Wednesday, October 14, 2020


    Narrative Criticism, according to David Rhoads, is an analysis of the "formal features" of narrative that encompasses such investigations as tone, style, plot, conflict, character, setting, narrator, narrate, point of view, the implied author, the ideal and implied readers, and rhetorical techniques.[1] The discipline has its roots in contemporary literary criticism and, at its best, makes use of ancient narrative theory.[2]  It is a shift away from traditional historical-critical methods to how the text communicates meaning as a self-contained unit, an undivided whole. Of the three main components of a literary work—author, text, reader—narrative criticism focuses primarily on the text.[3]

Emergence of Narrative Criticism: Narrative criticism emerged in the 1970s when redaction critics, accustomed to separating out the changes that Gospel writers made to their sources, began to realize that the Gospel writers were crafting holistic stories meant to have a narrative impact on their audiences. The precursors of narrative criticism are Russian formalism, French structuralism, and New Criticism. In 1982, David Rhoads coined the term “narrative criticism and used this new literary approach to the Gospel of Mark. Also in 1982, David Rhoads and Donald Michie analyzed Mark from a narrative-critical perspective, focusing specifically on the narrator, point of view, literary technique, setting, plot, and character. In 1983, R. Alan Culpepper published a groundbreaking narrative-critical study on the Fourth Gospel. Culpepper was influenced by the literary critic Seymour Chatman who explored the narrative dynamics of a text in terms of its story (the content) and its discourse (the how).[4] By the mid-eighties, there were complete narrative analyses of each of the Gospels and Acts and later turned its attention to the narrative features of the book of Revelation.

Foundations of Narrative Criticism: Narrative criticism shifted the focus from the world outside the text to the story world within the narrative. It also shifted the focus from the history behind the text to the implied audiences in front of the text who were hearing the story. In so doing, narrative criticism moved from an approach that fragments the text to a holistic approach that honors the integrity of the final text.[5]

The Narrative World: The key to understanding narrative criticism is to recognize that the focus is on the world created by the narrative. The world of the story has its own dynamics: cosmology, an historical time with particular cultural realities, settings of time and place, characters, and plot. Each of the Gospels has its own distinct story world. To experience the story world of a Gospel, the whole story needs to be read through from beginning to end. Each Gospel was a first-century narrative; and we interpreters need to make use of what we know of the first century, not by adding information to the story but as a means to help us understand the story better. Therefore, understanding what New Testament writers assumed of their contemporary audiences as a basis for them to grasp the story is not a matter of changing the story but of using social and cultural information to explicate the story world and to understand its potential impacts. The focus remains on the narrative world in its historical context, not on the historical world.[6]

Implied Author and Implied Reader/Hearer: Narrative analysis does not seek to recover the intentions of the actual composer of a Gospel. Author is thought of as a construct implied by all the values and beliefs implicitly put forth by the story. We also do not have access to how actual readers/hearers received a Gospel. Nevertheless, we can infer the implied responses that the story itself suggests for an ideal response to the narrative. Such a construct of implied readers/hearers is a mirror reflection of the implied author in the sense that the implied author is seeking to lead ideal readers/hearers to embrace the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior implicitly promoted by the story.

Narrator and Narratee: : The “narrator” is the one who tells the story to a fictive, idealized audience—the narratee.  The word “Narratee” is coined by Gerald Prince, designates a fictive audience—the person or persons to whom the narrator addresses the narrative. The narratee does not exist outside the text and is reconstructed from the text proper.[7] The implied author has a narrator tell the story. In general, there can be a first person narrator (“I”) who is a character in the narrative world. Or there can be a third person narrator. In the case of the Gospels, apart from a few exceptions such as Luke 1:1–2 and John 21:24–25, the distinct narrators of the different Gospels commonly function in a way that is external to the story world (narrators that are part of the text but not characters in the story); they are omniscient (can tell what is in the minds of characters); and they are not bound by time and place (can go wherever the action is in order to depict what may be in private). A third person narrator guides the hearers by asides—giving to audiences privileged information not known by the characters in the story and demonstrating beliefs and values by which the narrator guides audiences to adopt the point of view of that narrator. The construction of narrator and narratee are simply heuristic devices designed to explore the diverse meaning potential and the various rhetorical possibilities of a narrative. The narrator and narratee need not be identical to the implied author and the implied readers/hearers. However, in the case of the New Testament writings, it is generally assumed that the narrator shares the values and beliefs of the implied author and that the narratee is identical with implied readers/hearers.[8]

Tools for Analyzing the Narrative World: To understand the narrative world, need to analyze the elements like settings, plot, characters, standards of judgment, and rhetoric of the story world.

