The `literariness' of the New Testament Gospels
Johannes C De Klerk
The literary approach to narratives of the New Testament has now been established. However, there are some very interesting literary issues on which we can now reflect. Do the Gospels comply with genuine literary standards? Are they really suited to full-scale literary analysis? What distinguishes a `literary' text from a 'non-literary' text? How important is the `literariness' of biblical narratives? Isn't the value of the literary analysis of biblical texts overestimated? Doesn't it go against the grain of the whole nature of biblical texts? This article endeavours to provide some answers to these issues, focusing on the New Testament texts.
The literary approach to biblical narratives has now been established, including the New Testament, which is the focus of this article. Phrases such as the following now often appear in biblical scholarship: the Bible as literature; biblical narrative; a literary study of the Bible; a literary approach to the Bible; literary criticism of the New Testament; the Gospels as literature; narrative and Gospel; the Gospel as story. However, in terms of biblical interpretational history it is still a young and expanding approach. Not so long ago one heard of `a revolution in the study of the Bible' (Ryken 1984:11) and `the rediscovery of biblical narrative' (Collins 1982). This terminology reflects the establishment of new horizons in biblical interpretation, which is witnessed in the words of Craddock (1988:31): With literary criticism has come a freshness of New Testament study at a time when the discipline was losing its appetite for the old methods.
Indeed, in many circles of biblical research the literary approach has caused a new wave of enthusiasm -- there are new prospects on the horizon, and a mood of expectancy can be felt in biblical scholarship.
Many scholars are of the opinion that this approach not only differs from other methods of biblical interpretation, but constitutes a major paradigm shift, a new conceptual framework of approach to the Bible (see Collins 1982:46; Culpepper 1989).
In retrospect, there are some interesting basic issues on which we can now reflect. One such issue centres on these questions: Literary criteria are being used on biblical texts, but how `literary' are these texts? How do they fare when compared to other recognised literary texts? In particular, since most of the attention focuses on biblical narratives, how literary are the biblical narratives? Is it really a legitimate approach? These are questions about literariness, and in answering them I will draw the biblical lines through to the narratives of the New Testament, and also the Gospels as its main narrative body. Thus, when biblical narratives are discussed below, they include the Gospels.
THE LITERARINESS OF THE BIBLE IN THE PAST
In spite of the newness of this biblical approach, the issue of the literariness of biblical texts is not a new one, and some very interesting views on it are found in the course of biblical history (see Norton 1993; Ryken & Longman 1993:49--68):
- The literariness of the Bible was already an issue for the early church fathers, who compared the literary qualities of the Bible with classical (Greek and Latin) literature and rhetoric, with the view to showing the Bible's literary superiority. Understandably they turned to the Bible's argumentative parts (such as Paul and the prophets) to show its eloquence and expressive beauty.
- During the Middle Ages the literariness of the Bible was shoved into the background: it became a non-issue as Jerome's Latin (Vulgate) translation increasingly became the possession of only the educated few. However, the end of the Middle Ages saw an interesting turn of events with a real battle to establish an English translation of the Bible. Apart from an adoration of the classics, many saw it as improper to translate the Bible into `common English' (prose), since the Bible could not be translated into poetry (viewed as `literary'). Yet, as several pioneering English translations established a foothold, the general feeling grew that the Bible was eloquent, and contained some fine poetry. (Prose received little recognition at this stage.)
- After the Reformation the King James translation slowly gained the upper hand (because of commercial reasons), but initially received little of the literary appreciation it enjoyed in later years. However, in the seventeenth century the belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture understandably gave rise to a lofty evaluation of the Bible's literary qualities by many clerics and scholars. This resulted in a reverence for the Bible's `venerable majestic style, sweetness of composition, admirable elegance, sublimity of expression'; the Pauline and prophetic texts for their eloquent and powerful oratory; the psalms and various lyrics for their harmonic and exulted poetry; and (now appreciated for the first time) the `delightful stories' -- all deemed to be of infinitely higher literary quality than classical literature. Instances where the literary qualities of the Bible were judged not to be so high as the classics were mostly attributed to the Holy Spirit's wisdom in spiritually communicating with all people instead of feeding readers `with the vain glory of words'. (Of course, there were some dissenting scholarly voices who had a higher regard for the literary qualities of the classics than the Bible, but they did not really receive recognition.) Advocates for the Bible's literariness rarely distinguished between the original texts and the King James translation (from which they chose their examples), and so the concept of the sublime literariness of the King James version took root.
