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Social Science and Literary Criticism:

What is at stake?

R L Rohrbaugh

Lewis and Qark College, Portland, Oregon (USA)

A bstract

As the variety of m ethods used by biblical scholars m ul­

tiplies, new sub-disciplines are being b orn th a t all too

often leave specialists isolated from each other. W hile at som e points the various m ethods co m p lem en t each

o th er, at o th ers they rem ain contradictory or m utually exclusive. Two o f the new er such m ethods, literary criti­

cism a n d so cial-scien ce criticism , have u n til now r e ­ m ained in isolation. In recent m onths, however, a dialo­

gue has begun to em erge that seeks to explore the com ­

m on ground or lack th ereo f betw een these two methods.

T his article is a beginning reflection by a social-science critic on som e o f the issues involved.

B iblical scholarship is perhaps at a m ajor crossroads in its m o d em de­

velopm ent as regards the nature o f biblical narratives. It has been diffi­

cult to decide whether biblical narratives are about real orfictive events.

(Funk 1988:296)

A t issue in the debate is the question o f which should dom inate in tex­

tual interpretation, the information internal (intrinsic) to the text or con­ textual information that is external (extrinsic) to the text, like the author’s

intent, his biography or the historical and cultural climate o f his times.

(P etersen 1985:6)

Currently, however, the debate am ong literary critics hinges on the re­ lated question o f ju st how determ initive even intrinsic textual inform

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tion is o f our understanding and interpretation o f texts. One polar posi-

tion in the debate is th a t o f radical determ inacy (e g, E D H irsdi), in

which it is believed that valid interpretations can be arrived at; the other

polar position is that o f radical indeterminacy (eg, J Derrida), in which it is believed that we cannot validly interpret a text because texts have m any

meanings, not merely one right one.

(P etersen 1985:6)

T he three quotations above locate the ground from which m ost o f the em erging dis­

cussion betw een social science and literary critics arises.' Strictly speaking, of cour­

se, not all the argum ents are special ones betw een literary and social-science critics.

Som e are b etw een literary critics and individuals doing historical analysis of any kind, w hile others are am ong literary critics them selves. Y et in one way or an o th er

alm ost all o f them are argum ents in which social-science critics have a stake.

O ne e n ters this conversation, o f course, w ith a certain a m o u n t of trep id atio n . T he u n d erto n es of ideological suspicion are everyw here in the literatu re as the a d ­

vocates of interpretive determ inacy and objectivity on one side b attle the claim ants of indeterm inacy and free play on the other. T erm s like ‘a u th o rita ria n ’ and ‘p u rita­

nical’ fly in one direction while labels like ‘escapist’ and ‘nihilist’ fly in the other. All

of th at is best left aside.

Several im portant areas of controversy are worthy of note. First, th ere is the na­

tu re of narrative texts. A re the gospel texts to be u nderstood as fiction? A re they

historical? O r is the realism in them to be construed prim arily as literary verisim ili­ tude? Equally fundam ental is the question about w here and how m eaning em erges.

Is m eaning fixed by th e intention of the a u th o r? Is it located in the texts th em sel­ ves? Is som ething external to the text to which the text points? O r does m eaning

em erge from the interaction of text and context?

We also may ask if m eaning em erges in the interaction of text and read er(s)? If

it d oes, w hat is th e relativ e w eight o f re a d e r an d text in this reg ard ? A nd w hat

about m ultiple readers? If each read er interacts with the text differently, do texts al­

ways have m ultiple m eanings? If so, w here are the limits and w hat are the criteria o f validity in in te rp re ta tio n ? T h ere is also the question about the n ature o f lang­

uage? Is language sufficiently determ inative th a t m eaning can be specified? V ali­ d ated ? D oes the possibility of m ultiple m eanings vitiate the historical character of a

text?

A related concern has to do with the form al p ro p erties o f texts. A re they a es­

thetic objects? A re the form al m arkers, eith er d eep structures or surface gram m ar,

a key to m eaning? A re they sufficient? How are the literary properties of a text re­

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R L Rohrbaugh

lated to its content? Equally im portant, but rarely asked, is a question about the re ­ lationship betw een the form al properties of the text and the world external to it.

Finally, we may ask, in w hat sense do authors m atter? A re narrative texts com ­ m unications from som eone, to som eone, about som ething? T h at is, do the texts tell

us som ething? O r are they ‘stories’ in the technical sense - that is, do they show us

som ething? W e might even ask if they invite us to participate in som ething? T hat

is, should we understand them as language events - perhaps ones which the text ini­ tiates but the read er com pletes?

