Brief Primer on Narrative Criticism – Some Objections

For the naysayers of Narrative Criticism (NC) here are your objections to the usefulness of NC as a hermeneutical method. Let it be known that every critical method has their set of objections and shortcomings. I do not claim that NC is the only and best method, rather I enjoy how it allows the exegete to read biblical texts (especially the Gospels) in a new way previously ignored in the history of critical methods (e.g., form criticism, redaction criticism, source criticism and so forth). However, I will save the advantages of NC and responses to the objections of NC in a later post. (I am taking this from a section of my unpublished MTS thesis pages 36-40).

Critics of narrative criticism raise three major arguments against the usefulness of narrative criticism as a critical method for interpreting the gospels. First, the gospels are historical documents rooted in history and must be read as such. Second, it is anachronistic to apply modern literary techniques, like those applied to The Lord of the Rings, to ancient literature. Third, Mark’s Gospel is a redacted theological document not intended to be read as an organic whole. Although, there are further critique’s against the usefulness of narrative criticism, these three major arguments highlight the disadvantages of narrative criticism, which may lead to poor interpretation of Mark’s Gospel.(1)


The first issue to be considered is the claim that “[n]arrative criticism rejects or ignores the historical witness of the Gospels”2 treating them as works of literature. Thus, reading Mark’s Gospel as literature reduces it to a work of fiction, removed from its historical roots. According to the modern critic of narrative criticism, turning these historical events into mere stories(3) implies that Mark’s Gospel is a fable and undermines the truth of its message.(4) Powell says, “[h]istorical critics sometimes complain that it treats texts as mere stories rather than as records of significant moments in history.”(5) Thus, the argument that the Gospels are historical documents (6) asserts that the gospels are not works of literature, and must be read as historical documents. Therefore, it is highly problematic to interpret Mark’s Gospel as one would Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.


The second issue against narrative criticism is that it applies modern literary techniques upon the text under interpretation. Opponents criticize narrative critics for using modern techniques on ancient literature (7) without regard of the historical nature of the ancient texts, or how a first-century reader might have understood the text. “Narrative criticism imposes modern literary techniques to ancient literature,” which creates confusion between non-biblical and biblical literature. (8) Ben Witherington III asserts, “Mark is not a work of ancient or modern fiction, and this means that some things which apply especially to modern fiction do not apply to Mark.” (9) Malbon agrees, “stories may be historical, fictional, or historical fiction – although this categorization is anachronistic when applied to first-century texts.” (10) Thus, narrative critics must be cognizant of narrative criticism’s tendency to use modern literary techniques, (11) which might not apply to a text written in the first-century. (12)

The third major argument against narrative criticism is that Mark’s Gospel is a redacted document, and therefore, cannot be read as unified narrative. Mark’s Gospel, (including Matthew, Luke and John), is a collection of stories, sayings and tradition of a theological nature pieced together by the author(s) from various sources. (13) Therefore, Mark’s Gospel should not be interpreted as a unified whole. “In creating his Gospel, Mark has taken stories about Jesus, many out of the oral tradition, and fashioned a narrative which moves and develops.” (14) The writers of the gospels reconstructed the story of Jesus in such a way as to communicate a distinctive theological message. (15) According to Ernest Best, one’s interpretation of Mark’s Gospel begins with redaction criticism. (16) Therefore, since Mark’s Gospel is a well-crafted collage gathered from various available sources, this implies that his gospel should not be read as a piece of ancient literature. Rather, Mark’s Gospel is a redacted collection of historical events written to deliver a theological message. (16) Redaction criticism “discovered that the Gospel-writers were much more than mere compilers; they were genuine authors in their own right, each with a distinctive theological message to communicate.” (18)

Footnotes:

1. I believe that it is wise to know the arguments of a critical method to be aware of the errors critics make, such as depreciating “the religious value of a text in favor of its aesthetics, even if sometimes this is done to correct a past imbalance in the other direction” (Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, 71). See also Rhoads, Reading Mark, 28-29; and Christopher Tuckett, Reading the New Testament: Methods of Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 174-75. However, “[p]ostmodern critics say that ancient works and even modern fiction cannot be a unified whole, rather, texts are not unified and are full of gaps, multiple meanings, and the like” (David M. Rhoads Reading Mark, Engaging the Gospel [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004], 29).

