Category Archives: Narrative Criticism


Is Jesus’ Itinerancy a Secure Fact or a Narrative Device?

by Tim Widowfield

Scholars who study the historical Jesus will sometimes compile lists of minimal “secure facts” — the few things we can be reasonably certain “must be” true about the life of Christ. At the barest minimum, we have: “An itinerant Jewish teacher or preacher from Galilee who was crucified by Pilate.”

In the words of E. P. Sanders:

We have seen that the gospels depict Jesus and his disciples as itinerant. Some or all of them had homes and families, but they spent a lot of time on the road, and there is no mention of their working during Jesus’ active career. In part they were busy proclaim­ing the kingdom; in part the condition of the call of the close disciples was that they give up everything. (Sanders 1993, p. 107)

Bricks and mortar

The overwhelming number of NT scholars today would likely tell us that the reason the gospels portray a traveling Jesus is that such a portrayal reflects reality. But recently, while reading Redactional Style in the Marcan Gospel by E. J. Pryke, it struck me that many of the key redactional elements in Mark, our first narrative gospel, have to do with time and place. In other words, when Mark joined his stories together he needed some brief connecting language to create some sort of flow. Changing the time and place provides an implicit explanation for a change in subject and audience.

Mark, as you know, frequently didn’t care to elaborate on these shifts in place and time. In fact, quite often he barely takes the time to say Jesus and his cohorts “immediately” went from location A to location B.

And immediately after they came out of the synagogue, they came into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. (Mark 1:29, NASB)

Redaction critics look for linguistic markers (peculiar usage, telltale vocabulary, etc.) that would tend to signify the parts of the gospels that are probably redactional. In other words, they look for indicators that help discriminate between the story-bricks and the redaction-mortar that holds them together.

Each evangelist had his own set of quirks. Pryke notes that Mark, for example, had a habit of using the genitive absolute when introducing a new pericope. In a nutshell, the genitive absolute is a short participial phrase unrelated to the main clause except, in Mark’s case, as a kind of introductory scene-setting device. In Mark 5:2, for example, we have: read more »


Form Criticism: Modern Scholarship’s Blind Spot

by Tim Widowfield
Percival Gardner-Smith

Percival Gardner-Smith

In a recent post, Neil discussed Helen Bond’s paper, “The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John.” I can’t find a print version of the paper, but the video released by Biblical Studies Online on my birthday, brings me both pain and pleasure. Pleasure, because I also believe the author of the Fourth Gospel knew and used Mark. (See my series, “How John Used Mark.”) But pain, too, because Bond repeats the same mistaken views about form criticism that continue to dominate modern New Testament studies.

I agree completely with her thesis statement:

I see John as a rewriting of those written texts in light of both the cultural memories of his own group and a very particular set of historical circumstances. There’s no doubt that this gospel is distinctive in many ways, with its view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the unique Son of the Father, and the bringer of eternal life. And yet, it seems to me that many of these distinctive features can be seen to derive from a creative reflection on Markan material. (Bond, 0:55, 2016 — Note: In this post all bold emphasis in quotations is mine.)

An extremely slim volume

Further, she correctly observes that most scholars thought John knew and used the Gospel of Mark until the publication of Percival Gardner-Smith’s Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels in 1938. But notice who turns out to be the villain in this story.

So, while the extent of John’s familiarity with Matthew has often been debated, there was almost complete agreement, until the early 20th century, that the evangelist was thoroughly acquainted with Mark and very likely also with Luke. With the emergence of form criticism, however, things began to change. (Bond, 1:52, 2016)

I set those last four words in italics to indicate Bond’s ominous tone, reminiscent of Neil on The Young Ones, telling us that Vyvyan has escaped. She continues: read more »


The Prodigal Son: Cultural Reception History and the New Testament

by Tim Widowfield
Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 166...

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662–1669 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neil’s post from last year — “Why Does Jesus Never Do Anything Wrong?” — got me thinking about a story told by David Livermore in his course, Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. He tells of a New Testament scholar and minister who performed a small experiment in which he asked people of different cultures to tell him the parable of the Prodigal Son. Afterward, he compared the points of story to what people remembered, noting what they tended to remember as well as what they left out.

His results were somewhat surprising. It turns out that our cultural background, social context, and personal history can have a large impact on what we consider important. Without realizing it, our frame of reference profoundly distorts how we understand and recall information.

How did the Prodigal Son end up in a pigpen?

