Probing Scripture

By Newsom, Carol | The Christian Century, January 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Probing Scripture


Newsom, Carol, The Christian Century


ONCE UPON A TIME biblical studies was focused almost exclusively on historical questions. Scholars' primary concern was with the history of the texts and with the history of the cultures which produced the texts. Since the 1970s, however, the field has witnessed a proliferation of different approaches to the Bible. These can be roughly grouped under three categories: literary, social-scientific and cultural hermeneutical.

Literary Approaches: A popular appreciation of the narrative art of the Bible has always existed. Its stories were represented in the sculpture and stained glass windows of medieval churches, and Western literature has been profoundly influenced by its characters, themes and symbols. In both Judaism and Christianity the reading and retelling of the stories in devotional and liturgical contexts made them deeply familiar. Yet even though biblical Hebrew poetry had been the subject of academic study since the 18th century, little attention had been paid to the poetics of biblical narrative.

One impetus to the interest in biblical narrative was the creation in the 1960s and '70s of departments of religious studies in nondenominational colleges and public universities. In such contexts the study of the Bible "as literature" was deemed especially appropriate to a secular curriculum. Giving further impetus to literary study of the Bible was the work of several scholars of English and comparative literature, who extended their expertise in the analysis of literature to biblical texts. Most prominent were Northrop Frye (The Great Code: The Bible and Literature), Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry), and Frank Kermode (The Genesis of Secrecy: A Study of the Gospel of Mark). Alter and Kermode later collaborated to edit The Literary Guide to the Bible.

This literary approach differed from historical study in significant ways. Whereas historical study tended to be concerned with the prehistory of the text (oral traditions and written source materials) and with its development through successive redactions, literary study focused on the final form of the text. Whereas historical study was interested in the world referred to by the text, literary study directed its attention to the world constructed in the text. Nevertheless, there were certain historical dimensions to this early work in biblical literature. Both Alter and Meir Sternberg attempted to isolate distinctive features of ancient Israelite narrative art (such as modes of characterization, the use of type-scenes, techniques of repetition, forms of plot development) which were not necessarily the same as the techniques used in modern Western narrative. Similarly, New Testament literary study has included a strong interest in the comparative analysis of Greco-Roman literary genres and techniques and those used in the Gospels, Acts and early noncanonical Christian literature.

Much of the early literary study of the Bible was influenced by the New Criticism, an approach that had dominated Anglo-American literary scholarship from the 1930s through the 1950s. For the New Critics the literary text was considered an autonomous work of art, to be studied independently of its author's intentions and of the sociopolitical currents of the time in which it was produced. As the literary study of the Bible was gaining ground, however, rapid changes were taking place in the larger field of literary study, changes that were quickly reflected in biblical studies.

Structuralism was the first of these new movements to make its impact. The origins of structuralism lie in the work of the early 20th-century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who attempted to analyze the system of relationships within a language that makes acts of speech possible. In particular, he stressed that meanings are produced not so much by simple definition as by a network of contrasts (e.g., a tree is a woody plant that is not a bush or a shrub). …

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