Many o th er questions could be asked, of course, but perhaps these are the cen­ tral ones at issue. Obviously not all of them can be taken on in a lim ited space. F u r­

therm ore, in addressing any of the controversies a whole spectrum o f answ ers is pos­

sible and any answ er will depend on the assum ptions one m akes going in. If the de- term inacy o f language is radically questioned, for exam ple, th ere can be little sub­

stance to an argum ent about w hether the texts are fiction o r history. Likewise, if we

assum e th at m eaning is perm anently fixed in the text, interpretation is largely a m at­ ter of historical inquiry and there is little point to herm eneutics.

N one o f these are m atters to be taken for granted, of course, because they are the very substance o f the disagreem ents am ong us. M oreover, it is im portant in this

regard to recognise th a t not all literary critics treat these m atters in the sam e fas­

hion. Some assum e the com plete autonom y o f the text (new criticism ), but not all.

N or do all im agine lim itless polyvalency. N ot all question the determ inacy of la n ­

guage. M oreover, many literary critics are open to historical questions, including the kind asked by those interested in the heuristic use o f the social sciences.

B efo re ju m p in g into a discussion o f th e issues them selves, how ever, a w ord

about presuppositions is in order. T here are several underlying the work o f virtually

all social science critics th a t are im p o rtan t to u nderstand. First, the fundam ental working assum ption of social science criticism is that language always encodes a so­

cial system. It is always concrete social com m unication and never a closed system of

objective signs. L anguage brings to expression a system o f shared perceptions and

values and thereby gives each of us a sense o f ‘w orld’ which we share with those so­ cialised in a sim ilar way. In a very critical sense, language reifies world and thereby

constructs w orld. T hus as P eter B erger (B erg er & Luckm ann 1966; B erger 1967)

and T hom as Luckm ann (B erger & Luckm ann 1966) have rem inded us, ‘life-w orld’ is

always a codification of a social reality. M oreover, as B eidelm an (1970:30) points

out, language is m ore than simply gram m ar, syntax and vocabulary. It is ra th e r ‘the

sum total o f ways in which the m em bers of a society symbolise or categorise their ex­

perience so th at they may give it order and form ’. Language thus includes ‘not only w ords but gestures, facial expressions, clothing and even household furnishings - in

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Sodal Sdence and Literary Crilidsm

short, total symbolic behavior’. U nderstood in this sense, language requires the kind

o f social sem iotic analysis th at underlies virtually all social science criticism.

Second, social-science critics tak e seriously the fact th a t thought, writing, re a d ­

ing an d in terp re tin g always take place in a p articu lar social location and th a t these social locations play a critical role in the way language functions. W ith a n th ro p o lo ­

gists o f know ledge we take for g ranted the basic insight th a t th ere is a fundam ental

relationship betw een thought and the social conditions u n d er w hich it occurs. This

m eans th a t texts, like thoughts, always exist in relationship with w hat P e te r B erger calls a ‘plausibility stru c tu re ’, a socially constructed province o f m eaning in which

certain things m ake sense.

T he crucial feature of any social location, of course, is th at it limits the range of

experience o p en to a group or individual. In this way it limits the range of p resup­

positions, perceptions and plausible alternatives any group is likely to encounter. It is not th a t c e rta in experiences pro d u ce c ertain p ercep tio n s, but ra th e r th a t given

c ertain experiences a lim ited range o f p ercep tio n s should be plausible options for

m ost o f those sharing the social location. E ven if rejected for o th er alternatives, a given perception should be understood by those who share the range o f com m on ex­

p erien ce. A social location, th erefo re, is always a heuristic construct, not a causal

m echanism (Ro.hrbaugh 1987:113-115).

All o f this is a way of saying, o f course, th at our sense of ‘reality’ is itself a social

construct, and it is therefore to be understood as ‘fictive’ in the sam e sense th a t n ar­ rative texts are fictive. ‘R eality’ is not an objective item th at can be set over against

the fictive w orld o f the text as if it w ere o f a different order. T he contrast betw een fictive w orld and real w orld is a false one. But for social-science critics it is m ost im ­

p o rtan t to recognise th at sense of reality is socially constructed. It may vary in som e

m easure for individuals in the sam e society, but it rem ains profoundly social in cha­

racter. A nd this m eans th at, like language, thoughts and fexts, so also th e acts of

w riting, re a d in g an d in te rp re tin g can n ev er be c o n stru ed as m erely textual acts.

They are social acts as well. They all occur in and are lim ited by a p articular social location. T hey all p articip ate in the fictive ch aracter of all hum an sym bolic in te r­

action.

