[This entry contains two subentries, HEBREW BIBLE and NEW TESTAMENT.]

Hebrew Bible

Historical Criticism analyzes the biblical text as both an artifact of the past and a record of the past. Thus, historical criticism traditionally has sought to use the Hebrew Bible as evidence for historical events and conditions that are key to the text’s stories or that influenced the text.

“Historical criticism” is also sometimes applied as an umbrella designation for various types of readings that use historical circumstances or ideas about the past as keys to biblical interpretation. Thus, form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, and tradition history are all historically-premised or diachronic methods sometimes considered types of historical criticism. However, the present entry will primarily focus on historical criticism’s use of the Hebrew Bible as a source of historical information and on its understanding of the Hebrew Bible as a product of specific historical contexts.

The Beginnings of Historical Criticism.

The intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of historical criticism were made possible by developments in thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries C.E. The Ages of Reason and Enlightenment introduced systematic critical thinking as a preferred mode of thought over and against superstition, and offered rational explanations for natural phenomena and past events that had traditionally been explained by supernatural forces and divine intervention.

Rational and critical examinations of the natural world led to the scientific method. These principles applied to the biblical text led to historical criticism, whereby the text was understood as a product of humans who were influenced by historical circumstances, and as a document that gave evidence of its own historical development. Advancing alongside these ideas and lending them support were critical readings of the text that acknowledged contradictions and disjunctions in it and that began to question the historical accuracy of the Hebrew Bible’s account, including traditional assumptions about its authorship and history.

A few early, influential historical critics include Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677) and Richard Simon (1637–1712), who were skeptical that Moses had written the Pentateuch. Predictably, many saw such insights as detrimental to faith. Thus, other scholars combined their developing historical-critical theories with attempts to explain that although humans in particular historical circumstances had produced the biblical books, traditional theology and beliefs were not fatally challenged. For instance, Jean Astruc (1684–1766) affirmed that Moses was one author of the Pentateuch, along with others, but claimed that later writers had corrupted the text. Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1742–1827) saw in the text myths that, stripped of their primitive trappings, preserved authentic accounts of the past.

By the nineteenth century, especially in Germany, historical-critical questions about the Hebrew Bible defined the discipline. In particular, the development of the religion evidenced in the text became a focus of much investigation. Julius Wellhausen published the most famous and influential study of this topic in 1883, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (Prolegomena to the History of Israel). Wellhausen’s argument, which built on hypotheses of Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette (1780–1849), Karl Heinrich Graf (1815–1869), and others, wove theories about Pentateuchal sources and their composition (the documentary hypothesis) into a particular understanding of the development of Judaism from Yahwism. Put simply, Wellhausen believed that early texts in the Pentateuch reflected an anthropomorphic, Yahwistic religion that had its roots in pre-monarchic, tribal Israel. Later texts, Wellhausen argued, showed an increase in the priestly and legalistic ideas that he believed defined Judaism.

Wellhausen’s arrangement of the documents that were believed to make up the Pentateuch and the theory of the development of Israelite religion he proposed have functioned as springboards for every subsequent discussion of the history of the biblical text and Israelite religion. Now, the documentary hypothesis has several variants and competes with many other theories about the composition of the Pentateuch. Some of these radically upend Wellhausen’s chronology, and others reject rigid partitioning and dating of the text. Furthermore, substantially more is known today about religion in the time period the Bible describes. Nevertheless, Wellhausen’s theories helped solidify many classic tenets of historical criticism.

Historical Criticism in the Early and Mid-Twentieth Century.

Well into the twentieth century, historical criticism, or higher criticism as it was sometimes called, remained the primary pursuit of scholars of the Hebrew Bible. Though most of its practitioners were religious, usually protestant Christians, and were often trained in theology, higher criticism remained controversial. Its claims that the text was composed under the influence of historical circumstances and did not always report the past completely or accurately challenged notions of divine inspiration and began to put a noticeable wedge between the academy and Christian believers. Nevertheless, most historical criticism did not seek to overturn the validity of the Bible, but rather to promote the view that proper understanding of the Hebrew Bible gave evidence of God’s actions in the past. Furthermore, by understanding the layers of textual development and the progression of religious ideas over time, the adept historical critic believed he or she could strip away later, less pure forms of religious practice and understanding and expose an original, pristine form of biblical religion.

Scholars advancing historical criticism in the early twentieth century included Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932), who sought to illuminate the historical life settings (Sitz im Leben) out of which texts arose by positing different genres that had predictable origins. Gerhard von Rad (1901–1971) is also noteworthy for his contributions to redaction criticism, which seeks to understand how and why the biblical text was edited over time.

As historical criticism of the Hebrew Bible advanced in the early and mid-twentieth century, so did archaeological investigation of the ancient Near East. In Palestine, the sites of many biblical events were found and excavated. Egypt and Mesopotamia provided texts with tantalizing possibilities for comparison with the Hebrew Bible. The history of ancient Israel became deeper and broader, and more about Israel’s past could be known in greater detail.

By the mid-twentieth century, methods for investigating the biblical past and the conclusions scholars drew about it were segregating themselves along continental lines. In Germany, Albrecht Alt (1883–1956) and Martin Noth (1902–1968) applied tradition-historical understandings of the biblical text and sociological notions to topics such as the religion of the patriarchs, the formation of a tribal Israelite coalition, the rise of the monarchies and states of Israel and Judah, and the composition of the Deuteronomistic history (Josh–2 Kgs). Noth’s Geschichte Israels ( History of Israel, 1950) was an outworking of the Altians’ theories and a groundbreaking comprehensive study of the topic in light of current evidence.

In the United States, William F. Albright (1891–1971) and his students relied heavily on archaeology and the study of ancient Near Eastern cultures in their reconstructions. Albrightians paid special attention to the patriarchs and conquest and other aspects of early Israel. John Bright’s (1908–1995) A History of Israel (1st ed., 1959) put the Albrightian paradigm to work on the entire span of Israelite history, from Abraham to Judaism just prior to New Testament times.

Despite the differences in the Altian and Albrightian “schools” of biblical history, in retrospect, the historical-critical judgments they made about the Bible appear more similar than different. Their historical reconstructions helped solidify the idea that much of the Hebrew Bible contained accurate historical information, but that this information might not be self-evident. The methods of historians, with help from the social sciences such as anthropology and archaeology, were needed to ferret out that information.

Common Historical-Critical Conclusions in the Mid-Twentieth Century.

Despite the differences in the Altian and Albrightian approaches in the mid-twentieth century, the scholarly consensus was that the stories beginning in Genesis 12 contained actual memories of a patriarchal age. The details of when this age occurred and how historians sifted through the storytelling devices of Genesis to get accurate details about it varied. Nevertheless, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph were mined for details about pre-Israelite population movements, religion, neighboring peoples, customs and laws, and other aspects of the distant past. Occasionally, recently discovered ancient Near Eastern texts referred to past events and circumstances that appeared similar to ones in the Hebrew Bible, and often when biblical scholars compared the two sources they concluded that the ancient documents substantiated the authenticity of the Bible.

