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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jesus goes to feast of Tabernacles John 7:1-10

John 7:1 RSV   After this Jesus went about in Galilee; he would not go about in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill him.  2 Now the Jews’ feast of Tabernacles was at hand.  3 So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples may see the works you are doing.  4 For no man works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.”  5 For even his brothers did not believe in him.  6 Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here.  7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify of it that its works are evil.  8 Go to the feast yourselves; I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.”  9 So saying, he remained in Galilee.

John 7:10  But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in secret.

Jesus statement in verse eight “I am not going up to this feast ...”  ἐγὼ οὐκ ἀναβαίνω εἰς τὴν ἑορτὴν ταύτην caused difficulties for at least one early scribe who replaced the negative particle οὐκ “I am not going up to this feast” with οὔπω “I am not yet going up to this feast.” The reading οὔπω is found in several early manuscripts (p66, p75, B). The theological motivation for this variant is fairly obvious, to remove the appearance that Jesus lied to his brothers.

On the other hand, a close reading of the pericope removes the difficulty. Jesus’ brothers were not just asking him to go up to the feast in Jerusalem. The main thrust of their request was that Jesus should go up publicly:  “... show yourself to the world.” The scenario that Jesus’ brothers envision includes a demonstration of Jesus’ works before his disciples and the rest of world. Jesus rejects this entire scenario with a simple statement “I am not going up to this feast.” Going up to the feast secretly is not the scenario suggested by Jesus’ Brothers. [1]   

[1] see  Robert Horton Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation, p. 388.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Anastasia’s reading of John 5:1-18

In the last post Anastasia the head librarian from the lost tribe of Koine speaking Greeks ran into difficulty making sense of John 5:1-18 the story of the healing at pool. She didn’t understand why why the invalids were found gathered around the pool. The response to Jesus’ question “Do you want to be healed?” appears unrelated to the question and Jesus responds as if the man had given a simple affirmative reply. Anastasia’s inability to make the story coherent can be attributed to ignorance of the healing scenario, a cultural artifact which is implicit in the story. The healing scenario is provided by a textual variant/gloss fond in some NT manuscripts:
“for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.” —NRSV [note]  
This variant/gloss provides the key to the healing scenario and makes story coherent. It also illustrates that the meaning of the story is not entirely in the text as code. The healing scenario associated with the pool called Bethesda is a part of the shared cultural assumptions among first century palestinian Jews from Jerusalem.

Anastasia notes that once the man is healed the story takes an abrupt turn and becomes a dispute over the Sabbath. She has been reading the Gospel of John for a month now and has been able to construct a tentative framework for this dispute between Jesus and those who want to kill him. Never the less, the importance of the Sabbath to the leaders of the Jews in Jerusalem is still something mysterious. The prohibition against certain activities on a certain day doesn’t seem to follow any pattern. No matter what a person does on this day it seems to be prohibited. Once again the Sabbath observance scenario is only partially discoverable from the the text [code] of John’s Gospel. Sabbath observance is a part of the shared cultural assumptions among first century palestinian Jews.         

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Anastasia and the lost tribe of Koine speaking Greeks (fiction)

In the final years of twentieth century a culturally isolated tribe of Greek speaking people were discovered who spoke a perfectly preserved form of first century AD Koine Greek but had never heard of Judaism or Christianity. This lost tribe was highly literate, having preserved most of ancient greek literature in a huge library. A New Testament linguist Russell Booth interviewed the head librarian Anastasia and determined that she had a mastery of the syntax and lexicon of first century AD Koine Greek far beyond any living scholar in the “modern” world. Dr. Booth gave Anastasia a copy of the Gospel of John from the greek new testament and she agreed to read it and be tested for comprehension.

A month later Anastasia  participated in a session with Dr. Booth and a panel of New Testament scholars to ask her questions about the Gospel of John. Anastasia was asked to retell the story of the healing at the pool (John 5:1-18) with comments. Anastasia identified Jesus as a mantis (seer, prophet, diviner) and magos (magician, wise man) who had supernatural powers of healing and who performed food miracles. In her exposition of  the healing at the pool she identified several disturbances in the text where story seemed to her incoherent. There was no explanation why the invalids were found gather around the pool. When Jesus asked a man if he wants to be healed the man tells him he wants to bathe and has no servant to help him into the pool when the water is disturbed and it appears that only one person is allowed to bathe in the pool at a given time. Jesus appears to ignore the request to bathe, doesn’t offer to help him into the pool but tells him to get up and carry something. The man complies and this becomes the center of a dispute with some group who say it is against accepted custom to carry this thing on a certain day. The disputants are exceedingly prone to violence and want to have Jesus killed for violation of their customs and claiming to be the son of a deity. Anastasia finds the story  incoherent, like the fragments of several stories randomly glued together.
As a highly literate native speaker of the language Anastasia has a mastery of “the code”  but she comes away from the text confounded by the story. Apparently the meaning of the story isn’t in the text. If it were, she would be able to comprehend it.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

