Monday, July 26, 2010

3. Historical-Critical Perspectives

Some two-thousand years ago the Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria introduced an influential method of interpreting the Scriptures in terms of symbolism and allegory. Then, in the early third century, the Christian scholar Origen adapted the approach to Christian purposes. With many refinements, complications, and accretions, this largely fantastic exegetical method prevailed throughout the middle ages and on into the early modern period. Notwithstanding its entrenched tenacity, the venerable method had eventually to yield to a more convincing and truthful system of interpreting the primary Jewish and Christian texts. That achievement is the theme of this chapter.


Several developments favored the rise of the historical-critical method in Western Europe during the sixteenth century. The first was the spread of the printed book, Johannes Gutenberg’s fifteenth-century invention that made these essential objects more affordable, facilitating communication among scholars. Beginning with Martin Luther’s posting of his theses in Wittenberg in 1517, Protestantism opened paths for diverse interpretations. With respect to Scriptural interpretation these departures from earlier precedent were at first somewhat limited, even timid, but nonetheless an important step towards independence from the repressive apparatus of the Roman Catholic church had been taken. Protestantism also encouraged lay people to practice private reading of the Bible in the vernacular. At the other end of the erudition scale, the humanistic interest in classical languages increased the corps of trained scholars who could read Greek and Hebrew. With this knowledge they were no longer dependent on the faulty renderings that tainted the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome.

Yet it was only in the nineteenth century that the full flowering of the critical movement occurred. Profiting from earlier research, that period posited a distinction between the Higher and the Lower Criticism, somewhat to the disparagement of the latter. Ostensibly, Lower Criticism concentrates on the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts. Ancient scribes made mistakes--not to speak of deliberate alterations--when copying manuscripts by hand: the critic must endeavor to correct these by comparison of several manuscripts. By contrast, Higher Criticism embodies the effort to establish the authorship, date, place of composition, and true essence of the original text.

What were the first stirrings of the tendency? In fact, the so-called Lower Criticism came first. Profiting from advances in the philological study of classical Latin and Greek manuscripts, this demanding discipline laid the foundation for all that was to come after.

We turn first to the revolution of New Testament studies, then to a similar effort in the study of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament as it was still generally termed).


The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus published the first printed edition (the “editio princeps”) of the Greek New Testament in 1515. Up to that point most scholars in Western Europe had been limited to Jerome’s Latin Vulgate rendering, which was not the original source. Unfortunately, Erasmus has only a few, relatively late Greek originals at his disposal. Nonetheless, he was able to remove some errors and additions. The most egregious intrusion was the so-called Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7-8), the only explicit acknowledgment of the doctrine of the Trinity in the entire Bible. In the Vulgate this reads: “There are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one; and there are three that bear witness on earth, the Spirit, the water and the blood, and these three are one.” (trans. by Ehrman, 2005, p. 81 ). In his Greek manuscripts Erasmus did not find the words referring to “the Father, the Word, and the Spirit.” Accordingly, he omitted these words.

As the contemporary biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman remarks, “[w]ithout this verse, the doctrine of the Trinity must be inferred from a range of passages combined to show that Christ is God, as is the Spirit and the Father, and that there is, nonetheless, only one God.” (Ehrman, loc. cit.) In other words, the New Testament itself contains no unambiguous assertion of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Erasmus’ omission caused an uproar. Somehow, the Dutch scholar would have to be made to back down. Eventually, a spurious Greek manuscript was brought forth, containing a translation into Greek from the Latin text. After seeing this forgery, Erasmus yielded and agreed to restore the traditional wording, which he did in later printings.

As a rule, many, perhaps most textual corrections are minor. In some instances, though, as in this one, textual emendation can have serious theological consequences. Regrettably, the results of Erasmus’ initial discovery have still not been assimilated by most mainstream Christian denominations. Chapter Four will show how the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, now so entrenched in Christian doctrine and worship, was not in fact the belief of the first Christians, including those who composed the New Testament.

Despite Erasmus’ valiant efforts, his Greek New Testament, even in its revised editions, contained many lingering errors and imperfections. Yet for generations this text was accepted as standard (the textus receptus). “Warts and all,” it formed the basis for pioneering English translations of William Tyndale (ca. 1494-1536). Much of Tyndale’s work found its way into the King James Version of 1613, which is actually an amalgam of earlier renderings. Much loved, that version is nonetheless radically unreliable, and in fact many parts of it are nowadays incomprehensible to lay readers.

While some minor tinkering occurred, confidence in the basic accuracy of Erasmus’ New Testament text continued for some two-hundred years. In 1707, however, John Mills, a scholar at Queens College, Oxford, published his Novum Testamentum Graecum, cum lectionibus variantibus MSS (Oxford, 1707). After some thirty years of painstaking labor requiring the scrutiny of some one-hundred Greek manuscripts, the English scholar was able to pinpoint an amazing 30,000 discrepancies. Some of these were minor, but a significant number were in fact consequential. As Bart D. Ehrman pertinently asks, “[i]f one did not know which words were original in the Greek New Testament, how could one use these words in deciding correct Christian doctrine and teaching?” (Ehrman, 2005, p. 84).

Following John Mills' example, other scholars in England, France, and Germany adduced yet other manuscripts, disclosing further discrepancies. Gradually, scholars became aware of broader problems in the context of what later came to be termed the Higher Criticism.

In the study of the Four Gospels, this endeavor focused initially on the Synoptic Problem: the question of how best to account for the differences and similarities among the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke (Sanders and Davies, 1989). The answer has implications for the order in which the three were composed, and the sources on which their authors drew. Any solution to the synoptic problem needs to account for two features:

1) The "triple tradition." The three gospels frequently share both wording and arrangement of pericopes (identifiable segments displaying incidents or stories). This overlap accounts for the label synoptic ("seeing-together"). Where they do not concur across the board, Mark and Luke will agree over against Matthew, or Mark and Matthew will agree against Luke, but very rarely will Mark be the odd one out. Matthew's and Luke's versions of shared passages usually turn out to be shorter than Mark's.

