As scholars we work with a mysterious gap between how we read the Hebrew Bible and how we interpret it. This mystery extends to an interestingly similar gap between how we interpret the Bible and how we interpret each other. In particular, we read specific ancient texts–even inscrutable ones–in a similar way to how we communicate with living people, assuming there’s a verbal message to be found, even if we have trouble deciphering it. By contrast, the realm of interpretation can be presented as a free-for-all with incommensurable and irreconcilable views. Seeing the connection between the exalted, even fetishized act of exegesis and the banal everyday act of discussion can help demystify the gap between them.
Ed Greenstein lays this issue out incisively when he writes:
[When it comes to interpreting a biblical text], the number of solutions that seem possible is limited by the communal contexts in which we live and the institutional frameworks in which we work. In theory, anything goes, but in practice we constrain ourselves from using any and every methodology and from reaching the widest possible range of results by setting limits at the outset. For example, by adopting a source-critical approach to the study of Torah, one will always succeed in finding more than one textual source there. If this eventuality conflicts with one of my basic beliefs or principles, then I will not engage in source analysis.
Similarly, a close reading in the book of Exodus of the rhetoric of the Sinai revelation (19:15— “you may not approach a woman”) and of the Ten Commandments (20:13—“you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”) shows that God and Moses are in this particular context addressing the menfolk alone and not the women. If that result is unacceptable, one will either avoid a close reading of the text, or counterbalance a close reading according to the peshat, or contextual sense, with a midrashic type of reading… It should be clear, however, and we should be honest enough to admit it, that our beliefs and understandings do not follow from our textual interpretations as much as they shape and produce them.
This puts a sharp edge on a common-sense view of what we can reliably understand: non-technical, everyday conversation and reading make it possible to know what we and our colleagues think, at least on a straightforward literal level. By contrast, fairly technical and specialized philology reading or translation makes it possible to know what most of the Bible says, again at least on a straightforward literal level.. But the two are separated by an ocean of possible interpretations, an ocean that can only be navigated by decisions based on preexisting beliefs or prejudices.
First of all, when we read the Hebrew Bible we act as if we’re reading more or less the same text. This apparently obvious fact deserves a little more reflection. We tend to treat the fundamental, floor-level work of philological reading–translating or checking against the Hebrew or Aramaic in context, working out its basic referential content–as a realm of relative certainty. We do recognize that translations differ in subtle or occasionally sharp ways and that there are difficult or even indecipherable passages, and that in marginal cases people will often disagree along party lines if they’re theologically or politically loaded. And like with all old, widely distributed literatures from the pre-PDF world, different manuscripts and editions will have different spellings, wordings, or even different texts. But for every hot-button phrase or passage in the Bible there are dozens of boringly lines translated in boringly similar ways across every half-decent translation.
So, contrary to the rhetorical question in the title of Stanley Fish’s old pop post-structuralist book Is There A Text in This Class?, it looks like there is one here. We have to have a shared text in order to find problems in it. It is the basic coherence we find in philologically-based Bible translations–that they are readable and in most cases agree on the level of content–that raises our curiosity about its larger possible incoherence, the intriguing seams running through the Bible. God certainly creates humanity by command in Genesis 1, while crafting it physically in Genesis 2-3. Exodus says female Hebrew slaves are slaves forever, while Deuteronomy says they go free in 7 years and Leviticus bans having any Hebrew slaves at all. It’s the text’s basic word- and sentence-level coherence that lets readers raise and discuss the most fundamental and useful questions about these passages’ relationships to one another and the times of their writing.
Crudely put, whether it’s scripture or your uncle’s provocative statement at the dinner table, we need something specific to argue about. And when it comes to the Bible, historically it has been people’s agreement on the basic reading that has led them to disagree on its interpretation. Whatever its larger meaning, Genesis 12-20 presents Abraham and Sarah as the founding ancestors of Israel. This what gives the New Testament’s aggressive reinterpretations of Israel’s ancestry their shock. Without Genesis’ presentation of Abraham and Sarah, it would be hard to know what the Gospels and the Pauline letters were fighting over when Jesus tells the Jews who stopped following him that they are the children of Satan, not Abraham, or when Paul says that it’s the gentiles, not the Jews, who are the real descendants of Sarah.
