Re: Desired Outcomes

From: Ronald Ross (
Date: Thu Apr 10 1997 - 13:57:16 EDT

kdlitwak wrote:
> I'll take a longish stab at this only because it touches on issues
> that I'm working through. Others will doubtless have different
> perspectives and my comments are meant more as a caveat than anything
> else. I'm probably going where angels fear to tread.
> Hiedi Pope wrote:
> > 1. What are the processes I must master to understand what the author of
> > each of the New Testament books meant by his writing? My assumption is that
> > there is only one intended meaning by the author for those to whom it was
> > written.
> >
> You need to separate multiple things here. First,l there is the
> matter of understanding the text at the "linguistic" level, i.e.,
> grammar. You need to understand the grammatical constructs and their
> significance. That you can achieve through reading large portions of
> the GNT with various gramars at your side, e.g., Winbery and Brooks,
> BDF, etc. (these are just two of the grammars I use, and is not meant to
> be either an exhaustive list or authoritative in any sense, though you
> do need BDF). Now, there is a serious "gotcha" here. In many (most?
> all?) cases, you have to make a decision, in concert with grammatical
> study, regarding the meaning of the text in order to make a grammatical
> decision. For example, knowing about subjective and objective genitives
> is NOT sufficient to determine what PISTIS EX IHSOU means. Other,
> theological questions need to be answerd to answer this seemingly simple
> grammatical question.
> Next, I'd advise you to give up trying to determine the author's
> intention. Since the author is unavailalbe, determining his/her
> intention is not a realistic possibilty. On this point, no Greek
> grammar will help you but instead you need to read about hermeneutics.
> A good, though very dense, book that deals with the various options
> being passed around these days is Anthony Thiselton's *New Horiozons in
> Hermeneutics*. This is not like Gordon Fee's book on NT exegesis, which
> takes, I think, too simplistic an approach to the issue of exegesis.
> Among the hermeneutical options, I would argue that a NT text has a
> limited number of potentially valid intentions. Texts have intentions
> we can try to grasp but without Paul around any more, I can't ever
> determine the authorial intent of 1 Timothy.
> > 2. For each process, what can I do at each step of the process to ensure I
> > do not place into the Greek text my own mental models?

I certainly agree with most of what Ken says, but feel he goes too far
when he says to simply "give up tring to determine the autor's
intention". Every act of communication is between a communicator with a
particular message and an intended audience. Of course, determining the
author's intention is much easier if you ARE the intended audience,
because communicators (anybody who speaks or writes) typically adjust
the form of their message to their audience. And the more context
communicator and receptor have in common the easier will be the

But I fail to see the purpose of reading Paul if we are not trying to
discover what Paul had to say, some current literary theories
notwithstanding. We don't have access to Paul today. But we don't have
access to losts of people whom we read and understand pretty well. Paul
is further from us in time, culture, world view, etc., etc. Granted.
But that shouldn't, in my view, change our purpose to do all we can to
understand what Paul had to say. One way to get closer to Paul is
precisely (as Ken has said) to immerse ourselves in information about
his day. There may well be things Paul has written that we, from our
perspective, will never fully understand. But that doesn't mean we
should throw up our hand in dispair and quit trying.

If Paul's meaning is simply unreachable, why bother to do all the
background work required in exegesis courses? It is true that as
readers we see a text through a certain pair of eyes and a given series
of life experiences. But that is true --to some degree-- in all
communication. And yet we manage to communicate. In modern
communication, people from vastly different cultures and with profoundly
different sets of assumtions about the world and the universe
communicate. Sometimes problems arise and there are misunderstandings.
But we keep on trying and often do quite well.

> On the one hand, study of the culture and history as best available
> (once we can dcecide which texts are historical and what that means)
> provide asistance in bracketing out what the origianl implied and real
> audience of a NT text would not have seen. To use a trivial example,
> your common sense knowledge of the 1st century should tell you that the
> people who have interpreted the locusts in Revelation as Phantom jets
> (in the late 60's), Huey attack copters (in the early 70's) and the like
> are being wildly anachronistic. The more one knows about 1st century
> Mediterrranean culture, the better able one can differentiate between
> what would and what would not have been a likely understanding of a NT
> text. However, a) our knowledge is imperfect too a large degree; and b)
> it is simply impossible to extricate one's own hermeneutical horizon
> from interpretation. No matter what I do or know, I still read texts as
> a late 20th century Califorhia male with a particular world view. You
> cannot read without filtering data through your world view. So
> interpreting texts must always be a struggle between your intepretive
> "grid" and what you know about the cultural space in which the text was
> produced, always seeking to reduce the distance between your
> hermeneutical orizon and that of the text. The closer they get, the
> better you can understand the text "correctly". If that seems too
> brief, I don't see an alternative. You need to read up on issues
> outside of Greek grammar. I've only run into many of these issues in
> the last two years in my doctoral program. My school is very very heavy
> into methodoogy, like reader-response, while totally disinterested in
> content it seems. No one ever talks about what Paul "meant" but we sure
> talk a lot about post-modern implications for trying to read texts.

Ron Ross
Department of Linguistics
University of Costa Rica

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