The Vitality of Biblical Texts
Beyond the Urtext
Much of academic scholarship focuses on the quest to find the original text (Urtext) and identify the original author (Urschriftsteller). When no single original text or author may have existed, the quest to find the text’s oldest identifiable form or forms and date them is of paramount concern to many scholars.
I appreciate the significance of this retrospective quest—if we could find the original version of, let’s say, Homer and his compositions, this would prove extremely interesting even edifying. Nevertheless, it would probably shed little light on Homeric texts as we know them, most of whose formation is connected to a concept of the personality (i.e., the author) with hardly any connection to the historical figure. The same would be true if we could find the historical Moses, Jesus, Jeremiah, or the historical Ezra.
Thus, in addition to the retrospective search for the original text and writer, I advocate for the importance of adding a prospective examination of traditionary processes in which both textual units and concepts of personalities are produced, redacted, and revised.
Relating to Scripture as Art
Taking a step back, it may be worthwhile to think about scripture in similar ways to how we think about art. In general, works of art are what they are in virtue of the distinctive way in which they matter to people. Consequently, they are reducible, neither to natural objects nor to mere instruments. They have a life, a history of their own – derivative from human life, to be sure, but nevertheless, their own. Works of art have sometimes been said to constitute, in a secular age, a secular scripture.
Similar to artwork, scriptural texts are what they are because of the way they matter, because of the authoritative role they play, within a community’s religious life. Scriptures are reducible neither to natural objects nor to instruments. They have a life of their own, which includes the way people relate to them, interpret, and reread them years after their creation and their canonization.
Scripture’s Excess of Vitality
The term I think captures this point is “vitality.” Some texts have an excess of vitality that expresses itself in the fact that they provide the basis for translations, for new texts in languages other than the original, texts that purport to “say the same” as the original text although they are self-evidently different. This is particularly true with regard to scriptures.
Thus, Jubilees and the Temple Scroll claim to “say the same” as various pentateuchal texts, speaking in the voice of Moses, or in the voice of the angel dictating to Moses, or even in the voice of God. Far from contradicting the authoritative status of scripture, these texts, I contend, arise precisely from that authority. To acknowledge certain texts as scriptural is to recognize them as possessing an excess of vitality, more life than ordinary texts, and it is the nature of life to generate life, to sustain and reproduce itself. Insofar as scripture is authoritative, it is also generative.
Constellations: Our Focus on a Central Idea or Standstill in Time
One reason for the constant revisiting of biblical texts, in addition to their generativity and vitality, is that a particular idea, often reflected in a point in time, catches hold of the imagination, a phenomenon I call “constellation,” since the idea builds up a constellation of texts, thoughts, and interpretations around itself over time. The explication of this “generative” and “vital” idea consists not in definition (i.e., explaining the idea), but rather in the presentation of an exemplary particular (i.e., making use of that idea) in new texts.
One example of a constellation is how the idea of a divine source for biblical law dictated to Moses at Sinai drives many biblical and post-biblical texts, whether they discuss how the revelation occurred or what the contents of the revelation were.
Another example is the focus on Israel as God’s chosen nation as instantiated in God’s redeeming Israel from bondage in Egypt. This idea appears repeatedly in biblical and post-biblical texts as the explanation for laws, holidays, rituals, etc. These constellations are not a set of criteria or generalizable features, but rather the elements exhibited in the exemplary particular, whether it be Torah from Sinai or the exodus from Egypt.
To put it differently, the historical process is continuous and forward moving. When exploring this history, sometimes we encounter an idea that intrigues us, and our thought comes to a standstill. Around this idea a constellation of reflections, interpretations, and expansions emerges. Such a constellation could be the Sinai moment, the exodus, or the destruction of the Temple.
This constellation in history represents a standstill in the historical progress, at least as perceived by a given group, and this standstill is in some way especially pertinent to us. To understand how the constellation represents an historical standstill is to explain—or to take a significant step towards explaining—the standstill of our own thought, why it is that we still focus on this blip in the historiographical record.
Dynamic Textual Unities: Looking at Constellations of Related Texts Over Time
A given text and its constellation of reflections tends to grow over time, expanding well beyond its point of composition. When thinking about the idea or text and all that has grown of it, we can imagine the entire expanding constellation as a dynamic textual unity, to use a term inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s inaugural address in Bâle University. A unity is not totality, because it is not complete. Textual traditions are generated by living individuals and communities, who continue to imagine and reimagine them. When we analyze a unity, it is often while the tradition is still vibrant an developing; this is certainly true of traditions such as Torah from Sinai.
Moreover, in our attempt to understand the tradition as it existed in the past, all we ever have left from these instantiations are fragments, even when we have complete manuscripts, since we can never fully account for how these text were constructed or understood in their own time (try as we might). This is even true of contemporary works.
As Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), one of the deepest thinkers about philology, wrote:
Many works of the ancients have become fragments. Many works of the moderns are fragments from the moment of their emergence.
His point is that all works—even those perfectly preserved and thus complete—are fragmentary, since their meanings depend in part on what is supplied by the reader.
To apply this point to scripture, there is something artificial about trying to divide between the original text and later instantiations of it, whether in rewritten Bible or other hermeneutical approaches to the text. The “original” is not a complete story but a snapshot in time of a developing process, which begins to build around itself a constellation of reflections and expansions, which are also, in a sense, fragments. The combined focus on all of these fragments is a kind of textual unity.
Philological Study Is Part of the Text’s Story
The development of philology over the past two centuries has broadened and deepened our understanding of ancient Judaism tremendously. The philology that I envisage seeks to reimagine the past life that animated the texts in their dynamism, all the while acknowledging that our imagination can never revive the dead, that our works must always remain fragmentary and untimely. Nevertheless, the fragmentary remains of the past still exhibit their vitality by inviting our continuing contributions.
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May 22, 2016
October 21, 2020
Prof. Hindy Najman is the Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University. She is the author of Seconding Sinai, Past Renewals and Losing the Temple and Recovering the Future, and is currently completing a book titled, Ethical Reading: Rethinking Philology in Biblical Studies.
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