Thursday, January 29, 2009


Two recent books have begun to cause a lot of stir in the guild of Biblical studies, one as an attempt to suggest a change in direction in seminary curriculum, the other more of an apologia for the nature and importance of historical criticism as a means of getting at the meaning of the Bible. The former of these is by a Yale (and former Duke) Professor of NT Dale B. Martin (Pedagogy of the Bible. An Analysis and Proposal, Louisville: Westminster/J. Knox, 2008), the latter by an Oxford Professor of OT John Barton (The Nature of Biblical Criticism, (Louisville: Westminster/J. Knox, 2007). Both are written by seasoned scholars whose previous writings have been well received. Martin tends to be more of an agent provocateur in some respects, Barton more of a defender of scholarly rigor and each book has its own merits and demerits. There is some overlap between the two books, but in some fundamental ways they are at odds with one another especially when it comes to the issue of ‘meaning’ which will be the focus of this critique and review. Martin is weary of the hegemony of the historical critical method as the method which is taught at seminaries and divinities schools as the fundamental tool for getting at the meaning of the Biblical text. He is of course right that there are other ways to read the Biblical text ranging from pre- or even anti-critical readings to what some now call post-critical readings of the text. But in his survey of American seminaries he came to the, for him, gloomy, conclusion that the hegemony of historical criticism has by no means been eclipsed or deposed, whatever his desideratum may be.

There is in fact a good reason for this in fact. Most scholars, and indeed most people of faith believe that in fact contextual study (the historical, literary, rhetorical, social etc. contexts) of the Bible is crucial to its understanding. As I like to put it—a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean. An overwhelming majority of them also believe that Biblical texts have meaning and it is important not to read our own meanings back into the text willy nilly.

Now this last assertion may seem non-controversial to you, but if so, you haven’t been listening to literary theorists and Derrida fans much in the last two or three decades. Nor have you realized or assessed the considerable impact of folk like Stanley Fish (late of Duke) on such discussions. But Martin has decidedly felt the impact of such discussions and when it comes to the issue of meaning, he has come to agree with Fish and others on a variety of subjects. The following are a series of quotations from his recent book:

Martin say “one of my favorite slogans [is]: Texts don’t have meaning; people mean with texts.” (p. 31)

“I am convinced that the emphasis on the differences between exegesis and eisegesis currently does more harm than good in teaching students about biblical interpretation. It reinforces a notion about texts and meaning that is false in itself….It reinforces the commonsensical but mistaken idea that texts simply have meaning as a property within themselves, that texts dispense their meaning themselves, or that texts may constrain interpretations of themselves.” (pp. 29-30).

“All readings of texts are in fact the making of meaning.” (p. 30).

“[T]extual meaning is something created by human beings practicing rather complicated socially learned skills we call ‘reading’. The most famous advocate of these ideas was Stanley Fish.’ (p. 31).

“[R]eaders make sense of texts; texts do not dispense their meaning, nor is meaning dependent on authorial intention.” (p. 32)

Now there are serious epistemic and semantic and indeed even theological reasons for rejecting this whole approach to the issue of meaning, but it will be well to say a couple of things about Stanley Fish and how he came to his conclusions. He is not in fact a historian or indeed a student of ancient historical texts, rather he is someone whose expertise is in modern literature, and perhaps to a lesser degree modern art. He is deeply indebted to folks like Foucault and Derrida and his agenda is in part to deconstruct the whole approach to reality known as modernism or the legacy of the Enlightenment, or even the scientific method which assumes that there is an objective world out there which can be known and distinguished from the knowing subject.

Martin in fact in his book makes the signal mistake of suggesting that abstract art or even more abstract poetry provides a clue as to how meaning happens and where it comes from--- namely from the eyes of the beholder or the reading subject (see. pp. 32-34). Now at one level he is right--- we are not blank blackboards on which texts write their meanings. No, to one degree or another we are active readers of texts and we bring our own knowledge, hopes, fears, expectations, faith or lack there of to the reading of the Biblical text (or any other text for that matter). We need to be aware of this fact, but it does not in fact provide the key to understand where the meaning of texts comes from. It is a factor to be taken into account, and indeed often to be corrected for. Why?

