Commentary Magazine

The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, by Hans W. Frei;

The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in 18th- and 19th-Century Hermeneutics.
by Hans W. Frei.
Yale University Press. 355 pp. $15.00.

“Kubla Khan” and “The Fall of Jerusalem”: The Mythological School in Biblical Criticism and Secular Literature, 1770-1880.
by E. S. Shaffer.
Cambridge University Press. 361 pp. $25.00.

These two very different works are both concerned with the relationship between the Bible and literature: specifically, with the way the Bible was read and literature was written in England and Germany during the 18th and 19th centuries. Robert Alter in the December 1975 COMMENTARY (“A Literary Approach to the Bible”) noted that the fields of biblical and literary criticism have long remained distinct. This is unfortunate, as Alter indicates, because the rigid distinction has deprived us of valuable literary insights into the Bible. But it is unfortunate also for two more basic reasons. First, the distinction masks the fact that many of our modern notions of what literature is developed simultaneously with new approaches to the Bible. Indeed, it would be truly remarkable if literary and biblical criticism were to have grown up independently: after all, the history of reading is primarily the history of the reading of Scripture. A second problem with the distinction is that, in opposing biblical to literary study, the former tends to be treated as a science, while in fact it is no more a science than is literary criticism; rather, it is a specific cultural form which arises from and contributes to other cultural forms.

Still, the distinction persists, which is all the more reason to welcome these two pioneering books by Hans Frei and Elinor Shaffer, both of which attempt to bridge the gap between biblical and literary study. Frei, a professor of religious studies at Yale who has written extensively on Protestant theology, compares the fortunes of narrative fiction and the interpretation of biblical narrative during the Enlightenment. Shaffer, an American Coleridge scholar who teaches comparative literature at East Anglia, traces the influence of the higher critical movement on romanticism. The two authors are fully at home in their own disciplines. Since it would be difficult to find today two more sophisticated disciplines than Protestant theology and romantic criticism, it is not surprising that there is more than an occasional slip into theological or literary-critical jargon in these books. This is probably an inevitable result of the historic split which Alter has noted, but it ought not to deter the reader from coming to grips with what is being said here.

The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative is a history of Protestant exegesis from Luther to Schleiermacher. The book, as the author notes, is written “under a thesis,” namely, that much of the Bible is “realist narrative,” that Luther and Calvin read it as such, but that certain philosophical trends of the 18th century unfortunately led to the abandonment of this narrative reading. According to Frei, the pre-critical Christian exegetes read the entire canon, from Genesis to Revelation, as one overarching verbal narrative whose meaning was the Christian message. Frei calls this reading “realist” because it views the meaning of the text as arising primarily from the verbal structure of the Bible itself, rather than from any reference to an external historical reality. Frei believes that narrative fiction works in the same way: it conveys a message (moral and social) by creating a meaningful fictional world in a history-like narrative.

The verbal coherence which Frei sees in the pre-critical reading of the Bible broke down in 18th-century England as a result of the impact of John Locke’s empiricist theory of language, according to which words have meaning only by reference to non-verbal reality. The question then became, to what do biblical narratives refer, and the answer could take one of two forms: either that the Bible does in fact refer historically (i.e., the Old Testament contains actual prophecies of New Testament events), or that the biblical text does not actually mean what it says but refers instead to some extra-textual spiritual meaning. Whichever position one took, however, it was assumed that the words of the text were to be read in light of the subject matter and not, as had previously been the case, the other way around. This excluded Frei’s “narrative option,” which radically distinguishes the meaning of a text from its reference.

In Germany the loss of the “realist” option went hand in hand with the idea that a special orientation of consciousness was necessary for interpreting Scripture. Frei claims that no such disposition had been required previously since the reader was already, as it were, part of the reality being rendered by the Bible. In his lucid and stimulating chapters on Herder and Schleiermacher, the author describes the shift in emphasis from the words of the text to the consciousness of the interpreter, and suggests interestingly that this growing exegetical self-consciousness accounts in part for Germany’s failure to develop a strong tradition of realist narrative fiction during these centuries.



The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative is an immensely suggestive work. It is most valuable for the way it analyzes the philosophical bases of biblical criticism and dispels the misguided and still prevalent view of modern criticism as the final stage in a progressive development, akin to the classical view of the progress of science. Frei has shown the essentially contingent nature of the history of biblical interpretation—that different positions could or could not be held at given times—and for this alone the book deserves close and sympathetic reading.

