Skip to main content

"Words are Players": Review of Leithart, Deep Exegesis, ch 3

Peter J Leithart Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Baylor 2009

Chapter 3: Words are Players

Leithart’s next target is the privileging of synchronic rather than diachronic word studies. He begins with quotes from Eugene Nida, Moises Silva, Peter Cotterell and Max Turner, Anthony Thiselton and finally James Barr (75-77). He acknowledges that they “all have points” but remains “suspicious” (77). Leithart’s first suspicion is that, as in the battle for the Bible (ch 1), here modern linguistic and communication theory is being allowed to determine how we read the Bible. Modern evangelical hermeneutics expects to determine the the way words work in the Bible prior to reading it (80-81). Again the result is a privileging of meaning over style, content over form. For Leithart this is a “major departure from the procedure of earlier translators”, e.g. the LXX and Tyndale, who incorporated Hebraic style and neologisms in the translations (79). Here I think Leithart is being a bit simplistic. In regard to biblical translation Tyndale and Eugene Nida, and indeed the LXX, are not polar opposites but on a spectrum, and I wonder how many of his interlocutors would feel they are being treated fairly? When he quotes Cotterell and Turner agreeing with him, rather than accepting they might not be so far apart, he suggests they are admitting his point only “sheepishly” (83)!

Polemics aside, the chapter mainly discusses the way words work in poetry (and in jokes) and how past meanings, etymology, and ambiguities can all play a part in interpretation often creating more than one possible meaning and allowing the text to say new, unexpected, things. This is where Leithart really has something to offer, but rigid formal translation is surely not the answer. Many such word plays, etymologies, and ambiguities are simply untranslatable because no two words from different languages will share the same possibilities. Surely the only way to get even close to such an understanding of a text is to read the original languages? Any translation not only disables certain meanings but also creates new possibilities through etymology, word plays, etc. Leithart is yet to address this issue.

Leithart makes the historical case that “ancient writers were very interested in word derivations, etymologies, and histories” (95). Giving as examples Socrates, Aristotle, Ovid, Qunitillian, Philo, Isidore of Seville, Coleridge and Hamann, he suggests Biblical writers were no different and points out that “There are as many as eighty explicit etymologies in the Old Testament, and many of these etymologies contribute substantially to the poetry and theology of biblical narratives” (95). He goes on to discuss Homer (96), Heidegger (96-97) and Seamus Heaney (97-99) in making his point. He then returns to John 9 and argues that John’s Gospel uses many such word plays and discusses how John’s translation of Siloam as “sent” in John 9:7 connects meaningfully with themes throughout the gospel and in the immediate narrative and exposes John’s poetic approach (99-105).

So Leithart’s objection is to “minimal meaning” (105) where the meaning of a text is flattened out to a literal translation of an assumed meaning without recognition of the poetic possibilities inherent in the text. For him, “The Bible is closer to poetry than to a scientific manual” (108). Here I think he is spot on. What I’m not sure, as of yet, is how far Leithart really has a solution to the problem of translation, or if he really thinks it is as simple as returning to the (supposed) translation strategy of the LXX and KJV!


Popular posts from this blog

That one time Jesus got the Bible wrong

It's so typical isn't it? You are preaching all day long, training your disciples, sparring with the Pharisees, encouraging the poor and down trodden, healing the sick and casting out demons, all day, day after day, and even when you go up a mountain to get a rest the crowds hunt you down and follow you up, and then the one time you get a bit muddled up with some of the details of a biblical text . . . that is the one they write down in the first gospel - verbatim. At least Matthew and Luke had the good sense to do some editing. But Mark, he always had his eye on giving the public the "historical Jesus" whoever that is supposed to be . . . warts and all. Thanks a lot Mark!

Some think I made the mistake on purpose, just to show the Pharisees up.

For some there is no mistake worth mentioning, only a slightly ambiguous turn of phrase.

Others think I am doing something tricky with Abiathar's name, getting him to figuratively stand in for the priesthood.

It really has…

Thor Ragnarok and Parihaka: Postcolonial Apocalypse

Thor: Ragnarok is a riot of colour, sound, violence, humour, sci-fi and fantasy. As a piece of entertainment it is the best Marvel has produced so far. As in many of Taika Waititi's films the plot often seems secondary to the humour and a number of quirky moments seemed only to serve for a quick giggle. I left the theatre overwhelmed by the sensory experience, but ultimately unimpressed by any deeper meaning.

It wasn't until the second morning after my trip to the movies that I woke to the realisation that the movie could function as a profound postcolonial metaphor (I do some of my best thinking while alseep, also it can take me a while for the penny to drop). Unfortunately a quick google showed me that I was neither the first, nor the second to have this thought.

[Spoiler Alert!]

It's easy to miss with all the other stuff going on but Thor undergoes a postcolonial awakening during the film as he slowly realises that his beloved Asgard and its dominion of the nine realms …

ANZABS 2018 program and abstracts

6-7 December, 2018

Venue: Wesley Hall, Trinity Methodist College,

202A St Johns Rd, Meadowbank, Auckland 1072

Thursday 6 December
10.00-10.10 – mihi
10.10-11.00 – Keynote speaker: Robert Myles – Fishing for Eyewitnesses in the Fourth Gospel
11.00-11.30 – Morning tea
11.30-12.00 – Lyndon Drake – Economic Capital in the Hebrew Bible
12.00-12.30 – Anne Aalbers – Resurrection and Celibacy: Two Sides of the Same Coin?
12.30-1.00 – Jonathan Robinson – "And he was with the beasts," (Mark 1:13): Ambiguity,
Interpretation and Mark as a Jewish Author
1.00-2.00 – Lunch
2.00-2.30 – Ben Hudson – Ethical Exhortation and the Decalogue in Ephesians
2.30-3.00 – Csilla Saysell – The Servant as 'a covenant of/for people' in Deutero-Isaiah
3.00-3.30 – Afternoon tea
3.30-4.00 – Jacqueline Lloyd – Did Jesus minister in Gaulanitis?
4.00-4.30 – Mark Keown – Jesus as the New Joshua
4.30 – AGM
Friday 7 December
9.30-10.00 – Ben Ong – Pākehā Readin…