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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre: Narrative, by Craig S. Keener

We should read the entire story, and in the flow of the entire story.

When Jesus’ followers were writing the New Testament, everyone in their culture already understood that narrative conveyed moral principles; biographers and historians expected readers to draw lessons from their examples, whether these lessons were positive or negative. Students recited such stories in regular elementary school exercises, and in more advanced levels of education learned how to apply these examples to drive home moral points.

If narratives did not teach, there would be no reason for different Gospels.

Demanding the use of non-narrative portions of the Bible to interpret narrative is not only disrespectful to the narrative portions; it implies a thoroughly misguided way of reading non-narrative portions of Scripture as well. Everyone acknowledges, for instance, that Paul’s letters are “occasional” documents—that is, that they address specific occasions or situations. Thus, had the Lord’s Supper not been a matter of controversy in Corinth, we would know quite little about it except from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. If we then interpreted the narrative portions of Scripture only by other portions, we would assume that we do not need to observe the Lord’s Supper today. Of course, Jesus provides his disciples teaching about the Lord’s Supper within the narrative; but since the teaching is within the narrative, we can always protest that he addressed this teaching only to a select group of disciples. A few hundred years ago many Protestants explained away the Great Commission in just such a manner; today many similarly explain away the teachings of the Gospels and Acts about signs often confirming and aiding evangelism.

Not only is the traditional “doctrinal” approach inadequate for interpreting the Gospels; it is inappropriate for interpreting the epistles as well. The “narrative” way of interpreting Bible stories in fact shows us how to read the epistles properly. Paul wrote to address specific needs of churches (rarely just to send greetings); while the principles Paul employs are eternal and apply to a variety of situations, Paul expresses those principles concretely to grapple with specific situations. Before we can catch his principles, we often must recognize the situations with which he grapples; Paul’s concrete words to real situations constitute case studies that show us how to address analogous situations we should address today. Paul’s letters presuppose a sort of background story—he is responding to events and situations among his audience. In other words, we must read even Paul’s letters as examples. This is how Paul read the Old Testament—drawing theology (especially moral teaching) from its examples (1 Cor. 10:11).

Once we teach people how to study the Bible, as long as we are there to help them while they are learning, they can in turn be equipped to help others.

I suspect that many scholars—including myself in earlier years—have felt so uncomfortable with finding theology in narrative largely because of our western academic training. In the world of the theological academy, one can feel satisfied addressing important issues like Christology while ignoring other necessary issues like domestic abuse and how to witness on a secular job. But pastors, people who do much personal witnessing and other ministers cannot ignore issues that exceed the bounds of traditional doctrinal categories. (We should not forget that those general doctrinal categories were established by Medieval theologians who often could afford to withdraw from the daily issues with which most of their contemporaries struggled. The issues they addressed were important, but they were hardly exhaustive!) I believe that the more we are forced to grapple with the same kinds of situations with which the writers of Scripture grappled, the more sensitively we will interpret the texts they wrote. When that happens, we will need to reappropriate all of Scripture for the life and faith of the Church.

Some given texts are more useful for addressing common situations today than others, but all biblical texts have a useful function for some circumstances.

One warning we need to keep in mind is that not all human actions recorded in Scripture are intended as positive examples, even when performed by generally positive characters. Scripture is realistic about human nature and openly reveals our frailties so that we can be realistic about our weaknesses and our need to depend always on God. Abraham and Sarah each laughed when they heard God’s promise (Gen 17:17; 18:12-15); David almost snapped under the pressure of Saul’s pursuit and Samuel’s death, and thus would have slaughtered Nabal and his workers had Abigail not stopped him (1 Sam 25:32-34); despairing that anything would prove sufficient to shake Jezebel’s evil control over Israel, Elijah asked to die (1 Kgs 19:4); discouraged that no one was listening to his message, Jeremiah cursed the day of his birth (Jer 20:14-18); Peter denied Jesus three times (Mk 14:72). As Paul said, we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so people may recognize that the power comes from God (2 Cor 4:7). Jesus alone exhibits no moral weaknesses, and even he identified with our being tempted (Mk 1:12-13; 14:34-42). Scripture shows the weaknesses of men and women of God so we will recognize that there are no spiritual superhumans among us—just, at best, men and women who depend on the power of God’s perfect Spirit to give us victory.



The way God chose to give us the Bible is more important than the way we wish He would have given it to us.

Parables are a specific kind of narrative that differs somewhat from other kinds of narrative. Ancient Israelite sages in the Old Testament and in the time of Jesus used various graphic teaching forms to communicate their wisdom, forms that usually made their hearers think carefully about what they were saying. One such kind of teaching was the proverb (which we will address below). A larger category of teaching (covered by the Hebrew word mashal) includes proverbs, short comparisons, and sometimes more extended comparisons, including some actually intended to be allegorized (unlike most kinds of narrative in the Bible).

By Jesus’ day, Jewish teachers often communicated by telling stories in which one or two or sometimes more characters might stand for something in the real world. Often they told stories about a king who loved his son, in which the king was an analogy for God and the son for Israel. When Jesus told parables, therefore, his hearers would already be familiar with them and know how to take them.

One should always be careful to draw the right lessons in light of the larger context.

Even though Jesus’ parables sometimes were extended analogies with truths in the real world (for instance, the four different kinds of soil in the parable of the sower, Mk 4:3-20), they often included some details simply necessary for the story to make good sense, or to make it a well-told story. (This is also the case with other Jewish parables from this period.) For instance, when the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer pray in the temple (Lk 18:10), the temple does not “represent” something; that was simply the favorite place for Jerusalemites to pray. When the owner of the vineyard built a wall around his vineyard (Mk 12:1), we should not struggle to determine what the wall represents; it was simply a standard feature of vineyards, and forces the attentive reader to recognize that Jesus is alluding to the Old Testament parable in Isaiah 5:5 so the readers will know that the vineyard represents Israel.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2005

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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