In reading Roland Deines’ essay in Second Temple Judaism (“The Pharisees Between ‘Judaisms’ and ‘Common Judaism'”), I came across the following, astute paragraph:
If it is correct that it was particularly halakah that constituted Pharisees as Pharisees, it is also true that it constituted Essenes as Essenes and Sadducees as Sadducees. The same can be said regarding the other Jewish groups that existed prior to 70. This explains why the differences and even antagonism between these three basic movements (which included diverse elements within themselves) did not lead to the complete suspension of religious association within Judaism, whereas the association with early Christians broke off quite soon. All three Jewish movements oriented themselves basically around the Torah as the center of individual and national Jewish existence. In this system the Messiah was subordinated to Torah. For Christians, on the other hand, Christ became the center of individual as well as communal existence. In him, a person’s profound relationship with his own nation was expanded to an eschatological and thus at the same time universal horizon. The final breakdown came when the soteriological marginality of the Torah in relation to Christ could no longer be overlooked in the course of generational change. Even where Torah was observed with sincerity in Jewish-Christian congregations, it had still lost its absolute, eschatological dimension. It had, even in these congregations, reached its τέλος in Christ (499–500; italics added).
Communication is hermeneutical; it involves people sending and receiving messages. To make the communication process work, the sender(s) and receiver(s) both have to meet their own particular, communicative responsibilities. Of course, with literature like the New Testament, the people who sent the messages it contains cannot clarify or supplement anything they have already said. So, if communication is to happen, any modern readers, or receivers, must try to understand the text’s own communicative horizon, for all the problems that task entails (see this post for a discussion). On this task, consider the following, insightful comments from N. T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God:
I suggest, then, that the epistemology which I outlined earlier—that which sees knowledge as part of the responsibility of those made in the image of the creator to act responsibly and wisely with in the created world—results, at the level of literature, in a sensitive critical realism. We must renounce the fiction of a god’s-eye view of events on the one hand and a collapsing of event into significance or perception on the other. Until we really address this question, most of the present battles about reading the gospels—and most past ones too, for that matter—will be dialogues of the deaf, doomed to failure. But, for a start, I suggest a possible hermeneutical model . . . a hermeneutic of love.
In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.
When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. But however close the reader gets to understanding the text, the reading will still be peculiarly that reader’s reading: the subjective is never lost, nor is it desirable that it should be. At this level, ‘love’ will mean ‘attention’: the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change oneself in relation to the other (63–64; italics original).
Texts are artifacts insofar as they are products of constructive processes and are ontologically distinct from their authors (Barton 159). Thus, respecting how readers encounter texts, Derrida correctly says that “there is nothing outside the text” (Caputo 80; cf. Barton 220). That is, readers only directly encounter the text, not its “meaning,” the author’s “intention,” or anything else about the text; readers must construe these other things from the text. Moreover, a text’s context is not even “attached” to the text. The text may describe its context, but as such, this description is text, not context. Consequently, texts must be placed in contexts, and this placement requires textual data to be construed.
While Derrida used “textual autonomy” to help create play between the various signs in the text, his perspective on this issue has been rightly critiqued because it does not sufficiently account for the reality of human communication [Tennyson and Ericson, Jr. 45; cf. David McCarthy, “A Not-so-Bad Derridean Approach to Psalm 23,” Proceedings of the Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 8 (1988): 178]. Part of the difficulty with Derrida’s view is that it discusses the child class “texts” in isolation from the parent class “messages.”1 Two essential properties of the message class are: (1) ontological distinction from the sender and (2) the ability to function as a transfer medium (cf. Vanhoozer 218, 225–26). Indeed, ontological distinction might be designated as the primary presupposition of all communication. When a sender desires to send information to a receiver, the receiver cannot directly access this information as the sender conceives it in himself, so the sender creates something distinct from himself that the receiver can access. This transfer medium is the sender’s message. If it were not ontologically distinct from the sender, it could not function as a transfer medium, and communication could not occur. This type of ontological distinction between sender and message may be termed “soft autonomy.”
By contrast, the “hard autonomy” of Derrida and others views texts as so autonomous that they do not carry definite information perceivable by their readers. Thus, if a text exhibits hard autonomy, it cannot be understood as a message because the text cannot function as a transfer medium. In this instance, the text is a mere artifact insofar as it is an aesthetic object, which the reader can enjoy and with which he can play, but which serves no communicative function and exists for its own sake and its author’s pleasure in creating it (Barton 146–47; Hirsch 25). Thus, the message class does not have the property of hard autonomy.
Because of soft autonomy, a message’s sending is always temporally distanced from its reception. Senders take time to create messages, and receivers process these messages only after the messages are transmitted. Consequently, all interpretation of all messages is, to some degree, interpretation of the past. For instance, if a wife asks her husband to pass the salt, the husband interprets a message sent in the recent past, but he still interprets a past message. Thus, by analogy, understanding messages further in the past (e.g., the Bible) is also possible, but increased distance between sender and receiver increases the possibility of a communication breakdown and necessitates that the receiver work harder to ensure that the message is received accurately.
While time necessarily distances a receiver from a sender, other factors (like culture and sociology) may also remove the receiver from the context the sender projected, consciously or unconsciously, for his receiver (cf. Ricœur 13–14). To return to the salt example, the husband can understand the wife’s message almost as directly as possible because both spouses share a common linguistic system and context. If the wife wanted the pepper, however, and said, “Please pass the salt,” communication would break down because the wife expressed what she wanted with a term to which her husband assigns a different semantic range (cf. Vanhoozer 243). Thus, senders who desire to communicate should construct their messages so that receivers will be able to handle them properly;2 hence, assuming that most senders are competent and desire to communicate to their messages’ receivers, one should generally seek to interpret a message as its original recipient(s) would have done. Of course, this conclusion itself implies that the interpreter’s hermeneutical goal is to understand the meaning a message’s author intended to send by his message, but this topic will be discussed later.
1 In what follows, I am partially indebted to Hirsch 173–98. The class “messages,” of course, includes both oral and written communication. Derrida contested the priority typically given to oral communication and attempted to assert the primacy of written communication and, therefore, its determinative function for all human communication. John Ellis, however, has adduced several problems with this argument (see Carson 113). While space precludes a detailed discussion of this critique, Ellis’s work suggests the validity, ceteris paribus, of treating oral and written communication on equal terms (see also Ricœur 13).
2 Sometimes, of course, someone may receive and interpret a message whose sender could never have imagined, such as when modern historians interpret Tacitus. In this case, the burden for closing the communication gap falls entirely on the new receiver whose interpretive constraints the author could not have anticipated.
In this post:
David McCarthy, “A Not-so-Bad Derridean Approach to Psalm 23,” Proceedings of the Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 8 (1988): 177–91