What I Write About

I write about the infinite number of intersections between every day life and the good news of the God who has come to get us.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Jesus, Ignorant Australians, and the Unspoken Footnote

My New Testament professor was from Australia but did his seminary work in the States. One day his professor in mid-lecture said, "It's like 'four score and seven years ago'" and continued on with his lecture. During a break, he asked a fellow-student what happened four score and seven years ago. His classmate laughed at him: "He was talking about Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address!"

My professor summed himself up thusly: "I was an ignorant Australian sitting in a room full of Americans. And to everyone else in the room, the phrase 'four score and seven years ago' meant something deeply significant--it conjured up a whole set of ideas and images and passions and communicated all this sub-text of meaning that I didn't pick up on."

He went on to sum US up thusly: "And so it is with us as we read the New Testament. So much of it is written and addressed to a Jewish audience that would have picked up on Old Testament references without anything like a footnote or a direct quotation. Just picking up on a phrase or a specific image from Daniel or Micah or Isaiah would have resonated deeply with most of the Jews in the audience and would have communicated a whole set of concepts that we just don't pick up on."

It is an unspoken footnote.

I thought about this today as I was reading in Proverbs 30: "Two things I ask of you, O Lord...keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread."

Perhaps many of you perked up as you read that last phrase from Jesus' famous "Lord's Prayer." Jesus does some copyright infringement from the passage that in context goes on to read like this:

"Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal and so dishonor the name of my God."

In light of the "unspoken footnote" idea, have to wonder if we wouldn't be doing the "Lord's Prayer" a service if we actually added this part into our recitations. Perhaps then we wouldn't be reciting the Lord's Prayer like ignorant Australians.


Royale said...

"So much of it is written and addressed to a Jewish audience that would have picked up on Old Testament references without anything like a footnote or a direct quotation."

I could not agree more. This is precisely why sola scriptura fundamentalist interpretations confuse me.

Sorry, but to understand what any Biblical author was trying to communicate, you need a book on ancient Near East mythology and literary traditions.

Alex said...

royale, great to hear from you again! i was afraid we'd lost you!

Alas, as usual, I agree with some of what your saying but not the final application of it.

"Sola Scriptura" was not originally a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible but the phrase of Martin Luther and other reformers who were working to correct the abuses of the Catholic church (i.e. the selling of indulgences) that were justified because of the theological understanding of the weight of church tradition as equal to scripture. The reformers argued that Scripture was the ultimate authority, not church tradition. Hence, sola scriptura. They did not mean by this that study and understanding of the ancient near east was un-important or irrelevant. Quite to the contrary, because they loved the Scriptures so much anything that would help to understand it better was, in the minds of folks like Luther and Calvin, essential.

Perhaps in your fundamentalist background/upbringing this was twisted to mean that anything other than the Bible was unnecessary. This was not the original meaning of the phrase nor is it, I believe, a correct one.

Secondly, of course it's helpful to know the "Near East mythology and literary traditions" in reading the Bible. But it is an overstatement to say that to understand anything the Biblical authors are saying you have to have those things. The example that I gave in this post from Proverbs proves that. The point is still the same, whether we know that Jesus is quoting the Proverb or not. Of course, our understanding is augmented and rounded out by the background, but it's not essential to understanding the core idea behind it.

There are obviously some texts that require much more background/cultural understanding to really fully "get" (Revelation comes to mind) but on the whole I'd say that the Scriptures are gloriously accessible to the common person, particularly for a collection of writings as old as they are.

Royale said...

"but on the whole I'd say that the Scriptures are gloriously accessible to the common person, particularly for a collection of writings as old as they are."

I disagree.

Every book of the Bible should be read alongside other books of that literary genre.

The Gospels should be read alongside other first century Roman biographies.

Genesis should be read next to Gilgamesh, Deuteronomy next to other Mesopatamian laws, and for both, there is immense overlap.

And so on...

When you add this all together, no, the Bible is quite complex and I would add, quite subjective as literature is always subjective.

Alex said...

complex, yes; i think i preferred "layered"--there are many layers to the text, many ways that it operates. it is shallow enough for the beginner, yet has depths that we'll never fully fathom and plumb.

subjective? i'm not sure what you mean by that. if you mean that it was actually written by people, then yes, i suppose it's "subjective." you say that word as if "subjective" alone is enough to discredit it. is anything NOT "subjective?" science? who runs experiments, creates a hypothesis, looks for cures? math? how many statistics do we see manipulated to prove various points?

yeah, all of life is subjective. but that doesn't mean that it doesn't point to something that's "objectively" true!

Royale said...

re: literary subjectivity

It is vague and requires interpretation, of which people disagree. How are we (modern times) really expected to read an ancient book and fully understand what it was supposed to communicate to an ancient reader? We can't.

As your original post points out, there are many cultural references and these are lost in translation. Reading it in modern times can only be expected to produce a wide range of interpretations, all potentially "correct."