Jesus wants you to take historical criticism seriously (or something like that; just read the post)

In August 2011, Mark S. Smith (Skirball Profesor of Bible and Near Eastern Studies at New York University) delivered his presidential address at the Catholic Biblical Association of America meeting, which was published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly the next year (issue 74, 2012).

The address is entitled “God in Israel’s Bible: Divinity between the World and Israel, between the Old and the New.” The meat of it gives an overview of the evidence for the “early history” of Israel’s God Yahweh according to the biblical and extrabiblical evidence.

A few posts on this topic of have popped up on this blog recently (for example here), but my point today isn’t to go over the arguments themselves, as fascinating as they are.

Rather, I want us to catch a glimpse of Smith’s own theological posture from which he works through this complex–and for some, I imagine, unsettling–issue.

If you’re familiar with this blog and some of my own writings on the Bible (e.g., here, here, and here) you’ll notice some overlap between Smith’s theological posture and my own in approaching the historical study of the Bible from a position of faith.

Of course, there are differences too. For one thing, Smith is WAY smarter than I am. On the other hand, I can play Day Tripper on the guitar, and I’ll bet he can’t. But that’s not the point. I just find his thoughts on theology to be interesting and I think many of you will, too.

I picked out 4 quotes, and I post the first one here with the others to follow.

As a Catholic Christian for whom the incarnation is a central mystery of faith, it seems to me that in the search for God little refuge will be found behind the walls of the text: God is not met in the text without reference to the world outside the text. God is met in our world, and not only in our canon and not only in our church. In our study of the Scriptures, God awaits both within and without, and perhaps notably in the encounter between the two. This viewpoint, it seems to me, is hardly a modern or secular one. It informs Israel’s earliest glimpses of God, as identified by historical criticism. (4)

In other words, taking the incarnation seriously means taking the study of history seriously.

Even the study of Scripture on its own canonical terms will drive one, sooner or later, to historical study as well. Why? Because at some point, usually when we confront interpretive dilemmas (like the diverse portraits of Israel’s God that Smith writes about), questions like the following come up:

  • What would this have meant to the people who first heard it?
  • When was this written?
  • Why do these texts give such different points of view on the same subject?

These are historical questions, folks. And we all ask them. If you don’t believe me, check the notes, maps, and charts, in your study Bibles.

Taking refuge in the canon as an excuse to ignore historically oriented questions and our growing knowledge of antiquity, and thus maintain a theological status quo, is not being “faithful to Scripture” but obscurantist.

It also fails to take the incarnation seriously, as just an unfortunate but temporary and disposable necessity for the transcendent God to make a cameo.

By setting texts in historical–not simply canonical and dogmatic–contexts, we get to know God better. That’s what Smith seems to be saying. I know I’ve had the same experience many times, too.

  • Ben S

    Mark Smith is a gentleman and a scholar, with a great sense of humor. I sat in on several of his classes over 18 months at NYU.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    I love the pejorative “obscurantist” — I learned a new word.

    Very appropriate.

    May I ask that you [or someone] expand this sentence:

    “It also fails to take the incarnation seriously, as just an unfortunate but temporary and disposable necessary for the transcendent God to make a cameo.”

    I couldn’t understand that one.

    BTW: Typo: “The meet of it gives an overview ” —-> “meat”

    • http://prodigalthought.net/ Scott Lencke

      I think the statement was to say: It also fails to take the incarnation seriously, as just an unfortunate but temporary and disposable necessity for the transcendent God to make a cameo.

      But that still might not help.

      I believe what is being communicated is that, ‘Taking refuge in the canon as an excuse to ignore historically oriented questions,’ fails to recognise the important of God’s incarnational revelation. So, with regards to Jesus, the incarnation was simply something needed to be done for God to become flesh and save people. But the incarnation has a much richer foundation in that it also shows that God is always making himself known with the context of the dust that we are.

      So with the Scripture, understanding Genesis or Exodus or Isaiah or Matthew or Revelation becomes much clearer as we understand the down-to-earth context in which these people wrote and shaped the Scripture we have.

      Something of that nature. :)

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

        Hey Scott, thanx

        But that seems a bit obscure too.

