Some have observed that there is something inherently odd if not outright contradictory about the label “New Historicism.” The word “history” conjures up images of what is old, what has come before now, what is past. The concept of “new,” on the other hand signals the novel, what is to come, what we can expect in the future. To complicate matters further, New Historicism arose among a group of literary critics who claimed to be committed to making a difference in the present. So what is the New Historicism? (See Hens-Piazza 2002, from which portions of this article have been taken with permission of the publisher.)

During the first half of the twentieth century, traditional historical criticism held sway in biblical studies as the dominant mode for the interpretation of texts. Here, factors external to the text were considered integral in the production of meaning. Authorial intention, context, sources, editorial process, and literary form constituted the locus of study. A host of historical approaches developed for systematic analysis of these factors in the service of interpretation. Many of these methods are still practiced today. Specialization in historical studies continued to grow, reaping important gains. Biblical scholars regularly began to rub shoulders and collaborate with colleagues in other areas of the humanities. These influences and exchanges became especially evident in the second half of the twentieth century.

Mirroring shifts in the larger academy, historical methods of interpretation eventually gave way to literary approaches in the biblical field. The rise of various methods from schools of literary criticism created what some termed a “paradigm shift” and what others labeled as a “revolution” in biblical interpretation. Meaning, once tied to the text in relation to its context, was now consigned to the text alone. Analysis of the biblical stories for literary coherence, rhetorical elements, narrative design, deep structures, poetics, and all other kinds of literary pursuits challenged the sovereignty of historical critical inquiry. In 1992 Mark Allen Powell’s anthology of modern literary studies on the Bible attested to the burgeoning status of the literary field. Cataloging research from the 1970s to 1990s, Powell identified well over a thousand studies on biblical texts that employed a vast array of literary methods. And these studies were matched in number by other explorations that discussed the theoretics of literary approaches to the Bible by biblical scholars and literary critics alike. Given the dramatic shift from historical explorations to a literary focus, the rise of a literary school called New Historicism on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1980s was somewhat of an anomaly at first glance. Even more disconcerting was the lack of agreement about what to call it.

While the term New Historicism can be traced to an essay by Michael McCanles in 1980, Stephen Greenblatt, the chef d’école of the movement in the United States, claims to have coined the label somewhat arbitrarily (Greenblatt 1982, pp. 3–6). Earlier, in his Renaissance Self-Fashioning, which is generally taken as the programmatic work in this area, Greenblatt described his way of working as a “poetics of culture” (Greenblatt 1980. p. 5). Others had other labels. “The new history,” “historical-materialist criticism,” “cultural materialism,” and “critical historicism” were among the candidates. Lee Patterson even went so far to observe that “no single label can be usefully applied to the historicist enterprise as a school, least of all the already assigned, hotly contested, and irredeemably vague ‘New Historicism’ ” (Patterson 1990, p. 1).

This reticence about what to call it was not the only oddity about the new literary activity. There was an intrinsic resistance among its practitioners to setting forth an operational definition that might domesticate this literary nova for straightforward public consumption. Greenblatt referred to New Historicism as a “trajectory” rather than a “set of beliefs” (Greenblatt 1990, p. 3). Louis Montrose called it an “orientation” rather than a prescription of practices in interpretation (Montrose 1986, p. 6). Joel Fineman defined it as an “intellectual posture” (Fineman 1989, p. 52). And Catherine Gallagher described it as a “phenomenon of apparent political indeterminacy” (Gallagher 1989, p. 37). Yet a common thread runs through all this reticence. At the start, New Historicism is best comprehended as less a theory and certainly not a method of interpretation. Adopting Daniel Boyarin’s suggestion, New Historicism might be aptly understood as a sensibility or perspective on literature (Boyarin 1996, pp. 118–141). It views texts as caught up in the social processes and contexts out of which they emerge. Though identified with a single author, texts are generated by a community. One community produces a text while another community interprets the text. Hence the text is constantly under production.

As a sensibility rather than a method, New Historicism views literature (including the biblical texts) as integrally tied to and identified with other material realities—cultural practices, relics, data from a context, and the like—that make up social contexts. Of interest here is how historical, social, economic, biographical, sexual, aesthetic, and psychological forces are disclosed by this material evidence. New Historicism investigates these forces by crossing disciplinary boundaries, venturing into such territories as economics, medicine, and psychology to offer its interpretations.

