A difficulty that I continue to confront as I study the Bible is: What is the best way to bring together historical critical scholarship with theological and faith-filled perspectives? There is a chasm between the two that relatively few authors dare to explore in a truly rigorous manner. There are study bibles that contain almost exclusively historical-critical commentary (such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible or NOAB) and study bibles that focus on theology and church teaching (like the Didache Bible from Midwest Theological forum). There are also a variety of resources that focus on applying the Bible’s teaching to a daily life of faith.

I’m left in a quandary. It seems essential to understand the historical context of scripture in order to truly grasp its meaning, but so often, historical critical writings take a clinical, verse-by-verse approach that undermines the holistic perspective that the early Christians had about scripture. I can’t help wondering whether leaving theological questions out of consideration has steered historical critical scholars away from something essential. On the other hand, perhaps we who study the Bible are asking too much from historical criticism — hoping that it will solve theological questions that it cannot touch.

Pope Benedict XVI saw the chasm between historical and theological approaches to scripture and tried to bridge the gap in his Jesus of Nazareth series. I have also been very impressed with the study materials in the New Jerusalem Bible, which do a fine job explaining how historical critical theories relate to traditional ideas about who wrote the New Testament letters, for example.

A third resource I’ve been enjoying recently is N. T. Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God series. This is a set of 4 hefty books dealing with a broad range of historical questions on the New Testament. Unlike many historical critical scholars, who delve into a text verse-by-verse and build up an elaborate case for which verses are authentic and which aren’t, N. T. Wright begins with the big picture, sketching the worldview of Jewish people in first century Palestine and working to understand how the figures in the gospel and the New Testament fit into that backdrop. Wright’s approach tends to integrate theology and history by default, because it is always trying to understand how the two fit together. I’ve found this approach extremely helpful for my own study. 

I’d be interested to hear if any of you have noticed a similar gap between history and theology when studying the Bible. Have you found study resources that bridge the gap?

10 thoughts on “Integrating Historical Criticism with Faith”

  1. You may want to look at Scott W. Hahn and Benjamin Wiker’s book : “Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700”

    It’s not an easy read but it’s a good thorough treatment of the topic. You can also look at this video which summarizes the thesis of the book:

  2. Wow! That book is absurdly overpriced, nearly $60 for the e-book edition, $60 for a 600-page book, that comes down to about 10 cents a page, which is an absolutely outrageous price, at that price, a Bible would cost nearly $200.

    And even more absurdly, the e-book edition is $5 more expensive than the paperback edition! How on Earth can the publisher justify that?

    This is price gouging, plain and simple. When I read your post and watched that video, I thought I would like to read that book. I still would like to read it, but I’m not going to buy it until they can sell it at a reasonable price.

  3. This sounds like a very interesting book. I checked for used copies, but they are not selling for much cheaper than brand new options, especially after accounting for shipping. I’m going to add it to my list and hope the price comes down.

  4. Unfortunately, when the price does go down, or it goes on sale, Amazon doesn’t notify you. I recently looked at my wishlist and discovered that one item was on sale for $2.99 when the regular price is $14.99, but if I hadn’t happened to log in that day I wouldn’t have seen it.

    1. That’s where a resource like CamelCamelCamel comes in handy! It’s a website that tracks prices on Amazon. You can configure an email alert so that if the price drops below a threshold, they will email you.

  5. Anil,

    Thank you very much for the link to Dr. Scott Hahn’s talk. I just now finished watching. This was very interesting and fit in nicely with a previous video of his on the forerunners of the reformation. Sobering stuff.

    I’ll first make comment on Marc’s article above. I’ve been making my way through the Old Testament this year, particuairly the prophets. I try to understand what is being recorded, and the historical context aids my understanding. For this I find the footnotes in my bibles very helpful, even the NABRE & New Oxford Annotated Bible. I guess I appreciate the history as a tool for telling more of the story. I have a little more on this which I’ll put into a followup post.

    Dr. Hahn is describing an intellectual elitism which takes the historical-critical method too far as an absolute one method approach. He does a good job of explaining the biggest danger of this movement as a focusing of western thought on the material world. This is a large part in the struggle between good and evil. How empires crumble from within. The failings of human nature. In fact, this whole frame of mind reminds me of one of the main themes which run through the writings of the Old Testament prophets:

    Man accumulates wealth and feels evermore self important. Many eventually feel that they are smarter and more clever than the law and the lord. The prophets point out this is the path to ruin but most still grab short term benifit from their greedy ways. The fall of society is always sudden and painful. The prophets again highlight the very thoughts and practices that brought Judea down, and their stories center around man becoming arrogant, above the law, self important as wealth goes to their heads, etc.

