The historical-critical method, also known as higher criticism, investigates the origins and nature of ancient texts in order to understand the world behind the text. While often discussed in terms of Hebrew and Christian writings from ancient times, historical criticism has also been applied to other religious writings from various parts of the world and various periods of history. (It applies to secular documents as well of course.) The primary goal of the historical-critical method is to discover the text’s primitive or original meaning in its original historical context. The next stage is to explore the text’s contemporary meaning.
Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. (1940 – 2014), who served as professor of New Testament and chair of the Biblical Studies department at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, formerly known as Weston Jesuit School of Theology, defined biblical historical criticism as “the effort at using scientific criteria, historical and literary, and human reason to understand and explain, as objectively as possible, the meaning intended by the biblical writers.”
As we have seen in the last four weeks, biblical texts contain a variety of literary forms such as history, symbol, folklore, and presumed or imagined historical scenarios. The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke are good examples.
One legacy of biblical criticism in U.S. American culture was the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Fundamentalism in the USA began, at least partly, as a response to the biblical criticism of the nineteenth century. Some fundamentalists believed that historical-critical believers had invented an entirely new religion “completely at odds with the Christian faith.” There were also conservative Protestants who accepted biblical criticism. This too is part of biblical criticism’s legacy.
In terms of my own Roman Catholic Christian tradition, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Roman Catholic theology avoided biblical criticism because of its reliance on rationalism, preferring instead to engage in traditional exegesis, based on the narrow-focused works of the “Church Fathers.” The Catholic Church showed strong opposition to biblical criticism during that period. Frequent political revolutions, bitter opposition of “liberalism” to the Church, and the expulsion of religious orders from France and Germany, made the Catholic Church suspicious of any new intellectual currents.
The Roman Catholic dogmatic constitution Dei Filius (“Son of God”), approved by the First Vatican Council in 1871, rejected biblical criticism, reaffirming that the Bible was written by God and that it was inerrant. But that began to change in the final decades of the nineteenth century when, for example, the French Dominican Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855–1938) established a school in Jerusalem called the École prátique d’études biblique, which became the École Biblique, to encourage study of the Bible using the historical-critical method.
At the same time, my alma mater the Catholic University of Leuven was exploring the historical-critical methodology that would become its hallmark. A major step was taken in 1889 with the creation of a Leuven course entitled “Critical History of the Old Testament” by Albin Van Hoonacker (1857 – 1933). This course was an early attempt to apply the historical-critical method to biblical texts. At a time when the historical-critical exploration of the Bible among Catholics was still highly controversial, Van Hoonacker became the first professor to teach an historical-critical understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. On 18 November 1893, Pope Leo XIII, pope from 1878 to 1903, promulgated the encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus (“The most provident God”). That letter gave the first formal authorization for the use of critical methods in biblical scholarship.
The situation changed greatly, however, after Leo’s death and the election of Pope Pius X in 1903. A very staunch traditionalist, Pius X, who was pope from 1903 to 1914, saw biblical criticism as part of a growing and destructive “modernist” tendency in the Church. The École Biblique was shut down and Lagrange was called back to France.
Finally, in 1943, the lights came back on. Pope Pius XII, pope from 1939 to 1958, issued the papal encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (“Inspired by the Holy Spirit”) sanctioning historical criticism and opening a new epoch in Catholic critical scholarship. The dogmatic constitution Dei verbum (“Word of God”), approved by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965 further promoted biblical criticism. Pope Paul VI was pope from 1963 to 1968.
Raymond E. Brown (1928 – 1998), Joseph A. Fitzmyer (1920 -2016), and Roland E. Murphy (1917 – 2002) were the most famous U.S. Catholic scholars to apply biblical criticism and the historical-critical method in analyzing the Bible: together, they authored The Jerome Biblical Commentary in 1968 and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary in 1990.The latest version, The Jerome Biblical Commentary for the Twenty-First Century was published in 2022, edited by John J. Collins, Gina Hens-Piazza, Barbara Reid OP, and Donald Senior CP (1940 – 2022).
And so we move forward in faith and understanding.
(Next week a biblical Easter meditation.)