let us say, classical India or medieval China or modern America.” In other words, having replaced the study of the Bible with the study of an exotic culture, those whom Smith termed “liberals” are at a loss to explain why this exotic culture is to be preferred over others or, for that matter, over our own familiar culture, whose need for attention seems obvious. If this problem was apparent already in 1971, how much more pressing it is today, when multiculturalism is in the air and the groups challenging the traditional curricula of Christian societies are likely to pursue their demand for inclusion more forcefully than the partisans of classical India or medieval China ever did.

Smith’s answer offered to his own question, then, does not seem adequate to the challenge of multiculturalism that has arisen since he wrote his essay. For he proposed to replace the study of the Bible in its pre-biblical historical context with “an investigation into the history of the Bible over the past twenty centuries,” that is, into “the Bible as Scripture” rather than as a diverse and evolving set of documents that would be assembled into a closed anthology only later. The problem with this is that it only replaces one form of historicism with another, exchanging the study of early Jewish or Christian history for the study of later Jewish or Christian history. That the cultures of the Jews and of the Christians have been enormously influenced, indeed shaped, by the Bible for the past two millennia (more, in the case of the Jews) cannot be gainsaid. But why should the history of those two very different but related cultures be privileged over the history of Indian, Chinese, or, for that matter, African-American culture? And why, a dean might justly ask (and some doubtless do), should we devote a second faculty appointment to the history of the Bible as Scripture when we lack even one appointment in the history of the scriptures and classics of most of the other religious traditions?

To answer with the claim that the Bible is a foundational document of our culture is to imply more cultural homogeneity than many believe to be warranted. What is worse, it is to make a claim of normativity that is at odds with the historicistic methods that Smith, despite his shift of period, continued to endorse. To replace an authoritative book with an authoritative culture founded upon that book is still to make a claim that goes beyond the limits of historical description. Attention to a culture requires no less justification than attention to a book.

The failure of Smith’s historicistic proposal to validate biblical studies brings us flush with the two-sidedness—and the pathos—of biblical scholarship in the historical-critical mode. On the one hand, the essential claim of this approach is that one may legitimately interpret Scripture against one’s own tradition and personal belief. Historical critics thus rightly insist that the tribunal before which interpretations are argued cannot be confessional or dogmatic. The arguments offered must be historically valid, able, that is, to compel the assent of historians , whatever their religion or lack thereof, whatever their backgrounds, spiritual experiences, or personal beliefs, and without privileging any claim of revelation.

On the other hand, the very value-neutrality of this method of study puts its practitioners at a loss to defend the value of the enterprise itself. In a culture saturated with religious belief involving the Bible, this weakness was less apparent, for the defense was less called for. Now, however, after secularism has impugned the worth of the Bible, and multiculturalism has begun to critique the cultural traditions at the base of which it stands, biblical scholars, including, I must stress, even the most antireligious among them, must face this paradoxical reality: the vitality of their rather untraditional discipline has historically depended upon the vitality of traditional religious communities, Jewish and Christian. Those whom Smith termed “liberals”—that is, the scholars who assiduously place the Bible in the ancient Near Eastern or Greco-Roman worlds—have depended for their livelihood upon those who not only rejoice that the Bible survived these worlds but who also insist that it deserved to survive because its message is trans-historical. When fundamentalists become, in Smith’s usage, liberals, the need for an affirmation that goes beyond mere historical description does not evaporate. Indeed, in the humanities today, every “canon,” cultural as well as scriptural, is under intense suspicion, and every selection of subject matter is increasingly and correctly understood to involve a normative claim and not merely a description of value-neutral fact. In all cases, what scholars study and teach is partly a function of which practices and beliefs it is that they wish to perpetuate.


The contextualization of biblical documents in the cultures in which they were written is not only the hallmark of historical criticism; it is also inevitable. In spite of what we often hear from some of our literary colleagues, there is no such thing as the text in and of itself or the text as a world unto itself, and no possibility of standing before the text without also, in some measure, getting behind it. The question is not whether we make historical judgments or not; the question can only be whether we do so poorly or well. As soon as you have treated the discolorations on the page as a language, you have made an historical judgment. Focusing on lexical issues, John Barton of Oxford makes a related point in quintessentially British fashion:

Charles II, when he visited the new St. Paul’s during its construction, complimented the architect on producing “so awful and artificial” a building; it is essential for our belief that Charles II was a person of refined manners that we should not hold sequence of words to have fixed and determinate meanings in all ages and contexts.

