The Priority of Theological Interpretation in NT Studies

In part three of his 1994 book Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship,[a] Ben F. Meyer addresses the issue of the theological interpretation of the NT.

Considering the variety of approaches and focuses in NT studies in general, and the legitimate reasons individual scholars have for pursuing these, Meyer writes:

Still, it is somewhat incumbent on the community of New Testament scholars to make sure that interpretation, as the primary and main task of New Testament studies, is successfully cultivated. The scholarly community, while fully open to literary, historical, social-scientific, and other modes of analysis, should not be taken in by the proposal that such analyses replace interpretation, that they be accepted as functional surrogates of interpretation; or that ideological analyses (Marxist, Freudian, Nietzschean, etc.) be accorded the dogmatic status that ideologues (Marxist, Freudian, Nietzschean, etc.) regularly claim for them.” (148)

Interpretation and analysis should not be treated as “on par.” (149) This is so for at least two reasons:

“texts have a prima facie claim on the reader, namely, to be interpreted in accord with their intended sense. This is not an exclusivist claim, but it is a claim to priority. In principle, interpretation is prior to analysis, which serves or supposes it. Religious literature calls for interpretation alert to religious meanings and values.” (149)

Firstly, if we are to apply models of analysis or ask questions beyond the horizons of the NT texts, we first gain a good grasp of the sense of those texts.[b] Secondly, interpretation worth its salt, which intends to be objective on the score of interpreting the NT writings, must attend to and not neglect their theology, for they are inherently theological in nature and purpose. NT Interpretation, then, is always in this sense theological interpretation, and such interpretation must be prioritized over analysis in the field of NT studies.

While Meyer writes in relation to NT studies, the same could be said for the entire field of biblical studies. When scholarship becomes captivated by concerns beyond the horizons of the Scriptures themselves, it is hard to image Christian leaders looking to the academy to resource their churches engagement with Scripture. Some would argue that Biblical Scholarship should not exist to serve the Church or God for that matter. But I disagree, and thankfully receive whatever resources are produced to this end or otherwise.

[a] Ben F. Meyer, Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship: A Primer in Critical Realist HermeneuticsCollegeville; Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1994.

[b] This is not to say that such approaches do not themselves in turn inform or add to interpretation in Meyer’s sense. But that, not being methods of getting at a texts intended sense themselves, rely upon the prior work of exegesis to clarify their object of inquiry.

Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism part 3 – From theory to practice

The second chapter (“Two Experiments”) illustrates the reality of polyvalence and the influence of social location, reading strategy, empathy, and conceptions of meaning, by way of two experiments which Powell carried out.

For each experiment 100 participants were chosen, 50 clergy and 50 laity (one of each from each church), each were presented with a passage of scripture to read, reflect on briefly, and then answer the question provided. Participants were chosen so that “the distinguishing characteristic would be lay/clergy status.” (29) While the experiments did not prove anything, the results were very suggestive.

For the first experiment, the passage was Mark 7:1-8 and the question was “What does this story mean to you?” For the second, the passage was Luke 3:3-17 and the question was “What does this story mean?”

Powell provides the complete lists of responses for each, as well as detailed analysis and an exploration of possible reasons for the differences observed. Here I will only note a few of the many interesting observations.

Firstly, a vast number of different responses and interpretations were offered. Plurality was observed not only between clergy and laity responses but was very much the case within these groups. I found the number of different interpretation of the stories staggering.

Empathy: In the responses of the first experiment, “Most of the clergy responses indicate empathy with the character of Jesus, while most of the lay responses indicate reader empathy either with Jesus’ disciples or with his audience (the scribes and Pharisees).” (38) Among the clergy not a single participant empathized or identified with the disciples, and among the laity, not a single participant empathized or identified with Jesus.

Reading Strategy: In the responses of the second experiment, the change of question caused a change in the type of response given by the majority of clergy but not from the laity. Whether they were asked to respond with what the story meant to them or what the story simply meant, the laity consistently responded with self-reference. They consistently employed a reader-oriented hermeneutic, where the majority of the clergy employed an author-oriented hermeneutic if they thought it was called for. (53)

“The two words to you made a significant difference for clergy in determining how they responded to the story, but no for laity. The laity demonstrated a tendency to read stories as applicable to themselves with or without prompting; clergy demonstrated an ability to read stories as applicable to themselves when prompted to do so, but they often did not do this unless prompted.” (51-52)

Powell also categorizes the clergy responses in terms of those which understood the question in historical, redactional, and existential senses (52-53). All worth looking at (so get the book!).

Conceptions of meaning: Powell also notes how the laity communicated how the text effected them with a far greater frequency than the clergy. The clergy responses were far more cognitive in both experiments (54-55).

