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The self-identity of “postmodern biblical criticism” depends on setting up a long list of binary oppositions between postmodernism and its fantastic Other, historical criticism. As with all such attempts, it results in a simplistic caricature which is a convenient object of polemic and self-construction, but which oversimplifies the amorphous and diverse forms of criticism which have been carried out under the heading “historical criticism”.

It is a commonplace that historical critics conceived of their work as “objective”. But what does this mean? Objectivity is itself a slippery term; it can range in meaning from an assertion about (ontological) realism to one’s (epistemological) scientific basis for conclusions to a claim about lack of personal bias (of the subject). The accusation that historical critics claimed objectivity suffers from this ambiguity, which has been rhetorically useful when it is employed as an accusation by a system of thought which valorizes the personal and subjective.

But objectively (and I mean, in fact) did historical critics ever claim to be “objective” in the sense of complete absence of bias? Or when they talked about “objectivity”, was this not in a context of historical opposition to those biblical scholars who proceeded on theological and dogmatic assumptions? Is the attack on the false “objectivity” of the past due more to the increased importance presently afforded to one’s personal situation than to any (objective) facts about the history of scholarship?

“It has often been argued that attempts at ‘objective’ work involved the illusion of standing outside the stream of time and producing a result wholly independent of one’s own modern opinion. This argument is often used to discredit historical-critical studies. It is one of the many myths thought up by the fertile imaginations of anti-historical writers. For, of course, it is entirely untrue that the great historical critics like Harnack, or the great theorists of critical theory like Troeltsch, had any such idea of themselves.”

(James Barr, The concept of biblical theology: an Old Testament perspective, 206)

On the other hand, it is true that you are much more likely to find explicit contemplation of one’s subjective situatedness in contemporary biblical scholarship. Navel gazing has become much more accepted in biblical studies and in some cases an obsessive preoccupation. But it is this very trend towards subjectivism in biblical studies that casts suspicion on the current tendency of “postmodern biblical scholars” to paint previous generations of biblical scholars as their mirror opposites.