Some background thoughts on methodology (II)

The following blog entry is the second one adapted from a post written after my first year of studying with the VU University (Vrije Universiteit). This entry includes the paper on methodology that I wrote 2.5 years ago.

Methods of Biblical Exegesis
Completed by Brenda Heyink – December 2006

A Discussion of Various Perspectives on Methodology

Several different authors and books were read to get a better understanding of methodology in biblical exegesis [see endnote 1]. Although each approached the text slightly differently, all were careful not to advocate for only one single method of ‘standard’ methodology. As space allowed, each showed positive and negative aspects to the different methodologies. This attempt to give each method a valid hearing allowed the authors better to be heard, but also pointed out the need in exegesis for something other than using only one of the existing methodologies.

This essay will begin with a summary of the books and articles, followed by a short evaluation of them. Barton’s book provided the most helpful overview, and Cline’s article was the most helpful in providing a short overview of the challenges involved in our own understanding of methodology. Jonker’s book was probably the one that I found the most difficult to understand and appreciate, even though his attempt to find some common ground was appreciated. Talstra seems to be better able to navigate the different methodologies and give a viable alternative to either one methodology or the necessity of using all methodologies. Acknowledging that I have come to these readings with a certain bias towards some methodologies based on my past (academic) training and the influence of my church, I realize that the most helpful part of this exercise was to give me an appreciation for methodologies that I might have ignored previously as well as recognizing these biases.

Barton’s book presupposes a knowledge of the different methodologies currently used in biblical exegesis. His goal is to explain the purpose of the methods [endnote 2] and show their interrelationship as “these methods are not just a random collection of techniques but hang together, make up a family, cover the range of possible questions people can ask about texts” (Barton, 3). Barton, in no ways, is trying to invalidate different methods on his way to showing which exegetical method is the most correct. He argues that “all interpretations of texts are ‘readings’, not the final word on the subject… Interpreters have deluded themselves into thinking that correct answers exist, if we could only find them (Barton, 216).” Barton thus does not advocate any one method but does indicate that some provide more validity than others.

Barton shows what the method is trying to correct as well as acknowledging its problems. For example, in his analysis of source criticism, he notes that the possibility of different sources arose as a logical explanation for ‘discrepancies’ in the text. Form criticism also arose as an explanation for the discrepancies. Barton, in his evaluation, does point out that what is understood by ‘discrepancies’ in the ancient text is problematic as there are no set guidelines for determining what is a discrepancy and what was placed there purposely by the redactor or written that way for rhetorical purposes, as redaction criticism and rhetorical criticism respectively might argue.[endnote 3] He uses the example of Ecclesiastes to show how all of these methods would actually work, illustrating how different methodologies bring different exegetical emphases but many of them still do come to a very similar answer to the purpose of Ecclesiastes.

Barton’s work has the goal of being very objective, and for the most part he does this well. I grew in appreciation for the methodologies that I had sometimes dismissed in the past (e.g. source criticism, new criticism) as well as understanding some of the pitfalls of the methodologies I had a tendency to favour (e.g. canonical criticism, structuralism, form criticism). However, I had the impression that he thought less of the validity of canonical criticism than the other methodologies. I also got the impression that even though he was willing ‘to play’ with post-structuralist methodologies, he dismissed them overall as being illogical. My impression is that the ‘newer’ methodologies have not been around long enough to receive the tempered evaluation that Barton gave to the methodologies that have been used in exegesis for a longer time.

Barton’s article continued along the same lines (as would be expected as it was written about the same time.) He argues that there is not common ground between historical criticism and literary interpretation but that this does not mean that each cannot help the other nor that they do not both struggle with certain issues. Both struggle with a similar problem – defining what is considered to be a discrepancy in the text. They also both focus on finding a single ‘theme’ in the text, which is the purpose of the text. Barton argues that this concept of theme is not necessarily how things were written (to be read). His evaluation once again helps point out how everyone, no matter which methodology they use, comes to the text with a bias – and thus so do I. His work has encouraged me to try not to allow any bias I have towards certain methods to prevent me from acknowledging the insights gained from these methods, which are not necessarily ones that I would have received with the questions I have been asking of the text.

Jonker’s work also evaluated the different methodologies, although in a different way than Barton. Jonker spent less time on evaluating the methodologies and more illustrating them with the purpose of finding a multidimensional or integrated methodology. He exegetes Judges 13 through first a diachronic (historical-critical) methodology and then a synchronic (narrative) methodology. He explains the different methodologies in the first part, does the exegesis in the second part, and evaluates the results in the third part. I found his book not only to be less helpful than Barton’s, but it also left me feeling slightly frustrated.