Powell concludes with some implications for preaching (55-56), but you will have to pick up a copy of the book to get the benefit of those.

Now for some comments. I would loved to have seen a third experiment in which, the laity at least, were given another story from a gospel and asked ‘what did this story mean to the author?’ I would be interested to see if some sort of self-reference and application persisted in their responses. It would also have been good to repeat the experiments with some non-narrative texts to see if these would a generate a lesser-degree of plurality in responses. Perhaps we will come accross such experiments in the upcoming chapters.

One conclusion that Powell draws from these findings is that the author-oriented hermeneutic may be the “less natural” of the two, and that it must be “taught and developed.” (56) I don’t think he is on the money with this one. I think that the reader-oriented hermeneutic has to be learnt as well, it does not come naturally, and its prevalence among the laity is due to a number of factors including the influence of popular Christian literature. I may be missing the point, but I can’t imagine how it would be natural to read an ancient letter (which was addressed to someone else and addresses the specifics of others lives) or descriptive narration of ancient history such as we find in the gospels, as speaking directly to oneself. [1] Such a reading strategy is certainly due to the presence of the document in the Bible and certain conceptions of the nature of the Bible and how God speaks to us through/in/by it. The first part of Christian Smith’s recent book The Bible Made Impossible is somewhat helpful here.

[1] The NT letters and the Gospels are more than ancient letters and historical narratives, but the fact that they are these makes the point.

Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism part 2 – Polyvalence

The first part of the book is entitled “Meaning” and is made up of three chapters, the first of these is “Polyvalence” in which Powell discusses the theory underpinning Reader-response criticism.

He offers the following definition of polyvalence: “In literary theory Polyvalence refers to the multiplicity of potential meanings that seems to be present in any communication event.” In other words, what history and daily experience teach us is that texts (of all kinds) “can mean different things to different people. They can even mean different things to the same person when they are read or experienced under diverse circumstances.” (17) It is a simple fact that people respond differently to movies, stories, jokes, songs, etc. Who is reading, when, where, and why, make all the difference.

He takes up Wolfgang Iser’s theory [1] that all stories have “gaps” that readers fill in the act of reading; imaginatively filling in un-narrated details, seeking clarity from what is left ambiguous, making connections not explicit in the narrative. (16) According to Powell “Polyvalent interpretations result from readers filling gaps in divergent ways.” (17) He then discusses “four factors that influence how readers fill gaps.” (17)

Social Location – One’s social location is constituted by such factors as age, gender, career, social class, income, education, personality, health, the list can go on and on. In other words, what makes you you, the particulars that influence our perceptions and experiences.

Reading Strategy – Powell describes reading strategy through a few examples, but to keep this post short I will note only the last. He gives the example of a women who each morning reads a passage of Scripture “expecting God to speak to her.” (19, the passage, Isaiah 55:1, is the first illustration so far employing a non-narrative text) The result is that she discerns that God wants her to carry out a very specific act that is only very loosely connected to the text. He contrasts this with his typical reading strategy which pays close attention to the literary and historical contexts of the text, with her reading which “looks for direct existential engagement.” (19)

Choice of Empathy – Readers typically “identify” with certain characters in a story and their “experience” of the narrative is determined by this. This usually occurs without thought or deliberation, influenced by such factors as social location and reading strategy. While this can result in the reader elevating minor points or even missing “what the author would have regarded as the “main point” of the tale,” for Powell this “does not constitute misinterpretation” because “readers are not constrained by authorial intent.” (22)

Conceptions of Meaning – Powell outlines and contrasts two conceptions of meaning:(23)

Meaning as message. The meaning of a text may be described in essentially cognitive terms. Understanding the meaning of a text entails identification of the point or points that are being made therein.

Meaning as effect. The meaning of a text may be described in emotive or affective terms. Understanding the meaning of a text involves recognition of its impact on those who receive it.

The former tends to be author oriented and the latter reader oriented. These are not mutually exclusive conceptions, but at least in terms of narratives, the former does not do justice to the genre. The parables of Jesus, for example, cannot be reduced to a message because it is in their form as a story that they function to impact the reader. “The narrative form of a story—it’s characters, plot, settings, and rhetoric—are as integral to its meaning as any message(s) its author may hope it conveys.” (27) The field of biblical studies has privileged meaning as message, Reader-response criticism “advocates” for meaning as effect.

Powell concludes the chapter by stressing the importance of this last factor for interpretation:

“The mere fact that people define meaning differently opens the door to polyvalence. And if meaning can (I would say should) sometimes be defined in terms of effect, that open door is thrown wide. Authors might intend to convey more than one point in a text, but there are limits to how many points can reasonably be attributed to such intention. Reader-oriented meaning-as-effect assumes a potentially unlimited range of meaning. Every individual reader may be effected differently.” (27)

Now for some comments. While Powell states that polyvalence occurs with all forms of communication, all but one of his examples/illustrations so far have been narratives, typically films. Something else needs to be said regarding different genres where Iser’s theory of “gaps” is not so fitting. I can easily see how social location, reading strategy, and conceptions of meaning would contribute to a plurality of interpretations of NT letters (or any writing actually), but not in terms of gap filling.

