Interpreting the Bible
It is a revealing symptom of our cultural malaise that for two decades our academic institutions have been shaken by spasms of radical reevaluation of what we do with texts, ranging from uneasy self-doubt to incipient panic to the exhilaration of an intellectual witches’ sabbath. At this moment, even as the star of deconstruction begins to fade in the constellations of academic fashions, there is a lingering consensus that texts are highly unstable objects of knowledge, covertly asserting something other than what they seem to be saying, and that interpreters ineluctably betray texts by translating them as they always must into their own conceptual frame-works, epistemological assumptions, and implicit ideological aims. An instructive sign of the times was a major symposium on textual glosses held at the University of California Humanities Research Institute at Irvine in 1988. There was virtual agreement among participants—leading classicists, medievalists, and Renaissance scholars, with Jacques Derrida as de rigueur respondent—that no comment on a text is ever innocent, that every act of exegesis or even ostensibly simple glossing is a means of intervening in the text, asserting power over it and over those who would use it.
Against this background, the publication of the first three volumes of an ambitious new commentary on the Pentateuch, sponsored by the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS),1 is a monument to the age of innocence of modern textual interpretation, which could be said to extend from the later 18th century until the mid-1960′s. Innocence, however, does produce a kind of enabling procedural confidence in the act of explication, and all three commentaries actually demonstrate that there are aspects of the text which are susceptible to what we may still unblushingly call scientific investigation. At the same time, the commentaries raise a cluster of intriguing questions about what we can know about a text, especially an ancient text; about what it is useful to know, which may be quite another matter; and about the appropriate methods for undertaking the quest for knowledge.
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