        Are you saying that understanding history helps people see that Yahweh was acting all along and that incarnating in Jesus was not the only thing he did to “save people”?

        Depending on one’s soteriology — and there are lots of them — I don’t see how understanding the historical context of any particular document voted on for inclusion in the Christian anthology, helps get around the question of:

        Why wait thousands of years to make a sacrifice to save people since that is the most important central act for most Christians.

        • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

          Hello Sabio, I believe that this view on salvation
          https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/salvation-by-love-erlosung-durch-die-liebe-unten/

          sort of alleviate your concerns, doesn’t it?

          Friendly greetings from Europe.

          Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

          http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            nope, it doesn’t

        • http://prodigalthought.net/ Scott Lencke

          Sabio -

          Thanks for the response. I think understanding historical context will help one understand what is being communicated – whatever act, words spoken, or the life of Christ. We’ve got to, as best we can, get inside the Jewish mind of the first century. This is why people like NT Wright can be quite helpful. And I’d say soteriology is not normatively, at least in Scripture, about a future abstract salvation. It’s about Yahweh, the God & Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, acting within history. This might give a good example of what I’m pointing to: http://www.postost.net/lexicon/paul-righteousness-god

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            Thanx, Scott:

            I agree, whether Shakespeare, The Mahabharata, The Qur’an or an letter included in the Christian Canon, it goes unspoken that “historical context will help one understand what is being communicated”.

            I get it that many Christians don’t get that, and thus this blog and others help people understand that “Sola Scriptura” goes way too far.

            Due to recommendations of others, I have read one of Wright’s books and seen several of his videos and found him muddled. But it may just have been my sampling.

            Thanx for the link, but it was a bit thick in theology for me.

  • John Hawthorne

    I want to see a YouTube video of Pete Enns playing Day Tripper.

    • Rick

      He, Francis Collins, and NT Wright should do a jam session.

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    It amazes me that people, especially educated ones, still try to read the text of the Bible without reference to the people who wrote it or to the world in which they wrote it. Words mean little without context, and the historical context is of paramount importance.
    Some contend that the historical context is unavailable to the common person, so if it were necessary for understanding from something other than the text alone, many would not be able to grasp it. Therefore, the Bible, by itself, must be adequate because God wrote it to be understood.
    In fact, passages were written to be understood by the people who first read it. If we want to understand it as they did, we must live in their times. In fact, there are nuances in the Bible we will never discover and comprehend in this lifetime.

    • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

      @JWB
      Are there Bibles which you recommend which have commentary on the facing page that gives “references to the people who wrote it or to the world in which they wrote … [ie, context]“.

      Catholics agreed with you and thus felt to avoid the issue, common folks shouldn’t read the Bible but leave interpretation and explanation to the priests.

      Is the only option for the laity to read hundreds of books (each with contrary opinion) along with their Bibles? You can see why people opt for Scriptura Sola and just make up stuff.

      Heck, I wish there were good texts that explained Shakespear while reading it, for I can’t really understand it by itself with any depth. And that was written fairly recently (relatively speaking).

      • labreuer

        Another option for the laity would be to have the Holy Spirit inside them. I’m sure he’s better than all of the above, for someone who is humble. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t devalue scholarship. But in terms of worrying that people will get seriously wrong ideas, I think we ought to look at pride first and foremost.

        • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

          True to an extent, but when we come up with personal insights from our reading, it is not always the Holy Spirit. We must be careful about making such claims.

          • labreuer

            Yep, 1 John 4:1, 1 Thess 5:21, Gal 6:4, Rom 12:2, and other passages are relevant, here. We must aspire

            to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

            As earlier in Ephesians 4 makes clear, this must be done in community. Note that in the Ephesian community, they had “love toward all the saints” (1:15).

            It is downright Satanic to not work toward and expect maturity. It is at this maturity that one learns to “rightly divide” not only the written word, but anything the Holy Spirit says to us, either directly to our hearts or through another person (whether Christian or not!). The author of Hebrews was not kidding when he warned about being attentive to the voice of God!

