Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation - SEMANTICS, INTERPRETATION, AND THEOLOGY (2022)

1. The nature of language. Human language is a highly sophisticated, complex, but ultimately imprecise communication system or semiotic. It has its origins in a desire, an intention, to communicate. It originates inaccessibly in a human mind. The sociolinguist H. P. would insist that text originates not in a mind but in a person, reacting against the concept of a psychological other. Spoken language is primary, an attempt to express the inaccessible intention in sound. Written language is secondary, conforming to the primary spoken form in ways specific to each particular language.

Written language makes use of a arbitrary analysis of spoken language to produce a second level system of symbols, more-or-less accurately representing the features of the primary form. A speaker produces a sequence of sounds, which is then analyzed phonetically and phonemically to identify the essential sound system, gram-matically to identify what are arbitrarily labeled words, roots, and affixes, and syntacti-cally to identify complete sequences and their constituent elements.

Minimal units may then be systematically identified. Minimal units of sound are termed phonemes, minimal units of grammatical form are termed morphemes.

Rather than speak of a minimal word form we speak of a lexeme, the arbitrary unitunderlying, for example, such word forms as sang, sing, singer, singing. In this exam-ple, the lexeme is "sing" (see John Lyons, 101). Minimal syntactical units are At these lower levels of analysis the process can claim a certain measure ofobjectivity. At the next, and arguably most significant level, however, the level ofsemantics, the identification of the minimal unit, the sememe, proves to be more

difficult (Robert de Beaugrande and Wolfgang Dressier, 20). Even more difficult is the process of identifying spoken text meaning through the summation of the contributions of phonemes, morphemes, syntagmemes, and sememes present in the text.

More difficult again is the task of interpreting the corresponding written text.

The text now is clearly largely robbed of its phonetic component, represented by arbi-trary visual symbols but still in measure corresponding to the original spoken text.

Written language, in practice, involves language with two absences: the absence of the speaker and the absence of the referents. The interpretation of a written text involves some measure of dialogue with the speaker and some attempt to identify the referents.

It is precisely these absences that precipitate the problem of

range of possible meanings of the words the written text. With the presence of the speaker there is experienced what has been termed a metaphysics of presence, but what might better be termed a metalinguistic of presence, providing its own bounds to polysemy. With the speaker and author removed, that is to say with a written text, a plurality of text meaning may be identified by the deprived, or, arguably, by the liber-ated, reader (see Anthony C. Thiselton, 83).

(Video) Nicholas Ellis - Linguistics and Exegesis

This process of interpreting written language is ultimately an art rather than a science, still less an exact science. We are dealing with a semiotic that we employ without, in general, being overtly aware of the code that lies behind it. We learn to employ hyperbole, litotes, and metaphor, to use rhetoric as individual devices or as sequential schemes: We learn to identify implicature, and even to create for a text an appropriate context, without consciously identifying the devices we employ. The meaning of what we receive or of what we transmit is encoded in a highly complex manner and is interpreted by reference to an intuitive awareness of the code, and not by a labored but precise evaluation of the speech units and the aggregation of units of meaning.

For example, a speaker generated a sequence (or an author supposed a character to have generated a sequence) that could be represented by / am Esau your firstborn (Gen 27:19) (or rather the Heb. equivalent, a further problem). The information recorded in this transcript is heavily edited. We do not know anything (from this text alone, although the surrounding text, the cotext, as we shall see, tells us a good deal) about the setting in which the sequence was generated, we do not know what time of day it was, and we do not know what the person addressed was wearing; we are not told whether or not the speaker bowed, held out his hand in gesture, or made some other gesture, nor what his facial expression was. And yet we know from our own use of language that any of this information might be important in interpreting the sequence.

