Probing Scripture: The New Biblical Critics

by Carol Newsom

Carol Newsom teaches biblical studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 3-10, 2001, p. 21. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


If anything ties together the various strands of new approaches to biblical interpretation, it is a concern for the relationship of language, meaning and power.

Once upon a time biblical studies was focused almost exclusively on historical questions. Scholars’ primary concern was with the history of the texts and with the history of the cultures which produced the texts. Since the 1970s, however, the field has witnessed a proliferation of different approaches to the Bible. These can be roughly grouped under three categories: literary, social -- scientific and cultural hermeneutical.

Literary Approaches: A popular appreciation of the narrative art of the Bible has always existed. Its stories were represented in the sculpture and stained glass windows of medieval churches, and Western literature has been profoundly influenced by its characters, themes and symbols. In both Judaism and Christianity the reading and retelling of the stories in devotional and liturgical contexts made them deeply familiar. Yet even though biblical Hebrew poetry had been the subject of academic study since the 18th century little attention had been paid to the poetics of biblical narrative.

One impetus to the interest in biblical narrative was the creation in the 1960s and ‘70s or departments of religious studies in nondenominational colleges and public universities. In such contexts the study of the Bible "as literature" was deemed especially appropriate to a secular curriculum. Giving further impetus to literary study of the Bible was the work of several scholars of English and comparative literature, who extended their expertise in the analysis of literature to biblical texts. Most prominent were Northrop Frye (The Great Code: The Bible and Literature), Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry), and Frank Kermode (The Genesis of Secrecy: A Study of the Gospel of Mark). Alter and Kermode later collaborated to edit The Literary Guide to the Bible.

This literary approach differed from historical study in significant ways. Whereas historical study tended to be concerned with the prehistory of the text (oral traditions and written source materials) and with its development through successive redactions, literary study focused on the final form of the text. Whereas historical study was interested in the world referred to by the text, literary study directed its attention to the world constructed in the text. Nevertheless, there were certain historical dimensions to this early work in biblical literature. Both Alter and Meir Sternberg attempted to isolate distinctive features of ancient Israelite narrative art (such as modes of characterization, the use of type-scenes, techniques of repetition. forms of plot development) which were not necessarily the same as the techniques used in modern Western narrative. Similarly, New Testament literary study has included a strong interest in the comparative analysis of Greco-Roman literary genres and techniques and those used in the Gospels, Acts and early noncanonical Christian literature.

Much of the early literary study of the Bible was influenced by the New Criticism, an approach that had dominated Anglo-American literary scholarship from the 1930s through the 1950s. For the New Critics the literary text was considered an autonomous work of art, to be studied independently of its authors intentions and of the sociopolitical currents of the time in which it was produced. As the literary study of the Bible was gaining ground, however rapid changes were taking place in the larger field of literary study, changes that were quickly reflected in biblical studies.

Structuralism was the first of these new movements to make its impact. The origins of structuralism lie in the work of the early 20th-century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who attempted to analyze the system of relationships within a language that makes acts of speech possible. In particular, he stressed that meanings are produced not so much by simple definition as by network of contrasts (e.g., a tree is a woody plant that is not a bush or a shrub). The anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss argued that symbolic structures within human societies, including their kinship systems and their mythologies, could be analyzed in the same way, as systems of differences structured according to binary oppositions (e.g., life/death; male/female; hunting/farming; outside/inside). In a parallel development A. J. Greimas attempted to use Saussure’s insights to develop a "grammar" of narrative in much the same way as Saussure attempted to develop a grammar of sentences.

Biblical scholars, anthropologists and literary theorists were quick to apply these approaches to the Bible. The mythic narratives and genealogical accounts of Genesis, the symbolic geography of the Gospel narratives, and even the theological vocabulary of Paul offered opportunities for analyzing the patterns of binary opposition that structuralists argued were the key to the meaning of the texts.

