Harold Camping and Historical-Critical Biblical Studies

This might seem self-serving, but I want to give everyone a warning: there is a role for historical critical biblical studies. Many theologians, Catholic and otherwise, decry, disparage, deprecate and condemn the guild of biblical scholars and the role of historical critical scholarship in understanding, or destroying access they might say, to the Bible. Yet, the sad spectacle that played out with Harold Camping and his followers this past weekend indicates how significant it is to read the Bible with the proper training and tools. Harold Camping was self-trained, as far as I can tell, in his biblical scholarship and the literalism of his readings of Genesis, Daniel, and Revelation would not pass muster in a introductory course on the Bible in any university or seminary, public or private, of which I am aware. We study the Bible through the lenses of the original languages, a theory of history, hermeneutics, literary function, genre and method.  I know, right? Hardly as exciting as the end of the world coming this Tuesday, or Saturday, or next month, sometimes even downright boring, technical, and skeptical. Rarely are social media abuzz with historical critical scholarship, with Facebook pages called “Stuff Rudolf Bultmann Says” or Twitter hash tags like #redactioncriticismfun. Now, it is true, that sometimes biblical scholars go overboard in their historical evaluation of texts and their hyper-skepticism, but such scholarship does not cause people to run out and sell their houses or quit their jobs. What the offended parties can do, in fact, is simply find someone else to read on the topic or do a little more research or learn one of the original languages themselves and come to their own conclusions. It also points to a few realities, though, that need to be kept in mind the next time people want to dismiss historical critical biblical scholarship:

1. Formal education in biblical studies does not guarantee wisdom or even access to the truth of texts, but you will be taught about mythic language and literary genre and that we cannot take literally all events in the Bible or use them for dating since we do not know when many events took place or even if they were historical events;


2. You will be taught that texts ought to be interpreted according to genre and that certain texts are to be interpreted literally, but others ought to be interpreted spiritually, morally or anagogically. Interpretation is not a “one size fits all” enterprise and when you try to force that shoe onto a foot it does not fit, it hurts, in some cases it hurts many people;

3. You will be trained to become a part of the history of interpretation, both academically and ecclesially, and not only will this introduce you to many different sorts of interpretation and interpreters, it will let you know that most everything has been suggested before. This creates moderation in interpretation, which is not as much fun as runaway enthusiasm, but in the long run is healthier and invigorating. Invigorating? Being a part of an historical enterprise over 2,000 years old encourages you to take a long view of events and God’s ways in the world, but how many other enterprises are over 2,000 years old? I do what Origen did, and Augustine, and Moses Maimonides...The list goes on and on;

4. You will learn not to put all of your eggs in one basket, or trust in one interpreter or interpretation to the exclusion of all others. Since you know of the many crazy interpretations which have occurred throughout Christian history and since you know the historical context of the texts, you will want to examine any interpretation carefully and be very suspicious, even dismissive, of anyone who says they have “figured it all out;”

5. You will beware of any cults of personalities, which propose that “your guy” is the “guy who has figured it all out.” Given that such complete interpretations of the Bible go back to the earliest history of Christianity and a variety of sects in Judaism , you know that this is a path that walks you into a dead-end or, worse, off of a cliff. You will beware of such people, which predominate more often in small sects but are often found in mainline churches, too, because charismatic leaders promise much but deliver so little. It is especially disheartening when their holistic readings of the Bible crack under the strain of reason and reality;

6. You will discover that the reason historical critical research became popular in the academy, and is the mode of interpretation found in all universities and the vast majority of seminaries, is not because of an attempt to devalue the Bible but because it makes sense of reality and of the texts. Historical critical readings of the Bible are challenged today because the ground upon which such readings were founded is solid: an examination of the textual, literary and historical contexts in which the biblical books were written is a firm foundation for research. This does not mean every historical reading is correct, or that spiritual readings ought to be dismissed, or that there are not philosophical presuppositions that underlie certain scholars’ work – dismissal of the divine inspiration of the text – that cannot be shared by Christians or the Church, but the worthy success of the enterprise is established in the fact that readers of all sorts, Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish, and those without faith, have found that the historical critical enterprise is built on solid ground and cannot be toppled;  

