[Part One, Two]
Finally, to the extent that sound interpretation entails identifying convincingly illuminating contexts with relation to which to read the text, teachers should bear in mind that the range of possibly-plausible includes so many alternatives that a student’s mind may reel at the prospect. Scholars typically concentrate on a select range of interpretive contexts, within which they have an acutely-trained sense of which proposals make sense. Even beyond their range of specialization, they have the transferred capacity to recognize likelier and less likely gestures — though it’s not that surprising to observe a specialist on the Dead Sea sect (for instance) faltering when dealing with Roman civil religion (or vice versa). Begin with the interpretive contexts based on the histories of Judea/Samaria/Galilee and their inhabitants, the histories of neighboring nations, the literary forms prevalent in the first century (or earlier, for Old Testament interpretation), distinctively Judaic culture (in both Judean and Diasporic flavors), gentile Hellenistic cultures, Roman culture, Mediterranean peasant culture, the dynamics of acquiescence and resistance in imperial /colonial relations, gender relations, the history of Judaism, the rise of rabbinic Judaism as the normative expression of Judaic faith, the history of Christianity, the various theological trajectories toward dominant orthodox Christian belief and toward various divergent expressions of Christianity, the politics of personal identity, the economic infrastructure on which social life rests — and any beginning student should feel justified at a case of vertigo.
Some of the judgments on the “appropriate” context(s) to introduce to textual interpretation rest on generally-shared scholarly assessment, but some involve ideological considerations as well. A beginning interpreter may invoke particular interpretive contexts apparently at random, or may endeavor to mimic the informed judgments and prejudices of the teacher, without appreciating the extent to which these judgments (and prejudices) rest on arguments, experiences, histories, institutional circumstances, and so on. A student who makes interpretive gestures without understanding their contexts may, with persistence, develop the capacity to recognize a fuller picture of these contexts — but such a student may also feel frustration and despair when a given paper’s interpretive approach receives sternly critical disapprobation from the teacher without careful explanation of why that interpretive repertoire doesn’t fit the interpretive circumstances.
By this point, the grounds for confusion and ambiguity in biblical interpretation should be obvious, if not entirely overwhelming. Those who have navigated the daunting hidden shoals and entered the calmer harbor waters of biblical interpretation can help their baffled, vexed colleagues by marking as much of the complexity as possible, explaining whence it arises, and showing ways around the most dangerous reefs. The very common alternative, however, of asserting that recognized scholarship simply approaches texts in an obvious, naturally appropriate, uniquely legitimate way — without attending to the grounds for confusion and error — ill serves eager learners. In order to encourage biblical interpreters to grasp the idioms and conventions of biblical scholarship and deploy the admirable results of millennia of close scrutiny, teachers of exegesis should never minimize the peculiarity of our practice.
[Next time I plan to talk about the problems attendant on the prominence of language in our interpretive practice. That may seem paradoxically obvious — “Duh, we’re working on verbal texts!” — but the very obviousness of language in our work tends to obscure a cornucopia of dimensions of exegesis that stymie beginning exegetes.]