As someone who reads and marks a lot of student assignments on the Bible, and also reads a lot of academic papers, there are certain category errors that I encounter again and again – mainly in student papers, of course, but also sometimes in academic ones. These errors fall under the broad umbrella of confusing two different levels of critical analysis.

There are (at least) four pairs which are often confused, and I will set them out below.

1. Confusion between analysis of a commentary and analysis of a biblical text.

This often occurs when a student is using different commentators to consider a particular text, and slips between telling me what the commentator thinks about a subject (which treats the commentary as the primary source) and what the Bible is saying about that subject. Of course, we should read commentators critically: an important part of evaluating their position involves taking a critical distance from their work and considering their methodology and so on. However, this is only the first step towards the interpretation of the biblical text, and the two things are not interchangeable.

So, for example, in a discussion of the perception of gender roles in Genesis 1-3, it may well be true that a particular commentator brings a patriarchal bias to their scholarly endeavour. But a section of writing which uncovers this cannot then be concluded with a sentence criticising the patriarchy of the text!

This error seems particularly prevalent when early commentators are being studied. It seems particularly easy for students to conflate the ideology of, for example, Tertullian or Augustine, with the ideology of the text. Don’t do it!

2. Confusing the actual events with the textual account.

Now here I need to be careful. I am not saying that it is irrelevant whether or not a particular biblical account has a historical basis. However, we need to distinguish the theologically-loaded narration of a story from the event it is narrating. And, because events do not interpret themselves, the faithful reader of the Bible (the reader who reads to discern the voice of God) will pay more attention to the textual relating of events than to their own historical reconstruction of them. The narrator is seeking to tell us what to think about the events.

Paying primary attention to the text means we read the narration as we would read any piece of literature, to notice and understand the literary forms that have been used. This is because analysis of literary forms play an important role in understanding the narrator’s message.

So, as one example among thousands, consider what Pharaoh says in Exodus 1:

The Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the earth/land was filled with them. Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.  Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase… (Ex 1:7-10, NRSV).

An enquiry into the historical events here might ask the question of who the Pharaoh was, how many Israelites there were, and so on. But attention to the text itself will reveal that it has a strikingly similar resonance with God’s words in Genesis 1:28 (the creation mandate):

Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth/land… (Gen 1:28, NRSV)

This is not accidental. The text is using language from elsewhere (this is called intertextuality) to indicate to us how to interpret the events. Pharaoh’s actions aren’t just those of a despot, they are the actions of someone who is setting himself against the primary, God-given, vocation of humanity.

3. Confusing the narrated events with what a character says about them.

This is a common error, and one made by established scholars as well as students. Essentially, we should remember that characters may lie, exaggerate, or misrepresent the morality of a situation.

Sometimes we find more than one account of events within our text. The easiest example to spot would be the narrator’s account of the death of Saul in 1 Samuel 31:1-6, and a character’s description of the death of Saul in 2 Samuel 1:1-10. (Remember that 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel should be read as a continuous document, so these two accounts are right next to one another.) According to the narrator, whose account is to be viewed as authoritative, Saul died by falling on his own sword.  But shortly afterwards, a character within the narrative describes the events differently. This character is a messenger who comes to David and reports that he, the messenger, killed Saul as an act of mercy. This second account is not telling us about Saul’s death but about the character of the messenger (and of David): the messenger wanted to ingratiate himself with David, Saul’s rival, and fatally made the wrong assumption about how to do this.

This instance is fairly easy to spot. But there are many examples that are less obvious. Sometimes this is when a character gives an ethical evaluation of events rather than a factual description. It is important that we critically evaluate what characters in our narrative are saying. We should not, for example, be duped by Samson’s self publicity. Many commentators have been! (I have written on this in some detail here )

4. Confusing the narrator’s viewpoint with the worldview of the narrated world

This is another place where established scholars sometimes confuse two levels of interpretation. We should not assume that the worldview or ideological opinion of the narrator is the same as that of the world he is narrating.

One of the most striking examples of such confusion is in the appalling story of the gang-rape and murder of a young woman, told in Judges 19. These events take place within a world that is brutal and androcentric, and where such young women are often viewed as expendable. She certainly seems to be seen this way by her master and her host. However, this does not necessarily mean that our narrator likewise views her as expendable. I have argued elsewhere (paper in preparation) that the attitude of the narrator is quite different to that of the world he is describing, in which the young woman finds herself.

So there you have them: four category errors where two different levels of critical analysis should not be confused. The problem is that often both forms of analysis need to be performed (one is not superior to the other). And often, the results of one analysis form part of the process of analysing the other. Indeed, sometimes this works in both directions, in a sort of hermeneutical spiral. Nonetheless the two analyses should be kept distinct from each other, particularly when the investigation is being set out formally. Failure to do so may be a sign of sloppy thinking and can seriously muddy the water.

I’m sorry if all this seems like a counsel of perfection. Biblical interpretation is a complex issue, and all of the critical approaches described above are valid ways to investigate biblical narrative. But it is important that, while we may wish to combine them, we do not confuse them. Clear thinking should result in clear writing, and – for my students – a higher grade.

Helen Paynter
April, 2019

Avoiding category errors when we read Old Testament narrative

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