CSTT and Gender #2: A Gender Theory Critique of the Historical-Critical Method

By Francis Borchardt

What in the world does gender have to do with the historical critical method? Because I write in  as the representative of the CSTT’s Team 3 in this forum, I’m expected to somehow connect a discussion of gender with “Literary Criticism in Light of Documented Evidence”. This is not exactly an easy task. Gender is usually thought of as a contextual discussion, and even by gender scholars is conceived as a category that has only entered scholarly and popular consciousness in modern and post modern times. Meanwhile Literar–Kritik, or more broadly, the historical critical method, which encompasses much of what the CSTT’s Team 3 does, makes claims to exist outside of a given context. It is concerned only with revealing the history of the text and behind the text. Or, at least that is how it presents itself. And that is precisely the topic of my discussion. Surprise! I’ve taken an opportunity to turn this into a discussion about methodology.

In this brief discussion I’d like to invite us all to think about the historical critical method from the perspective of gender theory. This reflection is not meant to be a one–way critique of historical critical methodology (which I have, and to some extent still do employ) from the perspective of a gender theorist (which I am not). Rather, it is an attempt to engage in a dialogue between gender theory and historical critical theory (for, despite claims that might be made to the contrary, it is in fact representative of a theory, even if inexplicit) in order to elucidate premises, methods, and outcomes. In so doing I would like to challenge scholars with an affinity for the historical critical method to think about both what sort of pursuit they are engaged in and how they position themselves and are positioned within the guild of scholars of biblical studies and early Judaism and Christianity. The reflection is rather conjectural: I will posit that within our academic guild, historical critical methodology and those who engage in it are constructed as the masculine norm, with the result that all other methods of analysis of text production and interpretation are feminized. The consequence of this masculinization of the historical critical approach is manifold. Not only does it end up generally attracting and rewarding masculine performers within the guild, but it also tends to ignore the context within which its knowledge is produced. This in turn leads to a tendency to pass over certain fundamental questions which might strengthen the claims it makes to discovery of the history of and in a text.

Before proceeding I would like to point out that I do not think either of these objects of discussion are the result of conscious reflection by historical critical scholars. Nor do I believe there is necessarily a broad desire to exclude the free enquiry into diverse topics related to ancient scriptures.  Further, I would not argue that there is a conscious wish to construct an ancient literary world that is entirely male. There are many female historical critical scholars, and many of them along with many male colleagues are “woke” to the concerns brought up by gender theory. Rather, on the analogy of the insights on masculinity raised by gender theory since the 1980’s, I want to suggest that historical criticism and the scholars who engage in it are trained within a system that reinforces the normative value of historical critical enquiry, which ends up  devaluing and feminizing other types of criticism.

So, what do I mean when I posit that historical criticism is constructed as masculine criticism in the field of biblical studies and early Judaism/Christianity? Here a brief review of some of the assumptions of gender theory would be helpful. The basic assumptions important for my analogy are these: 1) Gender is not the same thing as anatomy. Although there may be certain anatomical features associated with what is determined to be masculine or feminine, the meanings with which these anatomical features are invested are social constructs. Thus to be masculine does not necessarily equate with being anatomically male, and to be feminine is not the same as being anatomically female. If we think of pejorative terms for people who transgress constructions of gender, like “tomboy” or “nancy boy” we begin to get the idea. 2) Given that gender is constructed, the definitions of what is masculine and what is feminine differ across settings and change within settings over time. To perform or express masculine traits in a relatively wealthy Western setting might be very different from doing so in a poorer setting in the Global South. 3) Nevertheless such binary constructions persist throughout diverse times and places as a means to assert power of the masculine over the feminine, despite the fact that the binary construction is a simplification of the range of human experiences. 4) The persistence of this binary construction is brought about not through explicit instruction, but through institutions unconsciously modeling what is masculine and rewarding those who perform what is masculine, while sanctioning those who perform what is deemed feminine. It should be pointed out that this is especially true of subjects determined to be masculine. So, a “man” wins status by performing masculine acts, and loses status by performing feminine acts, thereby edifying him with the dichotomy.  5) The result of such a construction, perhaps a natural outgrowth of the edification which primarily goes through masculine subjects, is that the masculine becomes “normal”, while the feminine becomes “abnormal”, “marginal”, and “subordinate”. This normalization of the masculine manifests itself throughout a given society. Political decisions and paths to social advancement all assume masculine actors and reward masculine performance. While they might not exclude anatomical females from successful negotiation of society toward success, they tend to do so only insofar as the anatomically identified females can internalize masculine performance. Even this has limits, though, as the power dynamics created by gender construction tend to reward anatomically female actors for accepting the marginal role they are assigned. It is the rare feminine person who is able to negotiate performing masculinity in a way that is praised rather than sanctioned for this transgression. In this way, the masculine is reinforced as the universal.

