Category Archives: Hermeneutics

Abducting John III

Just one quick post to finish this line of thought off for now. There is a dialectic between interpreting John and registering John’s resistance to interpretation – you might say, a dialectic between theological interpretation and historical-critical interpretation. And this dialectic can be seen as a way of paying homage to the two sides of the idea that John’s true identity is ‘hid with Christ in God’ – the theological interpretation witnessing to the ‘in Christ with God’ side, the historical-critical to the ‘hid’.

I think I want to say slightly more than that, though. On the one hand, I can say that John’s true identity is hid with Christ in God only because I trust that the God who addresses the world (and John) in Christ has no ‘interests’ – that this God is not bending John to some personal need, and distorting him in the process. It is only in relation to such a God that there is any freedom, any true identity – only such a God can tell us who we are without distortion. On the other hand, I hesitate to say that John’s true identity is hid with Christ in God because I know that the Christians who say this certainly do have interests, in fact are never free of interests, and are quite capable of bending John to some personal need.

To the dialectic of interpretation and registering resistance, then, I want to add a third element: such a hermeneutical trajectory can only be pursued with integrity in the context of interpreters, interpreting communities, that are pursuing the purification of their interests – that are pursuing holiness. It can only be pursued with integrity by individuals and communities that are discovering their true identities, hid with Christ in God.

When we’re talking about John the Baptist, that point may sound somewhat abstract – or, worse, like a bit of rather demonstrative breast-beating. If we start thinking about the topic that’s been (not very far) in the background through this discussion: interpretation of the Hebrew Bible – well; I think the point becomes rather more urgent and important. To read the Hebrew Bible as Old Testament – that seems to me to involve a dialectic between theological interpretation, and registering the resistance of the text to theological interpretation (by means of historical criticism, certainly, but also I think by reading alongside Jewish readers) – and can only be done with integrity by individuals and community in pursuit of holiness – and that must include especially holiness in dealings with the people of this book.

Hmmm. I’m not sure I’ve quite convinced myself with all this – but it will do for now.

Abducting John II

Paternity leave is over, so it’s back to the abduction of John. The story so far:

  • As an indirect way of thinking about how Christians, including Mark, have used and abused the Hebrew Bible, I’m looking at how they have adopted or abducted John the Baptist;
  • I’ve suggested that the independent, pre-abduction identity of John (or at least the fact that he had such an identity) is still dimly visible through the cracks of the Gospel text;
  • I’ve suggested that to take Mark’s Gospel seriously is to take seriously the claim that John’s identity as fore-runner, as messenger of Christ, is his real identity, his true identity – perhaps despite his own intentions and self-perceptions;
  • I’ve suggested that part of the answer is that John did in fact make way for Christ (my ‘John as theotokos’ point – his ministry provided the matrix for the birth of Jesus’ ministry), and that it makes sense to claim that he did so because he was obedient to God;
  • but I’ve left hanging the question about how John himself might have treated the claim that he was nothing more or less than Jesus’ forerunner.

I’m going down this route because it seems to me that asking about the Gospel’s use of a person raises questions of supersessionism (abduction) even more sharply than asking about the Gospel’s use of a text. Of course, in the process, I am myself using John – but I think I can live with the irony.

The next point that struck me as I thought about this was a potential theological get-out-of-jail free card – quickly followed by the realisation that the card was not actually going to solve my problems.

  1. To say that John’s true identity is given in his relation to Christ is no more than I would want to say about Mark, or about myself: our identities are ‘hid with Christ in God’. I too am being abducted, and my truth is not in myself but in Christ. This is the get-out-of-jail free card: ‘Yes, there is supersessionism here, but only because we’re all, in a sense, superceded.
  2. If we play this card, we declare that the abduction of John does not consist in the claim that I (or Mark) possess John’s truth just as we possess our own – but that none of us possess our own truth. For all of us our ‘truth’ will be found only in relation to Christ.
  3. The dangerous point comes if we go on to claim that, as it were, Mark and I know the one who possesses our truth in a way that John the Baptist may not have done. And some claim at least that strong does seem to be implied if we go along with Mark’s willingness to depict John as forerunner – i.e., to depict who John is in relation to Christ. The Gospel does not say of John, ‘Who he is is a mystery hid with Christ in God’, it says, ‘This is who he is.’

