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The MOST Theological Collection: Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

"Chapter 24: Other Forms of Criticism "


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As we saw in chapter 16, quite a few very prominent scholars are now completely giving up the historical-critical method. Quite improperly; they merely did not learn to live within its limitations. Now they are turning to other methods.

Some attempt a psychoanalytic reading of the New Testament, seeking an analogy between the Gospel narratives, especially the parables and miracle stories, and dreams and visions. Each, they think. is a product of preconscious or unconscious factors. Like an analyst with a patient on the couch, these writers search for little gaps, slips, disagreements that may reveal hidden motivations. Some see the behavior of the prodigal son in the Gospel as a living-out of the Oedipal conflict. There is, they think, a possibility of psychoanalyzing Jesus as He is pictured by the Evangelists.

Others are cultivating a sociological analysis of early Christianity and of the New Testament. No doubt, there are some possibilities in this approach, but it surely cannot replace careful study of the text by means of the historical-critical method.

Within this sociological approach, liberation theology is dominant. Bultmann, the pioneer form critic of the New Testament, thought he saw a gap between Jesus as He really was and the Christ the Church preached. We cannot know much for certain of what He really was, Bultmann thinks, so we take Him and His teaching to mean the same as Heidegger's existentialism: original sin means a loss of authentic being, the resolve to go through with life even though it is dismal in a universe that makes no sense.

In a parallel way the radical liberationists (there are milder forms) use Marx the way Bultmann used Heidegger. This results in a most radical reinterpretation of all Christian teaching. Love becomes a preference for the poor coinciding with an option for class struggle; hope becomes confidence in the future; salvation becomes freedom from economic oppression.

But our chief focus now is on structuralism, also called semiotic analysis. Reactions of Scripture scholars run the full gamut. Some, Joseph Fitzmyer, for example, think it just a fad.1 Others, for example René Laurentin, call it very promising as a method. Yet Daniel Patte, a leading U.S. practitioner, writes: "A first striking characteristic of a structural exegesis is the absence of the traditional semantic concern: the exegesis no longer aims at what the author meant" ( What is Structural Exegesis?, Fortress, 1976, p. 14). Instead, the exegete tries to uncover the linguistic, narrative, or mythical structures of the text, on the assumption that the author himself was not aware of using complex structures. Further, according to Patte, "the structuralists acknowledge the plurality of 'structural meanings.'"

There are three types, or levels, of structure, according to the structuralists. All are marked by, affected by, "constraints." Patte explains that "a text may be compared to a hand-woven blanket.... The 'design effect' is the result of the intentional combination of colored threads. Yet the 'design effect' is also determined by the limited possibilities [constraints] offered by the loom and the set of colored threads available to the artisan" (p. 21). The first level is made up of the structures of the enunciation, which are limited by the constraints brought about the author, individual, or group, and his/their situation in life. The second level is made up of the cultural structures, which are shaped by the constraints proper to the specific culture in which the author lives. The deepest level is marked by the structures that characterize man as man. It is this deep level that chiefly concerns structuralists.

They believe, too, that the deepest structures are not necessarily apparent but are apt to be expressed in "codes." To break these codes, as it were, one must pay attention to wholes and show the interrelation of their parts.

Almost all structural study of the Bible goes back to a classic essay by Claude Levi-Straus, "The Structural Study of Myth," which now forms part of his Structural Anthropology (Basic Books, N.Y., 1963). Levi-Straus is not a biblical scholar but a philosophical anthropologist. He thinks that "the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction" (p. 229). Myths: show. he thinks, very similar patterns of plot and some rather standardized structures. For example, Zuni myths he has studied deal in fundamental oppositions: life-death, nature-culture. heaven-earth, God-man. These oppositions are real and cannot be overcome. Yet a myth can. as it were, transcend them by breaking them up, in the sense of replacing them with secondary oppositions that can in a way be thought of as equivalent to the fundamental opposition.

The life-death opposition, where there is no middle or intermediary, cannot in itself be overcome. But a myth can use agriculture to replace life, and warfare to replace death. There is a mediating term possible here: hunting. Hunting uses death to provide life-giving food. So life and death no longer seem in absolute opposition.

Structuralists note that myth systems feature binary opposition, the kinds of opposites just mentioned. Levi-Straus thinks that binary opposition is basic in human thinking.

