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Textual Criticism: It’s Not Just for Ancient, Sacred Scripture Anymore

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Brothers and sisters, don’t you know?
You’re gonna reap just what you sow.
          From a song by Bob Gibson and Bob Camp, “Well, Well, Well.”

“Say what you mean, mean what you say.” That sounds like a good adage. If only it was that simple and easy.

Not too long ago, a Judicial Oversight Committee of Congress grilled an FBI agent for hours, excoriating him over some email texts he’d sent to a colleague that presumably reflected bias regarding a candidate who was running for the highest political office in our land. In turn, that winning candidate pledged an oath to uphold and defend a solemn text; namely, the Constitution of the United States.

However the congressional committee may have interpreted certain text messages, the agent in question claimed he’d been misunderstood; and furthermore, that despite the political uproar, there had been no action taken on his part, reflective of those expressed sentiments.

Despite the modern frenzy with incessant texting, interpretation and application of a written text is hardly new, nor limited to the arena of partisan wrangling over a political candidate’s fitness or favor. The congressional hearings about to begin over a Supreme Court nominee will largely hinge on the political philosophies of different elected officials; who will view the judicial record of the candidate through the lens of their separate interpretations of constitutional law, and how it should be applied.

The oft-heard mantra and call to strictly adhere to the Constitution as it was originally written and intended sounds simple enough. But, as we all know, it’s not that simple. In actuality, there are a number of different ways to interpret and apply what has been referred to as a “living document.” Anything that is truly alive grows organically and changes over time. Consequently, when it comes to an effort to understand such an evolutionary process there are multiple ways to do so.  When it comes to the Constitution, there is original intent, literalism (aka, textual-ism), so-called strict constructionism, precedent, aspirational-ism, prudential-ism, ethic-ism, etc.  For a nominee for the highest court in the land to demur on any hot button issue by merely stating it is “settled law” only thinly masks the unsettling reality of impermanence.

“Textual criticism” is the fancy term given to a literary process, whereby the attempt is made to ascertain not only the original wording of a text, but its subsequent meaning, as well.  It’s such a common, well-worn process that it’s been around ever since there was, well, the written word.

American Christians hold the Bible in one hand, and the U.S. Constitution in the other.  The latter document not only guarantees the freedom to interpret the former document any way one wishes; it actually has to contend with those religious interpretations – presumably based on certain biblical beliefs and values — that would attempt to shape the decisions made by the “final” rulings of what is deemed just for our country.

As such, it occurred to me how little difference there is in this regard between the Constitution — as our predominant political document by which we order our common life as a republic — and an even more ancient text by which many of our nation’s citizens order their religious lives. After all, both are deemed to be “living, breathing” documents, infused with diverse interpreted meaning, application and direction. So, in this third commentary in a series on the synonymy of politics and religion Part I, Part II), we explore some of the seeming similarities and differences we might find when it comes to the process of textual criticism and its underlying question. Namely, how is the task of interpretation and application different, or the same, when it comes to “sacred” scripture and constitutional law?

Upfront, there are some obvious differences. First is the fact the Bible is a compendium of numerous texts, written over a matter of centuries by different people in different times and places.

Furthermore, and for the most part, the original texts no longer exist. So we are left with only redacted – and, in many cases only fragmentary — copies of subsequent “editions” of whatever might have been the original texts. This not only leaves the biblical texts subject to human error of either a well-intentioned but inept, or unscrupulous scribe with their own worldview; but their particular bias, as well!

By comparison and contrast, our Constitution is a single document, written less than 230 years ago, with the original seven articles still intact. Regardless of any possible bias the framers may have had as exclusively white males of European descent, half of whom were slave owners, you’d think that possessing the original text would settle the matter once and for all. That is, until we remember the Constitution has been modified and expanded twenty-seven times with amendments since it was first written. So even if one were to assert we have the original text, the challenging task of interpretation and application remains.

This is where one can make similar comparisons to the process of textual criticism when it comes to both ancient, religious texts and the foundational document by which we govern our nation (i.e. ‘politics’ in its most fundamental sense). Some examples:

Staunch supporters of the ruling interpretation of the Second Amendment like to believe it is “settled law,” and the individual citizen’s unrestricted right to bear (certain) arms shall not be infringed upon. Meanwhile, many live in real fear the current interpretation might be tampered with if a sufficient cultural shift occurred.

