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Secular Narratology and NT Narrative Criticism: Are They Doing the Same Thing?

January 9, 2014
Character Masks

In my post from yesterday I asked if the disciplines of history and NT studies were doing the same thing. There are certainly similarities, though, for the most part, I think the jury is still out on whether professionally trained historians would understand or acknowledge all of our so-called “historical” methods. Today, I want to raise a similarly-styled question that has come up in my reading over the past few weeks: Are scholars working with narratology on secular narratives doing the same thing NT narrative critics are doing (or think they are doing)? The answer to this question is not as “up in the air” as the question from my previous post. I think we can safely say  that there is nothing within narrative-critical circles that approximates what secular literary critics call “narratology.”

I have been doing quite a bit of reading on this subject in recent weeks as I finish a Forschungsbericht on Markan characters for a book I’m editing. At the tail end of my research I re-read an article Stephen Moore wrote a few years back which then pointed me to a study by Scott  Elliott, Moore’s former doctoral student.

In his essay, “Why There Are No Humans or Animals in the Gospel of Mark” Stephen Moore levels a critique against the dominant view of Mark’s characters within narrative-critical circles, with specific attention given to the first edition of Mark as Story.[1] Seeking to bring narrative criticism into dialogue with both modern theories of “the novel” and animal studies, Moore suggests that Mark as Story in particular and contemporary narrative criticism in general have tended to treat characters anachronistically, insisting on the individuality of characters, especially the Markan Jesus. He correctly notes that the construction of one’s personal identity is of paramount importance for us moderns and that, no doubt, plays an important role in the modern novel. Moore argues that within narrative critical circles, we have often projected this concern onto our reading of the biblical narratives–an anachronism that ends up illegitimately informing contemporary understandings of characterization within narrative criticism. For Moore, a return to a pre-Cartesian understanding of ‘creatures’—in which there is no distinction between ‘human’ and ‘animal’—would be preferable for our attempts at narrative critical approaches to character, insofar as it would more accurately reflect Mark’s worldview.

In like manner, Scott Elliott has suggested that narrative-critical appropriations of Mark’s characters have proceeded illegitimately, armed with unwarranted assumptions about the nature of biblical narrative and an often inconsistent application of its stated methodology. He writes:

How might we read narratives like Mark without resort to what are arguably both anachronistic and ideologically suspect concerns about a character’s agency or subjectivity (e.g., his or her interior thoughts, feelings, or motivations)? Pursuing such possibilities, and concentrating on the processes of characterization rather than on the characteristics of individual characters, I am taking an alternative approach to New Testament narrative as a discursive mode that forces a radically different reading of the literary figure of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. It is an approach that, I believe, resonates with the Gospel of Mark itself.[2]

Using a poststructuralist approach to narratology, Elliott contends that there is ‘no clear parallel in the larger sphere of literary theory outside biblical studies, much less in narratology specifically’.[3] He goes on to point out ways in which most narrative-critical studies are inconsistent—largely in their nod to historical concerns—and argues for a ‘reconfiguring’ of the way narrative critics approach Mark’s Jesus.

These critiques show that there still is much more work to be done in narrative criticism (generally) and character studies (specifically) as scholars seek to refine narrative critical methods and bring them into dialogue with other disciplines. We also need to continually ask, as I did in yesterday’s post, do/will/can other scholars in the related disciplines of history and literature understand what we are doing in NT studies?


[1] Stephen D. Moore, “Why There Are No Human or Animals in the Gospel of Mark,” in Kelly R. Iverson and Christopher W. Skinner, eds. Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 71-93.

[2] Scott S. Elliott, Reconfiguring Mark’s Jesus: Narrative Criticism After Poststructuralism (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2011), 2-3.

 [3] Ibid., p. 4.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2014 5:15 pm

    Thanks for this, Chris. You raise some important points. I do think narrative criticism fits within narratology, however, though its practitioners generally are interested in a far narrower set of questions than most who practice narratology. I’ve expanded this a bit at my blog: http://www.joshualmann.com/narratology-nt-narrative-criticism/

    • January 9, 2014 6:03 pm

      Thanks for weighing in, Josh. I really find Elliott quite persuasive. If you get a chance, pick up his book and let’s dialogue a bit more about the subject. Hope you are well.

  2. Joshua L. Mann permalink
    January 9, 2014 7:42 pm

    Though I mention it in my post, I should add it here: For more information, there are over 30 volumes published in about the last decade in a series Narratologia, published by de Gruyter: http://www.degruyter.com/view/serial/19096 Many of these tackle similar methodological and theoretical questions.

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