As sensibility, New Historicism views literature and history as essentially the same. Traditionally, a constructed history formed the stable backdrop against which unstable literary texts were read and interpreted. New Historicism abandons these distinctions between literature and history. It views both as story and involved in the fashioning of each other. Hence, distinctions between foreground and background, superstructure and substructure, cultural reality and mirror image no longer function to delineate the boundary between a story and its context. Instead, literature and social context are thought to reside in a dynamic relationship of mutual shaping and defining of one another. How literature impacts the construction of social context on the pages of history and how social context impacts the production of literature defines New Historicism’s interests.

Finally, as sensibility, New Historicism presumes that all constructions of the past are intimately tied to the present. Thus, it resists hard and fast distinctions that separate now/then, author/reader, what the text meant/what the text means, and even composition/interpretation. All these long-standing categories that separate and reinforce distinctions between the past and present begin to erode in the New Historicist’s view.

Antecedents of a New Historicism.

Tracing the development of New Historicism crafts one of many stories that could be told about it. If an identifiable theoretical base could be established for the tenacious resistance to theory among New Historicists, it would most certainly be the work of Michel Foucault (Sheridan 1980). In the years immediately preceding its identification in the Department of English Literature of the University of California at Berkeley, Michel Foucault, a reluctant theorist himself, was a visiting professor there. Foucault laid the basis for a New Historicism with his emphasis on literature as discourse, his insistence on history as made up of numerous discourses, and his explorations of the relationship between discourse and power (Poster 1979, p. 93). New Historicists also manifest a theoretical kinship with Marx. The frequent preoccupation with struggle, contestation, and power relations in texts and the social processes that produced them suggests the Marxist influence (Althusser 1971, pp. 123–173; Eagleton 1976; Machery 1978). Moreover, this turn toward the social processes involved in a history’s production suggests a great deal of anthropological torque. The influence of anthropologist Clifford Geertz and his approach to culture with “thick description” echoes resoundingly across essays by New Historicists (Geertz 1973, pp. 3–30). As Geertz studies culture as text, New Historicists study texts as culture.

Finally, this movement acknowledges the influence that feminists and voices of the tri-continental world (a term sometimes used to refer to Africa, Latin America, and Asia) have had in their persistent attention to articulated hierarchies of value and power resident in texts. These currents nudge New Historicism to attend to voices excluded from the texts. It investigates the fragmentary elements of a story. It takes seriously a passing comment of a character. It fixes its gaze upon unanswered questions and the places in the text that lack cohesion.

Consequently, as New Historicism gained momentum across the academic terrain of the 1980s, it hosted a range of practitioners that extended beyond the confines of departments of literature. It included those interested in feminism, Marxism, ethics and cultural studies, and history as well as literature. Though separated by different disciplines, what joined together this loose if not aberrant confederacy of critics was their return to history after a long exile and their lively production of a new historicism.

Recurring Features of a New Historicism.

Unlike a method of interpretation, no blueprint or set of steps exists for how to proceed in conducting a New Historicist study of a biblical text. Still, the situation is not hopeless. In the New Historicist’s studies on Renaissance literature several features recur often enough to suggest characteristic proclivities of the enterprise. Three of them are discussed here.

First, New Historicist studies frequently involve ways of reading and interpreting that look less at the center and more at the borders of a story or literary work. Instead of pursuing rhetorical integrity or literary unity, New Historicism attends to the cracks, the undersides, and signs of disarray latent in a work. Convinced that whole readings are but a self-satisfying illusion, New Historicism opts for more fragmentary kinds of considerations. Resisting the tendency to integrate dominant images, dialogues, and characters into a single master discourse, it attends to fleeting references, incongruities, or unanswered questions resident at the edges or margins of the text. For example, instead of focusing on whether King Josiah’s religious reform (2 Kgs 24) was religiously grounded or politically motivated, New Historicism might wonder about the peasants who lost their jobs when the king ordered the dismantling of the local shrines. Instead of being captivated by the details of this king’s centralization of cult, it would inquire about how hierarchical forms of power become the enabling conditions of such detailed representations. Attention to such borders often discloses a complicated past that resists the coherence of reigning historical reconstructions, while unaddressed questions lurking in the margins disrupt the artificial integrity of unified reading. Rather than producing an outcome that conforms to the monological tendencies of traditional historical or even literary interpretations, New Historicism uncovers “a past of competing voices, values and centers of power.…” (Rosenberg 1989, p. 376).