On the other hand, there is the right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provided the case to defend a woman’s right to have an abortion.  Overturning that decision would not only be a matter of re-interpretation of a constitutional amendment, but the result of a socio-political shift, as well.

No matter which side of these issues one may take, it’s fair to say the framers of the Constitution never had to consider the fact that support for a “well-armed militia for the common defense” would result in more civilian-owned firearms in our country (393 million) than there are people; let alone the ethical and religious implications of a medical procedure to terminate a pregnancy could never have been imagined possible back in 1787.

If the Founding Fathers intentions have been subsequently left to interpretation and implementation, even more so has been whatever we may glean from the earliest written recollections and remembrances of the teachings of a 1stCentury CE Galilean sage that were first passed down through an oraltradition.

It’s probably safe to say we’ll likely never find an original writing regarding Jesus’ thoughts on abortion or gun rights. Only by inference found in subsequent early writings that were subjective and reflective of different theological biases do we have biblically based arguments entering the realm of political debate two millennia later. But we needn’t take such a giant leap in time. The widely different perspectives of the four canonical gospels alone make this obvious enough.  Let’s take just one “secondary source” as an example, with a very familiar tale, Luke’s version of the Parable of the Sower (Lk. 8:1-15).

The first part of the passage is the literary genre of parable. A sower randomly scatters seed on the ground. Depending on soil conditions and pesky birds that might devour the seed, the resulting harvest is either meager or bountiful. It is a straightforward tale, left open-ended for interpretation and application.

So Luke takes the parable and converts it into an allegory; in which each part of the tale is subsequently interpreted in certain black and white terms. He does so in order to support and advance his own theological point of view. Whether or not Luke’s interpretation reflects Jesus’ original intention is unknown, of course.  Other gospel writers, for example, uses the same source material for their own separate purposes (Mk. 4:1-20, Mt 13:1-23).

What can generally be surmised however was that all the Jesus parables subsequently deemed most authentic by many scholars contain nothing that might be deemed religious language, in and of themselves. They are essentially secular folk tales.

Second, however, they all revolve around repeated depictions and a certain vision of a different, alternate kind of world and worldview; albeit referred to in the gospel accounts as “reign of God.” Included in those simple, straightforward parables can be found certain, constant themes that include and reflect such things as unrestricted hospitality, unmerited mercy, compassion, reckless generosity, non-violent justice, single-minded determination to what true abundance in life is all about, etc.  Jesus framed every one of his parables with one or more of these themes; leaving their interpretation and application of such virtues up to those who would subsequently write, and re-write them.

It occurred to me to wonder whether or not we could measure the original intent of the framers of our Constitution in a similar way? With the understanding that any such interpretations necessarily require application; the exact implementation of which inevitably and invariably changes with the times and places in which we find ourselves, while still retaining certain guiding principles.

In biblical and hermeneutical studies, the student learns the classical exegetical method applied to textual criticism; the last of numerous steps being what in German was called the “sitz im leben,” the setting in life. It is the contemporary component, without which everything else is just an academic exercise. Hence, in closing, a personal reflection:

Many, many years ago, early on in a preaching career, I once wrote a song about a certain time and place; where I found myself pastoring a struggling little mission congregation. The place was as good as dead, but held within it the seeds of growth, based on a little faith, hope and charity. Entitled “The Sower,” it was based on an interpretation and application of a tale once spun two millennia before. And in a time, place and circumstance the Galilean sage never could have imagined. Still, I like to think my re-envisioning of the parable of the sower bore some slight resemblance to the original vision, if not version.

Nowadays, as I’ve progressed and moved on to a different place and time in my life and thinking, I no longer ascribe to Luke’s allegorical interpretation. But at the root of the original parable I still find simple meaning with a much plainer interpretation: Plant wisely. Then tend to what you plant.

At the root of the original parable I still find simple meaning with a much plainer interpretation: Plant wisely. Then tend to what you plant.

When it comes to interpreting and applying any texts deemed sacred to us – whether biblical or constitutional – one can take it as a cautionary tale, sage advice, or both. In other words,

Brothers and sisters, don’t you know?
You’re gonna reap just what you sow.

© 2018 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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