- The eighteenth century saw an endeavour to establish a higher standard of the English language, and witnessed a developing pride in it. This led to a greater awareness of the literary qualities of texts, which had a twofold reaction with regard to the Bible: a devaluation of the Bible's literary qualities among some literary scholars (joined by sporadic calls for a revised translation), and enhanced praise for the Bible's literariness. This increased steadily as people grew up with the King James version at home and in school, its influence spread, and it came to be venerated. People of lesser education as well as the scholarly grew attached to the King James Bible, and their sentiments enhanced their evaluation of its literary qualities. Phrases expressing their appreciation such as the following were not uncommon: intrinsic beauty; sublimity; excellence; immensely pleas„ing; rich and expressive; brilliancy of the diction; exquisitely beautiful; charms of the style; the grandeur of its images; the noblest composition in the universe. Obviously, much of this can be viewed as an extension of religious piety, but not all: biblical texts were often compared to the classics, and their fine literary qualities pointed out. In addition, the literary qualities of the narrative parts then also received greater attention, and their `style of composition' was compared favourably with the classics.
In the middle of this century these sentiments were given a huge scholarly boost by Robert Lowth's monumental analysis of biblical Hebrew poetry (parallelism, etc), comparing it favourably with classical poetry. In the `battle' against the classics, it provided `proof' for many of the sublime literary qualities of the Bible. This all progressed to the stage where some literary scholars used the King James Bible as a source to illustrate fine literary qualities in literature in general.
- The nineteenth century witnessed a further expansion in the general influence of the King James version, and the admirating phrases for its literary qualities multiplied. The concept of the Bible's literariness grew: it was often held as a model of literary style (contrasted to the classics' `inflated style'), and a measuring rod with which to judge the quality of other books. (Eventually the language of the King James' version was held by some to be the standard for the English language.) In addition, the literary qualities of the Bible's narrative parts were now appreciated on the same level as its poetry. (This is actually a reflection of the ascendency of the novel during the nineteenth century.)
Yet, although they fell outside the mainstream movement, not all scholarly opinions agreed with this exalted appreciation of the Bible's literary qualities. In addition, some scholarly voices were also raised against the accuracy of the King James Bible in rendering the original texts. Near the end of the nineteenth century (amid considerable public and scholarly resistance), this eventually led to the publication of the Revised Version. However, the Revised Version's battle was lost before it began, because it was immediately judged not to contain the same sublime literary qualities of style and expression.
- The beginning of the twentieth century saw the publication of Richard Moulton's pioneering literary studies (initiated by his `Literary study of the Bible' in 1895). These studies were in line with his views that literature should be analysed as a self-sufficient entity, independent of its external relations, and he focused his biblical analysis on textual structures, forms and genres (epics, lyrics, poems, dramas, histories, etc). This opened the way for the modern approach to the literary study of the Bible and an appreciation of its literary qualities. Biblical anthologies (presenting biblical `literary gems'), and other `Bible as literature' studies soon followed. The literary departments of some universities also began to include the Bible in their courses (signifying its literariness).
In the first part of the century the King James's literary supremacy was still professed very widely, even to the point of being called `the noblest monument of English prose; the highest points of English prose; the greatest of English classics' (with hardly any clear distinction between the Bible and the King James version). Many of these claims for the Bible's literariness were expressed in general, but they were often also substantiated through comparison with other literature. (Yet, as was the case all along, not all literary scholars' opinions agreed with this lofty appreciation of the Bible's literary qualities, including the well-known views of C S Lewis. As the century progressed, additional critical views were expressed from a different angle by biblical historical-criticism.)
A great stimulus for the modern analysis of biblical narratives and the appreciation of its literary qualities came in the middle of the twentieth century with the publication of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis. (Among other things, he compared Old Testament narrative techniques with classical epic.) The second great stimulus came with the publication of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of criticism, in which he discussed the function of biblical archetypes and the Bible's influence on literature in general. From that point onwards biblical literature (particularly its narratives) increasingly received the attention of literary and biblical scholars (notably in the USA) -- the number of biblical literary studies steadily increased, and still continues to do so. These studies generally express an appreciation of the artistry of biblical narratives and typical narrative characteristics. English departments of tertiary institutions everywhere began to present courses in biblical literature -- implying its literariness. (As a final note, the latter part of this century also saw the demise of the veneration for the King James's literary splendour, resulting from the appearance of other competitive translations -- including the New King James -- and the influence of worldwide critical scholarship.)