Thus, in Prov the worthless person is described as one who goes about

"with a corrupt speech, who winks with his eyes, signals with his feet, and motions with his finger, who plots evil with deceit in his heart." Here are three gestures, and yet we cannot be sure of the meaning of any one of them. Prov comments: "He who winks maliciously causes trouble, but he who boldly reproves makes peace." The par-allel and semantically determinative phrase "he who boldly reproves" has the Septuag-int as its source since the corresponding Heb. text "and a chattering fool comes to ruin"

appears to be unrelated to any conceivable antithesis to the significance of winking.

But this uncertainty leaves us without any sure guide to the significance of winking.

The psalmist prays, "Let not those gloat over me who are my enemies without cause;

let not those who hate me without reason maliciously wink the eye" (Ps In con-trast to the significance of contemporary Western gesture, winking in the OT culture was never mere facetiousness. It is "always associated with sin"; in Semitic Ethiopian culture to wink at a woman is to invite her to have sex.

Not only are we without information on gesture in the Jacob text, but we also lack information regarding the intonation pattern employed for the sequence, the medial of the speech, the pitch of the speaker's voice, or the place of stress within the sequence. This is, of course, typical of written text, typical of the two absences, of speaker and of referent.

We may go further: Although the import of the sequence is quite clear, that the name of the speaker is Esau, in fact we know (either from general knowledge or from reading the cotext) that his name was not Esau. We conclude, then, that the meaning of a sequence is not, after all, merely some kind of summation of the meanings of the con-stituent elements that comprise the sequence. We need also to know the cotext, the total text of which the sequence is a part. That in turn requires that we identify the boundaries of the text, those limits within which we may expect to locate the clues that might serve to resolve our inescapable exegetical uncertainties, before proceeding to an analysis of any part of it. In the present example, expanding the analysis of the text into its immediate cotext shows that the speaker's name was Jacob, and that he was presenting himself to his father as Esau, his elder brother.

(Video) James Barr - Intro and SBL chs 1-2 overview

We are confronted here by the essential difference between a sentence and an utterance, a useful distinction that will generally be maintained in this article. A sen-tence has no immediate cotext and no sociological context. The sensen-tence rendered as "I am Esau your firstborn" does mean what it appears to mean: that the speaker is firstborn son and is named Esau. The sentence may be generated by a speaker or may be written down, but there is no cotext that could bring into question the informa-tion being communicated within the limits of that sentence. An utterance has both social milieu in which it is cotext, and the meaning of an utterance must be determined in the light of text, cotext, and context. That is to say, the meaning of an utterance cannot be determined merely by reference to dictionary, lexi-con, thesaurus, and grammar. The possible range of meanings and the probable mean-ing of an ancient utterance may be ascertained through dictionary, grammar, thesaurus, lexicon, context, cotext, encyclopedia, history, geography, and a knowledge of linguis-tics and especially of sociolinguislinguis-tics and discourse structure.

Moreover, we note that each utterance, even though it may use "the same"

words as another utterance, will nonetheless have a unique singular meaning because it necessarily has a unique singular context. To make the point quite clearly, if a speaker generates the utterance "That is a horse," and someone else repeats "That is a horse,"

the time context of the latter utterance is different from that of the former and that willbe so even if the same speaker repeats "the same" utterance. The meaning of the sec-ond utterance must be different from that of the first utterance precisely because it fol-lows that first utterance. The meaning of each utterance is determined from anassessment of the linguistic elements it contains, the cotext of which it is a part, and thecontext within which it was generated.

Perhaps it should be added here, that this view of the process of the interpreta-tion of a text is very different from concept of a psychological absorption into the text. We are now reasonably confident that because of our preread-ing of texts an objective and existential re-creation of any ancient context is denied to us. However, this does not deny to us the attempt objectively to re-create that context, without attempting existentially to experience it.