        • george

          amen on one point: i see no place with more pride than the ‘biblical scholars’ community (mr. enns excepted, mostly). their knowledge can be useful, but they tend to be a self-aggrandizing, hyperbolic (‘everything you’ve ever heard about the bible is wrong, fifteen different ways per verse!!!), and sensationalistic crowd. there is little of compassion, humility, or Jesus’s servant attitude, it is often about putting people of faith down in very scathing tones (one in particular i can think of who would crucify creationists daily if within his power. ok, his initials are jm and he’s hateful). all knowledge must be subordinate to the Spirit, not the other way around.

          • labreuer

            One way to characterize what you say is that biblical scholars have failed to stay holy—set apart from the ‘consume or be consumed’ mentality so common in academia (Gal 5:15). We forget Rom 15:2 “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” Alternatively:

            “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.

            The only real tearing down that God does is to those who are proud and hard-hearted. In Job 40, God seems to be telling Job that if Job could put proud people in their place, he’d be God (“your own right hand can save you”—see Is 59:16). Unfortunately, Christians too frequently forget Gal 6:1-5. The instant that proud people stop being proud, God stops resisting them (Ja 4:6-10). The kindness of God is what leads us to repentance (Rom 2:4).

      • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

        @ Sabio

        I wish I did, but I think part of the work of dealing with the text is reading and interacting intellectually with various approaches, and this requires some research precisely because of the varying opinions.

        It is understandable that some take the easier road and find someone they trust to be a guide to them. This is okay, but it is important to find the right guide or guides.

        However, there is no problem with anyone reading the Bible for themselves, and benefitting from it, so long as they realize that it is not written for our day and do not presume themselves to be the ‘authority’ on its meaning.

        Careful reading of the Gospels, without outside help, makes it pretty clear that Jesus emphasized love over keeping legalistic rules, and that he championed the common person. Not everyone has to be a theologian.

        • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

          hmmm, my suspicion is that the various stories (gospels) don’t give a consistent picture of Jesus and some give away different emphasises.

          When someone says “a careful reading” — it is similar to me of all the other theologians who feel they know the real meaning of the bible — as if the bible has one message — which seems a huge mistake and a lot of hot air.

          • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

            Sabio, though there are differences in details and emphases among the gospels, I do think they present a somewhat unified understanding of Jesus.

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            Yes, I can tell that you believe that. I wonder if Peter Enn does? I know that many Christians don’t agree with you. And I disagree with you too. But that is what makes horse races, eh?

          • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

            You are right! If two people agree 100% on anything, then at least one of them is not thinking.

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            Yeah, the interesting question is: How do could someone possibly decide if you or those other Christians are right? What method could be employed that all would agree one. Thus we run head first into one of the major problems with theology, eh?

          • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

            Sabio, I think the important thing is to focus on what seems to be most important. We can have opinions on secondary issues, but they are not worth dying (or killing) for–literally or metaphorically.

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            I agree: like eating, sleeping, working, loving, playing and such. Nothing in theology is “most important” compared to those — don’t you agree?

          • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

            Agreed! Especially with an emphasis on loving.

    • john shakespeare

      It is because of a widely held opinion that God wrote the Bible directly, and that it was written to/for us, thus needing no mediation via historical or literary considerations. When the Bible says ‘You’ it must mean me! Moreover, couple with the idea that the Bible is uniquely inspired and therefore all other material is uninspired, how can understanding the Bible possibly be subservient to uninspired stuff? We all feel the destructive effects of these views, but they are deep-seated and have a sort of inner logic which seals them against criticism.

      • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

        Yes John! The Bible was not written for US. Parts of it were written to the Israelites, others to the believers of Corinth, and others still to those being persecuted by Rome.
        We can benefit from what was written to them, but it was not written with us in mind.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    I am not sure that archeology unequivocally shows that monotheism was a latter invention:
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/when-did-god-pick-up-his-wife/

    “As a Catholic Christian for whom the incarnation is a central mystery of faith, it seems to me that in the search for God little refuge will be found behind the walls of the text: God is not met in the text without reference to the world outside the text. God is met in our world, and not only in our canon and not only in our church. In our study of the Scriptures, God awaits both within and without, and perhaps notably in the encounter between the two. This viewpoint, it seems to me, is hardly a modern or secular one. It informs Israel’s earliest glimpses of God, as identified by historical criticism. (4)”

    Yes but how can we find out what God really did in history, and what he did not and was invented?

