The autocracy of (biblical) interpretation

I hear this one in myriad variations:

‘Badiou’s use of Paul is merely as an example of his preconceived system’.

‘Does Negri need Job? No’.

‘Those Americans are not really exegetes’. (They are probably not many things, but exegetes?)

‘Is that really what Calvin is saying or is that you?’

And perhaps the best of all: ‘Do you need Ezekiel?’

On the surface they may sound innocent enough: we need to read carefully and attentively, exegeting the text for its true meaning. But beneath that are deeply held theological and autocratic assumptions. Earlier I had a dig at the theological side of things, but let’s look at the autocratic assumptions. The text and ultimately the author is the autocrat with the supreme authority; the task of scholars is to discern the autocrat’s meaning and will; in doing so, leave all of your petty preconceptions at the palace door. Here too theology is not far away, for autocracy traditionally argues: one God in heaven, one ruler as his representative on earth. Of course, the problem is which autocrat do we mean? During the period of absolute monarchies, myriad rulers – Russian, Prussian, Danish, papal … – claimed to be God’s sole representative. The implications for texts should be obvious.




51 thoughts on “The autocracy of (biblical) interpretation

  1. And the exegete who has discerned the autocrat’s meaning and will is a loyal hench-thing, reveling in his(/her) position at the edge of the court. If I have a lock on the text’s meaning, then I have some of the autocrat’s power.

  2. This is usually the case in practice, but not necessarily. There is no necessary theology or autocracy in work outing out plausible reasons, for example, to support a theory about what the author of Genesis is doing with calling people Hamites and what he is not doing, or what the nineteenth-century slave trade is doing with the category of Hamites and what they are not doing. And this quite apart from any more or less “authority” attributed to one or the other. And there is no autocracy in deciding, for example that the later Hamite meaning is racist while the earlier meaning is not, according to specied definitions; it does not preclude others from coming along and deciding the opposite, based on their own reasoning and reconstruction of the facts. As long as one is a realist rather than an idealist, there is no grounds for seeing an autocratic spirit at play: some of these theories will be right, some wrong, and some more true or more false than others.

    1. ‘based on their own reasoning and reconstruction of the facts … some of these theories will be right, some wrong, and some more true or more false than others’.

      For whom and for what purpose?

      1. While “for whom and for what purpose?” are always worth asking, facts are determined also by reality, and so that’s what makes it legitimate to also ask what is the original meaning or some later meaning – if one is a realist and not an idealist, that is – even though the answers are always uncertain and contingent.

      2. You’d like Lenin’s worst work, then, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, since that is exactly what he argues, following Engels’s worst work, Anti-Duhring. Fortunately, both of them recovered from those lapses.

      3. As a good materialist-realist should argue. Those who object to the conception turn out to be idealists when you scratch below the surface.

        Although, and it is no qualification, there can be wrong turns that last centuries. In BS for example, although it has generated innumerable insights into truth along the way, the basic framework of German Pentateuchal scholarship with its progressivist assumptions (whether JEDP or more recent variations) is such a wrong turn. But I think the truth is harder to get to when it comes to empirical work where the object is so integrally tied up with your own identity – if it were just a matter of helium atoms, the path to truth would be a lot straighter.

      4. If that’s an objection, it rather covers too much. It would immediately eliminate any form of realism (except, oddly, a completely naive realism, where things are as one says they are, so reality is not ‘out there’ at all). But once you eliminate all the robust forms of realism, all you have left is … idealism. But maybe you want that (consciously or unconsiously)?

        More fudamentally, your objection confuses an hypothesis with idealism. Only the latter involves the sin of reification.

      5. The problem for you, as for Lenin in MEC, is that the only way one may perceive external reality is by being outside that reality, being removed from the object perceived. The issue is not reality exists out there, but that in order to hold your position, your consciousness itself must be outside that reality. This is of course the fiction maintained by scientific, if not all academic, ‘critical’ method, that one may stand back and analyse a situation ‘objectively’ in calm rationality.

