Sunday, January 23, 2005

The pointlessness of textual study

My issue is not with the text as we have it now in English, it is with the idea that there is some higher understanding lurking in the words that Jesus spoke. That there is some kind of meaning that is opaque to us English speakers that those in the know can bring to us. I reject that categorically. Trying to tease out some meaning that we ignorant English speakers have missed seems like an exercise in vanity. I think there are three quote from the Gospel that are salient here: Matthew 18:3 “And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” How many children need exogenesis to believe?

John 9:24 He answered and said, Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.

Mark 4:41 And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

I think that is all we need to know. Jesus could still the winds, could give sight to the blind and ask only that we have the faith of a child and we are saved. I go back to my favorite verse: Luke 23:43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.

What did the thief know of theology? What did the blind man know of textual parsing? What do children know of the transliteration of Aramaic grammar into Greek? Answer to all: nothing. Yet, we know they are with Jesus in paradise.

I am not completely dismissive of textual study, if it helps convince someone who would otherwise not believe to come to Christ, then great! But I find that our feeble efforts to divine some special message from the “true” meaning of words insignificant to the majesty of One who heals, raises others from the dead, suffers unspeakably, climbs a hill after being scourged carrying a cross, forgives his tormentors, then rises from the dead and rises bodily into heaven. Know Jesus, and know peace.

Your example illustrates my point: what Jesus meant when He said love in Aramaic that was translated into different words for love in Greek, then translated back into love in English, which we have all read but seemingly misinterpreted… Jesus knew that when He said whatever He said to Peter, millions of his followers in our present would read and understand that word as “love.” He knew that English would evolve so that where the Greeks had four words for love and would shade the distinctions, we had one word that is all encompassing. Is it wrong for the ignorant like me to take Jesus’ word as “love?” Not if I have a childlike faith?

I think the over-riding value of textual study is to create a barrier to entry into the field of pastoral ordination and to provide for employment of those in seminaries who teach textual study. Just as those in the Temple husbanded knowledge and parceled it out to remain in power, so to do the seminaries attempt to create distance between the pastor and the sheep. To my mind, it is hard to reconcile Luther’s “priesthood of the believer” with the idea that we need someone with a level of super-learning to tell us what Jesus meant. Jesus rejected this in his day, Luther rejected it in his day. I accede to their judgment before I will pay attention to textual study except for my own amusement, much as I am mildly interested in how Chinese characters evolved to their present appearance. It is a field that is interesting, but certainly not critical or even relevant to my understanding of what is written.

It is hard for me to see it any other way, when to my best interpretation of Jesus life, the extent of learning we need to understand Him is what we would get in children’s Sunday school. Or that we would get by seeing a depiction of His deeds, or perhaps even hearing of His exploits. Blessed is he who has not seen, yet believes.