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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.



Rhetorical and New Literary Criticism

Margaret M. Mitchell

At first glance this chapter seems to be faced with an impossible task, or at the very least to have been assigned a kind of grab-bag of interpretive approaches, in the very pairing of ‘rhetorical criticism’ with ‘new literary criticism’, and in the fact that there is no scholarly consensus about what each of those two ‘methods’ in itself does or should include. Add to that the reality that these methodological approaches have some distinct applications in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, and one seems to be in the position of trying to herd cats. But there is some commonality, and the labels do refer to recognizable shifts on the landscape of biblical scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century.

A usual way of justifying this collocation is the claim that what these interpretive stances essentially share is a quasi-, non-, or even anti-historical perspective in the face of the colossal, impervious mountain of historical-critical biblical scholarship seen as the default setting against which these interpretive modes are ‘the other’. This conception of things (from which I will seek to demur in this essay) is indeed not merely externally imposed, for some modern ‘rhetorical’ and ‘literary’-critical approaches to New Testament texts do have in common with one another (and, ironically, with the ‘historical-critical method’ itself) an originating rhetoric, dating to the 1970s and 1980s, of liberation from a range of Babylonian captivities from which biblical studies required an exodus:

  • (a) ‘biblical texts [being] valued less for what they actually were than for what they told us about other putative texts or events to which there was no direct access’. (Alter and Kermode 1978: 4)

  • (b) ‘from a dogmatist, historical-scientistic or culturally relativist paradigm of interpretation to a critical rhetorical-emancipating paradigm’. (Schüssler-Fiorenza 1999: 57; 1987: 9)

  • (c) ‘out of an increasingly confining captivity, exile or dispersion imposed by the dual hegemony of traditional science and traditional philosophy’. (Wuellner 1987: 462)

  • (d) ‘liberat[ing] biblical narrative from scholars and specialists and giv[ing] it back to nonspecialized readers by emphasizing plot, characterization, and theme’. (West 1992: 424)

  • (e) ‘out of the ghetto of an aesthetizing preoccupation with biblical stylistics which has remained for centuries formalized, and functionless, and contextless’. (Wuellner 1987: 462)

  • (f) de-centring ‘the authority of an author as a “canonical”, “elitist”, or “privileged” source of knowledge’. (Thiselton 1992: 472, who himself critiques this position)

Equally ironically, these ‘new methods’ have actually found a large measure of acceptance within ‘mainstream’ biblical scholarship (such that no Handbook, such as this, could bypass them). Yet their precise definitions, responsibilities, and relationship to ‘historical-critical’ exegesis remain in a process of negotiation and ongoing development.

The present essay will provide one sketch of some historically significant moments in the emergence of these interpretive approaches, and give some methodological pointers and resources for those who seek to comprehend and exercise them. But we should be clear at the outset about expectations: none of these methodologies should be taken as a simple three-point programme for the ‘right’ reading, or even necessarily an improved one; but each forefronts a different set of questions and resources which an astute reader may profitably bring into play in her or his readings of various biblical texts. Nor should these methodologies be treated as professions; one should not aspire to be solely a ‘rhetorical critic’ or a ‘literary critic’. Pluralism in interpretive approaches is no passing modernist or post-modernist fad; it is here to stay, and informed readers should be prepared to hear and (perhaps even) to speak in many tongues, even as they have distinct preferences and proclivities that deserve to be honoured.

The basic assumption informing the present essay is a simple one: texts worth not only reading but rereading, not just for ephemerally pertinent information, but for continual human formation, scrutiny, criticism, and inspiration, when encountered by inquisitive readers (the best kind!), occasion a plurality of questions. Critical methodologies are means whereby experienced readers have learned to follow up those questions fruitfully to reach some answers, or at least insights, into the questions they pose. Many readers of biblical texts are confronted immediately by a range of historical questions: the who, what, when, and where of the ancient contexts denoted and connoted in the texts cry out for explication. And it has been the work of centuries of historiographical investigation, which of course continues at this very moment, to amass, interpret, and judiciously correlate the body of historical data (textual, artefactual, archaeological) with the texts in question. It would be needlessly restrictive (as well as practically impossible) for any reader to bracket off completely any whole set or type of question from any consideration, just as it would be uncivil (and unwise) to refuse to grant that other readers may wish to focus their energies in different places from oneself. Given this rationale, rather than taking as a starting-point an inherited dichotomy between clearly demarcated ‘historical’ and ‘ahistorical’ methodologies (in agreement with Barton 1998: 18), I would suggest instead that what unites the different methodological approaches I shall cover in this chapter is a pair of somewhat paradoxical values: a shared commitment to a close reading of the exact wording and inner working of the text, and an understanding of the text as in some sense dynamic rather than static or fixed. One may inculcate these two principles in approaches that emphasize the text's ancient origins, or in those which seek to focus on its modern readers. Most readings meet somewhere in the middle.

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