With this in mind, I find myself being drawn towards a kind of answer that has attracted me in other contexts. Perhaps we are simply left with a tension between the Christologically-grounded desire to say, ‘This is what John means; this is simply who he really was’ and the countervailing desire to say, ‘No, that does not exhaust who John was: we can still glimpse John’s unassimilated identity through the gaps in our theological construction’. Perhaps, that is, we are simply left with a tension between interpreting John theologically and registering John’s resistance to this theological interpertation. And perhaps, as a Christian interpreter, I have to abide with this tension not because I give up on the claim that John’s identity too is truly hid with Christ in God, but because I have to step back from converting that claim into the further claim that his identity is therefore given into my possession.

Hmmm. I still don’t think this is enough – but I only dimly perceive where to go next. To put it gnomically: I think more needs to be said about the kind of ‘abduction’ we’re talking about – more about the nature of the God who is doing the abducting, and the reasons why this abduction cannot (must not) be understood as a form of violence.

To be continued…

More construction

A quick clarification of the end of the last post.

I suggested that ‘identification of the meanings of the Bible’ might itself be a case of different communities with different ‘interests’ picking out different ‘objects’. I did not mean, however, that every differing interpretative claim – I claim that ‘Son of God’ should be read against such-and-such a Hebrew background, you claim that it should be read against a Hellenistic background – was simply to be traced to differing community interests. Debate about differing interpretations would then always be disguised (ideological) debate about our differing communities (conflicting) interests – the Bible no more than a proxy battleground for our real animosities.

Rather, I was thinking the rather vaguer (though no more original) thought that there is no one obvious thing that ‘interpretation’ means. Different communities with different interests play different kinds of games that I, abstracting in my study late at night, might decide to call ‘interpretation of the Bible’ – but those games might be as different as the games played by different investigators in my little story. The ‘Hebrew’ versus ‘Hellenistic’ debate about ‘Son of God’ is a debate within one of those games – and it is no easy matter to say how it relates to the games played with similar texts by those embroiled in fourth century Christological debates.

I’m forcibly struck by the banality of this observation (and the realisation that the only reason for the previous post was that I liked my silly little story :-)) except for the niggling suspicion that it is a lesson I have not yet learnt. On the one hand, I find it frighteningly easy to proceed as if ‘interpretation’ were one thing – and there were only more and less successful attempts at it. On the other hand, I still manage to proceed as if hermeneutics – i.e., the discussion of what sort of thing interpretation is and how it works – is a nice abstract discipline, rather than one that must feed on historical and social-anthropological attention to the widely differing constructions of materials, nature, origin and end of interpretive activities in differing communities. (Oh, and I should of course never have adopted this deeply misleading ‘community’ terminology in the first place – as if you could define and count the somehow discrete groups involved in interpretative activities.)

Oh dear. I’m having one of those ‘turning to ashes’ evenings: ideas that seemed to have something in them before I tried writing them down seem dull and clumsy when I’ve actually typed them. I’m hovering between the delete key and the publish button…

Constructing the object

I’ve been thinking about the ‘construction of the object’ – i.e., the way that different communities with different interests will not only interpret an object in different ways, but may be said to have different objects – to have something different in mind when they refer to supposedly the same object. I don’t think that acknowledging this is immediately and necessarily a step into a malign postmodernist relativism; I think one can make sense of it even within a naively realist view of the world.

If I were, say, a police investigator working on a case, ‘The Bible’ might mean ‘This specific Gideon’s Bible with the torn leaf and the blood-stain’ – and there would quite possibly be no interesting relationship between that object and other books with similar words in.

If I were the forensic expert on the case, interested in how this book was used to batter the victim, ‘The Bible’ would most significantly be a member of the class of objects of this size, weight, shape, hardness and flexibility.

If I were the investigator, after a significant development in the case, trying to break the code that I now realise was used by the murderer and his accomplices, I might be interested in Bibles of exactly this edition, with exactly this pagination, on which a cypher has been developed – and no others. Nothing else would count as ‘The Bible’.

And so on.

By ‘construction of the object’, I simply mean this process by which the interests of the investigator pick out certain features of certain objects, as members of certain classes. Of course, I do perhaps go further than my little police story warrants when I claim that no ‘construction of the object’ is independent of interests – but I don’t think I necessarily step out of the sam naively realist world in doing so. There is, after all, a story to be told as to why Christians are able to say ‘Bible’ and mean a whole family of texts in different languages, with somewhat differing tables of contents – while Muslims properly mean only texts in Arabic when they say ‘Quran’. To say, ‘No, what “Bible” really means is…’ is always a statement made by some person or group that uses the word in particular contexts for particular purposes.

And, of course, you’re now meant to make a further step and think not just that identification of what is meant by ‘Bible’ might work in this way, but that identification of the meanings of the Bible will work this way – perhaps even more so.

