Observations from an Older Historical Theologian

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.

  • Jack

(Next week a biblical Easter meditation.)



8 thoughts on “Historical-Critical Method

  1. Theology is faith seeking understanding, It’s difficult to imagine doing that without understanding the who, what, where and when behind the texts. All your readers are indebted to you for making the time and effort to bring us the information we need for the correct comprehension of biblical works.

  2. Dear Jack,
    Thanks to you and all of your fellow theological historians who enlighten and explain to us less educated/experienced seekers of truth. Without your dedicated efforts, we might be left today with inexplicable and incomprehensible texts that have little meaning in today’s context. I find it interesting that “modernism” is considered tabu when referencing sacred texts. The debate about literal versus interpretive meaning brings to the fore the struggle about the intent of sacred scripture. As a former English teacher, I taught that in reading a text, the message is the essential with the form being the vehicle that best conveys the message. It frustrates me when the language often obscures the intent; e.g., in the Creed, does the word “consubstantial” clarify or confuse? As you have said many times before, God’s revelation continues and we should welcome enlightenment and not fear new knowledge. How ironic that the Catholic Church declares itself the repository of truth but sometimes fears to examine how it presents it. Enlightenment comes with examination. Thank goodness for the Jack Dicks of the world!

  3. Thank you Dr. Jack, for your response in previous blog on Gospel of John, you sparkle.   And now, your reflections on Historical-Critical Method, which is as much eteology beyond theology.  Taken together, they are a rich treasure.

    Frank the English teacher probably should have edited this, but here goes.
    The questing, or as you so often explain, faith seeking understanding, is a “matter” of awareness, of “minding” the interpretation of things and events, waring creation as it happens.  This is the project, or object, of believing, of opening the heart to a change of consciousness, which is a spiritual mutation.  Myth, magic and the metrological aspects of mentition are always useful up to a point, but pointless unless “seeing-through” the veil of phenomena, beyond the slices of limited perspective, to the spiritual verity of origin, i.e., the Creator at work unfettered by our logical, rational, temporal concepts of horizon, circumference or center.  Sapiens, individually and as a species, born on this fragile Earth our island home, does have the capacity for an aperspectival regard of the vast expanses of interstellar space, but not without exercising the mutation of our consciousness, one by one, individually.  I think Jesus believes that about us, and He would know.  In a way, He has faith in us!  I think I believe that He is not a projection, not a mythic hero, but a real human in every way possible, and more. 

    A key aspect of believing, I think, is the trust we place in those people who transcribed and translated for us, with some hope over the centuries, transmitting a record of the self-awareness of this Jesus, the Yeshua who called YHWH as “Abba” in reality.  I could not say this except for historical critical method at work.

    Reality is not a static given, an unquestionable universal lump of data never to be contested (to which I object and resist). Whatever I as an individual (a participant in humanity) perceive of sensorial reality, of phenomena that appeal to “belief” as real, is filtered or tinted by– dare I say it?– grace, a dynamic that casts Being in a benign light, a gift from an ever-present origin.  Could one experiment with “ever-present origin” as an interpretation of the term “G-d” or YHWH, even if that would be too awkward because language is ever deficient in this regard?  Why not experiment in the light with finding a new interpretation, new language, new statements “for another voice” that are admittedly weak or leniently held, without hoops of steel, but instead, are open statements, complementarian, charitable, socially and culturally gracious, consciously and conscientiously expansive?  In this multicultural, post-modern, post-Christian time, is this not the antidote, the middle way to forfend forever-wars?  We could try it with one another, better sooner than later.  

    My bet, my belief, my wager, is that human consciousness– conscience, really– is still scathed by two recent world wars, conflicts twixt totalitarianism and liberalism, along with certain “police actions” and regime-changes bolstered by sciences subjected to the requirements of military service.  Totality– totalizing of existence– is ephemeral and actually fragile, not as sure and secure as some people want from reality “in order” for the world to be metered, calculated, and “right” according to them.  History, and even our own so-called “civil war” over enslavement, shows that every human heart, mind and will yearns and seeks freedom for the new and different in the emporium of this infinite and eternal creation, “forever and ever. Amen.”  We say that religiously so often, but the phrase itself is a buoyant epiphany, if we try sinking into it.

