Review of Daniel Patte on Structuralism

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in Westminster Theological Journal 40/1 (1977) 181-182. Used with permission.]

Daniel Patte: What Is Structural Exegesis? Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976. vi, 90. $2.95.

(Ed.) Daniel Patte: Semiology and Parables: Exploration of the Possibilities offered by Structuralism for Exegesis. Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1976. xx, 384. $7.50.


The structuralist movement offers possibilities both for greater control in analysis of literature and for greater excesses. Daniel Patte’s two books on structural analysis applied to biblical material give a good foretaste of the potential in both directions.

The first book, though from the Fortress Press series, is quite a bit too complex to serve as a good first introduction to the subject. But on a more advanced level, all its chapters are stimulating contributions. Chapter 1 relates structuralism to philosophical hermeneutics; Chapter 2 introduces the linguistic and semiological framework; Chapter 3 contains a very useful summary of Greimas’s theory of narrative, plus an application to the Parable of the Good Samaritan; and Chapter 4 contains quite original material applying Levi-Strauss’s theory of myth to Galatians 1: 1-10 and the Good Samaritan.

The second book, which is more specialized, presents conference papers and responses to them. Three of the five main papers contain a combination of concern for structuralist theory and application of the theory to some specific examples (for example, the Parable of the Unjust Judge or of the Prodigal Son). The other two papers are more exclusively oriented to questions about the foundations of structuralism. In general, the liveliness of the debate more than compensates for the more specialist character of the topics.

Structural analysis unveils for display many layers and facets of meaning (Semiology, p. 3). There is nothing wrong about that. But two nagging questions come up again and again. First, are the meanings really “there,” or are they imposed by the analyst, or is it some combination of the two (Semiology, pp. 309-310)? Second, what bearing, if any, do these potentially infinitely ramified meanings have on literary study in general and biblical studies in particular?

With respect to the first question, what one finds using a structuralist method will be a manifestation of the structures posited by the method in the first place. If the reader can adjust to this apparent circularity and to the playful way in which analogy and metaphor are explored, much can be gained. Our two books work primarily within the framework of the thought of A. J. Greimas and C. Levi-Strauss. No doubt either of these frameworks can be used to analyze almost any discourse; but then so can the frameworks of other French structuralists (Bremond, Barthes), of Propp metaphorically extended, of Jung, of Robert Scholes, of Alan Dundes, or of Heda Jason.1 Any of these approaches, then, is somehow nonexclusive. Of course, most of the time this nonexclusiveness is recognized. But then we come to the second question, about the bearing of structuralist methods. When conclusions are drawn from structural analysis, the tendency is to lapse back into the more traditional concerns of biblical exegesis. There is a search for something definite about the point of a given pericope: There is a search, if I am not mistaken, for something more authoritative than an infinite ramification of meaning—even if the something is nothing more than the dogma that meaning is infinitely ramified (cf.What Is Structural Exegesis, pp. 74–75, 82-83; Semiology, pp. 4–5, 48, 217, 235, 253). One cannot really have it both ways. At one moment Patte blasts the fundamentalists for claiming that only one kind of meaning is the valid one—I would say, the focally authoritative one (pp. 7-8). But if no meaning is singled out for special treatment, well then none is singled out, and we are in an infinite soup. From the point of view of purely descriptive analysis, this may be all to the good, because no artificial boundaries are imposed; but when Patte and others draw their pointed conclusions, they have singled out some few meanings as key meanings. There are few if any controls on what the interpreter is to single out. Hence he can act autonomously.

Vern. S. Poythress

Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia


1 Heda Jason, “A model for narrative structure in oral literature,” mimeographed ms., n.d.


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