Untangling the cat’s cradle

18 August 2009

Robin-Griffith Jones on a welcome thread through the labyrinth of NT criticism

Searching for Meaning: An introduction to interpreting the New Testament
Paula Gooder

SPCK £12.99 (978-0-281-05835-8)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

A GOOD many readers, hoping to research for themselves what scholars have found in and behind the New Testament texts, have “found no end, in wandering mazes lost”. Such readers are soon entangled in a cat’s cradle of interpretive methods and standpoints: historical, redaction and form criticism, rhetorical and narrative criticism, reader-response, feminist and liberation criticism — the list goes bafflingly on. In Search­ing for Meaning Paula Gooder offers a guide to the perplexed; she has devised a clear, elegant thread through the labyrinth, and has un­wound it with all of Ariadne’s skill.

In each of 23 chapters, a leading exponent of one critical method sketches its background and advant­ages. Gooder herself then lists the landmark publications that brought the method to prominence, applies the method to a single passage of the New Testament, and assesses the method’s strengths and weaknesses in relation, first to this passage, and then to the New Testament as a whole.

An example: Craig Evans introduces source criticism; Gooder pinpoints the importance of Griesbach, Streeter, Farrer, and others in the method’s evolution; she then subjects the Mission of the Twelve (Mark 6.7-13 and parallels) to source-critical analysis; and finally evaluates the method, admitting both its appeal and the uncertainties of its results. And all this in ten pages.

The methods are arranged in three groups: those that seek to recreate and understand the events that lie behind any given text (such as source criticism itself); those that focus on the text as it stands (such as canonical, rhetorical, narrative, and structural criticism); and those that take seriously the context of the present readers in their understand­ing and application of the text (such as feminist, gay, liberation, post-colonial, and ecological criticism).

Gooder has assembled an impres­sive array of contributors: Bruce Malina on social-science criticism, J. D. G. Dunn on form criticism, Chris Rowland on reception history, Ched Myers on socio-political criticism, Kathy Ehrensperger on feminist criticism, among others. (I turned with particular gratitude to the contributions of R. S. Sugirtharajah and Tat-siong Benny Liew on post-colonial and Asian criticism, realising that here were important stand­points from which I had never viewed the terrain.)

There is a graciousness to the whole enterprise: distinguished scholars offering their summaries to be set alongside so many others, all of them subject to Gooder’s application and appraisal. She has been an editor worthy of her own project: open-minded, appreciative — although, if anything, too modest about her own decisions and contribution.

This is an ostensibly simple book, but it should come with a warning: do not read it quickly; you will, from course after flavoursome course, get mental indigestion. Relish slowly and thoughtfully this smorgasbord of wisdom, with which Paul Gooder, an expert chef, has put us all in her debt.

The Revd Robin Griffith-Jones is Master of the Temple Church, in London.

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