Poetics for the Gospels? Rethinking Narrative Criticism

Article excerpt

Poetics for the Gospels? Rethinking Narrative Criticism. By Petri Merenlahti. London and New York: T & T Clark, 2002. xi + 174 pp. $49.95 (paper).

This insightful book seeks to take stock of a shift in biblical studies toward narrative criticism since the late 1970s, as well as some more recent developments in the theory and practice of biblical exegesis. Although Merenlahti remains sensitive to the real virtues of literary approaches when compared to traditional historical criticism and to the status of narrative criticism as a developing tradition in its own right, he makes a persuasive case for the limitations of the "traditional literary paradigm." In particular, he is concerned with "its ahistorical nature and blindness to ideology" (p. 13). He finds a particularly glaring example of this in Mark Allan Powell's treatment of anti-Jewish elements in the Gospel of Matthew (p. 122). Merenlahti questions hermeneutics in which the "ideology reflected in the text appears as a mere literary device" (p. 123).

In ten brief and learned chapters, the book documents and suggests new directions for biblical criticism that may be better able to account for the historical, social, and ideological elements in the production and interpretation of Scripture. Merenlahti divides his argument into three parts.

The first tells the story of the rise of narrative criticism, for which he helpfully gives a social location, namely the Society of Biblical Literatures seminar on Mark between 1971 and 1980. Merenlahti rightly stresses the importance of David Rhoades's seminal paper "Narrative Critcism and the Gospel of Mark," given there in 1980 and later published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion in 1982. As he treats other narrative critics, as well as Rhoades' own subsequent writing, Merenlahti gives an account of a circularity that occurs as narrative critics attempt to establish the value of a text by an appeal to its narrative unity, which then justifies treating the text as an autonomous whole. In another chapter, he offers an account of the reasons why some contemporary critics are drawn to Mark, since a changing aesthetic influenced by the traditions of "realism" and "modernism" cause a reevaluation of the gospel (p. 38).

The second part moves the reader toward Merenlahti's constructive agenda, by offering accounts of "three loci classici of narrative theory, that is, narrative rhetoric, characterization, and plot," each of which, he observes, "also has a significant as well as a rather specific relationship with ideology" (p. …