Narrative Criticism of the Gospels: Does Anybody Outside of North America Really Care? (Skinner)

I am presently editing a book on Markan character studies, and for that book I have just completed a lengthy survey of scholarship from Wrede (1903) up to the work of the performance critics (2013). The early portions of my survey (up to redaction criticism) included a fair amount of material in French and German as well as publications in English from scholars working in Europe. However, by the time I reached the rise of narrative critical theory in the 1980s, there was a dramatic change. At the end of my essay I note:

In the early portions of our review, references to literature produced by European scholars—both on the continent and in the United Kingdom—were ubiquitous. By contrast, our coverage of literary methods in Markan scholarship has shown the relative scarcity of such works arising from within the European academy. This observation is true not only with respect to character studies, but seemingly with the entire narrative-critical enterprise. It appears that scholars working in North America, particularly in the United States, and those working in Europe are not only asking different questions about the text but also working both from different methodologies and bibliographies.[1] Apart from the work of Susan Miller (Scotland), Ole Davidsen (Denmark), Geert van Oyen (Belgium), Camille Focant (Belgium) and Stephen D. Moore (an Irish scholar who teaches in the United States) one is hard-pressed to identify much significant research in this area undertaken by European scholars or by those teaching in a European context. Taking this observation a step further, with the exception of several fine contributions from a handful of Australian scholars,[2] most recent narratalogical works, including those related to characterization, have been generated almost exclusively by scholars working in North America or by North American students studying abroad. While the growth of narrative-critical studies has largely taken place within an American context, one can hardly doubt whether enough time has passed or enough quality material has been published to demonstrate sufficiently the value of this approach. We are therefore left wondering: Why is there such a chasm between a European academy focused largely on historical concerns and the more methodologically diverse North American scene? What is it about narrative criticism, character studies, and the panoply of methods that has captured the North American scholarly imagination while leaving the European academy virtually untouched? Most importantly, is there a way to bridge this gulf between the North American and European scenes?

I have asked around but I haven’t really gotten a good answer as to why such a gap persists. Since all of my education took place here in the United States, I am not really in a position to offer any substantive insights about this state of affairs. However, I would love to hear what you think about all of this, especially if you have studied in Europe or are currently teaching in a post outside of North America. Why does such a gap persist?


[1] On this observation I have gleaned some helpful insights from Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, both in personal correspondence and in two different essays: the first is her review of van Iersel’s reader-response commentary on Mark (Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, ‘Review of Bas M. F. Van Iersel, Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary [Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998]’ in Bib 81 [2000], pp. 285-90), and the second a review of the 2011 English translation of Camille Focant’s commentary on Mark delivered at the SBL Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois (19 November 2012). In these essays she notes how both scholars—one Dutch and the other French—demonstrate a relative lack of awareness of and/or concern for narrative-critical issues and recent publications in the US, even though these two scholars are trying to move in that direction.

[2] See Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Narrative Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), idem, Mark: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004). Other Australian scholars have published significant narratological and/or narrative-oriented research on the Gospel of John, including Dorothy A. Lee (Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel: The Interplay of Form and Meaning [JSNTSup, 95; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994]; and Flesh and Glory: Symbol, Gender and Theology in the Gospel of John [New York: Crossroad, 2002]), Mary Coloe (God Dwells with Us: Temple Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2001]), and Ruth Sheridan (Retelling Scripture: The Jews and the Scriptural Citations in John 1:19-12:15 [BIS, 110; Leiden: Brill, 2012]).

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19 thoughts on “Narrative Criticism of the Gospels: Does Anybody Outside of North America Really Care? (Skinner)

  1. Chris, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the US has dominated this particular discussion in NT studies. In a very anecdotal way, I wonder if it has to do with the fact that “NT studies” was defined in a very specific way in the UK for a very long time, and still is in many ways. Despite this, though, there are some exceptions if you broaden the gaze beyond narrative criticism proper and NT. More literary-critical informed studies have come from, for example, Yvonne Sherwood (formerly Glasgow, now Kent) in HB. Plus, Thiselton has done lots with literary criticism and hermeneutics in NT. There’s some related work in, e.g., reception-history in English literature (e.g., Christopher Rowland at Oxford) and Ward Blanton (an American at Kent) does cultural criticism work that’s not entirely unrelated. There’s aren’t strictly narrative criticism in the style of Culpepper and Malbon, though….

    1. Thanks, Chris. This is useful. I will track down some of the material you mention. You seem to confirm something I suspected, however. I have been of the opinion for some time that the notion of “NT Studies” does seem to have a fixed definition in the UK and this might be one reason why the relatively young and “upstart” North American scene is open to things that might seem like passing fancies to the (by contrast) established UK scene. Thanks for weighing in.

  2. This isn’t really my area of expertise at all, but my impression of Oxford is that we’ve had several students work on narrative critical themes (usually under John Muddiman or Chris Tuckett, both now retired), and we have taught it as one method among others to our students, but it hasn’t featured prominently on anyone’s research agenda here, though it is often seen as a necessary part of the toolkit in perhaps a less theoretically heavy way. Not sure exactly why that is, though; perhaps there is among some a hesitation about theory? Also, I note a few books in German that have made some use of narratological theory and Mark (though perhaps in a somewhat different vein?), e.g., P. Müller, Wer ist dieser? Jesus im Markusevangelium; H-U Ruegger, Verstehen, was Markus erzählt; Christian Rose, Theologie als Erzählung im Markusevangelium; W. Fritzen, Von Gott verlassen? But perhaps they do so in a different sense than you intend. Dunno – it’s an interesting question you pose.

