Sunday, October 17, 2010

Narrative Criticism; Text into Story




This essay seeks to introduce the discipline of narrative criticism and the place and significance of its use in the study of the New Testament. Narrative criticism is a relatively recent development, largely in the latter part of the last century, with significant work being done in the 1980’s and 1990’s.[i] The brevity of its existence belies the volume of academic enquiry, interest and influence it has generated since its inception.


This essay examines firstly the development of the discipline. We examine in brief the main schools of thought in biblical criticism, in order to establish narrative criticism’s place and posture. We allude to major influences in the formation of narrative critical practice as well as works which have either influenced or changed the course of narrative criticism.


Having established an understanding of the ebb and flow of enquiry, we look at the distinctives of this critical form. Firstly; we examine key concepts, including an examination of the methodology and models used.


Finally we conclude with an assessment of the significance of narrative criticism as a distinct discipline within the wider range of competing methodologies. This calls for a value judgment as to how narrative criticism fares when compared with the smorgasbord of exegetical methods available. It asks the question, “What are the strengths and weaknesses of this method of enquiry?”




We begin with form criticism, which flourished between 1920 and 1950.[ii] It is conceded that form critics, in trying to establish the oral history behind the Gospels, have added to the broader understanding of the gospel narratives. It is felt by some that form criticism’s lines of enquiry have been largely exhausted[iii]. Carson et al also concede;


“The historical skepticism that characterises many of the most prominent form critics has given form criticism itself the reputation of attacking the historicity of the gospels. ... this need not be the case.”[iv]


Source criticism developed in parallel to efforts to solve the synoptic problem.[v] Christopher Tuckett defines source criticism as;


“the branch of study which seeks to identify earlier traditions in a writer’s text.”[vi]


Following a general (albeit not unanimous) consensus on the Markan priority of the two source hypothesis redaction criticism (redactiongeschichte) emerged. This focused primarily on the distinctives each evangelist brought to the text, how it was modified, what was included or excluded.[vii]


Narrative criticism, one of the youngest forms of biblical analysis owes its formation to developments in literary criticism being applied to the study of the Bible.[viii]In particular the work of Russian academic Vladimir Propp led to an initial emphasis on the study of structure.[ix] [x]. This coincided among biblical scholars with a movement away from the dominant paradigms in biblical criticism, particularly the perceived antisupernaturalism of Bultmann and later Funk.


“In place of barren studies of tradition history, modern literary critics want to look at the text as it is.”[xi]


Narrative criticism can be seen as a movement towards the dominance of the text in its final form. This is in contrast to the focus which was previously on the source, whether oral or written[xii]. It “views story as fundamental to human experience”[xiii].



“Although focused for some years on structuralist work, it yet contrived to give voice to a plurality of alternatives to conventional historical criticism”[xiv]


Narrative Criticism Distinctives


While the focus of narrative criticism has traditionally been centered on the Gospels and the book of Acts[xv], and in particular the synoptic gospels; Matthew, Mark and Luke, in the past four decades a considerable amount of work has also been done on Old Testament texts.[xvi]

What follows is a broad outline for examining the peculiar features of narrative criticism and is largely based on the six elements identified in Achtemeier, Green and Thompson[xvii] (hereafter referred to as AGT); Fundamental aim; Sequence of events; Timing; Characters; Point of view and Presuppositions
[xviii]. Other works identify similar subdivisions Burkett states;


“A narrative critic analyses the various aspects of a story, such as the narrator, the characters, the settings, the events or plot, and the literary techniques the author employs”[xix]


“Of particular value for works of Narrative genre, this approach analyses plot, theme, motifs, characterization, style, figures of speech, symbolism, foreshadowing, repetition, speed of time in narrative, point of view, and the like.”[xx]

Fundamental Aim


The fundamental aim or intention of the narrative is linked in narrative criticism to the implied author.[xxi] Soulen and Soulen state that rather than the real (historical) author, the implied author can also be defined as the point of view from which the narrative is told.[xxii]


Sequence of Events (dramatic flow) and Timing


Bock points out the variety of dramatic devices available to the narrator in moving the story along; Timing within a narrative can vary from greatly accelerated (fast moving with broad brush strokes) to greatly decelerated (emphasizing the detail) may involve flashbacks[xxiii] or retelling (such as Steven’s account in Acts 7)[xxiv].

Callahan alludes to Fackre’s work as; “an account of character and events in a plot moving in time, through conflict to resolution”[xxv]




According to Gunn, “questions of plot and of character are staples of the study of narrative”[xxvi]. Plot allows for character development. AGT point out the variety of options open to the evangelists to give the reader greater insight into gospel characters.[xxvii]


Griemas emphasises that in order for plots to move forward in a meaningful way, six major components or “actants” are required.[xxviii] Parry gives a more detailed discussion of Griemas’ model as well as a brief outline of how this would apply to Johns Gospel.[xxix]



Sender                                    Object                                     Receiver



Helper                                                Subject                                                Opponent


In the model above it is the sender who initiates an object communicated via a subject to the receiver. This process may be facilitated by the helper or hindered the opponent.[xxx]


Point of view (perspective)


Much has been made in literary theory the covenant between author and reader, creating shared expectations and mutual understanding.[xxxi]This intersubjectivity (shared meaning) between the implied author and implied reader provides an opportunity for drawing meaning from the text.


“However unlike reader response theory”, according to Peter Llewellyn “it is the text and therefore the authors’ intent which supercedes the readers’ interpretation in narrative criticism.”[xxxii]


Presuppositions (assumptions)


The text contains assumptions concerning its audience, how they will read, comprehend and respond to its message.[xxxiii]This is related subtly to the covenant alluded to in the previous section.


