Modernized Monk
SCU Logo
Religious Studies Department, SCU
  Narrative Criticism

Literary Criticism in General
Literary criticism is a broad term encompassing several different approaches to the literary text.  In the early days of historical criticism, the term was used for any form of close reading of the text, and thus could encompass form and source criticisms.  But since the 1960s, with the burgeoning of the field of literary criticism in the disciplines of English and World Literature, the term "Literary Criticism" in biblical studies has come to refer to approaches undertaken in these other disciplines.
In general, all literary critical methods examine the final text of a given biblical book, as opposed to the origins of its parts.  The literary critic assumes that the author worked with sources, but also that the author composed a new account from these sources - an account that has literary integrity.  The critic may choose to focus attention on the text or the response of the intended readers, and then within these categories to focus still further, for example on semiotics or narrative structures.
Narrative Criticism
The type of literary criticism described below is referred to as Narrative Criticism, which focuses on the literary shape of the text.  The narrative critic examines the text to discern its aspect (fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry), genre (history, legend, myth, etc.), structure (including plot, theme, irony, foreshadowing, etc.), characterization, and narrative perspective.

To examine a text as a literary critic would, apply these four steps to it:
  1. Analyze the form (literary aspect and genre) of the text.  Is it fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry?  What is its genre?
  2. Analyze the literary structure of the piece.  Follow this procedure:
    1. Setting - What is the setting of the story?
    2. Plot

      • Where does the plot begin, end, climax?  What clues in the text support your choice of climax (look for evidence of foreshadowing, repetition that builds in some way, or a critical moment which must be resolved in the storyís denouement)?

      • Are there any suggestive gaps in the story - questions that come to your mind that the author does not resolve?  Are there any suggestive antitheses presented (one character contrasted to another character, one story paralleling a similar one)?  These antitheses can be evidence of irony; each also suggests meaning by presenting a commentary on the other.

      • Do there appear to be any anomalies in the text: digression/interruption, thematic inconsistency, apparent repetition?  [Whereas in source criticism such anomalies are taken to suggest discrete sources, in this method they should be taken to reveal the meaning of the story, and not discrete sources.]
    3. Elements - What are the key symbol(s)? motif(s)? theme(s)?
  3. Analyze the characters in the story.  Who are the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s)?  What are their motives?  Do they change?
  4. Examine the narrative perspective of the account.  From whose perspective is the story told?  Is it told in the first or third person?  Is the narrator omniscient?  Given the perspective and the storyís form, suggest a location or occasion for the recitation of your story.

  Terms Used for the Narrative Analysis of Prose
(Adapted from M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 3d ed. [New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1971; orig. 1957] and Margaret Nutting Ralph, "And God Said What?" An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms for Bible Lovers [Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist, 1986]).

Literary Aspect
A story about events that did not occur in time; through verisimilitude (things made to look true-to-life), fiction is often crafted to look as if it could have occurred.  Its purpose can be educative or entertaining.
A story about events that did occur, told as objectively (without bias) as possible.
Language patterned into recurrent units of meter (notice: poetry is not necessarily rhyming, but it is necessarily rhythmic and repetitive).   In biblical texts, poetic language often indicates that the poem or form was used in a liturgical or ritual setting.
Sustained use of language as we ordinarily speak it, as distinguished from language patterned into recurrent units of meter.
An account of the life of some great political or military figure, often told in a highly stereotypical way (marvelous birth, proper upbringing, noble public life, exemplary death).
A long narrative poem on a great and serious subject, related in an elevated style, and centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, a nation, or the human race.  Examples of epics are the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and Miltonís Paradise Lost.
An argumentative dialogue between two characters.
Traditional verbal materials and social rituals that have been handed down solely, or at least primarily, by word of mouth.  The following forms are common to folklore: legends, superstitions, songs, tales, proverbs, riddles, spells, nursery rhymes; pseudo-scientific lore about weather, plants, animals; customary activities at births, marriages, deaths; traditional dances and forms of drama.
In ancient times, a chronicle of political and military events, geographic descriptions and ethnic portraits, often incorporating elements of epic, high narrative style, and biographical exploration.
Similar to a myth, except that the protagonist is a heroic and probably historical figure rather than a supernatural being.
An imaginative story which uses symbols to speak about reality; the symbols are necessary because the reality is beyond human comprehension (Ralph).  A mythology may be defined as a system of hereditary stories which serve to explain (in terms of the intentions and actions of supernatural beings) why the world is as it is and things happen as they do, and to establish the rationale for social customs and observances and the sanctions for the rules by which people conduct their lives.
A long prose narrative incorporating historical and legendary elements.
Literary Structure
To interrupt a story in order to portray or recount an incident or scene from the past.
To present an indication or suggestion of something before it occurs in the narrative.
A technique whereby the explicit meaning of an incident or statement differs from its implicit meaning, intent, or suggestion.  Verbal irony is a statement whose explicit and implicit meanings differ ("Come to Bethel and sin..." Amos 4:4); structural irony is found when 1) parallel plots are arranged antithetically (Peterís denial of Jesus vs. Jesusí confession in Mk 14:53-72); or 2) characters do not know what the reader knows; or 3)  forms diverge from what is expected (the oracles against other nations were never intended to be turned against Israel! Amos 2:6ff).
motif or topos
An element (a type of incident, device or formula) which recurs frequently in literature. In contrast to a theme, a motif is more limited and less comprehensive of the entire story.
The structure of the action of a story, as these actions are ordered and rendered toward achieving particular emotional and artistic effects.
The general locale and historical time in which the action of a story occurs; it can also refer to the particular physical location in which a particular scene or episode occurs.
The frame or outline of a literary piece.
Anything which signifies or points to something else. Since words themselves are symbols, a symbol in literature has two targets: 1) an object or event, and 2) that to which that object points.   For example, the words "bread of life" in John 6:22-59 point first to real bread, and secondly to the concept of the Christís life-giving body.
An idea, point of view or perception embodied and expanded upon in a work of art; an underlying or essential subject of artistic representation.   In contrast to a motif, the theme comprehends the entire literary work; in this sense, it is analogous to the thesis of a research paper.
One who opposes and actively competes with another (the protagonist); an adversary.
The leading or principal figure in a story or drama.
An emotion, desire, physiological need, or similar impulse acting as an incitement to action.
point of view
The way a story gets told; the perspective or perspectives established by an author through which the reader is presented with the characters, actions, setting, and events which constitute the narrative in a work of fiction.
first person narration
The author refers to him/herself as "I/we."
omniscient narrator
The narrator assumes a posture of knowing everything that is in the charactersí minds and revealing this selectively.