7.  It will cause you to have a great deal of sympathy for Harold Camping and his followers, for the story has been told so often throughout Christian history, and you wish only the best for a man and his followers who today feel duped and ridiculed; it will also cause you to feel sorry that so many people will find the Bible an object of ridicule today, when you know it has been a force of sustenance and strength for Jews and Christians throughout periods of turmoil, persecution and martyrdom;

8. And you will want to say: do not give up on the Bible. Check out an established university or seminary and take a course. You might be surprised by how much there is to learn.

 John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

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Leo Zanchettin
7 years 8 months ago

Very, very well said! You did a marvelous job of distilling the thoughts that have been swirling around in my brain since I first heard about Mr. Camping's predictions a couple of weeks ago. Yes, historical critical studies are vital when it comes to understanding and applying Scripture. And like you, I wince whenever I hear this discipline being dismissed by fellow Catholics as being anti-faith. Allow me to add a couple of thoughts.

First, on a personal level, I can attest that my own faith grew exponentially as I pursued my master's degree in theology, concentrating on biblical studies. Reading Ray Brown, Luke Johnson, Daniel Harrington, and so many others opened my eyes to a world inside the Bible that I found both fascinating and uplifting. So many insights into man! So much more satisfying a portrait of God! I was already a member of an intentional lay community, living a pretty intense Christian life of prayer, practicing lectio divina, and sharing my life with other like-minded people. But taking classes with the Dominicans in DC and at Catholic University exposed me to a broader world, and showed me how much more there is to the Bible than I ever thought possible. So yes, biblical studies does not have to be a dry, boring discipline. It can be a deeply spiritual experience as well.

Second, I think that much of what you wrote speaks directly to the topic of homiletics and pastoral care. Let's face it. Most Catholics in the pew will not take a university or seminary course. The mere mention of terms like redaction criticism or sitz im leben will cause the average person's eyes to glaze over. And that's why we need pastors who are skilled at bridging the gap between the academy and the congregation. It's why we need people who are deft at combining critical scholarship with spiritual insight and who can find the right way to present this material to everyday people and help them find its practical application to their lives. 

Pope Benedict XVI's apostolic exhortation on the word of God had some important things to say about priestly formation and homiletics, but I don't know what actual steps are being taken. Do you know of any, John?
Michael Barberi
7 years 8 months ago
This subject reminds me of the other essay in America that quoted B16, that you cannot take one sentence or paragraph out of Scripture and formulate moral norms, you need to read the entire Bible.

It is true that it takes education and much reflection to interprete the Bible, and then you have one interpretation.  Many Catholics read the Bible and gain inspiration from it, but have little time to study it formally. Most Catholics want their priest to educate them, especially during Mass. 

Homilies are crafted from Scripture, both the Old and New Testament, but the message is about what not to do, a series of normative laws It is mostly about act and sin-based normative ethics. Little is mentioned about what type of person one ought to become, how one is to grow spiritually, how to love God, neighbor and self, and feel secure in the gifts of the Spirit.  

Would not the word of God have more meaning if delivered and communicated differently? Would it be best communicated and understood in concrete circucmstances of everyday life, and in terms of meaningful and virtuous actions that can be grasped by everyone who sit in those pews every Sunday. 

Most Catholics are perplexed about many issues and seek guidance but rarely hear such advise from the pulpit. How does the HIV-positive husband sitting in the pew every Sunday understand that celibacy is the only licit recourse for him? How do those hundreds of people who practice contraception understand the USCCB statement that they are to refrain from receiving this sacrament if this sin is not confessed?

