Skip to main content

Now and then, and more often than I would like, I come across sweeping public claims made by Evangelical leaders about the state of modern critical biblical scholarship—namely that it is on life support and can safely be brushed aside.

These claims may be genuinely felt, but they are still false. Ask any Evangelical who has entered a PhD program in a research university.

1. Historical Criticism is either dying or at least losing momentum in academia.

Rather than assuming that the Bible is historically accurate because of its revelatory nature (revealed by God, inspired), historical criticism seeks outside verification through various means of historical and textual analysis. Historical Criticism has its roots in Europe and has governed the academic study of the Bible for about 300 years.

I’m not saying anyone has to like it or agree with it. I’m only saying historical criticism isn’t dead or dying. Ask anyone who has taken Bible classes from a university.

True, many universities also engage in postmodern approaches that are critical of historical criticism (e.g., Feminist studies). And let me go on record that the postmodern critique has put its finger on numerous problems. Nevertheless, you’d be hard pressed to find academic programs in Bible that don’t take as their axiomatic starting point a historical critical approach to the Bible. Look at course descriptions on the internet of departments of Religion, Judaism, Near Eastern Studies, Christian Origins, Hebrew Bible, etc.  “The Historical-Critical Method” is what defines these programs.

Claiming that historical criticism is passé may suggest to some that conservative biblical scholarship has won the “battle” against historical criticism and is now finally vindicated. This may sound appealing in popular circles, but it is not true in academia.

2. Source Criticism of the Pentateuch is in a state of chaos.

Rather than accepting the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) in the middle of the second millennium BC, source criticism claims that scribes living after the Babylonian exile (after 539 BC) created the Pentateuch out of various pre-existent “sources.”

Source criticism has been a major thorn in the side of conservative Christians since the 19th century. But again, like it or hate it, source criticism is not dead. What is dead is how the earliest source critics theorized about these sources, most notably Julius Wellhausen in the late 19th century. His theories have been criticized from almost the beginning, but you’d have a hard time finding a research institution where the basic outlines of source criticism that Wellhausen popularized aren’t a given.

In my experience, the motivation behind this claim is apologetic. Casting doubt on the reigning theory on the composition of the Pentateuch supposedly elevates by default the traditional view.  But this does not address the serious problems with the traditional view that gave rise to alternate explanations in the first place.

3. Biblical archaeology basically supports the historical veracity of the Bible.

Biblical archaeology has helped us understand a lot about the world of the Bible and clarified a considerable amount of what we find in the Bible. But the archaeological record has not been friendly for one vital issue, Israel’s origins: the period of slavery in Egypt, the mass departure of Israelite slaves from Egypt, and the violent conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelites.

The strong consensus is that there is at best sparse indirect evidence for plausibility of these biblical episodes, and for the conquest there is considerable evidence against the biblical description.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to be done and people don’t need to keep an open mind. Who knows what the future will bring? But, my only point is this: at present to say that archaeology supports the Bible’s historical value may be true for some things, but not for the foundational story of Israel’s origins—slavery, exodus, and conquest. This has been and continues to be a big problem, and claiming otherwise just makes the matter worse.

Anyway, I know that across the Evangelical spectrum—especially with Evangelical biblical scholars—you will find various nuances and differences of opinion on these three issues, especially off the record. I’m only talking here about uninformed public claims made by Evangelical leaders. They may be rhetorically effective, but they are false and only lead to more cognitive dissonance.

The problems with the Evangelical intellectual project will not go away with such sleight of hand.

[An earlier version of this post appeared in January 2013.]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.


  • John Draper says:

    Conservative Evangelicals need to chill. All truth is God’s truth

  • Stuart Blessman says:

    Do you think the traditional view of the Pentateuch being written by Moses got started because the authors of the Pentateuch needed to convince the public that this new written work was actually pretty ancient and old and thus totally authoritative?

  • Vic Branson says:

    Excellent summary of the issues. I had a conversation with an Archbishop in Australia whom you may know and he holds some of the conservative views you address here: he appears to deny evolution!

  • Neil Short says:

    Thank you for reprinting this article. I recently linked to the older version from one of my own articles. Somebody needs to speak up about these things. People in general seem to feel threatened by biblical scholarship. I mentioned once that Moses was clearly not the author of the Pentateuch and I paid for it with near censorship at church. A few people characterized my comment as if I had just discredited the Pentateuch as valid Scripture.

  • Chris Bishop says:

    Professer Enns, when you talk about Wellhausen, is it now the case in academia that his orginal theory still has merit but in a modified form? Does his basic premise i.e. that the Torah was put together and edited by scribes around the 2nd Temple period still accepted?

    • PeteEnns says:

      Yes, development over time and a (late) 2nd Temple final form is accepted by all but the most strict conservatives/traditionalists (Christian and Jewish).

  • Rob C. says:

    Have you seen “Patterns of Evidence “? If so, do you think it is possible or probable that archeology does support some parts of their origin stories?

  • Chris Stark says:

    Dr Enns,

    I’m interested to read some of the more current views on authorship of the Pentateuch. And I would like to learn more about the modern source critical theories that you mention in this post. Would you be able to recommend a book that you think is good in this area? Thanks!

    • Ryan says:

      I enjoyed “The meaning of the Pentateuch” by John Sailhamer and found it enlightening and encouraging. He questioned aspects of the documentary hypothesis while still asserting evidence for “seams” of editing and composition that may be inferred from the text. Some of the conclusions were interesting (and surprising) but a bit light on historical analysis. But there are probably other recommendations.

  • Gary Foster says:

    I have always been struck by the fact that back in the mid 70’s I learned about Historical critical method at a Southern Baptist College and it was not in a hostile manner. This was pre fundy take over but the instructor was no liberal either. He went on to teach at a SBC seminary for the rest of his career post fundy take over. I attended a “moderate” SBC seminary which of course fully accepted the historical critical method among others. THis also was pre fundy take over. It really was a shame the fundies won out. They really had some good seminaries back then.

Leave a Reply