Many of the conclusions about this patriarchal age, especially the connection the ancestors of Israel appeared to have with Mesopotamia (such as Abraham coming from Ur, Gen 11:31), also played into the interpretation of the “Primeval History” (Gen 1—11). Science since the nineteenth century had challenged creationism and the idea of a worldwide flood, but, building on the work of scholars such as Gunkel and using the increasing number of mythological texts found in Mesopotamian sites, historical critics were able to explain the biblical creation accounts and flood story, as well as mythological imagery for God elsewhere (such as in Ps 74), as Israelite instances of common ancient Near Eastern myths.

Mid-twentieth century biblical history also found plenty of apparently accurate historical details and allusions in Exodus through 2 Kings. The biblical accounts of the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and the makeup of pre-monarchical Israel were all used liberally in historical reconstructions of the past. Many historical-critical investigations of these books assumed that poetic accounts (such as the Song of Miriam, Exod 15:21, and the Song of Deborah, Judg 5) were older and more accurate, but that the narratives reflected actual events and circumstances, too. The Albrightians were famously fond of the conquest model of Israel’s emergence due to archaeological evidence that they claimed supported it, and Noth put forward a reconstruction of an early Israelite tribal coalition (the amphictony) that held sway for a while.

In the mid-twentieth century, the availability of an increasing number of annals, chronicles, and king lists from the ancient Near East added to the historical critic’s tools for interpreting the biblical stories of the monarchical period. Mentions of events such as the siege of Samaria (on the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s prism and in 2 Kgs 18), and details such as Israelite and Judean kings’ names in ancient Near Eastern records, confirmed for most that the Hebrew Bible was a reliable and important historical source.

In short, up until the early 1970s, biblical criticism and historical criticism were practically synonymous. Historical criticism was able to draw on the results of archaeology, both texts and other artifacts, as well as on insights from other disciplines, to defend its basic premises—the biblical text and overall biblical storyline reflected real circumstances and events, and careful investigation could uncover them. Though the occasional voice of dissent to historical criticism’s supremacy in biblical studies and historical criticism’s generally positive assessment of historicity in the Bible had arisen, it was not until Noth and Albright died that scholars began to seriously challenge both notions. Over the decades since then, new evidence and especially new interpretations of evidence have transformed the way scholars approach the Bible for historical information.

Current Historical-Critical Approaches and Conclusions.

The remainder of this entry will review major developments in historical criticism of the Hebrew Bible, understood primarily as the search for historical information in or relevant to the text, since the shifts that began in the 1970s. The overarching story is one of increased skepticism that the biblical account is primarily historical or representative of the time it describes. Serious questioning of these ideas began in the study of patriarchal and matriarchal period (beginning in the 1970s), moved through examinations of early Israel and the monarchy (especially in the 1980s and 1990s), and has now reached the latest horizons of the “Old Testament Period,” namely, the historical reconstruction of postexilic Judah. Furthermore, historical-critical investigation of the Hebrew Bible along these lines (not related to diachronic analysis of the text’s composition and editing) is now almost nonexistent for many of the biblical books, apart from the work of a few religiously conservative scholars.

Historical Criticism of the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy).

At first glance, the Pentateuch appears to present a smooth story of the patriarchal and matriarchal ancestors of Israel, the exodus, and the wilderness wanderings. As discussed earlier, scholars well into the twentieth century took these as historical in some sense. However, they did have trouble locating these stories in a specific time period. Extrabiblical texts seemed to help some with this problem by elucidating customs, practices, and even population movements that appeared to locate the patriarchs and matriarchs in the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000–1550 B.C.E.). As inhabitants of that era, then, the patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ religion and lifestyle were considered indicative of Palestine at that time and formative for Israelite religion and memories later.

Two books, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Traditions by Thomas Thompson (1974), and Abraham in History and Tradition (1975) by John Van Seters put to rest the idea that the patriarchal and matriarchal stories were uniquely datable to the Middle Bronze Age, and further showed that these stories could not be definitively located at any time in the past. In short, Thompson and Van Seters showed that names and customs in extrabiblical texts used to date the biblical stories were too widespread in time and space to form meaningful comparisons to the biblical stories, and that the biblical stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs addressed concerns (such as land ownership) that would have been important to a settled, organized society, rather than to a nomadic one. In other words, the stories about the patriarchs and matriarchs spoke to a society very different from the one described in the stories.

Thus, for the most part, historical-critical investigation of the patriarchs and matriarchs has ended, and their stories are seen as undateable, unconfirmable, and as likely written in and built on experiences in the Iron Age (ca. 1200–586 B.C.E.) or later. In 2005, for instance, Mario Liverani proposed a new reading of the patriarchal stories in light of post-exilic (i.e., sixth century B.C.E. and later) concerns, as support for his argument that the significant composition and/or editing of these traditions occurred in the Persian period (539–333 B.C.E.). However, a conservative, somewhat positive assessment of the historicity of the patriarchs and matriarchs—and many of the other biblical stories no longer considered reliable as historical evidence by most historians of ancient Israel—that constitutes a minority opinion in scholarship can be found in Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman’s A Biblical History of Israel (2003).

The historicity of the Egyptian sojourn that began with Joseph and ended with the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings was also once largely taken for granted. Located by earlier scholarship sometime in the late Middle Bronze Age or the early Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550–1200 B.C.E.), the Exodus and wilderness wanderings were considered accounts of actual events that had been perhaps exaggerated, but that were real nonetheless. The generic nature of the stories (e.g., the Pharaoh of the Exodus is not named), and the lack of archaeological evidence for a connection between Egypt and the central Palestinian villages that appear to have given rise to Israel and Judah are two of the challenges to historicity more recently offered by historical-critical scholarship.

Now, historical-critical scholarship on the Egyptian sojourn, Exodus, and wilderness wandering stories has effectively ceased. Current critical interpretation of these narratives is accomplished with methods for which a historical reality behind the text is not necessary for interpretation.

Historical Criticism of the Historical Books or Former Prophets (Joshua through 2 Kings).

Historical-critical investigation of the biblical stories of Israel’s emergence in the land and the eventual monarchies and kingdoms of Israel and Judah has followed a similar trajectory to historical-critical study of the Pentateuch. Traditionally, and in most biblical scholarship into the mid-twentieth century, these books were seen as largely objective records of actual events. These conclusions held despite growing interest in the composition of these books, including de Wette’s early claim that the book found by Josiah in 2 Kings 22 was Deuteronomy, and Noth’s theory of the Deuteronomistic history, which tied the composition of Deuteronomy to that of Joshua–2 Kings and suggested a date of the books’ final form just after the exile.

In other words, even though historical investigation of the formation of the historical books pointed to a date in the seventh or sixth centuries B.C.E. or later, historians still considered them largely historically accurate when describing events that occurred centuries earlier. Bolstering this opinion were finds from the ancient Near East that confirmed that Israelite and Judean kings reported in the Hebrew Bible were known to the Assyrians and Babylonians, and that the Bible appeared to accurately report leaders, wars, and conditions of other ancient Near Eastern kingdoms.

Close reading of these books, combined with increased knowledge of the conditions in ancient Palestine and surrounding areas in the late eleventh through sixth centuries B.C.E. (the rough setting for their stories), showed that the historical picture was more complicated than traditional historical retellings allowed. For instance, the book of Joshua emphasizes the military unity of early Israel and its conquest of Canaan, while Judges presupposes a fractured tribal system whose military unity arose only occasionally, when Israel was threatened by other groups living in Canaan. Thanks to archaeology the conquest theory was eventually discredited, but Judges’ picture of a village-based society that had few outward signs of unity did seem similar to the past it uncovered. Furthermore, the locations of the most important tribes of Israel in Judges coincide loosely with places where new villages sprang up in the hills of Palestine in the early Iron Age. Yet, historical criticism also recognizes the formulaic and often legendary elements of the stories in Judges, and has thus provided history with only the possibility that some of Israel’s authentic memories are preserved there, and that these may be no more specific than the memory of unorganized, rural origins.