By contrast, we tend to see interpretation as irreducibly tied to the individual interpreter, their values and choices. The Bible was famously used both for and against slavery during the Civil War, and it is read in the same predictable ways around hot-button issues today, from abortion to the state of Israel’s claim on the southern Levant. There is an old sports joke that gets at this central human role in observation and interpretation: three umpires are talking about how they do their job in calling balls and strikes. The first says, “I calls ’em like I sees ’em.” The second, “I calls ’em like they is.” And the third, “They ain’t nothing til I calls ’em!’
What lies between the apparent free-for-all of theory and exegesis and the apparent relative objectivity of philology, and why do philology’s results look more like the results of everyday conversation than those of exegesis? Is theory inseparable from prejudice, just arguing points you can pick in order to produce the answers you want? The other Stanley Fish argument mentioned above in part 1, that theories are basically machines for manufacturing predictable results, can seem a bit pat, even denigrating or dismissive towards theorists. You can hear it in the grating voice of an archetypal old-school academic (“those Marxists seeing class and economic inequality everywhere, the feminists with their patriarchy obsession, and don’t get me started on post-colonialists bugging me about racism and imperialism!”). The really dark aspect of this viewpoint is it suggests an ultimately value-free marketplace of ideas, which rewards those who have the biggest marketing budgets or control the most seminaries. And this relativistic stance towards knowledge-making can easily be turned around, pointing out that the ‘objectivity’ of language- and manuscript-based philology rewards a kind of skill that has overwhelmingly been cultivated by male members of the dominant culture in established institutions. If there is no Godlike objectivity inherent in philology, what is it doing that make its results look more stable?
One way to demystify the apparently contradictory natures of philology and hermeneutics lies in a hidden aspect of ordinary conversation. In a classic, and wonderfully disorienting, essay on how we come to understand each other, the philosopher Donald Davidson argues that we never really quite do that–instead we do something more interesting when we communicate. Davidson’s “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”, named for an odd but totally comprehensible Spoonerism, argues that even perfect knowledge of a language’s official rules cannot explain how a person makes sense of another’s speech, since everyday language is riddled with too much assumption, incoherence, and playfulness to be managed by grammar alone. He argues that the main thing we’re really doing when we understand someone else is improvising, taking our best guess–what Davidson calls a “passing understanding,” and then bouncing it off the other person with our replies. If the other person suggests our first shot at understanding is off-base, we typically check in with them (“did I hear you right? Was it a different penguin this time?”) until we get close enough for it to pass–to create enough impression of understanding and dialogue to keep the conversation going.
Rather than ironclad rules, we produce meaning by improvising and recalibrating our understanding against what the other person says–dialectically, through dialogue. This method of calibrating meaning between speaker and hearer is what linguistic anthropologists call co-creation, and it is similar to the co-creation of a translation, except instead of the speaker producing new utterances over the course of the dialogue in response to the hearer’s inquiries (“is this what you mean?” “Not exactly, it was the same penguin, but wearing a different hat”), the reader calibrates the text’s meaning with other utterances within the text. An excellent example is Greenstein’s use of other Biblical Hebrew instances of חזק + לב beyond those applied to the Pharoah in Exodus to show that “hardening the heart” does not have inherently negative connotations, and its fundamental sense is not “be stubborn” but “be resolute.”
Part III of III (coming next): Hermeneutics: the Virtue of Obscurity versus The Magic of Objectivity
If this makes conversation look a little more special, and philology look a little more ordinary, that will not be a bad thing. By contrast, the ways both literary theory and hermeneutics are presented tends to make them seem lofty and mystical on a cultural level but arbitrary and chaotic on a practical level, but this may not be inherent to their nature. For example, the maxim that “the Torah has 70 faces” is a prescriptive claim with a distancing effect: beyond the fact that it means different things to different people, it asserts that Bible actually means differently than anything else. But a brilliant set of articles by the linguistic anthropologist Kristina Wirtz suggests that this unique, distant picture of meaning is itself the artifact of a religious strategy.
Similarly, we don’t tend to think of our everyday understanding of conversation as ‘scientific’ or ‘objective’ in some special way, so how did the rhetoric of objectivity get applied to philology but neither conversation nor hermeneutics? Here it will be helpful to look at how objectivity itself was built over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, via Daston and Galison’s remarkable visual history of it, as well as alternative notions of scientific truth that still exist alongside it. For it turns out that it is as much a way of physically presenting the objects of knowledge, and creating a kind of knower, as it is about anything inherent to the type of knowledge gained.