Well at one level it has to do with respect. I do not have the right to make the Biblical writers or Shakespeare or any other writer say whatever I please. I don’t have the right to read my own agendas into their texts. I did not produce them, and they are not mine. I cannot make a claim on them as if I was the one who encoded the meaning into them in the first place.

And this brings up a crucial point. The very reason I would be agreeing with John Barton and not Dale on various matters pertaining to meaning is because I want to know what those Biblical authors inspired by God are trying to tell me. I am not merely interested in finding out the multiple ways I can use the Bible as an inkblot to create my own meanings in life. In fact it is important to make a threefold distinction between: 1) meaning (something the text has); 2) significance (something the text may have for me, but which is grounded in the plain sense of the text if I am reading it right); 3) application, which is a further step removed.

Let’s listen now briefly to what John Barton says about these same matters.
Barton is a defender of the importance of what he calls Biblical criticism (read historical criticism, by which of course he does not mean being critical of the Bible, but rather reading it with a keen and discerning eye in order to get at its meaning). In quoting and following W.H. Schmidt he says:

"A text is an assertion of a human person, transmitted in writing—a person who can no longer defend himself against misunderstanding. Who can step forward as his advocate if not historical criticism? Criticism tries, as well as it is able, to preserve the rights of the text, and in its name to counter misinterpretations. Indeed, there is no other possible way of allowing a text, as the word of another person, the freedom to speak for itself.” (p. 72).

Barton then does not believe ancient texts like the Bible are like modern abstract art or poetry. They have a latent or inherent meaning, and we need tools to find out what it is--- one such important tool is historical criticism. Why? Barton goes on to explain…

“[B]iblical criticism has always taken for granted that the meaning a text has is connected with its origins in a particular historical and cultural setting—what some would call its ‘original’ sense… This is most obvious at the level of language. Words are not constant in their meaning across time. To take a simple example in the novels of Trollope we often find a female character saying that a male friend ‘made love to her the whole evening.’ It is crucial in understanding Trollope to realize that in his day this expression meant showing a romantic or sexual interest in someone, not having sexual intercourse with them. Otherwise, we would get a very distorted idea of what happened in Victorian drawing rooms.” (p. 80). In other words, every responsible interpreter of any text has a duty to take into account the lexical system and range of meanings that were in fact possible at that time, in that place, in that text. This is just as true of interpreting Biblical texts as it is in interpreting Trollope.

Barton goes on to give the excellent example of Ps. 102.12 where the psalmist speaks of God reigning ‘for ever’ (le’ olam).Later Jews and Christians have often taken the psalmist to be referring to the eternality of God, and his existence outside the constraints of time, however that is not what the psalmist had in mind. What he means is that God’s reign will know no end However long time endures, God will still be reigning. In other words the text speaks to God’s ongoing rule not his ontological nature or eternality. We might well entirely miss this if we did not do contextual study of the Psalm verse in question.

Barton goes on to make a further crucial point. The meaning of a text does NOT change across time while of course its interpretation may well do so. “It is not that the text changes its meaning, but that meaning is differently evaluated,, appropriated, or weighed.” (p. 84).. Meaning is historically conditioned. The object of studying the Bible in context is not to determine what it used to mean, but rather what it always has meant. For example, Barton takes the famous phrase ‘by the skin of my teeth’ found in Job. The fact that it is still a familiar idiomatic phrase today and is used differently than it was used in the book of Job does not after all determine the original or plain sense meaning of that text which its author gave it. “It is not that Job means A but it now means B; rather Job means A, but I am using the words that occur in Job to mean B.” (p. 84).

Exactly. The meaning of the text is one thing, its modern uses or the significances we find in it another. Barton points to a helpful distinction made by Umberto Eco between interpreting a text and using it, arguing that use is of course a free-for-all, but that to interpret one needs to attend to the cultural and linguistic background against which the work is written. (p. 85 n. 28). This is right and is a guiding principle for historical criticism.