2) The "double tradition." Not infrequently, Matthew and Luke share material which is not present in Mark. In these cases Matthew and Luke sometimes parallel each other closely, but at other times they diverge.

So much can be learned from careful scrutiny and comparison of the texts themselves. But how can one account for this complex situation?

The solution that has usually been adopted is the Two-Source Hypothesis (or 2SH), which posits that Matthew and Luke were based on Mark, and on a lost, hypothetical sayings collection often called Q. The Two-Source Hypothesis was first articulated in 1838 by Christian Hermann Weisse, but it did not gain wide acceptance among German critics until Heinrich Julius Holtzmann endorsed it in 1863. Prior to Holtzmann, most Catholic scholars subscribed to the Augustinian hypothesis (Matthew → Mark → Luke), while Protestant biblical critics favored the Griesbach formulation (Matthew → Luke → Mark). The Two-Source Hypothesis crossed the channel into Britain in the 1880s primarily due to the efforts of William Sanday, culminating in B. H. Streeter’s definitive statement of the case in 1924. Streeter further argued that additional sources, referred to as M and L, lie behind the material in Matthew and Luke respectively.

The strength of the Two-Source Hypothesis stems from its explanatory power regarding the shared and non-shared material in the three gospels; its weaknesses lie in the exceptions to those patterns, and in the hypothetical nature of its proposed collection of Jesus sayings (Q). Later scholars have advanced numerous elaborations and variations on the basic findings, and even advanced alternative proposals. Nevertheless, today the Two-Source Hypothesis commands the support of most biblical critics, whatever their denominational affiliation.


We turn now to the emergence of the historical-critical approach regarding the Old Testament. Nowadays, this vast and disparate collection of texts is properly designated the Hebrew Bible; here, however, we retain the traditional Christian designation, since almost all the significant advances in the study of the text and its composition have been made by Christian scholars.

Because of the vast bulk of the text, and the fact that the New Testament long detained theologians, detailed criticisms of the Old Testament were somewhat slow to emerge. Some see the origins of this endeavor in such seventeenth-century thinkers as Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and Richard Simon. (The independent Jewish scholar Spinoza is of course an exception to the generally valid observation that these advances were due to Christian scholars). These writers began to ask questions about the origin of the biblical text, especially the Pentateuch. Having detected contradictions and inconsistencies in the text of those foundational books, they began to question the tradition that they were all written uniformly by Moses. But lacking a specific method they could go no further.

The first significant breakthrough was made by a French physician, Jean Astruc. In 1753 Astruc published (anonymously) his Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux, dont il paraît que Moïse s'est servi pour composer le livre de la Genèse ("Conjectures on the original accounts of which it appears Moses availed himself in composing the Book of Genesis"). He applied to Genesis the tools of literary analysis which classical philologists had developed for such texts as the Iliad to sift variant traditions so as to attain what they believed was the most authentic text. Astruc began by identifying two markers which served to tag consistent variations: the use of either "Elohim" or "YHWH" (Yahweh) as the name for God, and the appearance of doublets, such as the two narratives of the Creation in the first and second chapters of Genesis and the two accounts of Sarah and a foreign king (Gen. 12 and Gen. 20). He displayed the results in columns, assigning verses to these, the "Elohim" verses in one column, the "YHWH" verses in another, and the members of the doublets in their own columns beside these. From the parallel columns two long narratives emerged, each dealing with the same incidents. Astruc suggested that these were the original documents used by Moses, and that as composed by Moses Genesis had looked just like this, parallel accounts meant to be read separately. The French savant then surmised that a later editor had combined the columns into a single narrative, creating the confusions and repetitions previously noted.

The tools Astruc tentatively proffered for biblical source criticism were enormously refined and improved by subsequent scholars, most of them German. From 1780 onwards Johann Gottfried Eichhorn succeeded in extendiing Astruc's analysis beyond Genesis to cover the entire Pentateuch, and by 1823 he had concluded that Moses had had no part in writing any of it. In 1805 Wilhelm de Wette proposed that Deuteronomy represented a third independent source (D), apart from J (Yahwist) and E (Elohist). About 1822 Friedrich Bleek identified the book of Joshua as a continuation of the Pentateuch via Deuteronomy, while others detected signs of the Deuteronomist in Judges, Samuel, and Kings. In 1853 Hermann Hupfeld suggested that the Elohist material (E) was really two sources, which should be split, thus isolating the Priestly source. Hupfeld also emphasized the role of the Redactor, or final editor, in producing the Torah by fusing the four sources. However, not all the Pentateuch could be traced to one or other of the four sources, and several smaller components were identified, such as the Holiness Code comprising Leviticus17-26.

Biblical critics also attempted to specifyy the sequence and dates of the four sources, and to propose who might have produced them, and why. In 1805 Wilhelm de Wette had concluded that none of the Pentateuch was composed before the time of David. Since the time of Spinoza, D had been connected with the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem during the reign of Josiah in 621 BCE. Beyond this, scholars argued variously for composition in the order PEJD, or EJDP, or JEDP: the subject was far from settled.

In 1876-77 Julius Wellhausen published his landmark monograph Die Composition des Hexateuch ("The Composition of the Hexateuch,” i.e. the Pentateuch plus Joshua), in which he perfected the four-source concept of Pentateuchal origins; this work was followed in 1878 by his Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels ("Prolegomena to the History of Israel"), a study which traced the religious evolution of the ancient Israelites from an entirely secular, non-supernatural standpoint. In reality, Wellhausen was more a consolidator than an innovator. He carefully synthesized the achievements of a century of scholarship to produce a coherent, comprehensive theory on the origins of the Hebrew Bible and of ancient Judaism, one so persuasive that it has dominated scholarly debate on the subject ever since.

Wellhausen's criteria for distinguishing between sources were those developed by his predecessors over the previous century: style (focusing on the choice of vocabulary, though not exclusively); divine names; doublets; and occasionally triplets. In Wellhausen’s view, J gloried in a rich narrative style, while E was somewhat less eloquent. P's language was dry and legalistic. He offered many other trenchant obseravions, most of the too complex to describe here.

