Book Review: Literary Approaches to the Bible

Book Review: Literary Approaches to the Bible June 10, 2018

Mangum, Douglas, and Douglas Estes, eds.
Literary Approaches to the Bible. Vol. 4, Lexham Methods Series.
Bellingham: Lexham, 2017.

Reviewed by Andrew Judd

Some time ago a student came to my office to talk about his research project. His topic is New Testament hermeneutics, and while we were chatting he asked if a book existed which went through all the “criticisms” and explained where they came from and how they work – Historical Grammatical Criticism, Form Criticism, Narrative Criticism, Rhetorical Criticism, Marxist Criticism, etc. I found him a couple of decent introductory works and dictionary articles which covered the main players, but I reflected afterwards at the surprisingly slim pickings (at least on my shelf!).

What I wanted was a single volume, a few hundred pages, covering the main garden varieties of criticism, one chapter each, written in an accessible way, by an expert (or preferably experts), with a sympathetic posture, with examples of the theory in practice in biblical studies, and an excellent annotated bibliography. A nice font wouldn’t go astray either.
The Lexham people must have heard my cry, because that is (almost) exactly what they (very nearly) deliver in Literary Approaches to the Bible. The goal of this series is delightful: to introduce the major approaches to biblical interpretation. Previous volumes have covered Textual, Historical-Grammatical, Source, Form, Tradition-Historical, Redaction and Social-scientific criticisms. This volume takes on those approaches most influenced by literary theory and criticism.

This volume begins with Canonical Criticism, giving a good introduction to some of the debates over the precise meaning of that term. It then covers Old Testament Rhetorical and Narrative Criticism, Inner-Biblical Interpretation, Narrative and Rhetorical Criticism again (this time from the New Testament side of campus), before finishing up with Structural and Post Structural Criticism. Each chapter gives a fairly brief introduction to the approach’s origins and goals, its relationship to other approaches, (usually) a sketch of how it might apply to the interpretation of a particular piece of scripture, and an annotated bibliography for further reading. While some of the annotated bibliographies direct students where to begin reading the seminal texts for themselves, others include mainly references to secondary material.

Of course, the overlapping and multifarious nature of the field means any Contiki Tour like this is going to be selective. Contextual, Feminist, Marxist, Psychoanalytic and Post-Colonial Criticisms could all make a sensible case for their own chapters (there may be plans to deal with these with in more detail in later volumes, I’m not sure). Given the long overdue resurgence of interest in Genre Criticism in recent decades, I was surprised that Bakhtin doesn’t make it to the index. Even within the evangelical camp, approaches such as the Biblical Theology movement – still enormously influential in evangelical Australia and Britain – is reduced to a dismissive footnote to Canonical Criticism. This is not intended necessarily as a complaint: selectivity is inherent to the task.

Unlike a survey written by a single expert, this edited book brings together a number of contributors. Some of the authors are active contributors to the fields they are describing, others are probably less well known. The advantage here is in the diversity: no one person can be an expert in all the ways of reading the Bible. The drawback is that the chapters are of variable construction and quality. The hand of the editor is heavy in one chapter to try to translate technical terms for the target audience, while other chapters at times risk being accessible almost to the point of (in my opinion) inaccuracy.

Of course, these limitations are hazards to do with the kind of book this is. To summarise all the ways of reading the Bible to everyone’s liking is a daunting task. Overall, I think this is a commendable resource. I can see myself setting some of the standout chapters, if not the whole book, as reading for an introductory hermeneutics course.

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