Thursday, 18 June 2009

Exegesis: Does religion get in the way?

Douglas Mangum, author of a blog I need to find time to read more regularly, has posted the following quote by Ziony Zevit (with his own emphasis added):
[We] are too comfortable with viewing biblical religion through prisms of living religious traditions that have interpreted these texts for us; traditions that we accept or reject, or to which we feign indifference, or to which we are indifferent. Having been informed by these traditions, however, we are influenced by them and somehow look back through them, as through a glass darkly, to seek ancient Israel. (Sometimes, without realizing, we confuse our reflection with what lies beyond the glass.) This is a handicap to be overcome.

Emphasis added.]
My response is twofold:

1) Can the "handicap" of our own religious context be overcome? I doubt it. Biblical Scholars struggle to understand their living colleagues (I take the reception of Childs by certain renowned colleagues to be a case in point), how much more can they really grasp the substance of a religion dead and gone?
2) Is being influenced by a faith community such a handicap? Is it so desirable to jettison the traditions that
grew out of the Bible, in whatever fashion and including whatever dialectics? On my understanding, the Bible's true subject matter is not the religion of the authors who wrote it (important background information that may be), but the living God who broke into their reality, shaped it, and guided/guides them in a particular journey. On that take, religio-historical analysis may well be done and come up with various interesting hypotheses about the development of Israelite religion. They will no doubt help us read the Bible less ethnocentrically. But ultimately it is God himself, mediated through the community of faith he called into being through the text and history, who can guarantee that we actually are wrestling with what the Bible is really all about. And for that, we need to be active members of a community of faith.

(For my second post in this series, see Is the Bible religious or theological?)


Douglas Mangum said...


I think we're dealing with the issue of perspective here. Zevit seems to be asking for a hermeneutic that is separate from and recognizes the influence of theological exegesis from all religious traditions. You seem to be saying that reading from within a community of faith is the only right way to read anyway, but you're careful not to outright preference one faith. You say "community of faith" but each community tends to think it has the only true understanding of the text and the way God has revealed himself, thus excluding all others from the conversation. Zevit's approach at least allows for common ground where we can all talk about the text we have in common.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Douglas,

thanks for responding. I've also read your post and have responded there ( ; I'll turn my response into an independent post here).

It addition to what I said there I'd like to say a few things here.

I agree with the following and qualify them by what I understand to be some misunderstandings about the nature of reading the Bible as a conscious member of a religious community (essentially Judaism or Christianity):

1) I agree that religious traditions can get in the way of good interpretation and so they need to be treated critically in light of the Bible. So, self-criticism for the sake of the truth is important. This, however, is not something a non-religious secular scholar (or a religious scholar who tries to be non-religious when reading the Bible) needs to tell religious readers. Self-criticism in light of Scriptural truth is an inbuilt part of the Judaism and Christianity anyway. Christians can just as easily ask secular scholars to resist being too heavily guided by their own theories of history, or society, or humanity, or whatever. In sum, the call to be self-critical (1) is part a theological approach itself and (2) cuts both ways and thus doesn't mark a dichotomy between faithful and non-faithful reading.

2) I agree that excluding others from conversation because of an assumption that one has now exhausted all the possibilities of the text is wrong. As I said above, theological and religious readers (to use the dichotomies from your post) both recognise the need to be self-critical. However, it is also inevitable that we all take certain cherished truths with us to the Bible and we read the Bible in the light of those truths. The Bible may critique those truths, but the truths also can clarify the Bible. For many years, JEPD was such a truth, a grid for interpretation which guaranteed access to what the text is really talking about. For Christians, this truth is Christ. For Jews it is Torah. For Marxist interpreters it may be some kind of dialectial materialism (I have list here: The point is that it's always there and is not something that is necessarily wrong. The best way forward, in my book, is to recognise our different starting points and reading the text dialectically in a process of discovery, discovering in the process what it is that unites us and what not. For this, however, religious doctrine must be an integral part.

Phil Sumpter said...

(For some reason I had to divide my comment into two. Here is the second half):

3) Which brings me to the final point of agreement: I agree that we need to maintain common ground. The Bible is simply there, available for all to read. But no religious community claims otherwise (do they?). Within Christianity, for example, the function of allegory was never to do away with that common ground, but to push through it to what was conceived to be the text's true substance. You could talk about the OT talking about Christ, but only in terms of the OT presentation itself.

