Sunday, April 29, 2018

Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzburger on Hermeneutics

Not surprisingly, Jews and Words, the short collection of essays by the Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, and his historian daughter, Fania Oz-Salzburger, is replete with insightful comments about the process of interpretation:
"We do not oppose the rabbinical habit, old and new, of playing around with the meaning of ancient verses. How can we? In this book we are doing much the same. But there are some differences. Unlike ultra-Orthodoxy, we are not trying to denounce, confine, or silence anyone. More to the point, our approach to the very act of interpretation is different from the traditional rabbis'. For us, the rules are something like this: Read in growing circles around your quotation rather than pluck it out of context. Cherish discovery and surprise more than your own agenda. Acknowledge the shortcomings of texts and authors you love, and the merits of those you dislike. Look hard to see the inner logic of a paragraph, a page, and a chapter." (60-61)

"Reading the words in their contexts, many times over, can reward the reader with an increasing sense of familiarity. Despite recent theoretical skepticism, we do believe that an experienced and sensitive nose can sniff out a trace of the original meaning even of very ancient texts. The original meaning! 'What the author had in mind'! One can smile at a simile, mouth a metaphor, or taste a turn of phrase, getting a sense of what their earliest listeners or readers experienced. We probably miss a great part of the tenor and 'feel' of ancient usage, and often enough we are bound to misunderstand completely, but at times we can grasp it. The careful reader can follow subtle shifts of meaning, trace transformations of a word's role." (158-9).
~ Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, Jews and Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).
On a related note, I am now listening to Amos Oz's memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, on my ride to and from the library where I spend my week-days. It is by turns laugh-out-loud funny--which feels a bit strange when I'm cycling along a busy Cambridge street--and heartbreakingly sad. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Martyrdom and Motivation: Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundson, and the Cambridge Polar Museum

"Youth" by Kathleen Scott
My daughter and I took an Easter break outing to The Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute last week. The Institute takes its name from Robert Falcon Scott, who arrived at the South Pole on 17 January 1912 only to find that the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundson, had got there 34 days before him. The bodies of Scott and his companions were found on their return journey just 11 miles from a cache of food and supplies. Scott's diary, discovered at the site, chronicles the ill-fated expedition's harrowing final days, and concludes with the plea "for God’s sake look after our people."

It was a bit odd, I thought, to name a research institute after an explorer who came in second and who did not live to tell the tale. But when the diary was published it caused a sensation. So much money poured in to "look after our people" that some was set aside to found the institute. The story about the heroic explorers was used to drum up support for the first world war. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Scott Polar Research Institute was built right beside the church of "Our Lady and the English Martyrs" or that a sculpture donated to the institute by Scott's widow, Kathleen, looks rather like a crucifix. 

Scholars debate why Scott failed and Amundson succeeded, but the museum keeps it simple, explaining that Amundson beat Scott to the South Pole because he had only one goal--to be the first one to reach the South Pole--and he pursued it single-mindedly. I'm sure there's a lesson there somewhere...

(In case you are wondering, s. enjoyed sitting by the Cam and feeding swans much more than the museum.)

Friday, March 30, 2018

A Gadamer Cake

I began Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method in 2008, read a little over 100 pages, and stopped (evidence: here, here and here). The tome languished in my personal library graveyard for unfinished books until this January, when I picked it up again. Completing the final 450 pages almost a decade later feels like an accomplishment worth celebrating. t. suggested a cake, and the conversation quickly turned to what a Gadamer Cake would be like: Dense, I said, and layered. No, not a fruit-cake. It's more substantial than that. It has to be taken in small servings, and it really does a number on your system.

The translator's preface puts it this way: "The book is powerful, exciting, but undeniably difficult. Published when Gadamer was sixty, it gathers the ripe fruit of a lifetime's reading, teaching and thinking."

