Some rough and ready “rules” for doing a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament

Thu, 09/05/2013 - 18:54

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.

Comments

A helpful and lucid guide to the inner world of narrative historical readings of the New Testament. I understand your emphasis on affirming that Jesus is Lord rather then Jesus is God in point 7. I don’t think it holds good, given that on more than one occasion (not just Philippians 2:11), Jesus is affirmed as ‘Lord’, when that can only mean ‘YHWH’ rather than the ‘Anti-Emperor’. The reason why the affirmation of Jesus as Lord=God is important, and a narrative affirmation, not a hellenistic, theologico-modern affirmation, I’ve suggested a number of times, such as here. I do apologise for seeming to be condescending to J.T Tancock, and I do have the odd moment when I’m not exploring this blog.

I think Andrew has a good point here. Jesus=God is totally unnecessary, seeing the reality of functional identity and the corresponding animosity from earthly leaders toward the newly corronated king of Ps 2.

Please don’t get off on the trinitarian debate again, everybody. That’s not what the post’s about.

I don’t think it holds good, given that on more than one occasion (not just Philippians 2:11), Jesus is affirmed as ‘Lord’, when that can only mean ‘YHWH’ rather than the ‘Anti-Emperor’.

Philippians 2:11 can only mean that Jesus is YHWH? Couldn’t it mean that YHWH has affirmed Jesus as his anointed messiah by raising him from the dead and exalting him above Caesar (and every other earthly ruler) and appointing him as his own designated representative by seating him on his own throne and putting every earthly person and thing under his rule? Giving Jesus the name that is above every name could be using language like that regarding Aaron in Exodus 39:30-31 and mean that YHWH has designated and dedicated Jesus as his true high priest, couldn’t it? Isn’t the above basically what Philippians 2:5-10 says? It doesn’t have to be either YHWH himself or the anti-emperor, does it? This seems like a false dichotomy.

Andrew,

I have wondered before why you seem to start your whole frame of refernce in Genesis 12 instead of Genesis 1. Now I have to ask this question again.

Frankly, it seems to me that if you start at the very beginning, in Genesis 1, you would likely come up with a different emphasis then your Israel in relationship to God and to the nations emphasis that you seem to think sums up the whole narrative.

Cherylu,

I picked up on that too. I agree with Andrew on the emphasis on Israel and her relationship to God, but I disagree with you that one would come up with a different emphasis if one started in Genesis 1 using his hermeneutic. In fact, I think if Andrew were to merely apply his own hermeneutic starting in Genesis 1 (which I have not seen him do yet), it would only solidify his position even further. After all are we really to believe that

“…one thousand one hundred and seventy-nine chapters of the Bible deal with the history of the Israelites and only the first ten deal with the physical creation of the universe. That is, the first ten chapters of the Bible speak about the creation of the physical universe, the next one thousand one hundred and seventy-seven chapters deal specifically with the history of Israel. Then, according to a futuristic perspective,the very last two chapters in Revelation deal with the destruction of the physical universe and the creation of a new physical universe. The “first heavens and earth ” which Revelation says must “pass away” is of course referring to the same heavens and earth which God created “in the beginning.”

Maybe you, and especialy Andrew, should consider this:

http://www.newcreationministries.tv/genesis.html

I hardly think one can accurately characterize the first ten (or eleven) chapters of the Bible as only dealing with the creation of the physical universe!

Cherylu,

That is an over simplication of the point, and I think you know it.

Rich,

My point is that if we leave the first eleven chapters out of the story–just seeming to ignore them as Andrew has for whatever reason–or if we oversimplify them to be about the creation of the physical universe as I take that quote to be doing, I think there are very important ideas and concepts that are missed right at the start of the narrative. Ideas and concepts that put a different slant on the rest of the story and make it come across skewed if they are not taken into consideration.

