Making Meaning with(in) the Bible

Making Meaning with(in) the Bible October 9, 2018

Peter Leithart’s post about the story of David and Goliath provides a helpful illustration of just how much the reader can contribute not merely to “finding meaning” in a text, but making meaning creatively in the act of reading. In a post called “The Bible and Information” he writes:

What Esther Meeks calls the “defective epistemic default” of modernity infects and paralyzes biblical interpretation. In this default, knowledge is defined as information.

This can only produce puzzlement about the details of the Bible. They aren’t symbols; they aren’t clues; they text isn’t pregnant with meaning. The details are there as mere bits of information.

Why, for instance, are we told that Goliath had a bronze helmet and scale armor and bronze greaves on his legs? Why are we told his height? Why do we need to know the weight of his armor and of the head of his spear? Why does it matter that David struck Goliath’s head with a stone?

A certain kind of commentator will say: Well, because Goliath actually wore armor and his spear’s head actually weighed that amount and David actually did sling a stone.

Try to move beyond, try to suss out the symbolic significance of these details, try to move beyond information to see the details as clues to a pattern, and you can expect to hear cries of “Allegorist! Origenist!”

But each of these details is significant.

When the spies came back from the land, they frightened Israel by saying that the land was filled with giants. Only Joshua and Caleb were giant-killers. David is a latter-day Joshua, ready to rid the land of giants, ready to rule in a way that Saul, the Israelite giant, cannot.

Goliath is dressed in scale armor; he’s dressed like a serpent. And, like the serpent he suffers a massive head wound from the seed of a woman.

He’s dressed in metal, and like the great metallic statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he’s felled by a stone.

When we recognize the pregnancy of the text, this episode becomes a moment in the unveiling of Jesus Christ, who is the focal point of all Scripture.

I think that it is crucial to distinguish between different ways of approaching literature, and to recognize the vitality, positive contribution, and limitations of each. A book that I am long overdue to blog about is Roy Harrisville’s Pandora’s Box Opened: An Examination and Defense of Historical-Critical Method and Its Master Practitioners. It offers a fantastic exploration of many details in the history of Biblical scholarship, and places its methods and practices in direct dialogue with the work of philosophers and others whose perspectives are crucial to the critical evaluation of this approach to critical evaluation. Ultimately, as the title hints from the outset, our inability to attain objectivity or find bare uninterpreted historical facts does not allow us to entirely set aside the investigation of the past. He makes the case not only on the basis of philosophy and academic argument, but on the basis of Christian faith, which Harrisville says cannot abandon its responsibility to communicate with others and in the process to offer a reasoned, evidence-supported case for its beliefs.

Chris Glaser’s thoughts are also germane to this topic:

Context is needed to understand any biblical text, but not just its location in the Bible. The writer’s social location must be taken into account, certainly, but interpreting the Bible requires more. It is best understood within a tradition, not just the tradition that preceded it, not just the tradition of its time, but the tradition of how it was interpreted since and even how it might be interpreted in the future.

The same can be said of the biblical text itself, and the methods used by those who study it.

See too the thoughts from Weekend Fisher about whether information is the point of the Bible.

 

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  • John MacDonald

    Sometimes when we are in the Meaning Making Process (in hermeneutics generally, not just biblical hermeneutics), there is polysemia, especially when the evidence is scant an ambiguous. My favorite example is by American Philosopher John Searle. Searle offered the following thought experiment:

    “I was walking by the beautiful, bright window with an adorable dog peeking through. I wanted it.” – Searle asks: Does the person want the dog or the window?

    People sometimes confuse the idea that there is an objectively right answer (the person EITHER wants the dog OR the window), with the problem of whether we can epistemologically be confident in the scenario we choose.

    Hermenteutics involves humbly proposing a model that explains the evidence, and deals with any apparent recalcitrant evidence. But we must always accept that some of the evidence may be ambiguous and thus open to multiple interpretations.

    Of course, this isn’t the same as saying anything goes (e.g., claiming a reasonable explanation of the evidence is that the tomb was empty because Jesus was beamed up into space by aliens and the disciples were then regaled with holographic images of Jesus, lol).

    • I think the point most of these bloggers make is not about considering biblical texts in terms of the history of the stories they tell (if any), but in terms of the historical milieu of the story-tellers themselves. The sort of question addressed here seems to be, for example, not whether an empty-tomb story actually happened, but why and how empty-tomb stories are told, and the theological purposes behind the wide variations in empty-tomb stories in each gospel.

      • John MacDonald

        I do think the historicity of the biblical story elements is of issue too, along with the theological message being imparted. For example, Dr Tabor, on his blog a couple days ago, suggests that sound biblical hermeneutic techniques may be starting to push against the consensus idea that there is, generally, historical verisimilitude in Acts: see https://jamestabor.com/two-widely-held-assumptions-about-early-christianity-that-should-be-questioned/ . And, of course, there can be polysemia too in that there may be scholarly difference of opinion as to, to use your example, “why and how empty-tomb stories are told, and the theological purposes behind the wide variations in empty-tomb stories in each gospel.”

