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Do we need any more Bible Commentaries?


VTBS Lecture Two


The First Word – Is there an original text?


Yesterday, we looked at whether it is possible for anyone to have the final word on a text.  And today we move to consider the First Word, and if – indeed – there was such a thing as the first word.  This means that we will look in a little more detail at the issue of post modernity- and what follows on from post modernity, and then some of the implications for using a commentary.


So the picture today, is a fairly accurate description of what many academics regard as postmodernism.  Before modernity, everything was simple because God was in charge so everybody knew what was what.  Then there was modernity, taking from Hegel’s philosophy of history the myth of progress – on and on and on and up and up and up.  And post modernity – where everything is sheer incoherent gobbledegook.  And hey presto, a history of post modernity.  But as we know – all history is fiction, and if that’s true: then even this history is a fiction, as we will explore.


Again, the spirit of Professor John Day haunts the margins of the lecture, demanding that we root our discussion in a specific text.


We shift to a different genre of text today, towards that of conflict.  And in particular, we consider Jesus’ conflict with the folk from his homeland, or more particularly, his Fatherland.  Most importantly, it is earliest evidence of anywhere, from what happened in a synagogue service.  But of course, already, by calling it a ‘synagogue service’ I have committed a heinous act of eisegesis!  I have imposed upon the text, my historical fiction –  that is, my assumption that an event taking place in a synagogue in Lower Galilee must have been some kind of religious worship service because it included a Bible Reading.  



So, from Luke 4…



16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:




18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,


   because he has anointed me


       to bring good news to the poor.


He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives


   and recovery of sight to the blind,


       to let the oppressed go free,


19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’




20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23 He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.”’ 24 And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.



The Post-modern narrative.


When we talk about an original text, I am not referring to the fact that it is impossible to recover some mythical set of documents from the first century before the those texts were mis-copied, corrupted, and multiplied into thousands of different versions.  From the world of Postmodernity, it is questionable even whether there is just thing as a text – a text that is separate from us.  Hence this means that you can say whatever you like about a text, because to interpret a text is always, ever, only, our attempt to impose upon it meaning it probably never had.


We hear postmodernism, or postmodernity as a phrase that is banded around a lot, not least amongst biblical scholars.  But it is important I think to have some kind of a handle on what we mean by postmodernism that is simple and clear.  For many people, postmodernism just means that there is no truth that is not a power struggle, you can’t know anything for certain, and we are all hopelessly adrift on a bottomless ocean of relativism, and everyone is suspicious meta-narrative.  And so New Testament scholars like N.T. Wright say that postmodernism is fine, but ‘I do not want to be operated upon by a postmodern dentist.’  The problem with that kind of statement, is that we are all operated upon by postmodern dentists – postmodern dentists are all we have, because post-modernity is the name of an era.




It is the era, of course, that follows modernity.  Now there are multiple ways of describing this history.  In Cambridge, if you study English literature, then modernity began in the late 19th Century.  If you study history then modernity began in the sixteenth or seventeenth century.  There is some dispute as to whether it began with the era of Martin Luther – who famously may or may not have said, ‘here I stand – I can do no other’, or whether it began with the 17th Century French philosopher, Rene Descartes – who famously said, ‘I think, therefore I am’.  In either case, there was a shift in Christendom from a view of the universe at which God lay at the centre of everything, to a view of the universe in which I lay at the centre of everything.  Man, became ‘the measure of all things’.  Where once God was at the centre of everything, with human beings an object his creation, with modernity, humanity lay at the centre – and God was perceived almost as a human creation.  This kind of tinkerbell divinity was destined to vanish in a puff of incense, the moment everyone stopped believing in him – and ithat was only a matter of time.  


Without the impediments of belief in an interfering divinity, humanity could get on with improving its lot.  It worked well, and was a great era of progress.  With an isolated, free-thinking, subjective ‘me’, at the centre of the universe, enormous progress was made for western humanity. That such a worldview became and remained dominant for so long is hardly surprising.  Fires burned, liquid heated, engines rumbled, aeroplanes flew.  The technical progress of modernity was undeniable – bringing vast improvements to sanitation, medicine, agriculture, transport and housing.  The list could go on – as the progress offered was widely seen, felt and celebrated.  But modernity also had hugely negative effects.  By the late twentieth century, technology had also turned anonymous parts of the world into The Somme, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Chernobyl.  And today we see the growing difficulties associated with ecological breakdown, and an economics built upon the ongoing expansion of modernity.    And so, there were those who thought that modernity is an era, a way of thinking, we need to try to move beyond. And by moving beyond the era in which the individual human self is at the centre of everything, brings us to the era of post-modernity. If modernity was concerned with the sovereignty of the human self, postmodernity is – above all else – concerned with dethroning that self.


