When biblical scholars write about the historical-critical method, they are using shorthand for a whole collection of methodologies and strategies for understanding the ancient texts in the Bible.
It only makes sense that we should interpret ancient texts against the background of what we can know of their historical settings. The crux of historical interpretation is that our conviction that the ancient authors reflected their own historical situation and wrote to address people of their own time and place.
The Book of Genesis in chapters 37 and 39-41 tells us that a Hebrew man named Joseph had an altercation with his brothers and found himself in slavery in Egypt as a result. The book goes on to tell us about how Joseph through his fundamental honesty and an unusual ability to interpret dreams overcame his situation to become the first assistant to the Egyptian king.
The story immediately raises questions. How could a semi-nomad from Palestine rise to such heights in ancient Egypt with or without the ability to interpret dreams? Is this, perhaps, a piece of fiction designed to show how God was able to save the Hebrew people during times of distress?
Maybe. But it just so happens that there was a period, albeit a fairly short period, in which Palestinians did indeed rule in Egypt in exactly the manner suggested for Joseph. These people the Greek historian Herodotus called Hyksos, a name we now understand to mean in Egyptian "rulers from foreign lands." The Hyksos period in Egypt lasted roughly from 1720-1550, but the shepherd kings from Palestine did indeed rule by insinuating their own leader into the position of vizier to the Pharoah, exactly the position Joseph occupies in Egypt.
Does this prove the story is factually accurate? No. Yet it does suggest that whoever penned the story of Joseph we read in Genesis had some knowledge of Egypt's history. The story fits into a known historical period about which we have written resources. Fiction or history, the author did some homework.
It's important, though, to recognize that the author did not write in the 18th century BCE. Far from it. The material largely comes from two authors, J and E, sources we've learned in class stem from the Iron II period, not the Middle Bronze Age. We need to be at least as concerned about their historical situation as about the situation of Joseph in Egypt.
If we are right about the dates for J and E, the Yahwist (J) penned his account in the 9th century as Judah was having to adjust to being a small, third-rate power in the Middle East, a situation far different from the situation under the great kings David and Solomon. J has to address the situation of disappointment and apprehension. When Judah was only one portion of a large empire, it was easy to believe in the future of the Hebrew people in Palestine and imagine the good favor of their God upon them. It was not so easy to believe these things as the country began to shrink into a small, almost landlocked nation with enemies on every side.
E, many believe, was a history that derived from Judah's northern sibling, Israel. Our best estimation is that the author wrote just before the decimation of the nation by Sargon in 722 BCE. Perhaps this work was an attempt to understand the serious peril of the nation. Unlike most of the pentateuchal narrative, the Joseph stories preserve extensive E material, so that we can see this author's mind at work in this section of Genesis as in no other. God was able to save Joseph and bring him to prominence even in the very worst of circumstances and in spite of some very real and very powerful enemies. E holds the view that God has the ability once more to intervene in Israel's history to save the nation, and the story of Joseph might encourage the reader to look for that salvation.
If E wrote before 722 BCE and J wrote ca. 800 BCE, they were describing events which transpired almost a millennium before them. It would be a task similar to somebody today writing a history of the year 1000 CE only without the extensive library and computer resources available to us. The diagram below illustrates the situation.
How did J and E know what had happened? Oral tradition? Possibly. Legends can certainly exist for hundreds of years -- but not without alteration over time. Written records? That's not impossible. Both the court of Judah and the court of Israel employed skilled scribes, and both kept extensive chronicles. Both nations, however, are Iron Age, though. We're still a long time away from The Event. We may imagine all of these possibilities: written records, oral tradition, courtly chronicles. We must not, however, leave out the most important item: human conceptuality. Both J and E have definite points of view, historical points of view. They differ from each other in some important respects, but both share the belief that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is in charge of Israel's history and will save threm from their enemies.
What, then, does our historical method allow us to understand? We understand that both J and E are writing about a period in Egyptian history we know about from independent sources. We know too that they each shape their story to fit their own historical situation. We recover the power of the ancient story to address later generations through our knowledge of their history.
Historical research can seldom prove the accuracy of an account, though it may sometimes reveal an inaccuracy. That leads us, to the "critical" part of the historical-critical method.
If we can seldom prove the historical accuracy of biblical texts but may sometimes discover inaccuracies in it, then some might reasonably believe that the purpose of historical criticism is to disprove the historical truth of the Bible. We cannot deny that some early researchers may have been motivated in this way. Research on the life of Jesus in the 19th century, for example,was replete with scholars who wanted to prove that the Gospels were fabrications or, at least, exaggerated accounts of the life of a simple Palestinian teacher. The 19th century scholar F. C. Baur named this approach "negative criticism" and showed the serious limitations of such an agenda. He suggested instead a "positive criticism" whose agenda would the historical understanding of biblical texts against their background, and this approach has won the day among biblical scholars.
What is "critical" in historical criticism is the application of our historical knowledge to the ancient text unfettered by religious or ideological strictures that would destroy the light history can shed upon the Bible. Biblical scholars have not only ressisted the restraints of organized religious bodies but have also questioned their own dogmatic assumptions about the biblical text. Some of the most important works of biblical scholarship have addressed the ideology of scholars not clerics. Perhaps most important in this regard was Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus (Von Reimarus zu Wrede, 1906; ET: 1911) that questioned the romantic notions scholars had about the life of Jesus. Even the venerable historical-critical method itself has undergone questioning as in Walter Wink's The Bible in Human Transformation (1973).
"Critical" does not mean debunking scripture, and it does not mean proving its truth. Religious people should and will find truth in their scriptures, but they may also be interested to learn something about where their scripture came from, who wrote it, and how editors collected it for them to read. For that only a historical-critical inquiry will do the job. As we increase our knowledge of the editorial process by which our Bible came to us, we may come to understand how others found meaning in its pages and applied that meaning to new situations as did J and E. People of faith will likely find themselves in dialogue with ancient people of faith. Secular folk will find themselves coming into dialogue with the biblical writers much as they come into dialogue with Socrates and Plato in a classics course.
Other scholarly approaches can take the name "criticism" as well. To the untutored this name may suggest a critique or doubting of the scriptures, but this is far from the way scholars employ such critical tools. We distinguish two fundamental kinds of criticism:
In this course I am asking you to provide exposition of selected biblical texts. I hope you will provide all of the data you can to support your interpretation of these texts, but by its nature an exposition is open-ended. An exegesis, on the other hand, is a structured exercise usually taught in a theological school that ordinarily has the aim of preparing a passage of scripture for preaching. Exegesis is an exercise in both Lower Criticism and Higher Criticism. As such, only one able to read the ancient languages can do the work of Lower Criticism necessary to do exegesis. Within the realm of Higher Criticism the exegete (one who does exegesis) will attempt to understand the text within its historical, religious, and literary context using the critical tools I've discussed above. Although complete exegesis is not always the rule in the preparation of sermons by clergy, an excellent sermon based on thorough exegesis is easy to spot and almost always enlightening.
An expoisition is a less structured undertaking than exegesis and may have many goals. It is simply the explanation and interpretation you give to a passage of scripture, using all of the tools at your disposal.