Last week, I happened upon a copy of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory : An Introduction (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2d ed., 1996) and re-read the first few chapters. He covers hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation, in the second chapter, as well as reader-response theory. Hermeneutics developed in the context of interpreting biblical texts and only became a topic of interest in philosophy and literary theory in the 20th century. Modernly, the problem of scriptural interpretation is often termed exegesis, but it’s basically the same thing: what does that verse or passage or parable or story or book mean? Is there one meaning or many? What role does the author’s intention, if discernable, play in controlling the meaning of a text? If there are many meanings, is there any limit to possible meanings?

This whole discussion is obviously still of great interest for those who read the Bible or other scripture and try to figure out what the text is saying. I’m going to focus on reader-response theory. The gist of this approach is that while an author’s intent may get the meaning ball rolling, so to speak, and a formalist focus on just the text itself (ignoring the author and any larger context) can be insightful, there are just a lot of gaps in any text and some distance between the author and the reader. No text is complete in itself. Diverse readers implicitly fill those gaps. Readers come to the text with a wide variety of perspectives. Let’s look at a few examples and then come back to some central questions.

Robert Frost. I’m not really into poetry, but poetry immediately raises the meaning question. Beautiful words, but what does that poem mean? What is it supposed to mean? Maybe it’s just supposed to be beautiful or make the reader feel something rather than have some sort of specific meaning. Robert Frost once said, about one of his poems, “Only God and I knew what I meant when I wrote it, now only God knows.” Remember, large chunks of the Old Testament are in poetic form, so the whole poetic discussion is more relevant that you might think. In a more general sense, Frost’s comment captures the idea that once a text is let loose in the world, it takes on its own life rather independent of whatever the author intended it to mean. If you are reading one of Paul’s letters, “What did Paul mean?” is a starting point but not the end of the discussion.

Gaps and Framing. Once you start thinking about gaps, they are easy to spot. I’ve been doing some posts on Mark, so let’s look at Mark 1 for some examples, using the NRSV text. “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4). If you just finished the Old Testament and hopped right into the New Testament, you might read this and say, “Where did this baptism come from? In the Old Testament, Jews offered various sacrifices at the temple with the help of officiating priests to obtain forgiveness. What’s this baptism thing and how does it produce forgiveness?” You, an English speaker in the 21st century, in a Christian culture, possibly a practicing Mormon, read about Aramaic-speaking Jews two thousand years ago, in a text written in Greek. Just the Aramaic to Greek to English transition is a huge gap. Add the two thousand years and a first-century Jewish worldview, and yes — lot of gaps. You know what baptism is, but how did a first-century Jew know what baptism was?

What about framing? Most bibles have chapters and numbered verses, with titles for sections of text or maybe short summaries at the beginning of each chapter to guide the reader, like the LDS Bible. For Mark 1, the LDS Bible prompts you with this: “Jesus is baptized by John — He preaches the gospel, calls disciples, casts out devils, heals the sick, and cleanses a leper.” Sometimes these types of study aid are helpful to the reader and guide a newbie through puzzling accounts. But reader beware: what these prompts or guides often do is fill in gaps in the text in an orthodox or recommended way, perhaps not how you would fill in the gap if you stopped to think about it. Casting out devils? That assumes (1) there are devils and they can somehow take over or inhabit a person, and (2) they can be thrown out by the right person or power. You, as a modern reader, might not immediately accept that framing provided by the chapter summary. You probably read some of those exorcism accounts as therapeutic encounters with mentally ill persons.

Sometimes an author provides his or her own framing. In the three verses preceding the John the baptizer statement in verse 4, the author of Mark gives a mashup of various Old Testament scriptures in verses 2 and 3: I will send my messenger, prepare the way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, etc. The author of Mark is himself framing his short account of John with scripture from the Hebrew Bible. He’s not just telling you what John did, he is adding a scriptural frame to the account to tell you what John’s appearance and activity means. Maybe you agree with that approach, maybe you don’t. New Testament use of Old Testament scripture is often rather problematic. Note that the account does not say that John himself proclaimed he was a messenger or the messenger sent by God and a voice crying in the wilderness. It was the author of Mark who added that interpretive framing.