    The ‘enlightenment’ contains a similar step of man using reasoning to place himself above god. Intellectual arrogance, a dangerous path. Ironically, our bible gives numerous examples of people who went down this same path and eventually to ruin. How can you study the bible and not get the lesson of the importance of humility.

    Unfortunately, our western society has accelerated down this path during my lifetime and examples are everywhere one looks.

    Fortunately, we have been blessed with a series of popes who have left us much valueable wisdom recently. Two great examples are mentioned by Dr. Hahn.

    Take care,


  6. Marc,

    You created a powerful posting here. I have been reading the Old Testament this year because: I want to know what it says, what the authors are telling us, and what it means. I’ve tried to keep an open mind and read each chapter in several translations. Your mention of looking for overall themes immediately resonated with me. Not only have I been reading whole books, but have been reading all the prophetic books in succession. It reminds me of listening to an entire album rather than only one song. I must say this approach offers much to reflect on and is much more satisfying to me than ‘verse hopping’.

    My search for clarifications has included NOAB study bibles, several translations with generous footnotes, and internet sites. I was wanting to sample a catholic biblical commentary, so ordered the book of Daniel in the New Collegeville Commentary and Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. I enjoyed both and was glad I sampled.

    The Collegeville is a commentary. After a 2 page introduction It relates the story of each chapter in a sort of Cliff Notes paraphrase and adds clarification explanations where they thought was necessary. The NABRE occupies the top half of the page with the commentary beneath. Interestingly, this is the only time I have seen this translation without the normal NABRE footnotes. I found it useful but wanted something a little deeper. (Please note that the individual Collegeville booklets contain a copy of the biblical text but their larger whole-testament volumes are commentary only).

    Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: this is a study bible, the notes do not repeat the text but add much helpful information. The introduction to the book of Daniel is 4 very large pages with the following sections:
    Author and Date
    Literary Background
    Christain Perspective.

    Under the Author and Date heading Drs. Hahn and Mitch give both schools of thought (6th century BC and 2nd century BC) with much scholarly evidence for both positions. The reader is armed with adequate information to make his/ her own decision.

    The biblical text is the RSV-2CE, the notes are by verse augmented with several sidebar blocks to give a bit broader coverage to an important topic. All in all the notes cover more space than the biblical text. I found the ICSB to be the best of both worlds, giving both historical scholarship and religious meaning.

    My little sampling sold me on the ICSB, but also has me wondering when it will be completed. It’s a ‘sweet and sour’ situation, but in my opinion worth the wait (hopefully I’ll live to see that day).

    This is my second long post on this topic. I could elaborate further if anyone is interested. I have found the largest differences between Historical-Critical and traditional interpretations in Daniel chapter 9. The timing of the ‘seventy weeks of years’ for the arrival of the anoited one just drives me crazy.



    1. Thanks for your comment, Mark. It sounds like we both have gravitated toward a similar approach. I’ve been gradually working my way through the Old Testament myself, reading it book-by-book and using the NOAB, the Oxford Catholic Study Bible, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, and the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. I especially like the reading guides in the Oxford Catholic Study Bible and the materials in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, since they discuss larger portions of each book, rather than providing a verse-by-verse commentary like the NOAB or the New Jerome.

      N. T. Wright notes that reading the text with an aim to understand the overarching story-line is also a better way to understand the perspective of the early Christians. He notes that many modern readers find early Christian writers unconvincing, because it looks like they cited isolated verses as proof-texts for their new beliefs, when those texts were obviously not talking about Christian beliefs in the context they were written. But if you look even more broadly than the immediate context, N. T. Wright believes that you can glimpse how the early Christians saw the new message of Jesus as fulfilling the broad story of the Old Testament.

  7. This is an interesting post. I yearn for a balanced grasp of technical understanding of my Bible. To me it is to have a kind of fearlessness toward the real understanding of the human author that will enrich further theological inquiry of the text, and this is what the Church seems to recognize in the importance of the historical-critical method. Yet there shouldn’t be an elitist approach either and so for me personally I have found it quite intriguing to go on this search for a humble yet penetrating text of the Bible, this means no notes and just a reliable, solid, literal Bible translation and when it comes to study notes and commentary—to use individual books on the side to inform the text. Ecumenism and unity should be sought after rather than factional “camps” of thinking regarding the Bible. As an “inter-clique” Catholic Bible edition, the RSV(CE) seems like the best candidate since it’s directly related to the more “liberal” NRSV while being favored by more conservative readers of the Bible (within Catholicism) while at the same time being the “liberal” Bible of it’s time and to me it seems like the unbeatable standard. I have the NAB-RE and have read a lot of the NRSV-CE but I feel like the RSV-CE is the best middle-ground between these two literal-translations. Correct me if I’m wrong. It’s so strange house much suspense there is with the difference between Catholics and how there’s a burden of choice for us serious Catholics.

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