The Epistemological Violence of Historical Criticism

One of the most important pieces for me in my Reading and Teaching the Old Testament class this semester was Joel B. Green’s article on “Rethinking “History” for Theological Interpretation.” I am completely convinced that a preoccupation with historical accuracy in biblical interpretation is detrimental and stifling to a community of believers.  A community that has already deemed certain texts as authoritative has done so prior to and apart from a) proofs of the historical accuracy of the texts, and b) scholarly consensus on items such as authorship.  This is not to delegitimize such scholarly work, but rather to affirm that the truth function of biblical texts in a believing community does not depend on these points of reference.  To put it differently, the truth function of the Bible for the believing community is not determined by the historical critical manifestation of enlightenment epistemology (i.e., justified true belief). 

Green suggests that our understandings of history and truth are far too narrow.  History is never simply “out there” in the past waiting to be retold.  Rather, history is a process of history-telling, story-ing the past, the present, and even the future.  Green writes that

“history-writing is less mimesis and more diegēsis, more narrative representation than imitation of unvarnished events.  “Memory” of persons and events is being formed long before the historian appears on the scene to take up the twin tasks of research and narration.  Oral history represents and shapes the community of memory [and this is not absent from our own contemporary literate contexts!].  History-telling precedes and constrains history writing.  Moreover, memories are in a perpetual state of flux being surfaced or supressed, shaped and reshaped, in relation to their perceived importance.”[1]

The OT itself bears witness to the plasticity of history and memory.  For example, some texts support kingship while others do not.  Both the texts describing good and bad kingship, as well as the anti-monarchical writings are preserved by the people of Israel over time.

Job is an exemplary text for demonstrating the significance of a text in forming a community of faith apart from historical accuracy or “truth.”  Job is a fable, a piece of fiction.  It is entirely historically and contextually plausible (i.e., it is not fantasy) and it imparts an enormous amount of wisdom to the believing community.  The point here is that it does so emphatically independent from any historical accuracy or truth (what we would call “fact”).  The example of Job, the way in which scripture functions within the Bible, the plasticity of history and memory, and the scripture’s own apparent lack of interest in historical accuracy for shoring up truth claims of a community, raise vital epistemological questions for me.  Israel, the Jewish tradition, seems to have completely different ways of knowing, and entirely different understandings of how truth functions than most of Christian thought.  Christianity theology was deeply influenced by Greek philosophies, scholasticism, and enlightenment rationalism as it distanced itself evermore from its Jewish origins.  From the OT epistemologies we can learn that there are multiple ways of telling history and the wisdom of emphasizing different things at different times.  This is something I would like to explore further, especially regarding what some of the implications of Jewish epistemology might be for Christian theology.

I think Christian theology would do well to listen to the wisdom of this multiplicity.  The dangers of a theology too committed to dualist categories are all too palpable throughout history; such a theology quickly becomes preoccupied with good and evil, orthodoxy and heresy, who is in and who is out.  Such a habit of reading and teaching at best stifles theological conversation and the hard work of biblical interpretation within a hermeneutic community and at worst beckons those who claim to have the truth to violent crusades to eliminate those who are defiling and contaminating their theology and community.  This is not to say that a particular community should not (in fact, it must) draw discursive boundaries around itself.  It should, however, understand these to be elastic, permeable, and up for debate.


                1. Joel B. Green., “Rethinking “History” for Theological Intepretation,” Journal of Theological Intepretation, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 169. Emphasis is the author’s own.

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3 comments on “The Epistemological Violence of Historical Criticism

  1. Zac says:

    Kampen,

    I can’t agree more. I have found it fascinating recently to think along these same lines. I have actually just sent a review of Gordon Matties’ Joshua Commentary into my conference magazine and when published, I think the biggest stumbling block for some readers of the review will be of my positive appraisal of Gordon’s ability to draw out the multiplicity of meanings in Joshua. Of course most evangelical’s (my conference is EMC) read the text as a straightforward conquest account and ascribe to God a divine prerogative for genocide. However, as Gordon shows, the text is in tension around questions of law and the gift of the land such that the very idea of “herem” (the command to utterly destroy) could be called into question by other texts within Joshua itself (for example, the Rahab story, the story of the Transjordan tribes, and the Gibeonites). All this to say along the lines you are describing, that we need a doctrine of the word of God that is not held captive to greek philosophies and enlightenment rationalism. I think Barth can help us with that, but that is just my two cents:

    “The exegesis of the Bible should…be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible.” CD, I.1, 106

    • Kampen says:

      I also want to push the point of multiplicity – again, not in order to preserve some sort of liberal, anti-conservative, reading of the Bible, but because the Biblical texts themselves bear this multiplicity. One great example is how the both kingship texts (Kings, Chronicles, etc.) as well as anti-monarchical texts are preserved in the canon. Another, different kind, of example is the fact that we have several Jeremiah scrolls and they are not all the same. Neither of these things worry me. Neither of them threaten truth, because I understand truth as a process, a dynamic and differential function of a believing community.

      As for Joshua, I also really like Matties commentary, or what I’ve read of it. I think it’s a much more helpful or integral approach to reading disturbing Biblical texts than the one Eric Seibert takes in his *Disturbing Divine Behaviour* where he distinguishes between the actual and the textual God of scripture.

  2. […] Kampen argues that “that a preoccupation with historical accuracy in biblical interpretation is detrimental and […]

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