An Intermediary Term—The History of Interpretation and Effects
Methodological plurality and combination are possible as long as neither text, reader, author, nor any single context is claimed as the totality of meaning or singular focus of interest. For many interpreters (including myself), it is the history of interpretation itself (and Wirkungsgeschichte, ‘the history of effects’) that helps to integrate the art of biblical interpretation, old and new. First off, those who take seriously the history of interpretation know readily and emphatically that it is an empirical fact that the biblical texts cannot be locked into any single meaning. Second, patristic exegetes are terrific reading partners for those interested in rhetoric in biblical texts, since their reading practices were thoroughly conditioned by their rhetorical education (Young 1997; Clark 1999; Mitchell 2001). Third, perhaps not entirely independent from trends in biblical studies, recent research into early biblical interpretation has in turn been demonstrating the plurality of reading strategies used by Christians and Jews in late antiquity (Young 1997; Clark 1999; Kugel and Greer 1986). Fourth, the traditional ancient divide between ‘literal’ and ‘allegorical’ readings, which is in some degree replayed in contemporary discourse about a hermeneutical divide between historical and ‘ahistorical’ approaches, has increasingly been undermined by recent research (Young 1997) and shown to be itself part of rhetorical practice (Mitchell 2005). Lastly, attention to rabbinic and patristic biblical interpretation reveals the ancient preoccupation with close reading (the frequent term for this among the early Greek authors was akribeia, ‘accurate attention’ to the details of the text so prized in modern rhetorical and literary analyses). We should not overly romanticize early exegesis as somehow more ‘pure’ than modern or post-modern biblical scholarship (do we really want to cancel the advances of historical and philological research—send the Dead Sea Scrolls back to the hills, and better biblical manuscripts back to oblivion?). But it does no harm, and perhaps much good, to see ourselves, like biblical interpreters of all times, as curious readers whose interpretive work follows up insistent questions posed by diligent examination of the text, attuned to its own rhetorical dimensions and narrative logic, while also attending carefully to the ways in which we, like they, create forms of rhetorical commentary and explication that fashion worlds in turn.