Post-Critical, Post-Modern Bible Study

Biblical studies are influenced by trends in the larger academic and cultural world.

Literary Studies

In the 1940s a new trend arose in literary criticism called “the new criticism.”  The new critics dismissed the historical, biographical, and psychological research of past generations as irrelevant.  They declared that the meaning of a poem or other piece of literature is not in the mind of the author nor in the mind of the reader but on the page.  The poem itself, not the author or historical context or the emotional response it evoked, was the object of study.  New critics looked for “complexities in the text: paradoxes, ironies, ambiguities” and “ a unifying idea or theme which resolves these tensions” (Michael Delahoyde,

In more recent years an approach to literature has arisen that is variously called, “critical theory, literary theory” or sometimes simply “theory.”  It begins with the Marxist insight that all knowledge is “interested,” that is, it serves the interest of the class that produces it.  Critical theory explores the connection between literature and systems of dependency and domination.  Deconstruction is a way of reading literature to undermine its authority to bind the reader to such systems of domination or dependency.

Biblical studies influenced by the new criticism pay close attention to the literary features of the text, especially the original Hebrew text: word plays, ironies, ambiguities, rhythm, and structure.  If you’ve ever looked for chiasms in a passage, you have been influenced by the new criticism (also called “close reading”).  A good example of the close literary reading of a biblical text is the Anchor Bible Commentary on Ruth.

Some students of the Bible have followed the new critics in rejecting the idea of trying to find the author’s intention.  They would say we can never enter the mind of another person, and it is irrelevant anyway.  We should remember that new criticism started with the analysis of imaginative, creative literature.  The Bible certainly contains intentional communication, which is something different.

The influence of critical theory on biblical studies is seen in various liberation approaches: feminist, post-patriarchal, and post-colonial readings.  Feminist readings of the Bible for example, take two forms.  One approach is to accent the woman-friendly and patriarchy-subversive passages in the Bible, and to critique the patriarchal assumptions in traditional readings of the Bible.

The other feminist approach is frankly hostile to the Bible, asserting that it is oppressive and is in fact the foundation of the patriarchal assumptions of our culture.  This way of reading the Bible accents the woman-unfriendly and patriarchy-affirming passages.  The goal of this reading is to show “how bad” the Bible is and therefore to undermine its authority.

In recent years some women of color have criticized feminism as being “too white” and middle class, and ignoring the struggles of women for the broader liberation of their subculture—women, men, and children—while they also work for the empowerment of themselves and their children within their own social context.

An interesting experiment is to read the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar from three different perspectives: first from Abraham’s, then from Sarah’s, then from Hagar’s (Gen chapters 16 and 21).  It is also interesting to see how often Genesis subverts essential elements of the patriarchal culture, such as the preeminence of the firstborn.  Another interesting example is raised by this question: Why is it that after Gen 2:24, no man ever leaves his father and mother?

Archaeology after Albright

George Mendenhall was a graduate of Johns Hopkins and later a professor at the University of Michigan who specialized in the comparative study of ancient treaty documents and the biblical covenant.  Before Mendenhall, scholars in the Wellhausen tradition assumed that the idea of the covenant was relatively late.  Mendenhall studied treaties from the second millennium and noticed how remarkably close they were in form and content to biblical expressions of the covenant between God and his people.  In particular, Ex 20-23 and the whole book of Deuteronomy are suited to this analysis.

There were too types of  treaty texts in the ancient near east: the parity treaty—an agreement between equals—and the suzerainty treaty that was established by a great power and granted to a lesser power.  For example, the kings of Egypt, Babylon, and the Hittite empires considered themselves equals and their treaties expressed this concept.  On the other hand, these “Great Kings” (as they are often called in the documents) and the lesser kings of small cities, all knew who was boss.  They were bound to give their absolute loyalty to the great kings who graciously offered protection and help, and threatened destruction for disloyalty.

Treaty texts have been discovered covering a period of two millennia.  Mendenhall noticed that the form—the specific elements and their exact order—corresponded exactly between second-millennium documents and the covenant in the time of Moses, as seen in Exodus and Deuteronomy.  In the first millennium (i.e., after Moses or in the supposed age of “D” the form changed.)  Peter Cragie in his Word Biblical Commentary on Deuteronomy appealed to this fact to affirm the Mosaic authorship of the book.

