One cannot read the Bible for long without confronting events that defy strictly naturalistic explanations. A nation of slaves escaping bondage by walking on dry ground through a parted sea, an ax head floating and persons walking on water, and men rising from the dead are but a sampling of the miracles recorded in both the Old and New Testaments. Certainly, these are extraordinary phenomena not experienced in present reality. Thus, the factuality of such events depends on the general reliability of the Bible as a historical document. Unfortunately, the Bible’s credibility is under a thick cloud of suspicion in some theological circles today.
Liberal theologians generally have dismissed the historicity of miraculous events, considering them to be the mythological interpretations of natural incidents by two ancient communities: Israel and the early church. Such an approach suggests that the Bible expresses how its authors perceived events, but does not necessarily reflect how they actually happened (Borg, 1993a, 9:9). Accordingly, we should not conclude from Genesis that God actually created the Universe in six, literal days, or that Adam and Eve, as the first human couple, lived in a real Edenic paradise. These are powerfully symbolic tales whose “...primary purpose and place in the Hebrew Bible is theological, not historical” (Dever, 1990, 16:52). Thus, the Genesis account of creation presents the theological truth that “everything comes from God,” but it does not reflect actual occurrences in remote antiquity.
Biblical religion, however, is rooted in God’s acts in human history, not in lofty, abstract ideas or ideals. The crucial issues are: (a) is the Bible historically reliable or not?; (b) should we read the Bible with confidence or skepticism?; and (c) why do many theologians cast suspicion on the historicity of the Bible?
THE HISTORICAL-CRITICAL METHOD
Prior to the seventeenth century, the Bible was considered the universal authority in all fields of knowledge. However, by the end of that century, science, history, and philosophy became autonomous disciplines, freed from biblical authority and the traditionally recognized experts in these fields (Krentz, 1975, p. 10). The Enlightenment, in which revelation became subservient to reason, had begun (see Marty, 1994).
This new, rationalistic approach to the world eventually spawned a radically different attitude toward the Bible. In the second half of the eighteenth century, in connection with the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment, the Bible began to lose its status as the unique and authoritative “Word of God.” Scholars approached the Bible as a mere human production that, “...like any product of the human mind, can properly be made understandable only from the times in which it appeared and therefore only with the methods of historical science” (Kümmel, 1973, p. 14).
The controls of historical science to which Kümmel referred began to guide biblical interpretation during this period, and continue to exert tremendous influence on theology in mainstream scholarship. When applied to the Bible, the generally accepted “historical-critical” method that grew out of the Enlightenment subverts the biblical concept of verbal inspiration (see Anderson, 1993, 9:9). Therefore, we need to analyze carefully the procedures and presuppositions of current historical criticism.
Though different scholars use the method with different sets of assumptions, thus obtaining different results, one can speak justifiably of a specific historical-critical method that is guided by a specific set of shared presuppositions (Gredainus, 1988, p. 25). Ernst Troeltsch, in his 1898 seminal essay on Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology, articulated the three fundamental principles of this method: (1) criticism/probability; (2) analogy; and (3) correlation.
Troeltsch explained this first principle as follows: “...in the realm of history there are only judgments of probability, varying from the highest to the lowest degree, and that consequently an estimate must be made of the degree of probability attaching to any tradition” (1898, p. 13). This basic principle implies that one should read a historical document with a certain skepticism. The historian’s job is to determine its degree of credibility, but never entertain the possibility of complete accuracy. Accordingly, the precision of historical testimony, at best, can be only highly probable, but never absolute. Troeltsch further insisted that this principle be applied impartially to all historical traditions, including the Bible. Obviously, this approach precludes the possibility of complete, historical accuracy of the biblical text.
