In response to persistent demands that I explain my hermeneutic, here is a list of seven rough and ready “rules” for doing a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament. They loosely outline or summarize what is to my mind a coherent and defensible methodology, but I have not offered here much by way of philosophical justification. I take the view that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. A list of related posts can be found here.
Rule #1 The meaning of scripture is controlled by large literary structures
The narrative-historical approach brings into focus the larger narrative structures that hold scripture together and frame the parts. Since the patristic period the church has mainly used theological structures (creeds, doctrines, statements of faith, systematic theologies, the gospel of personal salvation, etc.) to hold together, frame and interpret the parts of scripture.
The grammatical-historical method, much favoured by conservative Protestants, also attends to the original and historical meaning of the text but generally confines itself to much smaller, atomized units of meaning. It is not especially interested in meta-narratives or worldview. It relies on theology to provide the framing structures, which is why we have, in my simplistic terms, a clash between history and theology. The grammatical-historical method is a short-sighted lackey of Protestant theology.
Rule #2 The main controlling structure is the story of Israel and the nations
The main narrative structure, from Genesis 12 to Revelation 20 is the story of Israel as a people struggling to make sense of and maintain its relationship with God under circumstances of conflict with other more powerful nations and empires. I have suggested that we might condense the “message” of the Bible into a single sentence as follows:
The long conflict between the one true creator God and the pagan nations, culminating in the victory of Christlike communities over Rome, has fundamentally transformed the nature and status of his “new creation” people in the world.
This narrative contains countless individual stories but cannot be reduced to them or rewritten as merely incidental background to the personal narrative of sin and redemption. People find salvation or condemnation, life or death, insofar as they engage with this story.
Rule #3 Biblical narrative is historically determined
The narrative-historical approach differs from purely narrative theologies (e.g. Frei) principally in that it emphasizes the historical groundedness and orientation of the story that is told about Israel and the early church. Scripture is not merely a “drama of doctrine” (Vanhoozer)—that is a very modern perspective. It is first and foremost an account of—and an attempt to make sense of—the historical experience of a community.
On the other hand, the narrative-historical approach differs from the historical-critical method in that it is interested primarily in the relationship between the text and the historical community which produced it, much less in the relationship between the text and a supposedly objective historical reality that might be constructed by other means. For example, we ask why the early Christian community told a story about Jesus calming a storm, what they understood by it, not whether the event is believable or actually happened. In this regard, the narrative-historical approach is closer to canonical or biblical criticism.
Rule #4 Metalepsis rules, OK
If it is the narrative of Israel’s troubled historical existence that controls meaning in the biblical texts, we take it that the New Testament quotes from or alludes to the Jewish scriptures not so much to provide authoritative scriptural support for New Testament teachings (i.e. as proof texts) as to bring the larger narratives and arguments into play. This works essentially because in the first century Israel was facing a crisis analogous to previous crises such as the Babylonian invasion or the assault of Antiochus IV against Jewish religion. Richard Hays introduced the term metalepsis for the practice of hearing the intertextual echoes generated by allusion:
When a literary echo links the text in which it occurs to an earlier text, the figurative effect of the echo can lie in the unstated or suppressed… points of resonance between the two texts.1
Whether or not the reader can always be expected to hear the echo, it can be an important indicator of the process of thought behind the statement. For example, a non-Jewish reader might not hear the allusion to Psalm 22 in Jesus’ cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But it is historically appropriate to suppose that Jesus the Jewish prophet, wrongfully crucified as Israel’s “king”, either had in mind the whole of this Psalm of suffering and vindication or actually recited the whole Psalm from the cross.
Rule #5 Historical narratives have (mostly) historical horizons
The narrative-historical approach identifies and works within the plausible historical horizons of the texts, on the assumption that Jesus and his followers spoke and wrote about what evidently and urgently mattered to them as (mostly) Jews engaged with the overarching story of Israel. I think that nearly everything that Jesus said and did had in view the horizon of the war against Rome, and that nearly everything that Paul and others said and did had in view a second horizon of the conversion of the empire. So, for example, I argue that when Jesus speaks of the judgment of Gehenna, he means not a post mortem “hell” but the terrible judgment that would come upon Jerusalem within a generation. That is what the language points to, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was clearly of paramount concern for him.
Rule #6 The narrative-historical approach is ante-orthodox not anti-orthodox
The narrative-historical approach to the New Testament attempts to understand how things appeared from the historical perspective of Jesus and his followers. This is an ante-orthodox perspective, not necessarily an anti-orthodox perspective. The theological content of the New Testament is taken to be the product of a narrative told essentially within the context of, and according to the terms of, second temple Judaism. This inevitably, I think, brings into the foreground the story of how the Jesus born to Mary and Joseph or the Jesus baptized by John came to be acknowledged as judge and ruler of the nations, to the glory of the God of Israel—a story which is largely eclipsed under later orthodoxy. To the extent that Jesus is secondarily associated with the word or wisdom of God, with the process of creation, perhaps even identified with the creator, this still needs to be understood in the light of Jewish word/wisdom categories and in relation to the Jewish apocalyptic narrative. We do not understand the New Testament better by dressing it up in the clothing of a post-Jewish orthodoxy.
Rule #7 Apply with care
The narrative-historical approach raises two general questions about how the New Testament is meaningful for the church today.
First, although the approach is not inherently anti-orthodox, to the extent that there is a misalignment between the language, conceptuality and intention of the New Testament and the language, conceptuality and intention of theological orthodoxy, we may ask whether there are not better ways of expressing the meaning of the New Testament in our own narrative context. For example, we might ask whether it is not more important at the moment to affirm that Jesus is Lord than that Jesus is God.
Secondly, I think that we are more consistent if we resist the natural tendency to apply the text directly to our own circumstances and ask how the historical narrative itself determines who we are and how we are to behave. This forces us to take into account the controversial history of the church and the concrete realities of our post-Christendom, post-modern context. If we simply assert that Jesus died for my sins, we make history irrelevant. If we assert that Jesus died for the sins of Israel, we have to engage with his death by way of the historical existence of the church.
- 1. R.B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 20.