unholy marriage between the code model and propositional revelation

One of the artifacts of the fundamentalist modernist controversy of the twentieth century is found in ARTICLE VI of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics[1]
We affirm that the Bible expresses God's truth in propositional statements, and we declare that Biblical truth is both objective and absolute. We further affirm that a statement is true if it represents matters as they actually are, but is an error if it misrepresents the facts.
The meaning based translation model pioneered by Eugene A. Nida was associated with a very early version of Noam Chomsky’s treatment of syntax structures (late 1950s). Stay with me here, this is important. Micheal W. Palmer, a biblical linguist told me in a public discussion (late 1990s) that Nida had adopted some ideas from Chomsky but essentially his notion of semantic deep_structure was Nida’s own “spin” on semantic theory. What takes place in Nida’s model is the source language text (e.g., Greek NT) is reduced to propositional statements (deep_structure) in some modern language (e.g., English), which are intended to capture the “meaning” of the original. These propositions are then “transformed” in to the target language (e.g., Swahili) not necessarily as propositions but in some form suitable for representing the genre of the original text. 

The key issue here is that “meaning” is considered to be a property of the source text “code” which can be extracted and reduced to propositional statements. This theory of meaning has been demonstrated to be inadequate over the last thirty years.[2]

David J. Weber borrows a metaphor from Edward de Bono:

... Edward de Bono likened the mind to a contoured surface composed of something like gelatin. Thoughts are like warm marbles. When placed on the surface, they roll according to the contours of the surface. As they go, they melt the surface slightly, leaving a trace of their course. This metaphor captures some important aspects of the human mind and the brain on which it is implemented.

Context is like the contoured surface of set gelatin. An utterance is like a warm marble. Its explicature is like the place where the marble is set down on the surface, the starting point of the path it takes. ... The interpretation is like the endpoint of that path. ...  The impression an utterance makes on a mind is the path the marble takes. This is not the starting point (explicature). It is not the ending point (interpretation). It is the path left by the warm marble moving from the explicature to the interpretation as influenced by the contoured surface (context).[3] 
Reducing the "meaning" to a propositional statement disregards the path of the marble and the trace left by the marble. It flattens out the notion of meaning treating it like a discreet object.    

We have been led to think of “meanings” much like fixed objects out in some Platonic space, out there with integers and other things, discrete objects that we can manipulate symbolically, ones we can grasp and stuff into a text. [4]

[1]The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics Copyright 1978, ICBI.

[2] A Tale of Two Translation Theories, David J. Weber, Journal of Translation, Volume 1, Number 2

[3] ibid, p63

[4] ibid, p64

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

authorial intent and multivocality

In the second half of the 20th century authorial intent was championed among conservative evangelical scholars as the anchor for biblical hermeneutics. Appeals to authorial intent were made to shore up the interpretation of scripture against the tide of subjectivity that had swept over secular literary criticism where “the death of the author” and the “autonomous text” had produced all sorts of new “readings” of works both within and outside of literary canon.

The notion of authorial intent does not rule out multivocality. The teaching of Jesus in the gospels is riddled with semantically underdetermined texts. Multivocality is built in and regular misinterpretations by the disciples illustrate this. Jesus occasionally corrects the disciples when the are completely off but he does not nail down the correct understanding resulting in a fixed, unyielding, cross cultural, context independent, universal for all time and every place reading of his words. In other words multivocality remains after the disciples are corrected:
John 4:31   Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”  32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”  33 So the disciples said to one another, “Has any one brought him food?”  34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” RSV
Jesus hasn’t really cleared up the issue of why he doesn’t need to eat. His answer directs the attention of the disciples away from topic of eating physical food to a more important topic but it still leaves very many questions unanswered. The expression “do the will of him who sent me” is semantically underdetermined and yet it reflects the intent of the author.

every translation an interpretation

I currently reading a recent book by a sociologist[1] who is bemoaning the fact that there is no consensus on what the bible means among those who claim to take the bible seriously. The author claims this effectively undermines their doctrine of scripture.

In all this discussion there wasn’t much said about bible translation. If we start with the view[2] that the inspiration of scripture was a divine providential process by which the very words written by the human author became “God’s Words” then nothing short of the original words are God’s Word[3]. Any other words used to represent the original constitute an interpretation of God’s Word. So in the English speaking world we have a rather large number of published interpretations currently in circulation.

Since the vast majority of people who take the bible seriously read it in translation, the authority they attach to the "original writings" is significantly reduced when reading a version in their own language. Confidence in the “original writings” does not translate into confidence in a translation. What constitutes a good translation is one of the most controversial topics in the bible believing subculture.