The books of 1—2 Samuel and 1—2 Kings describe the first attempts at permanent organization among the tribes and the subsequent monarchies and kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Though it is clear that the memory of historical events in these stories is colored by the eventuality of the demise of both kingdoms, historical-critical scholarship long assumed the historical veracity of many details in these books. This assumption was largely premised on the idea that certain sections, such as the succession narrative (2 Sam 9— Kgs 2), were recorded close to the time of the events they describe and were thus accurate.

Certainly, some of the memories in Samuel and Kings appear to be historically accurate or possible. That the Philistine threat prompted the central hill country tribes to consider a permanent monarchy is, for instance, plausible. However, close readings combined with archaeological knowledge revealed that the story of the kingdoms is not as simple as a rise to greatness and unity, a split, and then a fall from greatness due largely to apostasy.

Recent historical-critical readings of the Hebrew Bible’s stories of the early monarchy and kings have noted, for instance, that Saul and David operated in different territories (Saul in the north, David in the south), raising the question of whether David folded Saul’s kingdom into his rather than succeeded him. They have also shown that David’s kingship is not described as a traditional monarchy. David did not have a seat of power, a complex bureaucracy, and a military, but rather is portrayed as gaining power from the loyalty of his kin and close associates, and from others by using tactics of intimidation and domination. These observations have combined with serious questions about whether the evidence from central Palestine in the early tenth century B.C.E. points to any kind of unified government there, and have resulted in a picture of David as a transitional figure between local leadership and central leadership about whom almost nothing specific can be known. Some would even doubt the soundness of claiming that David existed, given the lack of direct extrabiblical evidence for him.

Solomon, too, has received a historical-critical makeover. The Hebrew Bible has usually been interpreted as describing Solomon as a traditional, impressive king, but that portrayal has fallen out of favor. Most of the evidence marshaled against the historical veracity of such a picture comes from knowledge of conditions in Palestine and the wider ancient Near East, which in most historians’ minds show that a great Solomonic empire was very unlikely. Readings of the Solomon stories now recognize that they served a cultural-literary purpose—many ancient Near Eastern cultures had stories of their ancient, great, wise king—and that documents and lists attributed to his reign could have been invented or borrowed from another time period, since there is scant evidence for sophisticated literary activity in tenth century B.C.E. Judah.

Historical-critical readings of the stories of the subsequent kings have also shown that the reality of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and their monarchs was more complex that the biblical portrait suggests. For instance, the perspective of the book of Kings is that Israel was an apostate kingdom because it committed the sin of breaking away from the Davidic dynasty and routinely tolerated the worship of gods other than Yahweh. Its monarchs were evil and the kingdom fared badly, resulting in its destruction by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. On the other hand, Kings reports that Judah, under Yahweh’s anointed Davidic dynasty, fared better on the whole, until an evil king, Manasseh, provoked Yahweh’s anger and thus the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.

According to the Bible, then, the land experienced many years of full-fledged, independent monarchies. Knowledge of the wider ancient Near East, however, puts the biblical picture in a very different perspective. From the ninth to the sixth centuries B.C.E., the activities of the empires of Assyria and Babylonia, and to a lesser extent, Egypt, controlled what went on in Palestine. Who ruled there, and how they behaved, depended on conditions and politics in these empires. When read with this in mind, the biblical accounts of the years of the monarchies show themselves to be a selective interpretation of at least some verifiable events.

The presence of Assyria is clear in the Bible, especially in some prophetic texts (see later). Also, the existence of at least the kingdom of Israel (usually referred to in ancient texts as the House of Omri or by reference to another of its kings) is confirmed in Assyrian sources. Israel—the apostate, inferior kingdom, according to the Bible—not Judah, was a kingdom of which Assyria took notice. At times, Israel functioned well in the Assyrian-controlled ancient Near East, but, eventually, Israel teamed up with former nearby rivals such as Aram-Damascus to resist Assyria. They ultimately failed, and thus Samaria, the Israelite capital, was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. Furthermore, Judah appears to have been dependent on Israel, largely following it politically. However, Judah did not revolt against Assyria, and thus was spared, but Assyrian pressure on Judah did not let up until the Babylonians took over the Assyrian Empire in 609 B.C.E.

The Assyrian destruction of Samaria is the end of the biblical story of the kingdom of Israel. Biblical scholars now know that what happened in Samaria and greater Israel was typical of what happened after an Assyrian takeover of a region: some of the population was deported (especially elites), some people from elsewhere were resettled there, but life went on. In fact, Yahwistic religion persisted in the area—its followers, the Samaritans, are mentioned in the New Testament. In other words, history continued, even if the biblical story did not.

Though Judah survived the Assyrians, its relations with the next empire, Babylonia, deteriorated to the point where Babylonia invaded and destroyed Jerusalem, including the temple, and took prominent Judeans into exile. (There was one exile in 598 B.C.E., and a second exile and the destruction of Jerusalem occurred in 586 B.C.E.) From the Jerusalem-centric perspective of the Bible, these events constituted the end of an era and a major break in history. Again, however, historical investigation has shown that the Bible ignores the fact that a substantial portion of the population remained where it was, and that Yahwistic religion carried on in the area.

In short, historical-critical assessments of the overarching story lines and major foci of the biblical texts pertaining to the monarchy show that the biblical writers had perspectives and aims that greatly affected how they described past events. In addition, in some cases not only does the Bible’s overall story line need contextualizing in light of ancient Near Eastern evidence, its reports of specific events must also be considered very carefully before assuming they are accurate.

These are just some examples of the conclusions of recent historical-critical readings of the books of Joshua–2 Kings. In short, such readings pay attention to the historical contexts and perspectives of the texts and also utilize knowledge of the ancient Near East in the Iron Age. They show that the historical setting of some of these narratives can be determined, especially when the time frame is the ninth century onward thanks to overlap with Assyrian and Babylonian records. However, the most obvious conclusion of historical-critical scholarship on these books is that the biblical stories of the monarchies and kingdoms of Israel and Judah cannot be taken as complete, reliable reports. The Bible’s aims and perspectives, combined with the likelihood that many of the stories were written centuries after the events they describe, mean that the stories must be read as selective interpretations of past events.

Historical Criticism of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

Ezra and Nehemiah are set in the Persian period, and historical-critical examination of Chronicles has determined that it was a product of the Persian period. Thus, historical-critical examination of all three books seeks to understand what information about the Persian period is reflected in them, how the Persian period milieu affected the events in them, and how the Persian period context affected the formation of their stories. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah pose challenges upfront for historical critics, as the dates for the activity of Ezra are not clear, nor is the chronological relationship between the two men. Furthermore, none of the Persian sources cited in the books are known from elsewhere, and there is some debate about whether they faithfully preserve Persian royal correspondence in word or in spirit. The description of Jerusalem’s population, its relationships with its near neighbors, and how the city was rebuilt (including Nehemiah’s wall), are all historical questions of interest to biblical scholars. Just as scholarship in the past 40 years has challenged simplistic historical readings of the Pentateuch and historical books, so, recently, the historical veracity of Ezra and Nehemiah’s accounts have come under increased scrutiny. Also limiting the books’ usefulness for historical questions is their narrow geographical and chronological perspective—Ezra and Nehemiah cover only a few decades of the Persian period, and focus almost exclusively on happenings in Jerusalem.

