Over-exegesis

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[Tyler Robbins, sharperiron.org]

Have you ever read an exegetical commentary that focused on obscure points of grammar so much that you actually learned nothing? Have you ever slammed a dense commentary shut, fearful you’d be drowned by a flood of eager, but meaningless, syntactical analysis? In this brilliant parody, New Testament scholar Moises Silva provides a cautionary tale for us all…*

It is approximately the year 2790. The most powerful nation on earth occupies a large territory in Central Africa, and its citizens speak Swahili. The United States and other English-speaking countries have long ceased to exist, and much of the literature prior to 2012 (the year of the Great Conflagration) is not extant. Some archaeologists digging in the western regions of North America discover a short but well-preserved text that can confidently be dated to the last quarter of the twentieth century. It reads thus:

Marilyn, tired of her glamorous image, embarked on a new project. She would now cultivate her mind, sharpen her verbal skills, pay attention to standards of etiquette. Most important of all, she would devote herself to charitable causes. Accordingly, she offered her services at the local hospital, which needed volunteers to cheer up terminal patients, many of whom had been in considerable pain for a long time. The weeks flew by. One day she was sitting at the cafeteria when her supervisor approached her and said, “I didn’t see you yesterday. What were you doing?” “I painted my apartment; it was my day off,” she responded.

Silva explains a bit more about this fascinating find:

The archaeologists know just enough English to realize that this fragment is a major literary find that deserves closer inspection, so they rush the piece to one of the finest philologists in their home country. This scholar dedicates his next sabbatical to a thorough study of the text and decides to publish an exegetical commentary on it, as follows:

We are unable to determine whether this text is an excerpt from a novel or from a historical biography. Almost surely, however, it was produced in a religious context, as is evident from the use of such words as devoted, offered, charitable. In any case, this passage illustrates the literary power of twentieth-century English, a language full of metaphors.

The verb embarked calls to mind an ocean liner leaving for an adventuresome cruise, while cultivate possibly alerts the reader to Marilyn’s botanical interests. In those days North Americans compared time to a bird – probably the eagle – that flies.

The author of this piece, moreover, makes clever use of word associations. For example, the term “glamorous” is etymologically related to “grammar,” a concept no doubt reflected in the comment about Marilyn’s “verbal skills.”

Consider also the subtleties implied by the statement that “her supervisor approached her.” The verb “approach” has a rich usage. It may indicate similar “appearance” or “condition” (this painting approaches the quality of a Picasso); it may have a sexual innuendo (the rapist approached his victim); it may reflect “subservience” (he approached his boss for a raise). The cognate noun can be used in contexts of engineering (e.g. access to a bridge), sports (of a golf stroke following the drive from the tee), and even war (a trench that protects troops besieging a fortress).

Society in the twentieth century is greatly illuminated by this text. The word “patient” (from “patience,” meaning “endurance”) indicates that sick people then underwent a great deal of suffering: they endured not only the affliction of their physical illness, but also the mediocre skills of their medical doctors, and even (to judge from other contemporary documents) the burden of increasing financial costs.

A few syntactical notes may be of interest to language students. The preposition “of” had different uses: casual (tired of), superlative (most important of all), and partitive (many of whom). The simple past tense had several aoristic functions: embarked clearly implies determination, while offered suggests Marilyn’s once-for-all, definitive intention. Quite noticeable is the tense variation at the end of the text. The supervisor in his question uses the imperfect tense, “were doing,” perhaps suggesting monotony, slowness, or even laziness. Offended, Marilyn retorts with a punctiliar and emphatic aorist, “I painted.”

Now, Silva draws some practical lessons from this parody:

Readers of Bible commentaries, as well as listeners of sermons, will recognize that my caricature is only mildly outrageous. What is wrong with such a commentary? It is not precisely that the “facts” are wrong (thought even these are expressed in a way that misleads the reader). Nor is it sufficient to say that our imaginary scholar has taken things too far. There is a more fundamental error here: a misconception of how language normally works.

Our familiarity with the English language helps us see quite clearly that any “exegesis” such as the one I just made up is, in the first place, an overinterpretation of the passage. Except perhaps in certain poetic contexts, we do not use words and grammatical functions as suggested by these comments. Of course, none of us – not even the finest scholar – can acquire the same familiarity with biblical Hebrew and New Testament Greek that we have with our native, living tongue. Consequently, it is a little easier to read alien concepts into an ancient and sound quite scholarly as we do it. And of the text in question is written by a great classical author, we are even more readily disposed to assume that it contains great richness of meaning.

The problem intensifies when we deal with Scripture. Surely an inspired text must be full of meaning: we can hardly think that so much as a single word in the Bible is insignificant or dispensable. True enough. But we must never forget that God has spoken to us in the language of the people. Much of what passes for biblical interpretation, whether in books or sermons, implies that God has used an artificial, coded or even esoteric language. Ironically, not a few examples of “grammatico-historical exegesis” suggest that the Bible is as distant from common believers as it was assumed by the proponents of the allegorical method. We must recall this basic principle: the richness and divine origin of the biblical message are not compromised by the naturalness and simplicity of the form in which God has chosen to communicate to us.

In addition to overinterpreting the passage, however, our whimsical commentary above is deficient at a more important level: it contributes virtually nothing to the reader’s understanding of what the passage actually says! A simple translation into twenty-eighth century Swahili would have conveyed far more accurately and efficiently the point of the text.

Similarly, clear English versions of the Bible communicate you the modern reader the main (and therefore most important) point of any passage without recourse to obscure points of grammar.

Preachers who make appeals to “the original” may in some cases help their readers obtain a better insight into Scripture. More often than not, however, such appeals serve two functions: (1) they merely furnish illustrations to heighten interest so that readers think they have a better understanding of the passage (cf. the comment on “embark” above); (2) they provide occasion to make a point that has little to do with the passage (cf. the comment on “patient”).

* Excerpt from Moises Silva, God, Language and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 11-14.

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