In terms of the one non-narrative example so far, Powell refers to the woman’s engagement with Isaiah 55:1 and the guidance she received as an interpretation of the passage. But I do not think this is an appropriate label, and am not sure that she would use the langauge of interpretation to describe what she was doing either.  But then perhaps this is because of my own understanding of what “interpretation” should signify. Powell’s use seems to be more inclusive of various reading strategies. The reason I note this is that diverse reading strategies come with diverse objectives/goals/aims which I would argue requires us to clearly place them in separate categories in order to avoid ambiguities which otherwise allow for overly general claims to be made, about polyvalence for example, that would otherwise clearly be untenable. [2] This brings me back to the previous comment on the application of Powell theory to non-narrative texts.

Finally, in regards to the two conceptions of meaning (meaning as message and meaning as effect), which of these  conceptions belongs to Powell’s definition of polyvalence as “the multiplicity of potential meanings that seems to be present in any communication event.” Are we talking about a multiplicity of messages or effects? I think that Powell would put the accent on the latter (while not excluding the former), [3] and that we need to recognize this when seeking to assess the theory.

[1] On Iser’s theory see Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zoncervan, 1992), 515-524

[2] Similar reservations could be made in regards to his use of meaning. However, Powell is being somewhat descriptive in his use of the term (especially in regards to the two conceptions), a term which is used to mean many different (though related) things. Powell is very inclusive in his use of this term to, and in the next two chapters will explore through two experiments that he carried out, how various conceptions of meaning (as well as the other factors that influence gap filling) work themeselves out in practice.

[3] His reference to communication as an “event” firmly includes the reader, whereas refering to communication as an act might cut off the reader by considering communication complete with the author’s production of a text.


Diversity and Contradiction in the OT

Some quarters of biblical scholarship have exaggerated supposed contradiction and diversity within the Old Testament, others have denied it altogether. But there is a certain amount of it there. Genuine contradictions do occur, still, much of the diversity does not amount to mutual opposition. Given the emphasis placed upon diversity and contradiction in recent scholarship, John Goldingay provides a helpful and revealing analysis of the “degrees of diversity and forms of contradiction” in the Old Testament. Here is the four-fold typology here uses for his analysis:[1]

  • Formal Contradiction – “Formal contradiction involves a difference at the level of words which is not a difference at the level of substance.” (16)
  • Contextual Contradiction – “Contextual contradiction denotes a difference reflecting the variety in circumstances which different statements address.” (19)
  • Substantial Contradiction – “Substantial contradiction involves a true divergence in viewpoint on the part of the speakers whose disagreement is neither merely verbal nor merely contextual.” (21)
  • Fundamental Contradiction – “Fundamental contradiction denotes a disagreement which is a matter of substance and which indicates a basic disharmony at the level of “ethical stance” or “religious outlook”.” (24)

Much of the evidence for contradiction marshalled by scholars falls in the first two categories.

[1] Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 15-25

Köstenberger on “oimai” in John 21:25 and the Authorship and Integrity of the Gospel


24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:24-25 NRSV)

Andreas J. Köstenberger, ‘‘I Suppose’ (oimai): The Conclusion of John’s Gospel in Its Literary and Historical Context,’ in Williams, P.J., Andre D. Clarke, Peter M. Head, David Instone-Brwer (eds.), The New Testament in its First Century Setting: Essays on Context and Background in Honour of B. W. Winter on His 65th Birthday (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004): 72-88.

In this article Köstenberger takes a fresh look at the term oimai (‘I suppose’; John 21:25) in the context of debate over the authorship of the gospel; specifically, how the term oimai needs to be given due weight in the debate concerning the status of vv.24-25 as an original part of the gospel or a later addition(s) by a different author(s). After briefly surveying the various interpretations of the first person plural in v24 (“we know”) and first person singular in v25 (“I suppose”) as they pertain to judgements on authorship, Köstenberger turns to extrabiblical usage of the term. He offers a sample of instances from Greek literature from the first centuries BC and AD (Diodorus of Sicily; Dionysius of Halicarnassus; Josephus; Plutarch)[1], and summarises his findings as follows (87):

the term oimai is a literary term frequently used by historians reflecting authorial modesty in stating a claim or opinion. It is commonly part of authorial discourse, not infrequently at the beginning or conclusion of a literary unit or at points of transition. In its extrabiblical instances the term regularly forms an inextricable part of the author’s argument that cannot be easily separated from the larger context by source or redaction-critical means.