Chronicles, read historically-critically as a product of the Persian period, provides insight into many Judean attitudes, such as how some Jews attempted to broaden the group of people considered God’s people. In addition, Chronicles is interesting to historical critics because it is essentially a retelling of the books of Samuel and Kings. In many cases, Chronicles’ new slant consistently indicates a bias, such as its pro-David spin on some events, and as a secondary source is not considered a reliable account. Nevertheless, in some cases, Chronicles’ new or different information has prompted scholars to ask whether, in fact, better historical information may occasionally be found there than in Samuel–Kings. For instance, the story of Manasseh being taken captive to Babylon in 2 Chronicles 33 (which does not appear in Kings) has been considered a possibly accurate story.

Historical Criticism of the Prophetic Books.

The study of the prophetic literature has long had a historical component. From the superscriptions of the books, to the wars and other events mentioned in them, the prophets seem to provide first-hand evidence of past events. For instance, Isaiah’s account of the Assyrian threat, Jeremiah’s experiences in the years of Babylonian domination of Judah, and Ezekiel’s activities while in Babylonian exile continue to inform historians’ portrayals of these eras. However, for better or for worse, the study of the historical background of the prophetic books and of the historical information they may impart has generally not been a large part of historical-critical study aimed at telling a comprehensive story of Israel’s past. For that endeavor, historical criticism of the historical books has been paramount. Rather, the historical-critical study of the prophets has been a subset of research into the prophetic literature.

Historical Criticism of Other Books in the Hebrew Bible.

Historical criticism initially touched on almost every book of the Hebrew Bible. Some books, such as Ruth and Esther, despite their historical settings, were determined to fit better in the realm of story than history, and are not used as evidence for reconstructing events in Israel’s past. Wisdom books, such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, are understood as relics of historically contextualized modes of thought, but, again, not as potential evidence for past events. Psalms has long been the object of a type of historical-critical study. Yet, form criticism of the Psalms is a subdiscipline of Psalms studies and is not normally used by historians to reconstruct ancient Israel.

Current Approaches to the Hebrew Bible and History.

Historical criticism was once the primary academic method applied to the Hebrew Bible. Over time, evidence that the biblical story is incomplete, sometimes impossible to examine in the framework of a known historical context, and even, at times, historically inaccurate, led to a reduction of historical criticism’s prominence in biblical studies. Nevertheless, the discussion of what kind of historical information the Bible can provide is still active. Traditional historical criticism concerned itself with the accuracy of events, conditions, and people reported in the text, and with locating extrabiblical evidence that could help contextualize the biblical story. Now, historical interest in the Bible is more focused on understanding the historical development of the overarching ideas that influenced how Israel remembered its past. Thus, studies of ideas such as monotheism, and of topics such as the impact that the Babylonian exile had on religious and personal life, are common historical-critical topics. Scholars writing the history of ancient Israel also now rely less on ongoing historical-critical analyses of the texts and more on archaeology, sociology, and wider ancient Near Eastern study for their evidence for Israel’s past.

[ See also DIACHRONIC INTERPRETATION; FORM CRITICISM, subentry Hebrew Bible; REDACTION CRITICISM, subentry Hebrew Bible; SOURCE CRITICISM; and TRADITION-HISTORICAL CRITICISM.]

Bibliography

  • Albertz, Rainer. Israel in Exile: The History and Literature of the Sixth Century b.c.e. Society of Biblical Literature Studies in Biblical Literature 3. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003. A comprehensive historical-critical study.
  • Albright, William F. “Abram the Hebrew: A New Archaeological Interpretation.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 163 (1961): 36–54. A now discredited argument for Abraham’s historicity based on archaeology and biblical evidence.
  • Alt, Albrecht. Der Gott der Väter: Ein Beitrage zur Vorgeschichte der Israelitischen Religion. Beiträge zur Wissenschaft vom Alten und Neuen Testament 3. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1929. English translation: “The God of the Fathers.” In Albrecht Alt, Essays on Old Testament History and Religion, 3–66. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966. A reconstruction of early Israelite religion based on historical-critical readings of the patriarchal and matriarchal stories.
  • Ben Zvi, Ehud. “Total Exile, Empty Land and the General Intellectual Discourse in Yehud.” In Concept of Exile in Ancient Israel and Its Contexts, edited by Christoph Levin and Ehud Ben Zvi. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 404. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010. An example of modern historical-critical study’s shift to investigating the historical contexts and development of ideas.
  • Brettler, Marc Zvi. “Method in the Application of Biblical Source Material to Historical Writing (with Particular Reference to the Ninth Century BCE).” In Understanding the History of Ancient Israel, edited by H. G. M. Williamson, 305–336. Proceedings of the British Academy 143. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pays particular attention to the use of prophetic literature for historical reconstruction.
  • Bright, John. A History of Israel. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2000. The classic articulation of the Albrightian assessment of the Bible as a historical source and Israel’s history based on it.
  • Davies, Philip R. In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 148. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992. Questions many assumptions of historical criticism and histories based on it, and challenges the predominance of the Hebrew Bible as a historical source for the past.
  • Finkelstein, Israel, and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Free Press, 2001. An archaeological perspective on the Bible’s historicity.
  • Grabbe, Lester L., ed. Can a “History of Israel” Be Written? Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 245. European Seminar in Historical Methodology 1. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997. Scholars from several perspectives tackle the growing realization that the Hebrew Bible is a problematic historical source.
  • Graham, M. Patrick, Kenneth G. Hoglund, and Steven L. McKenzie, eds. The Chronicler as Historian. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 238. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997. A collection of opinions about Chronicles’ value for history writing, and the historical context from which it came.
  • Handy, Lowell K., ed. The Age of Solomon: Scholarship at the Turn of the Millennium. Studies in the History and Culture of the Ancient Near East 11. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Scholars discuss what can be said about Solomon given increasing doubt about the historicity of the biblical stories about him.
  • Hayes, John H., and J. Maxwell Miller, eds. Israelite and Judaean History. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977. A snapshot of historical-critical scholarship and its implications for history, just as questions about the historicity of the patriarchs and conquest were beginning to be taken seriously.
  • Henige, David. “In Good Company: Problematic Sources and Biblical Historicity.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30 (2005): 29–47. A comparison of the Hebrew Bible with other ancient historical texts that argues that neither should be uncritically trusted.
  • Kelle, Brad E., and Megan Bishop Moore. Israel’s Prophets and Israel’s Past: Essays on the Relationship of Prophetic Texts and Israelite History in Honor of John H. Hayes. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 446. New York: T.&T. Clark, 2006. A collection of perspectives on the relationship of the prophetic books to history writing and history’s role in understanding the prophets.
  • Lemche, Neils Peter. The Old Testament between Theology and History: A Critical Survey. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2008. Seeks a new understanding of the Hebrew Bible after what Lemche calls “the crisis of historical-critical scholarship.”
  • Liverani, Mario. Israel’s History and the History of Israel. Bible World. London: Equinox, 2005. A recent, creative, history of Israel that finds some authentic information in the Hebrew Bible, but also late, Persian period ideas reflected in the text.
  • Miller, J. Maxwell, and John H. Hayes. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2006. A history of Israel that begins its discussion of every period with a historical-critical examination of the relevant Hebrew Bible texts.
  • Moore, Megan Bishop, and Brad E. Kelle. Biblical History and Israel’s Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History. Grand Rapids. Mich.: Eerdmans, 2011. A comprehensive overview of historical criticism’s assessment of the Hebrew Bible as a historical source.
  • Na´aman, Nadav. “In Search of Reality behind the Account of David’s Wars with Israel’s Neighbors.” Israel Exploration Journal 52 (2002): 200–224. A historical-critical assessment of some of the stories of David.
  • Noth, Martin. Geschichte Israels. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1950. English translation: The History of Israel. New York: Harper, 1958. The classic history written from the perspective of the German “Altians.”
  • Provan, Iain, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III. A Biblical History of Israel. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003. A conservative history, which argues that the historian’s first impulse should be to trust the historicity of the biblical account.
  • Thompson, Thomas L. The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 133. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974. Repr., Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2002. Helped discredit the historicity of the patriarchs and matriarchs, in part by showing faulty methodology in comparisons with extrabiblical sources.
  • Van Seters, John. Abraham in History and Tradition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975. Helped discredit the historicity of the patriarchs and matriarchs, in part by showing that the concerns of the text were the concerns of a settled society.
  • Williamson, H. G. M. Ezra/Nehemiah. Word Biblical Commentary 16. Waco, Tex.: Word, 1985. A biblical commentary with a historical-critical focus that has been extremely important for historical reconstruction of the Persian period.

