Where to start? Recommended resources for the perplexed.

Let’s get two things out of the way. First, I’m not an expert. My professional and initial recreational interests were definitely STEM, and then some. In fact, if C.P. Snow had used me as an example in his The Two Cultures lecture, I’d be ten kilometres to the left of the science nerds at school who thought anything softer than inorganic chemistry was a pseudoscience. While the need to honestly appraise the source text at the heart of my faith, as well as the discovery that the humanities are fascinating have resulted in me acquiring a disturbingly large library on subjects ranging from Iron Age Levantine archaeology to NW Semitic languages, I am very much a well-read amateur. In short, if you’ve majored in archaeology, biblical languages, or any other related disciplines at university, you’ll know more than me. Much more.

Secondly, while this website references historical criticism in its title, the reality is that “Historical Criticism, Syro-Palestinian Archaeology, Assyriology, Egyptology, Second Temple Judaism, Socio-Literary Criticism, and Ugaritic Studies – A Guide for the Perplexed”, while being a more accurate description of what interests me, is somewhat of a mouthful and doesn’t readily fit on one line, not at least in a font size that doesn’t require a light microscope to read. In short, I aim to cover significantly more than Wellhausen, Gunkel, von Rad, and Noth.

First on the list is David Law’s The Historical-Critical Method: A Guide for the Perplexed (2012: T&T CLark International), whose title is clearly the inspiration for the title of this website. However, it’s here not just to acknowledge a debt, but because it’s a good, contemporary introduction to the subject covering its history, the major divisions (textual, source, form, and redactional criticism), as well as problems with historical criticism, its limitations, and responses to some of its critics.

If you’re coming from a fundamentalist background, and have reached the point where you recognise the problems with inerrancy, then Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism. (2013: SPCK), edited by Christopher Hays and Christopher Ansberry will be the gateway drug you need. Sure, it doesn’t go far enough as Christopher Rollston noted in his review of the book when he notes that

…the presupposition of this volume is that if the historical-critical analysis of a particular biblical text undermines the belief of certain evangelical dogmas, then the historical-critical analysis cannot be accepted. But if the historical-critical analysis of a particular text does not undermine a particular evangelical dogma, then the historical-critical analysis can be considered acceptable. In essence, therefore, the authors assume that a text’s potential semantic range is necessarily restricted to the confines of an established religious dogma that is deemed nonnegotiable. With such a hermeneutic, dogma has hegemony. The actual biblical text, therefore, is placed in bondage to religious dogma.

However, as Rollston remarks a little later, it is definitely a step in the right direction, and realistically speaking, for someone who is still feeling the aftershocks of recognising the problems with inerrancy, those steps do need to be manageable.

In a similar vein, though more comprehensive in scope is the four volume Lexham Methods Series which ” is designed for exegetes who need to learn, refresh, and master the tools of biblical scholarship” and covers:

  • Textual Criticism
  • Linguistics
  • Historical and Social approaches
  • Literary approaches

Coming from Lexham Press, the publishing arm of Faithlife, one would immediately suspect that the series would be constrained by an evangelical straitjacket, but it’s surprisingly reasonable in its coverage given its provenance. As with Hays and Ansberry, it would be quite useful for the newly-liberated fundamentalist, particularly if they were looking for material covering a broader base than form/source/redaction criticism.

In my experience, fundamentalists pride themselves on reading as little as possible about the Bible, preferring to ‘let the Bible speak for itself’, with only a grudging concession to a concordance, lexicon, and Bible dictionary, preferably no later than the late 19th century. Before the dark times. Before the Empire Modernism…


Fundamentalism – the land subtlety forgot

This of course means that those who escape fundamentalism often have no idea of the world in which the Bible was written, having been taught that the Bible was history, and true in every word. Therefore, a good overall introduction to the Bible at the level of a first year university course is something that is indispensable, not only because of the remedial education it provides, but because it will integrate Biblical criticism into the Bible, the surface text and narrative of which will at least be familiar to the reader.

My favourite is John J Collins’ Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deuterocanonical Books (2014: Fortress Press) which while excluding the NT more than makes up for that deficit by its accessibility and scholarship. The inclusion of the deuterocanonical books is not just a bonus, but critical as they provide a valuable insight into the Second Temple world, the one in which the OT as we know it emerged, and whose exegetical concepts were employed by NT writers such as Paul and the author of Matthew. Complementing this is Norman Gottwald’s The Hebrew Bible – A Socio-Literary Introduction (2002: Fortress Press). Gottwald is of course well-known for his ‘peasant revolt’ theory of the formation of Israel, and irrespective of the validity of his thesis, his book is invaluable in reading the Hebrew Bible in this light.

Narrowing our focus back to historical criticism, I’d recommend three books:

Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? is a popular introduction into both source criticism and the Documentary Hypothesis, and presents a fascinating explanation for how the Bible as we know it may have been forged. The classic documentary hypothesis has of course in recent decades come under considerable criticism, so Friedman’s argument is not without its critics. Taking a more academic approach to the subject is Joel Baden’s The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis which as the title intimates critiques the views of those who argue the Documentary Hypothesis is no longer relevant. Baden concludes by arguing that

…the Documentary Hypothesis, in general and in its particulars, is a literary solution to a literary problem, and no more than that. It does not begin with the search for sources in the text: the sources are the conclusion of the theory, not its beginning. [1]

and by properly narrowing the scope of the DH to this, Baden I would argue has made a substantive contribution to the debate.

Friedman’s The Bible With Sources Revealed is essentially a Polychrome Bible for the 21st century, which colour-codes the classic sources J,E,D,P, as well as the redactional elements and independent texts. Of course, there are still arguments about assigning passages to sources, so it should not be seen as the final word, but rather as an excellent way to highlight the fact the Pentateuch is a fusion of multiple sources, as well as allowing the reader to trace the literary unity of the different sources making up a passage, which is one of the main arguments in favour of the Documentary Hypothesis.

Finally, a good overview of the main archaeological problems of the OT, particularly with respect to the formation of Israel, is invaluable. The literature is vast, but one book that I have found quite accessible is  The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel (SBL: 2007) which is an edited compilation of lectures given by archaeologists Amihai Mazar and Israel Finkelstein at the 6th biennial colloquium of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in 2005. Apart from seeing two giants of archaeology interact with each other’s views, the volume is an informed, succinct introduction into the major archaeological issues related to the Hebrew Bible.

This of course barely touches the surface, but for the former fundamentalist seeking enlightenment, this will lead you out of darkness.


1. Joel S. Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis, ed. John J. Collins, The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2012), 249.