And what is true for words also holds for larger units of meaning, such as genre. There is no communication that is altogether outside culture, even if it mediates a universal truth, and no culture that is outside history, even if it mediates a timeless reality.

If fundamentalists—and indeed the mass of religious believers—are inclined to overlook the inevitability and the unorthodox implications of historical reconstruction, liberal scholars face their own particular temptations. One we have already examined: the tendency to dissolve text into culture and the Bible into the history that preceded its synthesis. Of this, there is a subcategory that is especially prominent in times like our own when issues of social location and the distribution of power are receiving much attention. This is the temptation to interpret the text as ideology , that is, as only a justification for political arrangements. It is a temptation to which historical critics are most vulnerable, for, as the literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov points out, “it is at the moment of their creation that works are the most political,” and a method of interpretation that is especially attentive to the cultural meaning of a text at its point of origin will be most inclined to highlight its political dimension. The danger for the integrity of biblical studies is that the text will again come to be seen as dispensable, that the Bible will once more recede from biblical studies, this time because it is conceived as only a series of ciphers for political power.

That this danger is not hypothetical is abundantly demonstrated in a recent introduction, Power, Politics, and the Making of the Bible , by Robert B. Coote and Mary P. Coote. Already by their third page, the authors have told us that the “Hebrew scriptures consist mainly of the scriptures of the temple cult” in Jerusalem, and that “the purpose of this cult was to legitimate rulers in Jerusalem, and this is what the scriptures are mostly about.” Their book is in essence a sustained effort to replace the manifest text of the Bible with the putative underlying social and political reality that it disguises. No sooner have the authors employed the term “the nation Israel,” for example, than they note parenthetically that “the concept of nation suggests a political consensus among subjects ruled by Jerusalem; this rarely if ever existed, but the scribes who wrote the Bible worked for rulers who said it did.” Instead, they write, “Israel was [originally] a name for power, the power of a tribe or confederation of tribes formed in the New Kingdom period in relation to Egyptian authority.” The earliest narrative document that most critical scholars detect in the Pentateuch, the J (or Yahwistic) source, was composed to legitimate King David. It was “designed to appeal for the loyalty of tribal sheikhs in the Negeb and Sinai, David’s buttress against Egypt in the south, by suggesting that Israel’s early chiefs, the patriarchs, were southern sheikhs like themselves . . . .” It was only because “Egypt . . . was the principle enemy of David’s Israel [that it] became the villain of the history.” (In this, J is seen to have much in common with Psalm 2, which the Cootes term “a raucous salute to the pretensions of Davidic imperialism.”) The next Pentateuchal document, the E (for “Elohistic”) source, was written to legitimate another king, the northerner Jeroboam I, who went from exile in Egypt to dominion over his kinfolk. In the Cootes’ mind, this is the key to the story of Joseph, whose dreams of domination God vindicates against his brothers’ skepticism and resentment: Joseph is a cipher for Jeroboam. Recognizing that the “fear of God” is also a major theme in E, the Cootes are undeterred from their politicizing hermeneutic. “Like all privileged,” they write, “Jeroboam feared himself in other men, and hence projected this fear, in the guise of cultic and judicial respect, or the ‘fear of God,’ as public policy.” The fear of God in the Elohistic narrative is, in other words, only a nervous politician’s effort to allay his insecurities.

The Cootes apply the same hermeneutic of suspicion to the New Testament. Of the early churchmen who promoted the new set of scriptures, they write: “Taking God’s anointed king Jesus, shamed in death and restored in resurrection, as the standard for making the temple scriptures still meaningful, the bishops’ interpretation insisted on Roman law in the absence of temple law, until Jesus’ return should inaugurate a new nontemple law.” Political power even determines the order of the gospels: “Matthew’s version of Mark was eventually positioned ahead of Mark because it laid down the jurisdiction of Peter, regarded by then to have been the first bishop of Rome.” Indeed, the content of the canon itself—the very existence of a Bible as the Church has traditionally known it—becomes a function of Roman hegemony and the refusal of some Christians to challenge it: “The Shepherd of Hermas,” we are told, “typifies writings that placed the laws of the ‘City of God’ in clear opposition to the laws of the state; such works never made the canon.” But the essentially political character of the theology of the Church did not, according to the Cootes, end with the closure of the Christian canon. “The philosophical debate on the divinity of Christ [that came to a head at the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.] . . . veiled a political debate over jurisdiction”:

In the terms of the Arian controversy, Arius’s view of Jesus implied the subordination of the Church to the state, as the human Jesus was subordinate to God, while the bishops’ view made the Church the equal of the state, as Jesus was equal to God.