Megan Bishop Moore

New Testament

Since the nineteenth century, scholars have approached the New Testament (NT) with methodological tools that help to reconstruct the original settings and meanings of the texts, as well as to evaluate the historicity of the events and characters that are mentioned in these ancient writings. Although historical critics realize that a text may have many different meanings, they are particularly interested in recovering the original authorial intent and the earliest audiences for the texts that were collected into the Christian canon. This methodology is more concerned with determining the history of individual texts and authors than in reconstructing a biblical theology that assumes the Bible speaks univocally. The historical-critical method argues that the NT is best understood when readers attempt to place the texts within their original, specific Jewish, Hellenistic, and Roman cultural contexts.

This methodological approach to the NT also tries to determine what actually happened in the first and early second centuries during the rise of earliest Christianity. As such, historical critics seek to reconstruct a more complete history of Christian origins, into which the individual texts of the NT can be placed. Scholars have increasingly recognized that the canonical texts provide us with an incomplete and subjective picture of early Christian history. Increasingly, the goal of this method has been to move beyond the individual texts and write a historical account that acknowledges the limitations of the canonical books; a legitimate history of early Christianity cannot be written if the canonical books are used as our only sources. In light of this concern, the discoveries of many noncanonical Christian texts in the Oxyrhynchus papyri and the Papyrus Berolinensis 8502 (both sets of texts were discovered in the late nineteenth century) and the Nag Hammadi Library (discovered in 1945) have provided new resources for historical reconstructions of early Christianity. The immense collection of material in the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered from 1946 to 1956) has also provided new insights into the Jewish context of the first century. While still limited by the incomplete nature of the ancient sources, these textual discoveries have led to a significant increase in the ability to provide a more complete picture of how, when, and why Christianity began.

For the past two centuries, this methodology has often led to conflicts between readers who use the method to defend a theological or ecclesiastical understanding of the NT (apologetic and dogmatic history), and those who seek to reconstruct a secular history that focuses on placing the writings in their earliest literary and cultural settings. Historical critics have increasingly begun with the premise that all NT texts were human products; that starting point differs substantially from ecclesiastical and devotional approaches that believe the texts were divinely inspired and that the texts must be understood within a theological context. Nevertheless, in modern practice, this method is used equally by secular and theologically minded scholars. Historical criticism recognizes the long tradition history of textual interpretations and attempts to peel back the interpretative layers in order to reconstruct an original author, sources, audience, cultural context, social setting (Sitz im Leben), and provenance for each NT text.

To accomplish the goals of historical criticism, after the Enlightenment biblical scholars began using and developing a wide variety of literary and social-historical methods, many of which were first employed by literary scholars and historians in other fields. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, text criticism, philology, form criticism, and early forms of redaction criticism were further developed as tools of historical critics who desired to better understand the original wording, meaning, and compositional history of NT texts. Since the mid-twentieth century, comparative literary criticism, archaeological analysis, social-scientific analysis, and an interest in the socioeconomic history of the Roman world have also been widely used to reconstruct earliest Christianity and the wider cultural contexts in which the NT texts were written. Thus historical criticism is now used as a category that encompasses a variety of subdisciplines, all with the common goal of understanding the ancient texts within their earliest cultural and literary contexts. Historical critics are usually trained in ancient languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and possibly Coptic, Aramaic, and Syriac), which allows them to make arguments about the original wording and meaning of the narrative and conduct comparative studies with other literature and cultural traditions from the Roman world, late Hellenistic and early Roman Judaisms, and the ancient Near East.

For example, when applying this method to the Gospels, historical critics are interested in who wrote the narratives, what ancient genre category best fits their style, when they were written, what sources were used, and the original wording of the texts. At the same time critics are also concerned to differentiate between the theology of the author and the actual events in the story that can be plausibly traced back to the life of the historical Jesus and his first followers. If one argues that due to the reference to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (Mark 13), Mark was written during or just after the Jewish War with Rome (ca. 72 C.E.), then the question is not simply what does the Gospel of Mark tell us about the historical Jesus; it also asks what can be known about the late first century author and audiences who produced and interacted with the story. In other words, historical critics of the Gospels are interested both in the historicity of the stories about Jesus and in the historical settings of the authors of the texts. This includes a desire to know the author’s original wording and the meaning of the text (text criticism and philology), the sources used and compositional tendencies of the author (form and redaction criticism), as well as an interest in cultural and literary contexts and analogies (archaeology, and social-scientific analysis).

Nineteenth-Century Applications of the Method.

Although the roots of historical criticism of the Bible can be traced back to the periods of the Reformation and Renaissance in Europe, the rise of the Tübingen School in the early nineteenth century provides the clearest line of descent for modern historical critics of the NT. Two major areas of interest dominated the debates (as they still do): the historical Jesus, and the historicity of the stories in the Acts of the Apostles.

Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860) began the modern deliberations about the usefulness of the Acts of the Apostles as a reliable history of earliest Christianity. If the stories in the canonical Acts were historically reliable (as they had been understood by pre-Enlightenment thinkers), then much of the historical-critical enterprise related to the NT would be unnecessary. Since the time of Irenaeus in the late second century, Acts had provided the basic framework of historical events, into which many of the other books of the NT (most notably, the letters attributed to Paul) were chronologically arranged. In contrast to the ecclesiastical tradition that accepted the Acts narrative as historical fact, Baur argued in his 1845 publication of Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ that the narrative was intentionally written by a follower of Paul in order to reconcile the differences between Peter and Paul. Rather than presenting a reconstruction of earliest Christianity that stressed unified origins from Jerusalem, Baur highlighted the oppositional nature of the earliest Christian leaders. Since the author of Acts was interested in a synthesis between originally disparate positions (thesis and antithesis), he was not interested in presenting a historically accurate picture of the past. Instead, he framed the story of Christian origins in a way that was favorable to his early second-century setting.

