Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of literary approaches to biblical interpretation can improve the understanding of the Bible. The literary approaches “would appear to have the greatest potential for shedding light on the task of biblical hermeneutics.”
There are many types of hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation. Historical, language-based, typological and literary are a few mentioned by many biblical theologians and texts. This paper will explore literary hermeneutics, a method “of major importance to the correct interpretation of Scripture.” This type of interpretation questions the nature and content of the language used in the original writing. It explores how and why the original writer tried to communicate to the listener or reader. It examines the intent or purpose of the original writer. It asks what the writer was trying to say and why. The subject of literary genre is also explored.
The question of what type of biblical interpretation is one worthy of discussion. There are many choices as “life was once relatively simple in the land of hermeneutics.” “Evangelicals are witnessing a paradigm shift in how biblical scholars study and discuss the Bible.” This shift involves a “growing awareness that much of the Bible is literature.” Others in the theological community see this idea as “another liberal intrusion” into biblical study. This presentation of the strengths and weaknesses of a literary approach to hermeneutics will show this concern to be of little merit.
The most important views on literary interpretation will first be presented and discussed. Relevant biblical text that support or do not support this method will be presented and discussed.
A critical evaluation of the technique will then be presented followed by a conclusion. The most important views and supporters of the literary interpretation of the Bible will be the first step.
MOST IMPORTANT VIEWS
The literary approach to biblical interpretation involves “studying the form of a text as opposed to its content.” It also studies a text in its final and complete form, as compared with other methods that may dissect or examine passages in small pieces. There are multiple types of literary hermeneutics.
This approach may examine the genre of a passage, literary features, micro-structure and grammatical elements. “Some these are very traditional categories, others are newcomers.” These approaches can also be “bracketed” into ahistorical or antihistorical approaches. Literary interpretation may take into account the historical setting or ignore that setting.
Some scholars approach literary hermeneutics from a single perspective. Northrup Frye is will know for his approach to the entire Bible from the perspective of myth or metaphor. He interprets the Old Testament flood as myth as well as Samson’s killing of 1000 Philistines. The writings of Paul and the sayings of Jesus are metaphor, using Frye’s method. He regards the entire Bible as “story form.”
An important view or characteristic of literary interpretation is that it “will focus on a whole cluster of issues associated” with an individual biblical writer. It looks not only on a passage in its entirety but also as a writer from the same perspective. Some methods combine both of these methods. Literary hermeneutics focuses “on the text as a whole, how the story is told and it effect upon the reader.” It attempts to look at the whole picture, taking into account the whole of the passage, the whole of the work of the individual writer and the whole effect of this writer’s work on his reader.
The Bible as literature is not a modern, but a more time tested approach. High school classes using the Bible as literature is ranked in the top ten of the most commonly offered high school English courses even today, when many schools across America seek to be as nonreligious or secular as possible. In past centuries, many colleges and universities, religious and secular, required study of different parts of the Bible as literature as a normal part of the study of literature. Only Shakespeare was more common. Biblical writing is rich in opportunities to study “concepts of plot, character, setting, point of view and diction that may be more useful than more glamorous and sophisticated theories.”
The literary approach to biblical interpretation may be used as one alternative of hermeneutics by some theologians but by using “literary artifice as the Bible’s primary characteristic.” Some theologians see it as the only successful method. The Bible may be completely “unique literature,” indicating that the literary approach is the only accurate method of understanding its true meaning.
Those who hold this view also see the Bible as a systematic form of literature. It is a “self-enclosed system, woven together with language, myth, typology and metaphor to create a meaningful whole.” In other words, the literature of the Bible may be studied without regard to literature of any other type, or by using the Bible as the standard for literature. If the theologian regards the scripture as inerrant, or without error, they must also see the Bible as “literary texts of truth.” It should be studied as a completely unique work of literature, studied “without regard to its background or context.”
There are three common principles common to most methods of literary hermeneutics. Approaching biblical literature from the perspective of the author, text and reader are these fundamental principles. Biblical literature functions as either historical, theological, doxological, didactic, aesthetic or entertainment. Approaching the Bible from these three perspectives while interpreting through these six functions, is the basic literary approach. This concludes the summary of the most important views of literary biblical interpretation. A brief summary of biblical texts that are relevant to this topic will now be presented.
RELEVANT BIBLICAL TEXTS
Of the many genres of literature recognized by the academic community, Tremper Longmann focused on two of the most common types in his writing on the subject of literary hermeneutics. A genre is a “group of tests that bear one or more traits in common with each other.” His analysis of the genres of biblical prose and poetry will be used as the basis for this summary of relevant biblical texts to the subject of literary biblical interpretation.
Longmann’s analytical method examines a genre using the organizing principles of plot, genre, narrator and characterization. Using this approach, there are two relevant passages of biblical prose, on in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament.
