Friday, October 24, 2014

A Puzzle About (Biblical) Interpretation

Context, context, context.  It is said that to know the meaning of a verse in the Bible, one has to know the surrounding context.  One has to know the meaning of the immediate context (the several verses before and after the one in question) and the broader context (e.g. the book it is written in, etc.)

How, then, does interpretation ever get started?  For simplicity sake let's reduce the Bible to three books and each book to four verses (the numbers don't matter to see the puzzle--and let's suppose that each verse is a single sentence).  Suppose we focus on the first book and verses 1, 2, 3, and 4 (which, we're supposing, are all of the verses).  In order to understand the meaning of 1, we must understand the meaning of at least verse 2 (and perhaps verses 3 and 4).  But to understand the meaning of 2, one must understand the meaning of at least 3 (and presumably 1 as well).  But to understand the meaning of 3 we must understand 2 and 4.  But to understand 4....  And thus we have a potentially vicious hermeneutical circle. It won't help to appeal to our understanding of books two and three since the same problem applies to each of the books as well.  To understand the meaning of anything it seems that one must already understand the meaning of everything.

We have only been focusing on the context within the Bible, but will it help matters to appeal to the context in which a book of the Bible was written?  That is, can we solve the puzzle by saying that we can understand the meaning of the book by understanding first about the time in which it was written, about what people thought and believed during that day, about the audience the book was addressed to, etc.?

I don't know how much that will help.  One knows about the surrounding history (sans Bible) primarily from reading other documents.  But then we're back to the question of how to get started interpreting in the first place, only this time applied to those other documents.

Of course, this isn't a special puzzle for Biblical interpretation, it's a puzzle about interpretation more generally.   I know there has to have been a lot said in the history of philosophy of language and hermeneutics addressing this puzzle--I haven't read it myself, but I'm sure it's out there.  I'm just expressing my ignorance of philosophy of language for anyone in the world to see.

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