Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Do We Ever REALLY Know a Text?

As regular readers of this blog can likely surmise, I tend to go over things again and again and again. I never fully trust anyone's judgement - least of all my own - to see everything in a given sentence, passage or text.

I remember speaking with Steve Mason of York University a while back telling him how excited I was about finding something in Josephus. 'You noticed something NEW about Josephus,' he asked me disdainfully. 'How long have you been reading Josephus?' and then he added with air of seriousness 'I have been reading Josephus all my life.'

It's moments like that that shape scholars, I think. I think someone else would have been intimidated by having an expert like Mason attempt to belittle my discovery. For me, by contrast, I only became distracted by Mason's close-mindedness.

'Do you mean there is a point when you actually stop learning new things from old texts?' I thought to myself. I was more amazed than offended.

You see I always felt that one never knows everything about oneself. It's only convention that dictates 'sameness.'

I think it must be terribly sad for a university professor like Mason. All those routines. That textual exegesis becomes a familiar pattern. Maybe that's why I never pursued becoming a 'professional.'

I remember the days when I had all kinds of different friends and acquaintances (rather than the kind of people I meet now which are all related to my children in some capacity or other). I remember that an exotic dancer once told me that taking your clothes off for a living began as an exhilarating experience. All the money, all the attention. And then at the end of the day it became utterly depressing.

My point isn't to belittle the professional exegesis of ancient texts. I always defer to the experts whenever I can find one.

I am just saying that you have to be a certain type of person to succeed in that environment. I don't know what I was supposed to be in this life. I have been very blessed that I can live with utter uncertainty and - for the moment at least - enjoy some of the fruits that are reserved for serious folk.

My point is that truth is something so enigmatic in practice.

We are all essentially studying things that no longer exist (unless you happen to be an arch-conservative and you think that 'the truth' is in this or that Church or synagogue). 'The truth' may well be true but it is unknowable in the way that we can know a ham sandwich.

So how is there all this certainty out there?

I know that there are opinions which are just plain wrong. Indeed sometimes when we get really lucky we find ourselves able to track down the source of a popular misconception and correct it.

But when a text stops speaking to us is that a sign that we have become the ultimate authority on the subject matter or merely that we have closed our mind?

I guess the place all of this is leading is the study of the book of books - the Torah. Christians speak about the entire 'Old Testament' as if it is a completely 'known' commodity.

Yet I am struck by the Apostle's attitude toward the Torah or that of the Samaritan community (which is to say nothing of the Jewish mystical tradition). There was always a sense that 'new words would come from the Torah' [Asatir Chapter XI]

The Apostle seems to arguing (at least from according to those traditions later deemed heretical) that there were mysteries in the text of the Torah which not only Moses but the god he served didn't fully understand.

This idea becomes clearly manifest in the anonymous epistle (sometimes identified as to the Laodiceans or to the Ephesians) where he speaks of "the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations" [? 3:4] and which the Apostle himself "became a servant of this announcement [Gk εὐαγγέλιον] by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power" to preach "the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God." [? 3:7 - 9]

It is interesting to note that when the Apostle explains HOW this mystery went unrevealed through all previous ages he ends up taking Scriptures from the 'Old Testament' and revealing an interpretation that was unknown to previous generations such as:

This is why God says "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men." (What does "he ascended" mean except that he [i.e. God] also descended to the depths?

And again he asks rhetorically

He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe. [? 4:7 - 9]

Again another 'new interpretation' prompted by the manifestation of the divinity in the world follows a few lines later:

"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." [Gen 2:24] This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church [? 5:30 - 31]

The point again is that no one before the Apostle could have known that these words of 'God' were 'really about' the relationship of Christ and the Church. Jews and Samaritans previously thought that he was simply speaking about human marriage.

Of course it should be obvious that the Christians of the earliest period must have thought that the God who gave the Law to Moses and even Moses himself didn't know the full extent of the mysteries contained in that revelation. Traditional models of Marcionite JUST DON'T WORK when you actually look at the evidence.

The point never the less is - at its most basic level - given that generations of Jews and Samaritans had scrutinized the Torah and never saw this 'mystery' or other mysteries unfold from its contents how can we ever be sure that we have understood 'everything' about a given text?

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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