I Kings 22:1-38 describes the end of Ahab’s reign over the children of Israel. It has plot and subplot as well as clear examples of biblical prose. The Plot of this passage “may be traced by means of the conflict between the characters of the story.” This is typical of all types of prose, both biblical and secular. There are three significant conflicts in this passage. The war between Israel and Aram provides the setting for the story. The second conflict exists between Micaiah and Zedekiah, a false prophet and a representative of God. The last and “most important conflict” are between Ahab and Micaiah, illustrating a “conflict between the king of Israel and God Himself.” These three conflicts show the war between good and evil, between God and Satan. They illustrate the personal attack of a man of God by Satan. And finally, the potential conflict between God Himself and an individual is shown.
There are three Genres shown in this example of biblical prose. As a didactic history, this passages records the historical events in the last years of Ahab’s reign. As prophetic history, it “is one of the many episodes that center on the ministry of a prophet.” As a prophetic contest story, this passage illustrates the concept of biblical wording that conflict with itself within a single passage. The relationships of these words and concepts within a single story align with the conflicts of the main characters. The genres of this passage show the historical detail needed for a full understanding of a particular passage. The genre analysis approach gives great insight into the full meaning of the passage.
The Narrator of this passage is evident from both his “intrusive comments but also from his management of the dialogue.” The narrator of this passage is unknown and not one of the characters in the story. His comments are present at the beginning and the end of each scene. He is present through the entire passage. This story is given in two biblical sections, Kings and Chronicles. The narrator of this story takes a slightly different approach in the two books but is overall very consistent it the approach. The concept of the narrator in this passage illustrates the ever present power of God in the lives of both believers and non-believers.
The Characterization of this passage is seen in the complex personality of Ahab. He had been introduced earlier in Kings. There is more “textual material on him than any other king except David and Solomon.” He moves from evil and arrogant at the beginning of the story to repentant and humble at the end. Overall, Ahab is “consistently evil.” His character is seen as evolving in his actions and words within the story. There are also good examples of characterization in the roles of both Jehoshaphat and Micaiah in this story.
Summing up the plot, genre, narrator and characterization of this story give the reader the intended message. Each portion of the prose adds to the total, but is necessary to achieve the goal. There is a second passage used as an illustration by Longmann of biblical prose in Acts 10:1-18, the story of the Gentiles coming into the Church. It has the same four components.
Paul’s writing in this passage “centers on the conversion of Cornelius, his relatives and close friends.” The story continues on to influence much of the rest of Acts where Paul deals with the “implications of Gentile inclusion into the church.” This was a very relevant topic to first century Christians, working under the support of Paul to spread the word of Christ past the Jewish community. The Plot of the story is different than the previous passage examined in that this one has “four episodes and two narrative climaxes.” It is four stories within a story, somewhat like the chapters of a novel. There is a climaxing narrative by Paul after the first three episodes then again at the end. The chapters of the story weave the plot together to its final conclusion.
The Genre of the story is a highly debated topic among Paulian theologians. This story and Acts as a whole, falls either into history or romance depending on your point of view. There are certainly historical references and conclusions. There are also certainly romantic or idealistic tones to the plot. Paul is describing what he would like to see in his readers, not necessarily what he is currently seeing.
The Characterization of the story centers around four individuals or groups. Cornelius is the main character. Peter and The Lord are also prevalent players in the story. There is also a group of minor characters, Cornelius’s messengers, his friends and the associates of Peter. All play important parts in the story.
The Narrator is also clearly present, ending the list of literary characteristics found in all literary interpretations of scripture. This story is similar to the story of Micaiah with its third person narrative, “the norm in biblical storytelling.” In this case the narrator is not named. It is assumed to be Paul but that is never stated.
These two examples of prose style literary analysis show the easy application of literary hermeneutics to biblical interpretation. Of the other possible types of literature, Longmann chose poetic analysis with which to illustrate relevant biblical texts and hermeneutic questions. As with prose, the pattern of poetic analysis can also be applied to biblical passages.
“A surprising amount of the Bible is poetic.” It is in both Old and New Testaments, not limited to Psalms and Proverbs as many casual biblical readers might presume. The style and components of poetry are found in many biblical stores. In comparison to prose, poetry uses more parallelism and imagery. Poetry uses less narrative. The three main components of poetry, biblical or secular are terseness, parallelism and imagery. Longmann focused on parallelism and imagery in his illustrative examples. The terseness, or brevity of a passage, can be applied to all forms of literature. Parallelism and imagery are more specific to poetry. Parallelism is the “single major poetic device.” Parallelism is the symmetry of a passage or using repetitive lines to express the same idea. There is semantic and grammatical parallelism, indicating first repetitive use of different words to express the same idea, and then using different grammatical forms within the same story of poem to express the same idea. Imagery is simply using creative words to paint a picture. Overall, this style of literature is intended to reach a conclusion within one story using multiple paths.
