Monday, April 9, 2007

Hermeneutics and Original Intent

Comments on my last post from Loren Rosson and Bob MacDonald brought out a powerful insight that we should probably add to the historical hermeneutic I have been developing on this blog. The ancient Christians (as well as contemporary Christians) when referring to scripture to support or build their ideologies and theologies did not care one bit about the "original intent" of the writing. So they didn't give any thought to what Paul might have actually been referring to when he wrote his letters. Their concern was to redeem the spiritual meaning of the text which could only be had through certain reading techniques like typologies and allegories.

Additionally, they were selective readers. They would rip passages or phrases from their contexts and read them completely divorced from the bigger letter or gospel. This means that they ignored or censored other passages that did not jive with their hermeneutical trajectory.

Sometimes we even hear them complaining that the original letter or gospel had been revised by Christians other than themselves in the spirit of altering what these other Christians thought the original meaning should have been. So the Christians who run across passages that do not support their hermeneutics, strip the texts of passages that they considered later insertions. This appears to me to have been a tactic of several Christian groups (i.e., Marcionites, Valentinians, Ebionites) and may have more prevalent among all the early Christians than we would like to think.

Let me give an example or two from the Extracts of Theodotus because this is the text I am currently rereading. Romans 11:16 ("if the first fruits be holy, the lump will be also; if the root be holy, then will also the shoots") was used by the Valentinians to prove that Jesus saved both the elect pneumatics (=Valentinians) and the called psychics (=Christians in the Church) because all had become "homoousia" with him due to the perfecting of their spiritual seeds. The pneumatics had elect male seeds of the spirit which had matured enough to be redeemed through ritual and contemplative activities, while the psychics had female seeds of the spirit which needed more work in the area of perfecting accomplished through the rites of the apostolic church and righteous living. The elect spiritual seed was understood to be the "leaven" which leavened the bread, the entire Christian Church. It was the "mustard seed," and the "pupil of the eye." Note that the scriptural references say nothing about the elect spiritual seed. But this is their true meaning according to the Valentinians.

I do not want to leave the impression that only the Valentinians were reading scriptures in this manner. ALL early Christians were reading scriptures against the author's original intent. And this tradition of interpretation has continued in Christianity today, which can be seen in the use of the "prophets" to predict Jesus' advent, mission, and death. None of these Jewish texts had such an original intent, as the Jewish community has long argued.

The notion that the original intent of an author might be important to understand is really only a recent development, a post-Enlightenment concern, and is the domain of the historian. Since the original intent of the author of a text has not been the concern of Christian hermeneutics since the beginning of the tradition, this means that when the original intent is described by the historian it is often at odds with the contemporary Christian understanding. And this can cause dissonance for the believer and the reaction to reject, rationalize, or reinterpret.

Now the post-modern philosophers have challenged the notion that the original intent of a text can be recovered. This has led to the hyper-position that there is no accessible original intent of a text, but only multiple meanings generated by its readers, so the historical search for original intent is undermined. This has gladdened many contemporary Christian interpreters who wish their own interpretations of the text to be equivalent or override the historical.

This hyper-position is very troubling, in my opinion. Of course my readers will interpret what I write in different ways according to their understanding and experiences. But this does not mean that what I write does not have an original intent or that I might not hope that my readers will be generous enough to care about trying to understand it.

There is much we can recover about the original intent of authors if we care enough to do the hard uncompromising historical work involved in such endeavors. In the end, we might discover several possibilities for understanding the original intent, but these possibilities will be narrowed and will make sense within the historical context and world view of the ancient world we are dealing with. This process is not the same as the process of reading the texts through the Christian hermeneutic.

Update 4-14-07: some interesting discussion on other people's blogs
Loren Rossen

15 comments:

gdelassu said...

This has led to the hyper-position that there is no original intent of a text, but only multiple meanings generated by its readers, so the historical search for original intent is undermined.

Gosh, could you cite a source for this position? It sound to my ears more like a caricature than a summary of the hard-line postmodernists' position.

One cannot get more post-modern than Derrida, for instance, but even in Carte Postale he never claims that there is no original intent. He simply suggests that, whatever the "original intent" of any given text might be, it is 1) not available to us today and 2) no more especially interesting or important than any of the other various readings that various readers have taken from the text in question. In other words, it is not so much the case that there exists no original intent, but rather that we should be suspicious whenever someone tells us "this is the original intent," especially if that someone then proceeds to build a larger argument on the foundation of that priviledged reading of the text.

April DeConick said...

"Gedelassu,"

I don't think I have caricatured the position. The author's original intention is inaccessible according to post modern criticism. But this position has been carried to the extreme where post modern interpretations priviledge only the reader and interpreter, and like Roland Barthes, have declared that "the author" is dead. The author at best is a fragmented thing, consisting of a number of identities, and his or her meaning can never be had. Perhaps to be clearer I should add "accessible" into the sentence you quote.

