Hermeneutics and Original Intent

Comments on my last post from Loren Rosson and Bob MacDonald brought out a powerful insight that we should probably add to the historical hermeneutic I have been developing on this blog. The ancient Christians (as well as contemporary Christians) when referring to scripture to support or build their ideologies and theologies did not care one bit about the "original intent" of the writing. So they didn't give any thought to what Paul might have actually been referring to when he wrote his letters. Their concern was to redeem the spiritual meaning of the text which could only be had through certain reading techniques like typologies and allegories.

Additionally, they were selective readers. They would rip passages or phrases from their contexts and read them completely divorced from the bigger letter or gospel. This means that they ignored or censored other passages that did not jive with their hermeneutical trajectory.

Sometimes we even hear them complaining that the original letter or gospel had been revised by Christians other than themselves in the spirit of altering what these other Christians thought the original meaning should have been. So the Christians who run across passages that do not support their hermeneutics, strip the texts of passages that they considered later insertions. This appears to me to have been a tactic of several Christian groups (i.e., Marcionites, Valentinians, Ebionites) and may have more prevalent among all the early Christians than we would like to think.

Let me give an example or two from the Extracts of Theodotus because this is the text I am currently rereading. Romans 11:16 ("if the first fruits be holy, the lump will be also; if the root be holy, then will also the shoots") was used by the Valentinians to prove that Jesus saved both the elect pneumatics (=Valentinians) and the called psychics (=Christians in the Church) because all had become "homoousia" with him due to the perfecting of their spiritual seeds. The pneumatics had elect male seeds of the spirit which had matured enough to be redeemed through ritual and contemplative activities, while the psychics had female seeds of the spirit which needed more work in the area of perfecting accomplished through the rites of the apostolic church and righteous living. The elect spiritual seed was understood to be the "leaven" which leavened the bread, the entire Christian Church. It was the "mustard seed," and the "pupil of the eye." Note that the scriptural references say nothing about the elect spiritual seed. But this is their true meaning according to the Valentinians.

I do not want to leave the impression that only the Valentinians were reading scriptures in this manner. ALL early Christians were reading scriptures against the author's original intent. And this tradition of interpretation has continued in Christianity today, which can be seen in the use of the "prophets" to predict Jesus' advent, mission, and death. None of these Jewish texts had such an original intent, as the Jewish community has long argued.

The notion that the original intent of an author might be important to understand is really only a recent development, a post-Enlightenment concern, and is the domain of the historian. Since the original intent of the author of a text has not been the concern of Christian hermeneutics since the beginning of the tradition, this means that when the original intent is described by the historian it is often at odds with the contemporary Christian understanding. And this can cause dissonance for the believer and the reaction to reject, rationalize, or reinterpret.

Now the post-modern philosophers have challenged the notion that the original intent of a text can be recovered. This has led to the hyper-position that there is no accessible original intent of a text, but only multiple meanings generated by its readers, so the historical search for original intent is undermined. This has gladdened many contemporary Christian interpreters who wish their own interpretations of the text to be equivalent or override the historical.

This hyper-position is very troubling, in my opinion. Of course my readers will interpret what I write in different ways according to their understanding and experiences. But this does not mean that what I write does not have an original intent or that I might not hope that my readers will be generous enough to care about trying to understand it.

There is much we can recover about the original intent of authors if we care enough to do the hard uncompromising historical work involved in such endeavors. In the end, we might discover several possibilities for understanding the original intent, but these possibilities will be narrowed and will make sense within the historical context and world view of the ancient world we are dealing with. This process is not the same as the process of reading the texts through the Christian hermeneutic.

Update 4-14-07: some interesting discussion on other people's blogs
Loren Rossen