Thursday, March 09, 2006

Context and Nuance in Jesus' Sayings

One of the reasons I am sceptical about the laudable aim to recover the sayings of Jesus, and to use a sayings itinerary in reconstructions of the historical Jesus, is a point nicely articulated by E. P. Sanders:
Ignorance of the precise context in which sayings were formulated often prevents the recovery of precision and nuance in interpreting Jesus’ teaching. Meaning is determined by context, and sayings whose context is unknown cannot be pressed too hard in the quest of original meaning. Often we shall have to remain content with a more general understanding than we might wish. (E. P. Sanders and M. Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International 1989): 188).
Only a moment's reflection confirms to us the truth of this observation. Even in the contemporary world, we are all aware of the problem of sayings and their context. “I was quoted out of context!” I found myself saying something like that after one of the first pieces of television I was involved with, back in 1999, when I saw myself saying something that had a quite different meaning because of the fresh context in which it was placed (used to endorse something Hyam Maccoby had just said, with which I did not in fact agree).

And I am not sure that we consider sufficiently the problem of nuance. We have all heard ourselves quoted by others in such a way that our meaning is subtly changed. "But I didn't say it like that! That's not what I meant."

When discussing Jesus' sayings with students, I like to draw attention to a couple of analogies, one contemporary and one ancient. The ancient one is Paul. We actually have at least seven of Paul's own writings, and yet his meaning is debated more than ever. If we can't work out to the satisfaction of all what Paul's view of the Law was, how likely are we to be able to pick up particular nuances in Jesus' teaching about the kingdom? The modern one is Richard Nixon. One of the reasons that Nixon, in the end, had to resign after the Watergate crisis was that he had followed Lyndon Johnson's practice of recording Oval Room conversations. The Nixon tapes are a fascinating, revealing aid to Nixon's biographer. Alas, we do not have the Jesus tapes, and much as we might wish we did, that desire should not encourage us to behave as if we do.


eddie said...

I find this to be an acute problem, particularly with Jesus' parables, some of which, within their present narrative context, clearly take their meaning and force from that context. If we assume that this narrative context is the creative work of the author of the narrative, then what hope do we possibly have of understanding the parable when isolated? And can we even isolate it at all, if the author of the narrative has shaped and nuanced it for his narrative?

Doug said...

If this is true of sayings embedded either by the oral and early written traditions, or by the evangelist, then it is a fortiori true of sayings isolated from any possible context in a reconstructed document such as Q and its hypothesized recensions. In the former we can assess the plausibility of the context in its historical setting, we can assess its relation to the narrative bias of the evangelist, and we can assess the coherence of saying (or story) and context. In the latter we can only measure the saying against the reconstruction of the scholar's portrait of Jesus.

daviv52 said...

A further problem is that Jesus most probably spoke in Aramaic. The language used is certainly an important part of the "context".