Wellhausen's starting point for dating the sources was the event described in 2 Kings 22:8–20: a "scroll of Torah" (which can be translated "instruction" or "law"). Ostensibly, the High Priest Hilkiah discovered this document in the Temple in Jerusalem in the eighteenth year of king Josiah (traditionally, ca. 623 BCE). What Josiah read there triggered a drastic campaign of religious reform, as the king destroyed all altars except that in the Temple, banned all sacrifice except at the Temple, and insisted on the exclusive worship of Yahweh. In the fourth century CE Jerome had already speculated that the scroll might have been Deuteronomy; de Wette in 1805 suggested that it might have been only the law-code at Deuteronomy 12-26 that Hilkiah found, and that he might have written it himself, alone or in collaboration with Josiah.

With D anchored in history--at least to his own satisfaction (and those of many others following him)-- Wellhausen proceeded to arrange the remaining sources around the body of material. He accepted Karl Heinrich Graf’s conclusion that the sources were written in the order J-E-D-P. This sequence went against the general opinion of scholars at the time, who regarded P as the earliest of the sources. Wellhausen's sustained argument for a late P was the chief novelty of the Prolegomena. J and E he ascribed to the early monarchy, approximately 950 BCE for J and 850 BCE for E; P he placed in the early Persian post-Exilic period, around 500 BCE.

The four were combined by a series of Redactors (editors), first J with E to form a combined JE, then JE with D to form a JED text, and finally JED with P to form JEDP, the final Torah. Taking up a scholarly tradition stretching back to Spinoza and Hobbes, Wellhausen pinpointed Ezra, the post-Exilic leader who re-established the Jewish community in Jerusalem at the behest of the Persian king Artaxerxes I in 458 BCE, as the final redactor.

Wellhausen wrought well. Still today, his reconstruction constitutes the framework within which the origins of the Pentateuch must be discussed (Nicholson, 2003).

The triumph of the historical-critical school has been far-reaching. Even the Vatican has adopted the view that these findings must be respected. Until recent decades, though, Catholics had played little role in advancing this research, which was largely the work of German Protestants.


A major source of critique of the biblical record stemmed from the decipherment (1851-57) of the cuneiform documents in the Akkadian language (Adkins, 2003). Since both Akkadian and Hebrew were Semitic tongues, scholars who were familiar with the latter made rapid progress with the newly discovered material, gradually assembling a large corpus of Mesopotamian literature from the third millennium onwards. It has been estimated that this corpus is now twenty times the size of the Hebrew Bible. Eventually, the documents in Sumerian, some of which were even older, were added to the store of ancient Mesopotamian writings.

Almost at the outset. it became evident that these venerable texts showed similarities with such key biblical motifs as the story of Creation, the Flood, and the law codes. In some instances, this early enthusiasm for comparison became excessive, and scholars began to caution against “parallelomania.” There was also a tendency to focus exclusively on Mesopotamian material (“pan-Babylonianism”), neglecting the evidence from ancient Egypt, the Hiittite empire, and Canaan--all of them providing useful comparative material as well.

All in all, however, the similarities were numerous enough to undermine traditional beliefs in the narrative of the Hebrew bible, which came to take its place in a larger constellation of Middle Eastern texts. Traditional Bible scholars who would defend the uniqueness and exceptionalism of the doctrines, laws, and narratives found in the Hebrew Bible were faced with a very difficult, not to say impossible task.

All the while, archaeological excavations in Iraq and Syria produced more and more tablets, which were gradually deciphered, as well as other sorts of evidence for the actual tenor of life in ancient times, including significant works of art (Lloyd, 1980). The general public may now admire these works in such venues as the British Museum, the Louvre, the University Museum in Philadelphia, and (despite the recent losses) in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the work of the American biblical archaeology school under William F. Albright concentrated on excavations in Palestine itself. These purported to confirm that even if the texts of Genesis and Exodus only received their final form in the first millennium BCE, they were still firmly grounded in the material reality of the second millennium. Unfortunately subsequent work has rendered these conclusions inoperative.


The quest for the historical Jesus is the attempt to use historical rather than religious methods to construct a reliable biography of Jesus (Schweitzer, 2001). As originally defined by Albert Schweitzer (1875-1966), the quest began with Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), culminating in the work of William Wrede (1859-1906). The quest is commonly divided into stages, and it continues today among scholars such as the fellows of the Jesus Seminar.

Working courageously in virtual isolation, Reimarus composed a treatise rejecting miracles and charging Bible authors of fraud, but he prudently declined to publish his findings. However, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing did so in the Wolfenbũttel fragments. Then David F. Strauss's biography of Jesus (1835-36) set Gospel criticism on its modern course. Strauss explained gospel miracles as natural events misunderstood and misrepresented. In France Ernest Renan achieved popular success as the first of many to portray Jesus simply as a human person.

Albert Ritschl expressed reservations about the quest approach, but it became central to liberal Protestantism in Germany and to the Social Gospel movement in America. For his part Martin Kähler protested that the true Christ is the one preached by the whole Bible, not a historical hypothesis. Finally, William Wrede questioned the historical reliability of the gospel of Mark. In his classic account of this scholarly trajectory, first published in 1906 and enlarged in 1913, Schweitzer showed how historical accounts of Jesus had reflected the historians' bias and place in their time. His own view emphasized eschatology. As far as could be determined, so Schweitzer held, Jesus was a prophetic figure focused on apocalyptic thinking. Until recently, this view has been largely dominant. During the 1920s interest in the quest for the historical Jesus declined. The two most influential Protestant theologians of the time, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann had very different interests. Still, the 1950s saw a brief groundswell in the New Quest movement.