Although Livermore and others have used this anecdote (you can find many references on the web), I found it rather difficult to track down the original scholarship. Sadly, the book in which the paper first appeared, Literary Encounters with the Reign of God, is far too expensive for me; however, you can see bits of it in the Google Books preview. Fortunately, the author, Mark Allen Powell, recapitulates much of his paper in the book, What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew.

Powell, a narrative critic, frequently uses the term polyvalence, which for him has a specific meaning:

Simply put, polyvalence refers to the capacity—or, perhaps, the inevitable tendency— for texts to mean different things to different people. Literary critics differ drastically in their evaluation of polyvalence (i.e., friend or foe?), but virtually all literary critics now recognize the reality of this phenomenon: texts do mean different things to different people and at least some of the interpretive differences that have been examined (e.g., gender-biased interpretations) appear to follow fairly predictable patterns. (Powell, 2007, p. 12)

I would add that the situation might even be worse for those of us who were steeped in a particular tradition since childhood. Not only have I been hearing New Testament stories for over five decades, but I’ve been told what they mean, again and again. I even know them by titles that drive the reader or hearer to understand them from an orthodox point of view. For example, I knew the parable of the Prodigal Son long before I knew what the word “prodigal” even meant.

As I said earlier, Powell asked a number students to pair off, then read, and finally describe the parable to their partners. He then noted the details they emphasized or omitted. (The exercise comes from Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie’s Mark as Story.) Oddly enough, they all left out the part about the famine that struck right when the young man’s money ran out. Powell notes: read more »


The Difference between Story and History in the Bible

by Neil Godfrey
James Barr

James Barr

In 1980 the influential biblical scholar James Barr produced a “seminal essay” that classified “the narrative complex of the Hebrew Bible as story rather than history” and contributed to “[many retreating] into an historiographic scepticism”(Whitelam, 1987, 2010). The focus of Barr’s essay (and Keith Whitelam’s reference to it) is the Old Testament. It is important to understand, however, that “historical nihilism” is not the inevitable destination if we find our sources are more story than history.

Certainty is not a prerequisite to understanding. It is the will to understand rather than simply the will to know for certain that is the driving force for the inquiry to be undertaken here. (Whitelam, p. 20.)

I think that the same principles carry over to the New Testament’s Gospels and Acts, too. That’s too controversial for many today, however. The Gospel narratives must stand firm as grounded in historical memory of some kind. Whitelam in his 2010 edition of his 1987 book lamented the failure of the critical potential to blossom in the field of Old Testament studies:

The rise of the biblical history movement and ‘new biblical archaeology’ means that the project envisaged a quarter of a century ago is even further away from realization today than it was then. (p. xiii)

How much further away we must be from applying the same critical questions to the stories of Jesus!

Following is how Barr explained the differences between history and story. It comes from “Story and History in Biblical Theology: The Third Nuveen Lecture” in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 1-17. Published in Explorations in Theology 7, 1980.

Old Testament narratives cannot be described as “history” but rather as containing “certain of the features that belong to history”. Examples: read more »


Why the Gospels are Historical Fiction

by Neil Godfrey


A recent book by Jacob Licht, Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem, 1978), proposes that the “historical aspect” and the “storytelling” aspect of biblical narrative be thought of as entirely discrete functions that can be neatly peeled apart for inspection — apparently, like the different colored strands of electrical wiring.

This facile separation of the inseparable suggests how little some Bible scholars have thought about the role of literary art in biblical literature. (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 32)


By “historical fiction” I mean a fictitious tale, whether it is a theological parable or not, set in a real historical time and place. Authors of “historical fiction” must necessarily include real historical places and real historical persons and events in their narrative or it will be nothing more than “fiction”. Ancient authors are known to have written “historical fiction” as broadly defined as this. We have the Alexander Romance by Heliodorus that is a largely fictitious dramatization of the person and exploits of Alexander the Great. Of more interest for our purposes here is Chariton’s tale of Chaereas and Callirhoe. These are entirely fictitious persons whose adventures take place in world of historical characters who make their own appearances in the novel: the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes II; his wife and Persian queen, Statira; the Syracusan statesman and general of the 410s, Hermocrates. There are allusions to other possible historical persons. Sure there are several anachronisms that found their way into Chariton’s novel. (And there are several historical anachronisms in the Gospels, too.) Chariton even imitated some of the style of the classical historians Herodotus and Thucydides.

