Now and then, and more often than I would like, I come across sweeping public claims made by Evangelical leaders about the state of modern critical biblical scholarship—namely that it is on life support and can safely be brushed aside.
These claims may be genuinely felt, but they are still false. Ask any Evangelical who has entered a PhD program in a research university.
1. Historical Criticism is either dying or at least losing momentum in academia.
Rather than assuming that the Bible is historically accurate because of its revelatory nature (revealed by God, inspired), 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 from a university.
True, many universities also engage in postmodern approaches that are critical of historical criticism (e.g., Feminist studies). And let me go on record that the postmodern critique has put its finger on numerous problems. Nevertheless, you’d 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 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 on the composition 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 plausibility of these biblical episodes, and for the conquest there is considerable evidence against the biblical description.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to be done and people don’t need to keep an open mind. Who knows what the future will bring? But, my only point is this: at present to say that archaeology supports the Bible’s historical value 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.
The problems with the Evangelical intellectual project will not go away with such sleight of hand.
[An earlier version of this post appeared in January 2013.]