3 Things I Would Like to See Evangelical Leaders Stop Saying about Biblical Scholarship

On occasion I come across some sweeping public claims made by Evangelical leaders about the state of biblical scholarship. These claims may be genuinely felt, but they are still false, though they persist in the Evangelical subculture.

1. Historical Criticism is either dying or at least losing momentum in academia. Rather than assuming that the Bible is revelatory (revealed by God, inspired) and therefore historically accurate, historical criticism seeks outside verification through various means of historical and textual analysis. Historical Criticism has its roots in Europe and has governed the academic study of the Bible for about 300 years.

I’m not saying anyone has to like it or agree with it. I’m only saying historical criticism isn’t dead or dying. Ask anyone who has taken Bible classes or earned a degree in Bible from a university.

True, many universities also engage in postmodern approaches that are critical of historical criticism (e.g., Feminist studies), but you’d still be hard pressed to find academic programs in Bible that don’t take as their axiomatic starting point a historical critical approach to the Bible. Look at course descriptions on the internet of departments of Religion, Judaism, Near Eastern Studies, Christian Origins, Hebrew Bible, etc.  “The Historical-Critical Method” is what defines these programs.

Claiming that historical criticism is passé may suggest to some that conservative biblical scholarship has won the “battle” against historical criticism and is now finally vindicated. This may sound appealing in popular circles, but it is not true in academia.

2. Source Criticism of the Pentateuch is in a state of chaos.  Rather than accepting the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) in the middle of the second millennium BC, source criticism claims that scribes living after the Babylonian exile (after 539 BC) created the Pentateuch out of various pre-existent “sources.”

Source criticism has been a major thorn in the side of conservative Christians since the 19th century. But again, like it or hate it, source criticism is not dead. What is dead is how the earliest source critics theorized about these sources, most notably Julius Wellhausen in the late 19th century. His theories have been criticized from almost the beginning, but a you’d  have a hard time finding a research institution where the basic outlines of source criticism that Wellhausen popularized aren’t a given.

In my experience, the motivation behind this claim is apologetic. Casting doubt on the reigning theory of the Pentateuch supposedly elevates by default the traditional view.  But this does not address the serious problems with the traditional view that gave rise to alternate explanations in the first place.

3. Biblical archaeology basically supports the historical veracity of the Bible. Biblical archaeology has helped us understand a lot about the world of the Bible and clarified a considerable amount of what we find in the Bible. But the archaeological record has not been friendly for one vital issue, Israel’s origins: the period of slavery in Egypt, the mass departure of Israelite slaves from Egypt, and the violent conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelites.

The strong consensus is that there is at best sparse indirect evidence for these biblical episodes, and for the conquest there is considerable evidence against it.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to be done and people don’t need to keep an open mind. Who knows that the future will bring? But, my only point is this: at present to say that archaeology is a friend to the historical accuracy of the Bible may be true for some things, but not for the foundational story of Israel’s origins–slavery, exodus, and conquest. This has been and continues to be a big problem, and claiming otherwise just makes the matter worse.

Anyway, I know that across the Evangelical spectrum–especially with Evangelical biblical scholars–you will find various nuances and differences of opinion on these three issues, especially off the record. I’m only talking here about uninformed public claims made by Evangelical leaders. They may be rhetorically effective, but they are false and only lead to more cognitive dissonance.




historical criticism and Christian truth are not--and cannot be--enemies
10 books that made me rethink the Bible
"We are all heroes of our own stories": interview with Brandon Withrow on academic freedom in evangelicalism
Reading John: An Interview with Christopher Skinner
  • Charles

    But in time things change.. Lands change and things are hidden or a land that the bible is talking about may move… because of conditions like earth quakes… and natural causes..

  • Charles

    Interesting.. Read.. Thanks.

  • D Hunter Sanchez

    I am looking for an answer to the assertion made by some scholars that 1. Jesus believed that Adam and Eve were of special creation i.e. first humans. 2. Moses wrote the Torah. My rejoinder is that Jesus was also human who taught the stories or traditions popular in his day and among his people without a concern for historical accuracy. He was conveying spiritual truth in order to “resurrect the spiritually dead.” To be clear, I believe Jesus is God and rose physically from the dead. Any help or a sign post to sources? I am new to this site.

  • Solon Athens

    χαίρετε Ὁ ανθρῶπε

  • MacPeter

    Hi Peter, forgive me if you’ve addressed this elsewhere, but I’m currently reading through your NIVAC Commentary on Exodus, and in that book you seem to say forthrightly “these things really happened.” But both in Evolution of Adam and this blog post, you seem to have moved away from that position. I’m currently up in the air as to where exactly we might say that the OT becomes “historical” (although I realize that even this question probably reads modern priorities into an ancient text); my default position is to say that Genesis 12 is where the *ancient* history begins. Is this a good position to take in your view? Can you recommend any good resources for me to learn more about this? (I’m an evolutionary creationist–so I have no problem with that; I asked you a question in the Q&A when you came to Trinity Western University last year about whether Jesus and Paul “knew” that Adam wasn’t historical–thanks for coming!)

  • Emmanuel

    Thank you, Morris. Your words prove that you are a straight thinker. They deny and condemn events recorded in the Bible using pure speculation and fail to prove a single textual citation or archaeological evidence to buttress their speculations. And they want everyone to believe what they say.

  • Emmanuel

    Nathan, all that Morris is asking for is for the ‘scholarly experts’ to provide the tiniest shred of evidence to support their refutations of the Biblical record. Whether a historian lived in 18th century France, or in 18th Century BCE Upper Mesopotamia or in Iron-age Palestine, he must produce textual or archaeological evidence to support his claims, otherwise everything he says or writes is his own speculation and totally un-scholarly. Period.

  • Emmanuel

    Here is an example, Peter. You write: “Rather than accepting the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) in the middle of the second millennium BC, source criticism claims that scribes living after the Babylonian exile (after 539 BC) created the Pentateuch out of various pre-existent “sources.”” Who were those scribes living after the Babylonian exile? Name one of them and tell the whole world your source of that information. What were the ‘pre-existent sources’? Have you yourself sighted, read or examined any of those pre-existent sources? What stories do they contain that gives evidence that they were plagiarized by the post-Babylonian scribes? Has science or any dating method examined and proved that the available scrolls or papyrus on which the texts of the Pentateuch are recorded post-date the Babylonian exile? Many Bible truths deniers often claim that many accounts in the Old Testament were derived from old Babylonian myths., but they never pause to consider the possibility of a reversal, that is, that the Babylonian and Mesopotamian myths rather derived from the Biblical story which the ancient Israelites carried with them into Babylon. The Pentateuch is a largely a chronological account of the emergence and history of the Israelites, and it includes, in a specific place in history, Isreal’s encounters with the Babylonians. These events happened long after the era of Moses, so to claim, without providing a single shred of evidence, that the Pentateuch was derived from Babylonian myths is most unfortunate and serves as a clear example of the speculative and un-scholarly contributions to the debate. You see, the problem with those who are eager to black-wash the truths of them Bible is that they end up behaving like the proverbial ostrich which thinks that by burying just its head in the sand, it is securely obscured from discovery or attack.