In this way Chariton imitates the classical historians in technique, not for the purpose of masquerading as a professional historian, but rather, as Hagg (1987, 197) suggests, to create the “effect of openly mixing fictitious characters and events with historical ones.” (Edmund Cueva, The Myths of Fiction, p. 16)

A word to some critics: This post does not argue that Jesus did not exist or that the there is no historical basis to any of the events they portray. It spoils a post to have to say that, since it ought to be obvious that demonstrating a fictitious nature of a narrative does not at the same time demonstrate that there were no analogous historical events from which that narrative was ultimately derived. What the post does do, however, is suggest that those who do believe in a certain historicity of events found in the gospels should remove the gospels themselves as evidence for their hypothesis. But that is all by the by and a discussion for another time. Surely there is value in seeking to understand the nature of one of our culture’s foundational texts for its own sake, and to help understand the nature of the origins of culture’s faiths.

Cover of "The Art Of Biblical Narrative"

Cover of The Art Of Biblical Narrative

This post is inspired by Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter believes that the reason literary studies of the Bible were relatively neglected for so long is because of the cultural status of the Bible as a “holy book”, the source of divine revelation, of our faith. It seems gratuitously intrusive or simply quite irrelevant to examine the literary structure of a sacred book. So the main interest of those who study it has been theology. I would add that, given the Judaic and Christian religions of the Bible claim to be grounded in historical events, the relation of the Bible’s narratives to history has also been of major interest.

But surely the first rule of any historical study is to understand the nature of the source documents at hand. That means, surely, that the first thing we need to do with a literary source is to analyse it see what sort of literary composition it is. And as with any human creation, we know that the way something appears on the surface has the potential to conceal what lies beneath.

Only after we have established the nature of our literary source are we in a position to know what sorts of questions we can reasonably apply to it. Historians interested in historical events cannot turn to Heliodorus to learn more biographical data about Alexander the Great, nor can they turn to Chariton to fill in gaps in their knowledge about Artaxerxes II and Statira, because literary analysis confirms that these are works of (historical) fiction.

Some will ask, “Is it not possible that even a work of clever literary artifice was inspired by oral or other reports of genuine historical events, and that the author has happily found a way to narrate genuine history with literary artistry?”

The answer to that is, logically, Yes. It is possible. But then we need to recall our childhood days when we would so deeply wish a bed-time fairy story, or simply a good children’s novel, to have been true. When we were children we thought as children but now we put away childish things. If we do have at hand, as a result of our literary analysis, an obvious and immediate explanation for every action, for every speech, and for the artistry of the way these are woven into the narrative, do we still want more? Do we want to believe in something beyond the immediate reality of the literary artistry we see before our eyes? Is Occam’s razor not enough?

If we want history, we need to look for the evidence of history in a narrative that is clearly, again as a result of our analysis, capable of yielding historical information. Literary analysis helps us to discern the difference between historical fiction and history that sometimes contains fictional elements. Or maybe we would expect divine history to be told with the literary artifice that otherwise serves the goals and nature of fiction, even ancient fiction.

The beginning of the (hi)story

The great Latin poet, Virgil, holding a volume...

The Latin poet, Virgil, holding a volume on which is written the Aeneid. On either side stand the two muses: “Clio” (history) and “Melpomene” (tragedy). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take the beginning of The Gospel According to St. Mark. Despite the title there is nothing in the text itself to tell us who the author was. This is most unlike most ancient works of history. Usually the historian is keen to introduce himself from the start in order to establish his credibility with his readers. He wants readers to know who he is and why they should believe his ensuing narrative. The ancient historian normally explains from the outset how he comes to know his stuff. What are his sources, even if in a generalized way. The whole point is to give readers a reason to read his work and take it as an authoritative contribution to the topic.

The Gospel of Mark does indeed begin by giving readers a reason to believe in the historicity of what follows, but it is has more in common with an ancient poet’s prayer to the Muses calling for inspiration and divinely revealed knowledge of the past than it does with the ancient historian’s reasons.

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger . . . .

That’s the reason the reader knows what follows is true. It was foretold in the prophets. What need we of further witnesses?

Yes, some ancient historians did from time to time refer to a belief among some peoples in an oracle. But I can’t off hand recall any who claimed the oracle was the source or authority of their narrative. I have read, however, several ancient novels where divine prophecies are an integral part of the narrative and do indeed drive the plot. Events happen because a divine prophecy foretold them. That’s what we are reading in Mark’s Gospel here from the outset, not unlike the ancient novel by Xenophon of Ephesus, The Ephesian Tale, in which the plot begins with and is driven by an oracle of Apollo.

Note, too, how the two lead characters in the opening verses are introduced. read more »