Super-listener Chen Bu Lei posed some good questions and concerns about my Christian Humanist Profiles interview with Daniel Kirk about his recent book A Man Attested by God, and I realized as I read them on Facebook that he was digging into some questions bigger than a Facebook comment. So here I am.
As listeners likely know (I never tire of reciting my CV), I was part of the Biblical Studies guild for about three years, earning a Master of Arts in Religion with a speciality in Old Testament before I turned to the dark side and entered the English department, where I earned my Ph.D. Having some formal training in Biblical Studies, I’ve come to appreciate the questions that their guild raises when we talk about Jesus, theology, worship, and other such Bible-related realities. Having put fifteen years between myself and the seminary world (I graduated in 2002), I’ve come to be grateful that I no longer have to identify myself with this or that “camp” within Biblical studies, Biblical theology, or other sites of conflict. Instead, I can thank those who have led me to new questions without necessarily renouncing other folks who have led me to other new questions.
Within the seminary world, Biblical Studies usually proceeds as a specialized kind of historical and literary study, setting itself apart from academic theology (which does concern itself with the Bible in literary ways but engages the text differently) and church history (which tends to spend most of its time describing and situating acts of interpretation within larger narratives of religious development rather than agreeing or disagreeing with this or that reading). Some Biblical scholars do work that comes to resemble the work of academic theologians, but those who keep more to the methodologies of history and literary criticism sometimes look askance at such too-theological writers and wonder out loud (often digitally) whether they should go to another zone in the academic world and leave Biblical Studies alone. As with any complex academic guild, these generalizations invite accounts of exceptions, but right now broadest stream of academic Bible scholars do not think of themselves as doing theology in the same way that a theology professor does but performing related-but-not-identical work.
That distinction between theology and historical-critical Biblical criticism has persisted for more than a century now in most seminaries, so the recent theological bent of Bible scholars like Richard Hays and N.T. Wright has raised a mix of relief (among those who thought that Biblical Studies had become too much its own fiefdom) and concern (among those who thought that Biblical Studies did its best work as a critical-historical discipline, apart from confessional theology) in the guild. The oddity of such a development is that, in a real sense, scholars like Daniel Kirk are simultaneously progressive as they propose readings of texts that would not have been on the table 400 years ago and conservative as they protect habits of reading that have been the guild’s norm far longer than any current scholar has been alive.
When I talk about Biblical Studies with those who are not themselves part of the guild (remembering, of course, that I’m also not part of that guild any more), folks sometimes ask what good could come from abandoning traditional readings, whether they’re referring to readings that buck more recent tradition–like N.T. Wright’s or Richard Hays’s–or whether the tradition in question is the older, creedal tradition, as when we talk about John Dominic Crossan’s or Daniel Kirk’s. And as is my wont, I tend to turn to Dante.
Cangrande and the Plurality of Readings
I often turn to Dante’s letter to Big Dog (I like to translate his patron’s name rather than to reproduce the Italian Cangrande, perhaps because I’m a bit of a clown) when questions of literary and Biblical interpretation come up. In the early fourteenth century, Dante prepares his patron to read his own Commedia by illustrating the principle of polysemantic reading, the practice of discerning many senses in any given text:
7. For me be able to present what I am going to say, you must know that the sense of this work is not simple, rather it may be called polysemantic, that is, of many senses; the first sense is that which comes from the letter, the second is that of that which is signified by the letter. And the first is called the literal, the second allegorical or moral or anagogical. Which method of treatment, that it may be clearer, can be considered through these words: `When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people, Judea was made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion’ (Douay-Rheims, Ps. 113.1-2). If we look at it from the letter alone it means to us the exit of the Children of Israel from Egypt at the time of Moses; if from allegory, it means for us our redemption done by Christ; if from the moral sense, it means to us the conversion of the soul from the struggle and misery of sin to the status of grace; if from the anagogical, it means the leave taking of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory. And though these mystical senses are called by various names, in general all can be called allegorical, because they are different from the literal or the historical. Now, allegory comes from Greek alleon, which is Latin means `other’ or `different’.
The way I used to teach Dante, my focus was on these four particular modes of reading: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. But a bit of attention to Dante’s argument here led me to realize that this structure could be useful beyond the four kinds of reading that Dante proposes: if indeed allegory has to do with other readings, the point of polysemantic reading is not to produce exactly these four kinds of reading but to stand ready to entertain other possibilities, to allow for alternate readings as a structural good that extends beyond Dante’s own moment.
