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?

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