Finally, in our own day, the Jesus Seminar initiated a Third Quest. The Jesus Seminar comprises a group of about 150 individuals centered in the United States, including scholars with advanced degrees in biblical studies, religious studies, and related fields, as well as published authors who are notable in the field of religion. The Seminar was Founded founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk and worked under the auspices of the Westar Institute. The Seminar adopted a method of voting with colored beads to decide their collective view of the authenticity of New Testament passages, specifically with respect to what Jesus may or may not have said and done as a historical figure. The members published their results in three volumes entitled The Five Gospels (1993),The Acts of Jesus (1998), and The Gospel of Jesus (1999).

The Seminar's reconstruction of the historical Jesus portrays him as an itinerant Hellenistic Jewish sage who did not die as a substitute for sinners nor rise from the dead, but in fact preached a “social gospel” couched in striking parables and aphorisms. An iconoclast, Jesus broke with established Jewish theological doctrines and social conventions both in his teachings and behaviors, often by turning common-sense ideas upside down, confounding the expectations of his audience. He preached of "Heaven's imperial rule" (the Basilea, traditionally translated as “Kingdom of God”) as being already present but unseen; he depicted God as a loving father; and he chose to associate with outcasts and marginal folk, decrying the establishment.

The Seminar treats the gospels as historical artifacts, transmitting some of Jesus' actual words and deeds, while mingling them with the inventions and elaborations of the early Christian community and of the Gospel authors. The fellows placed the burden of proof on those who advocate any passage's historicity. Freely crossing canonical boundaries, they have controversially suggested that the Gospel of Thomas (not one of the four) may have more authentic material than the Gospel of John.

While analyzing the gospels as fallible human creations is a standard feature of the historical-critical method, the Seminar's premise that Jesus did not hold an apocalyptic world view remains controversial. Rather than revealing an apocalyptic eschatology, which instructs his disciples to prepare for the end of the world, the fellows argue that the authentic words of Jesus indicate that he preached a sapiential eschatology, which encourages all of God's children to join in repairing the world.

Many scholars and laymen--some conservative but not all--have questioned the methodology, assumptions, and intent of the Jesus Seminar. The following are the main points of the critique. The Seminar creates a kind of abstract Jesus who is separated from both his cultural setting and his followers. The voting system--with its red/pink/grey/black categories, is seriously flawed. The exclusion of apocalyptic material from Jesus’ ministry is arbitrary and unjustified. The Jesus Seminar tends to treat canonical accounts of Jesus in a hypercritical fashion, while credulously welcoming late extracanonical documents. The composition of the Seminar is odd; according to one critic only about 14 of the fellows rank as leading figures in the world of New Testament scholarship, Even these, it is alleged, have introduced their own biases into the discussion.

To their credit, members of the Seminar have sought to address and refute these criticisms. However, the work of the Seminar has ended, and its conclusions remain in doubt.


No one can quarrel with the need to study the foundational texts of the Abrahamic faiths in the original languages instead of simply relying, as most observant people do out of necessity on vernacular translations. In addition to the fact that a multitude of nuances, some actually quite important, are lost in this process, all translations are products of their time, often importing anachronistic concerns into the text. For example, a number of recent translations import contemporary concerns with gender-neutrality, even going so far as to write “our father and mother,” when the original text speaks only of a male creator God.

In practical terms this attention to the original texts means proficiency in four languages: three Semitic (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic) and one Indo-European (koine Greek). A few early texts are preserved only in Armenian and Ethiopian versions; for these even the most resourceful linguists may be pardoned for consulting translations. Sometimes the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome offers help in interpreting difficult passages in the Hebrew Bible, though clearly such comparisons must be treated with caution.

Over the years scholars have assembled a formidable body of comparative linguistic usage to assist interpretation. Naturally, this material is most abundant in Greek, though allowance must be made for shifts from classical Greek, the form most familiar to philologists, and the koine Greek in which the New Testament is actually written.

Until recently, the situation with Hebrew has been less satisfactory. One cannot be confident in utilizing rabbinical usage because this form of Hebrew stems from hundreds of years after the closure of the canon of the Tanakh. Early Hebrew inscriptions found in Israel and neighboring countries are a help. However, the greatest addition to the classical Hebrew stock stems from the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of which are versions of individual Bible books. In some cases the texts differ markedly from the textus receptus of the Hebrew Bible. Help is also afforded by comparative studies of other Semitic languages, most notably from the the Canaanite documents from Ras Shamra, which precede the redaction of the Hebrew Bible by hundreds of years.

Study of the vocabulary of the Qur’an is complex and controversial. Clearly there are many borrowings from Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, though the scope of these is disputed.

Fortunately, a series of specialized dictionaries has appeared seeking to incorporate these growing bodies of lexical material. The first landmark is due to Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius (1786-1842), a major German orientalist and Biblical critic. Gesenius strove, with considerable success, to free Semitic philology from the trammels of theological intervention, inaugurating the scientific and comparative method that has since largely prevailed (Miller. 1927). In 1810 he brought out the first volume of the Hebräisches und Chaldäisches Handwörterbuch, which he completed in 1812. Revised editions of this fundamental dictionary of Hebrew and Aramaic have appeared periodically in Germany. The latest version, incorporating the latest discoveries, is still in course of publication.

The publication of an English-language adaptation was started in 1892 under the editorship of Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs,now well known as the Brown Driver Briggs lexicon or BDB for short. Despite its age, this Hebrew and English Lexicon (now equipped with several additional features) is still in common use in Britain and America.

Note that the most important foundational studies of Hebrew have been achieved by German and English Protestants. For a long time Jewish scholars lagged behind, hobbled by their allegiance to the often fantastical elucidations of the rabbis of late antiquity and medieval times.

In the study of New Testament Greek, Walter Bauer occupies a place similar to that of Gesenius for Hebrew, though he worked at a later period. The origin may be traced to Preuschen's Vollständiges griechisch-deutsches Handwörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testament und der übrigen Urchristlichen Literatur (1910). Bauer extensively revised this work, publishing the result as Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der übrigen Urchristlichen Literatur. In 1957 William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich published their translation of the fourth German edition (1949-52) into English. Arndt died that same year, to be replaced by Frederick Danker, with whom Gingrich prepared the second English edition published in 1979.

