Posted by: Ken Brown | June 18, 2009

Objectivity and Biblical Interpretation

One of the interesting things emerging from our various lists of influential books is how many people note works that broadened their perspectives on the text. Perhaps this merely reflects the way I asked the question (what books “permanently changed the way you think”), but I suspect most lists would include such works regardless. If a book  is too different than what we expect, we may simply dismiss its viewpoint, but those books that impact us the most usually do so by challenging our expectations and presuppositions enough to force us to wrestle with them.

I think the same is true of our reading of the Bible itself. There is a lot of discussion about the proper role of objectivity in exegesis, and whether a religious commitment to the text tends to hinder proper interpretation. Doug Magnum recently posted a quote to that effect by Ziony Zevit (HT Philip Sumpter, whose comments are also worth reading):

[We] are too comfortable with viewing biblical religion through prisms of living religious traditions that have interpreted these texts for us; traditions that we accept or reject, or to which we feign indifference, or to which we are indifferent. Having been informed by these traditions, however, we are influenced by them and somehow look back through them, as through a glass darkly, to seek ancient Israel. (Sometimes, without realizing, we confuse our reflection with what lies beyond the glass.) This is a handicap to be overcome.

This is a legitimate concern, as those with a stake in a certain interpretive tradition can very easily find in the text what they want to see rather than what is actually there. This is true whether the reader is religious or irreligious, traditional or progressive, though some interpreters clearly work harder than others to overcome it. After all, there are scholarly “traditions” just as surely as  religious ones, and these can be just as biasing.

For instance, there is little difference between an over-zealous believer who dismisses the surface level meaning of a difficult text for some more palatable alternative, and an over-zealous redaction-critic (whether religious or not) who  takes every textual difficulty as evidence of a redactional seem. Both approaches have their place and, if carefully and self-critically employed, can lead to deeper insight into the text, but they can just as easily replace the text with a figment of our own imaginations.

For this reason it remains vital for all interpreters to foster a critical approach both to scripture and their own traditions, seeking (though perhaps never finding) the objectivity to honestly assess the interpretive options. Not only believers (of various stripes) but unbelievers as well must be careful to guard against letting their own presuppositions silence the text. On this score, the believer is aided by a natural tendency to read the Bible charitably, while the non-believer is aided by a natural tendency to recognize the fundamental otherness of the text. Much of the vitality of biblical studies comes from the dialogue–sometimes friendly, sometimes less so!–between these two approaches.

To my mind, however, the best interpreters are those who can balance these two opposing tendencies towards familiarity and objectivity, who have a primary loyalty to the text but also recognize that it must forever remain beyond our reach. In this way, the best interpreters are mirror images of the best books–those whose perspectives are close enough to be delighted by the text, but far enough away to be challenged by it.

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  1. […] an interesting conversation going on between (among others no doubt) Doug Mangum, Phil Sumpter and Ken Brown about (historical) objectivity and (religious) interpretation of […]


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