All Scholarship Is Personal: David Rhoads and Performance Criticism

Article excerpt

Various commentators and historians have said, "In the end, all politics is personal." The statement calls attention to the fact that the major forces that shape national and international politics are finally about the life and work of individuals. The same is true for biblical scholarship and the megatrends of the interpretation of the Bible in the church and in the wider culture. In the end, all biblical scholarship and interpretation of the Bible is personal. A specific example of this is the evolution of performance criticism and the person, David Rhoads. As a lifelong friend, I am in a privileged position to tell the story of this evolution. With David's permission, my purpose here is to tell some of the stories, both personal and communal, that have shaped this development. My purpose is also to reflect on the character and implications of performance criticism. Whether this development is of historic importance for biblical scholarship and the interpretation of the Bible in the church and the wider culture only time will tell. But it may be of immediate interest to the community of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) as it reflects on the impact of David's tenure as professor of New Testament and on the institution's future. In the end, the community will decide whether performance criticism in its various dimensions is a personal idiosyncrasy of David Rhoads and his friends or a new paradigm for the future of the understanding, interpretation, and communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world.


My first vivid memory of David is of an encounter we had in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans in 1977. It was my second annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). I had met David the year before at SBL. He had become an instant hero to me because he had read my dissertation, Mark the Storyteller, and thought it was important. He came across the lobby quickly and said with some anxiety, "Tom, do you by any chance know where I can get a room? They're all booked up." As it happened, I had reserved a room and had no roommate. That was the first year of our rooming together at SBL for the next twenty years. My memory is like Andrew's story of his first meeting with Jesus at four o'clock in the afternoon (John 1:38-40). One remembers the beginnings of significant relationships.

David was involved in the Mark Seminar as well as the Literary Aspects of the Gospels and Acts group at SBL because of his ongoing work on Mark as a narrative that soon (1982) resulted in his book, Mark as Story. That book was framed as narrative criticism, and approached Mark as a narrative written for readers. This decision was related to the intended audience of college and seminary students who would read Mark in silence. This was appropriate for David and his co-author, Donald Michie, who was also teaching at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This work was one of the early fruits of a movement within biblical scholarship that focused on Mark and other works of the New Testament as unified narratives rather than as the product of a tradition history process that could be traced by the methods of form, source, and redaction criticism. It was a ground-breaking work because it used the categories of narrative (point of view, narrative comments and asides, plot, characterization, norms of judgment) and the analysis of the interactions of the narrator, the reader, and the narrative itself with its characters and plot as a methodological center for a comprehensive analysis of Mark.

This work helped to establish narrative criticism as a viable methodology for the study of biblical narratives. The central move of this development was taking the literary critical methods that had been developed for the study of the modern novel and applying those methods to biblical narratives. A central presupposition of this critical methodology was that the work itself had meaning in and of itself as a narrative that was more than the sum of the various causal forces that determined its present form. …