Biblical Narrative:

Issues and Approaches

Bruce N. Fisk
Fuller School of Theology
Pasadena, CA 91182
Westmont College
Department of Religious Studies

Texts, Course Pack & Reserves Format & Expectations Schedule & Readings

COURSE DESCRIPTION: The earliest Christians inhabited a "storied" world. Not only did they inherit Israel's sacred narrative but they also constructed their own identity around certain stories--stories about God, Israel, the Gentiles and, of course, Jesus. In this course we shall attend carefully to storytelling, first in the Old Testament and early Judaism, and then across the pages of the New Testament, in order to sort out how these ancient stories worked, how the Old Testament story fueled Jewish imaginations during the Greek and Roman eras, and how the story of Jesus was treasured and shaped to meet the needs of the emerging church. A rich, interdisciplinary assortment of readings, and a series of Biblical test passages will encourage our critical reflection on the nature of Biblical narrative as well as our thoughtful integration of narrative hermeneutics into the life of the church.
RELEVANCE FOR MINISTRY: Insofar as this course will explore ways to read, interpret and, ultimately, to inhabit the Biblical story, it should be a useful resource for Christian leaders who are seeking to cultivate, in themselves and in others, hermeneutical sensitivity, moral discernment and a growing appreciation for the story-bound identity of the the people of God.
PREREQUISITES: NS500 and NS501, or NS502

REQUIRED READING (top of page)

Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1982.

Selected pages: 31-52, 78-101, 105-138, 169-198. (See Schedule for reading sequence.)

Kermode, Frank. The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard, 1979. Due Feb. 21.

Kugel, James L. The Bible as it Was. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1997.

Selected pages: 1-49, 133-178, 287-329, 333-369, 549-560. (See Schedule for sequence.)

Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God (= NTPG). Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.

Selected pages: 38-46, 121-223, 241-243, 341-476. (See Schedule for sequence.)

A standard translation of the Bible (e.g., NRSV, RSV, NASV, NIV, JB, KJV, NKJV).

Course Reader

Hans W. Frei, "The 'Literal Reading' of Biblical Narrative in the Christian Tradition: Does it Stretch or Will it Break?" in F. McConnell, ed., The Bible and the Narrative Tradition. New York: Oxford, 1986. Pp.36-77.

Mark Goodacre, "Prophecy Historicized or History Scripturized? Reflections on the Origin of the Crucifixion Narrative." Unpublished paper presented at AAR/SBL 2001 Annual Meeting.

Richard B. Hays, "Crucified with Christ: A Synthesis of the Theology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, Philippians, and Galatians" in J. M. Bassler, ed. Pauline Theology. Vol.1: Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991. Pp. 227-246.

Philip Kenneson, "There's No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and it's a Good Thing Too," in T. R. Phillips & D. L. Okholm, ed. Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World. IVP, 1995. Pp. 155-170 (notes: 225-228).

Nicholas Lash, "Performing the Scriptures" in Theology on the Way to Emmaus. SCM Press, 1986. Pp. 37-46.

George Lindbeck, "The Story-Shaped Church: Critical Exegesis and Theological Interpretation," in S. E. Fowl, ed., The Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1997) 39-52.

V. Philips Long, "What is History?" in The Art of Biblical History. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994. Now available in M. Silva, ed. Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996. Pp. 319-337.

Mark A. Powell, "Narrative Criticism" in J. B. Green, ed., Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995. Pp. 239-255.

Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Phila.: Fortress, 1984. Pp. 1-7, 92-116.


Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Auerbach, Erich. "Odysseus' Scar" in Mimesis: the Representation of Reality in Western literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953. Chapter One.

Buechner, Frederick. Telling the Truth: The Gospel As Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. Harper San Francisco, 1985.

Caird, George B. The Language and Imagery of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997; London: Duckworth, 1980.

Crossan, John Dominic. Who Killed Jesus? The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

C. H. Dodd, "Eschatology and History," in The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments. New York: Harper & Row, 1964; essay originally delivered 1935. Pp. 79-96.

Evans, Craig A. "The Passion of Jesus: History Remembered or Prophecy Historicized?" BBR 6 (1996) 159-165.

Green, Garrett. (ed.). Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.

Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven: Yale, 1989.

C. S. Lewis, "Myth Became Fact" in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Eerdmans, 1970. Pp. 63-67.

Wilder, Amos N. The Bible and the Literary Critic. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.


