Friday, September 30, 2005

Foundations and Historical Criticism

Should the term “critical” be reserved for the area of biblical studies that seeks to determine the truthfulness or historicity of the biblical witness? Thus, to be critical is being critical of the primary sources. Or, as I suggested below, should ‘being critical’ also include being critical of secondary sources of explanation?

Mary E. Healy makes the distinction between ‘historical criticism’ and ‘historical-critical methods’. The former consists in breaking down the text and reconstructing history from a new standpoint, the latter concerns understanding the text, including history from its standpoint.[1]

Concerning the standpoint from which historical criticism (as she classifies it) approaches its task, we may question what privileges its standpoint over that of the Evangelists, if they were indeed concerned with the past. The foundational assumptions of the discipline are open to debate, that is, the supposed “findings of modernity” upon which the discipline stands are by no means ‘assured’, as consensus has not been reached within their respective fields of origin (e.g. does science rule out the possibility of miracles).

Thus, we should not, as a matter of fact, view the Evangelists as naïve in believing that Jesus performed miracle,[2] whereas from our vantage point we know better. We could do so of course, depending upon our standpoint concerning this matter. But we cannot make this the standpoint for academic or “critical” scholarship. In as much as some sort of shared perspective is required between scholars for fruitful dialogue and investigation to take place, I do not think that naturalism should constitute part of this shared perspective. Firstly, it dismisses too much data, data that is central to most of the biblical narratives.[3] Secondly, it would need to be demonstrated that naturalist assumptions lead to the most accurate results.

It must be affirmed that both miracles and the resurrection pose real problems for historians of any standpoint. How would one go about investigating whether in a given instance they occurred or not? A historian that believes miracles to be impossible (for what ever reason) need not enter such an investigation. What they would do however is investigate an alternative explanation for the historical consequences the gospel material.[4] But a historian who brings no such assumption to the historical critical task (that of reconstructing history from their standpoint; historical criticism) will not be able to avoid the investigation. What they must do is test the written testimony (‘can it be trusted?’), and this can be done along many lines. The results of this will be decisive, not any prior convictions.

[1] Mary E. Healy, “Behind, in Front of .. or Through the Text? The Christological Analogy and the Lost World of Biblical Truth”, 187, in Bartholomew, C. G., Evans, S. C., Healy, M., Rae, M., editors, ‘Behind’ the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation (Cumbria: Paternoster, 2003), 181-95. We must be upfront about the fact that all history is done from a standpoint that is constituted by certain assumptions about the world and reality in general. So she comments, “The idea of an absolutely neutral observer standing on some plane outside the repercussions of history, able to judge interpretations of the past with impartial certitude, is as mythical as the Gnostic ‘Primal Man’.” (184)

[2] Or more accurately, God performed miracles through Jesus.

[3] e.g. miracles and exorcisms to the gospels. To dismiss these would be to rule out a large and significant chunk of the material we have to work with.

[4] This may be explored on along two avenues. The first being textual (is it simply authorial/communal invention), the second being actual (some “natural” explanation for the event).

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