Such then are the assum ptions most social science critics m ake going in. T o us

they a re essential, the sine qua non o f textual in terp retatio n . W ith these presu p p o ­

sitions in fro n t o f us, th erefo re, we m ust tu rn directly to a discussion o f w hat is at

stake for us as social science critics w hen we read a text. W e may begin by saying th a t so cial-scien ce critics a re co m m itted to a h isto rical read in g o f biblical texts.

Since we have our own angle from which to view th at m atter, however, it is im por­

tan t to think a b o u t it at several distinct levels. Obviously we are not talking about a

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R L Rohrbaugh

historicising naiveté which assum es a o ne-to-one relatio n sh ip betw een stories and events.

Initially an assertion o f historical in terest might be construed to get us into the

ongoing d e b a te a b o u t the relation o f the gospel texts to the real history o f Jesus of N azareth . T h a t is obviously a historical question at its most basic level. Yet while

th at d eb ate is an im portant one which, in many ways, is at a crossroads in New T es­

ta m e n t scholarship right now, and m uch as it m ight be a p p ro p ria te to com m ent in o rd e r to discuss thoroughly the n atu re o f fictive, fictional and historical narratives,

space perm its only a few simple com m ents. (See Funk 1988:295-298 for a discussion o f the cu rren t anguish over the question of historicity.)

In assessing historical claim s about the New T estam ent, social science criticism

can m ake a substantial new contribution. By showing the ways in which the texts e n ­

code the social system, we can help to evaluate the plausibility o f historical claim s m ade on o th e r grounds. W e can tem p er the scepticism th a t literary scholars som e­

tim es d em o n strate (because the texts are technically fictive in n atu re) by helping to

d eterm in e if it is literary verisim ilitude o r actual historical interest th at is being as­

serted regarding a text. We also can help to distinguish am ong historical claims. If

we can show the plausibility o f a story in the social setting o f village life, for exam ­ ple, it is a far b e tte r can d id a te for historical d a ta a b o u t Jesus th an a story whose

only plausible setting is the pre-industrial city (see O akm an 1986). W ithout reco u r­ se to the social-sciences, the judgem ent th at a text is o r is not historical is all too of­

te n m ad e on eth n o c e n tric o r an ach ro n istic grounds. We rightly insist, th e re fo re ,

th at anyone trying to assert that a text claims no historical referent, o r th at a particu­

lar re fe re n t is o r is not historical, should do so in explicitly socio-historical term s.

Claim s based on the latest ideological version of w estern idealism are singularly u n ­

persuasive.

It is also possible, o f course, to raise historical questions a b o u t literatu re o th er

than allegedly historical narratives. W ith fictional narrative - parables for exam ple - the ground shifts slightly and forces us to address historical concerns a t new levels.

O n e o f th ese has to do w ith w hat literary critics call ‘v erisim ilitu d e’ - re fe rre d to

above (also called ‘recu p eratio n ’, ‘naturalisation’, ‘m otivation’ - see Funk 1988:293;

T o lb ert 1989:30, especially note 19), that is, with the ‘realism ’ th at even parables use in o rd e r to establish plausibility for a story. T he social-science critic’s concern for

history can have much to say about how verisim ilitude is created. Plausible stories,

like plausible language, w hether intentionally historical or intentionally fictional, are

always em b ed d e d in a social system and always encode it in very substantial ways. W ithout th at, the verisim ilitude the fiction w riter requires would not be possible at

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Social Sdcncc and Literary CriticLsm

all. O u r concern then is that, even when dealing with fictional texts, the socially and

historically d ated character o f the encoding system com es into play.

A good exam ple can be found in the re c e n t w ork o f th e Jesus S em inar o f the

W estar In stitu te (Sonom a, C alifornia). In reading through the re p o rt o f the Jesus S em inar on the p arab les of Jesus one gets the im pression th a t o f the many criteria

fo r au th en ticity the a u th o rs claim to use, one p re d o m in a te s (Funk, Scott & Butts 1988). It is th e b e lie f th a t Je su s’ a u th e n tic p a ra b le s pose ‘o u tra g e o u s’ o r ‘highly

exaggerated’ situations for the re a d e r to ponder. T he authors readily acknow ledge

th at the m etaphors in parables are taken from everyday life, yet they claim th at ‘J e ­

sus chooses m etaphors th at surprise (the leaven as as figure o f the holy), o r th at ex­ aggerate (everyone refuses to com e to a d inner), or th at satirise (the m ustard seed

pokes fun a t the mighty cedar th a t represents Israel). T he read er m ust always look fo r the su rp risin g tw ist in the story, the u nusual figure, th e paradoxical p a tte rn ’