What the Nicene Creed really confesses, in other words, is the ambition of bishops in an age of empire.

Some of the interpretations in Power, Politics, and the Making of the Bible are not original, and most are open to serious question even from within the canons of historical criticism. The guiding methodology, however, follows upon a long historical-critical tradition of treating religious affirmations as subordinate to political interest. The first great statement of this lies in Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), in which the norms of the Torah, regarded by rabbinic tradition as eternally valid, are presented as nothing more than the laws of the vanished Hebrew commonwealth and therefore, as Spinoza put it, obligatory “not even on Hebrews after the downfall of their nation.” Out goes Torah; in comes politics. The interpretation of particular institutions and narratives as projections of political relationships easily survived the particular anti-theocratic impulses that motivated Spinoza’s hermeneutic. It has, in fact, become a staple of critical scholarship in the last century and a half. What books like the Cootes’ do is to pursue the logic of political reading in a way that is more relentless, systematic, and reductionistic than most historical critics have traditionally believed to be warranted. Indeed, Power, Politics, and the Making of the Bible slams shut many of the portals to transcendence that religiously committed historical critics have in a variety of ways been struggling to keep open since the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, in insisting upon political power as the prime motive force behind biblical literature, the Cootes are, in the present academic and religious climate, far from idiosyncratic.

Part of the weakness of their introduction, and many other studies in the same mode, is the operative concept of power. Catherine Bell, in her stimulating recent book, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice , assails the Hobbesian theory of power, which is modeled on sovereignty. The Hobbesian theory is “the simplistic misconception that power is the imposition of one person’s or group’s will on another through a threat of violence.” Against this, she argues for Foucault’s view that “power is contingent, local, imprecise, relational, and organizational.” “Foucault also sees the strategies of power used by kings and governments,” Bell points out, “as embedded in and dependent upon the level of ‘microrelations’ of power, the local interactions and petty calculations of daily life.” If Hobbes is wrong and Foucault right, then even when the Bible is seen as ideological literature, it is a capital mistake to interpret its narratives as devices by which the powerful few hoodwinked the marginalized many and kept them in submission. Rather, we should have to concede that the roots of even David’s and Jeroboam’s regimes lay in those “‘microrelations’ of power” that suffused the society and acquired an enduring literary testament in the Hebrew Bible. Having made the conceptual change that Bell proposes, modern critics can, of course, continue to pronounce those ancient power relations unjust, but they will have to do so in their own names. They can no longer assume that those arrangements endured because the mass of ancients had been duped by propaganda that they gullibly mistook for sacred literature. The irony is that this adjustment would require scholars of transparent democratic allegiance, like Robert B. and Mary P. Coote, to concentrate less on the elites and to show the masses more respect.

There are, in fact, even more serious difficulties in the interpretation of biblical literature as ideology. That scholars should place the documents, at least initially, within the social and political structures of the communities in which they originated is not problematic so long as the socio-political lens is presented as only one of many through which the material may be viewed. The difficulties mount, however, when that lens—indeed, any lens—is awarded a monopoly within the interpretive process, as when the Cootes characterize the complex and marvelously evocative poem that is Psalm 2 as “a raucous salute to the pretensions of Davidic imperialism.” At the base of the problem here is the privilege that the modern interpreters assert for themselves not only against their own contemporaries, but also, and more revealingly, against the very material that they are seeking to understand. Leszek Kolakowski, in discussing the same issue with respect to the interpretation of myth, identifies the two guiding presuppositions of the whole procedure:

First, it is assumed that myths, as they are explicitly told and believed, have a latent meaning behind the ostensible one and that this meaning not only is not in fact perceived by those sharing a given creed, but that of necessity it cannot be perceived. Secondly, it is implied that this latent meaning, which is accessible only to the outsider-anthropologist, is the meaning par excellence, whereas the ostensible one, i.e., the myth as it is understood by the believers, has the function of concealing the former; this ostensible meaning appears then as a product of inescapable self-deception, of an ideological mystification or simply of ignorance.

