Welcome to literary criticism, a relatively new, yet important, method of biblical study. Literary criticism makes use of many modern tools in analyzing literature and applies these to the Bible, one of the most awesome pieces of literature ever written!
Gee, what happened to you, Mr. Bible?
Oooouuuccchhhh! I was just dissected by some source and historical critics. They cut me up into such small pieces that people could no longer see the beauty of my former wholeness. It's an emergency, BibleDudes, I need some literary criticism in a hurry to put me back together again!
You'll be fine, my darling. Literary criticism did in fact grow out of a reaction against historical and source criticisms. Many scholars became disgruntled with the way the Bible was being divided into smaller and small pieces, and in response these same scholars turned to literary criticism, a critical method that was used in other disciplines.
Right on! Literary critics claimed that, while historical and source criticism might offer some valid insights into the Bible, all we really can be sure about is the Bible as we have it. After all, how much can we really ever know about dead Near Eastern author dudes who lived thousands of years ago? So literary criticism focuses on the Bible in its final form and analyzes the literary methods and artistry of the biblical authors.
We invited perhaps the most famous literary critic, Erich Auerbach, to help us further explain.
In 1946 I wrote a book called Mimesis about the genesis of the novel. Get it? Genesis... Anyway, in the first chapter, entitled "Odysseus' Scar," I applied literary criticism to two of the most famous writers in history, Homer and the author of the Aqedah, the Hebrew title for the story in which Abraham nearly sacrifices his son, Isaac (Genesis 22). I explained how Homer used flashback and detailed description to show how Odysseus received a wound from a boar. Conversely, the author of Genesis 22 used suspense, mystery, and every word was vital to the story. They're both fantastic authors, but they have very different styles. If you would like to read "Odysseus' Scar," click here.
Thanks! So you see, literary criticism essentially analyzes the art of how the author tells the story. Below are a few terms related to literary criticism:
Another term often used when discussing literary criticism is "structuralism." We've asked our good friend, Claude Lévi-Strauss, to help us with this one.
That's right, BibleDudes. I'm often viewed as one of the earliest proponents of this method, so it's only fair that I explain it. You know how so many movie plots today seem to have the same story-line and plot structure? Well, even before Hollywood was big, this dude named Vladimir Propp noticed the same thing with Russian fairy tales. Although the characters and circumstances of each story were different, the stories themselves fell into fairly predictable plot structures, such as "youth is removed from his or her community, learns valuable life lesson, then returns to the community a better person" or "a person from one social class or family falls in love with someone from a different, forbidden social class or family, and their love (and, often, deaths) bring the two classes or families together."
Whoa! Like I'm thinking about at least ten stories that fit each of those plot structures.
Precisely. Later I took Propp's observations further by saying that the main reason these similarities exist is because meaning comes through patterns, and the reason these similarities are so universal is because the human brain is naturally wired to view the world in a patterned — or what I called a "binary" — way. In addition, I argued that just as the similarities between these stories are important for understanding human communities, so also are their differences. In fact, since the similarities in these stories tend to reveal what is common to all humankind, it is in the differences of these stories that we learn the most about an individual society. So, as part of structuralism, I look for meaning in ancient stories by examining both the similarities and differences. Got it?
Thanks Literary Critics! I feel so much better. That is what I love about literary criticism: it is holistic in its approach, allowing me to be my whole wonderful self again!
That's right, but for all its strengths, literary criticism also like totally has its weaknesses, especially when it fails to consider historical or cultural context. But, anywho, literary criticism is still awesome indeed, especially when used in combination with the other methods of biblical interpretation!
Speaking of which, in the next section we'll descend into the critical method approved by 4 out of 5 donkeys. It's called lower, or textual, criticism, and it is an essential part of understanding the Bible's history and development. Snap!