Settings: is the background of a narrative—the historical, physical, socio-cultural, religious, economic, and temporal circumstances in which the action of the narrative occurs. Setting contributes to the mood of a narrative.[9] They provide the conditions—the possibilities and the limitations—for the events in the story to take place. The historical setting of the New Testament is the Roman occupation of the first century Mediterranean world. Physical settings include different locations. Physical settings include topographical landscape (desert or wilderness; river; lake; sea; mountain; road or way); architectural landscape (temple; house; synagogue; marketplace; garden; sheepfold; tomb; well; praetorium; cities); and geographical landscape (Judea; Samaria; Galilee; “the other side” in Mark 5:1). Socio-cultural settings include meals, rich, poor, “sinners”, leaders, tax collectors, pharisees, sadducees, priests, unclean (lepers), women, children, disabled (lame, crippled, blind), soldiers, centurions. Religious settings include special days and feasts (Sabbath, Passover, Tabernacles)[10]

Plot: is an elusive term and understanding of plot is important to determine the structure, unity, and direction of a narrative. It is the designing principle, the sequence of events or incidents that make up a narrative. Events include actions (or acts) that bring about changes of state in the characters. Or events may be the actions of characters that bring about changes of state in narrative events.[11] Plot is the movement of events in time moving toward either resolution or lack of closure. Plots have a beginning, middle, and end that narrow the choices for characters. Each Gospel has its own distinctive ways of organizing and developing plot. Mark develops his narrative using a journey motif. Matthew plots his Gospel by alternating a series of episodes with five lengthy teachings by Jesus. John has a series of extended episodes around symbols that are correlated with monologues by Jesus about his identity, episodes that are piled one upon another to amplify and trigger an audience’s understanding and experience of Jesus.[12] In analyzing an episode, narrative critics can unpack the dynamics of a story, clarify the flow of the narrative, and suggest what potential impact it may have on audiences.

Characters: are the dramatis personae—the persons in the story—who may be major or minor characters that play a role in the plot. The “protagonist” or hero is the chief character in the plot around whom the action centers. An “antagonist” is a rival or opponent of the protagonist. In the gospels, Jesus is the protagonist while the religious authorities are often pitted against him as the antagonists.[13] The narrator introduces and develops characters in a story in ways that lead audiences to make judgments about them.    Some characters change and develop while others remain stereotypically the same.  In light of all these characteristics, readers/hearers make inferences about the traits and reliability of the characters in the story. Some scholars speak of ‘actants’ in the Gospels, rather than ‘Characters,’ because some of these agents are not human– such as demons or angels. [14]

Point of View/Standards of Judgment: “signifies the way a story gets told” and elaborates the relationship between the storyteller and the story.[15] Some narrative critics prefer the concept of focalization.[16] The Russian literary critic, Boris Uspensky, identifies five planes on which point of view is expressed in a work: (1) spatial, (2) temporal, (3) psychological, (4) phraseological, and (5) ideological. Each plane represents an observable position that the implied author or narrator takes in relationship to the textual world. The spatial plane describes the stance in space that the narrator takes in relation to the text.[17] Point of view focuses on the way the author presents the reader with the constitutive features of a narrative: characters, dialogue, actions, setting, and events.

            Each Gospel has its own distinctive standards of judgment—the values and beliefs embedded in the narrative by which audiences are led to evaluate the characters and their actions. These standards represent the moral fabric of a narrative, namely, the positive values and beliefs that the narrative promotes and the negative behavior that the narrative condemns. Usually these positive and negative standards are contrasting. Matthew promotes integrity and condemns hypocrisy; Luke promotes compassion and condemns greed; John promotes belief in Jesus and condemns disbelief. Standards of judgment are closely related to “point of view.” Clarifying the overarching point of view and sorting out the differing points of view of the characters and how they relate to each other will help the understanding of the story [18]

Rhetoric: is the art of persuasion. It breathes life into a narrative and influences how the reader feels and thinks about what the implied author says. Rhetoric is an integral part of every mode of expression and is the means by which the implied author convinces the implied reader of the narrative’s point of view, norms, beliefs, values, and worldview. The narrative critic is interested in the rhetorical devices (figurative language) and techniques that an implied author uses to persuade the reader to make a proper interpretation of a work—that is, the informed conclusions that the implied author wants the reader to make.[19] There are many potential ideal impacts of a Gospel—awakening faith, fostering integrity, generating compassion, evoking sympathy, instilling values, or inviting awe. Each Gospel has rhetorical potential to lead hearers through various experiences so that they are different by the end of the story than they were at the beginning. For example, Mark leads hearers to overcome fear so that they will be able to follow Jesus. Matthew engenders the experience of being “discipled” by Jesus so that the audience will obey his teachings. Luke generates compassion for the downtrodden so that readers/hearers will act on behalf of the vulnerable. John uses symbols to trigger a spiritual experience of abundant life.[20]