This focus on the edges or more fragmentary elements of a text leads easily to a second recurring feature—a focus on the tensions and struggles in text. New Historicism theorizes the relation between the material/political world on the one hand and the textual/representational world on the other and the way they closely and mutually fashion one another. Influenced by Foucault, New Historicism assumes a concept of discourse that comingles the linguistic, cultural, sociopolitical, and material realms. And it is within this comingling that echoes of struggle, contestations, and tension can be heard. All texts are caught up in the complex and contestatory processes by which a society defines and maintains its organization and its institutions, as well as its self-understanding. All societies are caught up in the struggles whereby one segment of culture defines itself as dominant. In the process, segments of culture construct discourses that distinguish themselves from a subservient segment defined as “the other.”

For example, a story that celebrates a monarch’s wisdom such as the tale of Solomon and the Two Mothers (1 Kgs 3:16–28) probably represents reality in a way that serves the interests of dominant culture. Girded with the gift of wisdom bestowed by none other than God, the king adjudicates between two women subjects arguing before him. In contrast to the one woman’s frantic, wordy oration and the forensic deadlock evoked when both women speak, the king practices an economy of words. In Hebrew, his two-worded command, “Bring me the sword” (3:24), not only elicits immediate obedience but also ruptures the impasse of the women’s wordy exchange. While the women speak more words than the king, his words count more in the story. While the women are portrayed as incapable of resolving their differences, the king dislodges the deadlock. Thus, this contrast in characterization between the women and the king suggests the tension. The depiction of these subjects as women and then as harlots contrasts sharply with and distances them from the depiction of the sovereign as male and as “wise king.” Here, the biblical texts participate in constructing and reinforcing a version of reality that represents a dominant culture within which members of a subservient culture understand themselves. Furthermore, a New Historicist reading might inquire why the women here and elsewhere in the biblical tradition are depicted at odds with one another in stories that address and illustrate the sovereignty of kings, especially those whose rule is questionable (for example, Jehoram and the Two Cannibal Mothers 2 Kgs 6:24–33). Or to put it another way, New Historicists might inquire whether women working together pose a threat to maintaining the hierarchical elevation of sovereigns (Hens-Piazza 1998, pp. 91–104). But the struggle in the texts is not confined to the works themselves. Those who read, interpret, and preach the biblical texts down through the ages participate in these contestations.

Third, New Historicist studies are marked by their attention to the interests, voices, and forces that crisscross and rebound across cultures and across generations. New Historicism recognizes that the questions we ask of the past are invariably tied to the questions we ask about the present as we make our way toward the future. In fact, the crux of our orientation toward texts resides within this explicit entanglement of past, present, and future. Hence, New Historicism investigates the multitude of forces, the myriad of voices, the variety of interests and concerns that traverse and synapse along the continuum of history and within the web of culture. Attention to these exchanges as we read and write about the past in the present enables us to envision change in the future. As Daniel Boyarin notes, while we cannot change the past, we can change our understanding of the past. This in turn enables us to live differently in the present and “puts us on a trajectory of empowerment for transformation” for the future (Boyarin 1986, pp. 118–141).

With this orientation, biblical texts are not identified with one particular group or author in the past. Instead, they are viewed as acts of engagement with a vast and ever-changing reality made up of different and even opposing beliefs, values, biases, and investments. As representations of such a reality, a text both bears witness to, and is imprinted with, the complexity of its fashioning. When a text arrives in our lap, it bears the accumulation of effects from its own production as well as all of its former receptions. Needless to say, these two processes are difficult to separate. As the text moves across generations, cultures, and even religious traditions, it absorbs the amalgam of these influences. For example, as the tradition of the Exodus/Settlement in the Land has made its way across generations, it has narrated the liberation of the Israelites from bondage at one time, the early Christians’ escape from the enemy of death at another, and most recently the release of Latin Americans from political oppressors. At the same time, it has attested to the terrible fate of the Canaanites, the anti-Judaic strands that helped fuel contempt for the Jews, and even the fate of the Native Americans in the face of Manifest Destiny.