Kolakowski’s conclusion is crucial: “These two premises are philosophical rather than anthropological in kind . . . . We need more than [the empirical material of the anthropologist] to assert that when people speak of God or the gods, of invisible forces purposely operating behind empirical facts, of the sacred qualities of things, they are in fact , and without knowing it, speaking of something entirely different . . . .”

The interpreters whose work rests on those two presuppositions are actually asserting a secular analogy to a religious revelation: they are claiming to have a definitive insight, not empirically derived, into the meaning of things, even things that they have never directly experienced and that are interpreted very differently by those who have. They assume that the observer’s observation is truer than the practitioner’s practice. The effect of such a claim, almost never acknowledged, is to do what the Cootes insist that biblical literature does—to set up a hierarchy. Only at the apex of this hierarchy stand not power-hungry kings and self-interested bishops, but (to borrow a term from Paul Mankowski) a “new clerisy” of academic theorists who, unlike the people they study, know what they are doing. Here Bell’s insights about the modern study of ritual are eminently telling. “Theoretical discourse about ritual,” she writes, “is organized as a coherent whole by virtue of a logic based on the opposition of thought and action.” But the action is always someone else’s; the thought is the modern scholar’s:

As a consequence of this distinction, the particularity of any one local ritual is contrasted with the more embracing, abstract generalizations of the researcher . . . . [The] rites . . . [are] portrayed as enactments exhibited to others for evaluation and appropriation in terms of their more purely theoretical knowledge.

It should not be overlooked that this identification of ritual as action in contradistinction to thought follows not only upon a certain Enlightenment critique of religion, but also upon a longstanding Christian critique of Judaism, a Protestant critique of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and a modern Western self-legitimation over against tribal peoples. It is no coincidence that in this model, it is the person whose life is not ritualized who has the clarity of vision: only as we break off from ritual communities and transcend their specific performances can we come to perceive the truth. The model does not allow for even the possibility that detachment from ritual performances may decrease one’s insight and obscure one’s vision. It definitively and non-dialectically shifts the locus of truth from the practicing community to the nonpracticing and unaffiliated individual.

Many will recognize these last remarks as an example of the exercise that Peter Berger has called “relativizing the relativizers.” In the context at hand, it would be more accurately termed “suspecting the hermeneuts of suspicion.” By posing the question of the modern interpreters’ own place in reality as they sketch it, one challenges them to justify their claim, express or implicit, of independence from the dynamics that they depict as ultimate. Might it be the case that the interpretation of religion as only a mystification of power arrangements, for example, is itself an item in a discourse of power in which a new group, supported by new social arrangements, asserts its hegemony? If so—if, that is, there can be no transcendence over the social relationships in which we are embedded—then the assertion that the old order ought to bow to the new is groundless, for it presupposes the normativity that it also precludes. To his credit, Marx, who is the indirect source of much of the current reading of religion as ideology, recognized that the logic of his system required that his own thought be something other than an ideology. As the late Allan Bloom points out:

In Marx, ideology meant the false system of thought elaborated by the ruling class to justify its rule in the eyes of the ruled, while hiding its real selfish motives. Ideology was sharply distinguished in Marx from science, which is what Marx’s system is i.e., the truth based on disinterested awareness of historical necessity.

In other words, the Marxist system requires the availability of an “absolute moment” that makes a conspectus of all history (including the eschatological future) possible. If Marxism itself is only another ideology , unable to assert a claim on truth, then, as Bloom puts it, Marx becomes a “fossil,” superseded by the very process of history that he thought he had definitively comprehended.

Leo Strauss, Bloom’s teacher (in some things but not all), makes the same point about historicism, as he defines it:

Historicism asserts that all human thoughts or beliefs are historical, and hence deservedly destined to perish; but historicism itself is a human thought; hence historicism can be of only temporary validity, or it cannot be simply true. To assert the historicist thesis means to doubt it and thus to transcend it. . . . Historicism thrives on the fact that it inconsistently exempts itself from its own verdict about all human thought. . . . We cannot see the historical character of “all” thought—that is, of all thought with the exception of the historicist insight and its implications—without transcending history, without grasping something trans-historical.

If, as I said, the belief that the real meaning of religious phenomena is available only to the outside observer is a secular analogue to religious revelation, then a system of thought like historicism, which “exempts itself from its own verdict,” is a secular equivalent to fundamentalism. For though it subjects all else to critique, it asserts axiomatically its own inviolability to critique. Demanding to be the norm by means of which truth and error are disclosed, this type of thinking, by definition, can never be in error.