“…the implied reader is an imaginary reader who is envisaged to respond appropriately to the values and concerns expressed by the ‘implied author.’”[xxxiv]






What then does narrative criticism bring to the field of Biblical study?


Firstly, in narrative criticism’s favour is the ability to approach the Gospels as a whole[xxxv]


Klein, Blumberg and Hubbard point to the value of focusing on such features as theme, plot and the like in showing the text as a unified whole.[xxxvi] Their study cites in particular David Clines’ groundbreaking study of the Pentateuch, a key text in the development of Biblical narrative criticism.[xxxvii]


Secondly, its emphasis on structuralism lends itself to critical enquiry.[xxxviii]


“Narrative criticism highlights the importance of intertextual allusions in stories, allowing theological and ethical points to be made in subtle ways”[xxxix]


Thirdly, in this form of biblical criticism we see a return to the supremacy of the text in its final form.


On the flip side Carson and Moo[xl] point out that some charge narrative critics with ignoring the value history can bring to Biblical exegesis. It is apparent from the research done that narrative criticism is a profitable tool in the arsenal of critics, but its value is enhanced when it does not altogether dismiss other forms of enquiry.


“Narrative criticism works on its own in theory, but very seldom, if ever in practice, is it used in isolation from other critical methods.”[xli]


J.P.Callahan points to the dual nature of narrative criticism’s strengths also being its weaknesses when he writes;


“The use of narrative in theology tends to blur the distinctions between strictly historical, literary and theological disciplines, as well as provide an alternative to dualistic accounts of story and fiction, history and truth.”[xlii]



In this essay we began by examining narrative criticism in very broad terms. We have examined its distinct nature and some of its more salient unique features. We also alluded to its development in contrast to the historical critical methods. Finally we gave an appraisal of its contribution to our study of the Bible and concluded that it was a valuable tool particularly when used in conjunction with other exegetical methods.


[i] Gunn, David. To Each Its Own Meaning; Biblical Criticism and its Application, ed Steven Mckenzie and Stephen Haynes. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999) pg 201-209

[ii][ii] Neville, David, THL409 Study Guide (Charles Sturt University 2010)(hereafter referred to as SG) pg 14

[iii] Carson, D.A. Moo, Douglas and Morris, Leon An Introduction to the New Testament (Leicester, Apollos,1999) pg 221

[iv] Carson, Moo and Morris Introduction pg 23

[v] Bock, Darrell. Studying the Historical Jesus; a guide to sources and methods (Grand Rapids, Michigan. Apollos/Baker Academic.2002.) Pg 162-168

[vi] Tuckett, Christopher. Reading the New Testament: Methods of Interpretation.( Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1987) pg 78

[vii] Bock, Studying pg 192-193

[viii] Parry, Robin. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. ed.Kevin J. VanHoozer. (Grand Rapids, Michigan. Baker Books.2005.) pg 530

[ix] A reasonable overview of the impact of Propp and Griemas’ work on Biblical criticism is found in the chapter “The New Testament and Structuralism” in Christopher Tucketts’ Reading the New Testament: Methods of Interpretation

[x] Parry, Dictionary pg 530

[xi] Carson, Moo and Moriss Introduction Pg48

[xii] Parry, Dictionary pg 530

[xiii] Patzia, Arthur and. Petrotta, Anthony. Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies. (Leicester.Intervarsity Press.2002.) pg

[xiv] Gunn, To Each Its Own pg 205

[xv] SG pg 18

[xvi] For a comprehensive overview of the major Old Testament work consult David Gunns chapter in “To each Its own meaning”.

[xvii] Achtemeier, Paul and Green, Joel, and Thompson, Marianne. Introducing the New Testament: Its literature and theology (Grand Rapids 2001. Eerdmans.) pg 84-86 hereafter referred to as AGT.

[xviii] AGT p 84,85

[xix] Berkett, Delbert An introduction to the New Testament and origins of Christianity. (Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 2002) Pg135

[xx] Klein, William and Blomberg, Craig and Hubbard Robert JR. Introduction to Biblical interpretation. (Nashville W publishing group.Thomas Nelson. 1993) pg 432-433

[xxi] Source unknown

[xxii] Soulen, Richard and Soulen R.Kendall. Handbook of Biblical Criticism. Third edition. (Louisville Kentucky Westminster John Knox.2001). PG 119

[xxiii] For example Luke 24 6-8 or Luke 24:32

[xxiv] Bock. Studying pg 208-209

[xxv] Callahan. J.P. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd Edition. ed. (Elwell, Walther. Grand Rapids Michigan.2009) pg 813

[xxvi] Gunn To each Its Own Meaning pg 213

[xxvii] AGT pg 85

[xxviii]. Klein and Blomberg, and Hubbard Introduction pg 429-430

[xxix] Parry,Dictionary pg 530

[xxx] Klein,and Blomberg, and Hubbard Introduction pg 429-430

[xxxi] Van Schoor, M. What is communication? (Pretoria J.L.van Schaaik. 1988)                                        

[xxxii]Lewellyn, Peter Narrative criticism. Paper presented for students completing Introduction to New Testament at Charles Sturt University residential St Marks National Theological Centre Canberra, 2-3 September 2010

[xxxiii] AGT pg 85&86

[xxxiv] SG pg 18

[xxxv] SG pg18

[xxxvi] Klein and Blomberg, and Hubbard Introduction pg 435

[xxxvii] Clines, DJA. The theme of the Pentateuch (JSOT sup 10 Sheffield:JSOT, 1978) as quoted in Klein Blomberg et al

[xxxviii] Source Unknown

[xxxix] Parry, Dictionary pg 529

[xl] Carson, Moo and Moriss Introduction pg 49

[xli] Lewellyn, Narrative

[xlii] Callahan. Evangelical pg 813

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