[1]Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible.

[2]This is the core issue in bible believing subculture which Christian Smith is deconstructing.  
[3] We will just set aside the issue of textual criticism.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Code Model (CM) & the healing at Bethesda

The Code Model (CM) & the healing at Bethesda

I was reading the greek text of John 5 and came across a useful illustration how meaning is “radically underdetermined” in speech. 

John 5:2 NRSV   Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes.  3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.  5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.  6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”  7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”  8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”  9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

If we read this passage and proceed on the assumption that meaning is contained or determined by the syntax and lexicon what happens in verse seven? At the end of verse six Jesus asks a simple question “Do you want to be made well?” The man’s reply is long winded and appears to be totally irrelevant. It looks like it was dropped into the text from some other discourse. Jesus appears to ignore it. Semantic analysis based on syntax and lexicon leaves us nowhere.

After the text of John was removed by time and distance from the original cultural setting the problem in verse seven became intolerable for some scribes and a gloss was inserted between verse three and five which read:

 “for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.” NRSV notes

This is a glaring example of meaning being “radically underdetermined” in a text or speech. The code including syntax and lexicon underdetermines the meaning. What this example doesn’t illustrate is that meaning is always underdetermined. Even the most simple and apparently lucid statement is dependent on an inferential process providing “context” from the cultural framework. The code does not contain or determine the meaning.[1]      

[1] A Tale of Two Translation Theories, David J. Weber, Journal of Translation, Volume 1, Number 2 (2005), p. 39.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Compare  ARTICLE VII from The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics to a statement from A Tale of Two Translation Theories, David J. Weber:

We affirm that the meaning expressed in each Biblical text is single, definite and fixed.
We deny that the recognition of this single meaning eliminates the variety of its application.[1]
Texts do not contain meanings; meanings are in the minds of communicators. Texts do not determine meanings; along with context they guide interpretation. Interpretation is not like opening a tin and removing sardines.[2]
It appears we have a problem here. The Chicago Statement is constructed on a foundation which includes "the code model of communication"(CM). The issue of communication models never comes up in the statement on Hermeneutics. At the time of writing CM was not controversial.   

[1]The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics Copyright 1978, ICBI. 

[2] A Tale of Two Translation Theories, David J. Weber, Journal of Translation, Volume 1, Number 2 (2005) p.39.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

discontinuous syntax in Ajax

The following are some examples of discontinuous syntax in Ajax.

Sophocles Ajax 793-794 Eng. Trans. R.C. Jebb Perseus/Tufts.

οὐκ οἶδα τὴν σὴν πρᾶξιν, Αἴαντος δ᾽ ὅτι,
θυραῖος εἴπερ ἐστίν, οὐ θαρσῶ πέρι.

I have no clue of your condition, but know only that, if Ajax is away, I have little hope for him.

Hyperbaton or discontinuous syntax is evident in the distance between Αἴαντος … πέρι. The conditional construction θυραῖος εἴπερ ἐστίν, οὐ θαρσῶ is bounded by the proper noun Αἴαντος and the postpositive πέρι. In other words: “I don’t know about your situation  [οὐκ οἶδα τὴν σὴν πρᾶξιν] … concerning Ajax [ Αἴαντος … πέρι] if he is out and about [θυραῖος εἴπερ ἐστίν], I have no confidence [οὐ θαρσῶ].
When an element from a phrase/clause is broken off and placed within another phrase/clause which results in yet another discontinuity within the second phrase/clause, this is called interlaced hyperbaton. 

Sophocles, Ajax 804
οἲ 'γώ, φίλοι, πρόστητ᾽ ἀναγκαίας τύχης,
καὶ σπεύσαθ᾽, οἱ μὲν Τεῦκρον ἐν τάχει μολεῖν
οἱ δ᾽ ἑσπέρους ἀγκῶνας, οἱ δ᾽ ἀντηλίους
ζητεῖτ᾽ ἰόντες τἀνδρὸς ἔξοδον κακήν.

Ah, me! My friends, protect me from the doom threatened by fate!
Hurry, some of you, to speed Teucer's coming;
let others go to the westward bays, and others to the eastward,
and there seek the man's disastrous path.

οἱ δ᾽ ἑσπέρους ἀγκῶνας, οἱ δ᾽ ἀντηλίους … ἰόντες
let others go to the westward bays, and others to the eastward

ζητεῖτ᾽ ... τἀνδρὸς ἔξοδον κακήν
seek the man's disastrous path

The tail end of the participle clause ἀντηλίους … ἰόντες  is interlaced with the beginning of the main (finite verb) clause ζητεῖτ᾽ ... τἀνδρὸς.

For more examples with commentary, read

Hyperbaton in theGreek Literary SentenceDaniel Markovic, Nov. 2005