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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Communicative Intentions and Textual Interpretation

Deconstruction developed from that part of Saussure's theory that was taken to assert that meaning was internal to linguistic systems and not dependent on objects in the external world. It was a small step to the view that texts, whatever their nature, should be regarded as pieces of literature to be closely read, and not as works that in any way related to an external world. In the words of Anthony Giddens, ‘The thesis of the arbitrary character of the sign, as Saussure developed it, tends to elide the difference between texts which claim to deliver some veridical description of the world and those that are fictional’ (Social Theory Today, 210). In The Truth about Postmodernism, Christopher Norris discusses deconstructionist writers such as J. Hillis Miller, who believe that ‘philosophical texts are in no way different from novels or poems, and should therefore be read chiefly with an eye to their covert metaphors, fictive strategies and structures of rhetorical implication’ (p. 183 ). On this view, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason ceases to be an attempt to explore the possibilities and limits of empirical knowledge and becomes a text no different from a poem or novel, to be studied for its rhetorical and other techniques.

The view that texts do not relate to an external world has serious implications for a collection such as the Bible that claims to record the dealings of God with a historical people in a specific cultural setting and which claims that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5: 19 ). Some of these implications have found expression in recent work. Thus, it is common to regard God in Old Testament texts not as an external reality in whom the Old Testament writers believed, but simply as a character in a story. Jesus, in the gospels, can be regarded in the same way. Equally serious is the assumption that because all texts are literary texts in spite of what they claim to be, literary methods have priority over historical or philosophical attempts to interpret texts. This has led to the assertion that the historical books of the Old Testament, such as Samuel and Kings, should be read primarily as literary narrative, and should not be used to reconstruct the history of ancient Israel.

One further outcome of the negative side of newer, literary-based approaches to the Bible needs to be introduced before the attempt is made to move in a positive direction. Reader-response criticism has rightly drawn attention to the need for reflection upon reading and readers when interpretation is being considered. It is obvious that readers come to texts from vastly differing backgrounds, and that what they make of texts depends upon their interests and where they are coming from. The correspondence page of the Times Literary Supplement provides weekly evidence that reading is not an innocent activity! But does it follow from the fact that readers have different interests that affect their reading, or that authors can be so easily misunderstood (as they constantly point out on the correspondence page of the TLS) that texts only have the meanings assigned to them by interpretative communities? That this latter possibility is the case has been strikingly urged by my colleague David Clines in a recent essay. Commenting on the practice of reading against the grain of a text Clines writes:

Strictly speaking, texts do not have grains any more than they ‘have’ meanings. Authors would like to put grains in their texts, of course, and readers are forever finding grains in texts, even though they are not there. But since authors do not own their own texts, not forever, authors' intentions do not constitute the reality of the texts they compose or determine their meaning. And from the readers' side, what counts as the grain of the text for them is no more than what some interpretative community or other decides to call the grain. So when I am reading against the grain, I am really reading against the practice of an interpretative community, sometimes even against myself and my own first reading. Strictly speaking, the text is not to blame for the thoughts that come into my head when I am reading it, but I am not always speaking strictly; like most people, in everyday speaking and writing I go on ascribing meaning and grain to texts. (Interested Parties, 207 n. 38)

There are many points in this statement with which I can agree, but I content myself with the observation that it privileges for itself what it denies to other texts. It clearly has a communicative intention, not to mention a grain, and these are the work of the author and certainly not dependent on the practice of an interpretative community. At the same time, it is difficult to disagree with the view expressed in the quotation that a person's second reading of a text might vary radically from that same person's first reading. What is needed is a theoretical framework that can accommodate the main important insights brought to biblical studies by literary structuralism, deconstructive techniques, and interest approaches such as feminism and liberation theology, without reaching the conclusion that all texts must be treated as literary texts and that meanings are only the practice of interpretative communities. Such a theoretical framework is found, in my view, in Anthony Giddens's theory of ‘talk’.

In his essay ‘Structuralism, Post-structuralism and the Production of Culture’ Giddens criticizes the work of Saussure and those who have followed him, for separating language and language structure from the social environments of language use. ‘Linguistic competence’, he writes, using Noam Chomsky's adaptation of Saussure's language system, ‘involves not only the syntactical mastery of sentences, but mastery of the circumstances in which particular types of sentence are appropriate … mastery of the language is inseparable from mastery of the variety of contexts in which language is used’ (Social Theory Today, 199–200).