Kurt Aland, with Barbara Aland and Viktor Reichmann, published a sixth German edition following Bauer's death in 1960. Gingrich died in 1993, leaving Danker to complete the third English edition, incorporating substantial work of his own. New Testament scholars commonly refer revised English-language edition by the acronym "BAGD." Danker brought out the third English edition in 2000. In view of the extensive improvements in this edition (said to include over 15,000 new citations), it is now known as "BDAG," or sometimes "The Bauer-Danker Lexicon."

These lexicons are of great practical value. During the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, however, a more ambitious approach to Biblical words arose, drawing upon recent advances in the linguistic discipline of semantics. A monument to this approach is the multivolume work by the controversial German biblical scholar Gerhard Kittel (1888-1948). In 1933 he took over the task of producing a new edition of the dictionary of Hermann Cremer and Julius Kögel. The first volume of this work, the Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (ThWNT), appeared in Stuttgart in 1933 under the auspices of the W. Kohlhammer Verlag. There is a complete English translation by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1964ff.).

Seeking to mediate between ordinary lexicography and the specific task of exposition the various authors represented in Kittel’s ThWNT treat more that 2,300 theologically significant New Testament words, including the more important prepositions and numbers as well as many proper names from the Hebrew.

Presenting the words in the order of the Greek alphabet, the Kittel work discusses the following topics for each word: its secular Greek background, its role in the Hebrew Bible, its use in extrabiblical Jewish literature, and its varied uses in the New Testament.

Broadly speaking, the approach espoused by Kittel and his collaborators is based on the history of ideas. The more ambitious entries treat the word as the springboard for a wide-ranging, sometimes speculative essay on a particular theological concept. As a result there is a tendency to obscure the fact that Bible word are in fact simply words (Barr, 1961).

Still the approach had wide appeal for a time. The effect may be illustrated by an influential book by the Alsatian theologian Oscar Cullmann. In his 1946 monograph Christus und die Zeit (Christ and Time), Cullmann asserted that the Greeks had two very different words to expresss the concept of time. One is chronos, the steady measurable procession that is tracked by human instruments and that we recognized as built into the structure of the cosmos. Contrasting with this, Cullmann held was the tern kairos, which designates the special character of a particular moment. When we are advised to “seize the time,” kairos is what is meant. Yet as the Scottish theologian James Barr showed, the Greek language shows no absolute contrast between the two (Barr, 1962). Language, at least, offers no warrant for Cullmann’s interesting dichotomy.


In the study of the Hebrew Bible, the twentieth century saw significant modifications of the Documentary Hypothesis, notably in the work of German scholars Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth, who argued for the oral transmission of ancient core beliefs: guidance out of Egypt, conquest of the Promised Land, covenants, revelation at Sinai/Horeb, and so forth.

The overall effect of such refinements was to aid the wider acceptance of the basic hypothesis by reassuring believers that even if the final form of the Pentateuch was late and not due to Moses himself, it was nevertheless possible to recover a credible picture of the period of Moses and of the patriarchal age. While this confidence eventually waned, it served for a time to reassure those who were uneasy about the Documentary Hypothesis, so that by the mid-twentieth century it had gained wide acceptance, at least by progressive Christian scholars and those without institutional affiliation.

After showing some initial interest in the latter part of the nineteenth century, rabbinical Judaism turned against the Documentary Hypothesis. A few traditional Jewish writers, like Umberto Cassuto, rejected it outright. However, the majority thought that it was simply irrelevant to the pastoral and communitarian tasks of the Synagogue.

In my view, the ostrich approach is unwise. To be sure, some contemporary Jewish scholars who are not active as rabbis, such as Richard Elliott Friedman and Israel Shanks, have accepted the Documentary Hypothesis, though with reservations.

At all events, for most unbiased scholars the traditional views of the origins of the Hebrew Bible simply cannot be sustained. The documentary hypothesis continues to be affirmed and refined. For example, William H. Propp has completed a two-volume translation and commentary on Exodus for the prestigious Anchor Bible Series relying on the DH framework, and Antony F. Campbell and Mark A. O’Brien have published a "Sources of the Pentateuch" presenting the Torah sorted into continuous sources following the divisions of Martin Noth.

Today the choice is not between the traditional view and the DH, but between the DH and more radical advances. These have duly come forth with the so-called minimalists. To their contribution we now turn.


For some years news has been seeping out about the iconoclastic work of the minimalist scholars concerning the historicity of the Hebrew Bible. While the term “minimalist” was not chosen by these researchers, it has taken hold as a convenient way of designating their approach. Boldly, these scholars question the reality of the Exodus, the era of the Patriarchs, and the so-called United Kingdom of Saul, David, and Solomon. Some doubt that the last three persons ever existed.

According with the archaeological evidence, the new view offers the following insights. From at least as early as the first half of the fourteenth century BCE, Palestine’s central highlands were home to the Apiru, a marginal group made up of runaway serfs and others from the small city-states in the plains and valleys of Palestine. In these redoubts they lived as outlaw bands of freebooters. As new settlements appeared in the highlands over a century later, at the start of the Iron Age, they reflected new political structures emerging among those same groups. These Iron I settlements attest a return by those groups to a settled, agricultural lifestyle, and the start of a retribalization process. Ancient Israel was the end-product of this dual pattern of flight and reconstitution.

Some minimalists hold that the Hebrew Bible as we know it was written as late as the Persian or Hellenistic periods. For example, the Danish scholar Niels Peter Lemche argues that in its present shape the Hebrew is a Jewish-Rabbinic amalgam that was put together no earlier than the second century BCE. This conclusion challenges the traditional early chronology, which fixes the culmination of the composition process in the sixth century, when the editors incorporated prior versions or traditions that were even earlier, ostensibly dating from as far back as the tenth century.

