Facing the Facts

George A. Wells

Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, edited by C. M. Hays and C. B. Ansberry (London: SPCK, 2013, ISBN 978-0-281-06732-9) 256 pp. Softcover, £$17.99.


A striking feature of the Christian scene during the past fifty years has been the resurgence of its evangelical varieties. While mainstream churches have been experiencing progressive dwindling of their congregations, evangelical churches are packed, often with young and well-educated worshipers who find there a direction and meaning for their lives. Their education has, however, not included contact with the long critical discussion of Christian beliefs by Christian and other scholars from the late eighteenth century until today, and so they are not off-put by its findings. Their pastors of course know of it but shun it, having—as the editors of Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism tell us—“tearfully witnessed” that acquaintance with it has led “bright and promising students” to “abandon their faith entirely” and could even entice their pastors to heretical positions that “imperil the legitimacy of one’s claim to Christianity.”

The editors, C. M. Hays and C. B. Ansberry, want this isolation from critical discussion to end. They call upon their fellow evangelicals “to engage in an intellectually honest and academically rigorous wrestling match with Scripture in all its troublesome particularity” and in this way, following the lead given by their Catholic peers since the 1940s, to “create space for critical questions to be entertained.”

The authors of the chapter “Adam and the Fall,” C. M. Hays and S. L. Herring, live up to this agenda and acknowledge that “most critical scholars deny that there was a historical couple named Adam and Eve who were the sole genetic progenitors of the human race and were responsible for the advent of human sinfulness and mortality.” Other ancient Near-Eastern texts, they note, are extant and have a surprising similarity to this story of Genesis 2–3; they allow that the similarities “do give us reason for pause” regarding whether or not the events as described in the Bible did “occur as such.” They claim no more than that Genesis 2–3 “addresses questions in ancient ways, providing answers that would make sense in an ancient context.”

This concession apropos of what most of us have long since regarded as obviously legendary material may well seem to amount to very little. But the authors go on to show that critical scholars have demonstrated that the associated doctrine of original sin can also be questioned. Its main scriptural basis has always been Romans 5:12: “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin. And so death spread to all men, because all men sinned. (The authors quote ερh’ō as the Greek “rightly translated as ‘because.’”) There is nothing here to suggest that they sinned because they inherited some moral weakness from Adam. They died only because they chose to sin, following Adam’s example. However, it was Augustine’s reading of this verse that prevailed. He, with a poor knowledge of Greek, read it in Latin translation, in which the Greek phrase our authors have quoted is rendered as “in quo,” which could either mean “in that” (i.e., “because”) or “in whom,” namely Adam, all sinned, and Augustine understood it in this latter sense. In sum: in the Greek original, “Paul does not say that humans suffer death, the consequence of Adam’s sin, automatically: they suffer death as a result of their own inexorable sinning.” The authors of this chapter do not commit themselves to full acceptance of the view that there was no Adam, no fall, and no universal sinfulness resulting from it. But they do think that this should be entertained as a serious possibility. This, however, leaves intact the doctrine of death as a just punishment for human sinning. Christians, they say, might even come to feel that accepting the critical view here relieves them of a liability: “The idea that even a newborn infant, who dies before either being baptized or personally doing a single sinful deed (not to mention before being able to turn to Christ) could in fact be damned and subjected to eternal torture, seems to be an affirmation of one of the most cruel injustices imaginable.” They hasten to add that of course “one does not make critical decisions on the basis of philosophical convenience” but that it is worth appreciating that critical scholarship, for all the challenges it raises, “can also prove theologically helpful.”

The chapter on the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt is written by Ansberry, one of the editors. It acknowledges that the “unmitigated historicity” of the biblical account is “no longer held by a majority of Old Testament scholars, archaeologists and historians” and that the silence of relevant historical and archaeological evidence is “deafening.” A widespread view is that the story is “a late literary creation that combines mythic, legendary and ahistorical folk traditions to bolster the nation’s self-understanding as a people led by God.” Even the Bible itself does not “paint a univocal picture” of the events. Yet many Christians regard its historicity as “non-negotiable.” The editor defends it by introducing “the concept of cultural memory,” which explains that what biblical authors wrote about the past was influenced by their own situations when they were writing. “The exodus tradition is remembered, reworked and redescribed throughout the prophets”—Ezekiel, Isaiah, and others—“in order to depict an imminent and future salvation, i.e., a new exodus.” These “posterior effects” of the purported event throughout Israel’s canonical literature indicate “the probability of some sort [author’s italics] of proto-Israelite departure from Egypt” and illuminate “the necessity of its historical occurrence for Israel’s identity and future hope.” We may retort that they illuminate the necessity of belief in its historical occurrence, not the necessity that the event actually occurred. But it is perhaps more important to note that this “suggestion that some sort of historical exodus occurred via divine intervention” is strikingly modest compared with the traditional Christian position and shows that the author has allowed his confrontation with the critical scholarship to have a telling effect.

