Archive for the ‘reading’ Category
Ask any crowd of OT scholars and before you get any answers to your question, you’ll be told most emphatically that it doesn’t mean Isaiah was prophesying the birth of Jesus. The context of the passage and the historical situation of Isaiah will be invoked, and any hint of a New Testament reference will be stamped on before the words are out of your mouth. Isaiah, of course, had not read Matthew’s gospel, nor was his concern for events that were to happen hundreds of years after his death. And so, as we read Isaiah’s prophesy, we ought not to let our knowledge of later history or later texts shape our reading.
The problem is, of course, that we do. We have to be told not to. We have to be chastised and corrected for ‘reading the New Testament back into the Old Testament.’ We have to consciously set aside our Christian understanding and try to recreate the mindset of the original author and hearers, to discover what the prophesy might have meant to them. We are taught to travel back to Corinth, as Dick Lucas likes to call it.
What is not altogether clear to me is why. Why is it more important to try to discover what a text once meant, than to understand what it means now? A text like Isaiah 7:14 does mean something different now from what it first meant, precisely because of its later association with the birth of Jesus. Its re-use in a later text adds new layers of meaning, new associations, new connotations, to the older text. That’s not to say that the later text completely over-rides the earlier meanings and the original context, but it certainly develops and influences the meaning which the text now holds.
So when I read Isaiah 7:14, I will always think of Matthew 1:23. And I will be glad that the canonical context of Isaiah includes a later text which appropriates this verse in a new – and more glorious – way. And I will be glad to be a Christian reader of the prophesy, rather than an ancient Israelite facing the threat of the Assyrian army. I will be glad to sing hymns celebrating Emmanuel, God with us, and know that to be true not only partially for the Israelites as they faced their enemies, but wholly, wonderfully, perfectly true for us all in the person of Christ. That’s what Isaiah 7:14 means when I read it as part of the canon and from the standpoint of a Christian believer, in community with the church as it has read the scriptures throughout the ages. And it seems to me that meaning is at least as valid as any other.
Is that Isaiah’s meaning or is that Matthew’s meaning? It’s both. Or, probably better, neither. It’s the bible’s meaning, which is always more than the sum of its parts.
At the moment I am working on the section of my thesis which tries to explain what a canonical approach to interpretation actually is. This is a harder question than I first thought. Here’s a summary of my thinking so far:
1. The canon is a cohesive, ordered collection of texts.
2. Choosing to read one of these texts canonically involves privileging the intra-canonical intertext above extra-canonical intertexts.
3. This involves a choice (whether conscious or not) on the part of the reader and does not deny the possibility of other interpretations, merely the right of other interpretations to be called canonical.
4. This intertextual interpretation must be governed by those canonical texts which describe the nature of the whole canonical intertext. That is to say, the canon’s own statements about its origin, purpose, content and audience need to be considered in a canonical interpretation of any part of the canon.
5. One of the things the canon tells us about itself is that it is divine discourse: God speaks through the canon.
6. Which means that the reader’s choice of a canonical interpretation in fact leads to an emphasis on the (implied) divine author’s communicative intent.
7. The divine author’s communicative intent is by no means limited to the passing on of information. The canon tells us that God’s purposes for the canon include things like making promises; giving warnings; making people wise for salvation; establishing covenant and so on. A helpful model for clarifying these kinds of things is Austin’s speech act theory. Locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts describe what is said, what is done by saying, and what results from what is said. All of these (and a fourth kind of speech act identified by Vanhoozer, the interlocutionary act) are part of the communicative intent of the divine author implied in the canonical text. Thus all of these should inform a canonical interpretation.
8. Canonical interpretation will thus make demands on the reader. A canonical interpretation will implicate the reader in the illocutionary, perlocutionary and interlocutionary acts. The effects of an interpretation will thus form one means of evaluating it: not simply ‘Is it right?’ but ‘Does it work?’
From Stephen Chapman’s essay ‘Reclaiming Inspiration for the Bible’ in Canon and Biblical Interpretation:
The decisive objection to the idea of propositional revelation is not that the biblical books fail to communicate concepts: it is instead that the biblical literature does more than convey concepts. The Bible also influences and forms its readers in a wide variety of more subtle ways, which are just as crucial to its literary impact. The Bible gives its hearers and readers a narrative world to live in. Its phrases and rhythms linger in the mind and its stories often provoke questions more than they provide answers.
