Posts Tagged ‘Narratology’

Reading a story as a story can be a beautiful thing! (With this, I don’t mean to imply that things aren’t necessarily true; I’m just referring to the concept of narratology – yes, it’s a word – where one looks at the characters, plot, scenery, action, etc. of a story.)

The same can be said of the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. By looking at Matthew’s depictions of his characters, the time in which the narrative is set, the “atmosphere” that is created, etc., one learns a lot about what he is trying to say. In this vein, I’d like to make a few remarks upon Matthew 25:31-46 – the so-called Last Judgement section.

Just to give a bit of background, Matthew has five big discourses cemented in-between the narrative parts. The first and most well-known of these is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Chapters 23-25 forms the last one; of which verse 31-46 forms the last part.

At the start of this section of text, we are told that the Son of Man will “sit” on his “throne of glory”. “Sit” is very important here – because the bigger discourse starts with the pharisees and the scribes “sitting” on the “seat of Moses”. But wait! There is more! We are also told right at the start of the discourses, in the Sermon on the Mount (chap 5:1), that Jesus “sat” and taught the disciples.* So RIGHT at the start and RIGHT at the end we’ve got a reference to teaching (and to authority, and interpretation of the Law). We’ll return to that shortly.

Two ways to stress something (if one doesn’t have recourse to bold or italics etc.), is by repeating something or saying it V-E-R-Y   S-L-O-W-L-Y. Matthew does exactly this in his story of the Last Judgement. Which is kind of strange, because we tend to remember the following as being the main thought of the passage:

The Son of Man will come, He will judge people by separating them into “sheep” on the right and “goats” on the left, the former will go to heaven and the latter to hell.

Very well, a summary is always shorter than the main text. But what is interesting is that Matthew repeats a VERY long piece of text (by the standards of discourse in the Gospel; and seeing that words were used rather more sparingly in ancient texts). He repeats it not twice, not thrice, but FOUR times! It reads (NIV):

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

This is repeated two times in the positive** – for the “sheep”; and two times in the negative, for the “goats”. In other words, Matthew repeats this AND makes us read it V-E-R-Y   S-L-O-W-L-Y. Obviously, for Matthew, this thing that happens in the very present, not somewhere in the future (the judgement somewhere in the future / eschatology), is a key theme in the passage.

Now, back to the pharisees/scribes (P/S) vs. Jesus debate, into which I won’t go too much here. Matt 5-7 is generally seen as a “new” take on the Law – against that of the P/S. In the bigger scheme: Jesus taught with authority (7:29); the P/S were given authority but used it hypocritically (chap 23). There is also a final contrast between chap 23 and chap 25 – the final two opposites. In light of the P/S’ hypocritical nature, the drawn out and repetitive theme of actually doing and caring as being THE decisive factor becomes critical. The Last Word on Judgement, then, is not on the interpretation of the Law, but on doing it. We should always, always add this element to our eschatological understanding of this passage.

P.S. Gosh! I love what I do for a living.



* Sitting was the normal position for someone to teach in the ancient world.

** Matthew does some fancy footwork here. For the surprise of the “sheep” surprises the reader: these people were given permission to enter, yet still they pause to ask why. Although this may naturally serve some other purpose, it gives the opportunity to repeat this key theme in the speech of the “sheep” again!


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I am reading a paper in about a week’s time at the SA Association for the Study of the LXX’s Conference in Stellenbosch. The title of this paper is: “Reading ‘Bel and the Dragon’ as Narrative: a comparison between the Old Greek and Theodotion.

The abstract reads as follows:

This paper investigates the narrative character of Bel and the Dragon, using an eclectic model of narrative criticism. Since Bel and the Dragon exists in two Greek traditions, one can compare the way in which these stories are told: e.g., how the characters are portrayed, what point of view the narrator adopts, etc. In comparing these two versions, certain key features of each come to light.

I really think we Protestants should take a second look at the canonicity of Bel and the Dragon (or Snake, or Serpent)! It is a beautiful tale in which the king comes to the realization that Daniel’s God is the only one. This is done with quite some skill, contra what some people have said in the past. The problem with their perspective, if I may be as bold,  is that they simply stuck to historical-critical studies. With a narrative approach, a lot more can be gleaned from the text! One can read the story in the New English Translation of the Septuagint here. In fact, the whole NETS edition can be accessed online, here.

I wish I could post some more on this beautiful tale (tales, really). At the moment, though, things are quite hectic as I have to also prepare for the second conference, a joint conference of Old Testament -, New Testament -, Systematic Theology -, etc. societies in South Africa. It is part of the celebration of the 150th ‘birthday’ of the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch. At this conference, the bigger one of the two, I will be presenting (Deo volente!) a paper entitled: “Pilate’s character: a narratological reading.” Once again, the abstract explains it the best:

This paper investigates Pilate’s character as portrayed in each Gospel by using a combination of narratological theories of character. Each Gospel constitutes its own narrative, with specific emphases. By highlighting the different roles and character traits of Pilate as set forth in each Gospel, some of these emphases will be laid bare.

Perhaps, if time permits, I will post some thoughts on these two topics when I get back!

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