The Western world has changed dramatically during the latter half of the twentieth century. Biblical interpretation has not avoided these major changes, though the affects have been largely overlooked. According to Douglas Estes in Literary Approaches to the Bible, “the interpretation of the Bible underwent a notable shift such as has happened only occasionally over the last few thousand years.”
Specifically, the Bible began to be read “not just as a religious or historical document but also as a literary text.” The shift was from a historical-critical method to a more literary-critical one. That is, the Bible began to be read with the same tools used to other works of literature.
How do we look at the text?
When the text itself began to be a primary focus of attention, interpreters asked several questions: Do we try to reconstruct the author? Or do we keep our focus on the text alone? What about how the text has been read by others? What if we read the text in light of various historical, societal, or political contexts? This led to other sub-approaches:
- An author-focused approach looks behind the text to reconstruct the author, his world, and thought. Key examples would be Biographical Criticism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, and Phenomenological Criticism.
- A text-focused approach keeps its focus squarely at the text itself. Rhetoric, Narratology, Semiotics, and New Criticism are examples of this approach.
- A reader-focused approach looks in front of the text to understand how it has impacted the reader(s). Example of this approach are Reader-Response Criticism and Reception History.
- A context-focused approach looks to the side of the text by placing it against other contexts to see how the two may interact. This approach is seen in Literary History, Marxist Literary Theory, Feminist and Gender Studies, and Cultural Criticism.
Though the literary approach to the Bible developed alongside postmodernism, it ironically finds much alignment with ancient interpreters. “The concerns of the earliest interpreters of Scripture seem in some ways more attuned to a postmodern literary approach than modern historical reductionism.” What’s more, these literary tools find much in common with the origins of Western literary criticism itself. That is, “postmodern literary theory in some ways represents a (re)turn toward the inspiration of texts (in the nonreligious sense of the word).”
Contributions and Limitations
There are at least two positive contributions provided by a literary approach to Scripture. First, “this approach renewed interest in the text itself” rather than a myopic interest in historical matters that lie behind the text. Second, there is a renewed interest on the text’s reception, whether that of an individual reader, community, or the broader context in which it is read.
Despite the progress that the literary approach has provided, it has at least four limitations. First, it is a very fragmented approach. There is no one literary approach, nor firm agreement on the “rules.” Second, while a literary approach may appear simpler than a historical one, the theories and philosophies that lie behind a literary approach add to its own complexity. Third, the postmodern shift away from hoping to find pure objective history has sometimes led to privileging ideology in interpretation. Fourth, sometimes a literary approach is an excuse to “dodge” important historical questions. The student should not appeal to a literary approach in order to simply punt on historical questions.
A faithful reader of a text should use the tools most applicable to addressing the concerns raised by it.