Even as structuralism was being adapted for the study of biblical literature, its assumptions and claims were being challenged in the wider world of philosophical and literary studies. Structuralism claimed that the binary oppositions that structure human thought are essentially universal and unaffected by culture or history. Though the surface features of texts might vary with different societies and over time, the underlying structures did not. Such claims proved difficult to sustain. Just as structuralism dispensed with history, so it also had no place for the reader in the production of meaning. Structuralism understood itself as a kind of scientific method. Yet different readers regularly reached different understandings of the same text. Finally, though structuralism seemed to lend itself well to myths, folktales and highly formulaic texts, it seemed unable to deal with more complex narratives.

In opposition to narrative criticism, with its focus on the supposedly objective and stable text, and in opposition to structuralism’s focus on impersonal and universal codes, reader-response criticism arose to argue for the essential role of the reader in the process of making meaning. Structuralism tended to display its results in terms of charts -- an implicitly spatial understanding of the text. But reader-response theory insisted that reading is essentially a temporal affair. In reading, one only gradually gathers information that is progressively organized and reorganized by the reader to produce meaning.

Moreover, the text often contains "gaps" which the reader, consciously or unconsciously, fills in (e.g., details concerning characters, aspects of motivation or causality connections between events). As the reader becomes actively involved in the process of reading, what he or she engages is not simply the issues of plot and character but also matters of norms and values, which the reader may embrace or resist. Reader-response criticism thus accounts for the different understandings of and reactions to the "same" text by different readers by claiming a necessary place for the subjective element in reading. Subjectivity is limited, however, by what the reader’s community considers to be a plausible or implausible inference. Thus it is not so much individual readers as "interpretive communities" who set the parameters according to which interpretation takes place.

One of the consequences of the focus on the role of interpretive communities has been a renewed appreciation for the forms of interpretation practiced by Jewish and Christian communities before the rise of modern biblical studies during the Enlightenment. Instead of seeing such traditional readings as naïve or simply wrong, interpreters now ask about the assumptions and values that govern the reading practices of Christian typological and allegorical exegesis and of Rabbinic midrash. Midrash in particular has engaged contemporary literary scholars, because some of its interpretive practices bear an intriguing resemblance to forms of post-modern interpretation (for example, the acceptance of multiple, even contradictory, interpretations of the same text; the interpretation of one text by another without regard to historical influence).

If reader-response criticism represented one reaction to the limitations of traditional narrative criticism and to structuralism, a more pervasive critique emerged under the rubric of poststructuralism, or deconstruction. This movement, associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, is above all a critique of the metaphysical assumptions of Western philosophy, and only secondarily an analysis of the nature of texts and tile interpretive process. Derrida noted the attempt of philosophy to posit a central term (God, reason, the human being) in relation to which all of reality can be organized. This organization characteristically takes place by means of binary oppositions (e.g., rational/irrational, oral/written, presence/absence), in which the first term is accepted as superior to the second. Deconstruction attempts to dismantle such structures in order to show their artificiality and the inevitable ways in which any such structure of thought implicitly "decenters" its central term and undermines itself through internal inconsistency and contradiction.

When applied to texts, deconstruction begins with the perception that language is inevitably incomplete and surprisingly fluid. It then analyzes how even an ostensibly logical argument is rendered problematic and even self-contradictory by extraneous details or slippages in meaning which at first appear peripheral and unimportant. For deconstruction. the point of reading is not to restate the meaning intended by the author but to engage the text in creative thought, often by means of punning play with the text. Deconstruction’s very style serves to undermine the binary opposition serious/frivolous, for its aim is in part to uncover the ways in which various forms of thought attempt to inscribe power and privilege.

The perspectives of deconstruction have been combined with other intellectual currents (most notably Freudianism and Marxism) to produce a variety of related approaches that are often referred to comprehensively by the term postmodernism. Along with Derrida’s deconstruction, Michel Foucault’s study of the complex nature of power and truth and Fredric Jameson’s neo-Marxist analysis of ideology have been deeply influential on postmodernism in biblical studies. For an overview of these trends as well as other forms of postmodernism, see The Postmodern Bible by the Bible and Culture Collective.