What was the origin and purpose of the Hebrew sacred texts? The Bible stories may be compared to, say, Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar.” The play is based in real history, but was not written to provide a complete or authoritative account that history; instead, it is an composite that fuses bits of historical truth with invented or imaginative adjuncts. This comparison suggests that the Bible narrative is more akin to literature rather than to history as the term is usually understood. Yet while literature is designed to achieve an aesthetic purpose, for the most part the Bible has no such intention. Its plot and set of characters serve a theological theme concerning the purported covenant between the people of Israel and their God. It is a kind of spiritual propaganda. In this light, minimalism treats "biblical Israel" as an ideological construction rather than an objective presentation of reality.

Among the leading scholars of the minimalist trend are Philip R. Davies (University of Sheffield), Niels Peter Lemche (University of Copenhagen), Thomas L. Thompson (University of Copenhagen), and Keith W. Whitelam (University of Sheffield).

Somewhat similar are the views of the archaeologist Israel Finkelstein (Tel Aviv University), who is critical of the claims of earlier generations of investigators, with their assertions that excavations confirmed the biblical narratives of settlement, conquest, and empire. He has demoted the Jerusalem of the tenth century--reputedly the time of David and Solomon--to the status of a mere village or tribal center. Still, Finkelstein parts company with the full-strength minimalist chronology that places the composition of the Tanakh in the Persian or Greek period; he argues that much of the Hebrew Bible was indeed written during the period from the seventh through the fifth century BCE.

How did the minimalists reach their conclusions? An revealing example is Thomas L. Thompson’s experience. After completing graduate work at a major German university in the nineteen-sixties when that country was still the main center of Bible scholarship, Thompson found his thesis rejected, even though it was a solid piece of work.

A setback of this type should cause alarm bells to go off. Kept out of a teaching job, for a time he had to make his living as a house painter. German Bible scholars were scarcely evangelical rigorists, as they came from a school that had questioned many beliefs cherished by Christian denominations (see Chapter One, above). What was it that Thompson said that was so frightening to the Old Testament establishment (as it was then termed)? Perhaps they had reason to be scared, as their views were in fact under threat. Today in fact the old guard seems to be fading away, squeezed as it is in the middle between two extremes. What is left are the followers of inerrancy and Creationism, on the one hand, and the minimalists, on the other.

Thompson’s book The Mythic Past (1991) presents the findings of the new school to a lay audience. The following paragraphs summarize his approach and that of his minimalist colleagues.

The perspective goes back to the nineteenth century. At the same time as the findings of the Higher Criticism were coming into view, major discoveries were arriving from the Middle East. Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics and the cuneiform documents could at last be read. From this material it developed that there were three major empires—Egypt of the Pharaohs, the Assyrians, and the Hittites. This triad came to dominate the Middle East during the time to which the Biblical patriarchs were thought to have flourished. After all, the Exodus story purports to tell of the relationship between the children of Israel and one of these empires. Following the occupation of Canaan it seems that the Israelites established a polity of their own, the United Monarch of Saul, David, and Solomon. Covering a large territory--or so we are told--this state created cultural achievements seemingly on a par with the others. Among these accomplishments were Solomon’s impressive Temple and the earlier parts of the Hebrew Bible.

There followed a search for archaeological evidence to flesh out these assumptions. Excavations took place at a number of historic sites; archaeologists worked out stratifications; and masses of pottery, amulets, and other items of material culture came to light. While this material is indeed tangible, prior to the seventh century none of it can be correlated with the narrative of the Hebrew Bible. Yet in the areas when its help would have been most useful. the discipline of Biblical Archeology has not delivered. In particular, it has failed to turn up evidence for the supposed great state of the United Monarchy. No one has found the archives and monumental inscriptions, the bureaucratic directives and diplomatic correspondence, that one would expect. Yet these appurtenances are standard equipment, even for such middling states as Mari and Ugarit. So it looks as if the United Monarchy of ancient Israel is a fiction.

The larger picture is as follows. The Hebrew Bible went from being the inspired word of God to a compilation of the perspectives of a number of differing religious writers. What is it now? Some say that Scripture has universal value. To be sure some parts, e.g. the ethical admonitions of the prophets, the poetry of Psalms and the Song of Songs, and the skeptical insights of Job and Ecclesiastes, may have this quality. For the most part, however, the Hebrew Bible is, with all due respect, a chauvinistic compilation designed to advance the interests of a particular people. Call it the Higher Madison Avenue.

Many Christian exegetes, of course, continue to hold that the Old Testament (as they term it) is a teleological construction focused on the coming of the Messiah, known as Jesus Christ. In reality there is nothing to support this assumption. The Hebrew Bible is a Jewish book--nothing more, nothing less. Of course it has come to mean much to non-Jews, but in like fashion the Buddhist and Confucian writings been influential among those who are not Indian and Chinese. To understand the Israelite writings, we need to acknowledge their national setting. Even so, the Hebrew Bible differs from those Asian texts in that it does not merely arise from an ethnicity, it strives to e s t a b l i s h an ethnicity.

The previous paragraphs have offered a preliminary sketch of the work of the minimalist scholars. Their demolition of early Israelite history as narrated in the Hebrew Bible finds increasing acceptance among mainstream scholars—even if the latter do tend to drag their feet on some aspects. Such resistance is to be expected.

Powerful as the work of the minimalists has been, we are not obliged to follow them in every respect. As we have them, the texts may not be in fact as late as the second century BCE. That late dating probably goes too far. It suffices to demonstrate that the texts are appreciably later than has generally claimed, presenting a mythical fabrication rather than a faithful historical image.

The crucial finding is that the account presented in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible is an ideological artifact, probably assembled after the return from the Mesopotamian captivity in 539 BCE. That means that the accounts of the exodus, conquest, and settlement presented in the Pentateuch, the Book of Joshua, and the book of Judges are highly unreliable. Moreover, in a thorough review of the evidence, the Egyptologist D.B. Redford has found no evidence at all for the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt. (Redford, 1992).

Television is still peddling these Bible fables for a gullible public. Yet in all likelihood these events never happened in the way that we are told. The beginnings of Israelite history lie in what may be termed Greater Canaan, an area most of the protagonists never left.

