Why evangelical biblical scholars are so hesitant about accepting historical-critical conclusions

As a (moderately) good postmodern—and as a student of literature rather than of history—I have tended to avoid many of the problems raised by historical-criticism regarding the factual integrity and coherence of the Bible. The reason is that I think that the more interesting and more pressing problem for modern evangelicalism has to do not with whether the texts are demonstrably true as historical records but with what they are actually saying as historical records. To put it another way, it is not the factual distortions of the singular dogma of inerrancy that need to be corrected so much as the interpretive distortions of the multiple theological constructs that make up the evangelical belief system. What sort of story is actually being told here?

Still, I am greatly enjoying Kenton Sparks’ book God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. His central argument is that evangelical scholarship has to face up honestly to the mostly well-grounded results of historical criticism, whether it likes it or not, because it may be paying a much higher price for its intellectual ambivalence, if not dishonesty, than it realizes.

Could it be that historical criticism—like the astronomy of Galileo—has been destructive not because it is false, but because the church has often misunderstood its implications? If so, then we may eventually have to face a tragic paradox: the church’s wholesale rejection of historical criticism has begotten the irreverent use of Scripture by skeptics, thus destroying the faith of some believers while keeping unbelievers away from the faith. If this is indeed what has happened and is happening, then nothing less is needed than the church’s careful reevaluation of its relationship to historical-critical readings of Scripture. (21)

The book is an excellent resource for any evangelical scholar trying to navigate a safe passage between the Scylla of fideistic anti-intellectualism and the Charybdis of secular scepticism—oh, and the other Charybdis of postmodern anti-realism. But it is an uncompromising book, and half-way through I am curious to know how he is going to formulate his promised practical realist solution to the serious challenge that historical criticism presents to evangelical confidence in scripture.

For now, I will take the opportunity to list, in slightly abbreviated form, the reasons Sparks gives for the agnostic rhetoric that evangelical scholars have a habit of falling back on when discussing historical critical findings relating, for example, to the authorship of the Pentateuch, Isaiah or Daniel or to the relationship between the Gospels. They pretty much speak for themselves.

First, it appears to me that many evangelical biblical scholars have not yet adequately synthesized their theological commitments with critical scholarship.

I would make this, rather than the fourth one, the most important reason. We have to keep reminding ourselves that the journey from slavery in the Egypt of modernity is a long one through a difficult intellectual wilderness—and who knows how far we still have to travel? Success will depend not only on how well we synthesize these separate academic tasks but also on our willingness to integrate theory and praxis, theology and discipleship—for which reason, though the connection may not be immediately apparent, I draw attention to Kester Brewin’s discomforting post “Crushed Testicles | Living in Theological Fear”). 

Second, a number of conservative scholars, many of them ordained clergy, have pastoral hearts and so wish to shield their readers from disruptive, faith-testing bouts with cognitive dissonance.

A third reason for the rhetorical ambiguity of evangelical biblical scholarship is that evangelical scholars are often wedged uncomfortably between their desire to be good scholars and their desire to sell books to conservative readers.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there are institutional issues at stake. Many evangelicals teach in conservative schools and colleges where the administrators and board members are very suspicious of modern biblical criticism, not only because it smacks of the old and destructive liberalism but also because it seems out of touch with their institution’s commitment to the authority of Scripture. (167-68)

paulf | Mon, 03/21/2011 - 16:33 | Permalink

This is a very important issue. It's hard to take seriously faith that doesn't comport to known facts about the world.

The problem is that -- as knowledge about the ancient world grows through archaeology (finding new documents) and other forms of scholarship that tend to show that the bible isn't "inerrent" -- Christianity gets pulled in two directions.

One one hand, you have the fundamentalists who dig their heels in the sand and decide that the problem isn't faith but the facts. They create a reality-free system that will appeal to a die-hard group, but will turn off the vast majority of young people who are raised on science and facts and such. The fundamentalists response is to be ever more strident about what they claim.

Of course, the other hand you have people who lose faith or have a critical faith, but the problem there is that reasonable people don't tend to make good religious movements. That's one reason why fundamentalists sneer at liberals, because "liberal" churches tend to not grow at the same rate or have the same level of enthusiasm.

The pastor of my fundamentalist Presbyterian church practically spits nails every time he says the name of his own denomination, he hates it so much.

Andrew, I think you are trying to build a bridge and show that you can be both reasonable and committed to faith, and for that I commend you. But it ain't an easy task.


