Friday, 18 September 2009

The Biblical editors

Editors are often misunderstood and their work despised. It seems intrusive and short of the original literary mark. They may seem pedantic, mediocre, and mean. The misunderstanding generally depends on taking the token for the substance and in supposing that the mark that they made is all that they meant. The mark is meant for the reader, however, and the reader is supposed to know that any text has a beginning, from which it may be read, and an end to which the reading tends. The signs of editing are signals to read on, pay attention, and look for more. Editors generally did not set out to spoil the text they transmitted and preserved, but they regularly made it more complex, meaningful, and difficult to understand. If there is misunderstanding it is the reader who picks and chooses and shuns the task, rather than the editors who understood what they read, who may be at fault.
Brian Peckham, "Writing and Editing," 364-383, here: 383; in Fortunate the Eyes that See (Eerdmans, 1995).


Ed Gentry said...

I'm intrigued.

Are you implying that the Biblical editors did their work assuming that their readers would understand the redacted nature of the work; that their readers would do a bit of source criticism or at least know that there were layers of interpretation present.

If you could substantiate this it has some significant implications. Its a bit like asserting that the writers of Chronicles assumed that the readers would always also have Samuel-Kings around as well. So - on this view - Chronicles is just a different spin highlighting important points for their community but not revisionist history.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Ed,

thanks for your comments. I think this is what the author of the article was saying. His context is Genesis and he is critiquing the bad rep editors have amongst historical critics, who want to dig back to the original source (the article was written in '95, perhaps that was still an issue then ... ). He goes on to say this:

"The contribution of the editors is clearly marked and deliberately separated from the original [he references Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation]. The original is preserved as the origin, inspiration, and norm of the later works that in turn provoked its reedition. One can see composition and redaction, working together, as the substance of tradition, the reason for its complexity and depth, the origin of its literary form, and the source of its historical significance" (p. 365).


"Each step in the editing is marked in an obvious way. No part is isolated, but all are cross-referenced to the ongoing revision."

He then goes on go give a typology of "editorial marks."

He concludes at one point:

"The marks are always more or less obvious, but they suppose the kind of careful attention to all the words in the text, starting at the beginning, that is assured by fervor or study and articulated by verbalization or reading aloud" (366).

I'm not sure what to make of this. When I read his actual examples they seemed fairly subtle to me, and I wonder why there is no talk of the existence of editors in the history of interpretation. But he is talking about the original readers and not later readers.

What I like about the quote is the intentionality he ascribes to the process and the way he understands its nature. Editing was conscious and theological, taking into account a readership dealing with the whole. I particularly like what he said in the quote just cited about the dialectical nature of the process (or at least, that's how I understand him).

It's still an open question for me just how important it is to correctly identify such "canonical clues," as Childs put it. It's important, but how?

I'm not so sure.