Historical criticism (also known as 'higher criticism) originates from the mid-18th century. One of the things that happened around that time was that everyone started to equate science with truth, and to want to do everything scientifically – including the arts. Because theology wasn’t very scientific, people started to question central ideas of Christianity, including the historical reliability of the Bible, which had never been much of an issue before. People started to realise that the texts had gone through editing processes; that they’d been written in particular historical contexts; and that if Deuteronomy describes the death of Moses, maybe there’s space to suggest that Moses didn’t actually write it after all. People started to reading the bible ‘scientifically’, trying to analyse it and work out the original sources of all the stories written down in the biblical texts.. Thus was born historical criticism, a spider first swallowed deliberately to catch the fly of Enlightenment scepticism.
Historical criticism assumes that the books of the Bible have been gathered together from a whole range of times and places, each book having no certain author and maybe even several authors; that the books we have are the result of editing other texts and oral sources into a form which suits the priorities of the authors and editors. Historical criticism has several key features:
- The Bible isn’t seen as a unitary whole. Because the books were written separately, historical criticism doesn’t think you can use one part of the Bible to interpret another, and so it stops being possible to, say, use the gospels to interpret the Old Testament prophets.
- Historical criticism is secular: it refuses to interpret the Bible with the assumption that God was in charge of putting it together, that the Holy Spirit inspired the authors, and guided the Church as they decided which books should and shouldn’t be allowed into the canon.
- Historical criticism prioritises the historical circumstances of each text, seeing the historical context as the primary concern of biblical interpretation. The Sitz-im-Leben – the ‘situation-in-life of the text is all important, and what the text means now must be related to what the text meant then, and so it’s not ok to read the Bible in ways that ignore the original context, author, or readers.
- Historical criticism sees traditional forms of biblical exegesis like midrash or typological and allegorical interpretations as inappropriate and unhelpful.
- Historical criticism thinks that we can know the original intentions of the author, and that these original intentions are the text’s ‘real’ meaning. This means that the text’s meaning belongs to the author, not to the text itself, which, if you’re familiar with literary criticism and ‘the author is dead’, has its problems.