Real Readers/Hearers: Texts do not have meaning in themselves apart from readers/hearers. As such, meaning is negotiated between the story or speech (with its potential for meaning), and real readers/hearers. Seymour Chatman recognizes that there is a reader outside the text—a real, flesh and blood reader—that is not the same as the reader within the text.[21] The real author and the real reader are extrinsic and accidental to narratives. On the other hand, the implied author, narrator, narratee, and implied reader are immanent to narratives. The real reader who adopts the role of the implied reader knows the conventions of the implied author of the first century and assembles the message according to the author’s design. This implied reader knows koine Greek, recognizes the implied author’s historical and socio-cultural stance, understands references to earlier works, and accepts the implied author’s worldview. The actual reader, however, may resist—even reject outright—the implied author’s worldview, but as an implied reader she or he accepts the author-in-the-text’s worldview.[22]

 Merits and Demerits: Narrative criticism developed out of the study of modern fiction and Russian folk tales, and therefore some of the questions it asks and approaches it utilizes may not be apt to the Gospels as ancient literature. For example, narrative criticism puts on one side questions of history, since it is concerned with the way that stories work as stories. This puts limits on its worth in studying texts which claim to be describing historical events: with the Gospels in particular it is also important to ask about their historicity and historical context, using what we know from ancient literary and archaeological sources. Most of its practitioners acknowledge that it needs other, complementary approaches in order fully to understand the Gospels.

        The Positive side of Narrative Criticism is that it renewed an interest in the text itself and brought a new range of insights to the biblical scholarship. This approach has introduced a number of new strategies and methods that will make New Testament interpretation more robust than ever. Narrative-critical approaches offer real strengths, for they facilitate readers to focus on the text of the Gospels, rather than hypothetical historical reconstructions. This has great strengths, since it avoids some of the (sometimes arbitrary) reconstructions of hypotheses about the life setting of a story, and can provide insights into the text where the historical content is not certain: a solution to the synoptic problem is not required in order to do narrative criticism![23]


End Notes

[1] David Rhoads, "Narrative Criticism and the Gospel of Mark," JAAR 50 (1982) 412

[2] David Rhoads, “Narrative Criticism of the New Testament,” in Method and Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in honor of Harold W. Attridge, ed. Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards (Atlanta: SBL, 2011),107.

[3] James L. Resseguie, Narrative Criticism and the New Testament: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 18-19.

[4] James L. Resseguie, “A Glossary of New Testament Narrative Criticism with Illustrations” in  Current Trends in New Testament Study, Ed. by Robert E. Van Voorst (Basel: MDPI, 2019), 96.

[5] Rhoads, “Narrative Criticism of the New Testament,” 108.

[6] Rhoads, “Narrative Criticism of the New Testament,” 108-09.

[7] Gerald Prince, “Notes toward a Characterization of Fictional Narratees,” Genre(1971), 100–5.

[8] Rhoads, “Narrative Criticism of the New Testament,” 109-110.

[9] Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), 141.

[10] Resseguie, “A Glossary of New Testament Narrative Criticism…,” 124.

[11] Chatman, Story and Discourse…, 44-45.

[12] Rhoads, “Narrative Criticism of the New Testament,” 111.

[13] Resseguie, “A Glossary of New Testament Narrative Criticism…,” 99.

[14] David Wenham and S. Walton, Exploring the New Testament: A Guide to the Gospels & Acts.Vol.1 (Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2011) 94.

[15]Meyer H.  Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms (Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2015), 300.   

[16] “Focalization” is a term coined by Gérard Genette. It asks two primary questions: “Who sees?” and “Who speaks?” in a narrative. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980),  186.

[17] Boris Uspensky, A Poetics of Composition: The Structure of the Artistic Text and Typology of Compositional Form, trans. Valentina Zavarin, and Susan Wittig (Berkeley: University  Press, 1973), 58-59.

[18] Rhoads, “Narrative Criticism of the NT,” 112.

[19] Resseguie, “A Glossary of New Testament Narrative Criticism…,”122.

[20] Rhoads, “Narrative Criticism of the New Testament,” 113.

[21] Chatman, Story and Discourse…, 151.

[22] Resseguie, “A Glossary of New Testament Narrative Criticism…,”119-120.

[23] Wenham and Walton,  Exploring the New…,” 96.


Abrams, Meyer H and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2015.   

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Translated by Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Prince, Gerald.  “Notes toward a Characterization of Fictional Narratees.” Genre 1/4 (197): 100–5.

Resseguie, James L. Narrative Criticism and the New Testament: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005.

Resseguie, James L. “A Glossary of New Testament Narrative Criticism with Illustrations.” In  Current Trends in New Testament Study. Edited by Robert E. Van Voorst. Basel: MDPI, 2019. 96-134.

Rhoads, David. “Narrative Criticism of the New Testament.” In Method and Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in honor of Harold W. Attridge. Edited by Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards. Atlanta: SBL, 2011. 107-124.

Rhoads, David. "Narrative Criticism and the Gospel of Mark." JAAR 50 (1982): 

Uspensky, Boris. A Poetics of Composition: The Structure of the Artistic Text and Typology of Compositional Form. Translated by V. Zavarin, and Susan Wittig. Berkeley: University  Press, 1973.

 Wenham, David and S. Walton. Exploring the New Testament: A Guide to the Gospels & Acts.Vol.1. Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2011.



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