The results are drastic, for almost of millennium of Biblical history—from ca. 1400 to 539 BCE--has been essentially erased. This period spans the Late Bronze Age, the Iron Age and the so-called Monarchy period. In all likelihood, the First Temple era—wasn’t. Or rather the Second Temple era, after 539, was the First Temple era.

We conclude this section with the convergent observations of a prominent Israeli archaeologist, Ze’ev Herzog. “This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai. Most of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people--and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story --now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people's emergence are radically different from what that story tells.” (Herzog, article in Haaretz, 1999).


Application of the historical-principles to Islam has only recently risen to prominence. Scholars working along these lines, who mostly reside outside Islamic countries, have taken the logical step of seeking to apply the principles of the Higher Criticism systematically to the Islamic documents. This approach, which attained maturity with Julius Wellhausen and others in nineteenth-century Germany, laid the foundations for all subsequent serious study of the body of Judeo-Christian scriptures known as the Bible.

A useful point of entry is the collection of relevant scholarly essays, classical and contemporary, contained in the volume “The Quest of the Historical Muhammad,” edited by Ibn Warraq (2000). The book is aptly titled, for the task these scholars have addressed really does resemble the quest for the historical Jesus, as conducted by Albert Schweitzer and others, while at the same time applying themselves to the specific circumstances of Muslim historiography. In fact the questioning of the received view of Muhammad goes back to the work of Henri Lammens a hundred years ago.

Some contemporary scholars go so far in their critique as to assert that there is no reliable evidence connecting Muhammad with either Mecca or Medina. In this view, the association with Mecca was forged in order to connect the faith with the cult of the Kaaba, the sacred meteorite housed in that city. Instead, these scholars have concluded, the evidence suggests that the historical Muhammad was a military leader active on the northern border of Arabia, where he came into contact with sophisticated Christian and Jewish ideas. As any reader must acknowledge the Qur’an reverts, almost compulsively, to many events and personalities recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, endowing them of course with its own “spin.”

Another finding is that the individual suras (segments of the Qur’anic text) are a varied lot (Ibn Warraq, 1998, 2002). The Qur’an is not a unitary text, but an amalgam pieced together from various components that originated at different times. They may have assumed their present “canonical” form as late as two hundred years after the death of Muhammad. Thus the text we have can in no sense be regarded as an organic whole. The pious notion that it was dictated by the Archangel Gabriel in accord with an archetype laid up in heaven simply serves to conceal this diversity.

The Qur’an combines precepts that purport to be of universal validity with references to contingent events and persons. As a rule, however, these historical sidelights are unconfirmed by other sources, and thus of questionable authenticity.

To be sure, the conventional wisdom is quite different. In the nineteenth century Ernest Renan maintained that “in place of the mystery under which the other religions have covered their origins, [Islam] was born in the full light of history” (Ibn Warraq, 2000.) Although widely accepted, this view is mistaken. Many adjustments, alterations, and inventions characterized the gradual birth of Islam. In consequence the accepted account comes close to ranking as a “just so” story—-if you will, a tale out of the Arabian Nights.

Modifying Renan, we may say that there are two types of religion. Organic faiths (e.g. Judaism and Hinduism) developed gradually from time immemorial. Contrasting with this pattern is the historical type, exemplified by Manichaeism (third century) and Mormonism (nineteenth century). For a long time Islam, its historical foundations securely anchored, seemed to belong to the latter type. One can no longer have confidence in this claim. The origins of the religion now reside in uncertain territory, with each aspect requiring careful weighing as to its historicity.


In Islamic countries, where apostasy may be punished by death, it is not healthy to espouse these revisionist views in Islamic countries today. One need only recall the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie. But slowly the results of the historical-critical examination are trickling through, with the Internet giving a big boost. Reception of these challenges is gradually progressing in the West. Not so in the Muslim world, though. One day, perhaps, a Reformation—-so often noted as the missing element in the saga of Islam—-will take place, and as a result a similar reexamination can take place in the Islamic countries.

Even in Western countries, the situation is not altogether conducive to free inquiry as regards the origins of Islam. Demographic changes in Western Europe have helped fuel the aggressiveness of Islamic militants in those countries. Through violent acts they seek to overturn established Western values of tolerance and free speech. In the face of this assault compromisers urge us to be patient, while honoring Islam as a religion of peace.

Regrettably, Islam is not a religion of peace because it divides the world into two parts, the Abode of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the Abode of Warfare (Dar al-Harb). It is the task of Believers to reduce, by whatever measures are required, the latter to the condition of the former. This contrast assures constant strife in those parts of the world that have not yet submitted to Islam. Islamic militants are simply making this underlying situation clear. For this reason, they are not an aberration.


My concern with Islam--its texts, origins, and character--stems from my overall project of uncovering the intertextual relations linking the three Abrahamic faiths. I would point out that if an outsider like myself can readily assemble the materials making up the main elements of the new critical approach to Islam, Muhammad, and the Qur’an, then other writers--such as the highly regarded Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong--can assimilate this material as well. As to why they have not attempted to do this, I cannot say.

As has been noted above, the conventional account serves up a number of ostensibly well-established facts marking the origins of Islam. Muhammad was born in the year 570 CE in a locality close to Mecca, a city in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula. Strategically located, Mecca owed its prosperity to trade. It was also religiously significant because of the polytheistic cults centered on the Ka’ba or sacred stone. For these reasons, we are told, it is not surprising that city would go on to play a prominent role in the rapid spread of Islam. Orphaned at an early age, Muhammad was raised by an uncle and other relatives. The young Muhammad went to work for Khadija, a wealthy widow who owned a prosperous international trading company. In due course, he had the good fortune of marrying this woman, an event that dramatically bettered his fiscal position and social standing. In connection with business matters he traveled with caravans to north Arabia and Syria, where he encountered sophisticated Jewish and Christian ideas.

In the year 610 CE when he was forty years old, Muhammad--or so he believed--began to receive messages from God, a transmission that would continue throughout his life. Conveyed by Jibril (the archangel Gabriel), these messages confirmed the Meccan merchant’s status as God’s Ultimate Prophet, the bearer of God’s final word to mankind. Never claiming divinity himself, Muhammad did maintain that God was speaking through him; he was the human conduit for God’s final and perfect instructions to man.

