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

3 Things I Would Like to See Evangelical Leaders Stop Saying about Biblical Scholarship January 10, 2013

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.




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