  3. To echo Dave’s comment, I think it might be more common to have PhD dissertations on a narratological topic in the UK. I remember several such topics at Durham. That said, these were often written by North American students. So perhaps this supports your observation, Dr. Skinner. …if I were to press further, I would want to know if the same distinction exists in OT/HB.
    -anthony

      1. Hi Chris: The RRENAB, mentioned by Job, has been working on Narratology and the Bible since 2000. I have done some work with them and they are extremely advanced in narrative approaches to the Bible. They alternate between an International colloquium and a Graduate symposium every year. The 2014 International Colloquium is to be held in Montreal (http://www.ftsr.umontreal.ca/recherche/rrenab/index.html), and David Rhoads will be the key speaker. The website of the RRENAB is: http://www2.unil.ch/rrenab/

      2. You are welcome. Credit goes to Geert Van Oyen (UCL) and Martin I. Webber (ETF Leuven) though, who pointed me to this great list of sources.

  4. I suspect you could be on to something, though it would seem strange if people like Hengel and Schröter were arguing that too much attention was being given to the narrative level and too little to the historical question if there was not a certain amount of interest in this approach within German scholarship, but perhaps they mostly have American scholarship in mind? In any case, two volumes that come to mind for me are F. Hahn (ed) Der Erzähler des Evangeliums (1985) and P. Müller Wer ist dieser (1995). Best, Wayne

  5. I forgot to mention this but thought I should throw a plug for one of my Sheffield lecturers Hugh Pyper. Like Yvonne Sherwood he is a literary and cultural critic who works primarily in the area of the Hebrew Bible, but his scholarship spans both Testaments (as well as Kierkegaard!) and you can probably find some stuff on the Gospels in his publications.

  6. I think one should be very careful with terminology. Generally, narrative-critism is biblical studies terminology for literary analysis of texts, whereas narratology is a broader approach to narrativity which, for some ‘narratologists’, extends far beyond the sorts of things biblical studies narrative critics have traditionally been interested in. My sense is that some of the geographic differences reflect differences in terminology rather than interest in the method.

    On this note, I mention again the Narratologia series by De Gruyter which represents a diversity of scholars and I think may temper your comments (unless you wish to limit your comments to biblical-studies-style narrative-criticism). I’ve commented a bit further here, as you may recall.

    At my institution, U. of Edinburgh, Alison Jack primarily uses a literary method and Helen Bond’s more recent/forthcoming publications are a bit literary, as well, though she is perhaps best known for previous historical-critical work. Other scholars in NT and OT here have published one or two pieces using literary analyses, even if their primary methods are historical-critical. Hope that helps.

  7. I think one should be very careful with terminology. Generally, narrative-critism is biblical studies terminology for literary analysis of texts, whereas narratology is a broader approach to narrativity which, for some ‘narratologists’, extends far beyond the sorts of things biblical studies narrative critics have traditionally been interested in. My sense is that some of the geographic differences reflect differences in terminology rather than interest in the method.

    On this note, I mention again the Narratologia series by De Gruyter which represents a diversity of scholars and I think may temper your comments (unless you wish to limit your comments to biblical-studies-style narrative-criticism). I’ve commented a bit further here, as you may recall.

    At my institution, U. of Edinburgh, Alison Jack primarily uses a literary method and Helen Bond’s more recent/forthcoming publications are a bit literary, as well, though she is perhaps best known for previous historical-critical work. Other scholars in NT and OT here have published one or two pieces using literary analyses, even if their primary methods are historical-critical. Hope that helps.

  8. What’s interesting about this issue is that “the” book in Pauline studies that addresses narrative criticism is one done by British scholars–Narrative Dynamics in Paul–though, of course, Bruce Longenecker is the one who edited it. It would be an interesting to consider the influences on the two areas–Paul vs Gospels–that would lead in one direction or another.

  9. I don’t have much to add, Chris, except to say that my impression is that Sheffield was actually a bit of a pioneer in these areas, at least in the UK. Mike mentioned Hugh, but even before he came to Sheffield David Clines was doing seminal work in literary theory and the NT (and Stephen Moore was at Sheffield for a while, too). Also, Werner Kelber’s early work was literary-critical, and that interest is still evident even after his turn toward media studies. But someone (I’m too lazy to check who) made a good point re: terminology. Your interest seems more focused on biblical narrative criticism, especially of the gospels, and it seems to me (an outsider) that narrative and literary criticism are not quite the same thing.

    1. Shoot. I meant to mention Cheryl Exum as well. Cheryl’s an American, but she did a lot of literary-critical work, I think, at Sheffield. While I’m thinking about Sheffield, the department as a whole has been taking the literary-critical interest and pointing it toward cultural analysis, perhaps especially evident in James Crossley’s works.

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