What do we tell the mother of 3 children who had her 4th pregnancy terminated in order to save her life, when both her life and the fetus faced certain death, but the mother was the only one that could be saved?  How do Catholics understand the primacy of an informed conscience, and everything that they need to know about it?  Finally, how should Catholics understand the thousands of silent pulpits that never address any of these issues? Is a referral to the Bible or the catechism the real answer? 
Edward Stansfield
7 years 8 months ago
Misconceptions Concerning the Apocalypse (part 1)
Most Misconceptions concerning the apocalypse that are widely purveyed today were first popularized by two very foolish gentlemen who lived over a hundred years ago. One was a fundamentalist, the other a skeptic. These two were John Nelson Darby and Albert Schweitzer. Martens’ altogether helpful column on the subject has correctly identified one and alluded to the other.
Darby was a hard-boiled fundamentalist from the 1800’s who came up with (and popularized) the idea of the “pre-tribulational rapture.” Essentially, what he did was study biblical predictions about the apocalypse and end times, and he noticed that in most scripture passages concerning the subject, a great deal on unpleasantness accompanies the second coming. This unpleasantness is called the “great tribulation” in the gospels.
Therefore, Darby determined to search the scriptures for a way that “true believers” (apparently people like himself) could escape the upcoming disasters, calamities and tribulations of the apocalypse. Sure enough, the man who studied the bible looking for something to confirm his preconceptions found it. The passage that he found and latched onto was this:
“16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord,” (1 Thes 4:16&17).
The idea of being “caught up” (from the Greek “harpazo” or Latin “rapiemur” or rapture) captured his imagination, and Darby could be quite imaginative. He concluded that this “rapture” would happen before the other events of the tribulation and that this was how he and other true believers could get out of the more unpleasant aspects of the apocalypse. Now of course there is nothing in the scripture to justify arranging Saint Paul’s rapture before the other events of the apocalypse, but that is how Darby envisioned it.
Indeed, the New Testament includes several passages that arrange the events of the apocalypse in the exact opposite order, placing the difficulties of tribulation before anyone gets “caught up” to heaven at the second coming. For one thing, the aforementioned passage (1 Thes 4:16) says, “the dead in Christ will rise first,” so that millions and billions of dead people will get up out of their graves and live again before anyone gets “raptured.” The resurrection of the dead is something that happens before any of the living can be “caught up” to heaven.
And when will this resurrection happen? Obviously the bible doesn’t give a day or time, or a code that can be used to determine such things, but Jesus does say, “I will raise him up on the last day,” several times in John chapter six. Now if the resurrection of the dead (and presumably also a “rapture”) happens on the “last day,” then how could a lengthy tribulation of several years or months ensue after that? Any tribulation would have to occur before then if it's really the last day. Other passages in the New Testament paint a similar picture, tending to support a post-tribulational catching-up of the living rather than the kind of “pre-trib rapture” that Darby or Harold Camping have advocated.
Edward Stansfield
7 years 8 months ago
Misconceptions Concerning the Apocalypse (part 2)

