The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age

By Jones, John Franklin | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2007 | Go to article overview

The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age


Jones, John Franklin, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age. By John J. Collins. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, 201 pp., $18.00 paper.

Born in Ireland, John J. Collins is presently Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University. He has written prolifically, authoring eighteen academic books; 215 academic articles; eight popular, church-oriented books; and thirty-three articles for popular, church-related readers. He has also lectured widely.

Delivered as the Gunning lectures at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, 2004, The Bible after Babel is a brief analysis of some major trends in the study of the Hebrew Bible or OT during the latter third of the 20th century. Collins summarized the major tenets of both historical criticism and postmodernism (chap. 1).

The last quarter of the twentieth century saw a progressive loss of "confidence in the historical value of the biblical narratives." Called by Collins a "crisis in historiography" (chap. 2), it is not so much a result of postmodern philosophical predispositions as of "limitations in available evidence" (p. 34). Postmodernists can be credited with little more than a refusal to subscribe to the master narrative of accepting "the broad biblical outline of Israel's history without question" (p. 50).

Israel, especially the exodus, is considered a liberation paradigm (chap. 3). Liberation theology's concern for the poor and oppressed simulates postmodernism's concern for the marginalized. Claiming divine authorization for the ethnic cleansing jars the master narrative of liberation theology (p. 63). Both postcolonialism and postmodernism agree in affirming minorities (the Canaanite perspective of the conquest) against the empire's overarching claims. A postmodern "ethic of difference" (p. 72) can redeem ethnocentrism.

Feminist and gender studies (chap. 4) focus upon identifying and overcoming inequities between men and women. Collins would correct feminist and gender criticism by freeing it from treating the Bible as prescriptive and regards it unlikely that they will receive much sympathy for their agenda until they do so. Postmodernists object to the Bible's advocacy of a God-ordained order for the sexes to which all humans must conform. Contemporary gender theorists consider gender to be a human construct exhibiting relationships of power.

Scholarly opinion predominantly agrees that biblical accounts of Israelite religion (chap. 5) contain major discrepancies, that polytheism was widespread, and that the Yahweh-exclusivist cult, though a strain, did not triumph in suppressing religious pluralism until post-exilic Israel (Morton Smith's revisionism). While Collins disagrees that the Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet 'Ajrud inscriptions suggest that Yahweh may have had a wife, he feels revisionist scholarship is driven more by historical criticism and archaeological discoveries. Postmodern overtones are present in the resistance to biblical Deuteronomistic master narratives, the focus on marginal persons, and rereading biblical texts against editorial intentions (deconstruction of canonical account).

Collins does not feel that changes in the view of history, Israel's religion, or the ethical import of the OT for political or feminist liberation are mainly the results of postmodernist critical theory. …

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