      6. And the reason why your argument is idealism masquerading as common-sense materialism is that exactly the same procedure is used to postulate God as existing ‘out there’. For a theologian, of course, that is no big issue, but for a resolutely anti-theological campaigner like yourself, it does create a small problem.

      7. Nah – that doesn’t follow at all. You’ve got it all arse about face.

        The very reason that the realist posits a reality-in-itself is because he or she can’t perceive it. It is posited precisely because we don’t stand outside it. That is why every hypothesis “about” reality is subject to this fundamental uncertainty – in moderate realism. Only idealism claims certainty (via reduplication).

      8. Hmmm … a slight logical gap here: ‘the realist posits a reality-in-itself … because he or she can’t perceive it’ and then ‘It is posited precisely because we don’t stand outside it’. You can’t have it both ways.

      9. There’s no logical gap here: We’re finite, so we can’t perceive reality-in-itself; and being finite we certainly don’t stand outside reality-in-itself and shouldn’t imagine that we do. But we may hypothesize reality-in-itself as a way of making sense of various experiences (of it). This is all quite consistent.

        Old Kant (if you’ll excuse my language) was never awoken from his slumbers by Hume. Hume got it more-or-less right, and Kant couldn’t deal with it. Kant’s failure to deal with this necessary and fundamental uncertainty about reality is his life’s work – the “critique” characteristic of a somnambulist rather than anybody who was ever properly awakened. But if Kant was a somnambulist, Hegel was a zombie. It seems you have drunk deep from this stupiforic and unfortunate trajectory (Kant-Hegel-Husserl-Heidegger-etc) of Idealism.

        Roland, I unmask you as a Crypto-Idealist! A traitor to the materialist dialectic! Off to Antartica with you, packed only with a Bible and a set of GT Luscombe highlighters – the highlighters which were especially designed, with the help of the latest Japanese technology, not to bleed through Bible-thin paper.

      10. Your bluster can’t conceal the naive materialist position that you take. ‘postulate reality-in-itself’ – come on, that’s not moderate realism, it’s a chronically naive materialism. As for our bourgeois Hume, I guess you’d examine the Bible too in order to justify an autocrat to keep the rabble at bay. Sounds a little too much like the type of biblical criticism you espouse.

      11. Hmmmmmm…. my moderate realism is “naive” … could your “realism” possibly be: Crypto-Idealism!

      12. I’m picturing your typology of scholars in a book in which your descriptions face crosshatched line-drawn 19th-Century-style caricatures. Sort of a cross between Joy DeLyria and Sean Michael Robinson’s “’When It’s Not Your Turn’: The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden’s “The Wire'” (a part of a wider project, Down in the Hole: The unWired World of H.B. Ogden, to be published July 2012) and Barry Crump’s Bastards I Have Met (1971).

        How’s your crosshatch? There must be some old crosshatchers available for the job if yours is not up to scratch.

  3. Deane, I agree with you, but I think something bigger is at stake here. The autocracy comes into play when the biblical scholar says that one particular person deserves to be the arbiter of its true meaning (as opposed to its “significances,” for example). It’s fine to say that you’d like to study what nineteenth century slave traders are doing with Genesis 9, and it’s equally fine to say that you’d like to study what the putative J source, or the earliest oral traditions behind the J source, or one of the doubtless multiple strata of redactors, or some ideal Second Temple reader (let’s be frank, there’s no such thing as an author of Genesis, right?) is doing with Genesis 9. But none of these questions have any natural, objective priority over any others. They’re all just questions one may ask. But it is quite easy to find biblical scholars who seem to think that there is some ideal hierarchy of questions, with the ones about the Exilic-through-Second-Temple-Period folks naturally at the top. They express this belief in interpretive hierarchy in many different ways: sometimes it is an issue of “respecting the authors,” since history is a recovery of past perspectives, and we must listen carefully to the voice of the past without distorting it with our own prejudices, etc. This is a fine idea, but which voice exactly are you trying to respect in Genesis 9? By the time Genesis is anything like a book, there’s already been countless voices–with doubtless many different ways of understanding the meaning of what they are saying or writing–that have passed it on. This is why E.D. Hirsch’s distinction between “meaning” and “significance” (and his hermeneutic of “respect for the past”) is unworkable, at least for us. Biblical texts are traditional texts, which means they are always-already a cacophony of voices, all “disrespecting” each other (at least in Hirsch’s terms). You can say the same thing about textual criticism, which generally understands itself to be finding the proper form of the text. That’s a form of hierarchy, as well, and it also has no grounding other than the relative claims of particular communities or of modern scholars.

