Where Many Paths Are Crossing: A Reflection on “An Elephant in the Room: Historical-Critical and Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible” Part 2

If you have not read Part 1 of this series, please refer to my post on July 11, 2009 entitled,

Where Many Paths Are Crossing: A Reflection on “An Elephant in the Room: Historical-Critical and Postmodern Interpretations of the Bible” by George Aichele, Peter Miscall, and Richard Walsh in JBL, vol. 128, no. 2.

I will pick up here where I left off – discussing the five areas in which the authors call for a discussion between historical critics and postmodern critics: 1) Physical Aspects of the Text, 2) Intertextuality, 3) Ideology and Translation, 4) the Author and Her or His Intentions, and 5) the Semiotics (Signs) of Canon.

In regard to physical aspects of the text, the authors call for discussion surrounding (what I call) both the physical content and the physical vehicle of the text. The physical content of the text is the written text itself. The physical vehicle is the instrument through which the text has been recorded (e.g., scroll vs. codex, printing and the movement toward digitization, etc). Regarding the written text, the authors note that similarities, differences and nomina sacra are all of interest to both historical critics and postmodern critics; however, while the historical critic  interprets these features in such a way that helps him or her repair or recover the original text, the postmodern critic focuses on the “textual disruption of meaning,” questioning the unity of the text, and causes one to hesitate with regard to the romantic idea of an original text. In regard to the physical vehicle(s) of the text, I am not entirely sure what the authors hope to accomplish by discussion of these things (probably due to my own lack of knowledge). Thoughts? What significance does the use of the scroll versus the use of the codex, the printing of the handwritten text and the present digitization of the text bring to the discussion between historical and postmodern critics? Also, is the historical critic’s quest for an original text legit? Is the postmodernist’s lack of concern (not necessarily denial) for an original text qualified? Does the postmodern focus on the disruption and disunity of the text need to be reconciled with/to the historical approach or does it serve the historical critic by causing careful and honest criticism?

Regarding intertextuality, both historical critics and postmodernists agree that earlier inner-biblical and extra-biblical texts have historical influence on later biblical texts [e.g., the influence of Genesis 15 and 17 on Romans 4, the influence of hymnic material in Philippians 2, and the influence of 1 Enoch (whether oral or written) on Jude 14-16]. However, the authors state that the postmodernist is more interested in the relationships “that readers (not writers) establish between texts (of whatever chronological order).” So, while historical influence is accepted, the postmodernist concerns himself or herself with how the readers interpreted the relationship of the two texts. One clarifying question might be what are the basic differences between how a writer views relations between texts compared to how a reader views relations between texts. The writers also mention,

The reader always understands the text as embedded in a world of texts through its use of language and literary form.

Therefore, does this mean that in addition to the emphasis historical critics place on historical influences of earlier texts on later texts, the postmodernist understands the language and literary form of a referenced text to influence the language and literary form of the text? If so, is this observable in the New Testament? What is a quality example?

Let’s stop here, and wrestle with these issues. In the next few days, I’ll continue examining the remaining three areas of discussion proposed by the authors of “An Elephant in the Room.”

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