I've been spending much of this term so far studying Old Testament history. And one of the interesting things has been the range of different approaches people take to it. Here's a quick guide from three weeks of studying it...
The Fundamentalist Approach
The first approach, which I'll label "fundamentalist" is to say that the historical sections of the Old Testament (Genesis - Esther or Job, + bits in the prophets) are intended, at least in part, to communicate history accurately and that they do so truthfully. There are loads of people who think like this out there in the world, but their main function in academia seems to be being used as a stereotype so other people can dismiss what the Bible says.
An example of this would be saying that Israel conquered the Promised Land by invading with a huge army, killing all the inhabitants fairly quickly, destroying all their cities and settling down and living there, and we'd expect archaeology to back that up. If that isn't what the archaeologists say, then they've obviously got it wrong.
There have been a few academics like this, but I don't know any current ones who teach Old Testament.
The Evangelical Approach
Another approach is to say that the Bible is true, but in a more nuanced sense. So the Old Testament narrative books do provide true descriptions of what actually happened, but that isn't necessarily their main agenda. They are very selective, often one-sided, often polemical.
Archaeology can then help us understand some details of what happened, how the writers were being selective, and hence help us to see the point they were making with the details they included. If there are discrepancies between archaeology and what the Bible says, they might be due to us getting bits of archaeology wrong, or they might be due to us getting our understanding of the Bible wrong, and we'd need to do work at both to see what actually happened.
This is pretty much my point of view, and there are some academics like this as well, but not that many...
The "Believing Academic" Approach
A more common approach among academics seems to be the idea that archaeology, etc is our primary source of knowledge about the events in the Old Testament. The Bible may have some factual errors, or may be changing details to make a point. Some books might be fictionalised retellings of what actually happened.
On the other hand, this approach can still be held by Christians, and often is within Old Testament studies. Some might say, for example, that the story in the book of Joshua is a story told by the Israelites about how they came to be in the Promised Land, though actually the reality was different - a few people who might well have left Egypt and one of whom might have been called Joshua, entered the land, bringing the religion of Yahwism and sparked some kind of revolt, which then led to at least a hundred years of fighting between small groups of revolters and the established order.
My reaction, though, is that this approach comes from being (epistemologically at least) an academic first and a Christian second - running Christianity as software within an academic operating system, so that the academia undergirds, permeates and changes the Christianity. That might be completely wrong and unfair, but it's how I read the situation.
The "Neutral Academic" Approach
Another common viewpoint seems to be that of the "neutral academic" (but no-one is really neutral). They'd tend to say that while the historical interpretations of the evangelical are possible, the more likely interpretation is that given by archaeology or by attempting to take the Bible texts apart in various different ways. In practice, their reconstructions of history are often pretty similar to the "believing academic" ones, except that "neutral" academics often completely discount the possibility of miracles, which isn't very neutral at all.
What they are "neutral" on, however, is the importance of the Biblical text. Sometimes they'll say it's useful, sometimes they won't or will say it reflects reality at the time of writing, which they'll put at 700 years after the event, usually because they've rejected miracles and predicting the future or something. Some might say that the Bible is roughly as useful for talking about history as the film Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.
I can see where people with this sort of view are coming from - they are trying to investigate the history of ancient Israel the same way as they'd go about investigating any other history. The big problem is that Israel is pretty much unique in the world in having a written account which has been passed down as Scripture through a community (rather than through being buried in the ground or through libraries of people who thought it was an interesting but largely irrelevant document) for at least 2500 years (and bits of it 3500 years). And it's really difficult to know therefore how reliable it is as history. Well, they're happy that it's fairly reliable back to about 1000BC, but from there back to Abraham (sometime 2000-1500BC) is more difficult to gauge.
The main reason I think it's reliable before that is that Jesus is God, so he's in a position to know, and he treated it like it was pretty reliable. But if other people don't agree that Jesus was God, I don't see why they should treat it as reliable.
The "Liberal Academic" Approach
This approach seems to have as one of its prior assumptions that what the Bible seems to say is inaccurate in almost every possible respect. They then try constructing an alternative scenario which bears as little resemblence as possible to the Biblical one, but which tries to explain how the Bible came to say what it did. Sometimes they do this on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.
For example, the classic "liberal academic" approach to the question of what Abraham believed is that he must have been a polytheist (or a tribe of polytheists) who worshipped a whole load of gods (using all the different things God is called in Genesis as the names for these gods). They'd also say that "the God of Abraham", "the God of Isaac" and "the God of Jacob" are three different gods, and that the authors / editors of Genesis (over 1000 years later) messed about with it to combine all these different gods to make them look like one god, but somehow keeping all the different names.
In many cases, the conclusions of the liberal academic arguments have since been shown to be complete rubbish, or at least not to fit with any of the archaeological evidence either. To me that would indicate that their approach is flawed, but a lot of their arguments are still thought of as the "orthodox" approach in academia.
The Dangers of Labels
It is of course a very dangerous thing to label people - I've tried only to label points of view here, and that because I think it's worth distinguishing them. In reality, people are probably much more nuanced than I've presented them.
Whether someone takes the first or second (or indeed third) approach to history might not make much difference to the way that they preach a passage or on the significance of the passage for the hearers. (Yes, there are clearly some examples where it would make a big difference).
But I think in a way the biggest difference is over the confidence that we can have in the Bible. If people are going into studying theology (or reading quite a bi of theology stuff) believing the "fundamentalist" approach, and not aware of the "evangelical" approach (and there are plenty of people like that) then their reaction to some of the stuff they come across will either be to reject it outright (which is bad) or to lose confidence in the truth of the Bible (which is disasterous). I, for one, am very grateful that people explained to me stuff like non-linear storytelling before I arrived.