Mendenhall also believed that the archaeological record failed to show any evidence of a violent conquest of Canaan.  He believed that combining the archaeological evidence with subtle biblical evidence from a nuanced reading of the levels of tradition showed that the “conquest” was actually a democratic, egalitarian revolution.  He believed that Canaanite peasants rose up against their tyrannical overlords and joined together with each other and the tribes entering the land from Egypt to form the tribes that made up the league that came to be known as Israel.  The faith in YHWH that some of the tribes brought with them from the desert was a uniting factor as they joined together in a covenant with each other and the God of liberation.  (

The Collapse of the Albright Consensus

In the 1972 Dennis J. McCarthy published a study of the form of the Biblical covenant that challenged Mendenhall’s findings.  McCarthy argued that the findings of archaeology are fragmentary and that there never was a standard order of elements.  He did notice that under neo-Assyrian treaties of the first millennium, the emotional language became more prominent in the documents, especially the emphasis on the word “love.”  He also noticed that the curses became more vivid and lengthy.  These two features paralleled the book of Deuteronomy.  In other words, McCarthy reversed the judgment on the dating of the book of Deuteronomy and placed it back in the seventh century B.C., the same period to which Wellhausen had attributed the book’s origin.

Albright never claimed to have found “proof” of any biblical persons or incidents.  His argument was a general one: the biblical narrative fits the biblical background.  A later generation was not impressed.  Biblical minimalists insisted on specific proof, which they found lacking.  In particular they said there was no evidence of a mass exodus of slaves from Egypt, a conquest, or an empire of David and Solomon.

The biblical books were written late: some said in the Persian period (5th and 4th centuries), some said in the Hellenistic age (3rd century and later).  The books were written to meet the needs of the times that produced them.  The first minimalist books came out in the 1970s, but didn’t receive much attention until the 90s when a vigorous debate between “minimalists” and “maximalists” broke out (more).

One participant in this debate was William Dever.  He was the son of a Christian church preacher and received his undergraduate education at Milligan College.   He did his advanced studies at Harvard under George Ernest Wright (on of Albright’s students), and spent years on the field in Israel.

Dever describes himself today as “not a theist.”  He is not as obnoxious as some of the prominent atheists today, and is interested in the study of religion: ancient and modern.  Dever believes there is more history of Israel than the minimalists allow.  He also believes archaeology paints a truer picture of Israelite life than the Bible does.

In Did God Have a Wife? Dever describes the prophets as a bunch of spoil-sports who railed against the natural practice of ordinary people to worship YHWH and his wife Asherah, along with the gods of their Canaanite neighbors.  The ordinary people were more tolerant and inclusive than Amos and Jeremiah.

Dever believes the name “biblical archaeology” is a problem–it leads to looking for correlation between the Bible and archaeology rather than simply following the evidence where it leads.  He prefers to speak of the archaeology of Syria/Palestine.

Professor Chris Rollston, at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, is a graduate of Johns Hopkins and a specialist in ancient handwriting and inscriptions (paleography and epigraphy).  He is also an expert on archaeological forgeries.  He insists on rigorous discipline in the use of archaeology and artifacts to illustrate history and the Bible.  In particular, he believes in the need for a methodological bias against the use of unprovenanced artifacts; that is artifacts procured in the market place rather than from systematic excavations.  (Rollston’s blog)

Studies in the Pentateuch

Part of what led to biblical minimalism was the collapse of the JEDP hypothesis.  Scholars such as Rolf Rendtorff, noticed a unity in the text of the Pentateuch that transcended division into the four documents and even form-critical units.  This approach led back to the idea of a unity of authorship—either one author or at least one school.

Many conservative scholars saw this as a victory.  At last Wellhausen had been unseated.  But scholarship did not return to the view of literal Mosaic authorship.  They looked for the authorship of the books at the end of the period of biblical history.  In fact, it was not just the Pentateuch or Hexateuch, there was a unity of the whole Bible.  The Bible was now seen as literature more than history, thus amenable to various kinds of literary analysis.

Canon and Scripture

Brevard Childs (1923-2007) was a Christian scholar and theologian who tried to respect historical-critical scholarship and the role of the Bible as the authoritative source of the church’s theology and life of obedience and witness to Jesus Christ.  Childs was trained in Germany in the form-critical method.  He accepted the validity of form-critical and tradition-critical research, but he believed it was not enough.

Whatever history the units that make up the Bible went through, they eventually found a final form that was given canonical status and thus respected as the authority for the faith community.  Childs believed the investigation of every step of the biblical message was worth investigation, but it is the final form that is authoritative.  Childs did not like the term canon criticism because he did not believe his approach was one more from of historical-critical research.  It was a way of taking the Bible for what it always was, while at the same time acknowledging the validity of historical research.

Childs’ Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture best explains his approach.  His commentary on Exodus exemplifies the way he believes exegesis should be done.  Childs also includes a section on the history of interpretation (both Jewish and Christian) in the interpretation of each selection.

He also wrote a little book called Old Testament Books for Pastor and Teacher that summarizes classic and recent commentaries and other studies in terms of their helpfulness for preachers and teachers.  He does not evaluate commentaries as conservative or liberal but in terms of how successfully they open the meaning of the text.  The only limitation of the book is that it was never updated after its initial publication in 1979.

One of Childs’ early works was Biblical Theology in Crisis, in which he explored the demise of the Biblical Theology movement of the 1950s.  His other books express his own convictions as to how biblical theology should proceed.

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