Footnote 28 — Reading Biblical Narrative – Jan P. Fokkelman

Footnote 28 — Jan P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide (Westminster John Knox Press, 2000; trans. Ineke Smit), pp. 21-22.

“As the meaning of a text is only realized through the mediation of the reader, our responsibility for its meaning is greater than the text’s own.  Moreover, this meaning is realized in the here and now; we confer meaning around the year 2000, not in 800 or 500 BCE. This may seem obvious, but it needs to be stated clearly.  The effect of bestowing meaning on one’s own readings and interpretations has hardly, if at all, been taken into account by established Bible scholarship (the so-called historical-critical school), which assumes its own attitude to be self-evident. This approach sets out to ‘understand the Bible texts within the framework of their own time,’ according to the slogan characteristic of these scholars. This attitude conveys a totally different message: the text comes from far away, dates from a long time ago, and is rooted in a radically different culture.  Thus, there is a three-fold alienation which has discouraged many Bible readers, students of theology, and future preachers.

“It is true that the text of the Bible comes from the Near East, that it is almost 2000 to 3000 years old, and that it originated in a culture which differed greatly from ours, both materially and spiritually. These differences should not be underestimated; yet these distances are only half-truths, and if you treat them as unshakeable axioms they will quietly turn into lies and optical illusions. There is a greater, more important truth, which is that these texts are well-written.  IF they are then so fortunate as to meet a good listener, they will come into their own without having to be pushed into the compartments ‘far away,’ ‘long ago’ and ‘very different.’ As products of a deliberate and meticulous designing intelligence they have been crafted to speak for themselves, provided there is a competent reader listening closely.

“It is only natural that the Bible text should have quickly freed itself from its origin.  The current rather infelicitous phrase is that the text has been decontextualized: maker, audience, and context have long been lost.  Of course, the writers knew that this was to be the fate of their stories, laws and poems – assuming for the moment that they were not born yesterday. Reading the Bible ‘within the setting of its own time?’ A lofty goal, but in the first place this is a perilous enterprise since the setting is not there any more – it was lost about two thousand years ago. Secondly, it is hardly a viable undertaking, as we are not Israelites. The publication of a text implies that its umbilical cord has been cut; from then on, it is on its own.  Now, good texts can indeed manage alone, as from the beginning they have been designed to outlive their birth and original context by a long way.  The writer knows that he cannot always accompany his text to provide explanations, clear up misunderstandings, etc. He has to let go of his product completely; he should leave it to his poem or story to take care of itself on its own.  So he decides to provide is text with the devices, signals, and shapes with which it can withstand the onslaught of time and guide the reading activities of the loyal listener.”


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