Schweitzer’s main popularized misconception was the idea of an “imminent first century apocalypse,” (Doctor Schweitzer popularized this idea within academia but it never really caught on with the general public). Schweitzer was a skeptic who didn’t believe in Christianity, and wanted to find a way to disprove the Christian faith. Like Darby, Schweitzer turned to the bible looking for scripture to substantiate his preconceptions. Like Darby, he found it. This was more of a testament to the power of wishful thinking than the authority of scripture.
Schweitzer was a medical doctor who went back to school to pick up a PhD in theology. During his studies he did not learn about the bible or its historical context, but instead studied other skeptical theologians who previously published “hatchet job” books devoted to bashing and re-inventing Jesus. Schweitzer eventually caught hold of the writings of a scholar named Weiss who claimed that the second coming of Christ was originally envisioned to occur in the first century AD during the lifetime of the apostles. Since it didn’t happen then, Schweitzer concluded that Jesus must have been wrong about one of his central teachings.
Schweitzer called his book on the subject, “Quest of the Historical Jesus.” However, the problem with it is that it has nothing to do with history. The truth of the matter is that the New Testament establishes several historical preconditions for the apocalypse to take place and none of these could have happened in the first century during the lifetimes of the apostles. Even if the authors of the New Testament were not prophets who could foresee the future they still would have known that the second coming they predicted could not occur in their lifetimes, but was a thing of the distant future instead. Unfortunately Schweitzer did not recognize any of these preconditions because he could not understand the historical context of the bible, because he was not a historian. Because biblical scholars frequently use the terms, “history” and, “historical” they often (perhaps inadvertently) fool their colleagues into thinking that their opinions are based on historical expertise or are factually reliable when that is not the case.
Examples of these preconditions are easy to find for someone who knows anything about history. The only book of the New Testament that claims Jesus is “coming soon” or “quickly” is Revelation, but Revelation includes several of these preconditions. Revelation says that when the final battle of Armageddon takes place an army of 200,000,000 troops will show up for it. But it was not possible for any country in the ancient world to raise an army that large. In order for the prophesy to be fulfilled, the population of the world would have to increase dramatically and John would have known that that would take hundreds of years at the least.
Revelation also claims that there will be an apocalyptic agent Saint John called, “the Beast.” This “Beast” would be elected and given power by a group of ten kings who would give their power to him. The problem for the Weiss-Schweitzer theory is that you did not have ten different kingdoms in the known world capable of doing such a thing during John’s lifetime. The Romans conquered everybody else leaving less than ten kingdoms extant in the known world. The “Beast” is unlikely to be an emperor of Rome because it was not possible to elect an emperor in this manner. The prophesy envisions a fulfillment after the fall of Rome, not during John’s lifetime. Indeed, Revelation also predicted the fall of Rome.
Other Passages in the New Testament in Revelation, Matthew and Mark establish similar preconditions for the second coming that could not be fulfilled during the lifetimes of the people who wrote the scriptures. Schweitzer and the followers have cited several scriptures to justify the claim that the apocalypse was imminent. However, they are intended to serve an exhortatory purpose rather than a chronological function and are typically accompanied by various exhortations.
7 years 8 months ago

How about a follow-up post on how to get this kind of understanding into parish level Bible study programs? The rank and file are not going to go to university courses, but we have many Bible Study groups in my parish.  Unfortunately, I facilitate the only Bible Study program (Little Rock) I know of that gets into these issues.  And although this material is unsettling for some, they always struggle through it and are glad they did.  

And the end result:  they end up being biblically literate Catholics, regardless of what they personally conclude about the ideas they've been exposed to.  And they are stunned to learn how HUMAN the Bible is.  They learn that although the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that does not mean that it is some kind of Magic Book.

The other Bible study programs in our parish are the Ascension Press Jeff Cavins programs.  These studies avoid these issues like the plague.  And although they do get the participants more familiar with the text, they teach absolutely nothing ABOUT the texts that they are reading.  They basically take an evangelical rather than Catholic approach to the Bible, using the texts to support Catholic doctrine and teaching, but leaving undisturbed everyone's childhood assumptions and beliefs about the Bible.  

But the point is as you said in your post:  this method of study ''makes sense of reality''.  And since a genuine religious faith helps us DEAL with reality, not escape from it, this method of study at the parish level would be perfectly consistent with that.  

So I would love to see a post with your ideas on getting this kind of Biblical literacy to the parish level without aking parishioners to flock to their local university.
Edward Stansfield
7 years 8 months ago
Misconceptions Concerning the Apocalypse (3rd and last)

