What Was Critical History? A Reading of Richard Simon's Histoire Critique Du Vieux Testament

The roots of our modern critical historical attitude are usually set in one of the following phenomena: (1) the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns; (2) the establishment of historiography as a scientific discipline; and (3) the newly gained awareness of anachronism. However, these accounts either neglect the normative character of the above-mentioned phenomena or operate with an a priori definition of “critical history,” which leads them to retrospectively attribute the concept of “critique” to historical realities that have not used the term to denote their attitude toward or their treatment of the past. Rather than starting from an a priori definition of what “critical history” is, I propose to inquire into what “critical history” was at the moment when it was first conceived as such—namely in Richard Simon's Histoire critique du Vieux Testament. I will begin by presenting Simon's conception of critique, which entailed: (a) a grammatical and philological treatment of the text in question; (b) a historical and cultural contextualization of this text; and (c) a specific type of judgment to be applied to what is written therein. Since this last aspect constitutes the key to understanding critique's attitude toward the past, I will, in the second part, focus my attention on the notion that plays a pivotal role in the exercise of “critical judgment,” that is, on the concept of tradition. Last, I will propose that since Simon's critical history does not seem to be completely autonomous in relation to its object, the roots of our modern call for normative autonomy vis-à-vis the past should be sought with the authors whom Simon opposed in his work, but from whom nonetheless he inherited the term critique: Protestant authors such as Scaliger, Casaubon, and Cappel.