The convergence of “historical” and “literary” methods

I would like to spend one post, at least, pondering the implications of a remarkable statement I read the other day in an essay by Ronald Hendel called “Is the ‘J’ Primeval Narrative an Independent Composition? ” (published in a volume called The Pentateuch:  International Perspectives on Current Research in 2012.  Hendel was commenting on the revival of source criticism, which I have addressed before, and responding to those who had declared the J source to be a dead idea.  One of these critics had made a comment about the J source not having a discernible style, to which Hendel responded , “This position may have been credible a generation ago, when literary study of biblical narrative was virtually nonexistent.  But I submit that it is not credible today, when there are many lucid descriptions of the literary art of biblical prose.”  This is a statement that I cannot imagine anybody making even ten years ago, and it requires some explanation.

What Hendel was claiming is that the advances made in the study of narrative art (sometimes called poetics), one of the methods of biblical study that gained massive influence in the last quarter of the twentieth century and seemed to have eclipsed source criticism, has provided the tools for its revival.  While those who used to work to identify sources used characteristics of texts like vocabulary, syntax, theology, and duplication as their primary tools for doing so, they now have very carefully developed understandings of characterization, settings, and plot development at their disposal.  Hendel’s use of the term “narrative art” pointed back to the work of two scholars of the Hebrew Bible who wrote very influential books in the early 1980’s, Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative) and Shimon Bar-Efrat (Narrative Art in the Bible).  Nobody could have guessed thirty years ago that these two books, which were leading the field away from methods that divided the text up into more original units and toward those that read the final form of the text closely, would eventually bring the field back, full-circle, to consideration of the production of biblical books from earlier sources.  This is the remarkable claim that Hendel has made, and it represents another kind of convergence in scholarship of the Bible, because it argues that methods of interpreting the text which were thought to be diametrically opposed to one another, and mutually exclusive, can now be used together.

If Hendel was right, and I think he was, then such a convergence of methods offers powerful new possibilities for our work.  One of my current projects concerns the four scrolls of the Israelite prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of the Twelve.  The study of this literature has been following two diverging paths for the last three decades, one path that focuses on the literary character of the final forms of the scrolls, and another path that seeks to trace the composition of the scrolls, including the initial work of the prophetic figures they are named for, across a time span of about three centuries.  I am arguing that these two ways of approaching the text should be brought together to inform each other, and that it is the narrative elements of characterization, setting, and plot development that help to connect the final form of the scrolls with the processes that produced them.  This is another subject to which I will be returning soon with some illustrations.


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