It is no coincidence that the early pioneers of biblical criticism—Hobbes, Spinoza, Richard Simon—lived in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War. Through the famous formula cuius regio, eius religio , the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended that war, established the superiority of the state over religion in fact and provided a hospitable climate for a theory to the same effect. By the end of the following century, a process of delegitimization of religious structures could be detected beneath many changes in both the Old World and the New. Churches were disestablished, the structures of Jewish communal autonomy abolished, and citizenship increasingly, if unevenly, defined in express disregard of the structures that had traditionally mediated between the individual and the state. “One must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation,” the French revolutionary Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre proclaimed in a memorable formulation, “but one must give them everything as individuals; they must become citizens.” Put positively, changes of this sort established the precious principles of civic equality and freedom of (and from) religion. Put negatively, they demoted traditional structures that claimed to be non-contingent and meta-historical—the people Israel, the Church—to the status of mere voluntary associations. In theory, one’s public role would now be determined apart from, rather than through, these mediating structures. To combine the positive and the negative formulations: the liberty and equality of the individual free male adult would be secured by granting the state a monopoly on coercive power. All ritual communities would be reconceived as optional arrangements, and the decision whether to participate in their performances or remain detached would be the individual’s alone. It bears mention that the burden of the new arrangement fell more heavily upon those traditions, especially Judaism and Catholicism, that had not conceived of themselves as essentially individualistic and of their social bodies as only voluntary associations.

In spite of its inequities, the great strength of the new arrangement that first emerged in the Enlightenment is that it allows for the maintenance of civility even in the presence of incompatible worldviews. By privatizing religion, restricting it to voluntary associations and the inner recesses of the individual heart, the new order permitted the emergence of a public space neither dominated nor even defined, at least in theory, by any of the clashing factors. The wars of religion would be no more. The new conflict would be between the liberal state and its absolutistic rivals.

Smith’s use of the term “liberal” to designate historical-critical scholarship on the Bible is thus more than conventional; it is also profoundly appropriate. For historical criticism is the form of biblical studies that corresponds to the classical liberal political ideal. It is the realization of the Enlightenment project in the realm of biblical scholarship. Like citizens in the classical liberal state, scholars practicing historical criticism of the Bible are expected to eliminate or minimize their communal loyalties, to see them as legitimately operative only within associations that are private, non-scholarly, and altogether voluntary. Within the public space of the academy, scholars of every sort—Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, secular, or whatever—meet, again at least in theory, as equals. The academy must refuse everything to scholars as faithful members of religious communities, but it must give them everything as individuals; they must become critics.

But here, too, the new arrangement exacts a price. For example, it tends subtly to restrict the questions studied and the methods employed to those that permit the minimization of religious difference with relative facility—northwest semitic linguistics, for example, or the material culture of ancient Palestine, as opposed to questions of theology, ethics, or the phenomenology of religion. Those unwilling to pay the price are unable to participate in this type of study. Their model of biblical scholarship too often corresponds to the older political situation typified at its worst by the wars of religion, with each group treating its own book and its own interpretive procedures as absolute and staunchly refusing to step out of its dogmatic or confessional assumptionsa model of fideisms at best ignoring each other and at worst colliding. The middle ground is becoming rarer, as the allied disciplines and their demanding sets of technical skills increasingly occlude vision of the larger religious and even humanistic issues.

Though some of its practitioners like to present it as philosophically and theologically neutral, historical criticism is not without assumptions of its own. These were set forth in a famous essay of Ernst Troeltsch in 1898 and nicely summarized in a recent article by the distinguished scholar of Hellenistic Judaism and biblical theology, John J. Collins:

(1) The principle of criticism or methodological doubt: since any conclusion is subject to revision, historical inquiry can never attain absolute certainty but only relative degrees of probability. (2) The principle of analogy: historical knowledge is possible because all events are similar in principle. We must assume that the laws of nature in biblical times were the same as now. Troeltsch refers to this as “the almighty power of analogy.” (3) The principle of correlation: the phenomena of history are inter-related and inter-dependent and no event can be isolated from the sequence of historical cause and effect. To these should be added the principle of autonomy, which is indispensable for any critical study. Neither church nor state can prescribe for the scholar which conclusions should be reached.

The historic confrontation between traditional religion and the new set of assumptions was, according to Collins, “a clash between two conflicting moralities, one of which celebrated faith and belief as virtues and regarded doubt as sin, whereas the other celebrated methodological skepticism and was distrustful of prior commitments.”

