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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Cognitive Frames: reading the biblical text

"Cognitive frames create contexts for interpretation"[1]. Natural language is ambiguous. If you have a bible study application on your computer, iPad or iPhone, you probably can pull up a window with several different translations side by side. What you see there is often a source of consternation to bible students. If you don't believe this, look at a few threads in one of the myriad bible study forums. You will find endless discussions of differences between modern translations.

There is a myth running around that learning the original languages makes all of this confusion go away. Ambiguity is a feature of natural language. Ambiguity is one reason[2] for the divergence between the translations of the bible. Assuming that you attain a professional level of competence in the original languages, will that alone lead to greater level of confidence or certainty about the meaning of a particularly difficult text? To answer this question check out[3] a critical commentary written for scholars on your favorite book of the bible and pick out a particularly difficult passage (a.k.a "crux interpretum" or just "crux") and read the discussion of all the problems associated with understanding the meaning of the passage. Has the author of commentary reached a greater level of certainty about the meaning of the text than you had looking at twelve different versions in you bible study app? I will let you decide.

Sometimes when I read posts on apologetics blogs I get the feeling that the defender of the faith is demonstrating an unwarranted level of confidence in her reading the proof text she is using to defend her position on the trinity, intelligent design or whatever. The framework you bring with you to the reading of the text determines to a great extent what you will see in the text. This isn't bad, it is just the way language works. The old modern myth of "objectivity" is dead or dying even though there are hundreds of millions of people who seem to still believe it.

When I read some book or blog proposing some reading of a biblical text, the first thing I want to know is what sort of framework the author is coming from. To some extent this can be ferreted out by close attention to the author's text. But with 10-20mbit broadband at my fingertips I usually do a little research. Just to give you an example, back in the old days, before I had broadband, I used to haunt the used book stores for bargains on anything to do with biblical studies or linguistics. There was a period of several years when Eerdmans was remaindering academic books and you could pick them up at 75-90% off list. I purchased six titles by James D. G. Dunn for less than than the price of one book retail. When I started reading these I was somewhat perplexed at Dunn's treatment of christology in the early church. The problem was I could not find a known category that his point of view fit into. This reminded me of a story my late friend and former colleague Dave Hastings told me about a class he took at Denver Seminary where the professor assigned reading in christology by authors which were from Germany and Scandinavia. The point the exercise was to force the student to confront a interpretive framework they were totally unfamiliar with.

For about ten years I just more or less ignored my books by James D. G. Dunn. I actually tried to give them away but without success. I would pull one out now and then and read it and put it back and move on. During that era Jeffrey B. Gibson of Corpus Pauline, SBL, etc. had a colloquium with J. D. G. Dunn which I was invited to attend (online). It was interesting, this was before blogging so talking to a big name scholar was something special. However, it didn't improve my comprehension or appreciation for Dunn.

Now, years later, I have been reading Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham for quite a while and James Dunn has begun to come into focus. It took Bauckham and Hurtado to create a framework for understanding Dunn. I still don't agree with James Dunn but I think there is more understanding and appreciation of what has been doing for forty years or more.        

Well, this has kind of wander off the subject of Cognitive Frames: reading the biblical text. Perhaps I will pick up on that another day.

[1] a quote from Tom Smith's blog which I didn't read. You can find it by searching on the statement in quotes.

[2] A few of the other reasons include target audience; social, religious, cultural framework of the translator ... and so forth.

[3] A lot of these books are available online through Google Books. You can read select portions of them.


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