        • There’s no question that the historicity of biblical story elements is “an issue”. It’s arguably one of the most common issues, especially among conservatives and atheists.

          But the historicity of facts seems to me to be exactly the sort of “defective epistemic default” that Peter Leithart and Chris Glaser are pushing against in order to examine the symbolic significance of story details. When a “certain kind of commentator” is only concerned with what “Goliath actually wore” or what “David actually did”, they are unable to “move beyond” to “suss out the symbolic significance of these details”.

          • John MacDonald

            There’s no question that the historicity of biblical story elements is “an issue”. It’s arguably one of the most common issues, especially among conservatives.

            – not just conservatives, but Dr. McGrath consistently employs sophisticated hermeneutic techniques to try to establish a significant number of historical elements.

            Anyway, there seems to be some ambiguity in the overall picture too, which will enable some like Crossan to ask if interpreters aren’t doing some autobiography in the place of biography of Jesus? In this way, we get contrary pictures of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish Messiah, prophet of social change, Euhemerized mythical being, etc.

          • Sure, most biblical scholars deal with historicity at some level. I get side-blinded by it myself quite a bit.

            I’m just saying that the Leihart’s and Glaser’s point is that many focus on historicity to the exclusion of symbolism, tradition, and cultural context of the story-teller. I would argue that conservatives and atheists tend to do this the most. James deals with historicity; but he doesn’t exclude literary and cultural context.

          • John MacDonald

            James deals with historicity; but he doesn’t exclude literary and cultural context.

            New Testament scholars have a pretty full plate. Philosophers, by contrast, can simply focus on ideas attributed to Socrates rather than going through intellectual backflips trying to establish the sayings of the historical Socrates. Of course, if one wants to try to establish the philosophy of the historical Socrates (as distinct from early Platonism) …

        • John MacDonald

          And if Tabor is right about Acts (if Acts is willful misrepresentation), sophisticated hermeneutic arguments need to be put forth as to why we should trust Luke’s Gospel as a source for historical information (or any Gospel, for that matter).

          • John MacDonald

            Luke’s pro-Roman agenda comes through loud and clear, for instance.

          • John MacDonald

            One last thought.

            I think we have to be careful assuming there are historical sources just because there is unique material in a Gospel. For instance, Ehrman will point to material that is unique to Luke’s Gospel and infer there is a ‘L’ source behind it. But this is a bit of a non sequiter. As Carrier points out, by analogy, there is new material about Moses in later non-canonical sources, but we wouldn’t infer this material goes back to the historical Moses. And we shouldn’t infer that just because there is mundane information in a Gospel that the mundane information is historical. Even in historical fiction there is all sorts of mundane, fictional content.

  • Brien

    Why are people discussing this as though these people and events actually existed??? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/561c431bc483fe81ae3f8a3f6ae97ee1f9dfdd521f17c85ffb16d39dcbc8683b.jpg

    • You seem confused. You are treating the Bible as though it were a single book, with a single relation to history. It includes things that can be verified from independent sources and things which are unlikely to ever have happened, as well as a range of things in between from history merely interpreted theologically to history badly distorted. You might want to learn a bit more about this compilation. You might still choose to denigrate it, but at least you’d do so accurately!

  • Brien

    The Bible is a compendium of fire side tales and fables recounted orally for generations by goat herders and primitive tribes from the stone age, until writing was invented, and then again many different sources, transliterations, and versions were written down.
    There were no grand central universities to organise the many various versions of these origin stories.
    They were for entertainment, and to answer the questions of the many mysteries of our universe since there was no science yet.

    This is the old Testament.

    The ‘new’ Testes is also hearsay since these letters, ‘gospels’ and stories were written by the loyal faithful, the camp followers, not by objective historians at that particular time, or by any contemporary writers, and these tales were written many years after the supposed events of this mythical Jesus.
    Thus, there is no verifiable evidence of a Jesus.

    Then many of these stories, but not all, were compiled by one self-absorbed converted Roman Emperor for his expressed purpose of conquest and control of the people of Europe for his Holy Roman Empire.
    He recognised that this was the perfect religion/mythology for domination of the populace. Half the stories were ignored by the Nicean Bishops and none have been proven to be based on fact.

    This ‘Bible’ is backed up by absolutely no facts and evidence.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/38fa811816f3c5e239d4f454c5c341a951e7360185a6aca7bee446cd57176d0f.jpg

    • Bundling all the works in a compilation in a muddled jumble like this doesn’t help the discussion. On Jesus mythicism, a subject that has been discussed here at length, you might find it useful to begin here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2011/07/round-up-of-mythicist-blogging.html

      Suggesting that the passage of “many years” means that most people a couple of decades later had no idea whether there had been a historical Jesus simply doesn’t match the experience that real human beings have a of real world – including, I would guess, your own.

      Let me know when you’ve better informed yourself and wish to engage in serious conversation about the matter…