What is curious here is the unspoken assumption that the axioms of Troeltschian historicism are not “prior commitments” and themselves therefore a proper target for skepticism. (Here we are reminded of Strauss’ observation about the tendency of historicism to “exempt itself from its own verdict about human thought.”) This is even more curious in light of Collins’ pregnant concession that historical criticism does not afford us uninterpreted facts, for “it too is a tradition, with its own values and assumptions, derived in large part from the Enlightenment and western humanism.” This concession is vastly more devastating to Collins’ argument than he seems to recognize, for the Enlightenment ethos to which he refers sought to replace tradition with reason and science and not simply to stand beside them as another option. When the legacy of the Enlightenment becomes just another tradition , it inevitably suffers the same deflation that Marxism suffers when it becomes another ideology. We are left with the discomforting question, why this tradition and not another? Why follow Troeltsch’s three axioms, augmented by Collins’ principle of autonomy, if they are not intrinsic to human rationality but themselves partake of historical and cultural particularity?

The question is especially acute for Collins, since there is another approach that his essay strives mightily to counter, an approach that does, in fact, relativize historical criticism. This is Brevard Childs’ “canonical method,” an agenda for biblical theology whose foundation, “the status of canonicity,” is, in Childs’ words, “not an objectively demonstrable claim but a statement of Christian belief” and therefore a threat to John Collins’ unqualified historicism:

Childs fails to give reasons [writes Collins] why anyone should adopt this approach to the text unless they happen to share his view of Christian faith. The canonical approach then fails to provide a context for dialogue with anyone who does not accept it as a matter of faith.

Here, Collins is surely invoking a double standard, for he has not explained how the Troeltschian historicism that he endorses can provide a context for dialogue with anyone who does not accept its presuppositions. It, too, does not facilitate communication with those outside its boundaries: it requires fundamentalists, for example, to be born again as liberals”or to stay out of the conversation altogether. Collins thus fails in his claim that historical criticism is more inclusive than Childs’ canonical method. Each approach corresponds to particular communities founded upon discrete assumptions, Troeltschian historicism for Collins, a certain variety of Christian faith for Childs. Neither set of assumptions is self-evident or free of cultural particularism. I note, however, that if inclusiveness could be gauged quantitatively, then Childs would win the match hands down, for far more people with biblical interests share Christian faith than a thoroughgoing historicism. Were we historical critics to be classified as a religious body, we should have to be judged a most minuscule sect—and one with a pronounced difficulty relating to groups that do not accept our beliefs.

My point in noting this is that Collins’ articulation of his “principle of autonomy, which is indispensable for any critical study, evades the crucial issue of the social character of knowledge. “Neither church nor state,” he explains, “can prescribe for the scholar which conclusion should be reached.” The implication seems to be that critical scholars are autonomous individuals pursuing the truth wherever it may take them, and thus committed to a principled unwillingness to defer to the judgments of a collectivity, religious or political. This implication is not without a substantial element of truth. The concept of academic freedom and the institution of tenure do provide academicians a measure of intellectual independence that is well-nigh unparalleled in human history or in nonacademic institutions of our own time. It is not at all the case, however, that the contemporary academy has found a way to dispense with all social processes for the validation of knowledge. On the contrary, various collectives are endlessly passing on the value of what professors have taught or written, and when the judgments they render are negative, the professors’ ability to continue teaching and publishing inevitably suffers. Not everyone is hired, promoted, or tenured. Not every manuscript is published, nor every project funded. The academy has its own equivalents of excommunication and the revocation of citizenship.

Instead of setting forth a sharp dichotomy between autonomy and submission to a collective body, therefore, we would be wiser to note the inevitable correlation between the character of a social body and the nature of the knowledge that it validates. In the past, most universities, to one degree or another, articulated the ideals and underlying assumptions of a society that was predominantly Christian. Thus chapel could be required (even in some state universities), and a curriculum that privileged Christianity and neglected, subordinated, or misrepresented other religious traditions held sway—though again in varying degrees. Even in the contemporary secular or minimally religious college or university, the remnants of this older pattern can sometimes be detected, as in Bible courses in which the canon is the Christian one and the rich literature of late Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism are overlooked or minimized. In general, however, it is now religion itself and not merely certain traditions that the academy tends to overlook or minimize, replacing one parochialism with another. The regnant presupposition is that religion is an exception to human rationality and thus tolerable only to the extent that it is privatized and thus denied a voice in the public conversation. The knowledge of religion that this new context validates tends therefore to conform to the perspective of outsiders, that is, of people who can survey various traditions in like manner because they either subscribe to none or keep their allegiances private.

