I’m catching up on my reading, and was struck by a witty and helpful discussion of biblical interpretation by Shalom Carmy in the Spring issue of Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought.
In his editorial for this issue, Carmy (a First Things contributor) uses the clever ambiguities of a famous telegram exchange to remind us just how ellusive meaning can be. A publicist send a message: “How old Cary Grant?’ The famous actor replied, “Old Cary Grant fine how you?”
As Carmy obseves, to properly interpret the exchange, one needs to know a great deal about the abbreviated verbal style of telegraphs, the reasons why an aging movie actor might want to keep his age ambiguous, and the modern culture of celebrity.
Modern historical critical study of the bible promises to illuminate the contexts that will help us interpret difficult passages the bible, some of which are far less accessible to our understanding the Cary Grant’s telegram. But, as Carmy points out, this promise is only partially filled.
Indeed, as Carmy points out, the relative limitations of modern historical study can create a vacuum in which all sorts of highly speculative versions of spiritual interpretation flourish unchecked. We’ve seen this in the Christian world. Modern biblical “science” creates its doppelganger—a sui generis biblical “literalism” that traffics in wild dispensational schemes. In a certain sense, Julius Wellhausen and John Nelson Darby need each other.
It turns out that the traditional, normative interpretations of the bible help us achieve the larger goal of interpretation—making sense out of the large sweep of the biblical material while at the same time doing as much justice as possible to the plain or literal sense. Tradition, in short, is reliable, which, Carmy notes, “is why Ibn Ezra insisted that ignoring Rabbinic tradition ends up perverting the plain meaing of the text.”
Carmy’s reflections are telling. They reflect a general trend toward what I call “theological exegesis” in my article in the forthcoming issue, “A Richer Bible.” The Oral Torah—the Jewish analogy to the Christian doctrinal tradition—provides a discipling framework for biblical interpretation. It can be leavened by historical work, supplemented by ambitious spiritual readings that stretch the limits of traditional readings, but for a coherent take on the bible as a whole, tradition is the best bet.