The problem of understanding anonymous texts (e.g. gospels)

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by Neil Godfrey

There’s an interesting passage in Steve Fuller’s Kuhn vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science that strikes me as having a most cogent critique of those who assert that the most honest and true way to read the gospels is to simply take them at face value:

Even if ideas and arguments should be evaluated independently of their origins, we must still first learn about their origins, in order to ensure the evaluation is indeed independent of them. The only thing worse than accepting or rejecting an idea because we know about its originator is doing so because we know nothing of the originator. Ignorance may appear in two positive guises. Both are due to the surface clarity of relatively contemporary texts, which effectively discourages any probing of their sources: on the one hand, we may read our own assumptions into the textual interstices; on the other, we may unwittingly take on board the text’s assumptions. In short, either our minds colonise theirs or theirs ours. In both cases, the distinction between the positions of interpreter and interpreting is dissolved, and hence a necessary condition for critical distance is lost.

pp. 71-72 (italics, Fuller’s; bold, mine)

Substitute for “relatively contemporary texts” the canonical gospels and read a commentary about texts, in this case the gospels and Acts or the Epistles, that present a “surface clarity”. Such a “surface clarity” — especially in a case when we know nothing of the origin of those texts — presents a huge problem for any interpreter. This is contrary to many who would see ignorance of authorship and provenance as irrelevant and who believe that the plain meaning of the text compels belief in the truly fair-minded.

So what is Fuller’s point and what relevance can this have for our reading of the gospels? Continue reading “The problem of understanding anonymous texts (e.g. gospels)”