This is bizarre. Kenton Sparks is the name of a philanthropist who lives in a small town not far from here (Guildford, UK). How can there be another Kenton Sparks in the USA, with the same bizarre name?

Also bizarre: historical criticism was a 19th century phenomenon, which held out a 'hope' of finding the 'true meaning' of biblical texts through archaeology and academic research. These were held out as 'the assured results' of historical criticism. So there would no longer be a Jesus of faith who was different from the Jesus of history, and so on throughout Old and New Testament.

The problem was that archaeology did the opposite: OT and NT were shown to be archaeologically grounded. Abraham was not a mythical person, and neither was Moses. Archaeology did not disprove swathes of Old Testament 'history'. John's gospel was not a figment of John the Elder's imagination - the places mentioned in it did actually exist.

So I'm intrigued. Is historical criticism now coming in again by the back door - or even the front door?

So what if there were multiple authors of the Pentateuch? It clearly was not all written as dictated by Moses - we knew that anyway. So what if there were mutliple authors of Isaiah? Does that make any difference to the significance of it as prophecy?

Scot McKnight seems to have a problem here as well - having been reading the book a couple of years ago, and Andrew will be interested in the conclusions to which he veers: http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2009/05/the-bible-and-knowledge-3-rjs.html

Maybe it's all a storm in a conservative evangelical North American bible seminary tea-cup. I don't seem to have the same problems as they do, if everything did not happen as literalistically as they seem to want the bible to say it did. I'm not really getting it.

And Kenton Sparks? A dual personality, lived out between rural Surrey, England, and Eastern University, USA? Bizarre.

Peter, I have to wonder where you get your history about biblical scholarship. In fact, it began much earlier than the 19th century and hasn't stopped. In the last century, there was an explosion of new data that came to light (Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hammadi Library, etc.) that has provided ample new insight into the ancient world that is still being digested by scholars.

And your assertion that archeology has proved the bible has to be news to just about anybody in the field of archeology. I'd be curious to know exactly what archeological proof there has been of the existence of Moses and Abraham. I'm not saying I think they are mythical people, but certainly there is no archeological record of them.

There are a handful of very rare cases in which a Biblical name is found on an artifact (for example, there is a piece that has the phrase "House of David" on it), which would seem to be proof that there was a person named David who had some influence in his day. But that is a far cry from evidence that the David character controlled a large kingdom or did anything he was alleged to have done in the bible.

And with John, there is little dispute that the story contains some factual information about the time, but the main point -- that Jesus was the Son of God and was resurrected (however one interprets that) is not subject to historical parameters.

Paul - you've found me out! I know very little about the history of biblical scholarship.

What I did know was that historical criticism was a big issue in the 19th century (though it began before with Reimarus, Hobbes, Locke etc), in which academic biblical historic research was moving antithetically to the traditional assumptions of faith, and the reliability of the biblical texts.

I also knew that Barth and Bultmann, in their own distinctive ways, were developing a theology which would counter the damaging effects of historical criticism. Not so much the discoveries, as the assumptions of h.c.

For Barth it was a bible through which God spoke to all mankind at all times, with revelation being just as valid a means of knowledge about God (more valid even), as historically acquired information. Revelation stood above the immediate historic contingencies of the text. This was a very necessary counter argument to the arguments of historical criticism - which were making academic research the only way in which knowledge of God can be obtained.

Bultmann offered a way forward in which the text pointed to existential realities - nothing could be known about the historical Jesus. What mattered was encountering Jesus as an existential reality in the present.

Albert Schweitzer, on the other hand, offered a yet different approach. History could tell us something about the historical Jesus; but the historical Jesus was not, for him, the Jesus of traditional faith.

My understanding is that many of the assumptions of 19th century historical criticism were eroded by archaeological discoveries in the 20th century, not least by the Qumran discoveries. The archaeological evidence for the existence of the pool of Bethesda, which included the five colonnades, dealt a blow to those who said it was a fabrication (because it had never previously been discovered), and that therefore John's gospel as whole was historically unreliable.

There is little doubt in my mind that archaeology was moving in the direction of supporting the reliability of biblical texts throughout much of the 20th century. F.F. Bruce may have been an evangelical Christian,  but his writings on the subject were respected across the theological spectrum - and still are.