Shelley King appropriates this quote from Martin Luther which originally referred to the mediaeval interpreter, Nicholas of Lyra, for her essay on exegesis, allegory and The Golden Compass. This playful use of an earlier text is entirely appropriate for a discussion of Pullman’s work which depends so heavily on references and allusions to earlier texts. He says himself:
I have stolen ideas from every book I have ever read. My principle in researching for a novel is ‘Read like a butterfly, write like a bee,’ and if this story contains any honey, it is entirely because of the quality of the nectar I found in the work of better writers.
I’d never really thought before about how the alethiometer works as an illustration of the power of symbolism. Each point on the alethiometer (NOT a compass) is marked with a picture, each of which has multiple possible levels of meaning. The needle on the alethiometer answers questions by pointing to a series of these pictures, the meaning of which must then be decoded. Pullman explains it like this:
In short the alethiometer supplies the semantic content of a message, and the mind of the enquirer supplies the grammatical connections between the various elements. Only when the two work together does the full meaning of the message become apparent.
What’s interesting about this is that, in Pullman’s world, there are two ways of reading the alethiometer. The most common is the way of the scholars. Tables and charts of all possible meanings and layers must be consulted and put together according to complex formulae. The other way is how Lyra does it – she just feels for the meaning naturally. It’s a nice picture of the difference between reading and criticism. Good reading is instinctive, natural and unconscious. When you understand what you read, you just ‘know’ that you’ve got it right. Criticism is laboured, difficult and wholly self-conscious. Getting the ‘right’ understanding isn’t as important as being able to persuade others to follow your reading.
There’s another dimension to the two kinds of reading in His Dark Materials – the role of the church. The tables and charts and even the alethiometer itself, are supposed to be in control of the church. Interpretation takes place within that community and thus serves the interests of that community. Lyra is perceived as so dangerous because (among other reasons) her interpretations are uncontrolled and uncontrollable. It’s no surprise that Pullman exalts Lyra’s interpretations and not those of the church.
But interpretation in community need not be the bad thing that Pullman wants us to believe. Learning from others and sharing the results of our reading can be positive things. And although community may shape reading, it’s also true that reading may shape a community. If the community has grown into the shape that it has because of the text that it has read, then there is a mutuality to that relationship.
I’m writing a paper at the moment on intertextuality. Actually, it’s an intertextual reading of a part of the Song of Songs with ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Lover’ by Christopher Marlowe. The principle underlying intertextual readings is, as Peter Miscoll so nicely summarizes, ‘No text is an island’. When an author puts pen to paper (or stylus to clay), he is not writing in a vacuum. He uses words and ideas, images and syntax that others have used before him. If he is a good author, he will bring those things together in novel ways to create new meanings. But those new meanings are created against the already existing meanings of the building blocks he is using. Otherwise his text would be wholly unintelligible. This is the principle that drives those scholars working in the field of ANE comparative literature to read biblical texts alongside their ancient counterparts, comparing and contrasting and establishing meaning in ‘new’ ways. These ‘new’ meanings for us are, of course, thought to be closer to the ‘original’ meanings created by the author.
In a similar way, this principle of intertextuality is something that has been consciously, or unconsciously, used by biblical interpreters for a long time. The reformation principle of scripture interpreting scripture, for example, expresses a notion of intertextuality. Or, as we used to chant with the AL’s on camp, ‘Bible words have Bible meanings.’ Unlike rabbinic exegetes we don’t usually try to interpret scripture atomistically. We read texts together to establish their meaning. Here the goal is not just to recreate the intertextuality of the original human authors (though this is certainly part of the goal). Something about the notion of canon suggests that it is somehow the appropriate intertext for biblical texts. Even within the boundary of the canon, however, some intertextual readings are controversial, to say the least. Perhaps one important criteria here is that the intertext for a biblical text should always be, at some level, the whole canon. Intertextual readings that only consider parts of the canon should be regarded only as provisional.
But here’s a different way of thinking about intertextuality and meaning. When I read a text, I don’t come to it as a blank slate. I already know what words mean and how they are used in a whole range of other texts. I have experience of different forms, I recognise many metaphors and images, I make connections. I have my own ‘intertextual net’ into which I must slot the new text that I am reading. I don’t have to do this consciously. It’s just what happens when we read. It’s why it’s important to spend lots of time reading texts when you’re learning a language, rather than just learning paradigms and vocabulary.
Now, I might think that it’s important to spend time and energy amending my intertextual net to make it more like that of the author. I might want to learn Ugaritic and read some poetry in that language, or spend time with the ancient Egyptian love poetry. I might consciously suppress some of my textual awareness, deeming it anachronistic. But there’s a limit to how closely my intertextual net can match that of an unknown ancient Israelite.