The second basic principle—that of analogy—is the key to historical criticism (Troeltsch, 1898, p. 13). This idea suggests that all legitimate, historical phenomena must have a present-day analogy. Underlying this principle is the uniformitarian assumption that all events in history are similar. In other words, like those in Peter’s day, it assumes that “all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation” (2 Peter 3:4). Thus, the factuality of any alleged past event is judged by occurrences in present reality. Only those events that have a corresponding contemporary event are considered historical. Consistent with this assumption, a historian dismisses as unhistorical any recorded event that transcends the experience of contemporary humanity. This principle rejects a priori the factuality of unique, miraculous events such as Jesus’ resurrection, since no analogous event occurs today.
The third basic concept of history, according to Troeltsch, is the “...interaction of all phenomena in the history of civilization” (1898, p. 14). This concept implies that all historical events are “...knit together in a permanent relationship of correlation...in which everything is interconnected and each single event is related to all others” (Troeltsch, 1898, p. 14). In other words, all historical events form a unified web of immanent causes and effects. Every event must be interpreted “...within the context of the whole of history in terms of its causes and effects, its antecedents and its consequences” (Gredainus, 1988, p. 27). This principle views history as a closed continuum of natural causes and effects, which eliminates the possibility of a transcendent God’s entering into human history. Yet, that is what the Bible is all about!
Some aspects of this approach to the Bible were consistent with sound methods of exegesis. For example, it placed proper literary and historical constraints on biblical interpretation. It appropriately emphasized the fact that the Bible was written in certain historical and cultural contexts by different men with varying literary styles. And, it is correct exegetical procedure to interpret texts in light of the historical circumstances under which they were written and in keeping with contemporary cultural norms. Further, we recognize that the Bible contains different kinds of literature (e.g., narrative, poetry, etc.) and that the literary style of Paul differs significantly from that of Peter. These are legitimate factors to consider when approaching any text and, when used judiciously, they do not militate against the biblical doctrine of verbal inspiration (see Hamann, 1977, pp. 74-75).
In general, however, the historical-critical method—with its underlying presuppositions—has resulted in an extreme skepticism regarding the historicity of biblical events. Since research is conducted “...as if there were no God” (Linnemann, 1990, p. 84), this method repudiated the divine nature of the biblical text. This fundamental presupposition produced at least two destructive results. First, it excluded the possibility of God’s acting in history, demanding that all supernatural events in the Bible be given natural explanations. Second, scholars considered the Bible to be the end product of a long, evolutionary process of mere human literary genius. For instance, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) denied the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and alleged that it was an amalgamation of different sources (both oral and written) compiled by a redactor (editor), and thus had no real historical underpinning. Modern critics continue to hold to such a fragmentary view of the Pentateuch (Davis, 1993, 19:54). Therefore, many scholars do not consider the Old Testament to be a unique, divine revelation; it is just one body of ancient, sacred literature among a myriad of others.
This has compelled many scholars to draw a sharp distinction between “actual” and “theological” history in the Bible. Such a distinction has led many biblical students to dismiss historical investigations of the Old and New Testaments, and to seek instead theological or canonical meanings (cf. Anderson, 1994 and Childs, 1985, p. 6). For example, Gerhard von Rad, an influential Old Testament scholar, contrasted “history” and “story” in the Hebrew Bible. He argued that critical historical scholarship eliminates the possibility that all Israel was at Sinai, or crossed the Red Sea as the Bible indicates. Though something actually happened in Israel’s past, these stories were the constructions of Israel’s faith (1962, 1:106-107). Thus, one must peel off the layers of elaborate embellishments from biblical narratives to arrive at actual history. For example, one should not accept naively that God actually parted the Red Sea. This was a mythological explanation of some natural event in Israel’s past. Accordingly, biblical scholars must recognize the minimum historical core of Old Testament stories while they pursue their maximum theological meanings.
