In a long chapter of God’s Word in Human Words Kenton Sparks goes through the Bible to show problem areas upon which historical-critical scholarship throws light. I’ll look at just two of them today.
One of the problem areas illuminated by historical criticism concerns the discrepancies between the way 1 and 2 Kings treat the kings of Judah and the way 1 and 2 Chronicles treat them. One example from Sparks’ discussion will do.
According to 2 Kings, Manasseh summed up the badness of all the bad kings. It was primarily in response to him that God overthrew the house of David and allowed the destruction of the Temple and the exile into Babylon (2 Kings 21:11 ff.). Historical criticism puts this in the context of the theology of the Deuteronomists. To them disobedience to the laws of Deuteronomy was the sin that called down the curse of God. This sin touched many of the kings, but Manasseh was the king whose sin was the final stroke of doom. This theology allowed the wrath of God to build over a long period before it finally fell upon the nation.
However in Chronicles God’s wrath has to be more immediate. According to the theology of Chronicles the fact that Manasseh ruled for 55 years did not fit with the idea that he was a thoroughly bad king. So 2 Chronicles has him repent 2 Chronicles 33:10-13).
So according to the Deuteronomistic history in 2 Kings, Manasseh was such a bad king that the exile was caused by his sin. According to 2 Chronicles, however, God granted him an unusually long reign because of his repentance and restoration. The two versions of Manasseh flat-out contradict each other. But historical criticism illuminates the differing theologies behind this.
Another problem Sparks deals with is the unity of the Book of Isaiah. Critical scholars put the prophecies that come after chapter 40 into the time of the Babylonian exile, long after the lifetime of the prophet Isaiah. Many conservative scholars have rejected this, claiming that the only reason for doing this is a liberal belief that the prophecies of the exile and return could not be real, supernatural prophecies.
Sparks tries to soften this stark disagreement. He says that in recent times critical scholars have come more and more to see that our current book of Isaiah shows signs of unity. Just because the book may have a history of being composed over more than one generation does not mean that the book lacks unity.
He also argues that disbelief in divinely inspired prophecy is not the only reason to associate to Isaiah 40-55 with a later period. He shows that Isaiah 45:1-15 has its setting in a debate about whether it was fitting that a foreign king like Cyrus of Persia had a messianic role in delivering Israel. This debate could only have taken place at the beginning of the Persian period.
Another argument for a late date asks why Jeremiah did not cite these prophecies if they existed in his day. Jeremiah believed that resistance against Babylon was futile. If Isaiah had already prophesied the exile, surely Jeremiah would have brought this up.
The crucial point here in regards to both the historical books and Isaiah is that a careful reading of the texts leads to asking these questions. It is not just modern antisupernatural bias. It is not impiety. It is a careful, detailed, inquisitive reading of the Bible itself.