Krentzâ€™s primer is a brief tome, hardly a book, more of an extended article, but itâ€™s a really good overview of the questions surrounding historical criticism of biblical texts. The author is devout, thoughful, evenhanded, and perhaps most importantly, is knowledgeable and fluent in German scholarship (which is always a help to me as quite a bit of the best biblical studies texts are in German and not always available in translation – and I only have time right now for Greek).
Krentz makes me think that I should try to write down my mindset, my approach, to analyzing Christian documents. There is so much classification and posturing in the scholarly literature, with everyone bandying about terms that often have very subtle differences between them – historical criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, literary criticism, textual criticism, the kitchen sink and other sundry appliances.
So I thought I might try to define my approach to the texts in more plain language, without any â€“isms in the way. Of course, Iâ€™ll have to shoehorn my thought into that morass of â€“isms eventually, but for now, I will enjoy an illusionary freedom.
I think there are three questions that matter more than any others when critically examining a religious text.
First one: does it matter if the text contains truth?
If it does matter, then all critics, secular or not, are practicing some form of theology, for it is impossible to separate personal belief from any pretense at historical objectivity.
If it doesnâ€™t matter, then things get very, very strange indeed. I am quite guilty of lazily claiming something like this in conversations from time to time: â€œWhether or not Jesus existed is irrelevant to me. Iâ€™m just interested in the Gospels as rhetorical documents.â€
The more I read, though, I feel that is a rather smug assertion. Itâ€™s very easy to take such a hands-off approach and duck the belief question. Iâ€™ve come to think lately that scholars and researchers should be much more open about what they believe. Itâ€™s not only honest, but a strong ethos-leading argument to boot. You can see this approach in the popular critical books by say Pagels and Erdman â€“ they always with a discussion of the authorâ€™s faith (usually lost or redefined) before they go to work.
So Iâ€™ve revised that earlier stance of mine to fit with my agnosticism. Instead, I say something like, â€œI donâ€™t know if Jesus existed or not. I tend to believe he did, historically speaking, but we can only glimpse him dimly through Paul and the efforts of the early church. From the evidence, he was a charismatic teacher who was executed for his religious and political activism. As what the church made him out to be â€“ the Messiah, the Son of God, etc, I canâ€™t say I find the case more compelling than any other religion. That said, though, I find the texts of early Christianity â€“ scriptures, epistles, histories â€“ to be utterly fascinating and worthy of close study from a compositional and rhetorical standpoint. This probably stems from their inability to convert me – I want to know why they are so compelling to others, to get a grasp of their persuasive power.â€
In other words, yes, it does matter if the text contains truth. That truth, however, varies from reader to reader, as we must construct our own truths, based on who we are, where weâ€™re from, and what analytical tools that we can bring to bear.
Second question â€“ do you have to be a Christian, or even a Christian with authority â€“ priest, minister, bishop, etc, to understand scripture?
The answer there would have to be a resounding no. I would go even farther and I say that I wouldnâ€™t restrict the understanding of any text by any person. Go to a library and pick any text from the shelf; if you can read it, summarize it, and understand it, then I say youâ€™re an authority.
Frankly, if the text of the Bible is so powerful, God-transcribed, inerrant and bulletproof, it should be able to withstand the feeble attentions of a long-haired, scruffy PhD student. Thatâ€™s the great trick of inerrancy â€“ it sweeps aside any criticism of any kind. Rule 1. The Bible is inerrant. Rule 2: If the Bible ever seems written by humans that canâ€™t get their citations and history together half the time, or by a God that exhibits multiple personality disorder, see Rule 1.
I used to worry about this kind of thing. I assumed that in order to have any gravitas or ethos as a scholar in this sort of area, you had to be Christian â€“ or at least a lapsed one. I also assumed an agnostic would be summarily disqualified. A friend, upon hearing this worry, gave me an odd look and said (heavily paraphrased) â€œWhy?â€ I figured it out after that.
This leads to the third question, and the most important â€“ by espousing historical or historiographical criticism of the Bible, am I also espousing an agnostic/scientific humanist/secular worldview?
Well, thereâ€™s no way around it. I am.
This can be softened somewhat by saying that I am not looking to change anyoneâ€™s beliefs in the slightest. As I have said before, agnostics have no missionary branch.
However, such a claim doesnâ€™t wholly separate me from responsibility. By exposing others to such ideas, I am necessarily challenging their worldview, however politely as I may try to do so. The conflict is inevitable and unavoidable.
Students that walk out of a Bible as Literature or Rhetoric of the New Testament class, claiming the professor is teaching that the Bible is not true, have a darn good point. Theyâ€™re simplifying things, to be sure, but theyâ€™re justified in complaining a bit. Their belief system, religious and secular, has been questioned, has been challenged â€“ a state that Iâ€™ve found most undergraduates (and many graduate students!) do not like to be in.
There are classes and camps, Iâ€™m told, where would-be college students that are devout are trained to withstand such secular questioning and challenging when they hit the ground at a 4-year residential. They probably pick up some good debating techniques – rhetorical training is no stranger to Christianity. But that quickly leads to a impossible question Iâ€™ve mused on here before â€“ how does one use reason to defend faith? It becomes, in the end, the most popular of the fallacious tropes.