Against Martin and his kin Barton says forthrightly “what the text meant is what it still means. The fact that it can be used as a vehicle for many other meanings does not undermine this.” (p. 86). Barton goes on to stress that the logically prior activity to preaching, teaching or applying the Bible in any way is finding out what it means. This is exactly right.

‘Meaning before application’ (p. 103) should be our watchword as he urges. “[E]xegesis and application must be separated in the interest of two freedoms: the freedom of the text from the concerns of the interpreter and the freedom of the interpreter to ask questions not envisioned by the text,” (p. 103).

Barton is also right to stress that not only do words only have meaning in contexts (consider for example the word ‘row’ which can be a verb or a noun depending on the context), but even more importantly one has to attend to the larger genre of literature in which a sentence or paragraph occurs. In other words, one needs to interpret any document, and especially the Bible carefully taking into account is literary genre.

The task of a Biblical scholar, says Barton, is to act as a tour guide of the text helping us see the parameters of what the text does or could mean within its original contexts, before assessing its applicability in our own contexts. “Exegete’s guided tours of the text will involve noticing many blooms that are not part of its literal content, but also being able to distinguish them from the weeds that come from their own imaginations.” (p. 116). Sometimes we need tour guides more than others, but in the case of the Bible we especially need them because of its sheer volume of use and familiarity. Let me illustrate the problem.

Forty years ago I was driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the beautiful N.C. mountains when the clutch blew out and as the Bible says, ‘my countenance fell” because of course there are no gas stations anywhere on the Blue Ridge. My friend Doug and I got a push off an exit ramp from another car, into a gas station, but alas, he was unable to fix the thing. We decided to hitch hike the three hours back to High Point, and then I would have to tell my father the bad news. So, we stuck out our thumbs, and pretty quickly a very elderly couple picked us up in a black 1948 Plymouth. My friend Doug (who is now a lawyer in N.C.) decided to make conversation with the driver. He asked what he thought of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and all those beautiful pictures sent back of the revolving earth. The man’s reaction was instanteous—‘That’s all fake’ he said “Everyone knows the world is not round and does not revolve. That was just a liberal Hollywood trick.”
Doug, perhaps not recognizing invincible ignorance when he first saw, badgered the man--- “Why do you think that?” I kept whispering ‘Shut up Doug, we need this right to North Wilksboro.” The man’s answer was plain and simple---
“It says in the book of Revelations (you always know you are in trouble when someone calls the last book of the Bible Revelations plural) that the angels will stand on the four corners of the earth. Earth can’t be round if its got four corners, now can it?” The man took this to be invincible logic which settled the matter altogether.

What was wrong with the man’s reasoning? It was not that he took the Bible seriously. It was that he had made a major genre and category mistake in interpretation. He had taken a figurative utterance in an apocalyptic prophecy to be a literal cosmological description of the earth. In fact, by doing so, he had violated John’s intended meaning in that text. John was trying to say that the angels would come from all major points on the compass. He was not doing cosmology but suggesting comprehensive coverage. But of course our driver was innocent entirely of such learning about the genre and character of the book of Revelation, and therefore ironically, he violated the very meaning and spirit of the text all the while trying to uphold its truth! This often happens in fundamentalism.
No text deserves more respect or the absolute best efforts of the interpreter than the sacred text of the Bible. Its meaning makes a mark, indeed a claim on us, and can be life changing.

As I have argued in The Living Wrd of God we do not honor the Bible if we naively think we can just open it up and always understand it without serious study of it in its various contexts. That involves at least three major fallacies: 1) the assumption that modern and ancient cultures, modern and ancient languages, modern and ancient meanings are not different in any significant way; 2) it assumes that just because the Bible may be perspicuous or clear that it will therefore be clear to me without effort or study--- the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 119 knew this was false, and simply a lazy approach to God’s Word. ‘Study to find yourself approved' and don't forget you have a fallen intellect; 3) it assumes that just because I have the Holy Spirit in my life to help me understand God’s Word that I am obviously on the same wavelength and listening perfectly to the Spirit’s illumination. I don’t need any outside help.