It is this distancing that Childs’ canonical method of biblical interpretation effectively and deliberately shatters. This does not, however, mean that his approach is less public than the historicist alternative, or even that it is of use only to his fellow Christians. In point of fact, those who do not subscribe to the Christian faith, or Childs’ particular variety of it, can, in many cases, profitably draw analogies between his canonical method and the dynamics of scripture in their own traditions (including traditions whose scripture is a corpus of secular law or literature). In the case of the revised historicism that Collins advocates, no such analogy is possible, for the method does not grant recognition to other traditions and cannot accept their textual procedures as valid analogies to its own. Indeed, even in this rather modest reformulation, historicism asserts itself in so totalistic a fashion that it cannot interact with other interpretive traditions, as Childs, for example, interacts positively with rabbinic and medieval Jewish exegesis in his commentary on Exodus. Instead, the historicistic position requires that scholars’ loyalties to particular religious communities remain privatized and not be brought out into the open where dialogue takes place. Childs’ revision of Calvinist scripturalism is therefore in some ways more pluralistic than Collins’ revision of nineteenth-century historicism. Founded upon a historical particularity—the Protestant canon—Childs’ method harbors a potential for respect for other historically particular traditions (a potential only begun to be realized in Childs’ own work). By universalizing the claims of historical criticism, Collins denies himself the same potential for pluralism. Though he acknowledges that historical criticism is itself historically particular and a tradition, Collins continues to argue that all other traditions must yield to it.

There are good reasons that a method focused on canon should arouse the ire of uncompromisingly historicistic biblical scholars. One is that canons remind historicists of the community loyalties that their own tradition aspires at best to keep submerged and at worst to eradicate. For a biblical canon is always either Jewish or Samaritan or Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic or Protestant—but never generic, never universal. Its very existence reminds biblical scholars that the object of their study cannot, in the last analysis, be detached from specific religious communities and from traditions that are postbiblical. To the extent that they seek to invalidate those traditions—for example, by branding traditional interpretations as merely misinterpretations—they attack their own project. They cast considerable doubt upon the ongoing importance of the book to which they have devoted their life’s work. They saw off the branch upon which they are sitting.

The fact of canon also challenges the most basic presupposition of historical criticism, that a book must be understood only within the context in which it was produced. The very existence of a canon testifies to the reality of recontextualization : an artifact may survive the circumstances that brought it into being, including the social and political sorts of circumstances to which so much attention is currently devoted. Indeed, it can outlive the culture in which it was produced. Barton points out that even when this happens, as in the case of the texts that came together in the Bible, that original culture continues nonetheless to inform the text. Because the Bible can never be altogether disengaged from the culture of its authors, historical criticism is necessary (though not necessarily in accordance with Troeltsch’s principles).

But unless one holds that the Bible does not deserve to have survived its matrix—that the history of interpretation is only a history of misinterpretation—historical criticism alone cannot suffice. For were the meaning of the text only a function of the particular historical circumstances of its composition, recontextualization would never have occurred, and no Bible would have come into existence. If this be so, the tradition of historical criticism should not be abandoned within pluralistic settings, but only reconceived so as to recognize the challenge of pluralism. What must be abandoned are its totalistic claims. Room must be made for other senses of the text, developed by other traditions, and historical criticism must learn to interact more creatively with those other traditions, neither surrendering to them nor demanding that they surrender to historical criticism. Critical scholars must no longer pronounce other interpretations altogether erroneous simply because they take the texts out of their first historical context—simply because, that is, they permit the texts to survive the ancient civilizations in which they originated.

Historical criticism, in sum, will have to retreat from the severe philosophical historicism that can still often be detected in its applications. It will not only have to surrender the positivistic notion of critical autonomy and recognize itself as a tradition , as Collins argues. It will also have to recognize that it corresponds to a community of interpretation . This community is of a very special kind, however, one dependent upon other communities of interpretation for the very object of its inquiry and, historically if not necessarily, for its motivation as well. Historical critics thus constitute a secondary community; they engage in second-order reflection upon the primary language of the religious communities they study. Like the liberal state at its best, biblical studies in non-confessional settings must facilitate rather than impede dialogue and debate among the primary communities, religious and secular, within its compass. That compass will not be universal: fundamentalists who give historical criticism no quarter and historical critics who are fundamentalistic about their own methods will be unable to participate in the multisided discourse. But the new discourse will be more authentically pluralistic than the kinds that now dominate, especially the kind that falsely claims to be pluralistic when it is only historicistic.

