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Richard Briggs

The Bible as a text can be read with or without reference to its compilation as a theologically constructed collection of sacred Jewish and Christian books. When read without such framing concerns, it may be approached with the full range of literary and theoretical interpretive tools and read for whatever purpose readers value or wish to explore. Less straightforwardly, in the former case where framing concerns come into play, the Bible is both like and unlike any other book in the way that its very nature as a “canon” of scripture is related to particular theological and religious convictions. Such convictions are then in turn interested in configuring the kinds of readings pursued in certain ways. Biblical criticism has undergone many transformations over the centuries, sometimes allowing such theological convictions or practices to shape the nature of its criticism, and at other times—especially in the modern period—tending to relegate their significance in favor of concerns with interpretive method, and in particular questions about authorial intention, original context, and interest in matters of history (either in the world behind the text, or in the stages of development of the text itself). From the middle of the 20th century onwards the interpretive interests of biblical critics have focused more on certain literary characteristics of biblical narratives and poetry, and also a greater theological willingness to engage the imaginative vision of biblical texts. This has resulted in a move toward a theological form of criticism that might better be characterized as imaginative and invites explicit negotiation of readers’ identities and commitments. A sense of the longer, premodern history of biblical interpretation suggests that some of these late 20th- and early 21st-century emphases do themselves have roots in the interpretive practices of earlier times, but that the Reformation (and subsequent developments in modern thinking) effectively closed down certain interpretive options in the name of better ordering readers’ interpretive commitments. Though not without real gains, this narrowing of interpretive interests has resulted in much of the practice of academic biblical criticism being beholden to modernist impulses. Shifts toward postmodern emphases have been less common on the whole, but the overall picture of biblical criticism has indeed changed in the 21st century. This may be more owing to the impact of a renewed appetite for theologically imaginative readings among Christian readers, and also of the refreshed recognition of Jewish traditions of interpretation that pose challenging framing questions to other understandings.


Nicholas Dames

First known as a kephalaion in Greek, capitulum or caput in Latin, the chapter arose in antiquity as a finding device within long, often heterogenous prose texts, prior even to the advent of the codex. By the 4th century ce, it was no longer unusual for texts to be composed in capitula; but it is with the advent of the fictional prose narratives we call the novel that the chapter, both ubiquitous and innocuous, developed into a compositional practice with a distinct way of thinking about biographical time. A technique of discontinuous reading or “consultative access” which finds a home in a form for continuous, immersive reading, the chapter is a case study in adaptive reuse and slow change. One of the primary ways the chapter became a narrative form rather than just an editorial practice is through the long history of the chaptering of the Bible, particularly the various systems for chaptering the New Testament, which culminated in the early 13th century formation of the biblical chaptering system still in use across the West. Biblical chapters formed a template for how to segment ongoing plots or actions which was taken up by writers, printers, and editors from the late medieval period onward; pivotal examples include William Caxton’s chaptering of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in his 1485 printing of the text, or the several mises en proses of Chrétien de Troyes’s poems carried out in the Burgundian court circle of the 15th century. By the 18th century, a vibrant set of discussions, controversies, and experiments with chapters were characteristic of the novel form, which increasingly used chapter titles and chapter breaks to meditate upon how different temporal units understand human agency in different ways. With the eventual dominance of the novel in 19th-century literary culture, the chapter had been honed into a way of thinking about the segmented nature of biographical memory, as well as the temporal frames—the day, the year, the episode or epoch—in which that segmenting occurs; chapters in this period were of an increasingly standard size, although still lacking any formal rules or definition. Modernist prose narratives often played with the chapter form, expanding it or drastically shortening it, but these experiments usually tended to reaffirm the unit of the chapter as a significant measure by which we make sense of human experience.