(Funk et al 1988:16). TTie problem here, o f course, is th at one m ust know the typical

b efo re one can d esig n ate som eth in g atypical o r surprising. T h e com m ent noted above a b o u t all th e guests refusing to com e w hen invited to a d in n er provides an

exam ple. This k e n a r io struck the Jesus Sem inar participants as outrageous, exagge­

ra te d b eh av io u r. They tre a te d it as atypical (F unk et al 1988:43). But how could

they know this? In fact, exactly the opposite might have been be the case. D ouble

invitations th a t an ticip ated such difficulties w ere com m onplace in antiquity. They are discussed in both the papyri and the M ishnah, and indeed exam ples of all the in­

vited d in n er guests not showing up exist elsew here in the literature.^ T he situation

is not atypical, exaggerated o r outrag eo u s a t all. T he p arab le may o r may not be

authentic, but the criterion has been m istakenly applied because the social situation o f antiquity has not b een taken seriously.^ The Jesus Sem inar R ep o rt im agines m o­ dern dinner parties and the attitudes of m odern hosts and on this basis m akes a his­

torical judgement.'* In his recent book on parables, B randon Scott (1989:67-68) re ­ cognises this problem , acknowledging th at we must know first w hat is typical before

we can pronounce som ething atypical, but he then claims that only literary concerns a re at issue. T his brings us to yet a n o th e r level at which social-science critics are

com m itted to a historical reading o f the texts. If we are right in m aking th e claim

th a t language encodes a social system, and if the social system th at New T estam ent

language en co d es is th a t of th e M ed iterran ean w orld in the agrarian period, then

the key to deciphering the language o f the New T estam ent cannot be derived from

social system s o th e r th an th e one th a t p roduced it. H e re the in te rp re te r m akes a consciously historical choice. H istorical or social location is not simply the ‘b ack­

g round’ o f a text. It is encoded, em bedded, reflected and responded to in a text. It

is not a p o in t of referen ce for a text, it is the text and the text is it. A nd since this

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R L Rohrbauf^

system o f social conventions is itself a historical reality, a reality of a n o th e r time,

a n o th e r place and a n o th e r culture, it must be uncovered and recovered in o rd er to u n d erstan d in w hat way the text is an em bodim ent o f it. Social-science criticism is

thus historical in a very fu n d am en tal sense: it assum es th a t a social system of the

past, from a culture th a t p recedes the industrial revolution, is the necessary key to u n d erstanding the language in the text. A nd th at is tru e w h eth er th e text claim s a

historical re fe re n t o r not. T he verisim ilitude and its contravention on which p a ra ­ bles depend is itself d ependent on a historically locatable social system that the text

encodes.

R e la te d to this concern over the use o f verisim ilitude in the p arab le texts, of

course, is the assertion of some literary critics th at biblical texts, and particularly the

p arab les, a re to be construed as rh eto rical-aesth etic objects and th erefo re studied prim arily for their form al properties as art. F or som e critics this allows discussion of the p a ra b le s a p a rt from any consideration o f their historical or social location b e ­

cause m eaning is construed to em erge from the characteristics o f the text as text, not from the encoding of the social system in the text.

We can leave aside the controversy over the degree to which formal characteris­ tics in a text carry the freight claim ed for them , though som e stru ctu ralist claims

ab o u t univer.sality of p attern have rightly been criticised by both historians and a n ­ thropologists. F or social science critics the main problem in som e treatm en ts o f for­

m al p ro p ertie s has once again to do with our concern for anachronism and ethno- centrism . W e rightly ask w hether the form s the critics claim to see are constructs

conditioned by the social location of the critics themselves.5 An exam ple o f the e th ­ nocentric d an g er in judgem ents about form can be seen in Mary A nn T o lb e rt’s re­

cent w ork on M ark. W earing her literary hat, T o lb ert claims that one o f the key dif­

ferences betw een ancient and m odern fiction is th at in m odern fiction ‘ch aracter’ is

highly developed w hereas in ancient literatu re it is p ortrayed in a ‘flat, stereo-typi­

cal, passive and static m an n er’ (T o lb ert 1989:76). She notes especially th at the ‘il­

lustrative c h aracters of ancient literatu re are static, m onolithic figures who do not grow o r develop p.sychologically’ (T o lb ert 1989:77). T o h er cred it she argues th at

we must take this difference seriously, but like many literary analysts she treats this

form al featu re as if it w ere a simple result of the rudim entary quality o f ancient fic­

tion. She seem s unaw are that flat, stereotypical characterisations are an encoding of the ancient M editerranean social system which understood all people in that way in

real life. Likewise, she seem s unaw are that the psychological, introspective ch arac­

ter of W estern novels encodes the social system in which we live and in which we ty­

pically view hum an n ature in those terms. We are introspective. A ncient M editer­

ran e a n p eo p le w ere not, for reasons having to do with ho n o u r-sh am e values and

