Historical criticism, also known as the historical-critical method, was the dominant approach in the academic study of the Bible from the midnineteenth century until a generation ago. In the English-speaking world it is now under a cloud. There is much talk of a 'paradigm shift' away from historical methods and towards 'text-immanent' interpretation which is not concerned with the historical context and meaning of texts; it is widely felt that historical criticism is now itself of largely historical (or 'academic'!) interest (see Barton, The Future of Old Testament Study; Keck, 'Will the Historical- Critical Method Survive?'; Watson, Text, Church and World). It is still practised, however, by a large number of scholars even in the English-speaking world, and by many more in areas where German is the main language of scholarship.
What is historical criticism? Unfortunately its definition is almost as controversial as its desirability. It may be helpful to begin by identifying the features which many students of the Bible now find objectionable in the historical-critical method, before trying to refine our definition by seeing what can be said in its defence. We shall outline four features normally said to be central to historical-critical study of the Bible.