    You might say that “quaero ergo credo” is in the wind.  Camus extends it, “Je me revólte, donc nous sommes.”  Gianni Vattimo writes, “Credere di credere,” which to some formalist factions is not enough by dogmatic weights and measures.  This old challenge belongs to the Spirit of Jesus who is on The Way, when He asks, “Will you also leave me?” and of whom even Pilate is said to have asked, “What is truth?”  These are questions of truth and belief that pierce the veil, that see through to reality at its origin.  Yes, I believe that I believe Jesus was and is, still calling from my own formative local experience of both the giving and the taking of the church.  In this, I think I am not alone.  Belief, or becoming aware of what is true, seems to reside in the person asking questions from within, for the sake of transfiguring perception, mutating, interpreting what is already at the heart of the Hebrew/Christian scriptural tradition– metanoia. 
    In other words religion, upon a closer look, is not about what at first it appears to be.  The insight of a closer look invites a structural change in consciousness, a metanoia flowing from the crucifixion and resurrection, which concluded violent blood sacrifice, and in truth unmasks blood sacrifice as deficient, symbolized by the Temple holocausts.  This Girardian interpretation might be the preferential option for weakness and inclusive looseness, for an enduring charity lax in legal rigidity, shunning unquenchable hatred and zeal for incinerating anything that differs from the officially fixed program.

    Factions form over fictions, as Vattimo intimates in speaking of “half-catholics” accused as lax in law, even if loving in life, living in a social wilderness by wits & wile, not unlike David of Bethlehem in Galilee (I Sam:1-13, a typology in the lectionary for Lent IV.  In our calendar this year, I rejoice musically at the cry “Wachet auf” in Ephesians, heard almost on JS Bach’s birthday, 3/21 !)  The teachers, Pharisees, are described in John 9:41 as ignorant of Yeshua’s origin, not receptive to the light of His Origin, mouthing “we understand” what is apparent in their perspective, but not seeing through appearances.  Perhaps this passage on Lent IV describes a warning against being asleep, blind, and unaware of integrity in perceiving the spiritual beauty, goodness and truth of creation and our role in being here.

    Regard for the matter of creation, which is the material “matrix” that mothers the expanding universe on its way, is also a matter of regarding the ever-present Spirit, the non-material operant that squirms under the heading of “religion.”  (Whether it began as “religare” or “religere,” binding up or re-reading, is a fruitful etymology.)  But God-as-such is not the designated victim of our poor perception, not the catch-all and the gap under the rug where we sweep the dust of tiresome doubt when the going gets too tough while thinking deeply of the origin of reality.  

    Matthew and Luke portray Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, and Athens by extension.  Well within His gaze, and wet with His tears, are the struggles for personal integrity and social cohesion among society, culture, civilization even.  In other words, Jesus knows that humans do desire and pursue those twin teloi out of necessity, and that such need springs from being human, and our coming to knowledge that Truth grinds against the Absurd, a world partly of our own making.  Here is the rub, the troubles in theodicy, of distinguishing or confusing evil as natural or moral, from our limited perspective.  Nature regards us leniently with tender indifference (Camus), without any judgment or condemnation.  If Nature regards us with tender indifference, the regard of her indifference is made tender by humanity itself, by our own humanizing of Nature and our moral response to the gaze of so many other eyes and intelligences.  What individual is not of many minds, what personality is not developed and formed by the responses of others?  Sapiens is more malleable, mutation is more intentional among the living in conversation, than in digging up corpses for interrogation.  Live now, choose life, l’chaim.

    In life, we question ourselves, or as once said by the mother of a late Algerian friend, Much of life is about doing, and undoing.  That was her experience in caravans, and a fitting description of how the process of our inherited mind and soul works.  However… we do not live at an oasis, we only pause there in shade to dispel our mirages, tricks of a false light.  The procession is about meeting the real Beloved, from Galilee, who truly loves to meet us on the way, in the wilderness, and walks and talks with us in tenderness.   

  4. Thanks very much Jack for a well done article. I am familiar with the Jerome Biblical Commentary and the teaching of Vatican II in that regards. I have access to a local Catholic College in my area and look forward to taking a look at the latest version from 2022 for my own updates in this line of thinking.
    Keep up your great work.

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