The Interpretation of the Bible -
The Interpretation of the Bible
From the Nineteenth to the Mid‐twentieth Centuries
Michael D. Coogan
The Historical‐Critical Method
The philosophical developments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had prompted an approach to the Bible that is often characterized as critical. It was critical not in a negative sense, although that would often seem to be the case, but in the sense that it was free of presuppositions, especially those derived from either theology or tradition. To fully understand the Bible, scholars increasingly adopted an inductive approach, interpreting the Bible in an almost secular way, setting aside received views of its authority and authorship. This critical approach, an outgrowth of attitudes fostered during the Enlightenment, was very much in the spirit of the times and was, like other legacies of the Enlightenment, influenced by larger intellectual currents, such as Romanticism and the theory of evolution.
The overriding goal was historical: to determine what had actually taken place, and to recover the actual persons and events of the Bible as they had been preserved in the various stages of biblical tradition. The nature and development of these stages were to be understood through critical scholarship. This was the aim of “higher criticism,” as distinguished from “lower,” or textual criticism, and this higher criticism was essentially the historical‐critical method.
With its many subdisciplines, the historical‐critical method dominated biblical interpretation through the mid‐twentieth century and is still the basis from which newer criticisms begin, if only in opposition to it. The scholars whose work is surveyed in the following pages were immensely learned, often experts in a variety of fields, including philology, textual criticism, comparative literature, and the study of ancient cultures contemporaneous with the biblical traditions. Moreover, also in keeping with the intellectual mood of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were optimistic, in retrospect even overconfident, operating on the assured conviction that with sufficient data and careful analysis of the data an objective, accurate, and complete understanding of the Bible was possible.