Rather naturally then, Algirdas Julien Greimas proposed using a semiotic square for analysis (see his basic works, Semantique structurale, Larousse, Paris, 1966, and Du Sens, Seuil, Paris, 1970). It is ultimately derived from the logical square of Aristotle.

[Diagram: square with "A" at the upper left corner; "A" at lower left; "B" at upper right; "B" at lower right; corners connected by dotted diagonals.]

Items A and B, connected by diagonals, are contradictories, as are B and A. The horizontal lines A to B and A to B are contraries. The vertical lines, A to A and B to B, are correlatives. Clearly, thus one can sort out the binary relations with which semiotics is so concerned.

We mentioned above that R. Laurentin thinks this sort of analysis very promising. In his Les Evangiles de l'Enfance du Christ (Desclée et Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1982, 2nd edition), he devotes 160 pages to a semiotic analysis of the Infancy Gospel of Luke (chapters 1 and 2). First, he gives a long preliminary (pp. 144-172), in which he classifies at length various statements in the Gospel into categories: grammar, time, several kinds of places, to have, to will, to owe, to know, to see, to be able, to make (with exterior object), to do (without exterior object), to be, etc.

Laurentin next divides the first two chapters of Luke into various narrative programs, that is, sequences of events, and tries to decide what division and grouping is proper (pp. 173-265). Here he admits that structuralists are not in complete agreement. The major groups he settles on are these: annunciation to Zachary, Annunciation to Mary, Visitation, birth and circumcision of the Baptist, Birth of Christ the Lord, Presentation in the Temple, Finding in the Temple. Each of these seven is further subdivided.

In his next step Laurentin makes use of the "actantial model" of Greimas. Semiotics bristles with technical terms, most of which could be omitted, as Laurentin shows concretely by his study that makes scant use of them. An "actant" is not the same as an actor. It is a semantic unit (unit of meaning) that comes at a more abstract level than the actor in the usual sense of the word. It can be either singular or plural, abstract or concrete. We can see more easily from the diagram of Greimas, in which there are six actants along three axes:


For example, one could identify God as the sender, the Gospel as the object, the receiver as the human race. The opponents are the enemies of Jesus; the helpers are the Apostles, the disciples, and so on. Jesus is the subject who gives the good news.

The use Laurentin makes of this model is as follows: God or Jesus is the sender. he is also the subject. The object is salvation, which is identified with Jesus, who is in that way both subject and object. Laurentin does not identify the opponents. He asserts that Luke does not like to bring out opposition. Helpers, he says, are not yet prominent in this stage of the Gospel. He notes, too, that with one exception. (God is the only subject of doing or making with an external object. God brings about activity in humans. He notes, too, that many names of God are given to Christ: Lord, Son of the Most High, Son of God, Savior. The receivers of course, are the People of God.

Noting that Christ fills all important posts, Laurentin sums up in a manner not found elsewhere. Jesus is at the same time subject and object (Savior and salvation), is identified with God the sender and, in a sense, with men, the receivers. He is God with God, man with men.

In the final stage of his analysis, Laurentin makes use of the semiotic squares.2 Laurentin works out in great detail the things or statements or persons that fall under the parts of two squares: law and grace, glory and humility. To illustrate, let us follow through the chief points of the law-grace square. Using the same letter designations as in the diagram of the basic square, the law is A, grace is B. They are contraries. Then A and B are, respectively, non-grace and non-law. Thus law and non-law are contradictories; so are grace and non-grace.

Laurentin notes, incidentally, that the word grace (not used in Mark, used only three times in John) occurs eight times in Luke and seventeen times in Acts. The word grace is also a favorite of St. Paul, with whom Luke associated so much. Laurentin then lists numerous instances of the concept of law in Luke 1 and 2, for example, the observance of justice by Zachary and Elizabeth, the two circumcisions (of John and Jesus), the obedience to the law of Augustus calling for an enrollment. Grace appears, for example, in the benevolence of God to Elizabeth, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Mary, the Spirit being upon Simeon, and in many more instances.