Thus, we have seen that the history of biblical literariness has been variegated: there is no plain and clear-cut answer. On the one hand there is a positive answer. Obviously, some of it can be seen as an evaluation tinted by pious adoration, but this positive evaluation went through various stages in history until it currently enjoys a broad basis of recognition and implementation. On the other hand, there has always been some disconcerting contempory scholarly disagreement. Let us proceed then to a present-day discussion of the issue.
WHAT IS A `LITERARY' TEXT? ARE THE GOSPELS GENUINE `LITERARY TEXTS?
These are actually quite uncomfortable questions, which could have significant consequences for the advocates of a biblical literary approach. Questions such as the following have still not been dismissed: Do the biblical narratives genuinely comply with literary standards, or at the deepest level are they really below standard? Is it possible to subject the Gospels (as representatives of biblical narratives) to a genuine literary analysis? Is such an enterprise feasible and do the results justify such an analysis, or are biblical scholars fooling themselves because of spiritually vested interests in these texts?
Such questions about the biblical narratives immediately draw us into much broader literary issues. What is a `literary' text? What distinguishes a `literary' text from non-literary texts? These are not new questions: they came to the fore under the Russian formalists' emphasis on the `literariness' of `literary texts', and they remained a lively subject of discussion.
In the course of time various criteria have been proposed to determine the literariness of texts. Some of the most interesting criteria which have been advocated for the distinction of genuine `literary' texts are the following:
DIFFERENCES OF OPINION ABOUT CRITERIA TO DETERMINE LITERARINESS
However, the criteria discussed above, as well as the more basic question whether genuine `literary' texts can or should be distinguished from other non-literary texts, do not enjoy consensus in literary theory.
- First, some scholars point out that the norms for distinguishing `artistic-texts' are applied differently in different cultures (Lotman 1977; Fokkema & Ibsch 1978:33). Thus, the evaluation of an artifact's artist and aesthetic value is determined largely by ever-changing social milieus, which in turn are linked to conventions and social values (see McKnight 1985:21--23).
- Second, various criticisms could also be raised against every one of these criteria, for example that it is too wide and general, it is too vague or it does not offer clear-cut distinctions. In addition, it must also be noted that there are other ways of looking at these issues, for instance: reader-oriented literary theories would advocate that it is primarily the reader who determines what constitutes a `literary' text, rather than particular inherent textual qualities.
- A substantial concern with such criteria is the role of values in their application: personal preferences and prejudices play a substantial role when value judgements are made, when some texts are classified as `genuine' (real, true, proper, authentic, better) literature in contrast to 'non-literary' literature. Particularly when artistic qualities are judged and artistic appreciation is at stake, one finds that they differ from person to person, from generation to generation, and from culture to culture -- what the one sees as artistic, the other abhorrs.
- Another consideration is that speech act theory (see Pratt 1977), proposes extensive similarities between `literary' narratives and everyday stories (oral or written) and that the transition between them can be very fluid -- this really puts the theory of `literary' texts under pressure. This raises the question whether the `literariness' of narratives should not be viewed in a much more general and universal light (see also Bange 1986).
Thus, the literariness of texts (narratives in our case) is indeed a contentious issue. `Literariness' does seem to be an important concept, and it does seem obvious that some texts would qualify as genuine literature, while others would not. It also seems as if it should be reasonably easy to lay down at least some cardinal characteristics of genuine literature: one could reason that, surely, literary texts have to show a certain degree of creativity, artistry, skilful composition, etc. Yet, when one gets down to the pick and shovel work of defining the boundaries and actually testing them on narratives, it becomes a very slippery and elusive endeavour: all kinds of exceptions continually escape the boundaries; the boundaries sometimes have to be stretched so wide as to become meaningless in order to accommodate some narratives; with various narratives the criteria are only partially applicable -- it's a case of now they fit, now they don't; the real difficulty lies in establishing cut-off levels -- exactly when does a given narrative start (or stop) being `literature' (at precisely what level of artistry, narrative technique, etc).
