2007-06-26

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?

Imagine any text other than the gospels (or the Bible) about which we know nothing but rumour and suspicion and guesswork of its originator. If you read such a text and accept it at face value how can you possibly know if you are being duped or not? Or if you read it with your own preferred interpretation, how can you possibly know if your interpretation is “correct”?

In other words, ignorance of the provenance of a text presents us with a difficult task. One easy way out in the case of the gospels is to assert that even if we are ignorant of the human authors and worldly circumstances of the gospels, if we can declare them to be inspired by God then we can feel safe in reading them according to their face value or our personal doctrine of faith.

But many religious interpreters protest that biblical critics relegate biblical texts to a special status in relation to their reading of other texts. What the above passage of Stever Fuller indicates, however, is the very opposite. Saner critics would demand that biblical texts be treated the same way as we would treat any other text whose authorship and provenance are unknowns. To read any such text (about whose origins we are unclear) at face-value is to risk being duped; to read it with a savvy interpretation is to risk misrepresenting the original meaning and intent of the text.

There are 3 alternatives then:

  1. Ignore the texts and get on with something more important in life;
  2. Or introduce God as a master key to make the texts mean something important for us (but this is to fall into the trap of the second reading — the savvy interpretation that misrepresents the real originals);
  3. Or labour slowly, in concert with others, and painstakingly over time, even generations, to attempt to “divine” from the text itself what explanation is the most coherent, on the assumption that that was the original author’s intention.

All three have an element of dubiousness about them, but I think the third is the least dubious — at least over time!

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Neil Godfrey

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