23 December 2005

conversion of the imagination

As time has permitted, I've been working my way slowly through Richard B. Hays' helpful work, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel's Scripture (Eerdmans 2005). In some respects the book serves as a follow-up to his earlier Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, though this book has a number of unique elements and is more a collection of articles, thematically related.

Hays is most well known for his approach to intertexuality in Paul's writings, particularly all the ways in which Paul quotes, alludes to, and echoes Old Testament texts and what this reveals about Paul's hermeneutics. Moreover, Hays draws significant attention to the way in which a passing quotation, allusion, or echo can sometimes draw in the entire context of the text from which the intertextual referece is drawn (metalepsis).

Hays' second essay, "'Who Has Believed Our Message': Paul's Reading of Isaiah," he helpfully expands upon and further explains his previous treatment of intertextual echoes. I want to draw attention to several of those items.

Hays begins with the caution that idenitfying allusions and echoes "is not a strictly scientific matter lending itself to conclusive proof, like testing for the presence or absence of a chemical in the bloodstream" (30). Rather, he notes, identifying such allusions is more of an "art practiced by skilled interpreters within a reading community that has agreed on the value of situating individual texts within a historical and literary continuum with other texts" (30).

As such, the hermeneutical task involves acts of judgment or discernment that are aesthetic in character and involve sensing the "fittingness" of a particular reading. This doesn't mean the tast is arbitrary and can be carried out willy-nilly, but that there are standards "internal to the practice" upon which competent practioners can largely agree.

This seems to me an important observation for interpreters, suggesting that a more purely "scientific" approach to intertextual hermeneutics is going to miss out on a significant reservoir of meaning. But this doesn't entail that interpretation has no criteria or limits, just as other kinds of performance (e.g., musical, stage), while perhaps not scientifically analyzable, nonetheless can be judged as good or bad interpretations of the texts involved.

Hays, in fact, lists seven criteria that together can help us discern whether a particular intertextual interpretation is warranted. While these criteria yield results that are not mathematically precise, they do provide some controls upon the practice. The criteria are: [1] availability of the source text to the author and his audience, [2] the volume of the echo in terms of its explicitness, [3] recurrence or clustering of allusions or echoes from the same text, [4] thematic coherence with the line of argument, [5] the historical plausibility of finding an intertextual reference given the original situation, [6] the subsequent history of interpretation finding the echo, and [7] the satisfaction given by the intertextual reference in reading the surrounding text (34-45).

While Hays had listed these same basic criteria in his earlier book on echoes, he elaborates upon them in this essay, particularly the criteria of "volume," of which he highlights three aspects: [a] verbatim repetition of words from the source text, [b] the distinctiveness, prominence, or popular familiarity of the precursor text, and [c] the rhetorical stress placed upon the phrase in question (35-37).

Hays gives some helpful examples that would work for us to help illustrate how these matters might work in Paul. When Paul, for instance, writes in 1 Corinthians 8:6 that "there is one God, the Father...and one Lord, Jesus Christ," the echo of the Jewish Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4 is evident. Hays compares this to how, in contemporary America, the phrase "Our Father" would evoke the Lord's Prayer, "self-evident truths" would evoke the Declaration of Independence, or "I have a dream" would evoke the speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. (36-37).

I look forward to reading this book further and would commend Hays discussion thus far to any who are interested in Pauline hermeneutics with respect to the Hebrew scriptures.