Review of Patte on Structural Exegesis

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 42/2 (spring 1980): 441-444. Used with permission.]

Daniel Patte and Aline Patte. Structural Exegesis: From Theory to Practice. Exegesis of Mark 15 and 16. Hermeneutical Implications. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1978. x, 134p. $8.95.


In the rapidly growing field of structural exegesis of the Bible, the Pattes’ book represents the most significant contribution to date both in penetration, in creative innovation, and in fruitfulness of interaction with questions of hermeneutical application. This makes it nothing less than required reading for any who would really understand where structuralist approaches are going.

The book as it stands is highly condensed, leaving major gaps in


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argument and explanation. It is hard to do justice to it in a still more condensed review. But two elements stand out: (1) the Pattes attempt to relate to one another in rigorous fashion, by means of “projections,” several of the levels of textual structure that previous structuralist approaches have left in isolation. (2) The Pattes construct a means for bringing the results of structuralist analysis to bear on the question of what constitutes a legitimate hermeneutic applying the text to present-day life.

The Pattes can be commended for tackling these two all-important but hitherto intractable areas of challenge, and doing so in a stimulating, creative way. It means that there is much material here to be digested. Nevertheless, in the end the attempts in both the two areas must be pronounced unsatisfactory. Because of the complex nature of the material, and the fact that one must frequently guess at how the supporting arguments would be filled in, a fair demonstration of this unsatisfactoriness is likely to demand a volume quite a bit longer than theirs. But, in brief, some of the most basic objections are as follows.

First, there are some difficulties concerning the moves from one level of analysis to another. A great deal of the analysis depends on which narrative manifestations are judged at an early stage by the Pattes to be “pertinent.” The structures like those in Figure 10 that they use to derive the “symbolic universe” (and eventually everything else) from narrative programs would be radically altered if as few as two pertinent counterposed programs were inserted or omitted, or if the order of programs were altered (why does Mark 15:9a precede 15:4b, 5a? ). I find it comparatively easy to argue for such insertions or omissions. I find it even easier to imagine very small surface-structure changes in Mark resulting in large changes in what counts as “pertinent.” Moreover, many elements of Mark that were surely “pertinent” in any ordinary sense to a first-century reader do not count as pertinent by the Pattes’ formalist criteria. The Pattes pay no attention to work by M. A. K. Halliday, Robert E. Longacre, Joseph E. Grimes, Wolfgang Dressler, and other linguists on features such as discourse prominence, coherence, and information flow, all of which are important for characterizing what a reader focuses on and what he does with it.1 The Pattes’ problem is that they are working on the


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very narrow base of Greimas’s structuralist approach, which does not allow them to take into account nearly enough factors entering into the actual process of reading (cf. by contrast the much greater sensitivity of Roland Barthes in S/Z).2

My second criticism relates to the question of hermeneutical application. How does a first-century text like Mark 15–16 speak to us today? Here it appears to me that the Pattes depend on one equivocation after another in order to achieve anything significant. For instance, the Pattes describe a “legitimate hermeneutic” as one “prolonging the semantic universe” of a narrative. Now, “prolonging the semantic universe” of a narrative can mean (a) talking about the basic values articulated by the narrative, which any interpretation is likely to do if it is actually an interpretation of the narrative, or (b) agreeing with those basic values. “Legitimate” hermeneutic can mean (a) listening carefully to what a discourse says, or (b) agreeing that the discourse is “true” by adopting a style of life corresponding to it. A “sacred” text can mean (a) a text thought to embody divine authority, or (b) a text giving models for patterning one’s life after, or (c) a text whose narrative events display oppositions like life/death of a more basic character than do the interpretive comments on the events (almost all narratives are likely to be nonsacred by this criterion, because comments are often used to attribute life-significance to events). The terms “canon” and “revelation” in the book are also equivocal. By means of these equivocations some of the key arguments about hermeneutical significance gain their plausibility.

Moreover, the resulting hermeneutic is no more satisfactory than the arguments used to back it up. The Pattes’ explanation of Mark 15–16 as “profane” text on pp. 99-112 is an enormous oversimplification (albeit quite a creative one) of how Mark 15–16 functioned for its first-century readers. Is there any structural reason to believe that it is not a vast oversimplification with respect to twentieth-century readers? Pattes’ structural generalities never distinguish the two sets of readers.

In spite of these difficulties the book is important to reckon with


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because of the program it proposes for attacking complex hermeneutical questions in a formalized way.

Vern S. Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary

1 Cf. M. A. K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan, Cohesion in English (London: Longman, 1976); Robert E. Longacre, An Anatomy of Speech Notions (Lisse: de Ridder, 1976); Joseph E. Grimes, The Thread of Discourse (The Hague: Mouton, 1974); Wolfgang V. Dressler, ed., Current Trends in Textlinguistics (Berlin-New York: de Gruyter, 1978); Wilbur N. Pickering, “A Framework for Discourse Analysis,” Ph.D. thesis, University of Toronto, 1977; Kathleen Callow, Discourse Considerations in Translating the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974) ; John Beekman and John Callow, “The Semantic Structure of Written Communication,” prepublication draft, Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1977.

2 Barthes, S/Z (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).


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