Friday, May 15, 2009

What really mattered when reading the Bible?

I'm reading a pre-publication version of an article on the significance of the (later) insertion of the Pericopae Adulterae (John 7.53–8.11) into John's gospel. The author, Chris Keith, is a good friend of mine, and I find that he and I seem to be making very similar arguments, more or less independently of each other, with respect to different sets of data (I have focused my research on Jesus' logia pertaining to his acts of healing and exorcism). Since this is a tentative version of Chris's paper I don't want to reveal too much. But he does present a wonderful opportunity to formulate a question I've been wrestling with for a few months.

When we read the Bible (and by we here I mean primarily the church, believers in and worshippers of God, rather than the scholarly community) we have certain expectations about the texts before us. Those texts reveal the God of whom they speak. Those texts describe the history, current state, and future of this world. Those texts make certain claims on my own life as one who lives within the world under the reign and/or care of the God mentioned above. I don't intend to argue with any of these expectations. But I wonder how much these expectations have led us to assume, perhaps even unknowingly, that what matters when reading the Bible is the relationship between the text and the reality behind—as well as above!—the text. Again, no complaints here. But I wonder if this focus on the relationship between the text and something else betrays an unwillingness to affirm the text in itself.

This question was raised for me originally by the argument of, among others, James Dunn, that the textual dynamics relevant for understanding the relationship between the synoptic gospels is best described as variation within the same (a point Keith is discussing in his paper). What accounts for this variation, a phenomenon many of us wouldn't accept today? With respect to the synoptic gospels (Dunn), this variation is evident in readings across the synoptics (compare, for example, the three different versions of the Parable of the Vineyard [Mark 12.1–12 parr.; note also the parallel in the Gospel of Thomas]). With respect to the Pericopae Adulterae (Keith), this variation is evident in the manuscript tradition of John's gospel, which at some point did not contain this tradition and then, without a sense of corruption or intrusion, it did.

If, in church, we would never accept the kind of flux with respect to the Bible that seemed to be at the very least acceptable—and at most commonplace—what significant difference between the church then and the church now explains this contrast? Is our way of reading the Bible "better" than theirs? or is theirs better? How can we know? In other words, I am serious about the past-tense verb in the title of this post: What really mattered—to the early Christians more than to us—when reading the Bible?

One answer—not the answer but one answer—may focus on the reception of the Bible and the God that we believe reveals himself through it. In the assumptions undergirding how we read the Bible we expect the Bible to mean what it means, and our job is to meet the Bible where it is. This assumption is facilitated by the widespread availability of printed Bibles, in which anyone of any age and life circumstance can have their own copy (and often their own copies) of the Bible and read it for themselves. In an ancient environment where the Bible was much less accessible and many people only had access to it through another person's reading and/or performance of the text, things may have worked a bit differently. Instead of a reader "figuring out" what the text means, a performer (or lector) had to connect the text's meaning with the people listening. The meaning of the text, rather than the text itself, occupied the church's focus.

How exactly we could—or even whether or not we should—distinguish between the biblical text and its meaning isn't clear to me. But one thing I'm increasingly sure of: For us the Bible's text is relatively (even firmly) stable (often we cite Matt. 5.18 here), but its meaning might fluctuate depending on circumstances of reading. I'm not willing to say that meaning was stable in the earlier church, but I am confident that the text could shift and adapt in service of what mattered: the text's meaning, its significance. And I can't shake the feeling that the church today could learn something from our ancestors in the faith in this regard.

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