4) My main point is that interpretation of the Bible has to be done in light of the big picture, and the big picture is not the socio-economic-religious evolution of the near east, it's the God of the cosmos. And this God, the God the Bible talks about whom the Bible credits as its source (in whatever manner) is a God who has a particular profile, who has done particular things. One of these things is to elect a community and guide it on a path of progressive revelation of himself in order to fulfil his goal of getting all of humanity to confess him. Reading the Bible, then, if it really is about this God and if this God really is involved in the creation of the Bible (I mean really in the sense that it is not just a pious imposition from the outside) means that one must take the communities seriously when reading the text. The true Sitz im Leben of the canon is God's Heilsgeschichte.

Is this making sense? I really want to be able to get this cross in a clear manner (I've been struggling for ages on this blog!).

Shawn said...

Hi Phil,

I'm with you that we each approach Scripture (or any text) within a particular cultural current. (I hope the metaphor of a river aptly describes the movement of culture from what has come before us to what goes beyond us.) Reading through your blog, I saw posts from a couple of years ago about the difference between truth and knowledge. I simply cannot comprehend how we can experience anything without immediately interpreting it. And that interpretation takes place within our cultural current.

Now as for which interpretation is the best? Well, I'm really uninterested in that question. I do look for consistency, so I suppose an inconsistent interpretation would be "worse" for me. But that's my context. I'm the type of guy who enjoys order and consistency. Does a consistent interpretation really make it better? For me, definitely.

Does the interpretation from within the community of faith make it better? I don't think so. It is more faithful and that's important in terms of a theological approach. I think there is something to be said for a hermeneutic of faithfulness rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion. But I would be extremely interested in what a Muslim New Testament scholar might have to say or a Buddhist Old Testament scholar. I'm certainly interested in what Jewish Old Testament scholars have to say.

The idea that we can approach a text neutrally or objectively is a myth. Its just an attempt to hide (whether consciously or unconsciously is besides the point) our own agendas and biases. Let's put the agendas and biases out there for all the world to see. And then get back to the text.


P.S. Here's my agenda and bias: Raised fundamentalist Baptist including a BA in Bible from a school that still teaches only Textus Receptus! Several years unchurched. A short foray in Unitarian Universalism with study and practice in Buddhism. Have been an Episcopalian for 4 1/2 years now and on my way to Virginia Theological Seminary, which I believe teaches the canonical approach.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Shawn,

Now as for which interpretation is the best? Well, I'm really uninterested in that question

The texts have been shaped in such a way as to guide our interpretation. In other words, the authors and tradents of the tradition had an interest in the way the authoritative tradition was received. I doubt they would agree that anything goes. This is the logic of calling Scripture a "canon." Canon means "rule."

I do look for consistency... . But that's my context.

As far as I understand, consistency is a prerequisite for meaning. The quest for consistency is a human universal (as someone put it: "The human mind cannot help but make meaning"). Without consistency, language and communication wouldn't function. I'm pretty sure the authors wrote with consistency and expected us to look for it. The question is what counts as consistency, or rather, where is the consistency located? E.g. the chronological inconsistency in Exod 16:1-36, where the the jar of manna is to be placed “before the Testimony” (v. 34), even though the ark hadn't been built yet, may well witness to a theological reality that is is consistent. Brevard Childs (Exodus, 291-292) puts it thus: “A jar of manna which is the sign of God's sustaining mercy is kept alongside the tablets of the law. ... the point of the text focuses on the testimony that the manna and the tablets belong together before God. In New Testament terminology, the gospel and the law cannot be separated."

But I would be extremely interested in what a Muslim New Testament scholar might have to say

No doubt, but as a Christian you would simply have to confess at some point that a Muslim confessional approach to the Bible is somehow missing the point and that this mis-reading is ultimately not simply a reader-response generated by a different context but a failure actually grasp what the text is ultimately talking about. Otherwise you would be either a radical relativist or a Muslim convert. I say ultimate because I recognise different levels of interepretation. But the ultimate meaning ought the be the goal of any decent interpretation. There's not much value in remaining at the level of prolegomena.

Jewish interpretation is a different issue. See this post:

Let's put the agendas and biases out there for all the world to see. And then get back to the text.

This is OK as far as it goes, but it assumes that we can somehow see and name all of our presuppositions. We can't. We are subject to them and not their masters.

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