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Soda] Sdence and L áerary Crilidsm

dyadic views o f personality (M alina 1979:126-138; M alina 1989:127-141). T he diffe­

rences are thus much m ore than literary. They are social and historical as well. We m ust always ask, th erefore, the degree to which aesthetic and form alistic considera­ tions are in the anachronistic and ethnocentric eye o f the beholder.

O ne ad d itio n al and fundam ental controversy in w hich we as social science cri­ tics have a stake has to do with the so called relatio n o f text and context. As N or­

m an P e te rse n (1985:6) points out, these are ‘th e two principle sources o f inform a­ tion bearing on th e in terp re tatio n o f texts’ though a substantial argum ent exists over

which should dom inate interpretation, inform ation internal to the text o r contextual

in fo rm atio n th a t com es from outside. H ere we begin to confront one o f the m ost im p o rtan t issues in o u r discussion: H ow and w here does textual m eaning em erge?

M any, o f course, acknow ledge th a t text and context in te ra c t in th e p ro d u ctio n of

m eaning. W hatever w eight they may assign to context, they assum e th at it provides the backdrop for reading and interpretation. U nfortunately, however, th at does not quite say enough for eith er the historian or the social science critic.^

A t the o u tset we acknow ledged th at the so called ‘re a l’ w orld is itself a fictive

co n stru ct. It does not differ in kind from the fictive w orld th a t narrative creates. T h a t co n trast is a fal.se one th at drives a non-existent w edge betw een text and con­

text. A nd, m ost em phatically, we would argue th at real w orld, context, call it what

you will, cannot be simply ‘background’ for reading a text. T hat likewise im plies the two are discreet realities. But the text encodes, is em bedded in, reflects, responds to

an d is inextricably d ep en d en t on the social life-world it em bodies. D ivorce it from

th a t world and it is no longer th e sam e text. T he point is a critical one. Rem oved from its social location in the M editerranean w orld of the first century, a parab le is

no longer the sam e parab le. A fter all, the plausibility the p arab les a tte m p t to in­

voke is a plausibility in their world, not ours. An additional problem , now widely re ­

cognised by literary critics them selves, is th at construing text and context as sep ara­

ble en tities not only fails to take social location seriously, it fails to take the read er in to a c c o u n t as w ell. R e a d e rs, a t least re a l re a d e rs, do sta n d o u ts id e th e text.

M oreover, they do so in a particular social location o f th eir own. This m eans th at

th e q u estio n of m eaning cannot be divorced from the question ab o u t w ho is doing

the reading. Texts w ithout contexts are no less com plete than texts w ithout readers. A nd th a t is because th e real re a d e r brings to the act o f reading a w orld of h is /h e r

own, from which a great deal is drawn into the conversation as text and read er inter­ act.

It is obvious th at not everything necessary to a conversation can be w ritten down

because a text simply can n o t say everything th a t needs to be known a b o u t a topic u n d e r discussion. T o do so w ould be tedious in the extrem e and clu tter the text to

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the p o in t o f unreadability. InesitaDly, then, th ere is much th a t m ust be left to the

im agination o f the re a d e r because an au th o r depends on a read er to fill in the gaps

from the life-w orld they share in com m on. Successful com m unication can be c a r­ ried on in no o th er way (M alina 1991:3-24).

T hinking a b o u t m odern w estern re a d e rs read in g ancient M e d iterran ean texts

req u ires us to clarify the situation one step fu rth er. E ach tim e a text is read by a

new reader, th e fields of reference tend to shift and multiply because each new re a ­ d e r fills in th e text in a uniq u e way. A m ong literary th eo rists this p h en o m en o n is usually called ‘reco n tex tu alisatio n ’, a term referrin g to the m ultiple ways different

read ers may ‘com plete’ a text as a result of reading it from w ithin their different so­

cial locations. (T exts may also be ‘d e c o n te x tu a lise d ’ w hen read ahistorically for

th e ir a e sth e tic o r form al characteristics.) Such reco n tex tu alisatio n is o f course a fam iliar p h enom enon to students o f the Synoptic G ospels. It is nicely illustrated in

the work o f redaction critics, for example, who have shown us how shifts in the set­

tings o f the parables o f Jesus in the various gospels have altered their em phasis a n d / o r m eaning (e g the parab le o f the Lost Sheep in M t 18:12-13; Lk 15:4-6; T hom as

98:22-27). In w hatever m easure each o f these new recontextualisations o f the Jesus-

story ‘co m p lete’ the text unlike an original h e a re r of Jesus might have done, an in­

terpretative step of significant proportions has been taken.