Status report

I’m spending most of my work time at the moment on the SCM Study Guide to Christian Doctrine – a fairly throrough reworking of the on-line doctrine course that I wrote over the last three years. I’m in the middle of the second chapter, on ‘Knowledge of God’. The first chapter is really just an orientation exercise, explaining what sort of thing I mean by ‘theology’, so this second chapter is the first really substantive material in the book. And, after a couple of weeks’ working on the book, the enthusiasm I originally had for the project has finally kicked back in. Today’s challenge: I want to write about the ways in which ‘knowledge of God’ is not like knowledge of objects, and argue that it is in some ways like knowledge of a piece of music, and in other ways like knowledge of how to play a game – without giving up on a fairly robust realism. And while keeping all this at first-year undergraduate, introductory text-book level.

All of which means that I’m not really thinking about Mark, or about biblical hermeneutics at the moment. (Though the chapter I’m writing does involve an extended exegesis of parts of 1 John, so I hope I haven’t leapt over some horrible biblical studies vs. systematic theology divide in my mind.) But a break from Mark is probably a good thing: I had one of those ‘I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about – or whether, indeed, I am talking about anything’ moments when writing the previous, abortive entry on providence – nearly always (with me) a sure sign that I’ve started asking the wrong question, or at least mis-phrasing the question. I am aware of a niggling worry about my ability to acquiesce in Mark’s use of these prophetic texts, but can’t quite formulate that worry in a way that will allow me to address it.

Inevitable questions

One quick thought about ‘Son of God’. I claimed in an earlier post, there was a shift from functional to ontological interpretations of that phrase as biblical texts that used it moved into a more thoroughly Hellenized context. It would be easy simply to write that off as a slide into misinterpretation, but to do so would miss the force, the inevitability of the ontological questions in the new context.

Consider a parallel. It is now impossible for us to read the Gospels and not see them as depicting power, its manipulation, and its critique. In fact, it is more-or-less impossible for us not to see that the Gospels are about power, to some significant degree. To step back from questions about power because they impose a foreign framework onto the text would seem to many of us to be an evasion – an irresponsible reading. Power questions are, for us, inevitable.

That does not mean, of course, that a power-focused reading and an ontological reading of the Gospels are ‘equally valid’ in some banal, each-to-his-own-culture sense. But it should disrupt any too-easy picture of the move to ontological questions as a simple betrayal of an original functional purity.

Quoting the prophets 2

Time to return to Mark 1:2-3. In an earlier post, I gave a speculative reconstruction of the process by which these quotes from the prophets might have been included here. I now want to take that further, moving away from the game of speculative reconstruction, and towards the use of this text by a believing community.

(1) As should be clear from my speculative reconstruction, and my comments on authorial intention, I’m not sure there’s any way we can clearly establish quite how much Mark meant by the inclusion of these texts. Of course, I’m not denying that the process which led to this inclusion involved connections being made between the nature of Jesus’ mission and interpretations of these (and other) OT texts. But quite what connections, and quite what interpretations, is very much more difficult to say – and the answer might be considerably more limited than we would like.

(2) If, however, we ask what this inclusion makes possible, things look rather different. The inclusion of these texts allows for the continuation of (and marks the existence of) a process of ongoing interpretation: exploring OT prophecy and other texts to do with the coming of God, and asking whether and to what extent they enable us to make sense of Jesus? The inclusion of these texts here is one of the ways in which Christians are provided with a canon.

(3) We need to be wary here of too simplistic a fact-interpretation disjunction. Jesus emerges against a background of such texts as this, a background of uses of such texts; who he is and what he does is in part constituted by his relation to such texts and uses – by what he does with this background, how it is reshaped in him. The difference he makes is similarly in part constituted by these texts and their uses. In asking what is ‘made possible’ for a believing community, we are asking about how a community forms around the impact of this text-ridden Jesus, how a community struggles to find ways of living appropriately in the text-wrapped space he has opened up. The community so struggling is given these prophetic texts, given the already running process of interpretation, of sense-making, right from the start.

(4) I suppose it is possible to imagine a community being formed in such a way as to regard this interpretive question as closed. One could imagine a Saviour, perhaps, who attempted to bequeathe a fixed and final interpertation of the prophetic texts. “This is that, this means that; end of story.” This does not seem to be the case with the Jesus movement, which seems to be from the beginning involved in a fluid, unfinished, exploratory reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. (And my earlier speculative reconstruction was intended to suggest concrete ways in which the interpretation of these particular texts might have been ‘in progress’ at the time of the writing of Mark.)

