Exegesis and Language

[Previously on this topic: One, Two, Three.]
Many of the confusions that arise in exegetical inquiry come from the extrinsic factors we’ve been discussing: the ambiguous technical terms, the unstated expectations, the literary genres in which students write, and the multifarious contexts that pertain to interpretive reflection. At the same time, a great deal of the complexity in learning exegesis arises from the fact that we’re working with language. Language sometimes seems so simple that readers pursue their interpretations of the Bible with vigorous reliance on plain common sense. At other times, even casual readers detect intricacies that defy convenient resolution. Moreover, different readers will identify different texts as “transparent” or “opaque”; the text itself provides no marker that indicates “The following bits will be hard to figure out,” or “This last part should have been immediately intelligible to you.” The unpredictably intermittent clarity or murkiness of linguistic expression makes exegesis that much more complicated.
The interpretation of linguistic texts poses even greater challenges to readers whose fluency in a language, even their own native language, may not include the capacity for rigorous critical reflection on the syntax and semantics of the text in question. Many students, for instance, have difficulty learning additional languages because they have not learned the internal mechanics of their own language, and that difficulty may be amplified for students who know a non-standard dialect of their indigenous language better than they know the standard version. Few people write particularly well, and most resist refining the deeply-ingrained compositional habits they acquired as early as grade school. If students do not communicate with critical fluency in their native language, they will probably write that much less clearly and comprehend the texts they read less satisfactorily. Thus, language in itself entails one of the problematic dimensions of exegesis.
The problem of language intensifies, however, as we consider the role of multiple languages in exegesis. Students reading and writing exclusively in one language nonetheless rely on translations and multilingual scholarship produced by others. The monolingual interpreter then faces the enigma of how to adopt one particular translation (or to weigh various translations) without even minimal fluency in the source language. Monolingual interpreters may rely on trusted scholarly authorities, but when scholarly authorities disagree, the monolingual interpreter must take a guess as to which figure to rely on. Yet not all scholarly authorities attain the same degree of fluency in any given language, and the Hebraist of superb refinement may read Greek inexpertly; or, more commonly, qualified working scholars may simply read other languages with competence, but without subtlety or grace (and “subtlety” and “grace” are notoriously difficult to teach or to pin down in evaluation). The monolingual reader must cope with problems of interpretation and expression in one language, while also allowing for even greater problems of interpretation and expression in unknown languages.
The importance of translation for biblical interpretation engenders one further fillip of complication. Translators generally work under the obligation of producing a representation in a target language of what they take the source text to express — fair enough. But In many cases, the source text involves ambiguities, allusions, and connotations that cannot be represented equally in any one translated phrase. The greater problem, though, is not the deficiency of any single translation; the greater problem is the latent proclivity to treat translation as a normative activity for interpreters of the Bible, such that the lurking obligation of arriving at one correct definitive translation shapes the work, the deliberation, and rhetoric of biblical interpreters. Since a translation must, in the end, adopt one representation of each expressive unit; and since the tradition of biblical interpretation has emphatically promoted the Bible’s availability in translation (as opposed, for instance, to the Qu’ranic tradition); and since theological argumentation typically puts a very high value on biblical warrants; hence, the interpretive activity of translating has held center stage for biblical scholars, the disciplinary discourse of biblical scholarship gravitates toward a univocity that fits the requirements of translation and polemics.
Scholars may argue about extent to which textual “meaning” is determinate and univocal — I doubt both characterizations — but regardless of the philosophical status of textual univocity, that axiom not only fuels academic and ecclesiastical controversy, but also underwrites badly-written, dizzyingly-profitable best-selling novels. Moreover, in so doing, it perpetuates a disabling misconception about communication and the Bible: the idea that texts encode a concealed meaning that only the right interpreters can unveil. On one hand, this sensibility produces The Bible Code and The da Vinci Code; on the other, the Left Behind potboilers. All of these rest on the premise that a non-obvious meaning lurks behind the familiar surface of the Bible that unenlightened readers have been interpreting for centuries. Several possible objections should come to mind right away: first, if this is the real, true meaning of the Bible, why did no one identify it before the late nineteenth century? What of all those brilliant-but-presumably-hapless scholars who actually read the Bible fluently in its original languages? However one explains away those queries, though, the more disquieting aspect of the “coded Bible” axiom lies in the extent to which it mirrors the figure of the academic discipline of biblical studies, which frequently represents itself as a revelatory discourse of truth that banishes the misconceptions prevalent among untrained interpreters (especially ecclesiastical interpreters). The epithet “pre-critical” that historians of interpretation used to deploy without hesitation betrays the condescension with which modern scholars have treated their predecessors in the field. As long as contemporary critics insist on the axiom that the Bible encodes a “real meaning” that only the true experts can decrypt, they play into the hands of opponents who contest the qualifications for “true scholarship” rather than contributing to a richer discussion of what makes for sounder biblical interpretations.
A second pitfall that besets efforts to identify the “real meaning” of texts — particularly of the Bible — involves the red herring of “literalism.” Someday somebody will trace out the labyrinthine rhetoric relative to “literal” meaning, but at a very simple level one may note that neither those who espouse a virtuous “literal” interpretation of Scripture (as opposed to a misleading, evasive, fanciful “figurative” meaning) must rely on extrinsic contextual clues to explain which texts really should be read figuratively (for instance, when Jesus says “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” he doesn’t literally mean that he’s thinking of some particular fellow who actually made such a business trip); and those who repudiate an ignorant “literalism” lack a consistent rationale for distinguishing texts that should be taken literally from texts that shouldn’t. While the literal/figurative opposition doesn’t correlate with claims about “real meaning,” the two sets of hermeneutical claims intertwine and, by promoting the limited us-vs.-them binary alternatives, reinforce the latent axiom that some encoded real meaning awaits revelation by the appropriate privileged expert. [This paragraph has gone somewhere I don’t want it to; I’ll revise later, but now I want to wrap up for the day.]
In order to help interpreters to practice sound, well-informed exegesis, teachers must attend to the ways that language itself, and their students’ relation to language, and their assumptions about language, all make exegesis more difficult. Teachers should watch out for the effects of monolingualism on their students, should encourage students to a more critical relation to their own most comfortable modes of linguistic expression, and should exemplify both appropriate humility about their mastery of various languages and their appreciation of the tremendous value of learning more Hebrew and Greek (and for practically everyone, there is always more to learn). At the same time, teachers should steer clear of suggesting that knowledge of the original biblical languages affords students with a supernatural anointing that licenses them to know and preach “what this or that really means.” If teachers opt to uphold some model that posits an encrypted meaning subsisting in the text, they should extend themselves to display (to the extent possible) how one can distinguish well-founded practices of decryption from impoverished, misleading interpretive decryption.
[Whew, OK. I’ll probably revisit and emend the paragraph I marked above. When I tackle the next bite of “what makes exegesis so hard,” I’ll move ahead to problems attendant on the conduct of research. For now, I have other obligations to which I have to turn.]

5 thoughts on “Exegesis and Language

  1. Yes!!! Thanks.

    Probably what knowledge of the original biblical languages allows students (and scholars) is to be pretty sure about what this or that can’t possibly mean. 🙂

  2. “Many students, for instance, have difficulty learning additional languages because they have not learned the internal mechanics of their own language…”

    This could just as easily be reversed: many people would gain considerable knowledge of their own languages by means of the study of foreign languages.

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