Saturday, 20 December 2014

A Hermeneutics of Trust?

Recently the following was posted on the SBL's Facebook page:
Given SBL's pluralistic vision and that there are now so many members who take the Bible and history seriously, should we think about proposing a section on Biblical History and the Hermeneutics of Trust? It could provide an alternate scholarly forum to the pervasive skepticism and post-modernism at SBL.
This is horribly problematic, for several reasons, which I will discuss below. First, however, a word situating my own thought. I am heavily interested in traditional historical questions. Not exclusively in such questions but heavily. I also tend to towards what many might describe as a maximalist understanding of such questions, although I must admit that I find the idea that we can know in anything but the broadest strokes what a historical figure said two millennia ago quite baffling. The point is that I am sympathetic to the idea that we can know a fair amount about ancient Israel, Judaism and Christianity and this in large but not exclusive part because of the biblical tradition.

That said I find this suggestion quite problematic, and were such a section to materialize I would be the first in line to produce a less-than-sympathetic review of its premises. First, politically, I am somewhat nonplussed about seeing the language of pluralism used to warrant what seems to be a somewhat reactionary program. Second, conceptually, I'm somewhat unsure exactly how hermeneutics is understood to operate within historiography. By my way of thinking hermeneutics is about how we going on figuring out what a writer intends to communicate; in other words, it is the theory of exegesis. Yet exegesis is not historiography. For instance, exegetically I am quite confident that Luke really does mean what he says in the opening verses of his gospel: he intends to tell us about the events of Jesus's life, and I think we can also generalize these to Acts such that we can say that he also walks to tell us about Christian development subsequent to Jesus's life. Yet even exegetically I have to acknowledge that Luke intends to tell us these things within the ancient framework that he operates. So I have to take account of things such as ancient historiography, and when I do I discover that many of the things that we value--chronological sequence, accuracy in quotation, etc.--maybe were not that significant to Luke. In fact I can point to places wherein it seems clear to me that Luke is clearly not ordering things chronologically. This renders the idea of "trust" difficult, for I have to ask exactly what it is that I am as a historian to trust?

Yet the more interesting thing is that none of the above even gets at the transition from exegesis to history. This idea of a "hermeneutics of trust" in historiography seems to me to operate on the implicit supposition that whatever Luke or any other biblical writer intends to tell us about past events is precisely what did happen. In such an understanding historiography is simply exegesis. Never mind referencing postmodernism: such an understanding of historiography was obsolete two hundred years ago. And not just in biblical studies; no competent historian after about 1800 works that way. And the impracticability of this hermeneutics is evident when we consider what to do with material that makes mutually contradictory claims. And saying that no such material exists in the biblical corpus, aside from being empirically unsound, is quite irrelevant, for any hermeneutics that we utilize in the study of the biblical tradition we must also be able to utilize in the study of the extra-biblical tradition. Yet there is manifestly material in the extra-biblical tradition that is at variance with the biblical tradition; it is hard to imagine even the most dyed-in-the-wool inerrantist saying otherwise. Quite simply not all claims about the world can be true simultaneously and thus one needs to distinguish between what is claimed and what is true.

And that brings us to a third point: trusting, for instance, that Luke intends to accurately tell me what happened in past in fact tells me nothing about whether he does so. Luke could be the most honest person in the world and yet be absolutely wrong. Indeed, for all my tendency towards what could be deemed to be a maximalist understanding of early Christian history there is more than one place in Luke-Acts wherein I think it demonstrably the case that Luke has muddled things up. What this simply says is that every historiographical question needs to be addressed on its own, without either programmatic credulity or programmatic skepticism (to use terms from Ben Meyer) getting in the way.

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