Thursday, July 30, 2009

OT: Reading with the modern mind or some other way?

I'm doing a course on Old Testament survey and we were in a discussion on whether it was possible, using our modern minds to exegete the text scientifically, that is reading the text with modern bearings, that the Israelites were able to cross the Red Sea (i'll not get into details about the Reed sea debate)?

Some scholars contend that the number of Israelites, if there were millions of them, it would be impossible for them to cross the Red sea in the space of hours but it might take a week for them to do so. (Sorry I haven't got the time to cite the references of where i got these facts. I'll probably do explanation when i have free time to spare)

But let me just pose a few questions on this. Should we use modern ways to read some portions or the whole of the Old Testament? Modern as in reading them in the way we read historical books now, where facts are studied and chosen and weighed to determine whether they are real or not.

For the moment though, I lean towards trying to understand the OT in the manner how someone in that particular era understood things. Take for example missionaries who come from developed countries and they work among tribal groups who live in the jungle. If the wanted to communicate Christianity with these people, do you think it necessary for them go tell these people about the original Greek language of a certain word, or talk to these people about science and religion? I think these people would be scratching their heads and wondering what on earth these missionaries are talking about.

I think it is more rewarding to read an ancient text, not to look too much into how they relate scientifically (although in some cases this is needed), or factually (in the manner of archaeological discoveries). Another way to appreciate the ancient text is also to read them in a way that we try to dig out their theological bearings or meanings. The bible is first and foremost, after all, a book telling us about God and his story.


Sze Zeng said...

Important points you raised there Tremonti.

Though we should not be bored down with merely trying to understand the OT historically and scientifically, yet what your own hermeneutic presumes the former.

You wrote,"I lean towards trying to understand the OT in the manner how someone in that particular era understood things."

And to understand the OT like someone in a particular era assumed that you have pin down the particular era. And such is the historical work.

Some suggest ignore such method that have to do with history and go straight to understand the OT from its canonical status. That means reading the OT books by assuming its authority over the reader.

Well, hope you may be edified and inspired no matter which method you used :)

Tremonti said...

Sze Zeng,

You really got me thinking here;

"And to understand the OT like someone in a particular era assumed that you have pin down the particular era. And such is the historical work."

You have a point there and i do agree with what you said here. I think at the end of the day, when it comes with all the methods of interpretation we use, what seems applicable for our generation might be in a way faulty in the methods we use.I'm sure new discoveries would arise. Just looking at the history of interpretation should give us an idea that there should always be room for humility no matter how 'right' we feel about a particular method.

But in my case, for now I'd stick to my conviction, but will always wrestle with the text.


Steven Sim said...

let's say we do not READ with the modern mind, but do we UNDERSTAND with the modern mind?

How can the modern, i.e. contemporary mind, understand things like red/reed sea crossing or the miracles of Jesus?

Which brings us to another question, why should the canon be closed at one particular period of time, unless it was assumed that the culture of such time will speak indefinitely.

Steven Sim

Tremonti said...


Thanks for your comment. Your question tread on alot of issues which i hope i can respond to as bet i can.

It is inevitable that we will try to grasp things with our modern mind. But for reading the text it is best to read them without modern questions first. Modern question like the 'how could every species of animal fit in the ark' for example. (although i do not disregard miraculous incident like the burning bush). What i mean in reading the ancient text with the modern mind would entail reading it with modern reasonings which might not be issues that the text warrants our understanding.

I'm not at all disregarding application of the text to our modern context. A faithful interpretation takes the historical-cultural meaning of the text as vital but on the other hand the other task of interpreting is to make it relevant to our time as well.

Wow, now my comment here is beginning to evolve into a post so i better stop.

Anyway i hope that answers issues raised in your comment.


Sze Zeng said...

Hi Steven Sim,

What you wrote got me thinking. As you know the issue of 'canon' is one of my pet-subject.

Off-hand, I agree with you that the culture does played a latent role in the canonization process. Yet I still have not figure out whether did those who 'closed' the canon aware of such assumption or consciously assume that.

Nonetheless, I think those responsible to close the canon did it for pragmatic purposes such as trying to eliminate heresies on one hand, and strengthened their perceived orthodoxy on the other.

A good point you raised.

Steven Sim said...

Thanks for putting time to my points. If my question seemed like putting the onus on you for answers, is a cup too heavy to bear for the best theologians.

You made your points when you said we should go and read scripture as it is; but I think this is almost impossible. Because our mind is not just consist of questions (modern or ancient) which we can remove when we read an ancient literature.

Instead, I was refering to our a prioris. Esp. in light of the developement in the 2000 years of gap. In other words, the mental context which my life and thoughts operate. Can I separate those from my act of reading scripture?

If I am forced to do so, lets say deny my aprioris, then we have to introduce reasonings such as "cessation of miracles" to justify the seemly irreconciable reality of our context and those of scriptures. Or, we have to ignore our own contexts and go into the "golden era of the past" mode? Or do we read scripture as myth of an era bygone? So far, all the options above seemed to be unpalatable to me for now. Except the myth part. :)

But perhaps my question (whch is as much to myself than to anyone else and to Joshua perhaps?) is more of a challenge for us to think about Scripture outside scripture. To enlarge our perspective on god's involvement in this world than merely the cherished hebrew scripture. Or perhaps to consider the Word of god above the word of god...

Steven Sim

Tremonti said...

Another heavy ladened comment full of questions that really cracks the brain to think. (I'm all for that really regardless if we agree or not :) ).

But before cracking my head on what you posted here i should ask if you could explain more on this:

"to consider the Word of god above the word of god"


Steven Sim said...

When I say that I was thinking of Barth's Christ as the eternal Logos who continually speaks to us.

Perhaps Josh's essay will shed some light as well:

What do we mean when we say that the Bible is the Word of God?

Steven Sim

Hopeful Theo

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I'm a student of Theology (currently and will always be one). I'm a student of culture and a student of music as well. I guess you could say life is a never ending journey of learning. Because of that we never stop being students. Just a little something about this blog: Deconstructing The Monkey is all about being a safe space for emerging conversations