Sunday, November 20, 2011

Method and Meaning: A new collection of essays on New Testament interpretation

[Method and Meaning is available from SBL Press here; this is an extract from the Introduction]

There has never been a more diverse set of possibilities for understanding the 
canonical texts of the New Testament, other early Christian literature, and the history 
of the emergent Christian movement that was to become the Church.

Diversity in methods of reading the New Testament is of course as old as or 
older than the texts themselves. The first few generations of Christians struggled
 with basic questions of method and meaning in their own attempts to read and
 respond to the scriptures of Judaism. These attempts, various elements of development,
 interpretation and controversy, are documented both in the processes of
 composition as well as in canonization; without them the New Testament itself
 would not exist.

If the New Testament documents are themselves inscribed efforts at understanding
 the Jewish scriptures as well as the person and teaching of Jesus, they
 quickly became the objects of renewed interpretive debates, and the catalyst for
 further literary production. From arguments over esoteric and philosophically
 ambitious interpretation such as that of so-called Gnostics in the second century,
 through the methodological differences between the Alexandrian and Antiochene
 schools in the fourth century, the key doctrinal and other disputes that characterized
 ancient Christianity were centered on just how to read Christian and Jewish

Fundamentalisms, casual or assertive, are  never more vulnerable than 
when faced with the pluriformity of canonical scripture itself. While theological 
debates both mirrored and fueled the ways Christian social formations developed,
 the emergent institutional and cultural divisions between Churches were manifested
 not only in preference for distinct interpretive methods, but in decisions
 even about the actual canons to which those methods are to be applied.

Debates over the extent and content of scripture reflected contention over the
 authentic borders of Christianity itself. This can be seen as when Marcion championed
 a Gospel without supposed accretions, or when “Montanists” claimed the 
ongoing reality of the Paraclete outside as well as inside the written word. From
 the ancient divisions between groups aligned with Chalcedonian Christology
 on the one hand, and others such as Armenian, Ethiopian, and Egyptian Christians
 on the other, through the millennial schism between eastern and western 
Churches, and on to the Reformation, each large and enduring division has been
 accompanied by the entrenchment of discrepancies between canons. Those discrepancies 
as well as the subtler, more diffuse, but equally profound cultivation of 
differences in how to read those books accepted has lead to a lively debate.

Modern scholarship has added to these dilemmas, not only because of the 
increased awareness of cultural and canonical diversity through more immediate
contact with different cultures and peoples, but also as a result of the discovery
 and publication of new sets of ancient documents pertaining to, or even purporting
 to be, scripture.
 The Dead Sea Scrolls have raised unprecedented but unresolved problems 
in the presentation of extra-canonical Psalms interspersed with the familiar 
ones. The appearance of Ben Sira in Hebrew both there and in the documents
of the Cairo geniza has forced new perspectives. The Nag Hammadi codices shed 
remarkable light on the ways scripture could be re-written in the process of being
 read, as well as providing the now-famous Gospel of Thomas.

Despite the differences just noted, the varied Christian traditions of the late antique
and medieval periods had in common tendencies to weave biblical 
traditions organically into their complex liturgical, spiritual, and doctrinal
 constructions. They continued to use earlier methods such as allegorical interpretation,
 if in new ways and with a new sophistication, tending at times to
 sophistry. They continued to use biblical texts for devotional practices such as
 lectio divina, and in the communal settings of eucharistic and other liturgies.
 The Reformation brought the Bible to a quite new centrality in the West, via
 the principle of sola scriptura and the explosion of biblical translations, exemplified
 in the King James Version published four-hundred years before this volume, and provided its own layer of complexity to canonical issues. While an accompanying 
emphasis on “plain sense” of scripture was common, the exposure of
 the Bible to the light both of the resources of emergent humanism such as that
 of Erasmus and of new emphases on evidence and rationality also heralded the
arrival of modern critical scholarship, whether undertaken in pursuit of new
 theological wisdom, skepticism, or intellectual curiosity.

Like any other aspect of western thought, understanding of the New
 Testament and biblical literature generally was impacted profoundly by the
Enlightenment and its successors such as Romanticism. Figures such as Spinoza
 and Hobbes noted issues that later scholars were to pursue more systematically.
 For the Hebrew Bible this was often the problem of Pentateuchal sources or the 
authenticity of Isianic prophecies; the equivalent seed-bed for New Testament
studies was the Synoptic problem and the closely related issue of the historical

To a significant extent this volume reflects the current state of the modern
 biblical scholarship that emerged in the West from that time forward. This has 
come to include an array of technical and hermeneutical processes sometimes
 worked out of as distinct “criticisms” but in fact often overlapping and interdependent.
These have been used to establish the textual detail, as well as the 
canonical scope, of the New Testament; to consider its sources, literary composition,
 influences, and historicity; and to examine it in its ancient social, cultural,
 and religious contexts. This set of interdependent disciplines constitute classical
 biblical criticism, which, while not necessarily a complete set of tools for considering 
the significance of the ancient texts in the modern world, cannot be
 dispensed with by any serious reader.

Before the mid-twentieth century, critical New Testament scholarship as a 
tool for exegetical and hermeneutical purposes was a largely Protestant phenomenon, 
enabled or allowed by the diffuse authority structures of those religious 
traditions but not universally accepted. The arrival of Roman Catholic scholarship 
in this modern sense was heralded by the encyclical Divino afflante spiritu, which
 affirmed the use of philological, historical, and literary studies to support faithful 
reading and understanding. This and other developments in scholarly ecumenism
 have meant that debates in the academy around biblical interpretation often 
have little correlation with expected confessional loyalties, and that even in New 
Testament studies the contributions of Jewish and secular scholars can and must
 have their acknowledged place, based on criteria of adequacy applicable in any

The second half of the twentieth century saw the emergence not only of
 additional methods, but also of approaches that generally assumed and often
 acknowledged established critical scholarship, yet sought to go beyond it. One
 broad set of methods has emerged from more recent philosophical and literary 
theory, wherein the literary character of the text has been reasserted not merely
 as historic artifact for genre analysis, but as a dynamic reality whose life is interdependent
 with the act of contemporary reading. There have also been renewed
 calls for theological engagement, in particular with the canonical text, with what 
has been termed a “second naivety” that acknowledges the results of critical study
 without reducing the text to them.
 Scholars and readers have also become more aware of what was culturally 
specific and historically conditioned in pursuit of method, even in studies
 undertaken with “scientific” rigor and intent; that the assumptions of western
 modernity were not absolutes, and that the reality of Churches and academies 
dominated by white males was not irrelevant to the limits of scholarship or to its
 future prospects. The relationship between such new readings emphasizing diversity 
and liberation and what has been termed classical scholarship is not always
 clear, and their interaction along with debate continues.

 This volume in its 
collective voice suggests that careful attention
 to questions of method in interpretation offers possibilities for fruitful readings 
of the texts themselves, and insights into other unavoidable issues for any who 
would read with understanding.
 More than this, it suggests that interpretive method is not simply an issue
 that arises after the text, when as in every period individuals and communities
 have considered and contended about proper ways to read; rather, the individual 
writings and the canon of scripture are actually the products of such interpretive
 questions, and cannot be adequately understood except with attention to them.