2. Language: Barr's critique. Biblical exegesis has suffered until comparatively recently from the manner in which academic disciplines tended to be isolated from one another. In particular theologians were largely unaware of new insights into the inter-pretation of texts commonplace amongst secular linguists. The end of age of ignorance was arguably signaled to theologians by the appearance of the seminal work by James later Regius Professor of Hebrew in the University of Oxford, The Semantics of Biblical Language, 1961. In this work Barr began by acknowledging two particular features of theological language as contrasted with the language of everyday speech. First, theological language exhibits special semantic developments; words are assigned particular and technical meanings. But at the same time Barr was aware of the danger of supposing that theological language represents a unique strand of language, exempt from those generalities observed elsewhere in language. Thus, observations made of the general phenomenon of human language can with confidence be applied also to theological language. Of course, there are those semantic specializations that have parallels in such disciplines as law and philosophy, medicine, and physics.

Second, Barr recognized that the interpretation of theological language and especially of biblical language must have a significant datum in the past. The process of exegesis involves not merely the interpretation of a text but the transculturation of meanings. This observation bears particularly on the fact that theological texts, far more than legal texts, are subject to attempts at exegesis by individuals who lack those skills that lay open to them the datum in the past and so supply the only reliable key to responsible exegesis.

It has to be said that although the Bible may well be understandable in the main by the reasonably educated individual, there can be no expectation that any translation can be produced that makes the meaning of the original text transparent to the plough-man. Barr went further by insisting that the study of grammar, and, more particularly, the study of words, their meanings, their etymologies, their cognates in related lan-guages, could not lead even the best of scholars into reliable exegesis without a pro-found understanding of the way in which language itself functions to communicate


Muraoka, in his seminal work Emphatic Words and Structures in Biblical Hebrew, published in 1985 but based on his doctoral thesis of warns that evidence and comparative Semitic parallels possess only secondary value" in determining the meaning of a particular text, and goes on to state that

(Video) The Language of Theology

. . . before pronouncing a final judgment about the emphasizing function to a certain form or structure in a given place, the text and the wider context in which it is found must be closely examined (XVII).

The welcome caution displayed here may owe something to the earlier (p. vii)acknowledgment made to the critical reading of the manuscript by Barr. Certainly Barr

would approve of the principle of cotext and context representing the primary evidence for any particular interpretation of a text, with versional evidence and the evidence of cognate languages taking a secondary place.

3. Reading strategies. I lived in Ethiopia for many years and was struck by the beauty of the oleander bush. It is hardy, surviving in almost waterless conditions. It is beautiful, with a brilliant waxy red flower. It is one of the few plants that is not eaten by animals, domestic or wild. However, every part of it is highly toxic. I was warned of the danger posed to my children by having this plant growing in our gardens, and to be sure of my facts I obtained a letter from the Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in London on the dangers of the oleander. The chemical concerned was named hydrocya-nic acid, and its use in some gas chambers in the USA was noted. Examples of past incidents, going back to Hannibal, in which people died from sucking a leaf or stem, were quoted. The advice was clear (to me): The plant should not be in our gardens. My neighbor was a keen gardener, with plenty of those plants in his garden. He read the letter: "It's not so bad after all, is it?" The "objective text" depends for its interpretation on the reader: He was anxious to preserve his garden while I was anxious to preserve my children, and our respective reading strategies enabled us to perceive "the same"

text as we wished.

Until the second half of the twentieth century scientists were content to allow the myth of scientific objectivity to remain as the distinctive characteristic of their researches. A similar mythological epistemology could be seen in the humanities, with both ideals arguably going back to Descartes and his concept of the human observer impacting on an essentially passive and objective world. In biblical studies the sup-posed scientific ideal has until recently been that pursued by scholars, so that the text has only rarely been related to the real but subjectively perceived world, either the real ancient world (except in its sterilized scholarly form) or the contemporary world into which, at least for the church, it is supposed to speak. The consequences for the church have been tragic: The discoveries of the scholars have been perceived to be irrelevant, the questions asked by the scholars have not been the questions asked by the church, and the church has turned in despair away from scholarship to charismatic but often


In Christian Bible conventions it has been customary to make use of the massa-cre of the Amalekites Sam for the sake of apophthegm "to obey is bet-ter than sacrifice, and to heed is betbet-ter than the fat of rams" (v. 22), with no reference at all to the moral problem posed by the massacre apparently commanded by

(vv. 1-3). Similarly the Esther narrative has been expounded without any real consider-ation of the exploitconsider-ation of women, whether of Vashti or of the young women, gathered together like so many cattle, for the king's approval. As far back as 1973 Wink called for the combining of critical textual scholarship with a recognition of biblical text as that which stands over against us and questions our beliefs and practices rather than merely reinforcing them (see Walter Wink, 32).