Cherylu,

Don’t get me wrong. I’m agreeing with you that if one doesn’t include Genesis 1-11 & Revelation 21-22, one will get a skewed understanding of the story; one which I think has directly affected Andrew and his current understanding. However, I also think his hermeneutic is correct (mostly), but he has just never stopped to reconsider (as he has the rest of the Bible) and/or apply it to Genesis. He just marches on as if the mainstream evangelical presentation of Genesis as a physical creation account is correct. And as such he is forced, by logic, to assume a physical destruction and re-creation in Revelation because Revelation 21 references the “first” heaven and “first” earth of Genesis. In other words, if one assumes Genesis is about the physical then Revelation must be about the physical. This is what Andrew has done, and thus he has shaped his eschatology by detaching the last two chapters of Revelation from the rest of the book to fit that assumption. Reminds me of those who try to break apart Matthew 24 to get around what is clear concerning Christ’s return.

The point I was trying to make with the quote, which the whole article addresses (you should give it a read), is this. Are we really suppose to accept that the entire Bible is about Israel and her relationship with YHWH except the first few chapters of Genesis and the last two of Revelation? Seems to me that if the first few chapters are about the universal world and the last two are about the universal physical world, then doesn’t it make sense that everything in between would be about the same thing, not just one small isolated people group? I say YES!

Many, however, such as Wright are reconsidering Genesis (because it doesn’t work as a physical account). The following is a series of articles by one who has started investigating Genesis and, like Andrew, has documented some of his findings. Try giving the first paper a read and I’m sure you’ll find yourself anxious to read the rest. Very enlightening.

http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_scholarly_paper.pdf

http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_scholarly_paper_2.pdf

http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_collapsing_universe.pdf

All his articles can be found here: http://biologos.org/blog/author/brian-godawa

You have 11 chapters in Genesis that deal with creation and the failure of humanity to live in loyal relationship to the creator. Then you have the whole of the rest of hte Bible, including the New Testament, narrating the story of the family of Abraham. The creational context is important, but the rest of scripture is about an intensifying conflict between Israel and the nations, Israel and empire.

Cheryl -

The first 11 chapters of Genesis are written with Israel already in mind. There is plenty of thought available that show how the early chapters of Genesis are not so much about the beginnings of the universe and all things, but rather the beginnings of the people of Abraham. Hence, a quick movement from Adam to Abraham.

I agree, but this can be overstated. On the one hand, Genesis 1-11 gives us an explanation not only of sin but also of empire. On the other, it is an important part of Paul’s argument in Romans that Israel is no less implicated in the essential human sinfulness of Adam as the Gentiles are.

Part of my concern, Andrew, about leaving out those first chapters of Genesis is that it shows at the very beginning that sin is an individual human thing. The very first man and woman sinned–and therefore need God’s intervention in the form of a Savior and a Messiah–long before there was an empire or a nation of Israel in need of national salvation. Which is where you seem to put most of your emphasis.

There was certainly no national eschatological crisis going on in Genesis. But right from the start God had to intervene and provide a “covering” for Adam and Eve to deal with the result of their sin.

Cherylu, I don’t question the fact that there is a personal sin problem underlying everything. As I said, Paul identifies this as the fundamental reason why Israel as a people failed to keep the commandments and therefore became subject to the wrath of God—that is, national destruction.

But God called Abraham not in Genesis 4 but in Genesis 12. He called him in response to the whole narrative of creational rebellion culminating in the first attempt to build Babylon, idolatrous empire. He called him not to save individuals from their sins—that is no part of the story—but to be a new creation, an alternative people, defined by loyalty and trust. Modern evangelicalism, in its focus on the salvation of individuals, has completely lost sight of that dimension, but it is critical for understanding what is going in the New Testament.

So what can be said in response to’the rules’?

Rule 1, I suggest, contains an element of truth, but in my opinion goes too far in making a divide between the so-called theological interpretation (which, it is claimed, has distorted readings since patristic times), and a narrative interpretation, in which the “the main controlling structure is the story of Israel and the nations” (Rule #2). This is a false antithesis, but does point us to reading more carefully with narrative historical lenses, which does throw up some surprising insights.

Rule 2 suggests that

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 think his overlooks features of the story, within the narrative historical framework, which suggest something else is taking place. A starting point for an alternative explanation might be found in the interventions of God in human affairs through a remarkable series of covenants.

Without going in detail into all the covenants themselves, what seems to emerge from these covenants is something of an overarching purpose, which might be described as a determination to put right the consequences of the breaking of a primeval relationship, with a command at its boundary, which affects all aspects of the subsequent story.