So all I can say is that historical criticism describes particularly a 19th century movement, though having its roots in the preceding century, that it was highly damaging to confidence in the reliability of the biblical texts as they had been understood, but that this movement was countered first by the neo-evangelicals (Barth and Bultmann especially), and by 20th century archaeological progress - which came on the back of the opening up of the Middle East, and Palestine in particular, after the First World War.

If 'historical criticism' is now swinging to the 19th century mood, in which the reliability of biblical texts and their assertions is seriously questioned, then that, to me, is a relatively new phenomenon which I was unaware of. But I think there may be a lack of historical perspective if the assertion is that historical criticism has always held the high ground - as a movement which questioned the bible's reliability.

Peter, you say: "My understanding is that many of the assumptions of 19th century historical criticism were eroded by archaeological discoveries in the 20th century, not least by the Qumran discoveries."

I'm not a scholar, but I've read enough to know that understanding is not correct.

For one thing, the scrolls found near the Qumran settlement are great at providing insight into Jewish life in the general period that the NT was written, but it says absolutely nothing about the facts in the NT. It has had a great influence on things like the "New Perspective on Paul."

For centuries people thought that Paul preached against Jews who taught that people were saved by good works. When Jewish writings are studied, it becomes apparent that Jews at the time taught nothing remotely close to that. So that necessarily means that our theology of Paul is wrong, and I think Andrew talks a lot about this. What Paul IS talking about is up for debate, but it is clear he isn't preaching against salvation by works as taught by Jews.

Another thing you mention guys like Barth and Bultman, who are primarily theologians not involved in historical criticism. Schweitzer was an influential historical critic. His main finding is still valid today -- that people tend to find in Jesus that which confirms their own cultural beliefs. However, he wrote before the scrolls and Nag Hammadi library were found, so some of the specifics of his works have been superceded by people who have more information at their disposal.

Just in general, archeology in very rare instances has confirmed that some bible characters are likely to have existed, but in many more cases, it has cast doubt on the stories.

One example is Jericho. There is no evidence that Jericho was settled during the time the walls allegedly fell. In fact, the city appears to have been abandoned centuries earlier. Or take the worship of Yahweh. Archaeologists have found that sites in Israelites pretty much reflect polytheistic beliefs until 586 BC. The probability is that montheism came much later than the bible texts reflect and it was written back into the history of the nation.


Paul - the Qumran scrolls did a great deal to reinforce confidence in the general reliability of the translations of the Hebrew scriptures. The Qumran Isaiah predated existing copies by nearly 1000 years, and the variations were minor in comparison with the overall likeness of the texts. My impression is that the Qumran scrolls have had a largely positive effect on confidence in the reliability of the translations. Obviously, scholars will focus on detailed differences, which may not have a bearing on the wider reinforcment of textual reliability.

The New Perspective was also influenced by the felt need to affirm Judaism after WW2. I'm very aware of the foundations of NPP in the study of intertestamental literature, and the 'law as boundary marker'/covenantal nomism thesis. It doesn't dispose of doing the law to earn God's favour entirely, for rigorous attention by Israel to the law was at least in part in the hope of bringing about complete end of exile (i.e. end of Roman oppression, return of YHWH to the temple etc). The law was in that sense practised as a way of 'earning' God's intervention in Israel's history.

I didn't say Barth and Bultmann were rewriting historical criticism; their theologies were counterweights to historical criticism, and developed to give validity to faith in the light of the apparent onslaught of academic historical research. I mentioned them and Schweitzer to illustrate how powerful the 19th century historical criticism movement had become, in undermining confidence in faith interpretations of the bible. Each in their own way was responding to the influence of historical criticism.

I think you may not be aware of the rate and extent of archaeology as underpinning confidence in the bible, particularly following WW1, in the early to mid 20th century period. Nag Hammadi has not brought the NT texts seriously into question, but has highlighted gnostic beliefs in the post NT period. You are right about Jericho. In the period I am talking about, archaeology was giving credence to the historical existence of biblical characters like Abraham and Moses, when it had been fashionable to think of them as merely mythic folk heroes.

If Mr Sparks represents some sort of consensus among contemporary archaeologists and historians, I'm simply recording that it's news to me. Many of my sources date from an earlier period. I wonder what would be made of classical historical texts and their authors if the same criteria were applied to them as the biblical texts?

The problem was that archaeology did the opposite: OT and NT were shown to be archaeologically grounded. Abraham was not a mythical person, and neither was Moses. Archaeology did not disprove swathes of Old Testament ‘history’. John’s gospel was not a figment of John the Elder’s imagination - the places mentioned in it did actually exist.