    “Taking refuge in the canon as an excuse to ignore historically oriented questions and our growing knowledge of antiquity, and thus maintain a theological status quo, is not being “faithful to Scripture” but obscurantist.”

    I can also shout “Amen!” to that.

    “By setting texts in historical–not simply canonical and dogmatic–contexts, we get to know GOD better. That’s what Smith seems to be saying. I know I’ve had the same experience many times, too.”

    But how? What we know better is what the PEOPLE thought about God. But we have no reason to believe that the Bible was MORE inspired than other religious books:
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/on-the-inspiration-of-the-bible-and-other-books-von-der-interpretation-der-bibel-und-anderen-buchern/

    If we find in the Hebrew Bible things consistent with God’s perfection, we can be open for God’s action at that time and place but it is rather hard to have an assurance this was the case.

    Friendly greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • John Shakespeare

    Wrong again, Enns. Smith’s performance of Day Tripper is legendary.

    • Mark Smith

      That must be the other Mark Smith who plays Day Tripper

  • Jordan Litchfield

    Pete,

    Two questions: 1) For someone growing up in a fundamentalist background (with all its propaganda against pentateuchal sources), could you recommend a book (or two) which would not only give a good background but good defense of the sources theory?

    2) I have been reading Le Donne’s and Keith’s book, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. I realize that there are some dissimilarities, but as NT scholarship shifts away from trying to make clear cut separations between what Jesus ‘actually’ said/did and the later Christian interpretive tradition, does it not seem that trying to separate between different sources in the Pentateuch is both futile and moot? Since later editing and redaction always involve interpretive and creative work, aren’t we being a little overconfident by trying to distinguish between P and E? Not that there were never earlier sources, but they have been forged into a new creative work through imagination, memory, and interpretation.

  • mark

    Somewhat awkward choice of words: posture? Yeah, heah, but it can sound funny.

  • mark

    First of all, thanks to Pete for this excellent post, and for the first of more quotes to come from Smith’s address. Let me be upfront about the following comments: they are the comments of a Catholic, but address issues that are–or should be–of concern to all.

    In other words, taking the incarnation seriously means taking the study of history seriously.

    Bingo! of course. And I contend that Jesus’ life as it is known to us gives us every reason to take the study of history seriously. A point that has been ignored for far too long.

    Even the study of Scripture on its own canonical terms will drive one, sooner or later, to historical study as well.

    Taking refuge in the canon as an excuse to ignore historically oriented questions and our growing knowledge of antiquity, and thus maintain a theological status quo, is not being “faithful to Scripture” but obscurantist.

    It also fails to take the incarnation seriously, as just an unfortunate but temporary and disposable necessity for the transcendent God to make a cameo.

    As a Catholic, like Smith, I find it useful to contrast Smith’s views with those–especially but far from exclusively–of Ratzinger/Benedict. I say “Ratzinger/Benedict” at this point to emphasize that over the course of his entire theological career his views on these matters have remained constant.

    I have no idea whether Pete wrote those quoted passages intending to contrast the views of Smith and Benedict, but that’s how it comes across to me–and that’s why I’m particularly pleased with this post: because so many of my fellow Catholics seem oblivious to this contrast and to these issues, and to its centrality for Christian faith.

    Smith is, IMO, absolutely correct. But, if you look at almost any of Ratzinger/Benedict’s written reflections on scripture you’ll find a marked contrast with Smith, as well as a grudging–very grudging–admission that historical criticism must take pride of place in the study of “the Bible.” Take Benedict’s forward to his “Jesus of Nazareth,” just for example. In it, Benedict champions what he calls “canonical exegesis.”

    Did Pete have that in mind when he wrote that “Taking refuge in the canon as an excuse to ignore historically oriented questions and our growing knowledge of antiquity, and thus maintain a theological status quo, is not being “faithful to Scripture” but obscurantist”? I hope so, because he’s right, on several counts. The appeal to the canon IS a matter of “taking refuge” and, yes, it is ultimately “obscurantist.”