Since one of the features of post-modernism is its tendency to dissolve boundaries, it is scarcely surprising that its characteristic approaches have combined with a wide variety of other impulses within biblical studies, most notably feminist criticism, but also various forms of ideological criticism (as we will see in the later discussion of cultural hermeneutics).

Social-Scientific Criticism: Another form of biblical criticism that has arisen in recent years applies insights and methods from the fields of sociology, anthropology and ethnography to describe aspects of ancient social life manifested in the biblical texts and to reconstruct the social worlds behind the texts. To a certain extent historical criticism has always had a social dimension, since it has been interested in nations, states, social groupings and religious movements. Yet self-conscious social-scientific investigation has come into its own since the 1960s.

In studies concentrating on the Hebrew Bible, several areas have proven fruitful for analysis. The first issue to be examined, and one still sharply debated, is that of the socioeconomic and political nature of the formation of the Israelite tribal confederacy. Social historians rejected the conquest model of Israel’s entry into Canaan as it is described in the biblical narrative. Both George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald argued that Israel’s origins were to be sought instead in a peasant revolt against urban Canaanite overlords. The peasant movement was a revolt against the hierarchical socioeconomic structure and developed as a retribalization along egalitarian lines in the central highlands. Although both proposals have been sharply criticized for relying more on presupposed models than on textual or material evidence, they served to open the question of Israel’s origins for fresh investigation.

Since the 1970s archaeology has also generated increasing information concerning population patterns, forms of domestic architecture, agricultural practices and trade patterns for the period preceding the monarchy. This information, together with a wider array of possible comparative models for the development of noncentralized peasant societies, has begun to generate new ways of understanding early Israel, though none has yet achieved consensus.

Social-scientific approaches have also been used to investigate the significance of purity laws and kinship patterns and the social context of prophecy. They have proven useful too in studying the movement from a loose tribal confederation to the eventual formation of royal states. Social anthropologists have documented the development of chieftainships as an intermediate stage between these two forms of social organization. A chiefdom is a hierarchically organized society that lacks the strong central governmental apparatus characteristic of a true state. Though some aspects of the process are still debated, it is now generally thought that Saul’s "kingship" and at least the early stages of David’s rule should be thought of as chieftainships.

In the field of New Testament, insights from sociology were first used in the 1970s to analyze the nature of the early Christian movement. One of the watersheds in the use of sociological and anthropological analysis was the publication of The First Urban Christians, by Wayne Meeks, which was a comprehensive attempt to describe the social context and organization of the early Pauline communities. Also significant were studies of the roles honor and shame played in Mediterranean societies, and of patron-client forms of social relations. Slavery, as social phenomenon and as metaphor, has been an important topic, as has the role of prophets and prophecy, the practice of magic, and the class status of early converts to Christianity. As in the field of Hebrew Bible, the social study of family structures and gender roles has yielded important insights.

Although disputes concerning appropriate methodology for social analysis have not been absent in Hebrew Bible studies, they have been particularly prominent in New Testament studies. Even the terminology has been contested. Some scholars prefer to describe their work as social history -- that is, as an extension of traditional historical criticism that is informed by categories and questions from sociology and cultural anthropology. Others have insisted that their work is social-scientific in the strong sense of the term -- that is, as work guided by the correlation of models and data, as are more purely sociological and social-psychological studies.

More significant than the disagreement over terminology however, has been the issue of which sociological or anthropological methods and approaches are most suitable. The school of social functionalism examines the ways in which society, considered as an organism, attempts to contain and manage conflict, integrating disparate members and subgroups into the whole. This approach was used by Gerd Theissen to explore the earliest stages of the early Christian movement amid its subsequent evolution. By contrast, conflict models in sociological theory emphasize the ways in which different groups in a society pursue their own interests and the ways in which different ideologies struggle with one another. More recent work in the sociology of early Christianity has favored conflict models over social functionalism.