What is interesting to me is that none of the Biblical writers thought this way. They knew study and good teachers were critical, and even after Easter study was crucial. Notice how Luke begins his Gospel by says he had to consult various of the eyewitnesses and original preachers of the Word to get the story of Jesus straight. I put it to you this way—if even the inspired writers of the NT knew they needed to do their homework to understand the Christ event and the Bible, it follows that so do we.

Biblical or Historical Criticism is not the enemy of a high view of Scripture, indeed it is a very useful aid in getting at the meaning of the Biblical text. And I agree with Barton that Job One is to find out—what the text says and means. Job Two is then to ask--- ‘In what sense is this meaning true?” Take again the example from above with the ‘flat lander’ and the book of Revelation. Angels on the four corners speaks a truth, but what sort of truth—is it meant to be a literal description of the shape of the earth? No, it is not but you would not know this unless you had studied early Jewish apocalyptic literature and were sensitive to its literary signals. Or take another example, When the Bible reports a particular person (say King David) telling a lie, in what sense is this report--- true? Not in the sense that he wasn’t lying, but rather in the sense that it gave an accurate or truthful report of the lie.

Job Three after Job One and Two is to assess the significance and possible application of the Biblical text for yourself, or your congregation etc. And of course sometimes ‘significance happens’, but I would stress that a significance of a text for me is not the same as the meaning of the text. I grow weary of the self-centered phrase ‘this is what the text means to me’. You are not the meaning maker of the text, nor do you have a right to decide what the text means for you. The text means what it always has meant. It is your job to understand it, embrace it, submit to it as a Word from God and seek to apply it. And no amount of anti-intellectualism can get you out of your obligation to study it contextually. But back to significance.

In August of 1979, my wife was put into Durham hospital three weeks before our first child was due, with elevated blood pressure. Now you have to realize that my wife is a biologist. She did not want the ‘knock em out and drag em out method of delivery’. She wanted ‘au naturel’ and so there was no little angst that came over her when she was told on August 13th they were going to have to induce her. Her problem was she knew as much about the dangers and biological processes once that drug went into her and the baby as the doctors did. On that evening I tried to cheer her up, but it was difficult because we were reading through the Bible together, and were stuck in the middle of the doom and gloom chapters of Ezekiel who was addressing his fellow exiles and trying to give them some hope. But in the midst of all that doom and gloom about coming judgment, there were these words we read that night--- “and I will multiply your kindred, and I will keep you safe, and you will come home soon”. Well, a light went on in my brain and I felt led to say—“Well honey, things are going to be o.k. That baby is going to come all by itself.” She looked incredulous and said “You really think so?” I said I did. I went home that night and simply paced the floor waiting for the call to come saying the baby was on the way. Sure enough, there was a knock on my door about 4, and in about six more hours, Christy was born.

Now I knew perfectly well that those verses in Ezekiel were not written as a prophecy about me and my wife. They were literally intended to tell the Israelites they would get back to Jerusalem one take and thrive once more. But through the serendipity of experience God used the text to show us how he was working in that situation, and so those verses took on a significance for us (not a new meaning, a significance) as God himself applied those words to our lives. And we are ever so glad he did! It helped us trust God and be ready for the coming of Christy.

There is much more I could say along these lines but let me sum up--- 1) Biblical texts have meanings; 2) we need help to understand them; 3) historical criticism is not the bogeyman, it is a good Sherlock Holmsian process that helps us understand the meaning of these texts; 4) we should not listen to those who suggest ‘meaning is in the eye of the behold’ or in the ‘act’ of the reader’, if by ‘meaning’ we mean the plain Biblical sense of the text, not what I would like to find in there; 5) historical criticism is in many ways the best hedge against misunderstanding and misinterpreting the text, and we should be glad for that if we care about the truth of the Word God, and desire to handle it prayerfully and carefully.

The Word of God is indeed like a two edge sword which cults both ways—you can either use it to cut people to ribbons, or to do the necessary surgery on them so their hearts will open and they will receive the Good News. LET THE READER UNDERSTAND THE INSPIRED MEANING OF THE BIBLICAL TEXT. It should be the goal of all who seek to interpret it.