And that’s where I’m most glad to be an ex-seminarian and an ex-member of the Hebrew-Bible guild: where the seminary world has–to a great extent, even if not absolutely–absorbed the concerns of a scholarly-publication guild built on overcoming predecessors and punishing upstart challengers, your friendly neighborhood Dantean can enjoy historical-critical reading as a kind of allegorical reading, an “other” way to read that stands alongside “others” such as Richard Hays’s homiletical style of reading, the strongly philosophical/scholastic Calvinist tradition of Bible-reading, and the equally philosophical/Whiteheadian relational-theological tradition. When I read these interpreters, and when I have the good fortune of joining them for conversation while the Internet listens in (or at least the most literate corner of the Internet), I’m not putting on an act to avoid giving offense–I really do learn how to read the Bible from all four kinds of readers, and I appreciate the opportunity I have to go beyond cafeteria-style syncretism, picking what I like from each, and really to confront the strong and contradictory demands that these four approaches and others place on a reader. To navigate such contradictions, and to submit myself to the discipline of taking each seriously on its own terms, is one of the real joys of this Christian Humanist project. The Bible becomes more, not less of an authority when I let other readers, interpreters who differ wildly and even radically from my own practices, have a say in how I receive a given text.
But I shouldn’t lose sight of the historical-critical tree because I’m so busy rejoicing for the woods. And this is a blog post, not a sermon. So I should probably offer some sort of numbered list. Here goes.
Four Ways Historical-Critical Reading Enriches my Bible Reading
- In historical-critical reading, I gain a hypothetical conversation partner. I know full well that, as someone who confesses Trinity and the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus and the inspiration of the New Testament and other such things, I bring two millennia of hard theological work and the disputes therein whenever I pick up the Bible. Historical-critical reading helps me to imagine a first-century listener, someone who hears the gospel of Matthew for the first time, without the Council of Constantinople in the background. When I do so, with Daniel Kirk’s help (among others, of course, but I’ve talked with Daniel most recently), I can imagine a fellow-reader who’s steeped in images from Daniel and 1 Enoch and apocalyptic Rabbis, who hear stories of a “man attested by God” (I know that’s from Acts, but roll with it), appointed to rule the earth as God’s chosen one. That doesn’t mean that a seventeenth-century reading of the same text, which is going to focus strongly on the Trinitarian character of that same figure, has to be wrong or that Kirk has to be wrong in order for the Puritan reader to teach me to read. (This is where I have flexibility now that I didn’t necessarily have when I was in seminary-world.) Instead, the polysemantic text of Matthew invites me to read alongside Calvinists and first-century Jewish Messianists and whatever the heck Origen of Alexandria was and my process friends out on the west coast all at once. They contradict each other, to be sure, but the point is not to nullify contradictions but to enjoy and learn from the challenge that each presents, in turn. If I were condemned to be an atemporal being, I’d likely have to get rid of such tensions, but the gift I’ve been given is to live in time and thus to learn from Calvinists now, historical-critical readers later, and Radical Orthodox writers next week.
- Historical-critical reading focuses my attention on the literary integrity of any given text. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes that integrity might, as the guild receives a text, mean a history of redaction, compilation, textual variance, and all sorts of complexity. But paying attention to our best reconstructions of each text’s history keeps me from treating the Bible as a collection of fortune-cookie slips, a temptation that faces me when a particular phrase in a particular translation or a particular moment of ambiguity in the Hebrew lexicon might allow me to advance a very contemporary concern rather than allowing the books of the Bible to have their own concerns, even when they’re not mine. The Bible retains a critiquing role in this model beyond mere answers: if I have to let each book of the Bible have its own concerns, I have to face the real possibility that the Scriptures are even asking questions that don’t concern me and don’t concern themselves with some of mine. That critical distance is not comfortable, given that I want the Bible to come to my conversations, but at the very least it encourages some humility.
- When I read with the help of historical-critical scholarship, I share common ground with Muslims and Jews and agnostics and atheists who share texts with me but not theological convictions. When I teach the Bible, I make a point of noting that there are atheists in universities who know the text of the Bible better than lifelong Churchgoers. That’s not a point of condemnation; it’s simply a function of professional obligation. An atheist New Testament professor spends forty hours and more thinking about the New Testament, year after year, for a professional career. A Christian auto mechanic has cars to fix. It does mean, though, that Christians who work in that guild have occasion to live in a kind of community–related to but not identical with Church–with people who might witness a different way of living, one that cherishes unity with those who strongly disagree even as we insist on continuing to disagree because the truth is also important.
- Historical-critical scholarship gives me occasions to examine myself ethically. Do I favor a given reading because it offends people I already hold in contempt, or do I present certain claims in spite of the fact that they might strain my capacity to be intellectually fashionable? When I challenge traditions of interpretation (whether 17th-century traditions or 20th-century traditions), whose lives do I make better as a result, or do I mainly issue my challenges so that people do not associate me with “those people”? Do I really allow myself, day to day and encounter to encounter, the dangerous possibility of learning something different? These are the kinds of arise in this discipline, and although they’re not unique to academic Biblical Studies, they are nonetheless good points for self-examination.
So there you go: an essay both too windy by a thousand words and not thorough enough by any means. But here’s the main point: historical-critical criticism as a discipline has shaped me as a reader and a thinker, and I strongly advocate that my friends–and are you not my friend, O reader?–likewise learn from these teachers.