The nature of the textual sources has also influenced the choice of methods. Since much of the early Christian literature is self-consciously theological or ideological, cultural anthropology and the sociology of knowledge have proven particularly fruitful. Both of these approaches pay attention to the way in which societies create "symbolic universes by which to negotiate issues of identity, legitimacy and the creation or resolution of conflict. This focus on the social functions of language has drawn together literary and social criticism toward something of a convergence on what might be termed ideological criticism, an issue also central to the third methodological movement to be discussed, cultural hermeneutics.

Cultural Hermeneutics: Classical biblical criticism understood itself as objective, disinterested and even scientific. In recent years this stance has been questioned. Many now insist that the enterprise of historical criticism is unconsciously shaped and informed by cultural assumptions specific to the time and place in which that method was developed. Pure objectivity is an illusion. In the interpretation of texts and cultures, there is no "view from nowhere." All interpreters, whether or not they are aware of it, frame their questions and perceive the data from some perspective, which helps to shape their understanding of the text or culture in question.

Rather than seeing the influence of the interpreter’s social and cultural location as a problem, some have claimed it as a positive value. Thus "cultural hermeneutics" serves as an umbrella term for a variety of approaches to biblical criticism in which the social location of the interpreter is not only made explicit but serves as a principle in interpretation. The primary categories which have figured in such interpretation are those of class, ethnicity and gender.

The earliest and most methodologically self-conscious of these approaches is that of Latin American liberation theology, which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. This approach did not begin as an academic perspective but rather emerged out of the concrete experience of the poor and of the pastors who lived and worked with them. They insisted that the starting point for reading and interpreting the Bible be the experience of the crushing poverty and oppression of the lowest social classes. Interpreted from the perspective of material poverty, the Bible discloses itself as a text of liberation and serves to further a revolutionary process of emancipation.

The interpretation developed in the base Christian communities was paralleled by the work of theologians and biblical scholars, who articulated the principles of liberation hermeneutics in a series of important studies (see, especially Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, and J. Severino Croatto, Biblical Hermeneutics: Toward a Theory of Reading in the Production of Meaning). Liberation theology has tended to place special emphasis on certain portions of the Bible, notably the story of the Exodus, the social criticism of the prophets, the figure of Mary, Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God, the depiction of the liberating Christian community in Acts, and the struggle against evil in its imperialist and cosmic guise in the Book of Revelation.

In the wake of Latin American liberation hermeneutics, religious communities and academics in the various countries of Africa and Asia have developed analogous forms of biblical interpretation that work from the particular experiences of those nations. A related movement, which is indebted to liberation hermeneutics but which also draws on other sources, is postcolonial hermeneutics (see Voices from the Margins Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, edited by B. S. Sugirtharajah). Not only have the colonizers’ interpretations been examined and critiqued (e.g., the use of the Exodus/Conquest story in North America and South Africa to justify the displacement of the indigenous peoples), but increasingly attempts have been made to recover the forms of interpretation developed by the newly Christianized indigenous peoples themselves. Elements of "hybrid interpretation." that is, the mixing of indigenous traditions with Christian biblical narratives, are not only identified but often encouraged as a continuing creative practice.

Within North America, several ethnic communities, including Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Native Americans, have also developed self-conscious traditions of biblical interpretation. The earliest and most developed of these is African-American biblical hermeneutics. Afro-centric interpretation has drawn attention to the historical role played by African countries (especially Egypt and Ethiopia) and by Africans in the biblical text. But African-American biblical hermeneutics has also attended to texts and issues that have been important to the lives of the African-American community: for instance, the Exodus narratives, the place of slavery in Israelite and early Christian reflection, and the preaching of Jesus.