Psalm 51:3-6 is a good example of poetic literary style and analysis. It is the very terse, or brief, story of David and his sin with Bathsheba. The Parallelism is easy to see. David uses the words sin and transgressions interchangeably, as well as sin and evil. He also uses righteous and pure in the same semantic parallel contexts. His Imagery is also easy to see, using his own birth and the conception by his mother in parallel in one passage and the concepts of dark and secret places in another. All three components of poetic literature and the resulting poetic literary analysis can be seen in these four verses.
Longmann also uses several other passages to illustrate the presence of poetry and the application of literary hermeneutics through literary analysis to biblical passages. Like his use of prose examples, the poetic examples show direct implication of the literary methods in a biblical setting. With the most important views of literary hermeneutics and biblical examples presented, a critical evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of this method of biblical interpretation will now be presented.
The weaknesses of this method will first be summarized. As with any method of theological interpretation, there are some issues to keep in mind with using this method. First, when treating the Bible as literature, it immediately becomes part the secular world. That should never be the case. Caution should be taken when drawing in “the insights or secular theories of understanding literature” that the Bibles lose it proper status among other written works.
This potential weakness is also a potential barrier to the entry of this method by many. To enter the world of literature is to “encounter the unfamiliar” to many highly educated and well-meaning theologians. While “good biblical expositors and preachers intuitive practice” literary analysis, to actively characterize biblical passages in the same method as secular writing may seem foreign and improper to some. This should not be a barrier to this method but it may prevent many from entering.
There are also many similarities between redaction criticism and literary criticism or interpretation. Redaction focuses primarily on the writer of a work or passage. “The literary critic views the text as an end in itself,” somewhat independent of the writer. Keeping both in mind are important to a final understanding. A weakness of literary analysis may be too much emphasis on the written word without regard for the writer. Both are important.
There is the chance of an additional lack on perspective in terms of the historical setting of a passage using purely literary methods. The historical context of the setting, like to characteristics of the writer is important in understanding the final meaning of a passage. Deeply examining a passage from strictly literary perspectives, with no regard for the historical context or setting of a passage will give a limited understanding of the passage.
Along with potential weaknesses, there are several strengths to this method. “The emphasis on the final form” of a passage is a primary strength of the literary hermeneutics method. Only focuses on a few versus in a text is one of the most mistakes made by both casual biblical readers and serious theologians. Individual passages may be important but it is the final, whole passage within its proper context that leads to the highest level of understanding. Literary interpretation leads the reader to that conclusion.
The harmonization of the Bible is strength of literary interpretation. This method leads the reader to not only understand the whole passage studied but to understand its place in the entire Bible as well. Overall, a “literary approach upholds the integrity” of the entire Bible.
Literary interpretation of the Bible is a valid and productive form of hermeneutics. This paper has attempted to show the major views of the topic give specific biblical references and illustrate both weakness and strengths of the method. It is difficult to deal with such a complex subject in a paper of this length due to the many legitimate characteristics and issues necessary to fully understand the topic. In this brief summary, a preliminary case has been made for the adoption of this method for the serious theologian.
Billington, Antony, “Treasures New and Old: Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation”, Evangel Journal, Autumn, 1995.
Decker, Rodney, J., “Realistic or Historical Narrative? The Question of Historicity in the Context of Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation”, Baptist Bible Seminary Newsletter, November 15, 1999.
Ryken, Leland, “Words of Delight: The Bible as Literature”, Bibliotheca Sacra 147, January 1990.
Silva, Moises, General Editor, Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
Weathers, Robert, “Leland Ryken’s Literary Approach to Biblical Interpretation: An Evangelical Model”, JETS, March 1994.
Longmann, Tremper, III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987.
 Moises Silva, Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), p95.
 Ibid, p98.
 Rodney J. Decker, “Realistic or Historical Narrative?”, Baptist Bible Seminary Newsletter, November 15, 1999, p1.
 Leland Ryken, “Words of Delight: The Bible as Literature”, Bibliotheca Sacra 147, January 1990, p3.
“Robert Weathers, “Leland Ryken’s Literary Approach”, JETS 37/1, Marcy 1994, p115.
 Decker, p2.
 Anthony Billington, “Treasures New and Old: Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation”, EVANGEL, Autumn 1995, p83.
 Ibid, p84.
 Ryken, p4.
 Weathers, p115.
 Ibid, p117.
 Weathers, p118.
 Ibid, p120.
 Silva, p135-136.
 Silva, p141.
 Silva, p160.
 Ibid, p161.
 Ibid, p164.
 Ibid, p167.
 Silva, p168.
 Ibid, p169.
 Ibid, p170.
 Billington, p87.
 Ryken , p5.
 Weathers, p122.