Benjamin Harshav and Literature

Benjamin Harshav is a splendid theorist for considering literary texts, especially as it relates to reading Biblical texts. In what follows, I will briefly note and discuss a few of his ideas which stood out to me.

First, in his essay “The Structure of Non-Narrative Fiction,” he distinguishes between two levels of textual organization: the Text Continuum and the Reconstructed Level. The former describes the organization of the object as a linear text, one which unfolds as the audience reads the text. It is only in the Text Continuum that one can see a high degree of organization through the structure of the text. By contrast, the Reconstructed Level describes things like the characters, plots, ideas, etc. Instead of being a continual, linear unfolding, the Reconstructed Level is “built by the reader from discontinuous elements in the text and are reorganized according to their inherent principles”, such as how “time elements are reorganized in their chronological order” (179). With this distinction, Harshav comments that “in many theories and interpretations it is not always clear whether the scholar discusses something given in the text or something constructed or understood by himself as a reader” (179).

This comment is apt for Biblical Studies because it is true: scholars tend to not be explicit about whether their discussion addresses how a text unfolds or how they can reconstruct a certain aspects about the text based on the linking of certain discontinuous elements. As such, Harshav’s comment is a welcome methodological guide for approaching literary texts.

Second, in his article “”Literariness” Revisted,” Harshav outlines a few key aspects which qualify a text as literature (as distinguished from other types of texts. Listed briefly are a few key aspects for literature: a chain of speakers and positions within the text, complex meanings and references, a text formation (i.e. framing, segmentation, meter, etc.), an Internal Field of References connected to an External Field of Reference, a fixed and isolated textual object which is transferable to new reading contexts, use of various norms, conventions, and devices that are specific to a particular culture and time period, and concreteness in the sense of anchoring abstract ideas, and individuation. Though I won’t go into detail for each of these, suffice it to say that Biblical texts qualify as literature. As such, though I know I am beating a dead horse, scholars should be careful to distinguish when they are reading a Biblical text as literature as opposed to a historical text. That is to say, one may be able to derive historical things out of something like Kings; however, it should first be approached as a literary text.

Of course, this is not necessarily how an ancient reader approached Kings. Rather, an ancient reader more likely approach Kings as simultaneously a historical text and literature, not distinguishing between the two. In light of literary criticism and developments in historiography, though, we must distinguish between literature and historical texts in our analysis if we wish to makes helpful observations about the object/text in either respect.

Third, overall I greatly appreciate Harshav’s description of literary texts. Undoubtedly, his framework for approaching texts will serve as a guide for my reading and description of texts in the future.