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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 67, 2019

ERIC DOUGLASS, Interpreting New Testament Narratives: Recovering the Author’s Voice (BINS 169; Leiden: Brill, 2019). Pp. viii + 281. Hard-back. £121.00/US$146.00.

Eric Douglass’ second contribution to the Biblical Interpretation series follows from Reading the Bible Ethically: Recovering the Voice in the Text (2014). Douglass claims his is an ethical method—although it may seem more focussed on interpretation than ethics. His intent is to ensure that the authors ‘voice’ is not erased, by comparison with most ‘post-modern approaches to biblical interpretation.

Chapter 1 outlines Douglass’ methodological assumptions—originally discussed in his previous book—and developed further here. He views authors and readers as subjects who engage in intentional acts, and their relation has an ethical base. In the second chapter, he outlines his model for narrative communication, focussing on the writer’s construction of the text and noting several disjunctions that may occur.

In Chapter 3, Douglass considers ways in which readers locate the story they are reading. He describes a process projecting an enculturated version of themselves into the text. This reading-self experiences the consequences of the narrative events and is in turn over-written by the actual-self. The following chapter discusses the process of entering the story-world, identifying with a specific character and responding to the narrative through that character. It is through such engagement with narratives that it is possible to read the text as intended by the author—thereby recovering the author’s voice. Not all readers may find the two-self reading system that Douglass proposes to be entirely convincing, although he is consistent in its application. For example, in the Markan examples (Chapter 8) Douglass notes there are times when reading stops and the attentional focus shifts from reading-self to actual-self while the reader engages in the task of ethical consideration, before returning the attentional focus to the reading-self.

Minor characters are considered in Chapter 5, and Douglass indicates the variety of functions they may take. Even so, the reader does not identify with minor characters but with significant characters in the narrative. This occurs because the author produces an interest bias and an evaluative standard. In Chapter 6, Douglass further explores identification by the reader with a character, considering this depth of affinity to cause the reader to become ‘other’ with respect to the actual-self. He also considers how events are constructed and notes that the extent to which readers adopt the culture of the intended audience shapes the construction of similar events and experiences from the text. Douglass concludes that the reading-self identifies with the disciples, although he does not seem to engage with other scholarship that would suggest alternatives.

The issue of translation is the subject of Chapter 7. Where a story-world is transplanted to another culture, the disjunction that arises distorts the author’s voice. However, Douglass maintains that the primary ethical value is loyalty to the author’s voice, and therefore translation practices are necessary that involve equivalence and relevance. Translation thus produces story-meaning that relates to a modern culture in a similar way to the original. The reader must then evaluate the story-meaning in terms of its modern relevance.

Douglass applies his methodology in Chapter 8 to a small number of Markan passages. This is perhaps the most successful part of the book, yet it forms only a small section with selected passages from early in Mark’s Gospel, and—perhaps unexpectedly—from Mark 13. It would have been helpful to have seen the application of Douglass’ method across a broader range of texts. In the latter half of Mark, it could be argued that it becomes increasingly difficult to identify with the disciples without creating an insurmountable dichotomy between reading-self and actual-self. Surprisingly, despite Douglass’ treatment of New Testament narratives and his critique of several other interpretive methods, there is little engagement with such methods or with some of the issues raised. Nor is there mention of some scholars that might otherwise be expected when discussing New Testament narratives (for example, Alan Culpepper’s schema in Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel). Moreover, if the intent were to interpret New Testament narratives, examples from other gospels may have been helpful. Some closer proof-reading throughout and a concluding chapter would also have been helpful, although most chapters did provide concluding summaries.

These comments aside, Douglass’ approach is instructive, providing fresh insights into narrative interpretation that stretch one’s critical imagination. He provides a counterbalance to methodologies that privilege the reader’s ‘voice’ to the extent that meaning is transposed into the text based purely on personal ideology. This is a significant book offering insights about authorial intent that need to be taken seriously.

Review by
Eva Burrows College, University of Divinity