And I don’t know that it has to. I think it’s okay for us to read the Bible as ourselves. And to recognise that all of us bring different references and experiences and texts to the Bible and that these will, necessarily and inevitably, affect the meaning that we find. I think it’s a good thing for us to read the Bible more and to make that part of our intertextual net stronger and clearer. But I don’t think that means we should attempt to cut ourselves off from our culture and society and not let any other texts influence our reading. One of the things I’ve been telling my Bible study group is that to become better readers of the Bible, we need to become better readers. We need to be better at seeing irony and allusion, recognising patterns and interpreting imagery. We need to read great literature and fine poetry. And we need to let our experiences of reading those texts help us to read the Bible.
Do Bible words have Bible meanings? Yes. But if those meanings are wholly distinct from their meanings in every other text, then it’s questionable whether they have coherent meaning at all.
At the 1968 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, the then President, James Muilenburg, gave an address that changed the face of biblical scholarship for the next 40 years. His lecture was entitled ‘Form Criticism and Beyond’ and in it Muilenburg, while recognising the important contributions of form criticism, outlined its serious limitations and proposed a new approach to the study of the literature. Here are some of the highlights:
To state our criticism in another way, form criticism by its very nature is bound to generalize because it is concerned with what is common to all the representatives of a genre, and therefore applies an external measure to the individual pericopes. It does not focus sufficient attention upon what is unique and unrepeatable, upon the particularity of the formulation. Moreover, form and content are inextricably related. They form an integral whole. The two are one. Exclusive attention to the Gattung may actually obscure the thought and intention of the writer or speaker. The passage must be read and heard precisely as it is spoken. It is the creative synthesis of the particular formulation of the pericope with the content that makes it the distinctive composition that it is.
…the more deeply one penetrates the formulations as they have been transmitted to us, the more sensitive he is to the roles which words and motifs play in a composition; the more he concentrates on the ways in which thought has been woven into linguistic patterns, the better able he is to think the thoughts of the biblical writer after him.
What I am interested in, above all, is in understanding the nature of Hebrew literary composition, in exhibiting the structural patterns that are employed for the fashioning of a literary unit, whether in poetry or in prose, and in discerning the many and various devices by which the predications are formulated and ordered into a unified whole. Such an enterprise I should describe as rhetoric and the methodology as rhetorical criticism.
Now, the objection that has been most frequently raised to our contention is that too much subjectivity is involved in determining where the accents of the composition really lie. The objection has some force, to be sure, but in matters of this sort there is no substitute for literary sensitivity.
I was pleased to discover David Steinmetz’ s article on ‘Detective Fiction and the Art of Biblical Interpretation’ available online. It’s also in ‘The Art of Reading Scripture’, edited by Richard Hays and Ellen Davis. Re-reading it in preparation for tomorrow’s bible study, I was particularly struck by this section:
If Jowett were correct [that meaning is limited to authorial intent], the only thing that would matter in American constitutional history would be the original debates at the Constitutional Convention. All questions of meaning should be referred to the events of that time. But the American Constitution was drafted against the background of centuries of English case and statutory law, to say nothing of English political history, from King John to George III. Since then it has been the fundamental legal chareter of an energetic society. It must therefore now be read by scholars in the light of two centuries of American judicial precedents and legislation. Equal protection under the law, for example, has taken on meanings that were assuredly not in the minds of the original drafters, but are fully consonant with the principles they had embraced. Constitutional history is therefore not an exercise in the phenomenology of constitutional conventions, nor can history be reduced to the search for original intentions, important as that study may be. The history of the Constitution is the story of the origins, development, and consequences of the fundamental law of the United States. All of it, and not some part of it, belongs to the historian’s task.
Steinmetz’s main point (which is not actually directed at those who would like to rewrite American history) is summarized as follows:
The second narrative of the early Christian church was based primarily on later events – that is to say, on what early Christians thought had happened in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But in both cases, once the second narrative is in place, it is impossible to understand earlier events apart from it. In the order of being, the second narrative comes last. In the order of knowing, it comes first. That is why both mystery stories and the biblical documents are best understood by reading the last chapter first.
I do not have to believe that Second Isaiah had an explicit knowledge of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth to believe that he was part of a larger narrative that finds its final, though not its sole, meaning in Christ. Like many of the characters in a mystery novel, Isaiah had something else on his mind. But the meaning of his work cannot be limited to the narrow boundaries of his explicit intention. Viewed from the perspective of the way things turned out, his oracles were revealed to have added dimensions of significance that no one could have guessed at the time. It is not anachronistic to believe such added dimensions of meaning exist. It is only good exegesis.