Both Darby and Schweitzer’s ideas have had a harmful effect on the churches that have taught them. The apocalypse according to Darby turns the biblical story of the apocalypse into one of escapism and robs the story of the apocalypse of the value it places on the virtues of courage and perseverance. John originally wrote Revelation to encourage Christians in the seven churches of Asia Minor to remain steadfast in their faith even in the face of social ostracism, rejection and persecution. John assured his followers that they could have an eternal reward in heaven if they held onto their faith and moral principles even through wars and disasters. Pre-tribulationism undermines that message by claiming that you can get out of all those difficulties by just getting yourself “raptured.”
Schweitzer’s ideas have had a similarly harmful effect on the church. Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmeyer both bought into the Weiss-Schweitzer theory of a first century second coming. Brown even advocated this idea on the first page of his Introduction to the New Testament (these guys were clearly not as knowledgeable about history as they are reputed to be). Seminarians who are taught this theory often conclude that there is no second coming, no resurrection of the dead, and no last judgment. When the seminarians become priests they are expected to preach about readings from the scriptures that are often about these apocalyptic themes. The priests typically have no idea what to say when an apocalyptic scripture reading comes up in the lectionary. They usually find something else to talk about, no matter how inane.
The main reason why people buy into the nonsense they get from Camping, Darby or even Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth, is because the rapture preachers offer people a way to understand the scriptures that is not based on skepticism or criticism of them. They can stand in sharp contrast to non-believing approaches to the bible. And as I said before, skepticism doesn’t sell bibles. However, it is possible to take a non-skeptical or believing approach to the bible without speculating about when one might be “raptured.”
Michael Barberi
7 years 8 months ago
Dear Fr. Martin:

Perhaps I wondered a bit off-topic, but I offer a more clearer reasoning for my comments. One can clearly argue that many homilies are well intentioned and some speak to the type of person one should become. However, in my 50 years of attending Mass in various towns and states, the message is on a very high level and many homilies have a certain unintentional undertone. This undertone is reflected of a Church that largerly basis its moral theology on a sin and act-centered anthropolgy. To a large extent, we follow a series of norms, many of which are moral absolutes. This underpinning carries forward into an orientation where one is expected to "do this, don't do that". Ones spiritual progress is mostly based on avoiding sin, receiving the Eucharist, attending Mass, praying etc. Little is focused on true spiriutal development, virtues, handling complex concrete issues, conflicting doctrines and Church practices (i.e, the application of the principle of graduation to contraceptive couples, but not to the divorced/remarried habitual sinner).

As I mentioned, I rarely hear any discussion of specific issues. When 97% of Catholic married women practice a form of birth regulation condemned by the Vatican as intrinsically evil and stand on line to receive Eucharistic Communion, and priests are well aware of this, but rarely ever mention it at the pulpit is perplexing.

Today, famiies face major issues: homosexuality of children or a spouse; a remarried and divorse couple that must practice celibacy or fall victim to mortal sin, etc.  These issues are rarely heard from the pulpit and while they may be better handled in smaller groups, I rarely hear of such type of offerings and education announced from the pulpit. I am sure some exist, Perhaps my experience is not reflected of the entire Church.

While your article concerned the interpretation of the Bible, as a worthwhile source of spiritual reflection, one encounters many scriputre passages that are perplexing and have formed the basis for many doctrines. The blog postings on B16's statement that you cannot select sentences or paragraphs from scripture and form moral norms and obligations, you have to take into consideration the entire Bible, is filled with examples that speak to my point here. Hence, while your article focuses on Biblical education and methods of interpretation. etc, I wanted to speak to the role of the Bible by taking this issue up another level or two.

No Church, homily is perfect and I do not want to sound like this is all about criticism without a purpose. There is a role for your specific points about understanding the Bible, and I meant no disrepect. However, many of the articles and commentaries found in America recently are closely related to the general subject I am talking about. 

My interests and comments perhaps distracted from your excellent article. If so, I apologize for the disgression.
Edward Stansfield
7 years 7 months ago

In response, I would say that the points I made in my post on this subject were factually correct. The portrait that these facts paint of Schweitzer, Brown and Fitzmeyer is not a flattering one, and you (and the rest of the staff at America) obviously hold them in high regard. However, in order to understand something, sometimes it is necessary to look at it from a different point of view. These three scholars may have been smart and well accomplished, and well intentioned, but they had "warts," so to speak.