T he sam e is true for recontextualisations into the w orld of the m odern reader.

Moving the text from the M editerranean culture continent in which it was w ritten to

the new setting in the W estern, industrialised society w here it is now read, is a very

far-reaching recontextualisation indeed. No New T estam ent w riter ever im agined a tw entieth century A m erican as a real, im plied or ideal reader. T he social locations

o f th e o riginal au d ien c e(s) and th e m odern au d ie n c e (s) d iffer in such significant m easu re th a t n e ith e r audience could be expected to co m p lete th e u n w ritten e le ­

m ents o f the text in the sam e way. O f critical im portance for social science critics th e re fo re is the recognition that this particu lar recontextualisation, this m odernisa­

tion of the text, is itself profoundly social in character. R ead ers socialised in the in­

dustrial w orld are unlikely to com plete the text o f the New T estam en t in ways the

ancient au th o rs could have im agined. W e simply do not intuitively know the social

system the language encodes.

O ne final issue we might discuss is the m atter of au th o rial intent, especially in so far as it bears on the sense in which texts are com m unication from one p>erson to

another. In recent literary studies, of course, it is com m on to pronounce ‘intentional

fallacy’ upon any attem p t to im agine what the original au th o r had in mind. Literary

analysts are sharply critical of attem p ts to ‘get inside the head of the a u th o r’ in the

hope of estim ating what h e /sh e might have intended. Since the gospel authors can­

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Social Sdencc and Literary Cri(id.sm

not be questioned, it is assum ed we cannot probe th eir intentions in any substantial way. M oreover, since different read ers com plete tfie text differently, it is assum ed

th a t it can n o t have a single, th a t is au th o rial, m eaning anyway. Y et one need not

hold th e extrem e position o f E D H irsch th a t authorial intent is both available and

determ inative o f all m eaning in ord er to ask if the texts are com m unication in some real sen se?’^ If they are, they are w hat som eone (an au th o r) m eant to say to som e­

one else (a re a d e r) about som ething in particular. W e may not be able to discover fully w hat th at is, but th at does not m ean we cannot discover anything about it a t all.

No one would claim, for example, th at the gospel w riters w ere talking about nuclear disarm am ent. But th ere is a n o th er thing to be said here. As W alter Benn M ichaels

(1983:344) has shown, ‘language can only be understood as a set of intentional acts,’ and thus ‘to use language at all [as speaker, hearer, w riter or reader] is to acknow ­ ledge th e centrality of in te n tio n ’. H e argues th a t ‘w hat a text m eans and w hat the

au th o r intends it to m ean are the sam e thing,’ hence interpretation is largely a m at­

te r o f trying to figure out w hat this intention might be (M ichaels 1983:344). O r as

Stanley Fish (1983:283) puts it; ‘It is im possible not to construe it [intention]’ in the

a ct o f in terp re tin g . T his is not, o f course, an arg u m en t th a t we can get inside the head of an author. T he point Fish (1983:283) seeks to m ake is rath er that intentions

a re a form o f ‘conventional’ behaviour and are to be ‘conventionally’ read. So that

instead o f referring the m atter of intention back to an original author, an individual, a social science critic will insist th at it be referred back to an original system o f so­

cial conventions that has left its mark in the encoding conventions o f the text. In this connection, som e literary critics, particularly in parable research, are un­

easy a b o u t claim s of au th o rial intent because they argue th at p arab les have no in­

tended message, no subject m atter in any direct sense. Being inherently polyvalent,

they suggest th a t p arab les are not inform ation ab o u t anything but ra th e r a re lang­

uage events m eant to explode the world of the h e a re r/re a d e r and open up possibili­ ties for a new ‘w orld’ to come into being.