The book must have been healthy too--Gadamer was born in 1900 and died in 2002. What follows is an excerpt from the 25-page Afterward, first published in 1986 with Gadamer's collected works. This dessert course warns of the dangers of a "scientific" over-reach that forgets its and humanity's own epistemic limits:
"In a time when science penetrates further and further into social practice, science can fulfill its social function only when it acknowledges its own limits and the conditions placed on its freedom to maneuver. Philosophy must make this clear to an age credulous about science to the point of superstition." (556)
The same goes for the social sciences:
"However uncertain are the factual bases on which rational management of social life might be possible, a will to believe impels the social sciences onward and drives them far beyond their limits." (557)
I recall an atheist Canadian New Testament scholar who, rather too conveniently, dismissed hermeneutics as in effect a cover for "theological obscurantism." I expect a similar approach is common to the scientism of the new atheists. Gadamer responds that such a dogmatic refusal to consider the limits of the scientific method is irrational:
"A philosophy of the sciences that understands itself as a theory of scientific method and dismisses any inquiry that cannot be meaningfully characterized as a process of trial and error does not recognize that by this very criterion it is itself outside science. ... By raising 'critical rationality' to the status of an absolute measure of truth, empirical theory of science regards hermeneutic reflection as theological obscurantism. ... What is remarkable is that, for the sake of rationality, theory of science here abandons itself to complete irrationality .... It fails to recognize that it is itself complicit with a much more fatal immunization against experience--for example, against that of common sense and the experience one gains in living. It always does so when it promotes the uncritical expansion of scientific management beyond specific contexts--for example, when it assigns responsibility for political decisions to experts." (558-9)
Quotations are from the second revised edition: Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Continuum, 2004).

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Gadamer on Translation and Living in "Dead" Languages

The following excerpts are ripped from their context in Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method and applied to two issues that Gadamer does not directly address, but that I care quite a lot about: why those who view the Bible as authoritative should learn the biblical languages, and how they should go about learning them.*

"[E]very translation," Gadamer declares, "is at the same time an interpretation." This is now a cliché, and Gadamer, surely, was not the one who coined it. In class, I like to quote the saying attributed to the Israeli poet and translator, Haim Nahman Bialik: "Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your bride through a veil."**

Gadamer goes on to say that those who read a translated text can only engage in an interpretation of the translator's interpretation, not the original. In the somewhat stilted prose of Gadamer's translators:
[H]aving to rely on translation is tantamount to two people giving up their independent authority. Where a translation is necessary, the gap between the spirit of the original words and that of their reproduction must be taken into account. But in these cases understanding does not really take place between the partners of the conversation, but between the interpreters. ... The requirement that a translation be faithful cannot remove the fundamental gulf between the two languages. ... Every translation that takes its task seriously is at once clearer and flatter than the original. Even if it is a masterly re-creation, it must lack some of the overtones that vibrate in the original. ... [T]ranslating is like an especially laborious process of understanding, in which one views the distance between one's own opinion and its contrary as ultimately unbridgeable. And, as in conversation, when there are such unbridgeable differences, a compromise can sometimes be achieved in the to and fro of dialogue, so in the to and fro of weighing and balancing possibilities, the translator will seek the best solution--a solution that can never be more than a compromise." (pp. 386-8)

When he turns to learning a foreign language, Gadamer sets the bar higher than is normally done in your typical Greek or Hebrew language class:
"To understand a foreign language means that we do not need to translate it into our own. When we really master a language, then no translation is necessary--in fact, any translation seems impossible. ... For you understand a language by living in it--a statement that is true, as we know, not only of living but dead languages as well. Thus the hermeneutical problem concerns not the correct mastery of language but coming to a proper understanding about the subject matter, which takes place in the medium of language. Every language can be learned so perfectly that using it no longer means translating from or into one's native tongue, but thinking in the foreign language. Mastering the language is a necessary precondition for coming to an understanding in a conversation. ... Everything we have said characterizing the situation of two people coming to an understanding in conversation has a genuine application to hermeneutics, which is concerned with understanding texts." (pp. 386-7).
In other words, understanding the subject matter requires mastery of the language, and real mastery means living in the foreign language long enough to be able to think in it.

By this measure, I have a way to go before I reach fluency in Biblical Greek and Hebrew. But the limited progress I have made convinces me both that the effort is worth it and that we can do a better job learning and teaching the biblical languages if we make this sort of fluency the goal and then adopt best practices in second-language acquisition.

For helpful reflections on what this can look like, I heartily recommend Seumus Macdonald's blog, The Patrologist.

 *For some of my other posts on learning Biblical Greek and Hebrew, see here, here, and here

**What Bialik actually said was either "He who knows Judaism in translation is like one who kisses his mother through a veil" (Michael D. Schwartz's translation) or "He who knows Judaism through translation is like a person who kisses his mother through a handkerchief" (Liran Yadgar). The original Hebrew saying can be found here.