    1. Thanks, Brennan. I quite agree that this is the case in practice – that the recovery of the original meaning or Ur-text of Genesis not only takes priority, but is defended as the only legitimate activity, with appeal to religious and academic sites of authority. My point is that this appeal to authority is anything but inevitable, necessary, or constitutive of the critical method; that it is rather an accident of the genealogy of biblical studies.

      The distinction between the multiple authors and later reception is only a complication on the recovery of meaning of “the author”. If this is the case – as it sometimes is in the Hebrew Bible – we must consider multiple ancient meanings and distinguish them against multiple receptions. But, Hirsch’s basic distinction, which is also Krister Stendahl’s, is still valid, even if the priority is not. Hirsch’s distinction needs considerable refinement, it isn’t “unworkable”.

      As for Genesis, I do attribute it to a single “author” – not in any modern Romantic sense, but as a compiler, reworker, creator of a single work. The traditions on which this author drew were many and varied, sure, but they were also united enough to include within the frame of a single point. I tend to conclude more often than not that the books of the Torah – and Enneateuch, and latter Prophets, too – are better understood not as some Bakhtinian cacophany from which a great diversity of readers can select and so redeem the text in their own ways, but – in Zizek or Lyotard’s senses if not their terminology – as the subjecting of diversity to a hegemonic worldview.

      But more importantly: are you “BB”?

      1. Ha, yes, sorry to disappoint- I’m not Bruce Bawer. Or Bob Bdylan. I’ll post a reply to your helpful comments in a bit.

      2. Deane, thanks for the reply. I’d like to know where you’d draw the line between an ancient “meaning” and a more recent “reception.” If you take the book of Daniel, for instance, there’s the Aramaic chapters 2-6, which seem to have come from different diasporic sources but were over time edited into a roughly coherent group of stories. Then there is the addition of Aramaic chapter 7, and then the Hebrew chapters 8-12, which were probably done at different times and from a Palestinian location. Then there’s the Hebrew chapter 1, which might be from the same place and time as 8-12 but also might not be. This long history is compounded by a significant problem: chapters 4-6 are extant in two different versions (in the proto-MT and proto-OG) neither of which are original – that is, both have additions and subtractions from each other, which points to separate reworkings of a now-lost text. Then you have the additional stories of Bel and the Dragon and Susannah, which are located in different places in different manuscripts. These were fiddled with well into the common era. So, what’s the original version of Daniel, and who is the author? This is the first major issue – what’s the borderline between a reception and a meaning? Is Bel and the Dragon part of Daniel, or is it one of the first receptions of Daniel? How could you make that distinction in necessary, objective terms? Any criteria you put forth will be contingent – for example, “the MT is the common text.” That’s a theological point put forth by an autocracy. Why not use the proto-OG as your line between original and reception? How does Hirsch, or Stendhal, help you determine when the last “real author” worked on Daniel and the first “receiver” began to create significances rather than meanings? I’d say the medieval masoretic scribes were trying to create a unifying meaning, but weren’t able to do so, with their vowels and notations. How are they different from someone in the Second Temple period fiddling with the text of Daniel?

        The second point applies to any fixed point along these textual trajectories. If you were to say that the redactor of the proto-MT version had an intention for the whole, I’d say that is a rather high view of the author- and perhaps brings a unifying “sensus plenior” back into the equation in a much stronger way than Bakhtinian polyphony does it. Instead, I’d imagine that the redactor understood some things well, other things not at all, and came up with some new ideas about some parts. In other words, Daniel – like all biblical texts- is a messy text, and I doubt anyone inheriting this mess and editing it can ultimately exercise semantic authority that unifies it into a “meaning” distinct from “receptions.” Perhaps there was a coherent intention of the whole for the Torah in the mind of a redactor of the proto-MT, but I’d say it’s impossible for that individual to repress all of the conflicting ideologies that survive sedimented in the text. Isn’t it for this very reason that we can detect underlying tensions between, say, northern and southern versions of traditions? Criticism relies upon the inability of people to dominate the traditions they pass on, or even to dominate the meanings of the things they say for the first time.

