Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Goldingay on the Impasse of Historical Criticism

Below is an excerpt from John Goldingay’s, Models for Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 19-21:

General features of Israelite or first-century life are often an important part of the taken-for-granted background to biblical narratives. Nevertheless the value of efforts to establish the narratives’ precise historical context has been overrated. It is not usually the case that we are able to place them geographically and historically with certainity and precision. This results from an aspect of their inherent nature: While prophets and Epistles work by revealing their background, intention, and message, narratives work by being more reserved about such matters.

In awareness of such facts, a substantial critique of the historical approach to interpretation has now accumulated.

First, the fact that the practicioners of this approach cannot reach agreed results reflects not merely the fact that some are using the wrong methods or starting from mistaken assumption, but also the fact that all of them are asking questions whose answers the text by definition conceals. Admittedly this may make these questions paradoxically more attractive to a profession that thrives on asking questions that are not very readily answered. Much study of the Song of Hanah in the story of Samuel’s birth, for instance, has focused on locating it in a specific sociohistorical setting rather than interpreting it in its literary context in 1 Samuel. There is broad agreement that its origin is later than events the story is relating, but little agreement about the particular historical context from which it did originally emerge.[1] South African interpreters of the Cain and Abel story have sought to consider it in the light of sociocritical insight, but their study suffers from radical diversity in conclusions even among people committed to the black struggle.[2]

Second, and conversely, because the historical approach’s interest centers on a topic on which the text does not overtly focus, it misses the text’s specific burden and thus misfocuses the interpretive task. It cannot directly help exegesis. We have noted that establishing the historical events that lie behind the story does not in itself establish the story’s meaning. The many biblical commentaries that concentrate on the historical background, reference, and implications of their texts and on the process of development whereby the traditions reached their final form are sidetracked by these concerns from the actual task of exegeting the text. The point has been put with special trenchancy by Robert Polzin in a review of works on 1 Samuel. He notes the effort put into establishing its correct text, which is then ignored out of a desire to excavate behind it to its hypothetical earlier forms, so that the object of study is the pre-text rather than the text.[3]

Third, the historical approach is capable of casting doubts on the truth of the text it studies, by questing historical value, but it is not capable of vindicating the truth of the text. Its historical results are always tentative, and by their nature they cannot establish the religious heart of the stories’ truth-claim. They cannot establish what is now sometimes called the viability of the world that the texts portray to their audience.

Fourth, again to extend the previous point, the historical approach inevitably thus fails to realize the text’s own aim. The form of objectivity it seeks is not only unattainable but also not worth attaining.[4] To whatever degree a biblical text seeks to convey historical information, it seeks to do so not for the sake of that information but in order to bring a religious message. A piece of historical exegesis will generally acknowledge that it is handling a text with a religious message and will summarize that message, but it will not feel obliged to go beyond such a summary of this message’s surface structure. This fourth difficulty of the historical approach is compounded by the fact that for many people the stories being studied are not merely religious texts but parts of their scriptures. To put this point in less confessional terms, the historical approach ignores the actual text, which ‘has helped shape Western civilization and the Judeo-Christian culture at its core.’[5] Indeed, it may make that achievement rather a mystery.

It is in part the sense of impasse that historical method has reached that makes literary approaches to the text worthy of investigation.
[1] Cf. Eslinger’s comments in Kingship of God in Crisis 102.
[2] Contrast the work of Wittenberg (“King Solomon and the Theologians”: the story emerges from critique of Jerusalem state theology) and Mosala (Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa 33-37: the story was designed to support the ruling classes who were appropriating land from peasants). Cf. G. West, “Reading ‘the Text’ and Reading ‘Behind-the-Text,’” in The Bible in Three Dimensions (ed. Clines and others) 299-320; also West’s Biblical Hermeneutics of Liberation 45-62.
[3] See “1 Samuel”; cf. Samuel and the Deuteronomist 1-17.
[4] Cf. Philips, Poststructural Criticism and the Bible 12-13, 37.
[5] Polzin, Samuel and the Deuteronomist 3.


driver9 said...

In an incarnational faith, history is surely of some theological concern? For an interesting counter proposal about the value of history (with particular focus on the communion of the saints) see Philip Esler (New Testament Theology: Communion and Community). Though I guess you may feel more in common with Goldingay than liberal Catholics like Esler?

DimBulb said...

there is nothing more frustrating than taking the time to read a commentary only to find that, when I'm done, my knowledge of the meaning of the biblical text is no better off than when I started.

I f ascholar is going to write a book about source analysis he ought to call it such, and not a commentary.

Weekend Fisher said...

Found you through the Carnival. I like the cogent criticism of the dead-end to which this kind of approach often leads. I think there's an additional danger: people who study that way too often come to think that it all just leads to a dead end ...