Giddens's next step is to note that in day-to-day communication it is possible for speakers to interrogate each other to ensure that what they intended to say has been properly understood. (The TLS correspondence page serves the same function!) Giddens defines as ‘talk’ the activity that links culture and communication via agents and their social setting, and then makes the important observation that ‘talk’ is situated in space but not in time. A conversation, for example, takes place in a particular social space occupied by two or more people, and depends upon a whole range of non-linguistic factors. To give an example of my own, the word ‘round’ spoken in a pub has different implications from when it is used at a choir practice. Once the conversation is ended it no longer exists. If it is written down, however, it occupies time in the sense that other people can have access to the conversation even centuries after it has taken place. But the transfer of the conversation from social space to time means that it is removed from the social context in which it was generated, including the non-linguistic factors and shared conventions which were a vital part of it. As a piece of writing, the recorded conversation becomes a cultural object capable of being interpreted in varying ways, and thus having meaning potential beyond the original communicative aims of the conversation.

Several things are implied in this analysis. First, in talk, closure and fixity of meaning are aimed at and achieved by the fact that parties to it can check to see that they have been properly understood. It is only when something is written down that language is turned away from fixity of meaning and becomes open to multiple interpretation. But, secondly, even in writing something down an author has a communicative intention (compare once more the TLS correspondence page) and it ought to be possible to interrogate a text in order to discover its communicative intention. Giddens writes:

we can ask what was the communicative intent involved in a given section of a text. Where the author is unavailable, we can seek to answer such a question by investigating the forms of mutual knowledge implied in what the author wrote. This entails in turn that there are criteria for the accuracy of interpretations. But these criteria, and the types of material that must be known to confirm them, are complicated. They essentially involve enquiring into the settings of production of the text as a work. They mean knowing a good deal about the way in which the author set out to produce the text and the intellectual resources drawn upon in its production…they also involve knowing about the audience to whom the text was primarily addressed…Texts are written within various conventions of form, style and readership. (ibid. 220)

Translated into the specifics of biblical studies we have here, it seems to me, a powerful justification for the classical methods of source criticism and form- and redaction criticism; a justification for the need for a knowledge of the social and intellectual milieu of ancient Israel within the larger ancient Near East and of the early church in its Judaeo-Hellenistic-Roman context. We have a defence of scholarly attempts to establish the communicative intentions of the biblical writers.

But we also have a justification for refusing to be satisfied simply with trying to establish the communicative intentions of the writers. As written texts become separated in time and social setting from the conditions in which they were produced, they become capable of bearing multiple meanings. As Giddens says, writing of artefacts, with which texts have much in common,

All artifacts which have a durable character can become more or less completely separated both from the contexts of their initial production and from the projects of those who created them. All artifacts similarly may be put to purposes, or even ‘interpreted’, in ways of which their producers may never have dreamed. (ibid. 221)

Giddens's approach, with its firm rejection of divorcing language and the production of texts from their social context, coupled with the recognition that texts as artefacts can be open to multiple interpretation and use, enables us to put the methods that can currently be found in biblical studies study into a credible framework.

The biblical writers had a communicative intention within their historical and social world, and the discovery of that communicative intention is a primary task in biblical studies, and one that calls for a great deal of specialist knowledge. The biblical writers did not produce their texts with the intention of allowing scholars in the twentieth century to address feminist and social and political issues, nor to deconstruct their texts or to apply to them close reading and literary structuralist techniques developed in the twentieth century. Yet all of these latter strategies are legitimate activities, and they have enriched biblical studies. It is important, however, that we do not allow the tail to wag the dog, which is what happens when it is claimed that there is no difference between a philosophical text and a poem, that literary methods are prior to historical-critical methods, and that texts do not have meanings or grains intended by authors.

We have come round, then, to reaffirming the importance of historical criticism as a means of discovering the intentions of the biblical writers. Does this mean that we are only back to where we were in 1964, with our arguments about the authenticity of the closing verses of Amos 9 ? Certainly not. If the historical-critical method is reinstated as having a prime position in biblical studies, it is a historical-critical method chastened and, in my opinion, improved by the attacks that it has suffered at the hands of advocates of the other methods discussed in this chapter and illustrated elsewhere in this volume.

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