      3. I don’t think that these (very real) boundary problems pose any problem for the basic distinction about meaning. That is, I don’t think we need to draw the line precisely in order to uphold that there is a valid distinction between a meaning at one point of time and the meaning at another. To go further, I have read many paragraphs in which I’m sure the author has slightly changed their meaning from the beginning of the paragraph to the end – but while meaning is somewhat fluid, vague, ambiguous, changing, it is also somewhat bounded. If there are deliberate exceptions to this – say, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake – it’s because they noticeably do break the rules for locating some fixity of meaning. But back to Daniel, there is all that variation you describe, and there are also the many Danielic texts at Qumran which are on the borderline of what is named “Daniel” and something slightly different – just as some “parabiblical” texts are in that liminal space between what we might categorise as Bible and what we might categorise as commentary, etc. But these complications – and they may be multiplied – not only indicate the fluidity of meaning but its boundedness. How about a modern children’s book on Daniel which includes admonitions about Christian faith in Jesus – is this a “new” meaning to any of these ancient meanings? I would say yes, but any dispensationalist would see Jesus in passages like Dan 7 from the beginning, by conflating early and later meanings. So, although there is a great variety of meaning and persons who might be considered the “author” of Daniel, there is still also a valid distinction to be made between “the meaning of Daniel” and the meaning of its receptions.

        I quite agree with your second point that the author-compiler of these ancient texts could not entirely stamp his own meaning on the texts, and rival meanings still exist in the text. There is both the attempt at creating a hegemony and its incompleteness all in one – which from our non-naive point of view, makes reading all the more interesting. Sure, he tried to rewrite the text for his own views, but this is only ever partially successful.

      4. Deane,

        I agree with your response to the first point- until the last couple of sentences. If there is a great variety, then what criteria do you use to distinguish a late Second Temple author’s meaning from a second century CE Christian significance? I would argue instead that there are no boundaries at all- that is, until we ask a specific question. This alone provides criteria by which to sort out where any boundaries lie. We could ask, what did this particular redactor think, or what were the semantic possibilities within this particular time frame, and so on. These particular questions do have right and wrong answers, of course. But none of these questions (and none of the associated criteria, and thus none of the boundaries) are necessarily, or objectively, better than any others. This is where I believe the autocracy comes into play: the assumption that my question in necessarily the one that must be asked first, or is somehow asking something more pure, or provides ontologically superior data (meanings as opposed to significances, for example). Also any division between an author and a receiver makes the same claims. It’s not that the boundaries are fuzzy, as Wittgenstein says. The boundaries are crystal clear. But they do not exist before you choose a particular, and contingent, question to ask.

      5. To some extent I agree that the distinctions we highlight between “Daniel” and a second century AD Christian interpretation of that work are our own. But I don’t accept that the distinctions weren’t also already there, in the text. The words of, say Daniel and 4 Ezra (insofar as it is a development of Daniel), had dstinct semantic ranges in the language of the time and place of their composition that did not wholly correspond. This is the basis of the distinction, quite apart from what we might highlight. Our own highlighting of distinctions is, always, a complex mix of objective, real differences between these texts and our subjective framing of those already-existing differences.

    2. ‘the critical method’. That’s not an absolute …

      And Deane that really is garbled. Are you really suggesting that ruling class hegemony constitutes an ‘author’? That would mean pretty much the whole Bible is the product of such an author.