It is this final point which invites us to examine the place of historical criticism within the field of biblical studies as occupying an analogous place to masculinity. As has often been pointed out in methodological critiques, historical criticism, due to its roots, whether in the Enlightenment, the Reformation, or even the Renaissance, frequently makes knowledge claims which give the sense that it is a–contextual. The practice is deemed scientific. The method is performed outside of time or place. The results are universally applicable, as relevant to Bangalore as they are to Berlin. Yet, just as masculinity and masculine performers frequently do not realize that their gender role (and the power claimed by it) is less the result of nature than the outcome of continuous reassertion of dominance in social and political contexts, so too does historical criticism tend to overlook that its claims to knowledge belong to modern Western constructions perpetuated within dominant Western faculties, conference organizers, and presses. It thereby marginalizes and subordinates approaches that do not make the same claims to universality. Therefore, feminist approaches, post-modern literary studies, and discussions of rhetorical strategy (to name but a few approaches) are all feminized and less frequently rewarded. While those methods might be deemed suitable for a specialized study, a thematic conference,  or an edited volume, they are not thought to make the fundamental contributions to the understanding  of a text which demand critical engagement and either repetition or refutation. There is even a dichotomy asserted in some circles between historical-critical approaches, termed exegesis, and all other approaches, which if they are provided with any label at all, are called hermeneutics. Moreover textbooks and reference works, which receive the broadest audiences invariably reinforce the normalization of historical critical inquiry once again because it is asserted to be a general or even universal sort of knowledge. This has a silencing effect on other approaches, and perpetuates less engagement with the works and scholars responsible for them.

Beyond the broad chilling effect historical criticism’s masculinity has on the field, the problem manifests itself in at least two notable ways: the identification and rewarding of those engaged in historical critical research, and the results to which such research comes. Because historical criticism makes claims to be dispassionate and without dint of postmodern contextual concern, there is little attention paid to the identities claimed by those engaged in such research. If historical criticism is merely the application of a set of methods applied to the texts under discussion, then it does not matter whether that analysis is being done by a straight white male, a queer black female, or a gender non–conforming Japanese person. The problem is that when attention is not given to who is doing the research, what is presumed as “normal” in one sphere of life fills the lacuna in this other area of life. So, in fields like pentateuch, synoptic gospels, or the so-called deuteronomistic history, which tend to be dominated by historical–critical concerns, at least the most prominent scholars are largely males of European descent. Now, it might be that this is entirely coincidental or a relic of previous generations when biblical scholarship was more thoroughly tied to seminaries and faculties of theology and particularly to pastors, who were predominately male. But, I suspect that at least part of this has to do with the normalization of masculinity on the one hand and historical critical scholarship on the other.  Therefore those who rise to prominence in historical criticism end up being those who most conform to the idea of the masculine norm within binary gender constructions.

The masculinity of historical critical scholars might directly link up with the second issue I’d like to highlight: the masculinity of the questions asked and the answers offered within the scholarship itself. Here I again return to the claims of universality and seeming denial of context present in historical criticism and arising out of its construction as the norm. This can have the effect of framing questions without awareness of the modernness of those questions. So the impulse to look for the “original text” and to treat the “original text” and each successive stage of development as reflective of changed circumstances in the ideology or materiality of the world in which they were composed is thoroughly tied in with modern ideas of authorial genius, and with Ranke’s 19th century regard for primary sources. Likewise, the decisions made concerning the relationship between proposed layers of composition typically reflect Western aesthetic concepts of coherence which favor rational linear storytelling that adheres to generic paradigms. In addition, even as in the case of Team 3’s work, wherein there are two or more examples of text change from manuscripts, versions, or other witnesses, there is a presumption of relationship between them, which demands arguments for hierarchy, again based upon a modern notion of intellectual property and stability of text transmission which renders difference as abnormal. In all of these examples the problem is not really the question asked. We all ask questions of the ancient world using anachronistic concepts and vocabulary. In this case, though, it is the framing of that question and the answer arrived at in terms that do not admit the modernness and the contextualized nature of the pursuit. And it is precisely this lack of awareness or refusal to acknowledge the modernity of the question that I would argue is analogous to the normalization of the masculine in human experience.

The historical critical method does not offer explanations for itself because it is not expected to. Unlike other methods, which are marginalized due to their perceived particularity, the universalizing claims of the historical critical method insulate it from the need to take note of and then defend its context. This seems to me to be awfully similar to the widespread construction of the masculine in society.