Wednesday, September 04, 2013


"His solution seems to be the development of a more general approach that seeks to put yourself into the shoes of the historical everyman."
No, not  the "historical everyman." Rather, the unique, concrete experience of someone who lived at that particular time and place.

"My question is what does he mean by 'understand the OT?' It seems to me that he is making the mistake of conflating understanding with relating. I'll try to explain. He is focusing on the way of life of the characters in Genesis 1–11, but the book was not written by or to people who were familiar with this way of life. The original author likely found the idea of a 950 year old man to be every bit as foreign as we do."

i) That's a very selective example. That's not representative of everything in Gen 1-11. 
ii) And even on its own level, living for 950 years isn't categorically different from living for 95 years. The prediluvians were still mortals. Although their lifespans were extraordinary, their lifespans were an extension of ordinary biological existence. They were conceived through procreation. Gestated in the womb. Passed through the usual stages of maturation (i.e. infancy, childhood, adolescence). They married. Fathered children. They ate, slept, aged, and died. The abnormal prolongation of the normal lifecycle in a fallen world.
iii) But many other things in Gen 1-11 are not that foreign to the original audience. A river valley isn't foreign to the original audience. An orchard isn't foreign to the original audience. Rainfall and flooding aren't alien to the experience of the original audience. The scale is out of the ordinary, but it's not a different kind of event. 
"My point is that the ultimate goal in reading is not to know what life was like for Noah, rather it is to decipher the purpose for which Moses is recounting the story of Noah."
Before you can identify the purpose or "ultimate goal," you need to know what it means.

"I am concerned that this approach emphasizes the historical setting and diminishes communicative act. It produces a Discovery channel documentary rather than a sermon."

i) Communication takes a lot for granted. A shared cultural heritage. You talk about literary conventions, but those involve a common preunderstanding between communicator and his audience. Take a movie about werewolves, zombies, or vampires. The director may skip the exposition because the audience is expected to know what those critters are. But for a viewer who lacks that background, the movie might be incomprehensible. 
ii) Properly done, application ("the sermon") involves drawing analogies between the situation of the original audience and the situation of the congregation. What circumstances in the life of his target audience occasioned the Bible writer to say what he did? How is their experience, how are their challenges, comparable to our own?
"But, what would make these things significant? Why would a familiarity with a day in the life of an Egyptian fisherman in the 2nd millennium BC help me understand a book written by and to people who were also probably not very familiar with a day in the life of an Egyptian fisherman?"
i) Actually, I think freed slave who lived on the Nile Delta for 400 years would be intimately acquainted with that scenario. This illustrates the problem. You're not trying to think your way into the text.
ii) Take Dante. I can grasp the basic storyline of the Divine Comedy without having a detailed knowledge of the Thomism, Forentine factions, papal politics, Medieval Italy, the Medieval synthesis, Beatrice Portinari, &c., but there will be a lot I miss if I lack specific topical knowledge of his life and times. Dante wasn't writing with me in mind. I can't expect him to enter my world. I must enter his world. 

"I think this analysis does not sufficiently treat the Bible as communication. To claim that the Bible is communication means that it has an author and the author is writing to an audience to accomplish a purpose. The context that is most important is not the context of the people in the story, but the context of the people telling and hearing the story."

That collapses two audiences into one. Take the Bread of Life Discourse (Jn 6). There are two audiences. There's the narrative audience. The audience for the speech. The characters in the account. The Jews that Jesus was speaking to at the time of the event.
Then there's the narrator's audience. John's audience. The audience for the Gospel. Outside the event. 
Our understanding of what Jesus meant needs to be anchored in historical setting of the discourse, and not the reception history of the text. That's part of the communicative act, too. Jesus communicating to the crowd on the shores of Lake Gennesaret–and later in the synagogue.
"In my opinion, issues like genre and rhetorical convention are far more helpful for determining the rules that govern communication than things like flora and fauna."
i) How do you identify genre? Sometimes that involves purely literary or linguistic features. Parallelism indicates poetry while the waw-consecutive indicates narrative. "Genre" may also refer to categories like type-scenes and hero stories.
ii) Often, though, commentators classify genre based on their preconception of the world. They will classify Gen 1-11 as legendary, mythological, or fictitious because they don't think those chapters are realistic. That's a metaphysical assessment rather than a literary assessment.
iii) You're also focusing on the "rules of communication" to the detriment of content: what is communicated. The representational dimension of the text. The external referent. To what real-world setting or event does the textual description correspond? Knowing more about the world of Gen 1-11 helps you understand the text. Communication doesn't take place in a vacuum. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks again for your response. It is certainly helpful.