But as Terry Eagleton (1983:79) points out, such a theory is both anachronistic and ethnocentric. It is ‘based on a liberal hum anist ideology: a belief that in reading

we should be flexible and open-m inded, p re p a re d to put o u r beliefs into question

and allow them to be transform ed.’ T he ideal reader, the com petent reader, is the

liberal hum anist. A n ideologically com m itted read er is a.ssumed to be an in ad eq u a­

te read er since h e /s h e is ‘less likely to be open to the transform ative pow er o f litera­ ry w orks’ (E agleton 1983:79). M oreover, as E agleton (1983:79) points out, the irony

h ere is th a t th e claim ed c h aracter o f the text (o p en -en d ed ) aim s at producing the

very kind o f re a d e r (o pen-m inded) th a t it already presupposes. In fact, if th e text really m eans to explode our pre-existing convictions, and thus if holding o n e ’s con­

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R L Rohrbaugh

victions ra th e r lightly is the pre-condition o f co m p eten t reading, then ‘having them

in terro g a ted and subverted by the text is not really very significant’ a fte r all. T he

irony h ere, of course, is th at even an o pen-ended parab le is a text with a definable authorial intent. It ‘intends’ to explode the life-world and assum ptions o f the reader.

But even beyond this is the fact th at if texts are absolute in the sense th at they can

be divorced from all questions o f authorial intent, they are also separable from the social context of origin and hence are tre a te d not only ahistorically but also asocial-

ly. Such an approach lends itself to the excessive individualism o f W estern societies, but depends upon a virtual denial o f the anthropology o f knowledge and the social

location of thought. Looming large here, o f course, is the m atter o f m ultiple m ean­

ings in texts or, as som e literary critics would prefer to put it, the m atter o f determ i-

nacy and indeterm inacy. In denying the value of authorial intent, som e critics seek to m ake room for the kind o f polyvalence that has been elevated to essence in p a ra ­

ble studies, though most argue th at polyvalence exists in virtually all texts w hether

p arab les or not. T his is an im p o rtan t issue since it is clea r th a t if a text can m ean anything, it really m eans nothing at all: It is merely a vehicle for w hat its latest re a ­

d er wishes to say. N or can a com pletely polyvalent text be construed as com m unica­ tion in any strict sense o f the term . T h ere is ra th e r w idespread ag reem en t, th e re ­

fore, th at limits on polyvalence exist even if not all agree on w here o r how to place them . T he one item on which all social science critics would insist, how ever, is that

a p articular social system represents a control on m ultivalency th a t we cannot over­

look. A lim ited range o f experience m eans a lim ited range of plausibility structures

and therefo re a lim ited range o f meanings. The new and novel are always possible, but even they participate in the dom inant social matrix. T he issue here, of course, is

validity in interpretation and in her new book on M ark, Mary A nn T o lb ert (1989:10-

13) lists several c rite ria for ‘adjudicating’ am ong a list o f m ultiple in terp re tatio n s.

T h ese c rite ria a re not to be used, she argues, to discrim in ate b etw een ‘right and w rong’ in terp re tatio n s (which are in theory ruled out), but ra th e r betw een in te rp re ­

tations th a t are m ore or less ‘persuasive’ to ‘m odern’ readers. We may note in pas­

sing th a t the p roblem s w ith T o lb e rt’s list are legion, hence som e w ould no doubt

w ant to form ulate it differently. But the real issue here is not the adequacy o f T o l­

b e rt’s list. It is ra th e r th at any list of criteria for validity in in te rp re ta tio n m ust be

p refaced with a critical assum ption. U nless we buy into the fallacy o f the a u to n o ­

mous text, authorial intent (w hether or not we can say fully w hat it is) and authorial

location in the M ed iterran ean w orld o f the first century m ean th a t plausible in ter­ pretations, if they are truly interpretations and not platform s, and if they are truly in­

te rp re ta tio n s o f this text ra th e r th an som e oth er, are lim ited to those th a t address the au th o rial audience, not the m odern one. E th n o cen tric and anachronistic read ­

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Social Sdcncc and Literary Crilidsm

ings may be interesting, but they fail to take seriously a com m unicative dim ension in

th e text, they d isresp ect th e very creativity o f the a u th o r w hich th e literary critic

claim s to be constitutive of th e text and they allow the needs o f the m odern read er (‘interesting’, ‘persuasive to the m odern read er’) to overshadow the text to such d e ­

g ree th a t it ceases to be little m ore than a set of directions for self-expression. We thus em phatically assert th e need to tak e au th o ria l in ten t - in the sense o f social

conv en tio n - seriously if an in te rp re ta tio n is claim ed to be an in te rp re ta tio n o f a p articular text rath er than som e o th er one.

