Historical Criticism and the Gospels

Christianity is a historical religion in the sense that its claims rest on events that took place in the past. Christ’s actions of redemption, as portrayed in the Gospels, speak of God incarnate residing here in the physical world (Bebbington, 1990, p. 320). This is portrayed as a historical event of antiquity. Laying claim to such a historical backdrop; the Gospels are therefore subject to historical criticism.

Hasel (1993) suggests historical reconstruction and theological interpretation still remains a methodological problem for NT theology (p. 136). Indeed a religion based upon particular historical events would today lose all respect and credibility if it did not subject them to critical scrutiny. Historical research now constitutes an important part of the “interface” which theology must always cultivate between Christian faith and the rational endeavours of the day (Morgan, 1981, p. 42).

“The earliest roots of historical criticism reach back into the Renaissance and Reformation. The expectation emerged that the Bible should be read like any other piece of ancient literature. This meant understanding a work in its historical context.” (Bock ,2002, p.154). The approach, however, is not limited to any one way of analysing the text but employs many methods that try to answer the standard  who, where, why and to whom of interpretation. (Haynes, 1982, p.35).

 Contemporary Theories

The literary and historical analysis of the Synoptic Gospels has pursued four major paths –source criticism, form criticism, tradition criticism and redaction/composition criticism. All are interrelated and all designed to aid in the reconstruction of the ministry of Jesus and in identifying the particular contributions of the Gospel evangelists. The task is quite as open as ever since both the quest of the “historical” Jesus and the analysis of the texts remain contested and unresolved (Ellis, 1991, p.26).

The new and often radical views of this century concerning the history of the biblical period and the formation of the Bible have been the direct result of the application of historical criticism to the Bible (Haynes, 1982, p.35). Presuppositions play heavily upon the interpretative views that arise from the historical research conducted on the Gospels. Blomberg (2007) advocates “The last hundred years of biblical scholarship have produced a bewildering array of new theories about the composition and interpretation of the Gospels” (p. 49). The interpretative choices, available to the biblical scholar, seem endless in the quest for historical reconstruction.

Part of the debate concerning the historicity of the Gospels has focussed on the relation between history and interpretation in the classical quest of the “historical” Jesus. The quest began with the supposition that history could be extracted from the Gospels like a kernel from the husk; it ended with the growing recognition that the process was more like peeling an onion with history and interpretation intermixed at every layer (Ellis, 1991, p. 29).

Ladd proposes that after the initial Christological controversies of the early centuries the integrity of the gospel portrait was seldom challenged. However, the introduction and use of modern “critical” biblical study questioned its historicity. The enlightenment in Germany made an impact on biblical scholarship that persists to this day (p. 175). From the moment that the scientific method of historical research was applied to biblical literature, theological problems which were never completely absent became intensified in a way unknown to former periods of church history. The historical method unities analytical-critical and constructive-conjectural elements (Tillich p.222).

Extracting the Supernatural

Much of what has been called historical criticism has operated with the premise that miracles do not happen, the books of Scripture are human works, not divinely inspired and thus cannot be harmonized and discrepancies in the text indicate the human nature of them (Bock, 2008, p. 158). Gerhard Hasel affirms this notion “the Historical-Critical method functions on the basis of the principles of correlation, analogy, and criticism within a closed continuum of natural causes and effects in which there is no room for a God-hypothesis or supernatural causes” (1993, p. 134).

The alternatives, however, to reading the four Gospels with “Purely historical” spectacles and sharply distinguishing between the historical Jesus and the Christologies of the early church is not a return to pre-critical naïveté. It is more like wearing bifocals which allow the Christian to engage in the close detail work of historians and also permit a specifically “Christian” reading of Scripture: a reading which presupposes the community’s assumption that these documents speak of God and that God’s rule draws near us in Jesus (Morgan, 1981, p.45).

Ladd (1993) succinctly summarises “If faith rests upon historical verification, it is no longer authentic faith but is reduced to good works – of the historian” (p.177). Whilst the subjectivity of historian presuppositions may merit discussion, having faith in the Gospel’s content does affect the conclusions historical-criticism draws. “Mainline historical criticism, which dominated the academic study of Scripture throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and which has recently enjoyed enormous prestige in academia, is a product of the modernism of the Enlightenment, aided and abetted by the influential epistemological split between fact and value, knowledge and belief.” (Wolters, 2004,  p. 190). This, however, is contrary to the message the Apostle Paul conveys to his own audience, “We also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you received it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe” (1 Thes. 2:13).