Within this purpose is the nation of Israel, both a microcosm of the problem itself, and the means whereby the problem was to be resolved. The solution of the problem was not to be of benefit to one nation alone, rather, through the promises contained in one of the earliest of the covenants, “all nations will be blessed”.

So I think we are missing something very significant indeed if we take Rule 2 at its face value. The description of the “main narrative structure” given above contains something of the truth of the story, but omits so much else that the story is in danger of becoming unrecognisable.

…what seems to emerge from these covenants is something of an overarching purpose, which might be described as a determination to put right the consequences of the breaking of a primeval relationship, with a command at its boundary, which affects all aspects of the subsequent story.

Apart from the Noachic covenant there is no covenant with humanity. They are all covenants with the family of Abraham. There is no plan in scripture anywhere to solve the problem of human sin. That’s why in the end sin has to be destroyed in the lake of fire. There is only a plan to solve the problem of the sin of God’s people, so that they can fulfil their mission to be his new creation in the midst of the nations. The only story that is told from Genesis 12 to Revelation 20 is the story of how Israel fulfils its calling in relation to the nations. The inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant people is a critical development in that story, but it doesn’t alter the basic narrative shape. You have provided no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Apart from the Noachic covenant there is no covenant with humanity. They are all covenants with the family of Abraham.

The Noachic covenant was not a covenant with humanity either. Noah was a member of the covenant line that started with Adam. All the covenants in the Bible stem from family through a covenant line, which didn’t start with Abraham as you propose. They started with Adam, the first covenant man (not the first human on planet earth), Israel’s first covenant head, to which Jesus became the second. There are many things that are driving your misunderstanding concerning this, which space constraints do not allow me to present. A couple simple ones are as follows:

1) The assumption that Adam was the first human.

One, of many examples, that show Adam was not the only man on earth but the first “covenant man”, can be seen in Genesis 4: 13-16

13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Much can be brought out here, but to simplify it, who was Cain afraid of that would find and kill him?

2) The assumption that the flood was a universal flood. It was not. It was a local, or perhaps more accurate, covenant flood. This can be seen throughout the Bible in many ways if one has eyes to look and ears to listen. For example:

Genesis 6:4 - The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.

Numbers 13:33 - And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

The Nephilim were on the earth before and after the Flood. Not possible if a worldwide flood as taught today happened. Also, the reference to the “sons of God” is a reference to this covenant/family line within humanity that God was working through. The family/covenant line that start with Adam.

There is no plan in scripture anywhere to solve the problem of human sin. That’s why in the end sin has to be destroyed in the lake of fire. There is only a plan to solve the problem of the sin of God’s people, so that they can fulfil their mission to be his new creation in the midst of the nations.

You are correct there was no plan in Scripture to solve the problem of human sin (directly). What I believe your error is concerns what sin was destroyed in the lake of fire. The sin being dealt with throughout the entire Scriptures was a specific sin that started with Adam who broke the law (thou shall not eat). From then on that Covenant Sin (Paul’s “the sin” Romans 5 & 6 – see the definite articles in the Greek) would reign over the Covenant line (body), which became a nation (Israel) until it was finally destroyed (lake of fire). The lake of fire was not about only destroying “the death” but that which yielded sin its power, the law (1 Cor. 15:56). Since the law only pertained to Israel, “the death” due to “the sin” only belonged to Israel. Thus, your next statement is correct too,

There is only a plan to solve the problem of the sin of God’s people.

Christ came as Israel’s second Adam to die and be resurrected (born again) into a new covenant world. The reason Jesus had to be born of a woman and under the law (Gal. 4:4-5) was so he would be part of that old covenant world (the first heaven and earth) to die to it in order to redeem those who dwelled within it; those under the law, which gave “the sin” its power to reign over them. Again, the law only reigned over Israel, thus “the death” was Israel’s alone making “the sin” Israel’s alone, which is why, as you’ve stated many times, Jesus came to redeem only Israel. Or as you stated again: “to solve the problem of the sin of God’s people”.

