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Law & Narrative Course

Session 9 Reading Narratives

What is Hermeneutics?

"Hermeneutics may be defined as the theory of interpretation. It inquires into the conditions under which the interpretation of (biblical) texts may be judged possible, faithful, accurate, responsible or productive in relation to a specific goal"

A.C. Thistleton "Hermeneutics" The Oxford Companion to the Bible.
"Hermeneutics can be described as the 'art of understanding'. Used in its narrower sense, hermeneutics can refer to the method and techniques used to interpret written texts. In a wider sense, it can refer to the conditions which make understanding possible and even to the process of understanding as a whole."

Lategan B. C. "Hermeneutics" Anchor Bible Dictionary.

All reading of the bible involves hermeneutics, interpretation. Like all communication the bible needs to be understood.

As a result there is always the possibility of misunderstanding. We can never be 100% certain that we have correctly understood the text, that we have understood what the writer or God wanted us to understand. We may only be seeing in the text that we want to see.

Hermeneutics involves finding methods that help to eliminate misunderstanding & give us more confidence in our interpretations.

Understanding apodictic laws seems fairly straightforward. "You shall not kill" seems obvious. But even with this law there are questions - does it cover accidental killing? What about indirect killing? Are we all guilty because in Africa children die as a result of a third world debt? When the laws are embedded in a different culture, the art of interpretation is more difficult. Our classes thus far have involved trying to interpret and make sense of alien laws like "You shall not take a millstone in pledge" and "you shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk."

Interpreting narratives requires a different set of skills again.

Stories don't necessarily have a single message or even any message, although they are intended to communicate. If there is a message or aim then it is rarely plain & obvious, indeed didactic stories and moralistic tales are boring and we rarely reread an Aesop's Fable. Instead stories communicate at several levels, often ambiguously, so interpreting narrative is fraught with danger: Why does the biblical author tell us of Jacob wrestling with an angel, or of the rape of Dinah or of Jael's tent peg?

In the past a variety of methods have been used to answer this question. The church fathers used allegory, the scholars of the C19th used source criticism, the Reformation used typology, the early C20th used form & redaction criticism.

Making sense of the variety of methods can be as difficult as actually interpreting the text. I want to offer one classification system that can help us be aware of what we are doing when we interpret.

The Barton- Lategan Map

In interpreting the text we can look at 3 elements:

The message of the text, it could be said, is what the author intends the text to say. When we cannot speak to the author to check out what they mean, it can help to study his/her biography, ideas, other writings. These are important but few authors actually declare their intentions, so ultimately we can only speculate on what they might have meant.

The message of the text therefore has to be found within the text itself. Careful study of the text its genre, plot, heroes etc. is perhaps a slightly more objective way of discerning what might be meant.

The message of the text is though, in reality, only what we the readers get from the text, how we subjectively understand it. How I understand a text will depend on who I am, what my church has taught me, how I see the world etc. It therefore pays to study the readers & be aware of our biases. When we say 'the message of this story is' we are really saying 'I, in the light of what I've been taught, understand and interpret the message of this story as...'. But if we were a different person in a different place we might read the story differently. Would the message of the Exodus story come across rather differently to a black, peasant farmer in Chile?
But these three elements do not live in a vacuum, to understand them we also need to understand the world's they live in

If we know something of the world of the author of Revelation, then some of the symbols & allusions make more sense.

The text too has a "world". There is the world of the characters -most narratives are set in a particular time or place & the author assumes the reader knows something of that time & place. The gospels are set in the world before the fall of the temple, although the author's world is most probably after that event.

There is an added dimension to the world of the text when the work is in a series. There is an added understanding in reading a Susan Howatch novel if you have read the novels that come before it. Similarly any biblical narrative needs to be read against the background of the rest of the canon.

And there is the world of the reader, our 21st century culture & philosophy that makes us see the story in certain ways

These 3 are also sometimes referred to as: the world behind the text, the world of the text, & the world in front of the text.

A balanced interpretation should of course consider all the areas, but in fact most methods concentrate on only one or two. Seeking meaning in each area has strengths and weaknesses.
New Literary Criticisms

For the last 150 years study of the Old Testament has concentrated on the historical criticisms but since the early 70's there has been an explosion of new methods in interpreting biblical narratives.

Most of these methods are based on the same presuppositions as the historical criticisms, namely that the Bible is a text that should be read just like any other text. Therefore the evolving studies of English literature in the universities have been applied to the bible (albeit some 20/ 30/ 40 years after they were fashionable in secular studies). The result has been a wealth of new insight on a par with the revolution caused by historical criticism in the 1800s. For the purpose of this course I have called these New Literary Criticisms, although they go by many names - narrative criticism, new criticism, literary criticism (which was also the title given to form criticism in its early years!)

The following is a selective sample of some of the main literary criticisms of the 1970s - 1990s:

Literary criticism per se/ close reading.

This involves a close investigation of the text in its final form. It is agnostic as to how that form was original arrived at, but assumes that it is now a unity rather than just a compilation or anthology of pieces.

Structural criticism

Structural criticism arises from anthropological studies & is concerned with the underlying structure of the narrative. It assumes there is a basic, deep (usually dualistic structure) underneath the story. e.g. most stories are about harmony & disharmony. Harmony is destroyed at the beginning of the story & the narrative is about the restoration of harmony e.g. the Exodus begins in slavery & results in freedom. This new harmony is threatened in the wilderness by lack of food & water, the people's grumbling, God's wrath etc, but is eventually restored in the conquest.

Similarly most stories have a main character(s), who has/ have to perform some task to reach a goal set for them and in the process encounter difficulties/ adversaries & helpers/ aids

Rhetorical criticism

This is the study of the art of persuasion in the text. Like literary criticisms it is concerned with the construction of the text & arrangement of words, but particularly as to how they convey the feeling or impression intended. c.f. Exodus 15 the use of rhetorical questions v11, and the piling up of nation upon nation in v14 to give sense of ever expanding victory.
Post-modern Criticisms

The 1990's has produced an array of post-modern interpretations (often called post-structural interpretations). Influenced by post-modern relativism & subjectivity, they have concentrated on the reader end of interpretation, claiming that the author & textual studies give a false sense of objectivity. This is an area of great flux, but 3 main criticisms are noted:

Reader-Response/ Reception Criticism

Initially this was similar to rhetorical criticism trying to investigate the response which the author of a text is aiming at or assuming on the part of his/her audience, and the strategies he employs to attain his goals.

But nowadays it refers to the actual responses of a reader in the light of their background & cultural presuppositions within a particular community. It may cover purely devotional readings, what does the text say to me as an individual here & now. But it also includes liberation, feminist, marxist theology's interpretation of texts from that reader's perspective.

Content criticism

Involves matching the bible against some other norm & critiquing it:

e.g. against the norm of modern ethics - in this light certain passages e.g. the destruction of the Canaanites do not stand up & therefore are not authoritative for the interpreter, while other passages ("love your neighbour as yourself") are.


This is based on the premise that language always fails to express itself without contradiction & is often meaningless. Deconstructionists read the text very carefully in order to expose the paradoxes & show that the logic of an argument "undoes" itself and involves a self-contradiction e.g. no one may see God & live is a Pentateuchal refrain, yet Moses talked with God face to face and the 70 saw God & live

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