Schweitzer and Darby both made the mistake of getting the Kingdom of God mixed up with the apocalypse, imagining that the apocalypse would begin the kingdom. They did not realize that the King has already been crowned and has taken his throne. Any historian will tell you that a kingdom begins with a coronation (since I am a historian and teacher, my perspective on biblical studies will be different than that of the dead languages crowd). And as the gospels say, the King is still with us.

It is certainly true that Jesus "encouraged an attitude of preparation and watchfulness." However, I meant to include this within the "various exortations" I mentioned.

I demonstrated that the Weiss-Schweitzer theory was incorrect on historical grounds using two passages from Revelation. However, if these are insufficient to prove my point other examples could be used. In Mark Jesus explains things in simpler language. He says:

7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet.... 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. (Mark 13:7&10)

Jesus was predicting "wars" (plural) at the height of the pax romana, which was an exceptionally peaceful time when wars were few and far between. It will take a long time from Jesus' point of view for several wars to occur, and he still adds that "the end is not yet." The additional precondition in verse ten was something that the disciples knew could not be accomplished during their lifetimes, and arguably still has not been accomplished today. The fact that the three scholars all accepted a theory that is provably wrong on historical grounds does not bode well for the reliability of their analysis of the bible. Biblical scholars generally don't know what historians know and they don't think the way historians do. Is it any wonder they make so many mistakes?

My point about homiletics and seminary formation of priests in the church is a valid one as well. Think about it. When is the last time you heard a really good homily about the apocalypse?

One last point. I think you and your readers would do well to keep in mind that fundamentalism (within the western, Christian world) is largely an unintended consequence of the development of biblical criticism and skeptical approaches to the faith and scripture. By advocating a more "critical" approach to the bible, you could easily provoke more fundamentalism. Requiring students to abandon "childhood assumptions and beliefs" doesn't always work for educational purposes.
Edward Stansfield
7 years 7 months ago
What Needs to be Done
If any of the criticisms I made of Brown, Schweitzer, Wellhausen or the other scholars I mentioned are incorrect, by all means, please refute me! I intended my remarks to apply to the theories and opinions these scholars have taught and did not intend to impugn them personally. We should not continue to teach ideas that are wrong, just because the scholars who advocated them were good, honorable people.
The fact is that every poll and survey conducted on the matter indicates that Catholics generally have the least informed understanding of the faith and scripture of any religious persuasion in the country. This represents a dismal failure on the part of the scholars responsible for teaching us. That kind of failure naturally begets scrutiny, not reverence.
I have previously mentioned that, “skepticism doesn’t sell bibles,” on 5 distinct occasions. Generally speaking, catholic bibles don’t sell and nobody buys them. So look at it from an educational point of view. If you’re teaching a class with a required textbook and the majority of your students don’t buy it (and even fewer read it) chances are that the class won’t go well.
So what do you have to do to transition from a skeptical approach to the bible to a non-skeptical or believing approach? What do you have to do to successfully sell the product and teach the lesson? I believe you need to make four changes in the scholarship:

Change from a literary approach to the scriptures that focuses on genre, compilation and technical detail, to one that focuses on theology and salvation (I discussed this somewhat in a previous post).
Replace late authorship and pseudonymous authorship with early and genuine authorship of scripture (this will be necessary to restore the bible’s credibility of authorship and demonstrate to the public that the people who wrote it were divinely inspired and knew what they were talking about).
Replace retrospective prophecy with predictive prophecy (all discussion of salvation is predictive. Therefore a God who cannot foresee the future cannot offer salvation).
Replace parabolic miracles with historical miracles (in the bible God performs supernatural miracles because he loves us. A god who doesn’t really perform miracles doesn’t really love us).