(5) Christian identity (the identity of the community struggling to make appropriate sense of Jesus) is therefore in part constituted by the attempt to make sense of Jesus in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures, and vice versa. Christians are, as I have already said, hereby given a canon. Yet being given a canon like this means being given worries about the misappropriation of this canon (and note the misattribution, and the misquotation, already involved in these brief quotations) . Accepting this canon is a dangerous strategy, because it means accepting a source that to some extent stands over against one – a source of potential challenge to one’s interpretation. And that means that Christian identity is marked in two ways:
(i) As I’ve stressed already, this means that Christian identity is going to be inherently dialogical and argumentative – simply because there is (and can be) no single, univocal way of making sense like this.
(ii) This also means that Christian identity is inherently bound up with dialogue/argument with Judaism (if by ‘Judaism’ we mean those strands of first-Century Judaism who make sense of themselves by making sense of the same Hebrew Scriptures, but who do not feel captivated by the possibility of making this sense in the light of Jesus of Nazareth).

(6) And all this means that I could not possibly hope to set down anything like a complete interpretation of these two verses in this blog. I can’t step in and say, “Here is what is meant by the inclusion of these prophetic texts.” I can only hope to dip into the ongoing stream of interpretation – give one particular view of how to make sense of Jesus by making sense of these texts.

I know I’m labouring this like crazy. I’m simply trying to get my thoughts clear, and can only do that by trying to set them out in some kind of ordered way. Apologies to anyone who is still reading…

Hermeneutical Flurry

(1) An academic proposing a meaning for some element in the text (e.g., saying ‘Part of what lies behind Mark’s use of ‘Son of God’ is a reference to Old Testament images of God as Father of Israel’s King) is proposing a programme of further work: an attempt to see what further evidence (from this text and from other texts) can be drawn in to the picture. Successful suggestions will be those that allow a wide range of connections to be made (e.g., drawing in a wide range of OT texts about Kingship; drawing in other examples from the Ancient Near East; allowing connections to anthropological discussions about relationships between the language of cult, kingship, and household…). Successful suggestions will also allow refinements and revisions of the original proposal to be made – they will become the bases of conferences, articles, books…

(2) In principle, an academic might well champion multiple meanings (e.g., championing both the OT background of ‘Son of God’, and connections with Hellenistic usages); in practice it is probably inevitable – and may even be necessary, given the sheer labour involved – that individual academics will latch on to particular meanings and run with them. In which case, a well-rounded interpretation of the text will only be found in the argument between multiple academics (not in the success of any one individual or group). The proper form in which the results of academic historical criticism can be presented will be a dialogue.

(3) To an even greater extent, Christian individuals and groups are likely to pursue particular lines of interpretation – grasping hold of some roughly coherent way of taking the texts (and therefore prioritising some of the available meanings of individual elements), in ways which connect to the development of that individual or group’s life. (It might be, for instance, that Christian interpretations of Gospel language about Jesus as ‘Son of God’ get interpreted in the light of OT passages in such a way as to authorise and enable Christian mining of those OT passages – providing a route by which they can become part of the community’s self-identification in relation to the Israel of the OT, and part of its repertoire of ways of thinking about its relationship to contemporary Judaism.)

(4) Even more clearly than in the case of academic investigation, the proposal of particular meanings is a proposal of particular forms of life, particular ways forward. This is not now simply a matter of division of labour, nor simply of the psychology which leads individuals and groups to hold fast to ‘their’ meaning. It is, rather, because at any given time an individual or group can only to live the text by living some determinate subset of possible meanings. Living involves the making of decisions. ‘On the other hand…’ provides no way forward.

(5) In principle, therefore, recognition of the limitation, the arbitrariness, of such decisions, can’t lead to the proposal of a single form of life which interpeted the text ‘properly’ – i.e., interpreted it without such arbitratiness. Rather, the ‘proper’ form in which Christian interpretation of the text can be seen in the round will be in the dialogue between individuals and groups who have decided differently. The proper form of Christian interpretation of the Bible will take the form of ecumenism.

(6) Some of my language here is wrong, though. Individuals and groups end up pursuing particular meanings not (normally) because they select them deliberately, and with acknowledged arbitrariness, from a range of possibilities all seen as equally available – but because they find themselves chosen by those meanings – captivated by them, given them. Other meanings might still be regarded as possible in the abstract – but not as truly live options.