Köstenberger interprets John 21:25 in line with these as an instance of ‘authorial modesty’ which constitutes ‘an integral part of the authorial message.’ (87) It is on the basis of a lack of precedent in his survey of an instance where a later editor/group of editors use the term to authenticate ‘the message of an original author or witness,’ that he concludes that its presence in John 21:25 ‘would render redaction-critical proposals unlikely’ (87).

This line of reasoning may fault on the grounds that it disallows innovation. However, I do think that the first person singular oimai (“I suppose”) needs to be given due weight and not interpreted against its grain (and without known historical precedent) to bring it into line with hypotheses of later aditions and communal authorship/redaction.  

Köstenberger also mentions an article by H. M. Jackson[2] in which he argues that the third person singular (“this is the disciple”) and first person plural (“we know”) in v.24 reflect the ancient conventions of self-reference, and therefore can no longer be seen as compelling grounds indicating a change of authorship in 21:24-25 (73-4).

[1] Köstenberger’s survey was limited to occurrences of the present-tense first person singular where it is followed by an accusative and infinitive, as in John 21:25.

[2] Köstenberger both states that he is building upon Jackson’s findings even while his proposal stands apart from it. H. M. Jackson, ‘Ancient Self-referential Conventions and Their Implications for the Authorship and Integrity of the Gospel of John,’ JTS 50 (1999): 1-34.

*In the title and body of the article oimai is in greek characters. Unfortunately I do not know how to display greek fonts in WordPress, but if anyone does please let me know how*

Hermeneutics of authenticity, further throughts

In Rafael’s recent post on the hermeneutics of authenticity, he writes of how the application of the criteria of authenticity to sayings of Jesus in the gospels is dependent upon the given saying already receiving an interpretation:

…when NT scholars judge a particular logion an authentic saying of Jesus (or, more typically, when they reject a saying as inauthentic), they do so on the basis of a particular interpretation of the saying in question.

That is to say, uninterpreted material cannot be judged for authenticity because how can we judge the plausibility/probability of Jesus really having said a particular saying if we have not understood it? This is almost self-evident, and Rafael expresses his disapointment that certain historical Jesus scholars “continue to ignore the hermeneutical assumptions underlying their employment of the criteria.”

In considering this point I wondered whether there is yet another level of complexity in this equation: If (1) sayings of Jesus need to be placed within the context of Jesus ministry as a whole (=actions, sayings, aims, intentions, contexts, etc.) in order to be rightly interpreted, and (2) the purpose of the criteria is to establish historically reliable (to some degree) parts of the tradition in order to employ in constructing the whole, then the application of the criteria already presupposes the historical reliability of a larger swath of the traditions on the basis of which an understanding of Jesus ministry as a whole has been (at least provisionally) established, and as part of which the saying in question has been interpreted. If this is the case, then at this point in my thinking the application of the criteria to a saying (in as much as it depends upon an interpretation of this saying informed by a larger interpretation of Jesus ministry) has not fallen to circularity but to incoherence.

I hope that this is clear enough. I suspect that this equation may appear to have a stronger sting in the abstract than it does when we actually engage the gospel material, but I wonder. Many sayings are clear enough without requiring the interpretive framework provided by an interpretation of Jesus ministry as a whole, and so here the application of the criteria would avoid this incoherence. Thoughts please…

The Story of the Saints in Colossae

Paul writes of their prior life of estrangement and hostility to God manifested in evil deeds (1.21; 3.7). They were dead in their trespasses, unable to partake in the blessings of the covenant with Israel (uncircumcision of their flesh) (2.13), but having received the gospel through Epaphras (1.5), God raised them to life, reconciling them to himself (1.21), forgiving their sins through Christ’s death (2.12-14; 1.14). God has enabled them to share in the inheritance of his people (1.12), which is now the share of all in Christ, where ethnicity and rank/class is no longer of significance (3.11). They have become part of this new worldwide family (1.6; 2.2; 3.15) that belong to the kingdom of God’s Son, who is supreme over all powers (1.16-17; 2.10), having rescued them from the kingdom of darkness (1.14). This new life means that they have stripped off the old self with its earthly dispositions and practices and have been clothed with the new which is being renewed in the image of their creator, seen in Christ (3.9-10). All of this so that one day they may be presented as holy and mature in Christ (1.21, 28). In keeping with this he writes of their present faith, hope, and love (1.4) and of there moral and firmness of faith in Christ (2.5) which is the fruit the gospel has been bearing among them ever since they truly comprehended Gods grace in Christ (1.6). While their life is presently hidden with Christ in God, when Jesus is revealed so will they be in glory, this is their hope and future to which they now look forward (3.4; 1.5, 27).