There was much in Jonker’s book that I felt I did not understand properly. His explanations for the different methodologies consisted mainly of quotes in German, which caused some of the misunderstanding in terms of what he meant by the methodologies. However, his understanding of historical-critical methodology is significantly different than the understanding I have, even after reading Barton’s book. Under this category of diachronic analysis, he includes a section called Theologische Kritik, which I would consider not to be inherently diachronic nor would I consider redactional criticism [endnote 4] to be diachronic. Under the category of synchronic methodology he looks at the text only from a literary view (narrative methodology as understood by Sternberg, Alter, and Berlin).

Besides having a problem with how he understood a diachronic and synchronic analysis, it did not seem that he gave the synchronic method a fair evaluation. The synchronic evaluation was based primarily on one kind of methodological criticism defined by Barton whereas the diachronic evaluation had several kinds. I also found it frustrating that he assumes that his diachronic methodology was religious whereas the synchronic method only dealt with literary methods. [endnote 5] Jonker clarifies this slightly by acknowledging that both methodologies argue that the text has meaning (Jonker, 297-98), but the language that he uses to differentiate the methodologies seems problematic to me. Perhaps I am misunderstanding Jonker, but I would argue against Jonker in saying that literary methods of approaching the text do not implicitly consider the text any more the word of God than historical-critical methods. [endnote 6]

Although Jonker does a good job of highlighting the exegetical insights he received from the different methodologies, he does not do a good job of comparing his results. The insights from the different methodologies were not all that different. He never gives an explanation of why such similar insights were obtained from two different methods. More importantly, he did not point out what one would miss by only using one method, which would have more adequately proving the need for an integrated methodology. His study, although fruitful in its exegesis, was slightly disappointing in terms of its methodology.

Although I agree that neither a synchronic or diachronic methodology alone is the best way of approaching the text, the articles that I read did a better job of convincing me of this than the work by Jonker or even that of Barton. The work, Synchronic or Diachronic? A Debate in Method in Old Testament Exegesis was especially helpful with this.

Cline’s article is probably the one that I found the most helpful. His article is actually a summary of a workshop. It begins with a brief summary of his belief that the opposition of diachronical and synchronical methods is unhelpful. He thus goes on to define what he means by a workshop, provides the questions and handouts of the workshop, and then reports on what the results were. The questions brought forward helped participants better to understand the terminology of diachronic and synchronic, to acknowledge their emotional investment in the concepts, to see how different biblical methodologies contained both synchronic and diachronic elements, and to evaluate the process by which they could learn all this. His article not only gave a basic overview of the concepts but also showed the questions that those doing biblical exegesis could ask in a non-threatening environment. As a compliment to him, there are elements of his workshop that I would be interested in ‘copying’ in a classroom setting to help students better understand biblical methodologies.

Talstra’s article on methodology was especially of interest to me, as it is prudent to understand the methodological preferences of one’s supervisor. As his suggestion of how to approach the text is different than the other methodologies, it is slightly difficult to understand at first. However, after having now taken a class with him, things make slightly more sense. Unlike others, he does not assume that the more methodologies the better: “I do not agree with some modern statements that a maximum of methods should be used, that every single method has its own way of asking questions of the text, so that applying all of them would help us achieve a maximum of insight” (Talstra 1998, 3). Instead, he argues for a hierarchy of techniques/methods in approaching a text. One needs to first study the text carefully, understanding the text first in terms of syntax and literary elements before trying to understand the text based on such things as authorial intent or redactional elements. Asking how a modern day reader understands is a final element. He uses the examples of Dtn. 29, 1 Kgs. 9 and Jer 22 to illustrate this in one article (Talstra 1998) and looks at Dtn. 9-10 in the other article (Talstra 1995). It is clear that Talstra is actively trying to get past some of the problems of the other methodologies (for example, seeing chiasms in every thing, as well as using source criticism to get the Bible to say whatever you’d like it to, such as the theory that judges were good and kings were bad).

I am certain that there are things still to be worked out in the methodology of Talstra but he provides a way of appropriating the insights from the different methodologies without being stuck into a little box having to defend one methodology. It does not necessarily validate each method to the same extent at the same time nor does it require one to go through the lengthy process of using all the methods to show in multiple ways a lot of similar things with a few discrepancies (as illustrated by both Barton and Jonker).