Influenced by G. W. F. Hegel’s philosophy of history, in which two opposing historical forces create a tension that resolves through synthesis, Baur posited that Luke-Acts was written in order to unite Jew and gentile factions in earliest Christianity thereby presenting a unified picture of Christian origins and setting the stage for Catholicism. According to Baur, Acts explained the mission of Paul to the gentiles of the church in Rome in the early second century. Baur’s contention that there was diversity in earliest Christianity rather than consistent accord has exacted a wide range of responses. While the traditional understanding of Christianity deriving from unified origins—based on a literal reading of Acts—was seriously challenged, Baur’s opponents (those who refused to question the historicity of the NT) were both numerous and powerful. They held significant professorships on the theological faculties of most European universities and refused for most of the nineteenth century to allow Baur’s historical-critical methodology to infiltrate too deeply into the educational system.

At about the same time that the reliability of the Acts narrative was first seriously called into question by Baur, David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874) began the modern debate about the historical Jesus. In The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (German, 1835–1836; English translation by Georg Elliot in 1846), he questioned whether the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels were historically verifiable, and whether scholars could actually reconstruct the life of Jesus. His answers were negative: we can neither accept that the miracles were authentic nor reconstruct the historical Jesus. Strauss declared that the Gospels were not historically reliable; their mythological nature made them ineffectual as historical sources.

The publications of F. C. Baur and D. F. Strauss serve as two of our earliest examples of historical-critical scholarship on the NT. By drawing on the Hegelian philosophy that was increasingly popular in the nineteenth century, they provided a new reconstruction of first- and early-second-century Christianity. For the first time, Baur and Strauss made available an alternative view of early Christian history that was not based primarily on a theological model of sacred history, in which the Bible should be interpreted only within the light of a divine plan of salvation.

In the mid-nineteenth century, several notable scholars defended and expanded on Baur’s ideas. While they helped spread the influence of the Tübingen School, their exuberance for the recently formulated historical methodology was also met with stiff resistance. For example, Albert Schwegler agreed with Baur’s thesis and applied the same Hegelian methodology to his study of early Christianity (Nachapostolischen Zeitalters [Postapostolic Age], 1845). Although he claimed that the audience was the Jewish-Christian community in Rome, ca. 110–150, rather than the gentiles, Schwegler’s entire project was based on the model of the Hegelian dialectic. Similarly, Edward Zeller agreed with Baur’s thesis but argued that the real story of Paul was changed in order to appease the Roman Jewish-Christians. Zeller questioned the reliability of the stories and speeches in Acts, and determined that they were mostly the mythical creation of the author. He also argued that the author of Acts intended his story to be a defense of Christianity before the Roman authorities. Because of their strict adherence to Hegel’s philosophy of history, and Baur’s model of how it could be applied to historical research on the NT, Schwegler and Zeller were staunchly opposed by scholars who rejected this historical-critical approach and defended a theologically based model of historical inquiry.

Despite the extensive rejection of their historical reconstructions, The Tübingen School’s early example of historical-critical scholarship had a lasting impact on the field. Rather than assuming that the books of the NT were written under divine inspiration by individuals in unknowable settings, the new scholarly challenge was to attempt to locate a social situation where these texts made sense within a larger historical framework of Christian origins. Although the dialectic approach of the Tübingen School has long been rejected as the most useful philosophy of history, many of our relevant historical-critical questions related to the NT were formulated in these early nineteenth-century debates. Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, these questions set the basic parameters for the historical-critical debate. Throughout the twentieth century, Baur’s interest in the relationship between Jewish and gentile Christianity, and the purpose and social setting of the Gospels and Acts, continued to be considered central to our modern reconstructions of Christian origins. The historical relationship between the Pauline epistles and Acts also has been a significant interest, with many modern scholars in general agreement with Baur’s contention that Acts was written at the end of the first or beginning of the second century, when the issue of the relationship between Jewish and gentile Christianities was in need of resolution.

Early Twentieth-Century Applications.

The best way to examine this methodology is to examine several of the key scholarly developments during the twentieth century. By the beginning of the twentieth century, several shifts in the historical-critical method can be observed. The interest in the sources for the Gospels and Acts became a central focus (Redaction and Form Criticisms). The study of NT texts as literary achievements, which continues to be the focus of many recent studies, also began in earnest at the beginning of this period. Finally, the comparison of early Christian texts with other literature from the Greco-Roman period became more prevalent.

Ernst Troeltsch provided a model of historical analysis for biblical scholars, which differed from the Hegelian dialectic. Most importantly for the historical-critical method, his notion of history was based on a late-nineteenth-century scientific model that insisted on the similarity of past and current human behavior (the principle of analogy). If the virgin birth and the resurrection of the dead are currently impossible, they should not be considered valid in the ancient historical record. Troeltsch held that the history of Christianity should not be based on dogmatic belief; rather, historical reconstruction must be a scientific pursuit based on probabilities and open to modification over time. Troeltsch provided considerable impetus to twentieth-century historical-critical inquiry on the Bible, even while apologetic, nonsecular historiography retained its dominant position in most theology departments.

Regarding the general goal of reconstructing a history of earliest Christianity, the usefulness of the narrative of Acts continued to be a topic taken up by many historical critics. Acts is a type of ancient historiographical literature, and, as such, it provides our earliest story of Christian origins. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, many questions had already been raised about the usefulness of Acts in modern historiography. This ancient story of Christianity, which had been revered for eighteen hundred centuries, was found to be lacking the essential qualities of historical analysis that would make it a reliable source. Attention to the scholarship on Acts in the past century provides a useful overview of how the methodology developed and grew to prominence in the field of biblical studies.

With several major publications on the book of Acts, Henry J. Cadbury became one of the most influential scholars of the first half of the twentieth century. Cadbury shifted the focus from attempting to discern the historical setting of Luke-Acts, which had consumed the Tübingen School, to an interest in the style and literary skill of the author. For example, based on his assessment of the writing style in Acts, Cadbury is well known for refuting the claim that the author of Acts was Luke the physician, which is briefly referred to in Colossians 4:14. Regarding the authorship and setting of Luke-Acts, Cadbury doubted the uncritical attribution of the text to a companion of Paul or more generally to an eyewitness of the events. He developed the thesis that the author was quite at home in an urban rather than a rural setting. He also made a persuasive argument in favor of viewing the author as quite familiar with a variety of cultures and traditions: Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christianity. Cadbury also made a variety of contributions to the major historical-critical publication project of the early twentieth century, The Beginnings of Christianity. Cadbury argued negatively against taking the speeches of Acts as the actual speeches of the historical characters. Based on the fact that they were written in Lukan style and on his comparison of these speeches with other Greco-Roman authors who employed speeches as a literary convention, Cadbury found that there was no reason to assume the historicity of the speeches.