Friday, March 16, 2018

On Delusional Optimism

"I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers." - Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (Penguin: 2012)
 Is the statement still true if you cross out "scientist" and write in "biblical scholar"?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Free "Productivity" Apps

Memorion - My quest to re-acquire Aramaic this year began inauspiciously with a frustrating and time-consuming review of Android flashcard apps. What I wanted, I realized, was a mobile version of my friend Ken M. Penner's powerful, but now very dated, Flash! Pro XP Windows Program, along with the elegant algorithm that I used to study Hebrew and German in grad school. Spaced-repetition flashcard apps, such as Anki, are now very common, but they require you to trust their "scientific" algorithm and conform your learning style to their arbitrary requirements. I finally settled on Memorion. Although it does not let you adjust the algorithm, it reviews words more frequently than most of the other spaced-repetition alternatives I tried, and it has lots of other helpful, powerful and flexible features.

Duolingo -  Speaking of languages, I started using Duolingo last year to refresh my German and Modern Hebrew. Aramaic has supplanted modern languages for the moment, but I look forward to returning to Duolingo presently. It's a fun, low-pressure approach to language-learning, and it works. Best of all, kids like it too. The Duolingo leaderboard has me at 13,570 XP, but that is mostly the result of s.'s work on French.

LeadTools OCR - As a workaround for a copier that does not generate searchable scanned PDF's, I use the Windows 10 LeadTools OCR app. It requires a few extra steps, but works well. Alas, it is still the case that I make digital copies of essays faster than I read them.

Podcast / Audiobooks at speed - I now enjoy a 20-minute workout at the beginning and end of each day as I ride across Cambridge to and from the Tyndale House library. The exercise is nice, and so is the concentrated "reading" time. (Welcome to the 21st-century, d. miller.) I enjoyed Mike Duncan's "History of Rome" podcast, and am now about half-way through the audible version of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age--a tome outside my field of study that I would probably never get around to if it were not for the daily commute. Pro-tip: You can read faster by increasing play-back speed. Your brain adjusts. I actually suspect I pay better attention to the book, though not necessarily to my surroundings, at a faster rate of speed. HT: Luke Johnson, who usually "reads" audiobooks at 3x speed.  (I've settled in at 1.75 - 2x.)

I could go on. As I've commented before, everyone should be using Zotero. I've switched from Mischief to Microsoft's new Whiteboard app for quick, hand-written notes. And if efficient time management was only a matter of finding the right time-tracking software, I'd be set. (I use Toggl.)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A Donald J. Verseput Bibliography

In a comment on my post about Donald J. Verseput, Peter Head recommended compiling a bibliography of Verseput's publications.

In addition to his published dissertation, the ATLA database lists 11 journal articles published over a 15-year period, the majority in top-tier journals, including four (!) in New Testament Studies, two in Novum Testamentum, and one each in Journal of Biblical Literature, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, and Journal for the Study of the New Testament.

Verseput's scholarly interests in Matthew and James are obvious. Equally clear is a concern to situate the New Testament in its Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts:

The Rejection of the Humble Messianic King: A Study of the Composition of Matthew 11-12. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1986.
“The Role and Meaning of the ‘Son of God’ Title in Matthew’s Gospel.” New Testament Studies 33.4 (1987): 532–56.
“The Faith of the Reader and the Narrative of Matthew 13:53-16:20.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 46 (1992): 3–24.
“Paul’s Gentile Mission and the Jewish Christian Community: A Study of the Narrative in Galatians 1 and 2.” New Testament Studies 39.1 (1993): 36–58.
“Jesus’ Pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Encounter in the Temple: A Geographical Motif in Matthew’s Gospel.” Novum Testamentum 36.2 (1994): 105–21.
“The Davidic Messiah and Matthew’s Jewish Christianity.” Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 34 (1995): 102–16.
“James 1:17 and the Jewish Morning Prayers.” Novum Testamentum 39.2 (1997): 177–91.
“Reworking the Puzzle of Faith and Deeds in James 2:14-26.” New Testament Studies 43.1 (1997): 97–115.
“Wisdom, 4Q185, and the Epistle of James.” Journal of Biblical Literature 117.4 (1998): 691–707.
“Genre and Story: The Community Setting of the Epistle of James.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62 (2000): 96–110.
“Considering the Needs of the Church: A Response to Craig Blomberg.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.2 (2001): 173–77.
“Plutarch of Chaeronea and the Epistle of James on Communal Behaviour.” New Testament Studies 47 (2001): 502–18.

I still remember Don commending Plutarch as a rich resource for understanding the New Testament.