Whereas the various perspectives discussed so far under the rubric of cultural hermeneutics are distinctively Christian, the same cannot be said for feminist biblical hermeneutics. The emergence of the women’s movement in the 1960s and its criticism of the role of the Bible in the oppression of women posed a challenge to those who identified themselves as both Christian and feminist, or both Jewish and feminist. One early position, which still continues to be important in the evangelical community, is to affirm that the Bible, when correctly interpreted, affirms women’s full humanity. Other feminists, more critical of the Bible itself, have attempted to expose and analyze the patriarchal elements in the biblical text in order to show how the patriarchal values can be separated from the essentially liberating values that form its primary message. More radical feminists, however, have attempted to show that the biblical traditions are thoroughly and irredeemably antifeminist.

Feminist interpretation of the Bible has embraced a variety of methodologies. Some of it utilizes historical-critical and sociological biblical scholarship, since it attempts to recover and reconstruct the historical reality of women’s lives in ancient Israel and in the Greco-Roman world of early Christianity and early Judaism. Certain Christian feminists, in an attempt to make a case for the liberating nature of early Christianity, played off the egalitarian message of Jesus against his Jewish background. Jewish feminists challenged the accuracy of the representation of Judaism, and as a result, considerably more nuanced pictures of gender relations in both early Christianity and Judaism have been developed.

Not all feminist interpretation has been concerned with historical reconstruction, however. A significant strand of feminism has used literary methods, exploring the ways in which biblical texts construct and represent an image of women that may function in the service of particular ideologies. In many cases this literary approach has involved reading against the grain of the text. For instance, a figure whom the text treats as a subsidiary character may become for feminist analysis the central character of the text (e.g., Jepthah’s daughter in Judges, chapter 11, or the Levite’s concubine in Judges, chapter 19). And African-American women, to take another example, have complicated the Anglo-European interpretation of the Abraham/Sarah narratives by focusing on the character of Hagar, the ethnic outsider, the slave, the surrogate wife. Similarly, Latina, African and Asian women have taken up the challenge of understanding the ways in which the practices of reading and interpreting the Bible serve to constrain or to emancipate women in their particular social and cultural contexts.

Finally, canonical criticism, which often describes itself as a theological mode of interpretation, may also be considered as a form of cultural hermeneutics, since it also puts into the foreground the community context within which the text was created and from which it is to be read. Though the forms of canonical criticism developed by its two major proponents, Brevard Childs and James Sanders, differ, one can identify common elements. Specifically canonical criticism is concerned with how scripture’s final form was created within a believing community and how the meanings created by that final form continue to guide the reading practices of the community. The canonical shaping of the Jewish Bible, for instance -- which places the writings in the final position and concludes with the call of 2 Chronicles for the exiles to go up to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple -- tells a different story from that produced by the shaping of the Christian Old Testament, which places the prophets last and concludes with Malachi’s reference to the return of the prophet Elijah to announce the coming day of the Lord.

In one sense canonical criticism is an extension of historical criticism’s interest in the development of traditions. But in contrast to historical criticism’s tendency to investigate the earliest stages of development, canonical criticism explicitly privileges the latest stage, the canon in its final form. This concern with reading the text of scripture in its final form gives canonical criticism some similarity to the literary approaches of the "New Criticism." Thus, where historical criticism, reading the Book of Isaiah, tries to distinguish which materials come from the eighth-century prophet, the sixth-century prophet and the fifth-century prophet, literary and canonical critics focus on how the final form of the book has created the context within which all of its materials are now to be read, as a movement from judgment to salvation.

If anything ties together the various strands of new approaches to biblical interpretation, it is a concern for the relationship of language, meaning and power. More historically oriented literary and social methods increasingly examine the ways in which issues of conflict and access to power can be traced in the texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. And cultural hermeneutics, though not uninterested in historical reconstruction, also focuses on the ways in which access to the power to interpret the text and construe its meaning serves to empower those who have traditionally been marginalized.