Abson, Lara, Daniella & Sophie said...

Hello Ben,

I am teaching Hermeneutics this semester to seven (first-year) students. I am going to ask them to read your post and have some class discussion about it.
I enjoy reading your blog.

t-ham said...

Good Morning Ben,

Been reading you for about 6 months and find many of your posts helpful for this struggling, freshly returned after 50 years Christian.
This is getting sent to my Bible Study leader as soon as I finish this.
Thank you, and watch out for the snow snakes.

nm said...

Thanks so much for the excellent post!

I actually have both of these books on my shelf, and it's neat to realize that I have two antithetical treatments of the same topic. I have had Barton's longer but got Martin's recently and read that within a couple days and this has really motivated me to go back and pick up Barton.

After reading Martin, I do of course remember his overall position on historical criticism and his take on meaning, which I ultimately disagree with, but the main thing that I took away from his book was his emphasis on patristics and his proposal that the histories of interpretations of the biblical text should be more often remembered, utilized, etc. And I realized that my own degree program didn't include very much at all of how the church has interpreted the texts through the centuries and there can be tremendous value in doing so. Have those before us adequately interpreted Scripture to the point that we should definitely give their interpretations weight? Should we just do it anyway? And to what extent, if so? Or is it enough to simply utilize the historical criticism to go right from ancient text to present interpretation? What you mind sharing your thoughts on this? Thanks very much, Dr. W

jabre said...

Do you have any comments on the current emphasis on "theological" interpretation of the Bible. I'm not sure I even know exactly what it is, but its proponents seem to be somewhat critical of historical criticism. Also, what about those who advocate returning to the Church Fathers and pre-critical interpretation?

Ben Witherington said...

First of all I agree with Martin that knowing the history of the interpretation of the text is important. I do not agree we can go back to pre-critical readings of the text (as Barton rightly emphasizes). Brevard Childs, the doyen of canonical criticism was rightly insistent that theological interpretation or canonical interpretation presupposes historical critical study of the text, not a sort of Gnostic enterprise that ignores the historical text and context in order to focus on the theological or spiritual substance of the text. Theological interpretation should be seen as part of exegesis, since obviously most of the Biblical texts are highly theological. I do not agree with those who want to reduce theology to ideology or even worse political interpretation and think that justice has been done to the text. Barton is rightly critical of both pre-critical and post-colonial attempts to ignore the 'plain sense' of the text or to allegorize it into something it was never meant to be, hijacking it for various purposes the authors of the text would have objected to, had they been around to defend themselves. What is especially disingenuous to me is those scholars who want to say texts do not have inherent, until of course their own texts are misinterpreted and misunderstood, and then all too often they are the first to stand up and say--- "NO, I didn't mean that!". The Fish approach to meaning and texts is both logically incoherent, and not even consistently lived by, by Fish and his disciples. One would do far better to read E.D. Hirsch on this subject, or even some of the saner remarks of Umberto Eco.


Ken Eck said...

Ben, thank you for your great blog, I really enjoy reading it. I have done some biblical studies as part of my ministerial training and I found Joel B Green's book Seized by Truth very useful. He makes the distinction between studying the Bible and reading Scripture. The knowledge gained in the first informs the application of the second.
By the way I'm using your book Troubled Waters for my present module on the sacraments. Very interesting. All the best and stay warm!

N T Wrong said...

Dear Ben,

In today's 'Blogger of the Month' interview, I expressed very much the same opinion as you:

"I continue to see a valid distinction between ‘use’ and ‘interpretation’ (and I like Umberto Eco’s theoretical approach here), and I place scholars whom I encounter somewhere along the continuum between them."
- NT Wrong

"The meaning of the text is one thing, its modern uses or the significances we find in it another. Barton points to a helpful distinction made by Umberto Eco between interpreting a text and using it, arguing that use is of course a free-for-all, but that to interpret one needs to attend to the cultural and linguistic background against which the work is written."
- Ben

Isn't that uncanny? I feel we may be kindred spirits.

NT Wrong

Katie Clogg said...

How do you feel about the literature of John Shelby Spong?