I suspect that if catholic biblical scholars were to make these changes in the scholarship they could be much more successful in teaching us about the bible. Instead of teaching silly theories that can be easily disproved (such as those of Wellhausen and Schweitzer) they should use the bible to teach us about the Christian faith.
Steven Deedon
7 years 7 months ago
It hurt to see folks having fun at Harold Camping's expense, and congratulating themselves for not reading the Bible as he did.  I don't know Mr. Camping's particular motives, but let's not forget that millenialism arises out of thoughts and feelings of desperation.

No need to be high handed toward interpreters like Mr. Camping, just humbly recommend Raymond Brown's ''Introduction to the New Testament.''

Steven Deedon is currently at work on a Jesus epic (film) based on Historical Jesus studies.

Leo Zanchettin
7 years 7 months ago

I think there is another, more obvious answer to why few Sunday homilies deal with issues such as IVF, contraception, and abortion-at least from where I sit in the pews. As the father of six children, ages 2 through 11, I am grateful my pastor doesn't deal with these issues from the pulpit. The last thing I need is for my seven-year-old to ask me to explain contraception while we're having our after-Mass donuts! Some things are simply not appropriate to discuss in a family setting, however much we may want to discuss them, debate them, or pontificate about them.

The homily is meant to be a time of reflection and application of the day's Lectionary readings, geared toward the needs and concerns of the congregation. I don't need a zealous priest (no matter what part of the spectrum he inhabits) making my job as a parent more difficult.
Justin Bianchi
7 years 7 months ago
Martens blog post is humorous in that it misdiagnoses the problem.  If it is true that there are those who do not understand how to interpret scripture, I fail to see, as someone who has studied theology for four years, that the historical critical method is the "magic bullet" that resolves the dilemma of proof texting... or what you improperly call a "literal" interpretation of the bible.

I might imagine that 0.0000001% of the American population took Harold Camping's views to heart, though the 2008 Pew Study says that three in four Americans are nominally Christian.

On the other hand, scholars have, over the years, accumulated an undistinguished track record applying the historical critical method.  We have (on this memorial of the Visitation, no less) the heritage of Dr. Raymond Brown asserting that Mary never recited the words of the Magnificat, because it looked too much like an Old Testament prayer.  [Interesting to note that Dr. Brown conducted no research, nor wrote a paper on the issue... he simply wrote off the Lucan text with the flick of a pen.]

Then we have the "two source" hypothesis, that suggests Matthew and Luke came from Mark and the very imaginary "Q" (quelle) text, which does not exist, nor did it ever exist.  A lot of younger biblical scholars are growing impatient with historical criticism in large part because the "Q" theory is starting to look very suspect. 

Finally, the historical critical scholars tell us that there are "two creation accounts" in Genesis,  which to this day still baffles me, as there are not two creation accounts in Genesis.  There is a mythical account of creation, and a mythical account of the fall of man, both of which contain two separate theological truths. 

If literalism and proof texting are the bane of good scholarship, so is theologically barren and bone-dry historical critical scholarship.

Leo Zanchettin
7 years 7 months ago
E. B.

Your proposals sound more like marketing techniques than a serious attempt at refuting Brown, Wellhausen, and company. Actually, there is some truth to what you've said. The kind of approach you lay out may well end up in more sales of the Bible, just as Harold Camping's false teachings about the apocalypse led many to buy in on his vision. The only problem is, both are wrong.

The only refutations I have heard of historical-critical approaches to the Bible have to do with the fear that such approaches will drain the Scriptures of their true meaning, or that they will weaken the faith of those exposed to them. I haven't yet seen any arguments that deal with the method on its own terms. Not even from Benedict XVI.

