The historical-critical method


#1

I am very interested in the historical context of the Bible. In my search I came across this book: How to Read the Bible by Marc Zvi Brettler (books.google.com/books?id=39nQafdJ_ssC)

Brettler is a Jewish scholar (the above Bible is the Hebrew Bible). What I'm wondering is whether there whether there are any Catholic scholars exploring the historical-critical method of Biblical analysis. I remember several occassions when Pope Benedict made comments about the OT that indicated he was at least familiar with some of it's conclusions and perhaps even taking them as mundane fact (e.g. the Documentary Hypothesis).


#2

There are numerous Catholic Biblical scholars who use historical-critical approaches.


#3

[quote="RyanBlack, post:2, topic:330374"]
There are numerous Catholic Biblical scholars who use historical-critical approaches.

[/quote]

Can you recommend one, ideally directed at non-scholars with a broad coverage of subject? (A Catholic version of the above book, perhaps.)


#4

Practically all Catholic Biblical scholars, whether conservative, moderate, or liberal, subscribe to the historical-critical method.

For those who are unfamiliar with term, the word “criticism” in this sense refers to study, evaluation, and interpretation of a writing itself (with special regard to when it was written, to whom it was written, and how this affects the meaning of the text, but not so much so the theological interpretation). Historical criticism" is as Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

“Historical-critical interpretation of a text seeks to discover the precise sense the words intended to convey at their time and place of origin…. [But] it is important to keep in mind that any human utterance of a certain weight contains more than the author may have been immediately aware of at the time….”--Jesus of Nazareth Part II, Foreword.

In other words this methodology, while important to keep one from reading a text in a modern context that was not intended by the writer (and thus coming to an inaccurate conclusion about its meaning) is only one of many tools to be used by the Catholic exegete. There are other “critical” methods as well as methods that are philological and completely spiritual in nature that should also be employed. None of these are used alone, of course.

From the Ignatius Study editions to the footnotes in the New American Bible Revised Edition and editions of the Jerusalem Bible, you will find various historical-critical facets mixed in with other approaches as helps to explain a text or the reason why a certain corrected reading of a text has been preferred over another (which would be “textual critical,” in this particular instance). You will even find various such methods employed when the Catechism touches on Scripture.

There was a time in history when this particular method was seen by many scholars as an end to itself, but this has waned in favor of a more complete “let the text stand for itself” approach in the mainstream. This, however, has not meant that it has been tossed aside because one cannot forget that the Scriptures are a product of their own particular time in history.


#5

I think to say that Pope Benedict is at least familiar with the historical-critical method is an understatement. He is a scholar of the first rank and very perceptive in his critiques and analysis.

I think the majority of scholars accept at least the basic premise and methodology of the historical-critical method. I also believe that adopting and utilizing the historical-critical method implies that one has a weakened faith or can be in danger of abandoning the faith either.

ChadS


#6

[quote="Bubba_Switzler, post:3, topic:330374"]
Can you recommend one, ideally directed at non-scholars with a broad coverage of subject? (A Catholic version of the above book, perhaps.)

[/quote]

Although he died in the late 90s, Fr. Raymond Brown was considered by many to be the leading Johannine scholar (certainly in the US, and possibly world-wide) of his time. A number of his works are available, including An Introduction to the New Testament, are widely read in New Testament studies. I have not read that work, but I have read his The Community of the Beloved Disciple. As for Old Testament studies, let me do some searching, and get back later. If I don't respond within a few days, remind me through a PM.


#7

For Old Testament studies, a work that includes a discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis, you might try Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction, by Fr. Lawrence Boadt.


#8

Thanks, everyone, for all the great answers.

I am familiar with the standard annotations that most good Bibles include. These are, of course, better than nothing but fall well short of what I'm looking for. (I have heard about the Ignatius series. It's out of my price range and I have yet to find it in a library. I am curious to see how far it goes, though.)

