Jonathan Pennington, in Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction, offers the following strategy for actively reading the Gospel narratives. He introduces his model by contrasting it with another common study method he calls the “Whatever Strikes Me” model (pg.171):
For many readers of narrative the meaning one comes away with is usually based on what we may call the “WSM Hermeneutic”–“Whatever Strikes Me.” That is, most readers–whether brand-new to the Gospels or lifelong readers–simply read the stories and take away from them whatever comes to mind, whatever stands out to them this time. At times this approach will be sufficient, thanks either to luck or to the intuitions of a generally skilled reader. But overall, for wise reading we need a more solid understanding of how stories work–how they speak and communicate–so that we can learn to read the Gospel narratives well and to adjudicate wisely among various good readings. We need a model for narrative analysis.
(for the following strategy see pgs.175-176; and esp. pgs. 202-203):
- Isolate the Literary Unit
First, we need to determine the parameters of the story. What is the proper demarcation of the episode? Usually in the Gospels this will be clearly indicated by the paragraph breaks given in our Bibles.
- Read the Story Multiple Times
We must keep the whole experience of the story at the forefront rather simply jumping right into analysis. Read it slowly. Read in quickly. Read it silently. Read it aloud. (If you can read it in Greek, all the better!)
- Identify the Setting and the Characters
It is helpful to simply state what the setting is and to list all the characters. Who is here and where is this story happening?
- Observe the Story
Are there key words or phrases or repeated ideas? Are cause-and-effect relationships stated? What illustrations are used , if any?Noting all these things will help you pay closer attention to the story. Ask questions of the text and write them down. Explore the text with an open mind. There are no stupid questions or observations!
- Isolate the Different Scenes
At this stage it is helpful to take the whole pericope and simply break it up into different scenes (note above comments). The first scene will usually be the setting.
- Analyze the Narrative:
- Identify the Rising Tension
- Identify the Climax
- Identify the Resolution
- Identify the Following Action/Interpretation
- Think About the Contexts
- Acts, Cycles, and Literary Structures
- An act consists of several sequentially related stories together, and a cycle, a number of acts strung together. For example, the three lost/found parables in Luke 15 are all meant to be read as a unit (an act), and likewise Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in Luke 9:51-19:27 is one large section (a cycle) with many acts within it (pg .186).
- Sometimes several episodes are combined into literary structures in such a way that creates a greater meaning being communicated than individual episodes can give by themselves. A literary structure may be discerned when a series of episodes itself has a point and theme that goes beyond any individual pericope (pgs. 186-189). Pennington perceptively discerns a literary structure in Matthew 21-23 focused on Jesus as the son of David and the rejection of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem.
- The Whole Gospel Context Including Intratextuality, the Fourfold Gospel Book, and Jesus’ Death and Resurrection
- Intratextuality = allusions to any particular story elsewhere in the same Gospel, thereby indicating that we should read these accounts in light of each other (pg.189). Pennington gives the following as some examples: Jesus’ predictions of his own impending death and resurrection, and also the appellation “king of the Jews” in the early chapters of Matthew in reference to Jesus instead of Herod.
- Fourfold Gospel Book = Since what we are given in the Holy Gospels is not just individual stories or even individual books but rather a fourfold book, the best readings of any episode take into account relevant information from the rest of the Gospels canon. A good synopsis is valuable for this. By noting the similarities and differences between how the four evangelists tell their stories we can gain insight into how that particular evangelist develops his plot and motifs (pg. 192). To use a phrase that Abraham Kuruvilla uses often, “What is the author doing with what he is saying?”
- Jesus’ Death and Resurrection = the focal point of the entire Gospel narratives (as indicated by the relative space given to the events surrounding Jesus’ final week). This means that any individual episode, act, or cycle must be read in the light of Jesus’ passion in order to understand it’s full significance. The sermon on the mount is given as an example of a unit whose full significance only comes to light after Jesus’ passion (pg. 195).
- The Kingdom-Focused, Redemptive-Historical Context of the whole Canon
- When we read the Gospels in light of the entire canon, we see that even the elaborate and complex stories of the Gospels do not exist in a vacuum but are clearly situated as part of the larger story of the whole Bible (pg.198).
- Acts, Cycles, and Literary Structures
- Summarize the Pericope
- This final step in the narrative model for active reading is important for forcing us to articulate what is most significant in a particular story. When writing the summary be sensitive to the narrative flow, characterization, and the various contexts as they affect its meaning (pg. 203).