Having died to that old world, Jesus was “born again” into a new “world”. This is the new heaven and earth (covenant world) that Israel was to be resurrected into via her new corporate head (Jesus) by dying to the old man (body of sin/Adam) via baptism into Christ’s death. This is what was going on in the 1st century. Israel (via the remnant) was progressively (AD 30 to AD 70 – Israel’s 40 year antitype wilderness journey) dying to the old man and being resurrected into the new man (Christ) who was creating (I go to prepare a place) a new covenant world (heaven and earth) to which they could be resurrected into. This is why 1 Cor. 15 presents the resurrection (corporate body resurrection) with present passive verbs. This is why Paul in 1 Cor. 15 could tie the resurrection to the law (1 Cor. 15:54-57)! Christ could give Israel victory over the law by give her a new world to dwell in and by destroying the old “world” (her old [first] heaven and earth from Genesis 1). That is also why Matthew 5:18 directly ties the removal of the “heaven and earth” to the law! If one agrees the law has been removed, then they must admit that “heaven and earth” has passed too! On that note, if one agrees the law has been done away with they must also admit the Resurrection has been fulfilled too, we saw that above in 1 Cor. 15:54-57.

So what of the sin of humanity? Man still sins and always will. However, he will only do it outside the gates (Rev. 22:15). But the gates are always open (Rev. 21:25)!!! The invitation is always open for one to wash his robes so that he may have the right to the tree of life (Christ) and enter the city (New Jerusalem) via the gates (Rev. 22:14). It’s in that way that the sin of humanity is indirectly solved. Man will always have a “place” to escape it.

Rich, has Andrew stated somewhere a belief that Adam was the first human or that the flood was a universal flood? I have never assumed that he believes either of these is the case. Maybe I missed a post or article of his somewhere?

BradK

I have never read Andrew state in a definitive statement one way or another. I have merely come to this understanding over time reading his books and blog small little statements that imply these positions. Maybe I’ve misunderstood him at various places though. Perhaps he could address this subject and make clear his positions. I wish I could remember an exact place and statement to show you, but since they are small little statements here and there it’s kind of hard to muster up an example.

I can see the reasons for thinking that the account of creation and expulsion from the garden in Genesis 2-3 is specifically formative for Israel, and clearly there are anomalies, but it seems to me to generate too many problems to suppose that Adam is the head of only part of humanity. Genesis 2:5, for example, states that prior to the formation of Adam there was no man on the earth—there is no reason to think that ʾāreṣ here means the covenant land. Why does Eve need to be specially created if humanity already existed as male and female? But it’s an interesting theory.

The covenant with Abraham was in effect a covenant with humanity - since through his seed “all nations will be blessed”. You either see that statement as incidental to God’s covenant with Abraham, or the intended outcome.

The covenant with humanity in the Noachic covenant narrows down to a covenant with a particular family through Abraham and Israel. You either say there was no continuity between Israel and earlier promises, or there was. Paul seemed to think there was contintuity, eg in Galatians 3:8 and following.

The Sinai covenant was part of this narrowing down of the story to a particular people, but it was nevertheless part of a story which never lost its worldwide significance, and which went on to accomplish a worldwide significance.

The promise of a Davidic king and kingdom (2 samuel 7:12-16) is seen as having worldwide significance even before Jesus came and gave it worldwide significance - eg Isaiah 55:4-5.

The summary division of covenants between old and new points to their significance: old covenant (Israel); new covenant (Israel then worldwide).

The variety of covenants (five), the summary division between old and new, point to a fundamental single purpose (one): to restore creation.

You are quite right in insisting that these overarching purposes are less than explicit in large sections of the narrative. But large sections of the narrative are not about Irael trying to make sense of her relationship with God, as you say, but about Israel having lost sight of what the purpose of that relationship was, in large sections of the narrative. But the purpose never competely disappears.

Even Paul described this purpose as a “mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” - Ephesians 3:4-5. And what is this “mystery”? “That through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Isrtael, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Jesus Christ” - Ephesians 3:6.

This is as clear a statement of direct intention as any, that the promise made to Abraham was fulfilled in Christ and that it was for the Gentiles as well as Israel, on equal terms. But that it was a “mystery” warns us that it was not so obvious to previous ages that it could be easily seen by everyone, and this should govern our understanding of the Old Testament. The Old is read in the light of the New.

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