Saturday, June 13, 2009

Some aspects of truth and text

Howard Pilgrim made this comment recently (on a post below) which is worth unpacking a bit, partly because he offers a challenge for 'conservative' exegesis:

"That's good, but I want to pick you up on this clause - "in the end, the creationist interpretation will constitute valid exegesis to the extent to which creation science is valid." The physical sciences can't determine valid exegesis. Imagine for instance that the creationists' dreams came true and geophysicists began to favour a really really short timespan for the earth's prehistory. Would this make it any more probable that the original meaning of Genesis 1 included an assertion about that prehistory? Surely meaning can only be determined by examining the text within its original literary context.

What I mean is this: if you and I disagree about whether a text asserts proposition X, then an investigation into whether X is in fact true is irrelevant to our argument. We can only be open to the true meaning of a text when we embrace the possibility that it may assert something false/unworthy/or irrelevant to our present concerns.

Question A = What is the text saying?
Question B = Is what it says true/important/worthy etc?

These are two distinct questions, and distinguishing them is the starting point for all literary criticism (Thank you John Barton!).

Or is this distinction invalid within biblical studies? If not within biblical studies per. se., then maybe within the hermeneutics of faith. I think this is a defining issue for conservatives, and needs to be explored at length."

Some brief comments:
(a) creationist interpretation of Genesis 1: this makes a particular claim, through exegesis, that creation occurred in recent history, within one week, and Adam and Eve are direct ancestors of all human beings. These claims, I am suggesting, are theoretically provable by science (however unlikely) and thus the validity of interpretation on this point could be validated by science. (Indeed creationists think it is validated by the science they have done). Creationist interpretation also makes other claims that Jews and Christians make such as 'creation is good' and 'God is the creator' which are not validated by science.

(b) does it matter, if a text asserts a proposition X, whether X is true or not? It may do. I am not sure that a prior position that it does not matter is helpful. More helpful would be taking each such text on a case by case basis. Jonah asserts that a man was swallowed by a fish and ejected alive after three days. Does it matter whether this actually happened or not? I understand many scholars to agree that it does not matter, there is important truth in Jonah whether it is a fable or history. Each gospel asserts that a man was crucified, buried and raised to life again after three days. Does it matter whether this actually happened or not? I recognise that many scholars do not think it matters; but quite a few, along with a large majority of non-scholarly Christians think it does matter!

I need to stop there for today.


  1. Thanks for elevating my previous comment to the prominence of a post, Peter. Nevertheless I think you are missing my central point, which is simply this - Meaning and Truth are two separate aspects of any text, and exegesis must focus on the former.I am not suggesting that truth is of no concern to us as biblical interpreters, simply that we must bracket it out while we determine meaning.

    Another example - Joshua 10:13 tells us, "And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,until the nation took vengeance on their enemies." To a modern reader, this seems to imply that the earth lost its rotational velocity for a while. H G Wells wrote a great short story "The Day the Earth Stood Still" making the point that such an event would have been a catastrophic geophysical catastrophe rather than a helpful sideline to an ancient Israeli battle. Someone might like to argue that it is actually possible, in the hope of supporting the veracity of the biblical text. My point is this however - whether or not it is possible to our modern minds, this does not help us to determine whether that is what the biblical writer actually meant to assert. It is the task of exegesis to clarify what the text meant to say, within the horizons of its original writer and readers. In this case I am fairly sure that their shared mental horizon did not include ideas of earth's rotational velocity: on the contrary they probably believed that the sun and moon were the moving bodies and that as they were in the heavenly realm it was no great matter for God to give them some time out, so to speak. Physical possibilities did not really enter into the matter. Consequently, the text reports an event that we now know cannot have happened, at least not as reported. The sun and moon cannot have actually ceased to move relative to the earth's surface, but the biblical writer did not know this to be impossible and asserted it anyway. Any clever conjecture of how the participants might have subjectively experienced it as happening cannot change the fact of what the writer asserts, or appears to assert. You just can't come along and say, "O no something else might have happened, so that must be what the text means."

    So drawing all this together now ...
    It is my perception that a cardinal principle of conservative (and often liberal!)interpretation is that every part of the biblical text should be read in such a way that it is saying something true and valuable- true and valuable from our point of view, that is. The text cannot be saying X, if we believe X is untrue/wrong/unworthy etc. We do not read other texts in this manner, but the holy scriptures are privileged.
    My point is that this de facto working principle merges the tasks of exegesis and interpretation, and undermines them both in so doing. Exegesis is rendered impotent if we predetermine the bounds of what the text might be saying, in itself, by our need to find its meaning acceptable. It is the separate task of interpretation, or hermeneutics per se, to consider how the text's meaning, with all its potentially alien features fully in view, can speak into our own situation - how it can be true for us while it may also be untrue in some other ways made apparent by faithful exegesis.

    All of which is why I reacted to your original statement about scientific validity having a bearing on valid exegesis. I know you as a very capable biblical exegete, and wondered "Does Peter really mean that?" So this has been an exercise in interlocutory exegesis of your text, motivated by my desire to interpret you as saying something with which I agree. Maybe biblical texts are not the only privileged ones ...

  2. Biblical texts are not the only privileged texts! When I read the newspaper it is an exercise in faith: that, fearing the wrath of the Press Council etc, the paper is telling me the truth. If I read something that seems not true I reread it wondering if I am wrong, or if it's one of those 'Truth is stranger than fiction' reports, or if it's April 1st. Occasionally newspapers are wrong in a big way; often in the minor details. If the newspaper is consistently untrue I stop subscribing to it; I suspect people stop reading the Bible when they think it untrue.

    I think the weakness in any absolutizing of the distinction between Truth and Meaning concerns texts of a historical kind. Your example of Joshua 10:13 actually supports this point! The text appears to mean what it says so our first reading is, 'This means that an absolutely astounding, unrepeated miracle took place which enabled Israel to win the battle.' Just as, when we read Luke 3:1-2 ('In the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius etc') we equate truth with meaning, with a first reading, 'This means that John the Baptist began his ministry in this year in history'.

    Of course, unlike with Luke 3:1-2, a very quick second reading of Joshua 10:13 takes place in our minds in the post-Galileo/Kepler era, 'This could not have happened; but something must have happened which led to the writer offering a picturesque way of saying that time stood still on that day.' Asking questions about the truth of this text assists with determining its meaning!

    Now I say this not to win an argument, but to develop in this discussion some nuances in the exploration of the relationship between Truth and Meaning.

    Agreed, by the way, that we often blur exegesis and interpretation.