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Literary Criticism

To conclude the content part of my series on Biblical criticism, I want to discuss literary criticism. Much of the practice of literary criticism is similar to genre and to a lesser extent canonical criticism.

Essentially, literary criticism involves forgetting about the historical and theological aspects and simply reading the Bible as literature. One can even read portions as different types of literature. For those who are primarily concerned with extracting propositional truth from the Bible, this may not seem like a very useful activity, but as with any literary study, it can be a very powerful and useful experience for the student.

This process does not require you to decide that the Bible is untrue, or that it does not contain theological or historical information. It merely means that you look at it in a different way. In many cases this will help you see more clearly the historical message, even though this is the goal.

Consider Samuel and Kings, for example. These four books tell the story of Israel from the end of the time of the judges through the Babylonian exile, a time period of around 500 years. One approach, and indeed the most common approach, is to study the text and its sources in order to find the maximum amount of historical information possible. Alternatively we ask the question of what theological lessons the author is trying to portray through these events? But the literary critic would ask questions about the overall plot and various subplots, and look at the characterization of the various kings. Why does the author emphasize the kings that he does? What is the literary purpose of the Elijah and Elisha story cycles? Who are the characters and what can we discover about them?

In the Psalms, this approach can be especially effective. Here again the actual genre of the text is more important. In Samuel-Kings we disregard the actual genre, a sort of historiography, and look at it in terms appropriate to a work of fiction. In Psalms, we are looking at poetry, and can study each Psalm as poetry while looking for the genre (more in the sense in which that term is used in form criticism). Here the questions are form and structure and the simple art of the poetry. (See my paper on Psalm 104.)

Literary criticism is a large topic, and would require much more than a blog entry, so I’m going to err on the side of brevity–a very uncommon error for me!–and stop with these few very general remarks.

I will be following this with a series of posts applying critical methods to Isaiah 24-27. I think this is a very interesting passage to use as a test case, and I expect to post several entries on it. Because these are demonstration passages for the critical methodologies I have been discussing here, I will post these on this blog rather than my new Participatory Bible Study Blog, where I’m currently discussing the New Testament book of Hebrews.

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