As I felt like my understanding of the different methodologies of reading the Bible was lacking somewhat (it was something I had previously ignored as much as possible), this assignment was good for me to do. I think that I am more well-versed in the different methodologies. This allows me at least a few more insights into the biblical text and a significant amount of insight into those who are analyzing and writing about the text. Understanding someone’s method helps one to see what they might be over-emphasizing and what they might be missing.

As I continue to learn more about methodologies, J. Barr’s comment at the end of his essay is helpful. It is a wry comment on the state of biblical exegesis today and something which it is helpful to remember to keep things in perspective:

In conclusion, I feel I ought to apologize for reading a paper which has in it little or no detailed reference to the Old Testament. This however is not an accident. The methodological discussions in which biblical studies are now engaged see to me to have rather little to do with the Bible itself. They are not based on the Bible, nor can they be settled by the Bible….These discussions seem to me to be discussions of our own modern experience and it is our own modern experience in its many varied aspects that is the authority to which we are appealing. (Barr, 14).

[1] The books and articles are listed in a bibliography at the end of this paper.

[2] The methods that he discusses are: source analysis (literary criticism), form criticism, redaction criticism, canonical approach, structuralist criticism (both literary and biblical), ‘new’ criticism (which is an adaptation of literary criticism of about a hundred years ago), rhetorical criticism, postmodernist, and deconstructionist.

[3] This problem of discrepancies is illustrated well in the article by Carroll. He gives several discrepancies in the book of Jeremiah (Nebuchadnezzar being called servant of the LORD in one place and a beast in another), which he believes can only be explained through a diachronic reading. He argues that those who attempt to read the text synchronically have tended to pretend this is not really a discrepancy. Carroll thus shows how one’s approach/ methodology can have a significant effect on what one considers as a discrepancy and then how one solves that ‘problem’. His conclusion of the need for a diachronic method thus seems to me a bit false but I’m not sure if I dislike the conclusion because of my background or because I dislike the claim he makes for the (absolute) need of the diachronic method.

[4] He also includes Redaktionskritik under historical-critical methodology.

[5] Certainly the literary methods can ignore religious questions but synchronic readings are not only literarily based.

[6] Barr is careful in noting that good theology is not something that is inherent to either synchronic or diachronic methods (Barr, 11).


Barr, J., ‘The Synchronic, the Diachronic and the Historical: A Triangular Relationship?’, in J.C. de Moor (ed.) Synchronic or Diachronic? A Debate on Method in Old Testament Exegesis. Oudtestamentsche Studien 34 (1995): 1-14.

Barton, J., Reading the Old Testament. Method in Biblical Study (revised and enlarged edition), Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Kent., 1996 (orig. ed. 1984).

Barton, J. ‘Historical Criticism and Literary Interpretation: Is There Any Common Ground?’, in S.E. Porter, P. Joyce, D. E. Orton, Crossing the Boundaries. Essay in Biblical Interpretation in Honour of Michael D. Goulder, Leiden: Brill, 1994: 3-16.

Carroll, R. P., “Synchronic Deconstructions of Jeremiah: Diachrony to the Rescue?’, in J.C. de Moor (ed.) Synchronic or Diachronic? A Debate on Method in Old Testament Exegesis. Oudtestamentsche Studien 34 (1995): 39-51.

Clines, D. J. A., ‘Beyond Synchronic/ Diachronic’, in J.C. de Moor (ed.) Synchronic or Diachronic? A Debate on Method in Old Testament Exegesis. Oudtestamentsche Studien 34 (1995): 52-71.

Jonker, Louis C., Exclusivity and Variety. Perspectives on Multidimensional Exegesis, Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 19, Kampen, 1996.

Talstra, E., ‘Deuteronomy 9 and 10: Synchronic and Diachronic Observations’, in J.C. de Moor (ed.) Synchronic or Diachronic? A Debate on Method in Old Testament Exegesis. Oudtestamentsche Studien 34 (1995): 187-210.

Talstra, E., ‘From the Eclipse of the Art of Biblical Narrative. Reflections on Methods of Biblical Exegesis’, in E. Noort (ed.), Perspectives on the Study of the Old Testament and Early Judaism: A Symposium in Honour of Adam S. van der Woude on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday, Groningen 1997, Leiden: Brill, 1998: 1-41.


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