Choosing your method

Today I want to address the issue of methodology which any reader of my blog knows is on my mind frequently. I see my generation of scholars in a precarious situation in terms of method because so many have left the hard work of historical criticism to pursue the post-modern literary trends that are of interest to so many in the academy, especially those scholars who are confessional or interested in contemporary theological interests. Literary criticism can provide the means to disengage with history while still leaving the impression that what has been done is a historical investigation.

I have nothing against literary criticism. In fact, various literary methods inform my research. But as I have argued in my publications and on this blog, literary methods alone are not a replacement for historical criticism, because they do not operate by the same assumptions and they do not seek to answer the same questions. I have discovered that the best methodological approach seeks to bring three fields together : historical criticism, literary criticism, and social-scientific criticism.



can replace historical criticism, and training in it is the best thing that we can give our students whether they know that or not. Without it, we run the risk of falling into the erotics of the text itself or apologetics, and confusing history with story (or worse theology) and


/re-contextualizing its conversation. So you have to choose. There isn't a middle ground. You can't research and write from a semi-historical method. There is no such thing. If you do this, you are allowing your confessional stance to influence your history. It is like being pregnant. Either you are or you aren't. Either you are a historian operating by the critical perspective, or you are not.

These are

the 10 'commandments' or 'operating principles' for the historical-critical interpretation of ancient texts

which inform my research:


There is no such thing as a neutral text.

There is always power and persuasion involved.


The author always has a viewpoint and that viewpoint is always engaging another viewpoint

(hidden or open) whether to


against it or to develop it or to interpret it or to pass it on.

3. When the text is read against the grain (not for its intended purpose of persuasion to its own viewpoint and its own 'history'), the social dynamics of the text become visible

and voices that are hidden by the author begin to emerge.

It is the job of the historian to not only concentrate on recovering the dominant voice(s) in the text, but the submerged and oft-silenced voices too



The text is not reporting history

, it is reporting theology and it is using story to do so. This makes recovering history extremely difficult because all is not as it seems. We need to ask questions such as why is the author reporting his history and his theology this way? What other histories and theologies does the author know about? What traditions has the author received? How has the author shaped those traditions? Why has he shaped them in the manner that he has? Who has something to gain by this view of history and theology? Who has something to lose by this view of history and theology? What are the author's assumptions and how do these impact the author's narrative? How is the author's narrative related to other narratives? How is the author's narrative related to history? Etc.


There is always something before, during and after the text.

The traditions it yields are part of a dynamic ideological, social, and religious network with strong geographical semblance. This geographical semblance developed along the roads, trade routes, sea routes, that connected the major cities and the various intellectual schools in those cities.


There is rarely (perhaps never) an either-or solution to our texts.

We must not expect things to fit nicely in two boxes. The real historical situation is complex and complicated, and any solution we develop must be willing to pull things out of the boxes and allow them to get messy.


There is no such thing as 'background' to a text or a tradition.

The text or tradition is fully immersed and fully engaged in the dynamics of ancient culture written and performed and transmitted from the minds of ancient people. The author isn't grabbing this idea from here and that idea from there, and so forth, and accurately representing them. The author is a person of his time and culture in which he is immersed in the richness and dynamics of his world where things are not laid out in neat columns, but are mixed up, and often confused. He may know bits and pieces of things due to his cultural exposure, but those bits and pieces may or may not be accurate representations of the ideas. Most often they have been arranged into some kind of pattern that makes sense to the author, but doesn't necessarily represent the bits and pieces accurately. For instance, if he were living in Alexandria, he likely is exposed to


. But this doesn't mean that what he knows about


is actually what the Hermetics were practicing in their lodge meetings. And his mixed up versions of things may become foundational for later people.

8. To understand the texts historically,

it is necessary to figure out the ancient mindset the best we can, mapping its assumptions and expectations, and allow those to inform our reading of the text.

This can only be garnered through a cautious cross-cultural study of the ancient peoples who lived around the


, reading from medical literature, studying archaeological remains, shifting through documentary evidence, engaging the whole range.


There is nothing new under the sun.

The perspectives transmitted in these texts are part of a social memory dynamic that constantly shuffles received traditions to align them with the present experiences of the individuals and groups.


The historian must remain skeptical of what the author of the text claims to be true or false.