The influential five-volume collection to which Cadbury contributed, The Beginnings of Christianity is illustrative of NT historical-critical scholarship in the early twentieth century. Many of the essays in the collection reveal a concern to place the study of the NT generally within the context of the Greek and Jewish traditions of historiography. The authors sought to understand Acts as history in the same way we understand the Chronicler of the Hebrew Bible, Tacitus, or Josephus. They were also concerned to show that Acts was written by someone who was dependent upon sources (particularly the “we” sections in Acts). The editors of The Beginnings of Christianity made a reasonable argument for understanding Luke-Acts as an apologetic historian whose purpose was to give religious instruction. After reviewing the basic theological perspective of Luke-Acts, they reviewed the primary evidence for establishing the provenance of Acts. They concluded that Luke-Acts was clearly not acceptable to all Christian communities. Since the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, and the Pauline epistles do not agree with Luke-Acts, they found it difficult to imagine these texts arising in the same type of early Christian communities.

In contrast to the more progressive historical critical studies in this collection, C. W. Emmet took up the apologetic task of defending Luke, the physician and companion of Paul, as the author of Acts. His arguments, organized as a point-by-point refutation of all who denied an early date and Luke (Paul’s companion according to Colossians) as the author, are typical of the traditional way of reasoning. His basic argument was that Paul’s autobiographical chronology in Galatians 1—2 is consistent with the story of Acts. Thus there is reason to suppose that a companion of Paul wrote Acts. He argued that there was no friction between Peter and Paul that would have occasioned the writing of Acts, therefore Acts is historically accurate and should be used as the modern history of Christian origins.

Hans Windisch argued for the exact opposite position, with a line of argumentation that was in many respects in line with the Tübingen School: Galatians and Acts have quite distinct pictures of the relationship between Paul and Jerusalem, and they are chronologically dissimilar. Windisch suggested a date of composition prior to the end of the first century, when he thought that the Pauline epistles would not yet have been collected or well known. This date is also supported on the grounds that Acts appears to have been written before the persecutions of Christians began, before the Gnostic influences on Christianity needed a detailed refutation, and at a time when apocalyptic expectations appeared in a weakened form in comparison to Paul’s epistles.

Writing just after Windisch, B. H. Streeter is typical of a more theologically acceptable, historical-critical attempt to solve the problem of the relationship between the author of Luke-Acts and Paul. He argued that the author was Luke, a man from Antioch who moved to Rome and became a companion of Paul. He concluded that one reason Luke did not reveal a clear knowledge of Paul’s letters and ideas in the stories in Acts was that his Roman audience would have already been familiar with Paul’s theology from the Letter to the Romans; he did not want to repeat what the audience already knew. In general, Windisch—as a representative of the larger project of The Beginnings of Christianity—and Streeter’s response—from a slightly more conservative perspective—summarized the positions of much of the historical-critical scholarship prior to the Second World War.

By the time of his death in 1947, Martin Dibelius was one of the most well-known practitioners of the historical-critical method in NT studies. He outlined and developed a basic thesis that dealt mainly with Acts as a literary achievement comparable to other literature of ancient historiography. He was interested in the sources of Acts and provided a detailed analysis of the purpose of the speeches in Acts. Dibelius’s application of style-criticism (Stilkritik) brought renewed interest in Acts as a literary achievement: the narrative was written by an author who was more interested in a meaningful story than he was in (modern) historiography. Dibelius found the author to have had greater freedom with his limited source material, in contrast to the Gospels—where he understood the work to be much more that of an editor: compiling and arranging earlier sources with less freedom of expression. For Dibelius, the purpose of Luke was not to provide a scientific history of these events but to compose, as a literary artist or Christian preacher, a narrative that was meaningful for his audience. Thus Luke combined traditional travel narratives and stylized sermons with more historical details known from his own experience or from brief reports. Dibelius considered Luke’s use of speeches to be typical of ancient historiographic literature, in which the author introduced speeches into the story when they were relevant to his purpose. The speeches were meant as sermons and practical examples for his audience. Dibelius argued that Luke’s purpose was more that of a preacher than a historian.

Second Half of the Twentieth Century.

After World War II, relations between German, English, and American NT scholars were mended fairly rapidly. German scholarship continued to dominate historical-critical studies, as many notable American scholars received their advanced degrees in Germany, and German scholars moved to the United States to teach in theological seminaries and secular universities. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the critical method was dominant in biblical studies on both sides of the Atlantic. Increasingly, the historical-critical method asked questions about authorial settings and the social purpose of NT texts. There was a growing acknowledgment that noncanonical books needed to be given more prominence in the reconstructions of the origins of Christianity. There was also wider acceptance of the realization that the NT books are widely divergent, in terms of their theologies and Christologies, social-historical settings, and purpose.

In the 1950s, Ernst Haenchen (1894–1975) sought to further understand the theological purpose of the author of Acts. His commentary is a thorough evaluation of the Lukan purpose, rather than a traditional analysis of Acts as history. For Haenchen the question was not: Did Acts represent Paul correctly and, if so, how should we understand the differences between the epistles and Acts? Rather, the question was: How does the picture of Paul in Acts make sense in the setting of a Christian community removed by one or two generations from the time of Paul? One of the most evident ways that the author of Acts brought out this significance was through telling a story that presented the uniformity and simplicity of the origins of Christianity. The author was not writing history for history’s sake; the intention was to develop ideals for his present community. As such, Haenchen preferred to call Acts a historical novel rather than a work of history.

Hans Conzelmann was also interested in understanding Luke’s reason for writing this story. Conzelmann’s study was the most influential historical critical monograph on Luke-Acts in the mid-twentieth century. While few recent critics of Luke-Acts agree completely with Conzelmann’s ideas, his work, in combination with Haenchen’s commentary, established the set of questions that scholars would bring to the study of Luke-Acts for the next 30 years. Conzelmann maintained that the author intended to develop a tripartite scheme of history in order to lessen anxiety among Luke’s readers regarding the second coming. In Luke-Acts the story of Jesus became a middle stage, between the prophetic age (ending with John the Baptist) and the age of the church. The author provided his readers with a salvation history, with a blatant tendency to de-eschatologize the vocabulary of Jesus and present the Kingdom of God as an existing heavenly realm, rather than a near parousia.

Late Twentieth-Century Developments.

By the last quarter of the twentieth century many of the key topics for historical critics of the NT were well established. Literally hundreds of studies based on this method were produced on an annual basis, tracing the origins, socioeconomic settings, functions, and specific historical meanings of the texts.

Archaeology became a more prominent feature of historical reconstructions, as scholars saw the value in integrating scientifically excavated material culture into their work. This was especially the case with historical studies of the lives of Paul and Jesus. In Pauline studies, archaeology in Turkey, Greece and Rome has been used to fill out the details of the social and political world of the Roman Empire. Increasingly, scholars have been interested in clarifying the relationship between Paul and the empire. They have accomplished this not only through a careful analysis of Paul’s language and imagery but also through a more thorough development of the specific cultural settings where Paul and the earliest Christian communities were established (Antioch, Eph, Cor, Rom, etc.).

As the twentieth century came to a close, work on the historical Jesus also rose in prominence for historical critics. Since the work of Strauss in the mid-nineteenth century, many scholars had taken up the goal of placing Jesus into a first-century historical context. Nevertheless, the results of historical Jesus research for the past century and a half often tells us as much about the scholar’s affinities as it potentially does about Jesus’s original setting and purpose (remaking the past in our own image). Many scholars have used the historical-critical method in order to make the character of Jesus represent modern ideas and interests.