  • Attend regularly, complete thoughtfully the pre-class readings, and come to class prepared to participate in discussion. Since the goal will be to learn in community, we shall weight preparation, attendance and active participation rather heavily. If participation wanes or becomes lopsided, we shall make room for quizzes, during which students will be free to consult their own reading notes. (20%)
  • Each student shall select, during our first meeting, an article (from the reader or reserve readings) on which to prepare a brief (up to 1-page) handout designed to guide others through the argument, raise questions and generally stimulate class discussion. Students shall provide copies for all class participants on the day the corresponding reading is due. Be sure the handout identifies its author and provides full bibliography. Since this assignment is tied closely to in-class learning, there will be no extensions; wise students will work ahead. (10%)
  • Submit a research paper of approximately 12 pages, exploring one of the following aspects of narrative interpretation. Students are welcome to propose variations and modifications of these topics after the third week of term. All topics must be approved by the instructor prior to final submission.
    • narrative art in one of the Gospels: does the evangelist tell a good story?
    • historiography in Acts: how does Luke parallel, and differ from, historians of his day?
    • the narrative substructure of a NT epistle: what stories (about God, Israel, Christ, Paul, the world) lie beneath the surface?
    • myth in the New Testament: how might the NT be exploiting Greco-Roman myth and legend?
    • early Biblical interpretation: how was OT narrative interpreted in the Second Temple period? (e.g., Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Philo, or a book of the NT)
  • Paper format should conform to SOT standards. On the date submitted, each student will be invited to summarize briefly the argument or thrust of the paper, for the benefit of the rest of the class. (50%)
  • Final exam (20%). Our final shall be open-note, open-Bible, closed-textbook. Essay questions will explore topics and issues raised in class, and will presume general familiarity with the required readings.
    • Alternative to Final Exam: submit personal reading notes (including responses to any study questions) on the required readings, along with a three-page personal reflection on the way the course has (or hasn't) equipped you to read scripture more thoughtfully. Due at Final.
  • Class policies:
    • Preparation, attendance and participation is of primary importance.
    • When extenuating circumstances (major illness, family crisis, etc.) prevent a student from completing course work by the end of the quarter, she or he may request a grade of Incomplete. (The request must be approved and signed by me, and turned in to the Registrar by March 15.)
    • Course work officially designated "Incomplete" will be due June 7. Only work received by then will receive a grade.
    • Plagiarism, dishonesty and academic integrity: Fuller's Academic Integrity Policy shall be our guide. When in doubt about what constitutes acceptable borrowing or dependence, ask.

Date Discussion Topics Pre-class readings
(recommended readings in green)
Jan 10 Introduction & Syllabus. Story in Popular Culture.
Ten Heuristic Questions. Mt 4:1-11 as Test Case.
For browsing: "Playing God" by Douglas Rushkoff
Wilder, "Story and Story-World" in Bible and Literary Critic, 132-148
Jan 17

OT Narrative: Gaps, Surplus, Interpretive Clues

  • Joseph & his brothers (Gen 42)
  • Jephthah & his daughter (Judg 11)
Trible, Texts of Terror, 1-7, 92-116 (reader)
Powell, "Narrative Criticism" (reader)
Frye, Great Code, 31-52
Jan 24

The Afterlife of OT Stories: early Judaism

  • The sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22)
Kugel, Bible as it Was, 1-49, 133-178
Wright, NTPG, 215-223, 241-243.
Auerbach, "Odysseus' Scar"
Jan 31

The Afterlife of OT Stories: Matthew & Luke

  • Matthew 1-2: out of Egypt once again
  • Acts 7: a Savior before Jesus
Kugel, Bible as it Was, 287-329
Skim: Wright, NTPG, 341-370
Wright, NTPG, 371-403
Frye, Great Code, 78-101, 105-138
Feb 7

The Afterlife of OT Stories: Paul

  • 1 Cor 10: Israel's "following rock"
  • Gal 4: Sarah and Hagar
Kugel, Bible as it Was, 333-369
Skim: Wright, NTPG, 147-214
Frye, Great Code, 169-198
Hays, Echoes, 111-121
Feb 14

Stories about Jesus

  • Walking on Water (Mark 6:45-52 & pars): Test case in Synoptic Historiography
  • The Passion: History Remembered, Prophecy Historicized or History Scripturized?
  • Philippians 2:5-11 and the Greek Novel

For browsing: Petronian Society Ancient Novel Page

Wright, NTPG, 418-443
Crossan, Who Killed?1-13, 31-38.
Goodacre, "Prophecy" (reader)
Fisk, "Frog Prince"
Lewis, "Myth became Fact" (reserve)
Feb 21

Stories within the Story: Jesus' Parables

  • Simple, Secular, Symbolic, Subversive
  • Vineyard Workers: Matt 20:1-16
  • Rebel Tenants: Matt 21:33-46
Kermode, Genesis of Secrecy, due
Skim: Frei, "Literal Reading" (reader)
Feb 28

The Story of the Church

  • Paul's Hermeneutic: Christ, Church & Consumation
  • The Narrative Vision of the Apocalypse
Hays, "Crucified" (reader);
Hays, Echoes, 84-111
Dodd, "Eschatology" (reserve)
Wright, NTPG, 403-417
Lindbeck, "Story-Shaped" (reader)
Mar 7

The Special Case of Direct Discourse

  • Speeches in the Gospels & Acts
  • Acts and Greco-Roman Historiography

For browsing: HISTOS: The Electronic Journal of Ancient Historiography at the U. of Durham

Wright, NTPG, 444-464
Long, "What is History?" (reader)

Link to Acts of Paul and Thecla

Mar 14

Continuing the Story: Ways to Read

  • exemplary
  • salvation-historical
  • imaginative
  • sacramental
  • performative
Kugel, Bible as it Was, 549-560
Wright, NTPG, 38-46, 121-144, 467-476.
Lash, "Performing" (reader)
Kenneson, "No Such Thing" (reader)
Mar 21 Final Exam (Alternative: Reading Notes / Reflection Paper)