Objectivity and interpretation of texts

I started writing this post several days ago in response to Christopher Skinner’s interesting post on his PEJE IESOUS blog. It’s part of a conversation with April DeConick about perspectives – here and here.  In his post, he talks about the fact that we all bring biases and presuppositions to our interpretation of texts so that it is impossible to be totally objective in our interpretations. Wade Greiner, April’s husband, has a post that suggests that while everyone has biases, not all biases are equal. Since then, April has added two more posts. The first,  entitled “Choosing your method” outlines her operating principles and is particularly helpful.  The second expresses her frustration at the way the medium allows for misinterpretation. Skinner has posted twice more on the general subject.  James McGrath also has a helpful post. I have previously touched on this issue, but want to explore it further, looking at a different way of thinking about it that I find helpful.

The reader response theory of literary criticism tries to take the differing perspectives of different readers/interpreters seriously, although it is open to serious abuse if taken too far. In part, it sees readers of a text as belonging to particular “interpretive communities” (a term which I think was coined by Stanley Fish), which influence the way in which they interpret particular texts. I think that another way of saying this is that the interpretive community to which one belongs influences the questions one asks of the text and the assumptions one makes about the text. Most of us belong to multiple interpretive communities, which sometimes results in interesting approaches to texts.

When I look at texts from early Christianity for the purposes of my doctoral studies, I ask different questions of them to those that I ask when I am preparing to preach or lead Bible study.  For my doctoral work which I do primarily as part of the interpretive community of academic scholars of studies in religion, I ask “what does this tell me about early Christian communities – how they lived, what they believed, etc?” If I were working on something different I might also be asking  “what does this tell me about the historical Jesus?”, but whatever I ask, I am using the historical-critical method as an end in itself and if I don’t use it properly, I’m in big trouble.

When I am preparing to preach or lead Bible study,  which I do primarily as part of the interpretive community of  Christian biblical scholars, I ask “what does this tell me about how early Christians related to/understood God?” and “what does this tell me about how I should live as a faithful Christian in the twenty-first century?” I have to be aware of the historical context in order to answer  the preaching/teaching questions or I could come up with some very weird answers, so I still have to use the historical-critical method properly.  Knowing the historical context is not the purpose of my questioning, though, it’s a stepping stone to developing a credible theology.

As a practising Christian, I am aware that I make different assumptions about GosThom to the ones I make about the Synoptics, even when I am not wearing my “minister” hat. I am getting better and better at catching myself at it, though. Although I don’t actually believe that there are questions one may not ask about those texts that the church calls Scripture,  I know that there are some questions that it just doesn’t occur to me to ask because I “know” the answers so well. Atheist scholars have different blind spots as a result of belonging to that particular interpretive community. For example, I think they are prone to writing off the unusual as superstition more quickly than is always warranted. James Crossley and Mike Bird’s How Did Christianity Begin?, which I have reviewed, provides a good illustration about the differing assumptions that an atheist and Christian scholar might bring to the texts of early Christianity.

Feminist scholars, womanist scholars, people of colour etc all bring different foundational assumptions to the text from their interpretive communities. I don’t see that there is anything preventing people from all these interpretive communities from doing good historical-critical work or good theology as long as they are aware that they are bringing these biases.

I don’t see that belonging to a confessional interpretive community necessarily prevents one from doing good historical-critical work, either. It depends on the particular confessional community. Things become problematic when the interpreters come from confessional interpretive communities that make strong faith claims such as “God dictated every word of Scripture, so it cannot contradict itself” – which requires some incredible gymnastics of the text  or “The Spirit speaks to me and tells me how to interpret Scripture in today’s world” – which may result in interpretations that have no real basis in the text in its context.

I think I need to finish here in the interests of getting this posted before this topic becomes totally passe. 🙂

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7 thoughts on “Objectivity and interpretation of texts

  1. Nice, balanced post. I agree with the distinction that in an academic setting we are asking what these texts meant in their historical/literary contexts while at church we are asking how they might also speak to our lives today. I’m not sure I can always separate my religious presuppositions from my historical-critical study, but I think it is important to not let our presuppositions dictate the results of our scholarship but to base our historical arguments on probability and evidence.

    • Mike, I don’t think that I can always separate the two, either. I get uneasy when I see scholars from a confessional background who seem to think that they have (or somebody else has) found a way of proving the historicity of anything other than fairly big picture stuff in the gospels and I think that this is what April is referring to.

      For example, when Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses was published, I got the impression that in demonstrating that we (or he) could be more confident than the form critics suggest about the historicity of the gospel accounts, he might have felt that he was getting close to proving the historicity of significant parts of the gospels. This is certainly how some of his readers understood what he was saying, although it appears from his response in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus that he has a much more modest understanding of the implications of his work.

  2. Hi Judy,

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    “Atheist scholars have different blind spots as a result of belonging to that particular interpretive community. For example, I think they are prone to writing off the unusual as superstition more quickly than is always warranted.”

    Could you please give an example? I suspect you’re not really talking about claims that are merely “unusual”, but that you are intentionally avoided terms like supernatural, miracle, etc.. If you could give an example I would love to respond if I may.

    “Feminist scholars, womanist scholars, people of colour etc all bring different foundational assumptions to the text from their interpretive communities. I don’t see that there is anything preventing people from all these interpretive communities from doing good historical-critical work or good theology as long as they are aware that they are bringing these biases.”

    I think one’s skin colour or sex has a completely different impact on one’s research compared to one’s belief (or disbelief) in some kind of deity intervening in historical events. The latter has a dramatic impact and the resulting biases can often not even be noticed.

    Are atheist scholars as biased (or even more biased) as religious scholars? Well, to be fair, I sometimes get the impression that they feel some sort of hostility towards religion, which brings a different kind of bias into the picture. However, apart from this I see the atheist position as the only truly scholarly (or scientific) presupposition. That is because it simply means one does not bring an untestable non-evidential factor into play. It is simply starting with a blank slate and only entering components into the model that are evidential and can be tested.

    I really appreciate this post Judy, because religious presuppositions are usually taken for granted (being a New Testament scholar typically means being a Christian – after all, why else study the New Testament?) and people with other presuppositions are often not taken seriously. I feel this is a serious problem in the field.

  3. Pingback: | Blogging

  4. Judy,
    This is to share a reconstruction of origis of Jesus traditions which I prepared as a letter to R. Joseph Hoffmann. It is largely extracts from works of three of our longest standing top critical historical theologians. You just might find it to be of interest.

    It is located on the Blog: R. Joseph Hoffmann – Blogs, Pictures and more pn Word Press. This is an archive of Hoffmann essays. Scroll some 20 plus essays to the one entitled: The Importance of the Historical Jesus – 10 Comments. Comments 1 and 5 is the reconsruction. All 10 comments are related. even if several are non-sensable and should be ignored.

    Comment?

  5. Pingback: Provable vs true « Judy’s research blog

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