Introduction: the New Testament and the Literary Reader

  • Patrick Grant


It is difficult to say exactly what sort of book the New Testament is. It consists of twenty seven documents, broadly classifiable as gospels, letters, acts and apocalypse. Of these main kinds, the gospel is peculiarly Christian; the other three were familiar property in the ancient world, adapted by the New Testament authors to their special purposes. Yet it is not clear how much the gospel is indebted to other sorts of writing to which it seems closely related, such as memoirs or the ‘lives of famous men’. Moreover, the word ‘gospel’ (euaggelion) in the New Testament always applies to speech and dialogue rather than writing, and was not therefore originally used to describe a book.1 Likewise, Paul’s use of letters for preaching purposes has left scholars uneasily conscious of how different is the result from ordinary letters in the ancient world. And although the title ‘Acts’ (praxeis) was conventionally used to describe narratives of heroic deeds, the author of the book we now call The Acts of the Apostles does not use the word at all. The canonical title was added long after the book was composed. Finally, although John’s Revelation draws on examples of apocalyptic writing from the intertestamental period, it differs from them by not being pseudonymous, and by its strong emphasis on prophecy.2


Ancient World Literary Reader Historical Claim Absolute Meaning Biblical Scholarship 
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  1. 1.
    See Charles H. Talbert, What is a Gospel?: the Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977); ‘The Gospel and the Gospels’, ed. James Luther Mays, Interpreting the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981) pp. 14–26;Google Scholar
  2. Norman Perrin and Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: an introduction, 2nd edn (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982) p. 40: ‘though the issue is debated, our view is that the written type, or genre, called gospel is the unique literary creation of Mark. In short, the “gospel” has no precise literary prototype’;Google Scholar
  3. Ralph P. Martin, Mark: Evangelist and Theologian (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1972) pp. 17ff., and on verbs of speaking and responding, p. 23.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Amos Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971; 1st edn 1964) p. 36.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    C. S. Lewis, ‘Modern Translations of the Bible’, ed. Walter Hooper, First and Second Things: Essays on Theology and Ethics (London: Collins, 1986) p. 86; ‘Fern Seed and Elephants’, ed. Walter Hooper, Fern Seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianity (London: Collins, 1975) p. 108: ‘I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this’;Google Scholar
  6. Helen Gardner, The Business of Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959) pp. 101, 121ff.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    See Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus. An Experiment in Christology, trans. Hubert Hoskins (London: Collins, 1983) p. 192.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: the Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1974) pp. 7ff.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    James P. Mackey, Jesus the Man and the Myth: a Contemporary Christology (New York: Paulist Press, 1979) pp. 10ff., et passim, on the nineteenth-century search for the historical Jesus, and on the relevance of a revitalised modern sense of the relationship of myth to history.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    For a full account of this, see M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism. Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971).Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Owen Barfield, Romanticism Comes of Age (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1967; 1st edn 1944).Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    Two notable recent contributions to this endeavour, drawing upon contributors from various fields, are Michael Wadsworth (ed.), Ways of Reading the Bible (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1981),Google Scholar
  13. and James P. Mackey (ed.), Religious Imagination (Edinburgh University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: on the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979) p. 136: ‘but it is astonishing how much less there is of genuine literary criticism on the secular model than there ought to be’.Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    This complex phenomenon, with which I now deal sketchily, is admirably summarised by the following books, to which I am indebted: Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism (London: Athlone Press, 1980);Google Scholar
  16. Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London: Methuen, 1982);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: an Introduction (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983).Google Scholar
  18. 14.
    See Northrop Frye, The Great Code: the Bible and Literature (Toronto: Academic Press Canada, 1982) p. xix.Google Scholar
  19. 15.
    Daniel Patte, Paul’s Faith and the Power of the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983).Google Scholar
  20. 16.
    Biblical scholarship has of course tended in the direction of literary studies under the influence of Redaction criticism. (The dissecting efforts of the Form critics were countered by Redaction Criticism which stressed the purpose and point of view of the final redactor of a text, whose synthesising efforts unify his received materials. See N. Perrin, What is Redaction Criticism? [London: SPCK, 1970]).Google Scholar
  21. It is also worth noticing that the term ‘literary criticism’ is used by some biblical scholars in a manner unfamiliar to secular critics, as, for instance, by Klaus Koch, The Growth of the Biblical Tradition (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1969) pp. 69–70: ‘The literary critic … attempts to discover the original writings, to determine exactly their date of origin. … Literary criticism is the analysis of biblical books from the standpoint of lack of continuity, duplications, inconsistencies and different linguistic usage, with the object of discovering what the individual writers and redactors contributed to the text, and also its time and place of origin.’Google Scholar
  22. There have been, of course, many books presenting the bible ‘as literature’, in the sense of making it available to the common reader, or reading it as a literary narrative in the manner of Mary Ellen Chase, The Bible and the Common Reader (New York: Macmillan, 1944),Google Scholar
  23. or J. H. Gardiner, The Bible as English Literature (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1906), among others. Yet serious engagement with the critical issues by the secular literary humanists has been surprisingly intermittent, as Kermode says (see note 11), especially considering the concentrated development of literary studies in this century.Google Scholar
  24. Besides Frye and Kermode (who also draws upon Ricoeur and Gadamer — see The Genesis of Secrecy, pp. 39ff.), one might mention Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981);Google Scholar
  25. T. R. Henn, The Bible as Literature (London: Lutterworth Press, 1970);Google Scholar
  26. Helen Gardner, The Business of Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), especially pp. 101ff., and several essays in Michael Wadsworth (ed.), Ways of Reading the Bible, but an extensive bibliography is beyond the scope of this chapter. There is also the fascinating broad area where Biblical and secular critics are increasingly invited to meet.Google Scholar
  27. The journal Semeia, for instance, is concerned with structuralist criticism of Biblical texts, and one might cite R. W. Funk (ed.), Literary Critical Studies of Biblical Texts, Semeia 8 (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1977).Google Scholar
  28. See also Paul Ricoeur, Essays on Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980);Google Scholar
  29. R. Barthes et al., Structural Analysis and Biblical Exegesis: Interpretational Essays (Pittsburg: Pickwick Press, 1974);Google Scholar
  30. Alfred M. Johnson, Jr. (ed.), Structuralism and Biblical Hermeneutics (Pennsylvania: Pickwick Press, 1979);Google Scholar
  31. Edgar V. McKnight, Meaning in Texts. The Historical Shaping of a Narrative Hermeneutics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978).Google Scholar
  32. 18.
    Mary Warnock, Imagination (London: Faber & Faber, 1976).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Patrick Grant 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Patrick Grant
    • 1
  1. 1.University of VictoriaCanada

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