For the pole of non-grace, Laurentin lists, among other things, the lack of faith in Zachary; the proud, rich, and powerful, who are disgraced in the Magnificat; those in darkness mentioned in the Benedictus. The pole of non-law includes the enemies of the People of God. In a sense, too, Laurentin sees non-law present, paradoxically, in Mary, who went beyond what the law required. He mentions also that .Jesus was "disobedient to His parents by the higher attraction of His Father from heaven." This last item is very regrettable. No less than eleven times in the entire book, Laurentin speaks of Jesus as disobedient a real irreverence, and a charge that is not at all true. In staying in the temple at age 12, He was not disobeying any command of His parents. He was informally doing what they had not expected. Hence their failure to comprehend; that is, they did not understand this change of pattern from Him, who normally followed their every wish.

It seems that the need to fill out the semiotic square is a chief factor leading Laurentin to this unfortunate repeated statement. (Incidentally, one is tempted to wonder if he fully accepts the teaching of the Church that Jesus had the Beatific Vision in His human soul from the moment of conception (see Laurentin, pp. 264, 495).

Laurentin then fills in the three axes (contraries, contradictories, correlatives). He asks whether law and grace are really contraries, and answers that they are in the sense that they differ in having interior and exterior norms, in rule and freedom. But he thinks that the dramatic opposition St. Paul makes of law and grace is resolved and surpassed, for example, in that Jesus was presented in the temple as under the law but is shown by the law itself as the Holy One to come (Luke 2:23).

Laurentin says that the other contraries, non-law and non-grace, are found in the enemies who hate. He adds that this point is not important.

As to the contradictories, grace and non-grace are shown, for example, in the revolution worked by the grace of God in favor of the poor; in the punishment of Zachary, who resisted grace and was punished; and in the prophecy of Simeon, who says that Christ will occasion both the rise and fall of men. Laurentin sees the contradiction of law and non-law in the opposition between the People of God and the pagans to whom the Messiah brings the light. This opposition will be overcome by grace.

As to the correlations: law and non-grace are found in the case of Zachary; grace and non-law appear in the singular paradoxes in which the drive of grace and the movements of the Spirit upset norms and usages. Regrettably, Laurentin mentions again the "disobedience" of Jesus here.

Laurentin also works out the topographical implications of the square so that Nazareth stands for grace, Jerusalem for law, Bethlehem for non-law, and those in darkness (Luke 1:79) for nongrace.

The final part of the working out of the law-grace square is in the modalization of being: seeming-to-be. This is really a subsquare with being and seeming-to-be as A and B, while A and B are, respectively, not seeming-to-be and not being. Across the top line, from A to B, he writes truth: across the bottom line, falsity. On the vertical lines for correlatives he puts on the left, secret, on the right, lie. He notes that this square coincides partly with the law-grace square. Laurentin fills in, in some detail, the things that apply to all points here, just as he did with the law-grace square.

Laurentin gives a full treatment also to the second square: glory-humility. A and B are theophany and poverty; A and B are non-poverty and non-theophany.

In the conclusion, Laurentin, after noting that the constant movement in Luke I and 2 is the surpassing of an ordinary and terrestrial program by a divine program, makes three principal points: (1) Zachary and Elizabeth appear at first as models of keeping the law. Yet their modeling is not fully successful: they are freed from sterility, but Zachary becomes mute and Elizabeth remains silent for some time. Next in time comes the gift of the Spirit, who fills the Baptist before his birth, then Elizabeth, then Zachary. The triple gift of the spirit is especially found in Mary, who stands for grace. (2) The birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, the messianic place, is programmed, not by the law of God. but by the law of Augustus. Glory then follows on grace. The glory that shone on the shepherds stands for God, who is often called glory in the Old Testament; Simeon, in calling Jesus the glory of the people Israel, indicates His divinity. (3) The two scenes in the temple stand also for the passage from law to grace. Jesus at the presentation is under the law but is manifested by the law itself (Luke 2:23 calls Him "the Holy One"). By the Spirit, Simeon recognizes in Him the salvation, the light of the nations, the glory of Israel. The final scene transcends the others. Jesus, following law and custom, goes to Jerusalem, frees Himself from His parents in disobedience (!), and announces that He belongs to the Father. Then He goes back to daily submission at Nazareth, where He grows under the sign of grace (Luke 2:52 and 2:40). Thus "grace" completes Luke 1-2. It was there at the start; it is there at the end.