      1. There’s this train of thought that attempts to see the Bible as a polyphonic text, one in which there is no centrally authoritative viewpoint, but different viewpoints clash together, or “subvert” the dominant view if there is one. Good examples include Mark Brett’s book on Genesis, or Carol Newsom’s book on Job – the latter including superb criticism on the different parts of the book. I think this trend is a continuance of the old sensus plenior approach, which keeps finding deeper riches in the Bible – espcially where the plain sense is morally repugnant or nonsensical. Now, it’s one thing to read parts of the text against the dominant grain, as in deconstruction. But what seems to usually be suggested is that the Bible actually has this depth of profundity. I think it is far more likely, in a collection as religiously prescriptive as the final form of the biblical books, that what you have is the inclusion of divergent views only insofar as they can be incorporated by the dominant view. There is a “universal” perspective on Israel, for example, only when Judea is the leading tribe and none of the others are serious contenders. So instead of having resort to what Bakhtin says – and he simply makes things up about the Middle Ages – I think better resort can be had to Zizek’s pessimistic take on political change (in this respect I’m still sympathetic to his conclusions rather than Butler’s in that talk about universalism in about 2000) or Lyotard’s take on phrases.

        Hopefully that’s less garbled. Probably shouldn’t have attempted saying that in a single sentence.

      2. Now that’s a different story, predicated on redemptive readings. Bakhtin gets separated from Voloshinov (and thereby from Marxism and revolutionary theory), becomes some liberal polyphonist; you add a specific ‘author’ with an intentional theologico-political agenda that is somehow subversive, and hey presto, you get such readings.

        However, a better reading (of a Marxist Bakhtin) is that ruling hegemonies are never stable by their very nature, having to be reasserted continuously because they’re crap (current eg, the tripe about China trotted out in plenty of media outlets, or how good capitalism really is). Thus they generate the seeds of their own destruction and they constantly need to tell stories about why a,b,c are simply unacceptable and lead to ruin. But in doing so they produce and preserve such stories. Witness the myriad accounts of why rebellions are so bad, so sinful.

      3. Well that’s a better version, if not a rarer one in BS appropriations (itself dominated by a hegemonic liberalism inherited from its origins, and quite ingrained, and which avoids radical critique by absorbing it in decaffeinated form). What you’re saying is also fairly consistent with the idea that hegemonies absorb dissent and thereby become stronger. They’re unstable, constantly changing, and preserving opposition, but conversely they are are also adaptable, robust, and resist opposition. In the medium term of decades or centuries, of course; in the long term they all come tumbling down.

      4. It’s stronger than that, hegemonies breed counter-hegemonies (Gramsci picked up the term among the Bolsheviks – Lenin uses it regularly) rather than merely appropriating them, but now we’re verging on dialectics.

      5. Not quite, ruling hegemony has to produce all manner of virtual threats in order to maintain its shaky hold. Witness the rising and falling ‘terror alert’ scale in the USA. A similar pattern can be traced in the narratives of Genesis-Joshua.

      6. Bakhtin as reflected through the (post-)structuralists like Kristeva is how we get the liberal polyphonic Bakhtin: the free-play of texts disembodied from their contexts. Of course you’re right Roland, biblical scholars don’t read the Voloshinov (although I own a copy, ha!). One of the major criticisms of Polzin’s later works on 1-2 Sam as opposed to his earlier book on Deut through Judg was that he gave way to a monologic reading of the text. Now that’s a good example of the critics wanting the liberal polyphonic Bakhtin – Bob pointed out to me that Bakhtin always thought the hegemonic ideology (the monologue, if you will) was the one that asserts itself in the end.

      7. The resignation of intellectuals who realise the futility of their inherent idealism. The catch is that ruling hegemonies have a knack of undoing themselves, which, when combined with a subjective revolutionary move, brings it crumbling down. In other words, crisis is the norm and ruling class stability the exception, a constant adaptation to crisis.

      8. A moderate realist like me has a lot more in common with a moderate idealist like you than with the extreme idealists or naive realists.

    1. The obscurity of this one amused me to. I guess the “original meaning” of the question is “Do you really need Ezekiel [to present what are really your own views]?”

    2. A question posed to me a few years back in an Ezekiel section meeting at the SBL, but a travelling preacher who argued that the flesh-and-blood Ezekiel was a just that, a travelling preacher who handed out tracts to people.

    3. Surely no-one needs Ezekiel. Except if you want to write (pseudo-)pornographic essays on biblical texts. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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