Well, before post-modernity has morphed into the next thing – I would like just to get to grips with the intellectual mechanics that characterised this era, particular as it has impacted upon literary interpretation.  So there are three main areas to consider briefly: relativism, neo-pragmatism, and deconstruction.  These thing are often wrapped up in incomprehensible language – but essentially they are pretty straightforward.  The trouble is, if these writers communicate in the straightforward way, it undermines their entire case about language being hopelessly inadequate…




Postmodernity is the attempt to dethrone the sovereignty of the self.  And it has attempted to do this by various means.  You will be familiar with many of them.  Relativism, is the belief that no individual has access to objective truth.  If you climb mount Olympus to have a god’s eye view of the world, you discover that Olympus is the home of many gods.  So who’s to say that your view of the world is better than any other?  That is all that relativism means: is ‘man is the measure of all things’, man is also fallible.  Who’s to say that your truth is better than mine?  Now, of course, if you say ‘there’s no such thing as certainty’ somebody quickly jumps in to cry ‘fallacy!’  To claim that truth is relative, is to make an absolute statement.  But the criticism doesn’t quite work, as we will see in a moment.


If we take as our example, the incident in the synagogue from Luke 4, we see that Jesus has quoted a biblical text with much widespread approval.  In itself, it is supposed to be a quotation from Isaiah – which itself raises the possibility of an original text.  Because Jesus is reading nothing of the sort.  He’s omitted part of the quotation (about binding the broken-hearted), he’s added to the text (a verse from elsewhere in Isaia), and he’s cut the final sentence off mid-way through, omitting all reference to the judgement of God.  And yet there it appears in our Bibles as a simple citation of an original text.  


Perhaps more importantly, from the relativists’ perspective, is that when Jesus quoted the text everybody in Nazareth seemed happy with him.  But when he interpreted that text, it is fair to say they did not react well.  Clearly, there was a power struggle, already in the first century, between two different ways of reading the same text.  A relativist reading of the Gospels might say that this power struggle for alternative readings of Jewish tradition characterised the conflict that runs through the entirety of the narratives.




The second trait of postmodern interpretation, is Neo pragmatism.


Pragmatism goes hand-in-hand with relativism.  For the neo-pragmatist, there is no such thing as a text.  The reading community is what shapes our ability to make sense of the world around us.  We are shaped entirely by our cultural context – from the way we learn language, the way we learn to speak and read and hear.  But you can never climb out of your interpretive community.  If a voice is heard from beyond our community, we simply cannot understand it.  The only way we will ever hear a voice from beyond our community, is if they become one of us so that they can become intelligible.  


Some people today are calling this, ‘tribal epistemology’.  There is nothing outside our tribe that makes any sense.  Now within our tribe, or our community, of course we can be certain about things, and of course, there are conventions that we learn that enable us to have an absolute grasp of things.  But neo-pragmatism declares that our certainties only within our tribe – so we there might be other realities outside our tribe, our community, our knowledge that relativises us, but we cannot know them.  The difficulty with this view, is that it is precisely the same worldview as expressed in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.


If we consider a Neo-pragmatist reading of Luke 4, we might simply observe that the synagogue at Nazareth constitutes an interpretive community. A tribe – in other words.  This is the tribe to which everyone belonged – and from which you cannot ever escape.  You hear it in the objection, hold on a minute, ‘isn’t this Joseph’s son?’  You’re claiming to embody something from beyond, some divine backing for your crusade – but actually, you are one of us.  There is nothing extra-ordinary about you.


And yet, when Jesus comes now from outside the tribe, his interpretation of that text from Isaiah is unintelligible to them – or at least they cannot hear it above the clamour of their interpretive assumptions.  And since he comes from outside his interpretive community, they try to get rid of him.


The other main area of postmodernism is called deconstruction, brainchild of the late French philosopher, Jacques Derrida.  This is the practice of looking at words, and attempting to destabilise them.  The idea is quite simple: firstly, Derrida argues that Western thinking rests on ‘binary opposites’, ideas such as black/white, male/female, good/evil and so on.  In all such dualisms, one word is privileged, the other is underprivileged.  Secondly, having recognised the dualisms upon which language rests, Derrida’s next move is to invert them.  The underprivileged partner is promoted, the privileged demoted.  For instance, from a marginalised perspective, ‘good’ might be regarded as ‘evil’, and vice versa.   The supposedly clear meaning of a text is then called into question.  Thirdly, however,  these binaries are not simply inverted and left.  The moment an inversion has occurred, there is a new hierarchy to be inverted.  The constant search for the marginalised elements of a text ensure that the meaning of a text cannot settle into a once-for-all concrete rendering.  Meaning is in flux, and any claim to interpret a text is a claim to power that begs to be deconstructed.


