The Perils of Pseudo-Historicism

What happens when scholars utilize certain methods of dating biblical texts that hold no validity whatsover? According to Benjamin Sommer, they become subject to “a particularly facile sort of historicism with a depressingly simplistic reductionism” (101). This particular sort of historicism Sommer describes as pseudo-historicism:

A core difference between historicism and pseudo-historicism as I define them is that historicism is a method of explaining and evaluating that all humanistic scholars need to embrace as one tool among many in their bag of tricks, while pseudo-historicism is a universalizing fallacy all too common among humanisitic scholars. (103)

This distinction is particularly important to those engaged in biblical theology (Hebrew Bible/Tanak or Jewish/Old Testament and New Testament theology) because the locus of textual meaning is an issue at stake. If historical critical methods of interpretation are the only tools an interpreter uses when engaging the text of the Hebrew Bible (both necessary and sufficient to determine meaning), then it becomes impossible for the Hebrew Bible to function as Scripture that speaks beyond its original audience. Impossible, that is, unless one posits that meaning resides in the author AND that the biblical authors, whomever they may be, intended to speak directly to our day and age as well as their own—and every one that lay in-between (and beyond). For both ancient and modern writers, inspired or otherwise enlightened, language itself precludes this possibility.

Sommer boldly expresses his own conviction about the relevance of “Jewish scripture” for a contemporary Jewish community of faith via the activity of biblical theology, “My bedrock assumption as a biblical theologian is that every passage found in Jewish scripture is there to teach us something” (emphasis added). This is simply not the bedrock assumption of a scholar who operates solely from a historical-critical interpretive paradigm. But Sommer’s faith conviction (and that of many Christian interpreters as well) is not wholly a methodological leap of faith—as Sommer provocatively articulates—but highlights a particular failing of pseudo-historicists:

An interpreter should first of all at least consider the possibility that we can understand a religious text as manifesting religious intuitions that are essentially timeless. Attempts to portray ideas found in religious texts as reactions to historical, political, social, and/or economic factors often avoid grappling with these ideas’ deep humanistic significance. From a methodological point of view, this sort of pseudo-historicist reductionism represents (and here I introduce a technical term that is not used frequently enough in discussions of method in religious studies) what must be called a cop-out. Scholars of the composition of the Pentateuch, and biblical scholars generally, should be wary of the pseudo-historicist cop-out in its ubiquitous manifestations in our field. (107-8)

Sommer is not opposed to historical critical methods of interpretation. In his scholarly work he capably demonstrates their useful and productive implementation; he stresses, however, the limits of their use, particularly for biblical theology (they are necessary but not sufficient). A leading scholar in the field of biblical theology in my own estimation, I am pleased to highlight here his work and commend it to you.

For a similar perspective on this matter from a Christian interpreter, see here.


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