Narrative criticism is an attempt to understand a biblical text as part of a connected story with a coherent purpose. It seeks to understand how the writer arranged the “story” in order to elicit a certain response from the original audience. This method explains why certain ideas, words, or events are presented as they are and what their intended meaning is. The term criticism, in this case, implies “critique” or “examination,” not “condemnation” or “disapproval.” Narrative criticism assumes the writer of the text had a specific meaning in mind. So, to accurately understand any part or portion of that text, one must keep the “big idea”—the narrative—in mind.
Narrative criticism is most easily understood through the parables of Jesus. We naturally read Jesus’ parables with an understanding that there is a “point” to the tale. Jesus is telling the story in order to teach a lesson or to explain an idea. When considering the meaning of Jesus’ words, it’s important to remember they’re part of that particular story. The intended meaning of the larger story should be crucial to how we interpret the meaning of specific words. In simple terms, narrative criticism applies the same mindset to studying Scripture in general.
Narrative criticism shares common points with techniques such as structuralism. It also accepts the fact that Scripture demonstrates the use of literary techniques such as chiasm, poetry, and parallelism, among others. Narrative criticism is considered a written-text application of rhetorical criticism, which is more suited to speech, and presumes a speaker’s intent ought to matter in how one interprets his words.
Narrative criticism is not meant to be applied haphazardly. Some parts of the Bible are clearly narratives: they describe actions and conversations in a “story” format. Other portions of Scripture are not narrative, such as the book of Proverbs, many of the psalms, and many writings of the prophets. Where the Bible is not structured in a narrative format, narrative criticism is not as useful for study purposes. A broader context of Scripture’s cohesive message is still useful but not as apparent in such cases.
Likewise, narrative criticism also recognizes the existence of “nested narratives,” such as dreams, visions, or parables. These form their own individual narrative structure and should be interpreted accordingly.
Narrative criticism can be helpful in accurately interpreting the Bible. For example, it provides an explanation of differences in the four gospels. Each gospel writer had a different audience and a subtly different intent, and so they chose their own vocabulary, style, and details (John 20:30–31). Narrative criticism bypasses debates over revisions or sources: it deals with the text as it is, rather than speculating on what the text “might have been” or what it “should be.” Understanding context is vital; many misconceptions about Scripture are caused by dissecting a statement from the “big picture” and losing the writer’s intended meaning.
As with any interpretive technique, narrative criticism is not without drawbacks. A common temptation in narrative criticism is to presume the text is “only” a story, implying the individual narrative elements are invented and not factual. Correctly applied, narrative criticism does not presume any part of a text must have been invented for the sake of the story. Some interpreters, however, attempt to dismiss portions of the Bible by claiming that the narrative—not the facts—are what the writer cared about. While some parts of the Bible are undoubtedly symbols or parables, Scripture also contains objective history and records of real-world events (Luke 1:1–4).
Another danger is selecting a preferred narrative, rather than the writer’s intent, as the lens through which to view the Bible. One cannot simply declare belief in some position and then use it as the narrative framework to interpret Scripture. That error is a form of eisegesis, in which one imposes meaning on the text rather than reading meaning from the text. Legitimate narrative criticism is focused on the writer’s intentions, not the reader’s preferences.
For those reasons, narrative criticism must also be kept in a context of its own. The original words of the Bible were “narrated” to a specific culture, which is not identical to every existing culture on earth. Part of properly interpreting the narrative context of Scripture is understanding how those words and events fit into the culture of the original readers.
Fortunately, Christianity has never been intended as a “do-it-yourself” faith, where truth requires nothing more than a printed Bible and time. The Great Commission’s focus is discipleship: a relationship between mature believers and those who need guidance (Matthew 28:19–20). Proper study and discipleship allow that the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical writers, who spoke to an actual, historical audience, and deal with concepts that later cultures need to explain to less mature readers (Acts 8:27–31; 2 Peter 3:15–16).