I suppose the best example would be to look at a word we will consider more fully tomorrow: grace.  In Nazareth, everyone was impressed because of the words of grace that Jesus spoke.  But grace can be translated as a manifestation of something from utterly beyond and utterly undeserved, and it can be translated simply as it’s opposite, the ‘credit’ you might deserve.  


I suppose we could also discuss the ambiguity of words like surprise and shock – it’s the same word in Greek but could be translated either way.   So was the reaction of the synagogue one of pleasant surprise, or outrageous shock?   Did everyone speak well of him? Or were they infuriated by him.  


The problem with deconstruction, though, in this light, is that there might be more to a text than wanting to tear everything down.  From a textual perspective, it closed the door to the possibility that we might hear a voice from history.  And that should include, today, the voice of Derrida himself – whose own voice now comes to us only from history…


So much for postmodernism.  These representatives of different strands of postmodern thought are often ridiculed, caricatured, prematurely dismissed – and more often than not when people like me present their ideas we tend to do it unfairly, offering straw man equivalents to the real thing.  However, even if these particular representatives of postmodernity have now been widely debunked – that does not undermine the project of postmodernity as a whole.  The fact that these attempts to dethrone the sovereignty of the self have failed, does not mean that postmodernity as a whole is an invalid quest, or that does not describe well the era in which we live.  


This is largely the view of post modernity advanced by Professor Graham Ward at Oxford, and he concluded that in the end, it is only Theology that can be truly post-modern.  The call to take up the cross is, after all, the call to dethrone the sovereignty of the self.   When it comes to texts, it may be that a truly theological and a truly postmodern reading is one that has the capacity to dethrone humanity’s pretence to being at the centre of the universe.


In any case, in literary circles postmodernity now feels very dated.  Of course, in the era of identity politics, there are increasing numbers of social groups that bring different ways of reading to a text – each to try to highlight marginalised voices.  It began, I suppose, with various forms of Liberation Theology readings, feminist readings, and post-colonial studies.  All of these interpretive standpoints brought new insights into texts and the means by which those texts might have come into existence.  But the currently dominant heir to Postmodern interpretation is probably that described as post-humanist.


Post humanist Textual interpretation.


It may sound utterly bizarre, and people can have multiple ideas in mind when they talk about the post humanist reading of a text, but the basic idea is this.  Why should humanity regard itself as the pinnacle of evolutionary brilliance, as the most important species on the planet, or at the heart of the universe.  In order to try to relativize humanity’s arrogance, posthumanism attempts to take up the perspective of a non-human entity.  In fact, we have a visiting academic at Robinson College this week, who is attempting to interpret the world from the perspective of a tree!  It is the attempt to grasp the world from a perspective that is radically different to ours, an attempt to climb out of the context that shapes us.  And the idea is not that we have a view from nowhere – but from a place, a being, whose lifespan, perspective, and communities are radically different from that of the human.  One of our geographers at Robinsons for instance, used to begin his teaching to first year students by drawing their attention to a beautiful tree in the garden outside.  And he would ask them, ‘does that tree know it’s Tuesday morning?’  When I presented this question to an evolutionary biologist in the Plant Science Department, she replied ‘well the tree may not know it’s Tuesday but it certainly knows it’s morning.’  


A post humanist reading of the incident reported at Nazareth in Luke 4, would, take the perspective of the hill and the rocks of the cliff face.  These are perspectives that already are on the radar of scholars working in this area – but I don’t want to tread too far down that route at present.


Posthumanism is a discipline that still remains in its infancy, which makes it extremely difficult to critique, but it appears that this is where the next generation of literary analysis is likely to take us.  


All history is fiction


We live in the wake of postmodernity, and at the very least, what we might say it has brought is a sense of profound humility, not only to our own interpretations of the text – but our own conception of what the text actually is and how it actually works.  This is not to say that we are hopelessly submerged in reader-response theory, where a text means whatever the reader would like it to mean.  Nor do we have to accept the more sophisticated neo-pragmatist version, which says that a text means what the dominant tribe says it means.  (Or as they prefer to say, ‘a text means what a text means’ and we all know how far that gets us: after all, Brexit means Brexit’).  What postmodernity legitimately brings us, is a profound sense of provisionality: an interpretive question mark hangs above our texts and our interpretations of them, because we cannot help but impose our human assumptions and prejudices onto the text, no matter how humble we might try to be.  No matter how objective we might think we are.  As interpreters of ancient texts, commentators are always and invariably doing history.  


