I wanted to follow-up on a recent post I made concerning the Gospels as literary works. I want to layout what I mean by “literary.” When I speak about literary works, I mean to evoke the ideas of purposeful narrative and plot. Pre-modern critics (or “Form Critics”) of the New Testament sought to separate out that material, which they believed to be confessional (early church additions) and historical. In the wake of this dissection of texts, Jesus became split. The pre-modern critics believed certain texts either spoke of the “Jesus of faith” (the early church’s fabrication) or the “Historical Jesus” (historical information about Jesus with no embellishments). The Gospels writers (especially Mark) were rendered mere editors, collecting traditions of Jesus and placing them side-by-side. At the center of this methodological approach is an attempt to get to the world behind the text. However, this focus pushed attention away from the Gospel texts themselves. This resulted in speculative historical reconstructions of the Gospel’s function and purpose. For example, scholars were forced to make assumptions about the historical situations of the text without any empirical data according to the Gospel text itself. Speculative historical reconstructions are expected from Form Critics and a recent return to the text itself is much warranted.
The literary approach, often called “narrative criticism,” does not attempt to look at the world behind the text, but instead the world in the text. In this sense, how does the thrust of the narrative move the story forward? How does the narrator position characters to provoke particular responses from his/her readership? For example, one recognizes how the narrator of Mark’s Gospel paints quite a negative picture of Jesus’ family (3:20-35; 6:1-6) while Matthew and Luke are dependent on a positive image of them for their narratives (See the genealogies’ of Jesus; c.f. Mt 1:1-17; Lk 3:23-28). Matthew and Luke leave the reader cheering on the inclusion of Jesus’ family while Mark’s readers may be left with a bad taste in their mouth. We would then be led to ask, as readers, why each narrative chose the path that they did?
Contrary to Form Critics, narrative criticism believes the Gospels are whole in form and not merely a collection of pieced together stories randomly situated. As a whole composition and coherent narrative, this means employment of setting, plot, rhetoric, and character are purposeful, and therefore require careful examination. I will give one brief example from Mark’s Gospel:
Mark 2:3-7 (NRSV)
3 Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
I have only selected a brief section of a larger textual unit (Mk 2:1-12), but I did so to give at least a little context. I have bolded the scribes who were “questioning in their hearts” the actions of Jesus. How do we as readers become privy to this information? The scribes do not tell us, nor does Jesus reveal it (the latter is what most of us assume). In fact, it is the Markan narrator who stands outside of the limitations of space and time, and in this sense takes an omniscient role revealing even the insights of the hearts of the scribes. The narrator here is not the same as the “author,” for the narrator is embedded within the story by the author for storytelling purposes such as we see in the verse. Here the narrator paints a particular picture of the scribes for the implied readers (us) that nobody within the actual story (characters; i.e. “crowd,” “paralyzed man,” etc.) gets insight to. Here the narrator seeks to elicit a response from us! In fact, he is setting up the character of the scribes for the entire course of the narrative. Notice, how the scribes take a predominately negative role throughout the Gospel of Mark (Mk 2:6, 16; 3:22; 7:1, 5; 9:14; 11:18, 27; 12:28, 32; 14:1, 43, 53; 15:1, 31) except for one instance (Mk 12:34). The scene is set for the implied readers, and is intentionally done so.