In reading we necessarily adopt a strategy that is designed to enable us to under-stand the text. We make assumptions about the structure and the intention of its author or editor. But these assumptions are not infrequently self-serving, aimed at ensuring that the text should confirm existing prejudices rather than challenge them.

(Video) The Importance of Interpreting Scripture Theologically

We then have a conflict between the intention of the discourse, and

intentio lectoris, the intention of the discourse as determined by the reader's strategy.

The contrast is readily seen in the oleander illustration above, but also from the account of the massacre of the Amalekites: In the interests of piety the text is not interrogated at certain points. Perhaps even more obvious is the insistence by some readers, in the interests of a teetotal conviction, that the wine produced by Jesus at Cana was unfer-mented wine (cf. John

4. Meaning. Semantics subsumes a subsidiary science concerned with text-meaning. In normal usage it would be expected that we could ask what the mean-ing of a text was and expect to find a generally acceptable answer. A little thought will show that this is an assumption and that in some literary forms there is explicitly noth-ing correspondnoth-ing to a text-meannoth-ing. Anthony Thiselton (I think uniquely) has drawn attention to the Zen koan, a text-form that observes the usual grammatical and linguis-tic regularities but that explicitly has no text-meaning The koan may be an apparently normal text, "Who is it that recites the name of the Buddha?" or it may be an apparently nonsensical but grammatical string, "The sound of one hand clapping."

The Zen master is concerned to bring the to the point where the koan is resolved not by analysis of any kind, but by intuition. The student takes the koan and

"slowly recites the words of the question and watches it as a cat watches a mouse, try-ing to bore deeper and deeper into it, till he reaches the point from which it comes and intuits its meaning" (Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, 1990, 274).

The postmodernist approach to text has clear affinities with the Zen perception of the role of language. Strings of words have apparent superficial

"meanings" which, however, cloak the true function of language, which is not to com-municate any intended meaning but to activate intuitive meaning. The meaning for one intuiter need have no relation whatever to that of another. In other words, the process of deconstruction as exemplified in J. D. Crossan (see The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of for example, starts from the denial of embodied meaning and replaces the traditional emphasis on cognitive content with a concern for the form of the linguistic vehicle.

This approach certainly serves to remedy the traditional concern with text asthough it were no more (and no less) than a shopping list. It emphasizes the emotiveforce of text and the role of intuition in perceiving text as more than a mere summationof lexicon and grammar. But epistemologically the approach offers serious problems tothose who assume that a text not only has cognitive content, but also has ethical

This approach certainly serves to remedy the traditional concern with text asthough it were no more (and no less) than a shopping list. It emphasizes the emotiveforce of text and the role of intuition in perceiving text as more than a mere summationof lexicon and grammar. But epistemologically the approach offers serious problems tothose who assume that a text not only has cognitive content, but also has ethical

(Video) 22. Interpreting Scripture: Medieval Interpretations


1. A Matter of Semantics
(International Missionary Baptist Presentations)
2. Literary Styles in the Bible
3. Hermeneutics - The Study of Biblical Interpretation - Class 3
(Church of Christ on Fishinger Road Media)
4. 21. Interpreting Scripture: Hebrews
5. "How to Interpret the Bible" -- Session 5
(Scott Starker)
6. Dissecting the Biblical Text: Words, Semantics, Grammar and Syntax
(Jonathan Rehfeldt)

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