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05 July 2006

Material Shakespeare/Material Scripture (Part I)

Watched: The Baz Luhrmann (i.e., Leo & Claire) Romeo & Juliet. Wow, what a rush!
Read: bits of books on Elizabethan printing methods



The course I am taking this summer at Oxford is entitled “Material Shakespeare.” Here I would like to set out a few of the concerns of the course in order to relate them to criticism of the Bible. The first part of this post will relate to Shakespeare and cultural/material conditions of his time that contributed to the writing of his plays. The second section will illustrate how I see this relating to an understanding (or, in some cases, misunderstanding) of the Bible, and the last will contain a few Scriptural examples.

“Material Shakespeare,” as defined in my course, is all the other stuff—besides the brain and hand of a man named William Shakespeare—that helped to write his plays. At first this seems like an offensive topic: are you suggesting that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays? Well, no and yes. No: he did write them, but cultural and social and practical necessities influenced his choice of words. Yes: there is no way of knowing, in every case, exactly which word Shakespeare actually wrote down on an original and final draft. Other people and factors changed his texts.

Today I’ll post on the negative aspects of this kind of criticism. Then tomorrow I’ll discuss the positive side.

1. From draft to book. Shakespeare, we assume, wrote rough drafts, perhaps revising many times before sending plays to the playhouse. These manuscripts were not treated with the reverence we imagine we’d give to them today. Maybe the prompter made changes, the censor cut things out, the actors altered lines. Furthermore, at a first performance the audience voted at the end whether they liked it or not, and the author might revise it based on their response. By the time the play got to the printer, it was very different from what the playwright originally crafted. Furthermore, he might have made versions of various lengths, some shorter for traveling, some longer for the printer.

2. Printing house. Next, words might get changed accidentally or on purpose in the printing process. Type setters often (but not so often as you might fancy) made mistakes. Just yesterday I found in one copy of Romeo & Juliet (“Q2,” in case you care):
I do protest I never injuried thee,
But love thee better than thon cans’t devise….

Thon? What has happened here is that the printer has put in the letter “u” upside down, creating an “n.” Sometimes, if the compositor couldn’t read the handwriting, he would make a guess and throw in a likely word.

Now, these are both rather negative readings, showing how the text we have may or may not be Shakespeare’s. Perhaps you can see how the principle behind these cultural readings could be applicable to the Bible. At first, this sort of analysis could be threatening to a literal understanding of the Scriptures. Here’s a useful link about criticism of the Bible:
Religious Tolerance.org.
Especially helpful is the section entitled “Reaction of conservative Christians to biblical criticism.”

If we apply the idea that “Shakespeare’s texts are not Shakespeare’s texts” and “there is no way of finding the true original behind all the various copies of his plays” to the Bible, you get some very disturbing conclusions. They would be something like this: “Scripture is not traceable back to any one, determinate text which can be said to have been directly inspired by God.” If we believed that the words originally written were changed, misunderstood, lost, altered on their way to the printed books we have today, that would be very disturbing to our faith.

I have a theory that most modern forms of lit. crit. are, in some deeply hidden subconscious, seeking an intellectually satisfying reason to ignore and discredit the Bible. However, Evangelical Christians, while understanding (of course) that our translations may not be 100% accurate (that’s why our creeds say we believe the Bible is inerrant in its original transmission) do believe we have a very good text of the Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic. From this we make reasonably good translations. We can appropriate the very principles of literary theory that seem threatening and use them to unlock, open, and shed light on our traditional understanding of the Scripture. Tomorrow I’ll give examples of how to do that. Don’t go away mad!

4 comments:

Rosie Perera said...

Not all evangelical Christians react entirely negatively to Biblical criticism. When studied with faith and humility, the various types of criticism can shed light on the meaning of the text. New Testament Criticism & Interpretation, edited by David Black & David Dockery (Zondervan, 1991), is a collection of excellent essays by respected believing scholars in the field (from institutions like Dallas Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Fuller Seminary, Baylor University, etc.). There are chapters on textual criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, literary criticism, canonical criticism, and sociological criticism, all of which are as applicable to the biblical text as they are to any other text.