The chapter on “Problems with Proph­ecy” by A. Warhurst, S. B. Tarrer, and C. M. Hays tells us not to expect things to turn out exactly as canonical prophets have predicted, for God’s word is “provisional” in that he “may choose to bring about his purposes in a way other than previously described.” Prophecy is “an organic, creative word moving toward an ultimate goal,” namely “God’s ultimate kingship of the world”; hence, its outcome is “more dynamic, nuanced and unpredictable” than a “tidy correspondence” with specific events in history.

Scholars have shown that some biblical passages represented as prophecies were in fact made after the events described had already occurred. The standard example of such vaticinium ex eventu is the book of Daniel. Its author, thinking that the persecution his contemporaries were suffering ca. 165 BCE from the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes must surely provoke God to intervention, pretended that Daniel had lived during the Exile (in the sixth century BCE), had prophesied with extraordinary precision the details of Antiochus’s reign, and had outlined the consummation that, so he believed, would immediately follow it. Our authors do not deny that this is a just assessment of this canonical book. They know that “vaticin­ium ex eventu is not simply the work of biased historical critics intent on discrediting the inspiration of the Bible” but rather “the result of careful (critical) examination of texts in relation to the times they appear to describe.” Altogether, this book certainly acquaints its intended evangelical readers with a great deal of scholarship that is critical of the Bible yet which they need to know about and to consider seriously. Of course, our three authors claim that what critics have shown to be Daniel’s real historical situation does not impair the authority of his book: “We believe that Daniel (or any other biblical book) is true because . . . it is part of the authoritative canon” and “because it is among the texts that the Holy Spirit has inspired.” They even hold that to reconstruct Daniel in the light of vaticinium ex eventu “actually aids [their italics] our hope in the truthfulness of Scripture . . . insofar as it relieves Daniel of the responsibility to foretell events accurately” and enables us to recognize that prophecy is “principally concerned with the broader outworking of God’s will.” “Prophecy can be composed ‘after the fact,’ not in an effort to deceive, but as an expression of the confidence of God’s people that God has been sovereign over history and that God will indeed deliver them.”

When our authors turn to the New Testament and to prophecies made there by Jesus, they do not adduce any “after the event” examples (although they could have done so, e.g., apropos of Luke’s rewording (21:20f.) of Jesus’s account in Mark 13 of the “desolating sacrilege,” a rewording that clearly betrays that its author wrote after the siege of Jerusalem and the fall of the city in 70 CE). Instead, they discuss Jesus’s even-more embarrassing prediction of a very important event that significantly failed to occur. I again refer to Mark 13, which, as they note, includes what the apologist C. S. Lewis opined to be “certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible,” where Jesus assures his audience that cosmic catastrophes, followed by his own glorious return to Earth as Son of Man, would occur within the lifetime of his contemporaries: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Our three authors suggest—prompted by 2 Peter, which nearly all non-evangelical scholars regard as pseudepigraphic and as the latest of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, written well into the second century—that “the reason that Jesus has not yet returned is because there has not yet been sufficient repentance.” In fact, however, Jesus had no expectation that “this evil and adulterous generation” (Matt. 12:39; 16:4) would mend its ways and certainly did not suggest that fulfillment of his prophecy depended on its doing so. Evangelicals will presumably retort that God must be allowed to have changed his mind.

Scholars have long since shown that little reliance can be placed on the ascription of some of the canonical books to the authors who bear their names. The four contributors who have written the chapter “Pseudepigraphy and the Canon” discuss the Pentateuch, the Book of Isaiah, and the Gospel of John in this connection, but I restrict my comments to what they say about the Pauline corpus. Critical scholars regard some of the letters ascribed in the canon to Paul as written by others in his name. “Probably the majority position in the academy today” is that the relevant letters were “created as a corpus towards the end of the first century as way of updating Pauline thought and addressing problems that arose in the vacuum of authority after the death of the apostle.” Our authors allow that such an assessment is not to be set aside as true but harmless by claiming that pseudepigraphy was “an accepted and transparent literary convention.” New models, they say, are needed for evangelicals to come to terms with pseudepigraphical compositions that nevertheless function as canonical Scripture. Meanwhile, we should not “subject Scripture to our own autonomous standard of perfection” by claiming that pseudepigraphy is irreconcilable with infallibility. God may condescend to speak to mankind in a variety of ways, which may include pseudepigraphy.