Similarly, New Testament scholars draw a line of distinction between the historical Jesus and the Jesus presented in the Gospels. Such critics argue that many of the words and events attributed to Jesus actually were put into His mouth by the early church to deal with a specific problem it faced (Bultmann, 1958, p. 63; cf. Koester, 1993 and Borg, 1993b, 9:10,62). For example, this idea suggests that the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees regarding Roman taxation (Mark 12:13-17) was not an actual occurrence in Jesus’ life. It was a story invented by the early church to address a crucial contemporary issue: “Is it consistent with Christian principles to pay Roman taxes?” This contrived episode provided authority for paying such taxes.
Additionally, Jesus’ miracles recorded in the Gospels are considered to be the result of the early church’s theological reflection on, and proclamation of, Jesus’ ministry (see Fossum, 1994). For example, Marcus Borg (who denies the historical factuality of the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem, the journey of the wisemen, and the shepherds’ visit to the manger; see 1992, 8:4), offered this interpretation of the resurrection narratives:
I would argue that the truth of Easter does not depend on whether there really was an empty tomb, or whether anything happened to the body of Jesus. The truth of Easter is that Jesus continued to be experienced as a living reality after his death, though in a radically new way, and not just in the time of his first followers but to this day. It is because Jesus is known as a living reality that we take Easter stories seriously, not the other way around. And taking them seriously need not mean taking them literally (1993a, 9:9).
To Borg, and other scholars of kindred spirit, the truth of Christianity depends merely on the internal consistency of its doctrines, not on the historicity of its miraculous claims (e.g., Jesus’ resurrection). Thus, to be a Christian, one simply should “...live within [the Bible’s] images and stories and vision of life,” which are not necessarily historically authentic (see Borg, 1993a, 9:54). Paul, however, perceived and cautioned against the destructive implications of such an approach: “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). For Paul, Jesus’ resurrection was more than a symbolic expression of his subjective, continued experience of Jesus as a living reality (see Borg, 1994, 10:15); it was an actual event in history that authenticated Christianity.
APPRAISAL OF THE METHOD
Obviously, the principles and presuppositions of the historical-critical method have forced its scholastic adherents into an unenviable position: arguing for the truthfulness of Christianity while denying its historical foundations. However, rather than retreating into such untenable positions, it seems that a more respectable route would be to analyze the method that caused the problem.
This does not mean that the Bible should be exempt from legitimate historical investigation. God revealed His Word to humankind in human form. As such, it can be subjected to the same critical questions as other ancient documents. However, one should not apply more harsh criteria to the Bible, as is often the case, than those applied to other historical traditions. Additionally, any method used to assess the historicity of the Bible must allow for the possibility of all events—natural and supernatural—or it is insufficient.
Is the generally accepted historical-critical method a proper tool with which to evaluate the history of Israel and the real, historical Jesus? A close analysis of this method exposes its insufficiencies for biblical investigation. Consider some of them.
One problem with this method is its radical skepticism regarding the reliability of historical documents. Certainly, since some documents are spurious, one should not gullibly accept as true all historical statements. Thus, a measure of doubt is in order when one investigates a historical document. But the historical-critical method presses this to the extreme. It has shifted the burden on the Bible to prove its own historical accuracy. Yet, despite the Bible’s many marks of historicity (see Moreland, 1987, pp. 133-157), these do not satisfy the critic’s persistent skepticism. The underlying principles of this critical method disallow the historical accuracy of the Bible. Accordingly, this method condemns the Bible as historically specious regardless of the proof it offers for its own credibility, which is not a fair treatment of the evidence.
The historical-critical method purports to be a scientific, rigidly objective investigation of historical documents. However, as Gerhard Hasel correctly observed, “...it turns out to be in the grip of its own dogmatic presuppositions and philosophical premises about the nature of history” (1991, p. 198). For example, the idea that all past events must be explained by prior historical causes (correlation), and understood in terms of analogy to other historical experiences, is subjective. This places the authenticity of any reported event ultimately at the mercy of the historian’s experience. So, the fate of an alleged event rests upon the broadness or narrowness of the critic’s experience (Gredainus, 1988, p. 31).