I really enjoyed Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible (in this case, the Torah, not even the full OT). What I really appreciated was the full historical context that is missing from even annotated Bibles. One could almost describe it as a history book of the Biblical period and subject. A while ago I found an audio from a NT course that included such topics as the Roman family and the Second Temple Period Jewish religious life, all of which added to my understanding of the context.

Josephus is an example non-Bliblical NT source but reading Josephus can be almost as difficult as reading the NT as it was written in the same period and relies on most of the same background knowledge. It would also be nice to see some non-Blblical tradition incorporated as well (e.g. the fate of the apostles).

Call me lazy, but I prefer to find scholars who have done the work of integrating sources and explaining them in modern terms. I'm interested in history but I'm not a historian much less a Biblical scholar.

Thanks for the specific book suggestions, I'm making a list of them.


#9

I ran across a book by Mark Shea about reading the Bible like a 1st Century (AD) Catholic, but I haven't tracked it down to read it yet. There's an excerpt at his website...

mark-shea.com/7.html

God bless


#10

[quote="Michael57, post:9, topic:330374"]
I ran across a book by Mark Shea about reading the Bible like a 1st Century (AD) Catholic, but I haven't tracked it down to read it yet. There's an excerpt at his website...

mark-shea.com/7.html

[/quote]

That's a great article, in and of itself. I kind of knew most of it but he brings it together with wit and panache. I will add that book to my list, thank you.

It also goes at leat partway to answering one of my burning questions: how to best understand the Jewish/Christian schism.


#11

It sounds like you got a good handle on this, but do make sure that you are not confusing the historical-critical method with reading or studying the Scriptures from a historical viewpoint. The Bible set in history and the historical-critical method are not the same things.

The historical-critical method is about reading and studying the Scriptures in human terms, as if to tap into the mindset of the author with all that person’s understandings and limitations based on when they lived in history (and what their culture was like at that time,).

It is also about seeing the Scriptures from the viewpoint of the original audience, with their own mindset, concepts, culture, and limitations.

And it is about gleaning this information to understand how the Scriptures stand not only as God’s Word but as a human work, without denying their inspiration of course.

To illustrate: some atheists like to argue that the description of a dome or firmament in Genesis chapter 1 proves that the Bible cannot be true, since there is no literal dome covering the earth.

The historical-critical method takes into account that all Mesopotamian cultures understood the earth being a flat disc, with mountains and seas and rivers on it, and with a metallic dome covering everything in which the sun, stars, and moon were affixed (and the dome contained sluices or “floodgates” to allow the rains to come down from waters that the ancients believed were on the other side being held back by this dome).

Knowing this aspect of past cultures allows the exegete to arrive at the understanding that the Bible writer was explaining how the world as they knew it in their own time came about, using concepts that reflected the “science” or cosmology of the day. This counters the atheist’s view that the Bible is wrong since it shows that the author wasn’t trying to explain the actual facets of the physical universe but was trying to teach how they came about and what this meant religiously.

This method doesn’t attempt to place the text into a historical context or explain it in history, like the writings you mention. It merely takes advantage of historical research, ancient literary analysis and the findings of anthropology, and archaeology of the period to use as a lense through which to read the text.


#12

I would like to understand better the distinction that you draw in the first paragraph. What would be an example of “The Bible set in history” that was not also historical-critical? Perhaps the historical-critical is narrower than what I am describing, limited only to analyzing the text and discerning it’s meaning. But to take one example from above, the audio course I mentioned covered the Roman family becuase, the professor argued, it was a model for the early Church and was necessary to understand the terminology used. A larger example is the significant of the pre-temple Israel religious practices to the disputes (worship in Jerusalem vs. elsewhere) in the Torah.


#13

[quote="Bubba_Switzler, post:10, topic:330374"]
That's a great article, in and of itself. I kind of knew most of it but he brings it together with wit and panache. I will add that book to my list, thank you.

It also goes at leat partway to answering one of my burning questions: how to best understand the Jewish/Christian schism.