In sum, our authors do not deny the fact of pseudepigraphy in the canon but allow that historical criticism “opens new horizons for thinking about the way in which God worked through the Holy Spirit to compose and codify the historical text.”

The chapter on “The Historical Jesus” by M. J. Darling and Hays observes that, while none of the miracles worked by him during his public ministry are “foundational pillars of Christology or salvation,” his incarnation from a virgin mother and his resurrection most certainly are such. That he was born “of the Holy Spirit and from the virgin Mary” makes him both divine and human, and, they hold, he needs to be both if sense is to be made of the doctrine of the atonement. The argument is that to have healed human beings by his sacrificial death on the cross, he must have been human like them, and to have had the potency thus to have healed all believers he must also have been divine. Hence, the historicity of the virgin birth must be accepted and is further supported by “the tradition of the church,” by Christians’ “openness to the miraculous,” and by the claim that “the historical evidence does not cast nearly as much doubt on it” as some have asserted. It is, however, admitted that this historical evidence is “relatively sparse and, in the minds of many scholars, problematic,” and our authors frankly list some of the “variety of historical problems surrounding the infancy narratives.”

They deal with the resurrection more sketchily. They give little indication of the extent to which the relevant Gospel narratives contradict each other and merely note that there are “obtrusive and vexing bits of textual evidence, such as Jesus’s mysterious appearances and disappearances and his distinctive corporeality.” In his risen form, he is sufficiently corporeal to eat fish and to invite touch so as to convince his audience that they are not experiencing a hallucination; yet for the purpose of suddenly appearing to them, he is incorporeal enough to pass through closed doors.

As is only to be expected, this chapter is the one that is least able to make concessions to historical criticism while at the same time preserving Christian doctrine. I have set out elsewhere all that perplexes in the accounts of the virgin birth and resurrection—most recently in my 2009 book Cutting Jesus Down to Size (Open Court)—and it would be otiose to repeat that here. This chapter is also the one that specifies most frankly the straitjacket within which the authors allow criticism to operate. No critical findings are to be allowed if they impair fundamental Christian doctrines such as the atonement.

This is reiterated in the final chapter, which like the first is the work of the two editors. They do admit that “historical criticism suggests that some of our human traditions derive less from divine revelation than from fallible mortal reasoning,” and they point to the discussion of original sin in chapter 2 “perhaps” an example of this. But they plead for what they call “faithful criticism” that “combines rigorous historical-critical inquiry with a resolute commitment to the essential doctrinal convictions of Christianity.” “Faithful criticism,” then, situates such inquiry “within a safe theological space.” In the end, “Christian faith is not rightly based on evidential apologetics or mountains of historical evidence,” all of which are “rubbish as pillars” of the faith. What then is a pillar? The answer is clear: the Holy Spirit. “If anything other than faith in the Spirit’s revelatory work is the basis of our confidence in the Bible, we are preparing ourselves for a crisis.”

Evangelicals will defend working with­in a “safe theological space” by pointing out that nobody works without pre­suppositions and that each of us is influenced by the particular outlook we have built up from our experiences. But “rigorous” historical-critical inquiry entails analyzing the relevant sources, whether or not we approve of their ideas and claims, with a willingness to modify the assumptions with which we began our inquiries if evidence we uncover and recognize as compelling is clearly incompatible with them. This is quite different from assessing the evidence in the light of some ideology that may not be questioned, be it religious, political, patriotic, or other. Once “the Spirit” is introduced to safeguard what is wanted, there is no basis for further discussion of the import of the actual empirical evidence. One must, however, welcome the fact that this symposium will not only acquaint its readers with a good many of the detailed findings of historical criticism of the Bible but also urge them to take them seriously.

George A. Wells

George A. Wells is emeritus professor of German at the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the origins of Christianity and on German intellectual history.


A review of Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, edited by C. M. Hays and C. B. Ansberry.

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