Barton’s Follies

Reading through John Barton’s The Nature of Biblical Criticism, I find myself unconvinced about his arguments concerning biblical scholarship. Part of this has to do with the convoluted nature of his argumentation but I suspect that this is intentional. While Barton argues that biblical scholarship is not primarily about advocating the historical-critical method, he also seems to believe that the text has one meaning (or makes assumptions about the author of the text, i.e. he considers 2 Thessalonians one of Paul’s epistles, even though many Paul scholars would contest him on that assumption).

It’s clear that the paradigm in biblical hermeneutics is shifting, allowing more room for critical social theory to enter into the fray of biblical scholarship. Then again, I am not sure that positivist readings of scripture are on the decline either, as Barton claims. I see these kinds of claims all the time in Hebrew Bible departments and even the program I am entering has been primarily such a program. My main contention is that he appears to dismiss advocacy readings in favor of a ‘plain sense’ of the scripture.

What this plain sense means is a “semantic or linguistic and a literary operation first and foremost, only indirectly concerned with the original, the intended, the historical, or the literal meaning” (101). Essentially, the plain sense of the text is the proper semantic or linguistic meaning of the words used in the text, “the texts mean what they mean, what they have always meant” (102).  At the same time, the ‘advocacy’ readings Barton disparages are essential.

Why reject advocacy readings? For a particular attack, he singles out Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (my home gurl). Schüssler Fiorenza, for reference, has been immensely influential in my work, despite our fields differing. Schüssler Fiorenza is correct in noting that biblical scholarship has been primarily concerned with objectivity and positivism (which I still think that Barton’s hermeneutic falls under) and this has obscured marginal voices in biblical scholarship. Barton contends that our arguments against any notion of objectivity are fallacious because we really do think that the text confronts us with something. In some sense, I agree with this criticism. Our advocacy readings are, in some senses, concerned with objectivity.

I have thought about this a lot in relation to the historical-critical method, especially in relation to Benjamin’s definition of historical materialism, where the oppressed past appears at moments of conflict in the present to confront us. Feminist, queer, afro-american, post-colonial, and other literary readings obviously have historical elements to them and helps in historicization (or contextualization of the text). Working with ancient Israelite texts, I do make the assumption that these privileged texts have silenced or glossed over the ‘oppressed past.’ In a way, I try to think of my work in literature as an extension of Howard Zinn’s method. Israelite texts that survived are the texts of the winners, those with the power in the culture to be able to preserve said texts and even then, I think we can gain inferences from the oppressed past within the privileged documents of the Hebrew Bible (and sometimes these texts stand against some of the normative practices of Israelite culture). But is this really a means to deny a whole host of literary hermeneutics that has helped in advancing in our understanding of the text and its critical engagement?

Perhaps in the end, I really feel the same way as Roland Boer.


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