Close Reading

Hebrew Scriptures was one of the first classes I took when I began my theological studies. The class was devoted to what many Christians refer to as “The Old Testament”. But the class began with much time spent on Close Reading.

Close Reading means reading only what is printed on the page, without resorting to any interpretation or overlaying of a Tradition’s understanding of what the words on the page mean. Just read the words. How hard can that be?

Close Reading was, for me, a tricky concept to master. In class exercises, I found I was an unskilled close reader. What made this even more difficult to understand was that my classmate Bill was a skillful close reader, and Bill had no background in reading the Christian Bible. I had many years of Christian higher education. I knew this “stuff” thoroughly. How could I be so unskilled at Close Reading of the Hebrew scriptures? I was unskilled because I had been so deeply trained in the Christian Tradition that I was simultaneously seeing both the words on the page and the interpretation taught by the Tradition. I’d write about a particular section of the Hebrew Scriptures and include my current understanding of what I’d been taught by the Tradition, and each time, my professor would point this out. My showing off what I knew was getting in the way of my reading.

Here’s an example from the Christian Scriptures, what many Christians refer to as “The New Testament.” Maybe you saw Rollen Stewart, the Rainbow Man, while you were watching sports on t.v. during the 70s and 80s. He’d position himself where he’d be on camera, wearing a rainbow-colored afro wig, and wearing a t-shirt or holding a sign with “John 3:16” printed on it. This was his way of spreading the “Good News” of Christianity.

Here’s what John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” King James Version

The interpretation given by most evangelical Christians would be that this verse is a straight-forward explanation of God’s simple path to salvation.

The only problem is that this verse doesn’t actually say that. “Well, sure it does,” an evangelical Christian might proclaim. “Perish means spending an eternity in hell. Everlasting life means going to heaven.”

A close reader might point out that “perish” doesn’t mean going to hell, that perish means “die”, “lose one’s life”, “be killed”, “disappear”, and a number of other meanings, but it doesn’t include suffering an eternity in hell. That explanation ignores the meaning of the words on the page.

A close reader might also point out that “everlasting life” sounds good, but that its use in this verse is a little vague. Everlasting means “lasting forever or for a very long time.” Since humans are subject to Impermanence, the evangelical explanation is a bit of a stretch.

One could, as I did, study the Gospel of John with an expert. You could familiarize yourself with scholars’ current understanding of the community for whom the Gospel was written. You could familiarize yourself with the theological themes repeated throughout the Gospel of John. You might develop a new understanding of John 3:16. You could convince yourself that your understanding of John 3:16 was superior to the heaven and hell understanding espoused by more conservative Christians.

But, you’d still be running into this problem. There are layers—archaeological layers—of belief.

Layers of Belief

The bottom layer is the layer of the Event. This layer would answer questions such as:

  • Was Jesus a real person?
  • What did Jesus actually say?
  • What happened to Jesus?
  • Is any of it true?

Unfortunately, we have no access to this layer. There is no good documentation of the historical Jesus. A few references by the 1st Century historian Josephus don’t explain much. The scriptures themselves are not documentation of the Event.

The next layer up is also inaccessible to us. This would be the layer of the words of Jesus as spoken by him in the Aramaic language. No scrolls exist that were written in Aramaic. While some might say, “It’s easy! You just translate from the Greek into Aramaic,” this reverse-engineering of a translation ignores that humans made choices when they chose to translate Jesus’ words, and we do not know what choices they made, or why they made them.

The next layer up is the layer of the Greek scriptures. The examples that exist were written decades after the life of Jesus. What this means is that for a period of time, the stories about Jesus were transmitted orally. Now, storytelling in ancient times was a highly-refined art. For instance, Homer’s Odyssey was sung, and to sing the Odyssey would mean memorizing hours of text, although each performance would be slightly different. What version/s of the stories of Jesus were written down? We don’t know why we have the versions we have, although it looks like these four gospels helped support theological positions in disputes the Church authorities were engaging in at the time.

The layer we have the most access to is the layer of The Tradition. The Tradition is a cultural layer. It’s the layer where The Tradition says, “Here’s how members of our community understand the stories. Here’s how we translate the ancient texts. Here’s how we explain how to be a member of this community. Here’s where we explain our beliefs. This is how we do things around here.”

It is the layer that allows some churches to interpret their scriptures one way and other churches to interpret the same scriptures the opposite way. While they may both explain that they are merely showing obedience to the earlier layers (event and storytelling), they are actually overlaying their cultural beliefs on the event and stories. Conservatives and Liberals both engage in this overlaying. In this way, the scriptures become a mirror that shows a people what their community is like.

So, what good are the scriptures? That’s for another post.

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