Obviously these questions and reflections could go on. But in looking over the ram blings above, it seem s th at a num ber of m atters stand out for those who are in te­

rested in the social sciences and New T estam en t interpretation. It really does m at­ ter to us th at authors, texts, audiences, read ers and m eanings are understood to e n ­

code and incarnate historically and culturally locatable social systems. It does m at­

te r th a t th e range o f m eanings in a text is lim ited by the social system the text e n ­

codes and th a t w renching it away from th a t system irretrievably alters the text. It d o es m a tte r to us th a t texts are co m m u n icatio n and th a t they have au th o rs with

som ething to .say. A nd finally, it m atters to us that writing, reading, hearing and in­ terpreting are all, in a fundam ental and inviolable .sense, the most social o f acts.

E ndnotes

1. T he first significant discussions took place at the 1991 Society o f Biblical L ite­

ratu re M eeting in Kansas City. F u rth er efforts are planned for 1992 and 1993.

2. C f L am R 4:2; see also Es 5:8; 6:14; Philo, O p if 78. F o r th e papyri see Kim (1975).

3. F o r a discussion o f the p arab le o f the G re a t B anquet in a social-science pers­ pective, see R ohrbaugh (1991).

4. F o r further discussion o f the problem of ethnocentfic historical judgem ents, see Freyne (1988:19) and Sanders (1985:7,125-129).

5. This la tte r point is nicely m ade in the work o f T erry E agleton (1983:108) who

argues th a t treatin g texts a p a rt from the social and historical settings that p ro ­

duced them is, after all, just the latest chapter in the history o f classical W estern idealism.

6. T o those interested in history, especially social history, and convinced o f its cru­

cial place in textual in terp re tatio n , th e ‘new historicism ’ is a w elcom e reaction (see Lentricchia 1980).

7. F o r an excellent discussion o f the w eakness o f H irsch’s position, see E agleton (1983:67-74).

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R L Rohrbauf^

Works cited

B eidelm an, T O 1970. The Kaguru: A m atrilineal people o f East Africa. New York; H olt, R in eh art and W inston.

B erger, P 1967. The sacred canopy. G ard en City: D oubleday.

B erger, P & L uckm ann, T 1966. The social construction o f reality: A treatise in the sociology o f knowledge. G ard en City: D oubleday.

E agleton, T 1983. Literary theory: A n introduction. M inneapolis: U niversity o f M in­

nesota Press.

Fish, S 1983. W orking on the C hain G ang: In terp retatio n in the law and in literary

criticism , in M itchell, W J T (ed). The politics o f interpretation. Chicago: C hica­

go U niversity Press.

Freyne, S 1988. Galilee, Jesus and the Gospels: Literary approaches and historical in­ vestigations. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Funk, R W 1988. The poetics o f Biblical narrative. Sonoma: Polebridge.

Funk, R W, Scott, B B & Butts, J R 1988. The parables o f Jesus: R ed letter edition.

Sonom a: Polebridge.

Kim, C H 1975. T he Papyrus invitation. JB L 94, 391-402.

Lentricchia, F 1980. A fter the new criticism. Chicago: Chicago U niversity Press.

M alina, B J 1979. T he individual and com m unity - Personality in the social world of

early Christianity. Biblical Theology Bulletin 9, 126-138.

— 1989. D ealing w ith Biblical (M e d ite rra n e a n ) characters: A guide for U S con- .sumers. Biblical Theology Bulletin 19, 127-141.

— 1991. R eading theory perspective: R eading Luke-A cts, in Neyrey, J (ed). The social world o f Luke-A cts, 3-24. Peabody: H endrickson.

M ichaels, W B 1983. Is th ere a politics o f in terp re tatio n ?, in M itchell, W J T (ed). The politics o f interpretation. Chicago: Chicago U niversity Press.

O akm an, D E 1986. Je.<ius and the econom ic questions o f his day. New Y ork: M ellen.

P etersen, N R 1985. Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the sociology o f P a u l’s narra­

tive world. Philadelphia: Fortress.

R ohrbaugh, R L 1987. ‘Social location o f th ought’ as a heuristic construct in New

T estam en t study. J S N T 3 0 , 113-115.

— 1991. T he pre-industrial city in Luke-Acts: U rb an social relations, in Neyrey, J (ed), The social world o f Luke-Acts, 125-149. Peabody: H endrickson.

Sanders, E P 1985. Jesus and Judaism. London: SCM.

Scott, B B 1989. Hear then the parable: A com mentary on the parables o f Jesus. M in­

neapolis: Fortress.

T olbert, M A 1989. Sowing the Gospel: M a rk’s world in literary-historical perspective. M inneapolis: Fortress.

References

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