2. Mark Allen Powell, What is Narrative Criticism, 96

3. Rhoads, Reading Mark, 27.

4. Powell, What is Narrative Criticism, 96. Powell refutes this argument in his book and says, “[n]arrative criticism demands that the modem reader have the historical information that the text assumes of its implied reader” (97).

5. Powell, “Narrative Criticism,” 253. Contra Rhoads, who argues, “by emphasizing the integrity of the narrative, one is able to enter the fictional world of the story. By using the term ‘fiction,’ I do not mean to deny that Mark used sources rooted in history or that his story does not reflect historical events of Jesus’ day. Rather, by ‘fiction’ I mean to suggest that in the end the narrative world of the story is a literary creation of the author and has an autonomous integrity” (Narrative Criticism,” 413). See also Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, 30. Thus, Mark’s Gospel can be read as a unified whole with all the events, triads, repetitions and so forth working together to create a story that follows Aristotle’s model of beginning, middle and end.

6. This argument raises two questions. First, should we or can we read Mark as both a literary and historical document. Second, how is this done without sacrificing one to the other? I would argue that the narrative critical approach I am using synthesizes both concerns. The assumed author writes about historical events in a literary fashion, not necessarily in a strict linear fashion often associated with a biography. Mark uses creative license to shape historical events for literary effect. Determining what that literary effect is, is the task of the narrative critic.

7. Powell, What is Narrative Criticism, 93. He also adds, “[i]t is important to recognize distinctions between modern and ancient literature, and narrative critics may sometimes fail to do so” (93).

8. David M. Gunn, “Narrative Criticism,” in To Each its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application, ed. Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 193.

9. Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 56.

10. Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, Hearing Mark: A Listeners Guide (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002), 4.

11.David M. Gunn, “Narrative Criticism,” in To Each its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application, ed. Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993)

193. Gunn argues that narrative critics need to be aware of this argument as they perform their analysis of first century texts.

12. Powell, “Narrative Criticism,” 254.

13. Witherington III, 16-17. Witherington notes, “[t]he strong evidence that Mark is presenting a biography of Jesus means that he will have proceeded like other ancient biographers in the gathering and use of sources” (16); and Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8, 59-62. Strecker asserts, “Mark writes as a member of his community. Mark’s redactional messianic secret must therefore be seen in connection with the kerygma of the evangelist’s community” (57). Bilezikian seems to not be concerned if Mark used sources, rather he is concerned with how Mark uses his sources. “The comparative brevity of Mark cannot be explained merely in terms of the limited amount of sources available to him. The very diversity of the birth narratives, the genealogies, the resurrection appearances in Matthew and Luke attest to the richness of early tradition” (G. G. Bilezikian, The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977] 134).

14. James L. Bailey, “Perspectives on the Gospel of Mark,” Perspectives 12, no. 1 (Fall 1995): 25. For a redaction critic’s analysis of a portion of Mark’s Gospel see Norman R. Petersen, “The Composition of Mark 4:1-8:26,” Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2 (Jan-Apr 1980): 185-217.

15. Stephen Smith, A Lion with Wings: A Narrative-Critical Approach to Mark’s Gospel (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 15. In Smith’s book, he briefly outlines a history of biblical criticism and the development of narrative criticism.


16. Ernest Best, “Mark’s Preservation of the Tradition (1974),” in The Interpretation of Mark, ed. William R. Telford (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Ltd., 1995), 153. He says further, “we should think not of an author but of an artist creating a collage” (163).

17. Francis J. Moloney, Mark: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 24. “According to Wrede, the Markan story of Jesus was not primarily a reliable history, and had never been intended to be such. It had been written out of a theological conviction, and for a theological and evangelical purpose” (Moloney, 24).

18. Smith, A Lion with Wings, 15.

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