Gradually, the complexity of these interchanges spans spatio-temporal webs of time, place, peoples, and culture in the ongoing production and reception of a text. Subjectivity in the production thus spills over into subjectivity in reception. This slippage not only obscures the distinction between production and reception but also between text and reader and between past and present.

Perils and Prospects of a New Historicism.

For some, the machinations of a New Historicism and other such orientations (Post Modernism, Cultural Studies, etc.) signal perils. Collapsing the distinction between the world of the text and the world of the reader risks abandoning the long hallowed distinction between “what the text meant” and “what the text means.” It allows for the comingling of what some still assume to be the objective investigation of historical studies with the subjective bias of the reader’s contemporality. It risks tainting the exegesis of the text with what might become an exegesis of the reader and the reader’s context.

For others, the perils of a New Historicism lie in the boundaryless disciplinary horizons of inquiry that such an orientation allows. Instead of confining history’s lens to matters of the past and its constructions, a New Historicism risks broadening the scope of investigation to include such questions as: Whose history does criticism relate? What transactions take place in the ancient and contemporary context in history’s production? How does that history get told? Who is empowered to do the telling? What changes in the social fabric does biblical studies effect or fail to effect? For those who sense peril on the horizon of a New Historicism, anything beyond a one-dimensional totalizing explanation of history, context, or even the biblical text itself becomes suspect.

Unlike the justifications for the rise of many new methods or approaches, the prospects and interests in New Historicism do not stem from the assessment of how past and current methods have failed. The harvest from traditional historical methods and the harvest from the variety of literary approaches in biblical studies have been richly successful. But as the parameters of individual historical methods are defined and the theoretical boundaries of newer literary and cultural approaches are sketched, the gap between these two arenas widens. The possibility of arriving at an integrated grasp of our subject fades. Synchronic approaches seem at odds with diachronic methods. A focus on context contrasts with a focus on text. Literary analysis frequently involves setting aside the research and conclusions of historical critics. Different approaches to interpretation engender polarization as to the determinacy or indeterminacy of meaning. While such disagreements can be productive, they can also encourage fragmentation. Methodological specialization in biblical studies often seems to have bred methodological ghettos. Even during this first decade of the twenty-first century, biblical studies still appears to be a profession of specialists, refining and defending their methods, parsing these sophisticated approaches further into subspecialties.

Along with other newer orientations, New Historicism resists such specialization. It crosses boundaries separating the different disciplinary specializations and ignores the dividing line between the world of the text and the world of the reader. It invites critics to address the political consequences, economic ramifications, social functions, and the ethical import of the texts in both their historical and their contemporary contexts. It assumes that any social historical construction that one might compose is not only founded upon a production of the past but also resulting in a production about and by a reader. Consequently, such a construction must be seen in relation to the ancient writing and the contemporary reading as well as the ideological and institutional agendas that lie behind the writing and the reading practices.

One final explanation looms large explaining the appeal and the need for a New Historicism. Whether in the biblical guild or at the level of the institutions where biblical studies is taught—colleges, universities, communities, seminaries—a sea change has taken place in how business is conducted. The homogenous character of these institutions has all but vanished. Under the banner of cultural diversity, the curricula, pedagogy, administrative models, and even financial packages have had to undergo major renovation. Globalization has given way to world systems, world economy, global frames of knowledge, and a demand for new ways of knowing and understanding. The emphasis on specialization has been supplanted by the urgent need to prepare persons to participate in this global setting. Educational institutions themselves have become “markets of exchange.” Whether engaged in the study of complex moral issues, questions of doctrine, or a challenging biblical passage, students are constantly exchanging information across national, ethnic, cultural, sexual, and class borders and attending to the cultural transactions at the heart of these exercises. Instead of mastering a specialized pool of knowledge, students learn how religious knowledge transmutes into forms of political power and back again. In concert with appreciating the biblical text as a confessional or an aesthetic work, students must learn how these texts can also function as oppressive or hegemonic forces.

