Hip-Deep in Orality: Developing an Exegetical Method

So I'm hip-deep in Werner Kelber, Walter Ong, and Eric Havelock, all via Joanna Dewey, and remembering classes with David Rhoads, and it puts me in mind to think about how I translate my "author's translation" passages. What's my exegetical method? And the simplest way is to start with how I did Romans, which is how I plan to go forward through the Corinthian letters. But that has its own history, too.

When I ran through Galatians, almost 4 years ago now, I had already done Mark 11-13 for my Masters' thesis, and learned a fair bit about linguistic patterning and structure -- some of which I got from doing all of Matthew with Ed Krentz, but most of which came from being introduced to Paul's letters in whirlwind tour by Dave Rhoads. (If I had to differentiate them: Ed does technical structure in fine and historic detail; Dave does gestalt function built out of the structure.) My thesis in Mark was predicated on the theological import of linguistic structure -- that the pieces we use and how we build the system speak, and speak volumes over above the content of that system. Lexis and taxis respectively, even though I didn't have those terms yet. Structure encodes meaning.

Why is taxis important? Papias despises Mark by comparison with Matthew and Luke, speaking of Mark setting down Peter's chreiai, but ou mentoi taxei -- usually rendered as "but without order," as though the reliance upon memory (itself a crucial element of oral rhetoric) caused flaws in the presentation of Peter's material. I think that this translation is a misreading, built on our textual culture rather than the apostolic oral culture. But still, the root of the complaint is that Mark lacks taxis, which we do regularly translate as "order" -- I've been using that gloss throughout my analysis of Barth's doctrine of creation.

Instead, what I hear Papias saying is that Mark is reportorial, something more akin to a sayings source -- presenting useful and edifying material that Matthew and Luke have arranged to a proper point in the telling. Which is as much as to say that Xenophon is strictly reportorial, and that Plato has done the job of representing Socrates so much better for his superior taxis in the Dialogues. What Mark lacks in Papias' eyes, is style. Taxis is the province of the demiourgos -- which is to say that artistic style is the province of the artisan. And the style/content divide works throughout Hellenistic thought -- even morality. To have kalokagathia is to be both kalos and agathos -- to be both formally and materially good. Indeed, it was likely also to be chrestos, to have the virtue of social utility appropriate to one's station.

But that's a digression from a digression. Anyhow, Mark has no such deficit of style -- he works his artistry in a profoundly oral, storytelling medium. In common coin, but with no less precisely selected structure for its genre. And that structure speaks to the audience about things that you wouldn't derive strictly from the material. Ecclesiology, especially. What is more obvious in the lexis of Matthew and Luke belongs instead to taxis in Mark.

And so, having the groundwork but not the terminology to be able to say all of that, I arrived in Dave Rhoads' class to work on Galatians in rhetorical perspective. I was assigned "rhetorical style" as my angle. Suited me fine; I had been working in Structuralist and post-Structuralist linguistics, and was very interested in dealing with the structure and function of meaning units in Paul. And so between ad Herennium, Cicero and Aristotle on the one hand, and Saussure, Foucault and Barthes on the other, I wound up in South African structural linguistics and colon analysis. Louw, Nida, du Toit, and company. It gave me a method: rip the text apart into layered syntactical units and follow the interconnections. And as I took that method into Romans, it grew, but the basics are there. Structured content analysis for the sake of uncovering ranges and layers of meaning.

It's a profoundly visual method, suited to text, though it tests the limit of layout in a word processor. The old-fashioned way was to type it up and then draw in the relationships. Still, you can make do with parallel layout in a two-column landscaped legal sheet, with quarter-inch tab stops for depth setting. (Relative depth into the page lets you show relationships and sub- or super-ordinate structures in a reasonably intuitive and inobtrusive way, without line-drawing.)

Get a digital Greek text -- for the NT, I like to use Tischendorf's 8th edition, because it's very close to, and reasonably easy to check against, the Nestle-Aland text. Parse out the Greek on the left, beginning at the sentence level and working down through colons and commas into subject-verb-object alignment and participial and prepositional phrases. Get a copy of Denniston's Particles and make sweet love to it with a pencil or a highlighter. It will be your best friend, telling you things the lexicons don't have time to say. For quicker and more general reference, you will also want Blass, Debrunner and Funk as a handbook to usage. Figure out how the connective tissue of the Greek makes all these bits cohere. Your next best friend, assuming you also have Bauer-Danker, is LSJ -- because "Biblical Greek" doesn't exist, only period and contextual meaning. Oh, and a big table to work at. You may have to eat meals sitting on the couch. :)

Once you've parsed out a section of the Greek text, start sketching it in English in the right-hand column. Keep all the ambiguity you get from the reference works. Break it down to two or three most plausible meanings when necessary, and just slap 'em together as options in brackets. But you're going to hit the same constructions over and over again, and repetition plays on prior meaning as much as it plays on colloquial and situational meaning. Keep a running tab of where you find things. Make whatever indexes you need to to do so. Importance will start to emerge as a function of structure. Meaning will come.

Now: you're prepared to translate the text. "But didn't I just do that?" That's what I thought with Galatians. But no; you have simply learned and rehearsed the text. Translation is performance. Translation is an event -- it requires context, an audience. It is interpretation. We kept all that ambiguity because it belongs to the text -- we only resolve it one way or another once we know what needs to be said. What needs to be heard, and how it needs to be heard. Translation is proclamation. It is the sister of preaching, twin daughters of storytelling -- children of Spirit and text.

Put more simply, you aren't done finding meaning in the text. "Lower" criticism, which we've done, now meets "higher" criticism. If you're taking a class, or likely if you're doing this in a healthy fashion at all, these will be parts of a repeating cycle done in small increments. Texts belong with contexts. Perhaps Philemon can be done safely at text level in a sitting, and completely reworked without too much damage to your sanity. Romans cannot. Be digging into the secondary literature, of all sorts, to figure out not only where the traditional problems lie in the text, but what the tradition up to the state of the art today says about its meaning and situation. Make factions and play their arguments against each other. Find context resonance with what you find in the deep structures of the text, and the deeper meanings of the language it uses. Pick what makes the best sense, and then keep playing and picking as you go. The death of the author means that certainty is irretrievable. But oral and performance criticism remind us that the point of a text is to encode speech to an audience, and if it did that to begin with, you can decode it to another audience. All that serious con/textual decoding work serves no purpose if it doesn't help you re-encode the message in another language, for another situation.

Now, obviously, I don't go through all of that, every time I want to know what a passage says or means. And I don't expect others to anything comparable to that much heavy lifting, unless they're doing professional exegesis. But I go through cheaper, low-impact versions of the same process, and I know when I do that the result is quick-and-dirty, a gross approximation instead of a fine one. But the better you get at the big process, the cleaner the small process gets. You learn to pick better gross approximations to get at functional meaning. And that in turn helps guide your heavy detail-oriented work.


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