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As many of you know, I’m a bit of a biblical amateur scholar. A very little bit of one I admit, but I read and study for pleasure and because I think it matters. My church is convinced that such study is important enough to the community at large that it fosters education through a generous scholarship program.

I’ve just finished a book about varying methodologies of doing hermeneutics–or interpreting the bible. It has been a refresher in many respects and provided me new insights as well. I thought a couple were worthy of discussion here.

As you may know, fundamentalism is but a form of biblical interpretation, one not recommended by scholars–its limitations and erroneous conclusions are very well known. But the fact of the matter is, that all methodologies have limitations and are based on assumptions that are not always provable, though they are assumed to be true.

For instance, it is widely believed that one point of doing interpretation is to discover as best one can the intent of the author. This presumes “an” author is locatable, and it presumes that such an intent can be discerned. Many would argue that this is speculation at best. Others believe that it is “intent” with which a writing is understood by the reader that is important. Some say this too is unknowable in any real sense.

The fundamentalist orientation comes in more than one flavor. There are those who believe that God literally “dictated” word for word the entire document. This would be fine, but admittedly if true, God is about a C+ at best as writer and historian. He continually contradicts, says the same thing over and over with changes that are contradictory. But if you need this kind of bible, there are plenty of folks who will assure you that you can read and understand the bible as long as you have basic intelligence.

A more likely fundamentalist interpretation suggests that the writers of the various books were allowed to use the idioms and examples of their own time and place, but the ideas of what to say were placed in their minds by God. It’s still the exact word of God, since nothing is there that God doesn’t want there. One wonders of course why God wants it to be so contradictory and obtuse, but again, we don’t adhere to such a theory of reading the text.

Most scholars attempt, through a growing arsenal of tools, to discern the “true” meaning of the text. This involves many other disciplines often. It  takes it cue from literary criticism, and is based on the notion that the texts of the bible documents are no different than other literature and should be approached in the same way we would approach Plato’s Dialogues. But scholars have recourse to archaeology, linguistics, literary criticism as was stated, anthropology, history, and probably a lot more. Every scholar, to be called such, can read and translate Hebrew and Koine Greek, and sometimes Aramaic for themselves.

What is attempted is to discern what the original words mean, or meant as written or understood. When I say original, I do not mean that we have any original text, for we do not, we have copies of copies of copies. We have thousands of manuscripts now, and they of course do not all agree. Some are given more weight as being more “accurate” than others, but in truth, we have no way of really knowing the exact writing in its origin.

Moreover, as we know, many books were not written by one person. The Torah, or Pentateuch is an example. At least four hands were involved, and there was no real writer at all. The Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly and Deuteronomic “writers” were traditions rather than individuals. They were “collectors” or redactors of information that then existed, which was compiled, commented upon, organized together and then “glued” together in many cases by the theological beliefs of the “collector.”

As one traverses the books of Genesis and Exodus one finds that there are multiple “attestations” of the same event, by different “sources”. The Priestly tradition, for instance was the one who gave pretty much final form to the information found in Genesis and Exodus. This tradition came to the fore after the exile as Jerusalem was returning as the seat of Israelite power. The Priestly writers are “organizers” of cultic practices, they are developing the scattered “history” of the people. They have a definite point of view and it’s expressed as the glue around the Yahwist and Eloist traditions, considered the “old” traditions.

After some practice, it is reasonably easy for even the lay person to discern the change in gears from the Yahwist (J) writings to the Eloist (E). The Priestly (P) is overly concerned with detail and dates, so when you see that you can be looking for his hand in things. Each tradition is writing for a very different audience, and their emphasis is different. To some extent the traditions are defined by their location, as northern or southern tribes. It’s all complicated, but when you begin to sort it out, you gain such valuable understanding of how these people viewed God in their lives.

All biblical exegesis looks toward trying to understand the meaning attributed to the words used. This will always be in some degree in disagreement. Not all disciplines of criticism come up with the same “answers.” And frankly, an answer is not necessarily the point. For in the end, we may determine that what it “meant” to the Israelites of 2500 years ago, is not what it should mean to us today. This doesn’t lessen the reason for doing it, but it doesn’t obviate our responsibility to discern the text for our own time and place either.

More on that tomorrow: Part II

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