[/quote]

My interests are running parallel to yours. I saw a set of books (cheap) at Christian Book Distributors for $30. I think it was a 6 volume set on 1st Century Judaism, History and Culture. I think it also addressed Roman rule in Jerusalem. Been thinking about getting it.

Got my set of Early Church Fathers there - 38 volumes for not much money. Great reading so far! At least in vol 1. :thumbsup:


#14

[quote="Bubba_Switzler, post:12, topic:330374"]
I would like to understand better the distinction that you draw in the first paragraph. What would be an example of "The Bible set in history" that was not also historical-critical? Perhaps the historical-critical is narrower than what I am describing, limited only to analyzing the text and discerning it's meaning. But to take one example from above, the audio course I mentioned covered the Roman family becuase, the professor argued, it was a model for the early Church and was necessary to understand the terminology used. A larger example is the significant of the pre-temple Israel religious practices to the disputes (worship in Jerusalem vs. elsewhere) in the Torah.

[/quote]

What you've been describing is in fact the Bible in its historical setting and not the methodology that uses the word "historical" but doesn't mean the same thing.

It is narrower than many think, as it is merely a methodology (which is what the word "critical" means). The word "historical" means to analyze the text via facets of the historical sciences, i.e. archaeology, lexicography, textual transmission, ancient cosmology. The end result is not to understand where the events in Scripture lie in history but how understanding the ancient writers/audience setting affects the interpretation we come up with today.

As for the Bible set in history, one could use an example you drew up, namely Josephus. One can read the text of the New Testament and get a deeper understanding of some of the events by comparing what one can read in Antiquities of the Jews.

In such a case you are not trying to come up with an interpretation or compose a better reading of the ancient New Testament text as you would when you use the same writing according to the historical-critical method (though facets could overlap), but are attempting to understand the setting and perhaps the reason why certain things happened as they did in the New Testament text.

As a methodology, the historical-critical method follows particular rules like the scientific method. You develop a hypothesis, you test it with data gathered, you arrive at a conclusion, you have your conclusion checked by an uninterested source, and you end up with a "theory" (which doesn't mean "unproven conclusion" as it does in the vernacular). The theory then acts as a tool for the exegete to see how it affects a particular reading and any conclusions the exegete has been searching for (which could be merely as simple as searching for whether or not a certain letter in a text should be a vowel and not a consonant due to a scribal error).

But it appears you are studying a bit of both. As I mentioned both can and do overlap. It's like saying you enjoy reading about the planets and stars (astronomy) though you are not doing so via the method of physics. The two may overlap in your enjoyment of astronomy, but you aren't actually involved in using physics as the means to understand the planets and stars.


#15

[quote="DelsonJacobs, post:14, topic:330374"]
What you've been describing is in fact the Bible in its historical setting and not the methodology that uses the word "historical" but doesn't mean the same thing.

It is narrower than many think, as it is merely a methodology (which is what the word "critical" means). The word "historical" means to analyze the text via facets of the historical sciences, i.e. archaeology, lexicography, textual transmission, ancient cosmology. The end result is not to understand where the events in Scripture lie in history but how understanding the ancient writers/audience setting affects the interpretation we come up with today.

As for the Bible set in history, one could use an example you drew up, namely Josephus. One can read the text of the New Testament and get a deeper understanding of some of the events by comparing what one can read in Antiquities of the Jews.

In such a case you are not trying to come up with an interpretation or compose a better reading of the ancient New Testament text as you would when you use the same writing according to the historical-critical method (though facets could overlap), but are attempting to understand the setting and perhaps the reason why certain things happened as they did in the New Testament text.

As a methodology, the historical-critical method follows particular rules like the scientific method. You develop a hypothesis, you test it with data gathered, you arrive at a conclusion, you have your conclusion checked by an uninterested source, and you end up with a "theory" (which doesn't mean "unproven conclusion" as it does in the vernacular). The theory then acts as a tool for the exegete to see how it affects a particular reading and any conclusions the exegete has been searching for (which could be merely as simple as searching for whether or not a certain letter in a text should be a vowel and not a consonant due to a scribal error).