  Terms Used for the Narrative Analysis of Poetry
(Definitions drawn from T. Brogan, "Rhythm," Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms [ed. Alex Preminger et al.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986] 238, and David L. Petersen and Kent Harold Richards, Interpreting Hebrew Poetry [Guides to Biblical Scholarship, Old Testament Series; ed. Gene M. Tucker; Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992]).

General Terms
More or less regular poetic rhythm; the measurable rhythmical patterns manifested in the work.
The resemblance of two (or more) components of a poetic unit whereby the later element(s) mimics, opposes, or builds upon the former element(s).
Level of Parallel
One word in each component of the parallel is related.
One or more sounds of the original words are played off of each other in the various components (you can ignore this feature, since it is only visible in the original language).
The verbal action of one component is related to the verbal action in another.
Nature of Parallel Relationship
A word or idea in one component is opposed against an antonym in the second component.
A word or idea in the later component differs from or builds upon a word or idea in the first component.
A word or idea in one component is mimicked or repeated by a synonym in the second component.
A cadence or contour, any sequence perceptible as a distinct pattern capable of repetition and variation.
Anything which points to something else; some relationship obtains between the symbol and that to which it points.
A concrete place, object or figure that finds its fullest meaning in another place, object or figure; while type is technically a subset of symbol.

Aristotle.  "The Poetics."  In Aristotle, vol. 23, The Poetics; "Longinus," "On the Sublime"; Demetrius, "On Style," trans. W. Hamilton Fyfe and W. Rhys Roberts, Loeb Classical Library 199.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press 1982; original 1932.
Belfiore, Elizabeth.  "Narratological Plots and Aristotle's Mythos."  Arethusa 33 (1 2000) 37-70.  Available online.
Marguerat, Daniel and Yvan Bourquin.  How to Read Bible Stories: An Introduction to Narrative Criticism, trans. John Bowden.   London: SCM Press, 1999; French original, Paris: Cerf, 1998.
Powell, Mark Allan.  What is Narrative Criticism?, Guides to Biblical Scholarship, New Testament Series.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.
Culpepper, R. Alan.  Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1987.
Donahue, John R.  The Gospel in Parable: Metaphor, Narrative, and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
George, Larry Darnell.  Reading the Tapestry: A Literary-Rhetorical Analysis of the Johannine Resurrection Narrative (John 21-21), Studies in Biblical Literature 14.  New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
Iverson, Kelly R. and Christopher W. Skinner.  Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect.  Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.
Kingsbury, Jack Dean.  Matthew as Story, 2d rev. ed.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1988.
Longenecker, Bruce W., ed.  Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment.  Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2003.
Merenlahti, Petri.  Poetics for the Gospels?: Rethinking Narrative Criticism, Studies of the New Testament and Its World.  Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2002.
Moore, Stephen D.  Literary Criticism and the Gospels: The Theoretical Challenge.  New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1989.
Nahkola, Aulikki.  Double Narratives in the Old Testament: The Foundations of Method in Biblical Criticism, BZAW 290.  Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2001.
Resseguie, James L.  The Strange Gospel: Narrative Design and Point of View in John, Biblical Interpretation Series 56.  Leiden: Brill, 2001.
Rhoads, David, Joanna Dewey and Donald Michie.  Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel, 3rd ed.   Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011.
Skinner, Christopher W. and Matthew Ryan Hauge, eds.  Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark, The Library of New Testament Studies.  New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014.
Smith, Stephen H.  A Lion with Wings: A Narrative-Critical Approach to Mark's Gospel, Biblical Seminar 39.  Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.
Tolbert, Mary Ann.  Sowing the Gospel: Mark's World in Literary-Historical Perspective.  Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989.
Tovey, Derek.  Narrative Art and Act in the Fourth Gospel, JSNTSup 151.  Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.
Vines, Michael E.  The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel.  Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.
Walsh, Jerome T.  Style and Structure in Biblical Hebrew Narrative.  Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2001.
Of Interest
Wire, Antoinette Clark.  Holy Lives, Holy Deaths: A Close Hearing of Early Jewish Storytellers.  Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.
Die Urkunden des Klosters Cluny Get Acrobat