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How to Determine the Meaning of a Sacred Text

Cases and Methodologies

How to Determine the Meaning of a Sacred Text by Jay G. Williams
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Reading sacred texts is, to say the least, a challenging, even daunting, task. The problems are many-fold. First of all, most are written in languages that, if not dead, have been transformed by time. Sometimes, as in the case of Pali, we can not even be sure where the language was used, much less understand all the idioms of that culture in which it was spoken. Chinese still uses characters that were employed centuries ago, but definitions can subtly shift and idioms can take on different meanings. Experts can often offer educated guesses about interpretations through the analysis of other documents, but guesses should never be taken as fact.Moreover, even though ouranos, tian and shamayim may each be translated “heaven,” does our word really mean the same thing as any of those words? Can we even imagine accurately what those words meant in 500 B.C.E. to the people who used them? And does “heaven” in Chinese mean what it means in Hebrew? At best, we can only approximate meaning, and then sometimes very loosely. Being highly educated in an ancient language may eliminate some obvious mistakes but does not solve the problem. Etymologies and such may only cloud the truth: consider the etymologies of such words as “cool” and “neat” and what those sounds may mean today.Second, sacred literature, by its very nature, deals with great mysteries and must therefore be highly metaphorical and allusive. It is probable that even when they were written many texts were fraught with difficulty for the first readers. One thinks of the bitter struggles to understand the gospels by members of the early church. Probably, though the nature of the difficulties may have changed, there were as many problems understanding the Dao De Jing in the first century B.C.E. as there are today. Xuan, mystery, remains mystery.Third, no matter how hard we try, we approach whatever text we are reading with our own presuppositions and mind-set. There is no way to avoid it. I can try to imagine what it was like to think of the heavens as a bowl arching over a flat earth, but I cannot believe that is what actually is true nor can my imagination ever be fully in accord with what ancients thought. There is always a “but” in the back of the mind. If I were a Buddhist, I would, quite naturally, read a sutra in a different fashion than would a Christian or a post-modern secularist. Since reading involves interaction, this must be the case. Moreover, being a post-modern secularist makes the reader no more “objective” than any one else. It is just another way of looking.Therefore, it is clear that, in the last analysis, we must be satisfied by a subjective interpretation. No matter how hard we try, neither translation nor interpretation can be fully objective. Indeed, the more we try to be fully objective, the further we may stray from the way the text was meant to be read. A so-called “objective” reading is not “bad;” it may, in fact, add an interesting perspective, but it is not the only kind of reading that is acceptable and, in fact, probably will not be able to reveal the deepest levels of truth.Perhaps, then, the first question to ask is: Why am I reading this text? What am I looking for? One academic answer might be: “to learn more about the religion I am studying.” That is not a bad answer but it is far different than: “because I am a devotee of the religion and I am reading it to inspire myself to follow the Way more fully.” Those answers also are very different from someone reading the text in order to prove how absolutely silly this and all religions are, or someone who is studying this particular text, say the Quran, because he or she is going on a Christian mission to Jordan.It should also be noted that studying someone else’s religion may contain a host of hidden agendas, sometimes not even known to the reader. There are those unspoken animosities that hold the other tradition at arm’s length. And, of course, there is always the desire to get a better grade or to write an article that is sure to be accepted by a prominent journal. Some reading is just to get ahead, perhaps even to promote one’s own ego. Perhaps this is always, at least in part, the case.I have been reading sacred texts with intelligent college students for the last fifty years, wrestling repeatedly with the issues discussed briefly above and many others as well. Is there one theory of religion that will serve as a starting point for all interpretations? What sort of assumptions are legitimate to make when reading a text and what are illegitimate? Does historicity matter? Does factuality matter? What sort of truth are we looking for? Science and most other modern intellectual enterprises bracket questions of God and teleology. Must we do so as well? Can one understand religion without “doing” it? Must one convert to understand?
The Edwin Mellen Press; April 2011
358 pages; ISBN 9780773420359
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: How to Determine the Meaning of a Sacred Text
Author: Jay G. Williams
The first problem that faces us has to do with the word “original,” for we know that the flood story was not invented by the writers of the Bible. In fact, flood stories in various forms are to be found in virtually every part of the world. Whoever composed the account as it is found in the Bible simply adapted for Israelite use a tale that had been known for countless generations. Comparison of it with the story of Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh Epic reveals that at many points the biblical writer was hardly creative at all. We can, of course, compare the Noah and Utnapishtim stories in order to show how the Bible differs from its Mesopotamian counterpart, but there is no way of knowing precisely what the biblical author(s) added to or subtracted from the story, for it is probable that both accounts were influenced by other, earlier versions that are now unknown to us. Whether the Bible or the Gilgamesh Epic is closer to these earlier versions is virtually impossible to say. Hence, we can never get to the “original” flood story. Perhaps, then, we should concentrate upon the original biblical story. What did it mean to the first Israelite storytellers? Again, we are immediately faced with severe difficulties, for quite clearly, the story that we have before us was not composed once and for all, at one moment in history. Rather, the tale grew like a flowing river, receiving substance from many tributaries during its long journey to final formulation. The work is composite; it was revised repeatedly during its long history as an oral tale. Therefore, there seems to be no way of saying precisely when it began or what it meant to the earliest storytellers of Israel. Then how can we apprehend its original meaning? Perhaps, say some, we should simply interpret it in its final form within the text of the book of Genesis. Let us, then, try to understand the story as it was understood by those post-exilic redactors who saw fit to include it in their monumental compilation, the Torah. So be it. But we must recognize two facts. 1) The redactors did not compose the story themselves and probably had little choice regarding its place in the canon. Doubtless, it would have been unthinkable for them to omit it, even if they had found little meaning in it for themselves. 2) The post-exilic redactors and readers may very well have seen in the story of Noah meanings that, to our eyes, might appear quite eisegetical. Consider, for instance, the somewhat later Apocalypse of Noah and the Book of Enoch. Although these esoteric apocalyptic documents reflect a Hellenistic, rather than a Persian milieu, it may well be that by the time the canon of the Torah was fixed, there were rabbis already engaging in numerological, apocalyptic, and allegorical speculations. If we plan to take post-exilic Jewish ideas as the norm for interpretation, then we must be content to accept notions that appear foreign both to us and to the text as it stands.