There are, to be sure, many philosophical issues here that are as nettlesome as they are pressing. What common conceptual framework will ground this new discourse once historicism has been relegated to another item within it? How can the pluralism of the new discourse avoid degenerating into relativism, as the senses of the text multiply uncontrollably and the common inquiry dies of fractionation? These points and others like them I all too happily leave to the philosophers, except to note this: the idea that Scripture has multiple senses—some available across community boundaries, others not—is not altogether unprecedented in the history of Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation. Rather, it has been obscured by a long-standing religious preference for the plain sense on the one side and the disrespect of historical critics convinced that only they know what the Bible really means on the other.

It may be time to reexamine how different senses of the text once coexisted in minds that had not surrendered to the nihilistic notion of total semantic indeterminacy. The issue is not new. What is new is the urgency that it acquires in a setting of cultural pluralism. For pluralism makes demands not only upon traditionalists, but also upon critics, not only upon fundamentalists, but also upon liberals—in both the religious and the classical political senses of the word.


My point would be misunderstood if it were taken to be that only a religious affirmation can justify the presence of biblical studies in a curriculum and that the field cannot be open to secular practitioners. Given the long-standing tendency of historical-critical scholars to abuse the method for their own confessional purposes, the presence of secular scholars is not only permissible, but desirable: they keep their religious colleagues honest. No small assignment!

Nor is the foregoing meant to imply that the subjects that biblical scholars sometimes condescendingly term the “ancillary disciplines” (such as Syro-Palestinian archeology and northwest semitic philology) cannot stand on their own, as some of their practitioners now indignantly insist they must. The point is only that if such disciplines do stand on their own, they can no longer justify themselves on the grounds of their relevance to biblical interpretation. There may be a good secular reason for a dean to prefer to fund Ugaritic or Coptic (which no one speaks) over Hungarian or Tagalog (which millions speak). But it is the secular reasons upon which those who want the so-called ancillarydisciplines to stand alone must rely. If they rely instead on the residual momentum of religious belief, they are worse than ancillary: they are parasitic.

What has been argued here is that the secularity of historical criticism represents not the suppression of commitment, but its relocation. Scholars with religious motivations are thus not out of order in challenging their secular colleagues to make public their own motivations in pursuing biblical studies and to explain how the method fulfills that motivation. In an era of multiculturalism and budgetary constraint, this inevitably entails explaining how the relocation of commitment from a traditional religious sphere can maintain a place of relative privilege for the study of the Bible. Should the answer substitute a cultural for a religious motivation and center on the importance of the Bible in Western civilization, then, in the current climate, a defense of the importance of the West, at least for American students, is imperative. This is, of course, ironic in light of the tendency of historical criticism to think of itself as transcending particularism and debunking claims of privilege. It is doubly ironic because historical critics have usually neglected the modes of biblical interpretation that preceded them, labeling them “precritical” and thus irrelevant to their own task.

Any secular defense of the study of the Bible will also need to account for the canon chosen. Will there be an “Old Testament” or a Tanakh? If the former, then why, if Christological claims are not credited? And if the latter, then why again, if Judaism is also disallowed? Should the response be the classic historicist point that the books should be examined within the limits of their dates of composition, one is compelled again to point out that when they were written, they were not yet biblical and that most do not presuppose a book-religion at all. In short, biblical studies inevitably (indeed by definition) involves the affirmation of certain religious judgments—if not for the present, then at least as a legacy of the past with continuing normative effects. Secularity is no guarantee of religious neutrality.

Historical criticism has long posed a major challenge to people with biblical commitments, and for good reason. What I hope to have shown is that the reverse is also the case: the Bible poses a major challenge to people with historical-critical commitments. When those fundamentalist students with whom I began become liberals, they solve some of their problems, but they also open new ones. And with these problems, the contemporary university, child of the Enlightenment and bastion of liberalism, is not well-equipped to help.

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies in the Divinity School and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University. The present essay, the presidential address at the 1992 convention of the New England region of the Society of Biblical Literature, will appear in somewhat different form in his new book, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies, to be published later this year by Westminster/John Knox Press.

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