As for the fear-mongering refutations, I can only point to my experience and the experience of many others who have undertaken an intellectually open, spiritual study of Scriptures: Not only are many vexing questions about the Bible answered, but we end up loving the Lord and his word even more. 
Edward Stansfield
7 years 7 months ago
Come, let us reason together – Isaiah
Guys, calm down. In response to Martens’ concerns, you should recall that when I first suggested a more salvific approach to the bible (the first of my four suggested changes in the scholarship) in response to one of your previous columns, I prefaced my remarks with a quote from Dei Verbum to justify the change. Dei Verbum itself says that the “truth” of the bible is one that was committed to writing “for the sake of salvation.”
Indeed, all the changes I suggested are consistent with church teaching and are warranted by Dei Verbum. Dei Verbum clearly stresses the point that the entire bible is divinely inspired from beginning to end. It says, “The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing. (2)” (DV Chapter 2, Paragraph 7). This clearly flies in the face of scholars who claim that Matthew didn’t write Matthew or that John didn’t write John or that Peter didn’t write 1&2 Peter. There is no official church teaching that supports late and pseudonymous authorship of scripture.
Dei Verbum boldly states that prophets DO predict the future. In chapter 4 on the Old Testament it says that the plan of salvation was “foretold by the sacred authors” (DV paragraph 14). Then it says, “The principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ, the redeemer of all and of the messianic kingdom, to announce this coming by prophecy,” (DV paragraph 15). If the authors of the Old Testament could predict Jesus hundreds of years in advance then clearly prophets predict the future.
Similarly Dei Verbum assumes that biblical miracles are historical and not just parable stories. It says, “This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having in inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them.” (DV Chapter 1, paragraph 2). These references to God’s “deeds” assume that God really did the things that God did in the bible and that God’s actions “confirm” the message of his words.
Above all else we should remember that Dei Verbum says, “The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed” (DV Chapter 3, paragraph 12). If the author of the scripture wrote that he was Isaiah, then any assertion to the contrary by biblical scholars represents a rejection of the author’s intent.
The changes I have suggested here are all based on the original intent of the authors of the scriptures, which is the reason why they would be part of a non-skeptical exegesis of the bible. Dei verbum says, “Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.” (DV Chapter 6, paragraph 22). The approach I have advocated here is entirely oriented toward that purpose.
There are a handful of scholars who have actually taken this kind of approach. For a basic introduction, you could look at You Can Understand the Bible by Peter Kreeft. Because Kreeft is a philosophy professor, he focuses on the ideas that are conveyed by the bible without getting bogged down in details. You could see A Father Who Keeps His Promises by Scott Hahn. This is a popularized form of his dissertation on the biblical covenants. It helps to explain many of the most arcane and mysterious scriptures in the bible and deals heavily with the individual’s relationship with god. I previously mentioned Girzone’s book on Jesus, which is not bad. The Navarre Bible does a decent job of explaining the New Testament. For the “O.T.” you should see “A Survey of the Old Testament” by Andrew Hill and John Walton. It does a good job of explaining the theological message of the Old Testament and includes copious archaeological information.
Edward Stansfield
7 years 7 months ago
In response to Leo Z, I would say that if you scroll up you will find that I disproved the Schweitzer theory on historical grounds in previous postings to this page. I also disproved Wellhausen’s theory in postings to one of Martens’ previous columns (and I did so on the basis of the historical evidence). And let’s not pretend as if I’m the first one to disprove Wellhausen.
I’m a historian and I know the history better than the biblical scholars who claim to be historical critics. I am not advocating a change of method, but I am advocating that the scholars should get the job done right. I believe the scholarship needs to change, not because of any “fear” of what the future might hold, but because of what has already happened in the past. I do not have to “fear” that skeptical and historically incorrect assumptions might drain the bible of its meaning, I know that this has already happened in the past as I have previously explained. The status quo isn’t good enough. The changes I have suggested have historical and theological reasons for them, but I admit that they also have educational (or marketing) benefits.
7 years 7 months ago
Very interesting disucssion.  I believe it can be very fruitful as we consider ways to help people enter into the biblical story -  in a way that makes connections between the ancient world and our own, and between God and humans.  Check out Little Rock Scripture Study (www.littlerockscripture.org) for a very balanced approach incorporating biblical literacy, community building, and growth in discipleship/relationship with Christ.


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