But it appears you are studying a bit of both. As I mentioned both can and do overlap. It's like saying you enjoy reading about the planets and stars (astronomy) though you are not doing so via the method of physics. The two may overlap in your enjoyment of astronomy, but you aren't actually involved in using physics as the means to understand the planets and stars.

[/quote]

I'm certainly not interested in the sort of formal historical-critical methodology you describe. I would suggest a different analogy: doing science vs. studying the fruits of science. There is the scientific method that scientists follow to do science. And the there are popular books and shows on science that explain what science has discovered. I'm interested in the later.

I would also quible with your hard distinction between historical-critical and Bible in history. Pretty much everthing that interests me (here) revolves around the Bible and understanding it better, providing, as you say, a deeper understanding. I'm not stuck on using the term "historical-critical" but "Bible in history" seems too weak.

I've been reading the book I mentioned in the OP, How to Read the Bible. Nothing really dramatic so far (I'm on ch 7) and not a lot of historical context as I had hoped but it's quite centered on understanding the Biblical text.


#16

[quote="Bubba_Switzler, post:15, topic:330374"]
And the there are popular books and shows on science that explain what science has discovered. I'm interested in the later.

[/quote]

In this vein, I recommend The New Jerome Bible Handbook (see here).


#17

[quote="Just_Lurking, post:16, topic:330374"]
In this vein, I recommend The New Jerome Bible Handbook (see here).

[/quote]

This also looks good: amazon.com/The-New-Jerome-Biblical-Commentary/dp/0136149340

But the tight focus on "verse by verse commentary" is seems too text-centric to me. Instead, I would prefer a more general background that provides the context for interpreting the text. An outside-in view instead of an inside-out view. (Does that make sense?)


#18

I've read Brettler's book and I'm not terribly impressed.

If you're really interested in the Church's "take" on the historical-critical method, then you should read this document, particularly the section on the h/c method.

ewtn.com/library/CURIA/PBCINTER.HTM

You should keep in mind that this method does not read scripture from the point of view from which it was written, which is to say a book of faith. H/C strips away faith and the supernatural, and it merely looks at the historically-verifiable facts that can be determined by reason, logic, or archeology, etc. It is skeptical about everything else.

In particular, the method reads the book of Ruth, for example, and tears it to shreds, as something that simply couldn't have happened anyplace, at any time.

Jews look at the book of Esther as a hilarious comedy, because of it's implausibility and lack of historical credibility, overlaid as it is with roadrunner cartoon slapstick irony.


#19

Then the Handbook is what you are looking for. It is quite different from the Commentary - the Handbook is chapter by chapter, not verse by verse, and discusses the historical context as well as the text. And used, it’s only $8 plus $4 shipping.


#20

[quote="Bubba_Switzler, post:15, topic:330374"]
I'm certainly not interested in the sort of formal historical-critical methodology you describe. I would suggest a different analogy: doing science vs. studying the fruits of science. There is the scientific method that scientists follow to do science. And the there are popular books and shows on science that explain what science has discovered. I'm interested in the later.

I would also quible with your hard distinction between historical-critical and Bible in history. Pretty much everthing that interests me (here) revolves around the Bible and understanding it better, providing, as you say, a deeper understanding. I'm not stuck on using the term "historical-critical" but "Bible in history" seems too weak.

I've been reading the book I mentioned in the OP, How to Read the Bible. Nothing really dramatic so far (I'm on ch 7) and not a lot of historical context as I had hoped but it's quite centered on understanding the Biblical text.

[/quote]

Like I mentioned before, it's sounds like you have a pretty good grip on things. Being stuck on terms can limit a person to just studying one thing or less. Therefore I am siding with you as to the approach you are choosing and would recommend tossing the terms to the wind...as long as one studies the Word of God with the attention such a study deserves. :)


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