Proves too much
Additionally, even if critics approach the idea of analogy with a broader scope than one’s personal experience (i.e., from the experience of contemporary humanity), this does not solve its difficulties. When pressed to its logical end, this method screens out all unique historical events, whether miraculous or nonmiraculous. Accordingly, when something happens for the first time in history, and there is no previous analogy, it must be dismissed as unhistorical despite eyewitness testimony. Such a method cannot confirm the historicity of the first human landing on the Moon, or any other historical first, though we know such occurred. In short, a strict application of analogy “...will tend to declare as unhistorical what we know as a matter of fact to be historical” (Gredainus, 1988, p. 31; cf. Geisler, 1976, pp. 302-304). Anything that proves too much proves nothing at all.
Finally, the presuppositions of this method do not give the Bible a fair hearing because the method’s guiding principles are inherently biased against miraculous events. Taking their cue from the philosophical skepticism of David Hume and René Descartes, the architects of this method eliminate a priori the miraculous from the realm of historical possibility. Clearly, this disallows the prospect of God’s acting in history before considering the evidence. In essence, it says, the crossing of the Red Sea could not happen like the Bible says because we know it could not happen that way. This reasoning actually begs the question in favor of a naturalistic interpretation of all historical events, which is far from an impartial investigation of biblical data (Geisler, 1976, p. 302). A method that excludes the possibility of divine intervention in the affairs of humankind is woefully inadequate to evaluate the testimony of scripture (Hasel, 1991, p. 198).
The Bible makes miraculous claims about historical events. While it is true that the Universe operates according to natural law, that does not preclude the possibility of the miraculous. Scientific laws testify to general regularities in nature, but they cannot be used as a testimony against unusual events in particular. Biblical writers recognized natural regularities such as the changing of seasons (Genesis 8:22), and often appropriately attributed them to God as the author of such natural laws. For instance, Amos attributed natural hydrological processes to God: “[He] calleth for the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the Earth: Jehovah is His name” (Amos 5:8). However, there are certain recorded events that cannot be explained by natural processes. There simply is no sufficient natural explanation for the resuscitation of a decomposing body (John 11:39-45). And, it is methodologically improper to deny that such an event could take place before examining the evidence. Further, it is not logically naive to acknowledge a supernatural cause of a supernatural effect.
Additionally, one should not attempt to place theology over against history, as many historical critics frequently do. It is true that the Gospel writers, for instance, had a theological purpose behind their inspired presentations of Jesus’ life. Also, some of Jesus’ miracles, no doubt, had theological meanings attached to them. For instance, conservative scholars have long recognized that the cursing of the barren fig tree represented the vacuous piety of the Jewish nation, for which it was destroyed (Mark 11:12-14). However, such theological purpose and meaning do not negate the fact that miracles actually occurred.
Finally, the historicity of the Bible’s miraculous claims is contingent on the general reliability of the Bible. Any method employed to investigate its historicity must include the possibility of the miraculous. Gerhard Hasel has summarized this point well:
If the reality of the Biblical text testifies to a supra-historical dimension which transcends the self-imposed limitations of the historical-critical method, then one must employ a method that can account for this dimension and can probe into all the layers of depth of historical experience and deal adequately and properly with the Scripture’s claim to truth (1991, p. 199).
We should consider legitimate questions of the biblical text (linguistic, literary, cultural, historical) as we investigate the meaning of God’s Word. Yet, we must recognize that humanly contrived methods are subject to both error and abuse. Recognizing this, we should listen with cautious skepticism when such methods repudiate the truth of Bible.
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Borg, Marcus (1993b), “Jesus in Four Colors,” Bible Review, 9:10,62, December.
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Marty, Martin E. (1994), “Literalism vs. Everything Else,” Bible Review, 10:38-43,50, April.
Moreland, J.P. (1987), Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Rad, Gerhard von (1962), Old Testament Theology, (New York: Harper and Brothers).
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