In what has been called the “Third Quest” (referring especially to scholarship since the 1980s), historical critics have been guided by three major principles: (1) scholars must place Jesus within his early first-century Jewish context; (2) the canonical Gospels must be supplemented by other early Christian writings that provide diverse stories and sayings (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Mary, etc.); and (3) studies should avoid theological discourse and aim to understand Jesus within the human context of the Roman province of Galilee (Theissen and Winter 2002). Since the late 1980s, these studies have been greatly enhanced by the archaeological work in Galilee, including significant excavations in the Roman-period strata of the Jewish city of Sepphoris (Zippori).

In recent scholarship on Acts, partially in response to Conzelmann, early Christian eschatological ideas gained more attention. Even though many scholars rejected his idea that Luke was moving away from high eschatological expectation, the issue has remained a major topic of debate. Another topic of increasing interest is the role of Paul in Acts. Many recent scholars have followed the pattern set by previous historical-critical analysis, observing that the Paul of Acts is quite distinct from the Paul of the epistles. With regard to the setting and date of Luke, the picture of Paul in Acts has typically caused scholars to separate Luke from close temporal proximity to Paul or his followers. In the past two decades there has also been a move away from the strict dichotomy of “Jewish Christians” versus “gentile Christians” that was proposed and debated in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Scholars now recognize that distinctions between Jewish and gentile followers of Jesus were much more complicated than Baur’s early work implied. Literary analysis, with important implications about the genre, purpose, and social setting of Acts, also became a widely practiced field of inquiry. Although many scholars have moved away from uncritical acceptance of the story of Acts as the actual history of earliest Christianity, assessing the historicity of every element in the story has remained an extremely popular topic for historical-critical examination.

Prospectus for Future Research and Questions about the Methodology.

In order for historical criticism to develop and stay relevant in the coming century, scholars need to continue to adjust their practices in light of several valid critiques of the method. Besides the ongoing conflict between biblical scholars who use this method and ecclesiastical and devotional readers who are more inclined to read the NT through theological lenses, historical criticism of the NT since the late twentieth century has been increasingly criticized on at least two other grounds.

First, detractors of traditional historical criticism have noted the long-standing domination of Western and colonial biblical interpretation that resulted in the relative lack of attention to issues related to women and minority readers. Historical criticism, they observe, has been used in many modern settings to justify the resistance to and oppression of women and minorities in ecclesiastical and other settings. Traditional historical criticism has also been used to support Western imperialistic practices. Since the late twentieth century, feminist and gender scholarship on the Bible and scholars interested in reception history have begun the process of reformulating historical and interpretive questions in order to avoid propagating dangerous worldviews in our present interpretive context. Similarly, historical criticism of the NT has increasingly been negatively assessed for paying so much attention to first- and second-century authors and audiences that there is little interest in understanding readers in other times and places. Reader-response criticism, literary criticism, and cultural studies approaches are much more interested in the active role that the reader has in deciding the meaning of the text, in ancient and modern settings. Although literary critics and historical critics often approach a text with different questions, the future success of both methods will require cooperation and mutual interest between the practitioners of these methods; they are not mutually exclusive scholarly enterprises.

Second, scholars have regarded the historical positivism and objectivism of this method to be romantic and overly optimistic. Historical critics have been judged to be too often uncritical of their own biases, which cloud and influence their historical reconstructions. With the espoused goal of writing objective history, scholars have, in fact, often been unaware of their own assumptions and theories. Especially prior to the rise of postmodernism in the second half of the twentieth century, Leopold von Ranke’s famous dictum, that historians should primarily tell how things actually (or essentially) were (wie es eigentlich gewesen), was held by many to be a reasonable and worthy goal. With the rise of postmodern critique, scholars using this method must be aware of the serious pitfalls of historiography and thus make every effort to fully explore their own assumptions and biases, which inevitably influence their historical reconstructions.

[ See also CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, subentry NEW TESTAMENT; FORM CRITICISM, subentry NEW TESTAMENT; GRECO-ROMAN CONTEXT, REDACTION CRITICISM, subentry NEW TESTAMENT; and SOCIAL SCIENCES, subentry NEW TESTAMENT.]

Bibliography

Methodological Studies and History of Scholarship

  • Baird, William. History of New Testament Research, I: From Deism to Tübingen. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.
  • Blanton, Ward. Displacing Christian Origins: Philosophy, Secularity, and the New Testament. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  • Epp, Eldon Jay, and George W. MacRae, eds. The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989.
  • Kümmel, Werner Georg. The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems. Translated by S. M. Gilmour and H. C. Kee. Nashville: Abingdon, 1972.
  • McKenzie, Steven L., and Stephen R. Haynes, eds. To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Applications. Rev. ed. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1999.
  • Penner, Todd, and Caroline Vander Stichele, eds. Her Master's Tools?: Feminist And Postcolonial Engagements of Historical-critical Discourse. Global Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship 9. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
  • Theissen, Gerd, and Dagmar Winter. The Quest for the Plausible Jesus: The Question of Criteria. Translated by M. E. Boring. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2002.

Nineteenth to Mid-Twentieth-Century Examples of the Method

  • Baur, Ferdinand Christian. Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ: His Life and Works, His Epistles and Teachings; A Contribution to a Critical History of Primitive Christianity. 2 vols. London: Williams and Norgate, 1873–1875. English Translation of Paulus, der Apostel Jesu Christ: Sein Leben und Wirken, seine Briefe und seine Lehre. Stuttgart, 1845.
  • Cadbury, Henry J. The Book of Acts in History. New York: Harper, 1955.
  • Conzelmann, Hans. The Theology of Saint Luke. Translated by G. Buswell. New York: Harper and Row, 1960. English Translation of Die Mitte der Zeit. Mohr, 1954.
  • Easton, Burton S. The Purpose of Acts. London: S.P.C.K., 1936.
  • Foakes-Jackson, Frederick, and Kirsopp Lake, eds. The Beginnings of Christianity. 5 vols. London: Macmillan, 1920–1933.
  • Haenchen, Ernst. The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary. Translated by B. Noble, G. Shinn, and R. McL. Wilson. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971. English Translation of Die Apostelgeschichte, 14th ed. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1965.
  • Schwegler, Albert. Das nachapostolische Zeitalter in den Hauptmomenten seiner Entwicklung. 2 vols. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1846.
  • Streeter, Burnett H. The Four Gospels: A Study of Origin. London: Macmillan and Co., 1924.
  • Windisch, Hans. “The Case Against the Tradition.” In Foakes-Jackson and Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, 2:265–297.
  • Zeller, Edward. The Contents and Origin of the Acts of the Apostles, Critically Investigated. 2 vols. Translated by Joseph Dare. London: Williams and Norgate, 1875–1876. English translation of Die Apostelgeschichte nach ihrem Inhalt und Ursprung kritisch untersucht. Stuttgart, 1854.

Recent Examples of the Method

  • Koester, Helmut, and James M. Robinson. Trajectories through Early Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971.
  • Kraemer, Ross Shepard, and Mary Rose D’Angelo. Women and Christian Origins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Levine, Amy-Jill, Dale C. Allison Jr., and John Dominic Crossan, eds. The Historical Jesus in Context. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Mack, Burton L. Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1996.

Milton C. Moreland