Interpretive Methods: Historical, Literary, or Ideological?

In the introduction to To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, Steven McKenzie and Stephen Haynes observe that

One fundamental disagreement between “historical” and “literary” methods of biblical criticism is found in their assumptions about the relationship between texts and history. This disagreement can be expressed in simple terms by saying that historical methods such as source criticism, form criticism, tradition-historical criticism, and redaction criticism emphasize the historical, archaeological, or literary backgrounds or roots of a text, and the development of the text through time. Thus historical-critical methods are sometimes referred to as “diachronic.” On the other hand, literary methods such as structural criticism, narrative criticism, reader-response criticism, and poststructuralist criticism tend to focus on the text itself in its final form (however the final form might have been achieved), and the relationships between a variety of textual elements (both surface and deep), and the interaction between texts and readers (McKenzie and Haynes 7; emphasis original).

That is, both historical and literary approaches are, in fact, ‘ideological’ in the sense that, in the interpretive process, these methods privilege or emphasize the importance of certain information in or about the text. Yet, ‘ideological’ criticism is not typically used as a parent class for ‘historical’ or ‘literary’ criticism. Rather, styles of criticism seem to be assigned to the category of ‘ideological’ when they are considered not to fall within the boundaries of the ‘historical’ or ‘literary’ categories (e.g., 9–10). For example, in addition to the methods mentioned in the preceding quotation, McKenzie and Haynes’ volume includes two chapters that address feminist (268–82) and socioeconomic (283–306) readings as ‘ideological’ criticisms.

What we actually seem to mean, then, when we classify a given method as ‘ideological’ is that the method fits, or has rhetorical validity, within a relatively more specific hermeneutical paradigm (cf. “Paradigms and Rules”). By contrast, ‘historical’ and ‘literary’ methods may more frequently stand as independent categories on equal terms with ‘ideological’ methods because ‘historical’ and ‘literary’ methods fit more directly to a relatively more general hermeneutical paradigm.

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