The elegance of Frei’s effort is marred, however, in two respects. One reflects a tension between Frei the historian and Frei the theologian: the former tells us how things developed; the latter is constantly pointing to how history ought to have turned out.1 But the more fundamental problem with the book lies in its notion of narrative fiction. By insisting that the meaning of realist narrative is entirely contained by the words themselves, that character and incident are the sole, and mutually definable, elements of the novel, and that the novel presupposes no special orientation on the part of the reader, Frei paints an overly simple picture of the genre. There is no mention here of the author-reader relationship which is crucial to fiction (and a fortiori to a theology that would base itself on a narrative model); nor does Frei consider what Alter has called the essential self-consciousness of fiction. Although he bemoans the fact that the spirit of narrative fiction in 18th-century England did not spread to biblical study, he does not consider the highly ambiguous stance which the novelistic tradition took on precisely the question of providential design. In short, Frei’s “narrative option” looks less and less like a plausible 18th-century option and more and more like a 20th-century theological stance.

Frei’s book seeks to salvage traditional hermeneutics and restore it to its biblical setting. Not surprisingly, perhaps, his objectivistic approach makes use of some of the presuppositions of the New Criticism which locates meaning entirely within a given text’s verbal structure. Frei hopes to provide a modern solution to the oldest and knottiest problem of Protestant exegesis: how can an exegesis which declares itself to be literal still come away from the text with a spiritual meaning? But The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative ultimately points to the central equivocation which underlies both the New Criticism and Frei’s Protestantizing adaptation of it: by focusing narrowly on the text, each finally brings to the text values and meanings from without.



Frei regrets the turn to romanticism in Bible criticism. From his perspective, the elevation of individual consciousness makes close attention to the text, to the Bible as narrative, impossible. Elinor Shaffer, on the other hand, begins where Frei leaves off. Her concern is precisely with romanticism’s relationship to the higher criticism. Her book argues that romantic notions of the poetic vision and of the poet as visionary—ideas still with us today—must be seen in the context of contemporary developments in biblical criticism. More generally, her thesis is that the literary critic cannot afford to separate literature from “background.” Shaffer succeeds fully, I believe, in establishing both points; in doing so, she suggests a number of new approaches to literary history.

Kubla Khan” and “The Fall of Jerusalem” deals with four texts: Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Holderlin’s “Patmos,” Browning’s “A Death in the Desert,” and George Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda. The book also focuses on the work of the mythological Bible critics: Herder, Michaelis, Eichhorn, Schleiermacher, D. F. Strauss, and Ernest Renan. The scope of the work is astonishing but no more so than the ease with which Shaffer moves from local reading to cultural influences of the broadest kind. This is comparative literature at its most suggestive.

The greater part of Shaffer’s book deals with Coleridge’s early intellectual biography and with his enigmatic “Kubla Khan.” The second work in her title, “The Fall of Jerusalem,” is an unwritten epic which Coleridge had planned in his early years. Shaffer argues that Coleridge could not write this epic—in her view “Kubla Khan” represents the lyric accomplishment of the original epic intention—because the higher Bible criticism, with which he was familiar even before he visited Germany, had vitiated the impersonal, objective view of sacred history upon which epic was based. The new mythological school of biblical critics understood the Gospels not as true eyewitness accounts but as records of the experience of the early Christian community. For the poet, this shift of emphasis from “fact” to “experience” made possible an idea of the poet as visionary, one whose imaginative activity sums up and recreates the experience of an entire community. Shaffer shows that through this idea, which became embodied in the apocalyptic vision of “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge was able to satisfy two of his strongest personal needs: the need for a religious apologetic in the face of skepticism, and the need for a poetry of the supernatural. She also shows that “these concerns were at the center of romantic aesthetics. The need for imaginative reconstruction of events which could not be reliably known in any other way led directly to the elaboration of the poet’s power to recreate and the audience’s ability to share in the poet’s process.” For Shaffer such an aesthetics represented a far more radical break with the past than that effected later by modernism.

Shaffer’s remarkable application of a complex of critical currents to close readings of her texts sheds new and important light on European Orientalism, an 18th-century phenomenon which has never been taken seriously enough. As she points out, the essence of Orientalism was not the widespread craze for Arabian-Nights tales or Chinese gardens, but the much more complex issue of Europe’s relation to the Bible and the biblical past.

Her stress on the role played by German criticism of the Bible in the development of the romantic “epic” comes as a valuable revision of the views of critics like W. Jackson Bate and Harold Bloom who generally ascribe the failure of epic nerve in the romantic period to the overpowering and disabling impact of Milton. So persuasive is her argument here that one would have liked to see Shaffer apply her talents to an analysis of 18th-century Bible study in England, some of which should have been known to Coleridge very early, or to have considered her subject in light of the line of English apocalyptic poetry in the latter half of the 18th century.

The higher criticism of the Bible and the phenomenon of European Orientalism were both ways of coming to grips with the cultural problem of origins, and Shaffer rightly proposes that her approach might illuminate the work of other writers not generally considered under these rubrics. As she notes, whatever histories we have of the higher critical movement systematically assimilate it into theological or scientific orthodoxies; by contrast, she has put modern readers in her debt by making the history of biblical criticism a serious object of cultural study.


1 In a companion work, The Identity of Jesus Christ (Fortress Press. 1975), Frei has offered an actual “realist-narrative” reading of the New Testament.

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