Though we believe the Bible to be God's inspired Word, we also believe it to be written by people who were fully human (just as Christ was both fully man and fully God), and who used human methods for getting it into writing, including collecting oral traditions and pre-existing written sources, editing, rearranging, redacting, etc. It wasn't just the copying and translating of the final text where the human element can be seen. Each of the original biblical authors has his own distinctive target audience, style and vocabulary. Sometimes evangelicals have erred on the side of seeing only the divine nature of the Word (and of the incarnate Word, Jesus) and minimizing or neglecting altogether the human side. Yes, liberal Christians have often erred in the other direction, delighting to point out "errors" in the text and saying this diminishes the trustworthiness of the Bible. But that is no reason to be afraid of dialoguing with them and taking seriously the good scholarship that has been produced by some of them. The authors in the above mentioned collection of essays are comfortable moving in both worlds and have maintained their faith in spite of, and perhaps even because of, the difficult questions arising from their study of the text.

I know of no more faithful biblical scholar than Gordon Fee, whom I've had the privilege to study under and know personally, and yet he doesn't shy away from Biblical criticism (even to the extent of pointing out verses he doesn't believe were in the original) when warranted.

We all probably take for granted the possible doubtfulness of passages in the New Testament which are disputed even by the conservative translation team that produced the New International Version (Mark 16:9-20 and John 7:53-8:11), and yet the tradition of the church has kept the story of the woman caught in adultery and it has value for us as Jesus' teaching, whether it was in the original inspired text of Scripture or not.

Iambic Admonit said...

No, no, no; see, here's just the problem. [Warning: this comment may sound vitriolic, but it's really just impassioned!] I cannot agree that someone who points out "verses he doesn't believe were in the original" is a faithful biblical scholar. That's allowing oneself to be tainted and influenced by secular 'scholarship,' an anti-absolutist philosophy whose very purpose is to deny the solidity of texts. Once we cast doubt on one verse, there's no stopping. Where are the creeds then? Where is the long-held tradition of the church? If one verse is doubtful, why not the whole thing? We must either belive that this (cover to cover) is the Word of God, or not. We must not begin to pick and choose, based on our individual intellects, variously trained and skilled as they are, fraught with divers biases and predelictions and presuppositions, or we will each come up with our own Scripture. On the inerrant truth of the Whole Word Christianity stands or falls. That's why we need Christian scholars who can boldy answer lit. crit. I'd love to take a look at the Zondervan collection and see how they defend the faith!

Timothy Goering said...

I just have to comment on this. I happened to stumble over this because I have seen Iambic on Ariel's (a friend of mine) site often. Just a few days ago Ariel and I have talked exactly about the same topic (cf. my blog 'Brevard S. Childs')
I personally believe that Bible Criticism has a lot to offer. It can be very helpful to decifer different 'problems' and 'difficulties' contained in the Bible. I would agree that there are verses, and actually whole passages in the OT for that matter, that are not 'original'. Although it seems shocking at first, I don't think that the biblical message is thereby mitigated. The biblical text, with its different authors (in whole and maybe even in chapters!) still bears witness to its 'subject matter' Jesus Christ.
Modern Bible criticism has very often only tried to prove a presupposition (!), but altogether to call it 'anti-absolutist philosophy' and therefore dismiss it raises the question in me: isn't the belief in biblical inerrency also a philosophy? a decision? maybe even a dogmatic decision?
I don't want to provoke, and I know how 'touchy' this topic is, so I hope you don't get me wrong here. Just thought the discussion was very interesting.

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks for your comment, Timothy. Of course, the "message" of the Bible is true and relevant and salutary even if there are what you may call textual problems. For example, let's say, if Isaiah were written by two or three authors; or the nubmers in the Old Testament are "hyperbolic" and the word "eleph" has been erroniously understood to mean "thousands," suggesting that there were exponetially more people involved in the Exodus and Conquest than could, literally, fit into the land. These details, properly understood, can greatly enhance our understanding of the Bible. Rosie was very helpful in pointing out some other ways/attitudes/authors who use "good" Biblical criticism in valuable ways. So that kind of cultural research is to be applauded. But deciding which passages are not original is a very dangerous business. Once we let go of the credal position that all Scripture is inspired by God, I believe the foundations crumble. I'll be the first to admit that mine is a presuppositional position, but that the presupposition is based on faith in special revelation. I suppose it's dogmatic. Is dogma bad?

I looked at and enjoyed your blog. I wonder what "biblicistic theologians" are? Thanks for the good discussion. Keep it up.