Loren Rosson III said...

April wrote:

This has led to the hyper-position that there is no original intent of a text, but only multiple meanings generated by its readers, so the historical search for original intent is undermined.

Ddelassu responded:

Gosh, could you cite a source for this position? It sound to my ears more like a caricature than a summary of the hard-line postmodernists' position.

I wish it were a caricature, but April's right, people actually subscribe to this position. She mentioned Barthes' death-of-the-author platform; I recently finished reading Jacques Berlinerblau's The Secular Bible -- which we've been discussing on the Christian Origins list. Just for instance, this is what Berlinerblau has to say about attempts to pinpoint Paul's original views on same-sex eroticism:

"The endeavor to extract the originally intended message of some putative biblical author concerning homosexuality is a hopeless task. It is an aspiration soaked in theological preconceptions about Scripture's underlying meaningfulness. It has no place in secular inquiry." (pp 112-113)

I'm afraid I live in a different universe. I don't buy that secular inquiry is tied to apriori assumptions about texts being meaningless and original intentions unrecoverable. Sometimes, to be sure, things are unrecoverable, but it's not an inescapable rule of the game.

David said...

Isn't it interesting that political scientists can focus so much attention on the original intent of the authors of our Constitution, and yet there is no equivalent standard in religion and biblical studies? How selective!

Phil S. said...

The thing is that the claim that Christians, as a whole, didn't care about the 'original intent' of the authors is vast over-simplication. I would argue that most of the Fathers were convinced that their interpretation of the Bible WAS the original intent of the words. That is, the tradition with which they identified was, in fact, the legitimate way to read the Scriptures and the whole Jewish-Christian story from Genesis to Revelation. That is why they argued in the way that they did and why they saw the Valentinians, Marcionites et al as outside the legitimate way of reading the Bible.

This suggests that the self-perception of Christians is rather different than our own. They weren't worried about 'original intent' because they didn't have the conception that they were outside of it or that there was an original intent any different from their own claims. I would argue that even the term 'original intent' is a construct which is being used here to undermine the traditional interpretation(s) (that is, if we want to add the heretical traditions) of the Bible, so we can construct a more congenial one for ourselves. That allows us to presume that we, moderns and/or post-moderns, can crack what the original intent of the Biblical and extra-Biblical wriers are in a way that the poor benighted early Christians couldn't. Fine, that is an academic commonplace, but I don't buy it.

My point here is not to claim that the traditional views are right and modern academic views are wrong. Rather, I think the post-moderns have a point here in noting that one cannot separate 'original' intent and the reader's view. Or, to put it another way, one cannot separate 'original intent' and the tradition which is reading the text because all the traditions utilizing a text will, inevitably, read it rather differently. There is, for instance, no doubt that the Christian reading of the Hebrew Scripures is a radically different one than, say, the Rabbinic reading. Yet, both claim to be interpreting the same writings faithfully and, within the assumptions of both faiths, they are. The question left is which is the true reading, but that is unlikely to be settled any time soon.

Peace,
Phil

gdelassu said...

The author at best is a fragmented thing, consisting of a number of identities, and his or her meaning can never be had. Perhaps to be clearer I should add "accessible" into the sentence you quote.

Indeed, that revision does serve to clear up the problem.

I wish it were a caricature, but April's right, people actually subscribe to this position.

Well, then my original request still stands - care to cite an actual author making the actual claim that there is no such thing as the author's original intent?

I suppose that I am trying to stick up for my fellow po-mos here because I feel that we are being caricatured. It is not that we are really so loopy as to think that the author never had an original intent; obviously I am writing this to you, and I know that I intend to communicate something by means of these words on the screen. Rather, while we agree that this original intent exists, we nonetheless consider it 1) only partially accessible (at best) and 2) sort of a red-herring. You will, for instance, please note that nowhere in the text you cited does Berlinerblau claim that Paul had no original intent; he simply expresses skepticism that we might have access to this original intent. I tend to agree with Berlinerblau's claim in this quote, although I have not read the larger opus of which it is a part, so I would not wish to extend my agreement any further.

Incidentally, I am not sure why my name appears as "gdelassu" on this comment list. Usually it appears as "Greg DeLassus," which is my name. As such, perhaps it would be easier in future responses to refer to me as "Mr DeLassus" instead of "gdelassu."

April DeConick said...

Dear Mr. Delassu,

I have no way of knowing what your actual name is since your posting only appears under the form "gdelassu" and there is no information about your true name when I click your user name. I will try to remember that your user name contains your real name in future posts, but I hope you will forgive me in advance if I forget. I know very little about technology behind the scenes, so I have no clue why your name appears as it does in the comments.

gdelassu said...

