We do so now, and turn to ‘the odd and rather artificial category of “literary readings” of the Bible’ (Jasper 1998: 23). One reason why the term ‘literary criticism’ can confuse is that the classical post-Enlightenment methods of ‘historical criticism’ were in fact largely ‘literary’ (Jasper 1998: 22). In particular, the search for the sources or strands of a text that could be reconstructed (such as J, D, E, and P in the Pentateuch, or Q or Special Matthean material in the gospels) was at one time called ‘literary criticism’ (now more usually ‘source criticism’). But another type of ‘literary-critical’ study of the Bible emerged in the 1970s and 1980s when biblical scholars reacted against what they regarded as the atomistic excesses of precisely those ‘literary’ procedures of form and source criticism, and when notable literary critics, such as Frank Kermode (1979), Robert Alter (1981), Northrop Frye (1982), and Meier Sternberg (1985) published works of biblical interpretation (including the compendium volume, Alter and Kermode 1987). The movement to understand the Bible as literature drew many to seek to read the ‘final form’ of the text as a single, unitary piece of literary art, and to see how it (in translation, as well as in the original language that was the focus of biblical scholarship) created a ‘story world’ which the reader could enter and understand ‘on its own terms’. This scholarship (like ‘rhetorical criticism’, which it often overlaps, as we have noted above) involves a close reading of precise details of the text viewed as a unity (deflecting overemphasis on historical context or the historical information to be gained from it when treated as a source), and appreciates especially the dynamism of the world inside the text, as a system of complex and meaningful interactions among its constituent parts.
It is sometimes claimed that narrative criticism came about when biblical scholars (who knew little about ‘literature’, since they were all trained as ‘historians’) peered over the fence into English departments and learned from those more able critics to jettison their adolescent romance with historical context, and focus instead on ‘the text in itself’. Usually the inhabitants of the world on the other side of the departmental divide are identified with the ‘New Critics’, who in the 1950s and 1960s countered the psycho-biographical focus of Romanticism by insisting that texts should be interpreted ‘on their own terms’ and apart from external data meant to ‘explain’ them, including appeals to authorial identity and intention. There was some common ferment, around the problematic conception of ‘authorial intention’, and through the influence of the French structuralists such as Lévi-Strauss on linguistic and cognitive polarities (see Patte 1990), but not contemporaneity or precise complementarity of concerns. As Stephen Moore cogently demonstrated, there is no exact neighbour on the other side of the fence whose authority as a ‘real literary critic’ can be invoked by New Testament scholars using this method, for the kind of work that biblical scholars are doing with narrative is not precisely like any form of literary criticism then (or now) current (Moore 1989: 11). But even if the ‘secular critic’ who valorized this enterprise was a bit of a fabrication (or at least a strangely imbricated composite robot), with the aid of ‘toned-down theory’ (paraphrasing Moore 1989: 54–5) that has a populist appeal for its comprehensibility and accessibility, scholars did something different in seeking to read entire gospels in a ‘holistic’ way. Reading the Bible as literature meant paying careful attention to things that matter to its internal life, such as its plot, characters, internal tensions, and poetic and metaphorical forms (recall that these are included in Trible's methodology for ‘rhetorical criticism’).
This type of literary criticism was especially congenial to the narrative portions of the Hebrew Bible (the Pentateuch, the Deuteronomistic History), and the gospels and Acts. Viewing the text, regardless of its origins, as a creative composition of an author, scholars sought to investigate the point of view from which the narration ensued, and hence the ‘implied author’ (the authorial presence in the voice of the text) and ‘implied reader’ (one who brings to the task of reading a knowledge of the cultural codes that the author presumed she or he shared with the readers) for whom it seems to have been intended. Such literary criticism seeks to understand the consciously designed plot that animates biblical texts, and the cast of characters who develop (or not) and interact in the course of events, as well as the style and set of rhetorical features with which the story is told, like metaphor, allegory, or irony (Gunn and Fewell 1993; Struthers-Malbon, in Anderson and Moore 1992: 23–49; Powell 1990). Readings like Trible 1978, 1984, 1994, and Berlin 1983 (on the David cycle in 1 and 2 Samuel and the book of Ruth) exemplify the lively possibilities in this approach, as does Kugel 1981, on parallelism in biblical poetry. In the New Testament, the gospels and their individual portraits of Jesus, when seen as narrative constructs, were readily understood as having intricate plots wrapped around such devices as secrecy and disclosure (especially in Mark) and conflict, both between Jesus and his disciples and with religious and political authorities that led to his death (Rhoads et al. 1999: 73–97; Kelber 1979). To some degree this work spilled over from earlier redaction-critical studies, which emphasized the redactor's work as that of a theologian who shaped his inherited materials into a narrative creation that embodied in literary form his portrait of Jesus. What distinguish narrative or literary readings, theoretically, from redaction-critical ones are two main considerations: their choice to leave the historical redactor out of the equation, in favour of the text, since the focus is on what is intrinsic to the narrative itself, independent of the intentionality of any author or editor, and a substitution of ‘the character of Jesus’ for the traditional holy grail of ‘the evangelist's theology’ (however, often the former once found is considered to be the latter). One significant outcome of this scholarship has been an exponential increase in interest in the Gospel of Mark, rescued once by historical critics in the eighteenth century for its possible historical value, and now re- rescued from a reputation for clumsiness by many readings respectful of the enigmatic earliest gospel for its raw emotional power, carefully crafted irony, and its clipped ending, which could now be regarded and interpreted as thoroughly intended for profound literary and theological effect (Kermode 1979; Anderson and Moore 1992; Rhoads et al. 1999). Matthew and John have received similar investigation (e.g. Kingsbury 1988; Culpepper 1983; full literature in Aune 2004: 297–300, 243–9), but to different effect, given their long monologues by Jesus, which can be emplotted and understood according to various meaningful structural outlines. Luke–Acts has increasingly, due to such an approach, been treated as a single literary work with one coherent plot line and unfolding narrative (Tannehill 1986–90; questioned by Parsons and Pervo 1993). As with ‘rhetorical criticism’, the question of which literary theories and sources should inform reading has arisen, leading to mixtures of modern literary approaches with studies of ancient fiction (Pervo, Tolbert) for instance, historiography (discussion in Aune 2004: 280–8), and social-scientific methodologies (Kingsbury 1997; Robbins 1996). There remains much latitude and variety today as to the degree to which literary-critical readings of biblical narrative wish to interact with what can be known about ancient literary culture, depending upon which audience construct (ancient or modern, real or implied) is at the forefront. And the question always haunts the enterprise: is the unity of the text that these readings celebrate one created by the reader, or found there?