Contemporary Methods in Biblical Study

Michael D. Coogan

in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version

Published in print February 2007 | ISBN: 9780195288803
Published online April 2009 |
Contemporary Methods in Biblical Study

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A popular appreciation of the narrative art of the Bible has always existed. Its stories were represented in the sculpture and stained‐glass windows of medieval churches, and Western literature has been profoundly influenced by its characters, themes, and symbols. In both Judaism and Christianity the reading and retelling of the stories in devotional and liturgical contexts made them deeply familiar. Yet even though biblical Hebrew poetry had been the subject of academic study since the eighteenth century (most notably in Bishop Robert Lowth's Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews), little attention had been paid to the poetics of biblical narrative. One impetus to the interest in biblical narrative that developed in the 1970s can be traced to a development in American higher education: the creation of departments of religious studies in nondenominational colleges and public universities in the 1960s and 1970s. In such contexts the study of the Bible “as literature” was deemed especially appropriate to a secular curriculum. Such interest was not restricted to scholars in secular contexts, however. In 1968 James Muilenberg, who for much of his career had been a professor at Union Theological Seminary, delivered a presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature titled “Form Criticism and Beyond.” In this lecture he called for a type of literary‐theological approach to the poetry and prose of the Bible which he referred to as “rhetorical criticism.” Giving further impetus to literary study of the Bible was the work of several scholars of English and comparative literature, who extended their expertise in the analysis of literature to biblical texts. Most prominent were Northrop Frye (The Great Code: The Bible and Literature), Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry), and Frank Kermode (The Genesis of Secrecy, a study of the Gospel of Mark). Alter and Kermode later collaborated to edit The Literary Guide to the Bible.

This literary approach differed from historical study in significant ways. Whereas historical study tended to be concerned with the prehistory of the text (oral traditions and written source materials) and with its development through successive redactions, literary study focused on the final form of the text. Whereas historical study was interested in the world referred to by the text, literary study directed its attention to the world constructed in the text. Nevertheless, there were certain historical dimensions to this early work in biblical literature. Both Alter and Meir Sternberg attempted to isolate distinctive features of ancient Israelite narrative art (e.g., modes of characterization, the use of type‐scenes, techniques of repetition, forms of plot development) which were not necessarily the same as the techniques used in modern Western narrative. Similarly, New Testament literary study has included a strong interest in the comparative analysis of Greco‐Roman literary genres and techniques and those used in the Gospels, Acts, and early noncanonical Christian literature.

Chapter.  5910 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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