Carl Conrad's wise words on hermeneutics

Edward Hobbs (
Thu, 19 Dec 1996 22:44:53 -0500 (EST)

From: LUCY::EHOBBS "Edward Hobbs" 19-DEC-1996 22:42:30.62
To: IN%""
Subj: RE: historically informed interpretation (longish)

Carl Conrad wrote the following really remarkable summary of his
I rather think that the biblical text MAY be polyvalent in numerous instances
--that some texts MAY be legitimately interpreted in more than one way, and
that some texts even seem to cry out for depth and breadth of
interpretation. This is precisely why we are grateful for the rich
resources of scriptural interpretation over the centuries left us by simple
and learned interpreters alike. We study them, I would think, not primarily
or solely with a view toward finding at last the one correct interpretation
of a particular text, but because we rather believe that there is far more
to be learned from any particular text than we have ever learned thus far,
or to put it in the language of faith: that God may have more to say to us
through this text than we have yet been able to discern with the best that
we have been able to bring to bear upon it.

On the other hand, I certainly never meant to suggest that I think that all
possible interpretations of any particular text are correct. There are
plenty of interpretations that are simply ludicrous, plenty that are
interesting and worth considering even if ultimately not convincing, some
that distort and abuse the text in order to wrest from it some meaning to
undergird villainous and ultimately perverse and maleficent intentions. We
are bidden, I think, to "test the spirits, whether they are from God."

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University

May I speak as one who taught hermeneutics in Harvard and Berkeley, for a
total of more than a quarter-century (indeed, was entitled "Professor of
I have never seen such a succinct statement of where
all my studies and research (and teaching) led me, except I had to have
the help of philosophers such as H-G Gadamer to get me there. Let me
plead that it be read over several times (out loud!), periodically, as we
dig into our Greek Testaments.
It also strikes me that this statement by Carl puts into
words the basis on which all of us on this List, with such diverse
theological, philosophical, and religious beginning-points, are able to be
helpful to each other in our growing understanding of a most wonderful text
(which happens to be written in ancient Greek).

Edward Hobbs