It’s all on! The Summer 2009 issue of the Society of Biblical Literature’s flagship journal, The Journal of Biblical Literature, published an article which presented the unpresentable in Biblical Studies – the entrenched division between those biblical scholars who practice what may be called postmodern biblical criticism and those who practice historical criticism: George Aichele, Peter Miscall, and Richard Walsh, “An Elephant in the Room: Historical-Critical and Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible”JBL 128.2: 383-404. As the title of the article states, this fundamental division in biblical scholarship has long been unacknowledged. Everybody knows about it, everybody talks about “us” and “them”, but with a few notable exceptions (like Heikki Räisänen’s collection, Reading the Bible in the global village: Helsinki) it has lacked significant critical dialogue.
Now, John Van Seters has responded with an article in The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 9.26 (2009), “A Response to G. Aichele, P. Miscall and R. Walsh, ‘An Elephant in the Room: Historical-Critical and the Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible.” For Van Seters, the attempt in the JBL article to identify a mythic dimension to the various historical critical theories is “disingenuous”, because it has been precisely the subsequent history of historical criticism which has identified these myths. Van Seters also criticises the postmodernists for using Brevard Childs as an example of myth within historical criticism. Because Child’s own myth – that of a divine canon – is precisely that which historical critical method seeks to eradicate. This is what makes Child’s approach “antithetical to” historical criticism, claims Van Seters, and in fact makes Child’s approach closer to postmodern approaches. Van Seters also notes the more “ludicrous… caricatures” which the postmodernists made of historical criticism – particularly the reduction of all historical criticism to a nineteenth-century-style Romantic quest for mythic origins. Van Seters goes on, later in his rejoinder, to criticise “the endless generalizations about historical critics”, upon which much of the postmodernists’ article was based. (The same generalizations have previously been countered in John Barton’s Inaugural Lecture to the University of Oxford (Oxford, 1993), and similarly in his introduction to the Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation (1998).)
One of the most interesting points made by Van Seters is that postmodernism provides no alternative method to historical criticism, and indeed itself appears to rely on historical critical method (although, it does so, often, in denial of its reliance). Van Seters even states, “There is no post-scientific / wissenschaftlich or post-historic era, and we engage in such fantasies at our peril.”
Will there be dialogue? Or is this a repeat (with the decades-long delay which is typical of Biblical Studies) of the Derrida-Searle debate, in which each party continually restated their own positions and largely mispresented the other’s? At least there will be fireworks.