Unfortunately, these initial messages from God threatened the interests of Mecca’s ruling elite, so that the new dispensation was summarily rejected. Muhammad’s position in Mecca became untenable. In 622 CE he went to Medina (Yathrib), a town that was more receptive to his messages. There Muhammad established the first Muslim community. Having consolidated his position in Medina, he was able to return to Mecca, where he succeeded, by and large, in converting the inhabitants to Islam.

By the time of his death in 632 CE Muhammad and his followers had conquered the entire Arabian peninsula, previously the domain of quarreling pagan tribes. By the turn of the eighth century, Muhammad’s followers had subdued a vast realm stretching from Spain to the frontier of India, a dazzling feat.

For the pious Muslim, this stupendous conquest seems only logical. The Prophet Muhammad had received and transmitted the final and perfect word of God. Empowered with God’s support and direction, Muhammad established his Islamic state and spread the word of God as commanded by him. Under the leadership of the four Rashidun, the “rightly-guided” caliphs--Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Talib--Muhammad’s achievement was consolidated and extended.

Today, Muslims affirm this account of the origins of their religion without question, relying on these seemingly well-established facts as the cornerstone of their faith. Pious Muslims hold that Muhammad’s many revelations from God were memorized, recorded, and ultimately canonized in the body of the Qur’an during the first few decades following his death in 632. According to the story, the third caliph Uthman employed the scholar Zaid ibn Thabit to compile the “true” Qur’an and to destroy all remaining copies, rendering the Uthman version the final and perfect word of God as received and transmitted by the Prophet. According to the received account, the final, codified version of the Qur’an that we have today was canonized and formalized no later than 650 CE. This scripture is an authentic source of history as evidenced by the fact that is a perfect literary creation and could only have been only produced by God.

Except for the feature of divine inspiration, Western scholars have generally endorsed this account. At least they have done so until recent decades, when a new school of critical scholars has challenged these seemingly rocksolid findings. These scholars, most of whom reside outside Islamic countries, base their case on the application of the principles of the Higher Criticism to Islamic documents.

A few revisionists have gone so far as to assert that Muhammad never lived. This claim probably goes too far. Still, the connection with Mecca or Medina is less substantial than is generally supposed. While it probably reposes on a genuine core of historical fact, the core was probably extended and embroidered in order to emphasize the connection with the cult of the sacred meteorite housed in that city, the Kaaba. The Mecca-Medina connection needs to be balanced with another that leads to northern Arabia, a borderland region strongly imbued with Christian ideas. The many reminiscences of Biblical persons and ideas found in the Qur’an surely stem from this source.

The earliest cryptic mentions of the name of Muhammad begin to appear no earlier than two generations after his death. From the later biographical sketches many sought to retroject the basic facts of his existence into the Qur’an. Yet even a brief examination of that book reveals that it bears no comparison with the Christian gospels, which are lives of Jesus. The Qur’an was never intended to be a biography of Muhammad, and in view of the probable late date of its compilation we cannot cannot take on face value such details of the prophet’s life that appear there.

The earliest surviving biographies of the Prophet are the two recensions of Ibn Ishaq's (d. 768) Life of the Apostle of God compiled by Ibn Hisham (d. 834) and Yunus b. Bukayr (d.814-815). The original text has not survived. According to Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq wrote his biography some 120 to 130 years after Muhammad's death. After Ibn Ishaq, the most widely used biographies of Muhammad are al-Waqidi's (d. 822) and then Ibn Sa'd's (d. 844-5). While many scholars accept the basic reliability of these late-blooming biographies, the details of their accuracy cannot in fact be ascertained. Even Muslim scholars are not in accord as to the reliability of these texts; Al-Waqidi is often criticized by Muslim writers who claim that the author is unreliable.

These accounts hardly rank as biographies in the modern sense of the term. The writers did not seek to create an objective account of the life of Muhammad, but rather to describe Muhammad's military expeditions and to preserve stories about Muhammad, his sayings, and the traditional interpretations of verses of the Qur'an.

There are also the Hadith collections, which include accounts of the verbal and physical traditions pertaining to Muhammad. Muslim tradition informs us that many thousands of sayings and accounts of deeds of Muhammad were transmitted from the seventh century.

As with the “biographies” (Sira) just discussed, these often cryptic items are late, recounting earlier events long after their purported occurrence. For example, the compilation considered most authentic, that prepared by the scholar Al-Bukhari, was not organized, compiled, and ultimately endowed with canonical status until the early ninth century. Criteria for authentication have proved very elusive. At the turn of the ninth century it is estimated that that there were as many as 600,000 Hadith in circulation. It was obvious that many of these were blatantly false and contradictory. In fact, Al-Bukhari ultimately rejected 98% of the original 600,000.

In addition to being subject to the scrutiny of Muslim scholars, who have generally accepted al-Bukhari’s reduced canon, Hadiths have also attracted critical analysis on the part of Western historians. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher completed a fundamental study of the Hadith and the Muslim principles for certifying authenticity. Even in the privileged group, of supposedly authenticated items, Goldziher concluded that the vast majority were unsubstantiated forgeries that sorely lacked corroboration. He held that the Muslim compilers derived the vast majority of their Hadith material from collections compiled around 800 (or later), and not from documents originating in the seventh century.

Several decades later, the legal scholar Joseph Schacht, based at Columbia University, undertook additional Hadith scrutiny. Schacht concluded that early ninth-century schools of law sought to buttress their own biased agenda by ascribing their own doctrines to Muhammad and his companions. Patricia Crone, in her own research on the authenticity of the remaining (canonized) Hadith has similarly rejected the "grain of truth" argument asserted by many Muslim historians. This rejection has been made on basis of the later date of the Muslim sources, together with the evident bias of those proffering them. Simply put, and contrary to conventional Muslim assertions, Hadith can not be relied on as authentic source material.


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