But this is precisely what’s in dispute. Sparks makes a very strong case for thinking that evangelical scholars have overstated the extent to which archaeology supports the biblical accounts—or perhaps more accurately, simply failed to grasp the seriousness and scope of the historical-critical analysis.

As for John, the fact that the “places in it did actually exist” doesn’t get us very far. What we want to know is whether Jesus actually did what John claims he did or said what John claims he said. Archaeology has nothing to say on those matters. Literary criticism, however, is another matter.

I have to genuinely apologise to Kenton Sparks for my slightly disrespectful reaction to him in a previous post. It was intended entirely with good humour. It never ocurred to me that Kenton would navigate his way to this site, and I really was recording my surprise rather than entering into a detailed discussion.

My acquaintance with biblical archaeology is at the popular end of the spectrum, through authors such as Werner Keller, somewhat outdated now, writing in the optimistic flush of the immediate post-Qumran discoveries and archaeology in Palestine and the Middle East generally at that time.

I do take on board Kenton's broader criticism of possibly overhasty assertions by evangelical Christians of the affirmation of scriptural authenticity in the archaeological record.

On the other hand, some of the problems alluded to (in passing) by Kenton in his recent post are tackled in in the following ways, as I'm sure Kenton is aware of. 

The Passover - apparently 'not noticed' by the Egyptians, according to their historical records. But note the counter arguments:

 the proud Egyptians would not be expected to document their own humiliating defeat, which would smear their records and tarnish the glorious legacy left behind by Thutmose III.

It is a simple matter to claim that lack of clear, decisive external confirmation of the biblical account is itself a disproof, but no rational person believes that what has not been proven is false.  What can be stated with certainly, however, is that there is no consensus that the Exodus is a myth.      

'Amenhotep II and the historicity of the Exodus' – Douglas Petrovich* TMSJ 17/1 (Spring 2006) 81-110

A further example from amongst many in the literature supporting a historical Passover and Exodus: 'Has the Exodus Really Been Disproven?' by Lawrence H. Schiffman - Vice-Provost of Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University and Professor of Jewish Studies in early 2011, former Ethel and Irvin A. Edelman Professor in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, Chair of the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.  He is an internationally known scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls and co-edited the Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Oxford, 2000). 

Arguments supporting the historicity of the Passover are nevertheless conflicting, dating the event to the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep II, Ramses II or Pepy II.

The death of Judas – two conflicting accounts, or two accounts with complementary details of the one death?

The virgin birth (apparently not known about by some early Christians) - does non-reference to a virgin birth of Jesus in three of the gospels prove that the communities reading those gospels did not know about it, or that its historicity was questionable, or that it was unimportant?

I'm sure these and many other issues are addressed in Kenton's book, which I hope to get round to reading eventually!


In no way has the OT and NT ever been shown to be grounded historically. Where do old line evangelicals get the idea that the great ctiticisms have somehow been disproven? It's amazing to me how many times I hear this and yet nothing of the kind it true. Science in all its forms have continued developing and nothing in terms of the biblical accounts of creation or its historical figures prior to David (and he is still a huge question mark), literally speaking, can be verified. Case in point, the only intelligent design proponent who is actally a trained biologist (Michael Behe) is in fact an evolutionist and even believes in common descent. And as for Abraham and Moses (or even David and Solomon), just see the research of the noted Jewish archaeologist at the University of Tel Aviv, Dr. Isreal Finkelstein.

paulf | Wed, 03/23/2011 - 21:40 | Permalink

Just to be clear:

There is a huge difference between affirming that the writings (for the most part) were accurately passed down over a certain period of time, and affirming the truth of the content of those writings.

To be sure, archaeology has provided a small amount of evidence that some biblical characters and places existed. But it also has produced a much more massive amount of evidence that calls into question the accuracy of biblical stories (such as Jericho, the exodus, early montheistic beliefs, etc.)

That said, the things that are frequent topics here -- the means of salvation, the afterlife, what Jesus meant when he made a particular statement and so on -- none of these things is subject to verification by archaeology one way or another.

Another great book that seems somewhat similar to Sparks' is Peter Enns' book, Inspiration and Incarnation. That is a great book. I have read a little of Sparks' stuff at the BioLogos website, but I look forward to reading this specific book of his.