(7) I know that the straightforward ‘academic’ versus ‘believing community’ distinction is questionable, but let’s stick with it for now. For the academic, the interests within which particular meanings can come to the fore can be very broad: interest in the reconstruction of 1st Century Palestinian society; interest in 1st Century Judaism; interest in the development of Christian piety in the first four centuries, and so on. For the believing community, the interests within which particular meanings can come to the fore will be rather different. Formally, attention to a particular meaning is only going to flourish if it makes some contribution to the life of the community – though the ways in which that can happen are more diverse than we might imagine. Substantively – and here I am perhaps speaking more prescriptively than descriptively – the Gospel texts will be interesting primarily as witness to the identity and significance of Jesus of Nazareth.

(8) If we simply concentrated on the formal side – the ‘livability’ of the text – the dialogue of interpretations found in the Christian community might have quite tenuous and ambivalent connections to the conversations of the kind of historical criticism that focuses on the origins and ‘original meanings’ of these texts (though would perhaps retain stronger connections to the kind of historical criticism that looks at the reception history of the text). If, however, we concentrate on the texts as witness to Jesus, the connections to origins are going to remain unavoidably important.

(9) This means, I think, that the ‘conversation of interpretations’ in the Christian community is bound to take a different shape from, say, the Talmudic conversation of interpretations in the Jewish community. Questions of origin, as far as I can see, quite appropriately matter less in the latter case. Law is not the same as witness.

All this is, I know, intolerably abstract. It’s simply attempted as a summary of some thoughts buzzing round in my head at the moment.

Authorial intention?

What I’ve said about the inclusion of the words of the prophets, about the phrase ‘Son of God’, and about the phrase ‘good news’, all point in a similar direction. They all point away from the idea that interpretation could be a matter of divining the one clear meaning that the author had in mind when he first put these words on parchment. And that’s without either starting on the question of whether it makes sense to think of there being a single author writing this stuff down at a single point, or declaring appeals to the author out of court from the start. Rather my discussions suggest both that the author will not be aware of all the ways in which a particular way of speaking seems to be ‘right’ or to ‘fit’, and that in speaking at all the author has to make use of words that are caught up in complex histories, and that therefore cannot be controlled.

It seems to me, in the light of this, that interpretation of this text can take two fundamental forms – with a deeply hazy border between the two. On the one hand, there is the excavation of the meanings ‘in play’ in the words the author used (and by that I don’t simply mean an analysis of words and phrases, but of larger forms and patterns all the way up to genre). On the other hand, there is the exploration of what the author made possible by putting these words together in this way.

Imagine a map, with time as one axis, on which the results of these two explorations are plotted. To the left, say, all the meanings that have been excavated in the phrase ‘Son of God’; to the right, all the meanings that this phrase goes on to acquire that are shaped by this text. The boundary between the two is hazy: this isn’t the kind of history where we can clearly identify the point at which our text was written. Identifying ‘authorial intention’ would not be a matter of picking the one correct meaning from this map: it would be more like speculatively drawing a rough circle on the map and saying that we guess that the author might have had these existing meanings and meanings-made-possible in mind, and then speculatively drawing a wider circle on the map, to suggest that these further existing meanings and meanings-made-possible might have unconsciously shaped the way the author wrote. Beyond those circles would lie on the left those things that, perhaps entirely unwittingly (at any level), the author brought into play by using words that were not simply his own possession, on thr right those things that, entirely unwittingly, the author made possible by putting his words together in this way.

Any and all of these meanings might be explored by the interpreter.

How much is this picture of interpretation affected if we acknowledge the entirely speculative nature of the circle-drawing involved – of the delimiting of what the author might have had consciously or unconsciously in mind?

And how much is it affected by the recognition that the map will always be drawn by a particular interpreter working from a particular location with particular interests?

Inventing New Testaments

I’ve just read through David Parker’s inaugural lecture as Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism and Palaeography in Birmingham. Very interesting stuff:

It would seem obvious … that what I am trying to do is to demonstrate that  there is not and never has been a New Testament, and that copyists and users have been inventing New Testaments at a frightening rate.  I hope that I have sketched ways in which I might make this demonstration.  But I am not going to do so.  Instead, I would like to explore the reasons for the emergence of New Testaments and for their variety, avoiding the usual theological and textual explanations.  Instead I shall present evidence that the most significant contributions to developments in the understanding and character of New Testaments have been technological innovations in production methods and in physical form.  After all, “inventing” is associated most strongly in the modern mind not with artistic creativity but with scientific or technological discovery.  I leave open the question whether we invent particular technologies because we need them at that particular point.  My argument is that it has been developments in the format of books that have been most significant in shaping the ways in which those books have been used.