Another example, verse 9: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” That adds some context: Galilee was not Judea. It had a lot more influence from Greek culture than was the case in Jerusalem. Sepphoris, a substantial Greek colony city in Galilee, was only four miles from Nazareth. Jesus could walk there in 90 minutes and, as a day laborer looking for work, he probably did so hundreds of times. He might have picked up some Greek there or even had some fluency in the common Greek of the day. Galilee was more Jewish that the wider Roman Empire but more Greek than Judea. But in terms of gaps, the big one is: What about the first 30 years? What did Jesus do for those 30 years, was he always in Nazareth, what sort of education did he have, what did he do for work, what about family, what happened to Joseph? Apart from mentioning Nazareth, Mark does nothing to fill that gap. Matthew and Luke do try to fill that gap — with differing accounts that scholars regard as largely speculation or fiction. The same goes for the early years and development of John.

Back to you, the reader. So it’s clear at this point that you don’t just open your Bible, read Mark 1, and then say, “Okay, got it.” Mark 1 has lots of gaps and, whether you realize it or not, you fill in some of those gaps while you read. Other readers may fill in those gaps differently. You can’t just look at a verse in Mark 1 and ask, “What does this verse mean?” because that verse, any verse, is somewhat incomplete. You the reader add something to it as you read, filling in gaps and reacting to words and phrases. “What does this verse mean to me?” and “What are possible meanings of this verse?” are maybe better ways to ask the meaning question, rejecting the flawed assumptions that there is only one meaning or that that such a meaning is somehow magically infused into that verse and easily accessible in some objective manner by most or all readers. Meaning is just much more slippery than is often assumed.

An informed and reliable commentary, either included with the text as titles or footnotes or as a separate commentary, might help you recognize and fill in those gaps, but it might also mislead the reader or gloss over problems or issues. Here are some things that might pop into the mind of a reader reflecting on gaps while reading Mark 1. Why quote scripture before talking about John rather than simply tell us how John appeared and what he did? What did John do for 20 or 30 years before starting his baptism and preaching activity? Where did he learn this stuff? What was Nazareth like and what did Jesus do growing up there? Why do we call Jesus by the name Jesus (a Greek name) rather than Joshua or Yeshua, his Aramaic or Jewish name? The text says Jesus heard a voice when he came up from the water of baptism, but did anyone else hear it? Can devils take over a person’s body? The text refers to “an unclean spirit,” but these contrasting categories of clean/unclean, healthy/sick, whole/possessed are kind of arbitrary. Did first-century Jews really think in these categories? Do I today? Jesus didn’t just heal a leper, he said, “Be made clean!” Again, sickness as dirty or unclean and health or wholeness as clean. Isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with describing sick people as unclean?

What about Sunday School or Seminary? Lesson manuals often look at a verse or passage and rather confidently tell the teacher or class what it is supposed to mean. Often they do this by pulling up some quote from a General Conference talk from the last 30 or 40 years. If you’ve read the post this far, you are probably not surprised that I think that’s the wrong way to approach meaning in a lesson. Better to ask class members to offer their own view and their own take on the meaning of the verse or passage for them. When I make a comment as a class member, I might start with “Another way to look at that verse is …” or “I know some people read that verse much differently.”

What about Correlation? That seems like an institutional activity designed to tell everyone, teachers and students and members, what this or that scripture means, almost always conveniently supportive of current LDS teaching and practice. We need more education and less correlation. We need more question-asking and less answer-giving.

Conclusion. I skipped over a lot of interesting stuff. The term “hermeneutics” comes from Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods. A short definition of reader-response theory, from my Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms: “those kinds of modern criticism and literary theory that focus on the responses of readers to literary works, rather than on the works themselves considered as self-contained entities.” But a blog post is short-form writing, so let’s wind this up. Here are a few ideas for comments:

  • Any good experiences with LDS teachers who invite a variety of views and allow for a variety of meanings to this or that verse, passage, or book?
  • Any bad experiences with LDS teachers who think there is just one meaning (theirs, of course) and any other view is unwelcome or heretical?
  • Does the idea that a reader supplies half the meaning of any given text, including scriptures, strike you as empowering or as disturbing?
  • Do you read any poetry? If you do, what do you make of it? Do you look for truth or meaning in a poem, trying to figure out what the poet was trying to say? Or do you just read for the fun and enjoyment of clever, beautiful words all strung together?