Wednesday, August 06, 2008

All Translation is Interpretation... But Not All Interpretations Are Equally Valid

I've been working off-and-on for more than a year now to work through reading N.T. Wright's The Last Word. It's an excellent resource on biblical interpretation which takes on a lot of the current debates about what is and what isn't acceptable in the work of interpretation, as well as detailing some of the history behind how certain interpretive philosophies came to exist. Although the following passage should come as no surprise to those who know my own philosophy of biblical interpretation, it states things more eloquently and concisely than I have thus far been able to do on my own:
...one hears it said frequently that all reading of scripture is a matter of interpretation, with the implication that one person's interpretation is as good as another's....

This is demonstrably flawed.... Genuine historical scholarship is still the appropriate tool with which to work at discovering more fully what precisely the biblical authors intended to say. We really do have access to the past; granted we see it through our own eyes, and our eyes are culturally conditioned to notice some things and not others. But they really do notice things, and provided we keep open the conversation with other people who look from other perspectives, we have a real, and not illusory, chance of finding out more or less what really happened. It is possible to say definitely that some readings of ancient texts are historically preferable to others. (Thus, for example, there are serious and not merely subjective ways of deciding that a book which argues that Mark's gospel is really about recovering from alcoholism--there really is such a book--is not getting as close to the heart of the text as one which locates the work afresh within the Jewish and Roman power struggles of its day, and which then attempts to understand today's world of religion and empire and address it with the same gospel.) Real history is possible; real historians do it all the time. (pages 111-112, paperback edition, published in 2006)

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