Defining Symbolism. The etymology of “symbol” (Greek, su,mbolon, derived from sumba,llw, to throw together, to connect) points to its function. Symbols represent the connections between individuals and communities with a mysterious reality. A blind folded woman holding balanced scales, a national flag, a cross as symbols respectively represent and make present the connections between individuals and communities with justice, the spirit of a nation, and Christianity as mysterious realities. Theologians from Augustine to Paul Ricoeur and David Tracy underscore that religious texts use symbols and symbolic systems, including figurative language, to represent the connections between humans and ultimate reality. However this mysterious dimension of life might be envisioned—e.g. as a presence of the holy, the sacred, the divine, the Other, the kingdom, the communion of saints—humans do experience this reality, be it in “religious” and “spiritual” experiences or as a “secular” face-to-face loving encounter of the mystery of an Other (Lévinas). Yet one cannot directly speak of, refer to, or present this mysterious reality. By definition, a mystery is beyond whatever one can say about it, as apophatic theologians argue; words (signs) as signifiers that “refer to” (denote) specific signifieds (see Semiotics) are inadequate. The only possibility is to express indirectly how this mysterious reality is “connected” to individuals and communities, namely through symbols and systems of symbols.
Since symbols are unlike signs that refer to something (as the linguist Louis Hjelmslev showed), the study of symbolism cannot be performed with those procedures of biblical studies designed to elucidate what a text “refers to.” Symbolism cannot be studied with historical critical methods, including the social-scientific methods (and in the case of fictions, certain narrative approaches) designed to elucidate the historical (or fictive) life-situation to which the text “refers.” It cannot be studied with the procedures aimed at elucidating the theological views of the author to which the text “refers”—e.g., philological methods ultimately aimed at discerning the theological argument of a didactic text or those of the redaction critical approaches aimed at elucidating the theological views of the redactor. These approaches—the vast majority of the approaches used in critical biblical studies—are inappropriate for the study of symbolism, because symbols do not “refer to” anything.
Symbols represent a connection that can be perceived and apprehended only when one enters the system of symbols and participates into it, and thus when one abandons the critical distance that, since the Enlightenment, biblical scholars thought they needed to maintain so as to develop a truly critical interpretation. Yet, in a post-modern perspective attentive to communication theories and to the ways readers/hearers produce meaning with a text or discourse (semiotics), the critical study of symbolism can be envisioned.
It is enough to allude to a pure system of symbols—a musical score—to understand that it is only when one enters the system of symbols and participates into it that one “makes sense of” (produces meaning with) this system of symbols. Paraphrasing Umberto Eco’s example, for a pianist or a trumpet player, a musical notation such as “note C” in the middle register does not refer to anything except to a position in the system of notes that will be maintained despite various transpositions. For the musician, “note C” makes sense only insofar as she hears it in relation to other notes on a musical score (a particular system of symbols). Actually, it is only as the pianist fully enters the musical score and its relational network, as she connects with the mystery of the music, as she is inhabited by the music and embodies it, as she experiences it in and through her entire body (a proprioceptive or thymic experience, in Greimas’s and psychological vocabulary), as she loses herself into the music, submerges herself in and submits to the music (an heteronomous experience), that she produces the music that envelops the hearers who, in turn, are lost into it. Then, because the particular piece of music is embodied by different pianists (or the same pianist bringing to it different situations or moods), each of its performances is unique—a dynamic rendering that the composer hoped for (as contemporary composers commonly express). Furthermore the performances of that same piece of music may be radically different—as, without a sound, a modern ballet ensemble (such as the Limón Dance Company) interprets, e.g., Bach’s A Musical Offering, by fully entering and embodying the rhythm of the music, representing the connections between individuals with the mysterious world of this piece of music.
One can describe and analyze the score, and with the proper scientific instruments (oscillographs, spectrographs) determine the mathematical values of the sound events it represents. But this is missing the music. So it is with the symbolism of a biblical text. It can be described. But a detached description of the biblical symbolic score is missing the symbolism. It is only when we account for the way in which this symbolism is performed that we can recognize how this text connects its readers (or hearers) to an ultimate reality. Yet, before this, we need to identify the biblical symbolic score—the symbolism of a biblical text.