Laurentin adds two final observations: (1) The transcendent being of the Son of God is marked from the point of departure in 1:32-35, and appears in progressive manifestations (Annunciation, Visitation, Christmas, theophany in the temple). In the temple, He expresses His Being and mission as Son of God-He passes from merely being to also seeming-to-be-but the full manifestation of that comes later in the Gospel. (2) The theophanies of the infancy are without human glory. They come in the poverty with which the Son of God identified Himself. So we see the unsoundable depth of newness of the Gospel revelation.

This has been a long review of the semiotic analysis done by Laurentin, yet it is merely a summary. But it is a rather good example of how this analysis can be done. Now we must ask ourselves, Of all the items mentioned (and not mentioned) in our summary, which could not have been seen without all the semiotic apparatus? It is doubtful that there is even one, though, admittedly, good insights have been presented.

Not all semiotic analyses turn out even this well. E. R. Leach gives us one in "Genesis as Myth" (in Myth and Cosmos, ed. J. Middleton, University of Texas Press, 1967, pp. 1-13).

Leach remarks that in the first creation story of Genesis, though creatures are told to be fruitful and multiply, the narrative nevertheless does not face the problems of life-death and incest-procreation. These, however, are dealt with in the second creation story, which begins with the opposition heaven-earth. This opposition, writes Leach, "is mediated by a fertilizing mist ... which blurs the distinction life-death."

The second creation story also reveals oppositions: man-garden, tree of life-tree of death. Eve, in the second story, replaces the creeping things of the first story. "These creeping things," writes Leach, "were anomalous, that is? mediating or holy, in regard to fish, fowl, cattle, and beasts. As to Eve, Leach says that she is "anomalous to the opposition man versus animal." There is still another mediation: the serpent, one of the creeping things, "is anomalous to the opposition man versus woman." Reproduction becomes possible only after the human pair eat the forbidden fruit and, thus, become aware of sexual differences.

In the next stage, the antithesis of the first and last three days of creation in the first narrative reappears in Cain the gardener and Abel the herdsman. Abel's offering of animals is more pleasing to God. Cain's killing of his brother compares with the incest committed by Adam. Hence God's questioning and cursing of Cain, and of Adam and Eve and the serpent, show the same form. "So," says Leach, "Cain's sin was not only fratricide but also incestuous homosexuality."

Still another stage is discovered by Leach. "Though heterosexual incest is evaded." he writes, "the theme of the homosexual incest in the Cain and Abel story recurs in the Noah saga when drunken Noah is seduced by his own son, Ham."

Has this analysis uncovered the real meaning of Genesis? Hardly.

Just a word about analysis of the parables, an area being actively pursued in the U.S. at present. Dan O. Via ("Parable and Example Story," in Semeia, vol. 1, 1974, pp. 105-133) has taken the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) and put it within the actantial model we saw above. Thus the sender is the Samaritan, the object sent is aid and healing, the receiver is the traveler. Then on the lower line, the helper consists of oil, wine, donkey, innkeeper, robbers (!). The subject is again the Samaritan. The opponents are the priest and Levite. (But they did not oppose, they just neglected.) But Via notes that if we took a broader text, Luke 10:25-37, we would get this model: The sender is Jesus, the object is the meaning of neighbor, the receiver might be the scribe. On the lower line, the helper is the story, Jesus is the subject, the opponent is Jewish exclusivism represented by the scribe. There is, of course, truth in all this. But where is the added illumination?

John Dominic Crossan suggests (In Parables, Harper & Row, 1973, especially pp. 53-78) that just as there is a twofold function of myth-to mediate the reconciliation of a particular contradiction and to create belief in the permanent possibility of reconciliation-so, too, but in contrast the parable on the surface creates a contradiction within a situation in which one feels secure but, on a deeper level, challenges the fundamental principle of reconciliation. So a parable is a story whose artistic surface structure makes it possible for its deep structure to invade us, in direct contradiction to what one expects. So, the coming of the kingdom implies reversal, because the kingdom overturns our security and leaves us in utter insecurity.

What has the Church said about structuralism? Not a thing up to the present.


1 Joseph Fitzmyer, Christological Catechism (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), p. 121.
2 He first outlines what others have proposed: The Group of Lyon (CADIR), the Association de la Roche-Colombe (Paris), and Agnes Gueret. He is closest in his views to the latter.

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