Reading, Meaning and the New Testament

By Tim Butler | Posted at 11:05 PM

Reading through my first Greek in Exegesis assignments was not an exercise that was all fun, but parts of it were an absolute delight, because they touched on one of my favorite subjects: literary criticism. So, I thought I would mull over some of the ideas in the book and essays as a way of walking through the major schools and, ultimately, showing why I've ended up in the critical school I am in. This may prove further to Brad that I am sick. :)

What got me started on this was that Wallace remarked in his text that language is cryptic and symbolic, which is something dangerous to say around a person who is recovering from a severe case of deconstructionism (that's me). Admitting language is cryptic and symbolic draws us into the territory of Deconstructionism. The essays rounded things out and helped soothe my other critical interests, incidentally, but I had to slow myself down lest my inner Deconstructionist get too excited.

The Deconstructionist, as well as the New Historicist, rejects the absolute of meaning because we observe that the meaning is lost “in the slippage of the signified from the signifier.” This is essentially a fancy way of saying that given any word (a symbol) it inevitably will shift from the intended meaning of the author. We can observe this quickly in two ways with respect to the Bible: first, well known verses have become so well known as to have obtained proverbial status, hence granting to them an independent status that does not exist in their original state (whether translated or not). Second, the statements have been pulled out of the context of first century Palestine, as such regardless of how much we try, we cannot reconstruct the mindset of the audience.

Ok, so language is cryptic, why does all this nonsense about author-text-reader really help at all? Well, I am glad you asked. Basically, as one of the authors said — I think it was Joel Green — Biblical interpretation (and, I would add, literary criticism in general) has gone through some marked phases in the modern and post-modern periods.

Let's journey down one path tonight, and we can pursue the others soon. The realm of interpretation actually has more than three sides, it actually has five: author, text/co-text, reader, intertext and reality. Understanding these explicitly, rather than taking them for granted, is extremely helpful, I believe.

The Enlightenment Project's sense that everything could be understood brought in Old Historicism, which in the context of the Bible, led to attempts to determine the original authors, their motives and their accuracy. It is also related to the Quest for the Historical Jesus. This is the school of both the Academic Study of Religion and classical liberal theology. It seeks, for example, to determine how Mark, the Q text and other sources were used by Matthew and Luke. This is, clearly, a focus on the author.

What is good about this school is that it forces us to consider the intent of the authors. God chose human authors; He did not need to do that. So why did He do that? Presumably, He did so because He could use their unique personality traits to cover important angles. Mark is short and apocalyptic. Luke is the detail oriented, literary guy. Matthew is interested in Jesus's relation to Judaism. John (or, more properly, perhaps, the Johannian community) is in the Kingdom of Heaven already, at least in spirit. Each has his own purpose and style.

Even controversial theories, such as the isolation of Q (which is abbreviated from Quelle or source) from shared passages in Matthew and Luke is fruitful. The basic premise is that we can find identical or highly similar passages between the two Gospels, pull them out of the existing Gospels, and get some idea of what the earlier source both writers used looked like. It does not seem far-fetched to believe that there was an earlier source upon which the two Evangelists drew. But, should we reject that, it still causes us to question why God led the two Evangelists to frequently word-for-word copy each other, while also frequently not doing so. Perhaps it is for emphasis on important topics, if so, all the better that we pay attention, isolate these passages and try to exegete them.

I reject this school tenderly, as it was the first critical school I applied intentionally as part of my time as a Religion major. I later used it — or tried to, anyway — in my interpretation of literature too. I battled long and hard to maintain my Old Historicist sensibilities, but ultimately I believe it is chasing after the wind. Nevertheless, its attention to the details of ever important cultural context are not to be forgotten. They will return when we reach a different school, later on.


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