Furthermore, literariness seems to be important because it implies that literary texts are worthy of, and really suited to full-scale literary analysis, and that it will produce worthwhile results, which would not be true of 'non-literary' texts. Yet, in practice one finds that all types of narratives are simply subjected to literary analysis irrespective of their `literariness' -- and are actually producing illuminating and interesting results! The rule simply seems to be that whatever narrative can be subjected to literary analysis, should be subjected to it (fables, folk stories, chronicle reports, whatever). This again poses the question whether a more pragmatic approach is not the preferable approach.
INTERPRETING THE GOSPELS AS LITERARY TEXTS
If we take this discussion back to the question of the feasibility of applying a literary analysis to biblical narratives, it should first be noted that there are some scholarly views which discourage such an endeavour. At the onset it is argued that biblical narratives are not genuinely literary texts, and therefore not conducive to literary analysis. One reason is that biblical narratives are the patchwork end-result of compilatory authorship, and accordingly the artistic levels of the Gospels are negatively evaluated (see Wilder 1971:37--39). Some scholars are indeed of the opinion that high esteem for the literary qualities of biblical texts really hinges on people's personal involvement with the Bible as a `sacred book' (see Lewis 1967:27--34). In this vein one finds the complaint that often teachers of literature are much more discriminating in their evaluation of literature when dealing with non-biblical writing than when studying the Bible (Ryken 1974:24).
Another objection is that a literary analysis of biblical (narrative) texts actually goes against the grain of the nature of biblical texts. Arguments put forward here are: biblical texts can only be truly interpreted in an ideological context; that as uniquely inspired sacred texts, biblical literature is really not adapted to (neutral, uncommitted) literary analysis; that biblical texts (particularly the narratives) are directed at the acclamation of historical truths, which are simply disregarded by literary methods; and that a literary analysis in the final instance does not address the issues of truth and ultimate concerns which are at the heart of biblical texts (thus missing the whole point and nature of these texts).
On the other hand, the literary analysis of biblical texts is sometimes positively overestimated, with scholars placing too high a literary value on these texts, and expecting too much of them. This was quite evident in our discussion above of the literariness of the Bible in the past, and in the course of the twentieth century we also find eulogies on `a literature so great'; `the literary charm of the Bible'; `the literary genius of the Bible'; `God's magnificent story'; `the poetic genius of the New Testament', etc.
Third, however, many scholars display a more qualified positive literary evaluation of biblical literature. They acknowledge the validity of biblical literary studies and appreciate the fine literary qualities of biblical narratives, yet they do not deny the shortcomings of biblical narratives (see Ryken 1974). Furthermore, this view also acknowledges that not all biblical texts are equally suited to literary analyses, or will produce the same fruitful results (see Alter & Kermode 1987:1--8; Longman 1987:59; Ryken 1974).
If we narrow this discussion down to the Gospels again, we find the same qualified positive attitude towards a literary analysis of the Gospels (for example Dewey 1973:401; Kermode 1979:9--21,69; Juel, Ackerman & Warshaw 1978:177). Representative of these views are the words of Jasper (1987:7):
This Gospel [Mark], then, draws on many sources, and its style is uneven, perhaps rough. Nevertheless, its author was a highly competent literary artist and the reader should be sensitive to both its internal patterning of balance and resonance and its overall coherence.
First, from a literary point of view, the whole issue of the literariness of texts in general and of biblical narratives (including the Gospels) is quite inconclusive, and, from a certain point of view, not really a decisive issue.
Second, in as far as a case could be made for the idea of the literariness of texts, in the opinion of many scholars the Gospels (as other biblical narratives) actually fare very well and show some fine literary qualities.
Third, there is also the argument arising from practice: the Bible is now included as literary subject material in the courses of many literary departments at tertiary institutions. In addition, there are the many literary studies of the Gospels and other biblical narratives and these continue to multiply -- published by biblical scholars and literary scholars alike (for example Alter 1981; Henn 1970; Jasper 1987; McKnight 1985; Rhoads & Michie 1982; Ryken 1987; Ryken & Longman 1993; Sternberg 1985; Wilder 1971). These studies yielded most valuable new insights into biblical narratives and provided biblical scholars with new avenues of interpreting biblical texts.
There are great advantages to following a qualified-positive attitude, as has been discussed above. From the practical perspective of a reader-oriented approach one could add in conclusion: Literature is what we read as literature. Instead of attempting to define the Bible as literature ... we read the Bible as literature (McKnight 1985:9--10). Insert endnotes here
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Mr J C de Klerk
Department of New Testament
University of South Africa
PO Box 392
Republic of South Africa