    And, in fact, Benedict recognizes it. Here’s an extended quote from Interpretation of the Bible, a document that Ratzinger authored before he became Benedict, but when he held the top doctrine position at the Vatican. Please note two things: Ratzinger/Benedict’s views have been utterly consistent, and remain so to this day; the Catholic position enunciated by Ratzinger–honored so often in the breach by Catholic theologians over the centuries–is definitely not new. It wasn’t even new when Aquinas enunciated it:

    1. The Literal Sense

    It is not only legitimate, it is also absolutely necessary to seek to define the precise meaning of texts as produced by their authors—what is called the “literal” meaning. St. Thomas Aquinas had already affirmed the fundamental importance of this sense (S. Th. I, q. 1,a. 10, ad 1).

    The literal sense is not to be confused with the “literalist” sense to which fundamentalists are attached. It is not sufficient to translate a text word for word in order to obtain its literal sense. One must understand the text according to the literary conventions of the time. When a text is metaphorical, its literal sense is not that which flows immediately from a word-to-word translation (e.g. “Let your loins be girt”: Lk. 12:35), but that which corresponds to the metaphorical use of these terms (“Be ready for action”). When it is a question of a story, the literal sense does not necessarily imply belief that the facts recounted actually took place, for a story need not belong to the genre of history but be instead a work of imaginative fiction.

    The literal sense of Scripture is that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors. Since it is the fruit of inspiration, this sense is also intended by God, as principal author. One arrives at this sense by means of a careful analysis of the text, within its literary and historical context. The principal task of exegesis is to carry out this analysis, making use of all the resources of literary and historical research, with a view to defining the literal sense of the biblical texts with the greatest possible accuracy (cf “Divino Afflante Spiritu: Ench. Bibl.,” 550). To this end, the study of ancient literary genres is particularly necessary (ibid. 560).

    No doubt views like this are music to the ears of people like Pete. But the point that I wish to make is slightly different.

    The fact of the matter is, that while Benedict can express such views, and express them well, he nevertheless, as Pete says, seeks “refuge” in what can, ultimately, only be called a form of “obscurantism”: canonical exegesis. Why should this be so? Why can’t he side with Smith consistently?

    The answer, as so often, lies in underlying philosophical issues. Benedict is not a Thomist. In fact he’s extremely clear in his autobiographical writings that he detests what he calls “Scholasticism.” He purports to distinguish Aquinas in that regard, but take it from me: he’s not a Thomist. In point of fact he appears to accept the Kantian critique of “metaphysics,” which means that he essentially follows in the philosophical tradition that undergirded both the breakdown of Catholic intellectualism, the rise of “modern” philosophy, as well as the thought of Reformers such as Luther. Diverse as these schools of thought may seem, they do indeed share a common basis in Augustinian thought, as is now well recognized by historical scholarship. This philosophical background leads to a total transformation of the traditional Christian understanding of “faith” as reasonable belief, and leads in the direction of “faith” as subjective certitude–the reason behind is clear animus against historical criticism.

    For our purposes, what this means, is that Benedict has serious philosophical doubts about the ability of historical studies to make true judgments–these are doubts that he has repeatedly expressed in writing from the beginning to the very end of his career. That means that the issue as Benedict sees it can be framed as that of the reason/faith dichotomy. This is a dichotomy that Benedict continued to address right up to the end of his papacy, but be it noted once again–what he means by “faith” is transformed by his philosophical views.

    In short, Benedict seeks “refuge” in “canonical exegesis” because of his philosophical doubts/fears about the ability of human knowledge to attain certainty in historical matters. I submit that these same doubts/fears underlie much of Protestant thought and have driven the secularization of Western society over the centuries from the late Middle Ages on–although the roots run even deeper into the historical past.

  • James

    I certainly agree God desires to meet people within and without text, canon and church. All God’s conscious creatures have the opportunity to respond to his love. But we get this, in relatively recent detail, primarily from the text and not just any text, a special text numbering approximately 66 books. Yes, let’s use historical criticism to help open it up for all to experience first hand. Fascinating reminder to me: Plato and Aristotle wrote text from “outside Hebrew revelation.”


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