‘All history is fiction,’ or in some circles ‘All history is contemporary history’.  I’ve never managed to identify the author of these well-known phrases.  Conservative interpreters of the text naturally feel quite uncomfortable with these phrases, because surely history is about stuff that happened, rather than stuff that we just make up.  Unless you’re writing a technical commentary, although to an extent even then, Biblical commentators are trying to link together events and incidents into a narrative that makes sense.  And when you’re doing that, there is a very real sense in which you’re writing fiction.  


History, is not simply ‘one damn thing after another’ (that’s chronology).  It is an attempt to weave a narrative from the raw material – and surely that raw material doesn’t change?  Or does it?


Synagogue Worship


The main example I would like to use this evening, as it relates to Luke 4, is recent movements in the study of the Synagogue.  


Jordan J. Ryan has written one of the most important books on synagogues and it is truly ground-breaking.   It is a welcome book in the first instance, simply because it provides a readable, well-informed presentation of crucially important recent developments in the study of synagogues from the late Second Temple period.  However, its value far exceeded my expectations.  Bringing his research and reflection to bear upon the current state of Historical Jesus studies, the implications are staggering.  It is one of those books that left me glaring at what seemed ridiculously obvious and wondering why I (and no one I have read on this topic) had never seen it for myself.  


The basic argument is simply that Jesus’ activities, particularly in Lower Galilee, tended to revolve around the synagogue.  But the default setting for most readers of the Gospels, is subconsciously to imagine that the synagogue is akin to a proto-Baptist Church, a religious community concerned with ritual, worship, preaching and hearing the Word of God.  Ryan, however, draws together different strands of synagogue tradition, focussing upon the prominence in Galilee of public synagogues that functioned largely in the way that a modern Town Hall might.  That is, in an era where religion, politics, and social relations were inseparable, any event in the synagogue entailed each of these elements.  


What is more, rather than having rows of seats pointing towards a sole platform at the front of the building – rows of benches lined three of four of the inner walls.  All of this suggests that those who speak in a synagogue ‘take the floor’ at the centre, and in the ensuing discussion and debate, members faced one another.  Given that the culture was dominated by the conventions of winning honour and averting shame, such a setting is indispensable.  Public exchanges, regardless of the subject, were always and invariably honour-hierarchy disputes – engagements in which some would win honour at the expense of others.  The subject could be politics, taxation, nationhood, justice, biblical interpretation – but the dynamics of the synagogue were often those of a township making decisions.  


Hence when Jesus, or his ambassadors, entered villages and towns, they brought with them a message of the Kingdom of God.  Far from being an exclusively religious message – it concerned the heritage of their people, their relationship to God, and their dealings with one another, their political leaders and their imperial masters.  When Jesus brought a message of the Kingdom to a synagogue, he came to force a decision about the governance of his people.  That message was delivered both in word (his rhetoric) and his action (particularly in the form of healing), as demonstrations that the God of Israel has now become present to his people.  Though different individuals might respond in various ways, it was the synagogue that spoke for the town as a whole.  In fact, those in positions of influence within the synagogue thus had enormous responsibility because their response to Jesus’ message would have implications for every member of their community, not only themselves.  


Here, a parallel from other ancient literature may prove illuminating.  Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, recounts multiple instances of ambassadors commissioned to enter different townships with a vitally urgent message about governance.  Rhetorical skill was crucial, as highly articulate orators engaged in debate, in attempts to convert whole townships – exhorting them to shift their allegiances in the war in order to avert impending wrath.  This, of course, is precisely the activity of the envoys Jesus commissioned and sent out, and one can imagine the synagogues filled with furious debate as community representatives made their decisions concerning the message they heard.  Jesus and his disciples sought to win the allegiance of Galilean townships for the Kingdom of God, warning of the consequences of rejecting their message.  