The appeal of a New Historicism in biblical studies is thus more than the product of a theoretical argument in literary studies. Rather, its rise is seeded by changes in the very institutions where it is being practiced. Exchange and negotiation across the cultural histories and identities of seminary and university population concerning the very cultural histories and identities in the biblical writings are at the heart of our efforts. We cannot do otherwise in a world where boundary crossing has become requisite not only for economics, politics, and communication, but for ministry, for biblical and theological understandings, and for knowledge itself.


Described here as a sensibility, New Historicism motivates a reclaiming of history but with an awareness of the entanglements of the present embedded in every account of the past. Literature, as a medium for this return to the historical, is scrutinized as a site of struggle both in its production and in its reception. This rivets attention upon the diverse and contentious rather than upon the uniform and coherent within texts. For example in the programmatic tale of Abraham and the Three Visitors at Mamre (Gen 18:1–16), New Historicism might fix upon the question left unanswered in that narrative, “Why did Sarah laugh?” In the account of Solomon’s business dealings with Hiram, it might turn attention away from these major players and wonder about the residents of the towns that were given away by this king in exchange for bronze and gold (1 Kgs 9:10–14). In the conflict between kings and prophets, it investigates the passing mention of those very minor characters, for example servants, laborers, virgins, daughters, the crowd, and others whose stories are never told. In the process, New Historicism discloses the widest variety of ways for speaking about the past as well as accommodates the greatest number of possible strategies for conducting these orations. Along these lines, New Historicism not only charts new territory but shares this space as common ground with other movements within and outside the biblical field. Feminist studies, postcolonial studies, cultural studies, and ideological investigations partake in some of New Historicism’s interests and strategies, as well as approach texts with similar sets of assumptions. Moreover, they define themselves more readily as orientations rather than codified methods that objectively operate on texts.

Resisting the fracturing that has so characterized the biblical field, New Historicism refuses identification with any method or even any explication of itself as method. Understanding the complexity of the past, New Historicism resists any historicizing of itself that would tie it solely to any one theoretical base or align itself with a single founding figure and his or her work. Aside from a fairly fluid litany of recurring features, New Historicism provides no creed for its practitioners to avow. And as those working with Renaissance studies would readily affirm, New Historicism’s overarching feature is its resistance to definition.

So is New Historicism a mirage? Or is it, in all its variety and non-specificity, a refreshing and optimistic commentary about a growing shift both in the academy and in biblical studies—a shift away from the splintering of methodological specialization that has so characterized the discipline over the past century? As noted, New Historicism readily shares concerns and features with other taxonomies. And while it practices a discourse analysis of literature bent on emancipating voices, highlighting overlooked people and practices, and producing other histories, it seems not to expend much discussion distinguishing itself from these other movements.

No, New Historicism is no mirage. Rather the appeal for a New Historicism in biblical studies at this juncture is symptomatic of another condition. Biblical studies itself is becoming a montage with New Historicism as part of the display. Across this postmodern manifestation of interpretive practices, a growing number of critics have become less interested in distinguishing and defending what they do from the work of other critics. Abandoning the high degree of specialization, they are more interested in crossing methodological and disciplinary borders. They are producing hybrid studies. And while their participation in this market of exchange results in an ever-increasing number of lenses with which to read and interpret the biblical text, they find themselves united not so much by a sameness in their outcomes or methods as by a growing consensus about what they are up to.

Increasingly, critics working on the biblical texts have begun to recognize and claim the political import of what they do when they interpret texts. They understand that there are social consequences tied to the outcomes of their work. Hence, a commitment to work in biblical studies increasingly enjoins a commitment to social change on the part of those who would participate in this practice. Given the recognized influence of the Bible on culture in the past and in the present, a cadre of critics (whether practitioners of New Historicism, postcolonial studies, feminist studies, cultural studies, and so on) determined to be influential on humanity’s future by virtue of what they do with these texts in the present is not a bad prospect for the next era in biblical studies.



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Gina Hens-Piazza