Fokkelman Against the Bible as Literature

From an unpublished paper by Jan Fokkelman(

The literary approach to the Hebrew bible can and should take its own stature seriously by reflecting every now and then upon its own underpinnings. It takes the stand that the bible is literature and does not want to waste its energy on the option of “the bible as literature”. The latter option regards literariness as just one aspect of the bible among many, like the religio-historical, the historical, the moral or the theological aspects, and implies that the reader is free either to pay attention to the literary properties of the text or to pass over them in an attempt to come to grips with “the real contents”. Up-to-date text research, however, no longer believes that we are justified in imposing a dichotomy of form and content upon the texts and that we are able to discard the literary quality like a piece of clothing. More and more close analyses are becoming available nowadays that show us how units of almost any genre in the bible are shaped as artifacts and that the ancient authors used their literary skill at any given level of composition. From this we may infer that the prose writers and the poets of hymns and laments, wisdom and love poetry considered the well-polished and very carefully designed literary text as the most powerful form of language and as the most effective way of communicating what they wanted to convey to their audience.
Almost any text in the bible, even most of the legislative portions, is a literary creation through and through. As a product of the imagination it tacitly requires from its readers to respond with an imaginative approach that first of all tries to discover the same wave length. This is not just a superficial metaphor. A text is somewhere in the middle of a communicative polarity, coming as it does from a sender and looking for the right kind of receiver. What are the principles prerequisite for becoming a competent listener? Do we learn them from the historical-critical method, and is this paradigm of scholarship suited to dealing with the texts of the Bible? Does it need a serious reappraisal or even renewal? As a human enterprise it can be expected not to be infallible. Is it time, perhaps, to recognise the need for, and to formulate the epistemological conditions of, a new scholarly paradigm?
In the sections below I intend, firstly, to discuss the main principles and epistemological presuppositions of the historical-critical method, and secondly, I will be studying three quite different texts. They function in my argument as examples that show, on the negative side, how a historical-critical bias can wreak havoc on the texts and, on the positive side, how stylistic and structural signals offered by the text itself can lead the sensitive reader to a response and an interpretation which are appropriate.
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