In other words, when we picture Jesus and his disciples roaming through the synagogues of Galilee – we do not see them with an exclusively religious message, seeking to evangelise individuals by inviting them to become Christian.  The message is a profoundly urgent and political one, in light of an impending crisis.  In play, as part of the message they present to these towns and villages – are all the dimensions of reading we mentioned yesterday.  It is a political message (in Josephus, it was the synagogues that a township decided whether or not to join the Jewish revolt).  It is a theological message – since the decision of the synagogue would revolve around the Holy Scriptures they read.  It was a philosophical message – with every conceivable aspect of rhetoric and persuasion in play.  It was a historical message, with historical consequences for the decision made.  When Josephus told rebels in Northern Galilee to ‘repent and believe in me’, he was not calling them to repent of their sins and trust this Jewish aristocrat for their eternal salvation – Josephus, as a young Jewish military leader – called communities to repent (to abandon their suicidal course of action) and to believe, to trust, to follow his alternative.  That is what was happening in the synagogues of Galilee.


The experience of reading this book has left me needing to re-interpret multiple passages of the Gospels with which I have long been familiar, reading them in entirely new ways.  Ryan helps this process along himself, offering some outstanding exegesis of particularly apt incidents such as Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, and Jesus’ teaching in Capernaum.  


Given the breath-taking scope of his study, the detailed archaeological information conveyed and the literary history of the synagogue, Ryan’s book is not only thoroughly readable.  It is written with such fluidity of style that it rapidly becomes a sheer pleasure to read.  And yet, hardly anyone has read it yet!



The changing view of the synagogue


All of this, then, shows that so much of what Jesus was doing throughout his ministry, may need to be imagined differently.  Has anything in the original history of Jesus’ activities changed?  No, of course it has not.  Have all previous generations of biblical interpreters been wrong about the activities of Jesus?  Not if they were writing with any humility.  But this is one of those instances where archaeology seems to have changed our view of history – or at least revealed that much of the history we have imagined, might well have been a fiction.  Ryan’s work on synagogue is one of those instances however, which also shows history has the capacity to answer back.  And the text has to answer with it.



Where does that bring us?


Emile Benveniste


I bring one final representative of postmodernity to the table.  The French linguist, Emile Benveniste.  Writing in the same period as the cutting-edge French postmodernists, Benveniste actually provided the foundations for much of their work.  Derrida’s famous work on the Gift, and Agamben’s influential work on Sovereignty – both were based upon Benveniste’s brilliant, Dictionary of Indo-European Language and Culture.  It’s a magnificent resource, and you can access an English translation online.  


Instead of seeking to destabilise language by deconstructing it, Benveniste traces the history of a whole breadth of key words and concepts, showing their family tree in ancient even pre-European languages.  So that when we use any word, there is a gigantic convergence of meanings and concepts and histories that come flowing through that word.  This is not to say that words are meaningless, but they are so often crammed full of meaning, that it is extremely difficult to isolate one.  Now as interpreters, that’s often a tempting thing to do.  We consult a dictionary or a lexicon, which has a list of different possible meanings from a-f.  And the job of the translator is simply to pick something from the list.  But, the difficult is, of course, that several of the entries from that list are all in play at once!  Having spent any time with this book, leaves you realising that a word can be like a waterfall, and gushing through it is a torrent of meaning and metaphor, a history of ideas and concepts.  Which means, that it is extremely difficult to write an original text, because the moment you put it into words… that original text is already out of your control.  


We’ve looked at the notion of the gift, which is notoriously difficult to capture in a single definition. The example that struck me was that of true, which is rooted in the word for a tree, and chained to the notion of trust, expected at a truce.  Or one that threw Derrida, as the notion of a drug – which in our culture can be positive and negative: it can mean both a poison, and a remedy for instance.  All of this, of course, places as question mark over the simple stability of any text, and in particular an ancient text.  


Benveniste would never be described as a Postmodernist – but his work is extremely useful for doing good old-fashioned historical criticism in a profoundly contemporary way.  And perhaps, in a way that does enable us to encounter familiar words and concepts in ways we might not have expected.






Part of the reason that we refer to Scripture as Holy Scripture, is that it has the capacity to answer back.  It has the capacity to stand over against us, to resist our reading strategies, and to undermine our interpretive conventions.  


When it comes to the question of whether we need more commentaries, I’d like to hear what you think.  Are the commentaries that we use simply resources that help us to know what we already think, and believe, and know – even more thoroughly?  And if commentaries exist simply to help us to understand more fully what we already know to be true – are they doing their job as commentaries?  


Or is there a sense in which a commentary should be a means of helping Holy Scripture to stand over against us?  Is there a sense in which a commentary should make familiar words strange?  Is there a sense in which a commentary should defamiliarize us from what we already know the text to mean – so that we might be exposed more fully to an original text?  












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