The author's original intention is inaccessible according to post modern criticism. But this position has been carried to the extreme where post modern interpretations priviledge only the reader and interpreter...

Only the reader and the interpreter?!? Who else is there? What does it mean to "priviledge" absolutely everyone?

gdelassu said...

To be very clear, Dr DeConick, I did not mean to sound irked about posts addressing me as "gdelassu." I just figured that it must be sort of awkward, so I was hoping to make things easier by offering my actual name. If anyone finds it simpler just to reply to me as "gdelassu," that is fine.

April DeConick said...

Mr. Delassu,

"only" is not everyone. It does not include the author, which is what I, as an historian, am very interested in. I also am interested in the early readers.

But think about it. Why do post modernists think they can recover the readers' and interpreters' meanings, when not the author's? Are they any more direct in their writing than the authors themselves?

That the author's "original" meaning remains inaccessible or "not available to us today" is truly problematic, in my opinion, meant to shift the hermeneutic to contemporary interpretation which can be done with little thought given to method or approach.

I have nothing against contemporary hermeneutics, but they do not erase the historical no matter how we try to get around it with post modern theory.

April DeConick said...

Phil,

To take the position that the reader's view and the author's view are collapsed, meaning the same thing, is quite problematic. As you can see from the comments on this blog alone, what I mean as an author of these words is not necessarily what my reader understands. This does not make my intent the same as my readers. Nor does it mean that my intent cannot be recovered. In fact, there may be many readers who do recover my intent. In these cases, my intent and their interpretation may jive.

Of course the early Christians thought that they were recovering the original meaning of the words of the scripture. But this doesn't mean that they were. In fact they weren't. But this didn't trouble them as it does us today, because now we understand historical reading in post-Enlightenment terms which they, of course, didn't.

In hermeneutics, there is only "right" and "wrong" as defined by the community one belongs to. A community's claim to have the truth because of its scriptural interpretation does not amount to actually having the truth. It amounts to having a theology, which one may believe to be the truth.

The original intent is not a construct to undermine traditional interpretation. I think that it is self-evident that I as an author have an original intent in the words I write. And this may not have any connection to the way in which those words come to be interpreted over the centuries if those words were to be codified as scripture.

April DeConick said...

Dear Loren,

Your example is an excellent one of the type of application of post modern theory to biblical studies that I had in mind. This theoretical move ends up boxing the post modernists into a corner, I think, into a position bordering on the impossible. I think that post modern theory has some good aspects, but when its application in some cases is taken to its extreme logical end, it ends up not only impractical but unreasonable.

gdelassu said...

"only" is not everyone. It does not include the author, which is what I, as an historian, am very interested in.

I think that this is somewhat tendentious. Such an objection only obtains if the author's intent is actually knowable to others besides the author, which is the very point in contention.

Why do post modernists think they can recover the readers' and interpreters' meanings, when not the author's?

It is not clear to me that any post-modernists actually do think this.

Are they any more direct in their writing than the authors themselves?

Of course not. As soon as a reader sets down to write about what s/he has read, s/he ceases to be a reader and becomes an author, and all of the problems associated with discerning the author's intent, as such, obtain.

I have nothing against contemporary hermeneutics, but they do not erase the historical no matter how we try to get around it with post modern theory.

Indeed not. I certainly agree that post-modern theory is frequently abused as a means to excuse sloppy scholarship. Post-modernism does not mean that one can just airly dismiss scholarship which one finds ideologically inconvenient.

For all that, though, it is important to remember that "the historical" is a social construct, just like all other ideas; no historian is channelling Paul.

Phil S. said...

The question I have to ask here is whether you assign a priority to the 'original intent' of a text rather than its various readings. I ask that because, all too often, these movements to return to an 'original' meaning is simply code for a new set of readings. That is why I'm leery about suggesting that we can get back to authorial meaning when we don't have the author on hand to answer for themselves. It isn't that the 'original intent' of an author is unrecoverable, but it may not be germane the questions asked the reader. Further, the reader may not even know that and be led to assuming a authorial voice when it is their own that they are hearing. That, ultimately, is what I worry about.

Peace,
Phil

Deardorj said...

Sometimes we even hear them [ancient and contemporary Christians] complaining that the original letter or gospel had been revised by Christians other than themselves in the spirit of altering what these other Christians thought the original meaning should have been.

Surely this occurred frequently, especially during the formation of the canonical gospels. And of GThomas. Redaction criticism is a key tool used to try to get at the original words. I think most would assume that if you can get down to the author's original words, then you can probably understand the intent of the author who used those words.

Such analysis has been going on for a long time. Intent is all- important in redaction criticism.