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writing things down…

Dinosaur Teeth or Frog Legs?

The other night after class I had a student approach me about the big picture of exegesis.  He was wondering what these various methods we were studying had to do with the larger enterprise.  He posed this image.

Suppose we found a dinosaur tooth at a dig.  We could extrapolate all sorts of information about the dinosaur from which the tooth came by looking at the size of the tooth (how big could this animal have been?), the wear on the tooth (how old might the beast have been? what sorts of things would it have eaten?), and possibly the place where the tooth was found (warm weather creature? are there other bones around?).  The student wondered if we were doing similar things when we explored the text critical questions or examined the structural make-up of a passage.  I think this student’s notions are too common among many new exegetical students.  What I think they fail to remember is that we are not finding teeth in a swamp somewhere.  I proposed a different image, though it is one that I would not want to take too far for fear of becoming too atomistic.  Still…

What we are doing is a bit like exploring a frog in middle-school science class.  But, we are interested in what the whole frog was/is like, and not just one part of the frog.  Nevertheless, to understand the whole frog we will at some point want to cut it open and examine its different parts.  The difference between looking at a frog’s leg and a dinosaur tooth is that we have the whole body of the frog; we know what part of the world it came from; we can know something about the function of the leg by seeing it on the body, and by looking at the context from which the frog came.  In other words, we have a much fuller contextual picture with the frog.  We do not have to re-create the context as we would with the dinosaur.

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5 Comments»

  C. Wess Daniels wrote @

Thanks for the imagery, I like the way you presented this, unfortunately you had to remind us of middle school in order to do it!

  James Van Slyke wrote @

I actually liked the tooth methaphor, the only problem is when textual criticism is reduced to nothing but studying fossils and misses theology and the “living” word.

  B-W wrote @

I’m inclined to agree with your “frog vs. tooth” analogy with one caveat. In some places, we do have to “re-create” the context of a biblical passage. While we may have the “whole body” of the Bible, and we do know quite a bit about the ancient world, there are tons of things that we still do not know about the ancient world, for simple lack of adequate information. We can guess at some of these things, based on the fragments (which may include the Bible itself) we have access to, but it is still a re-construction based on fragments nonetheless.

Of course, that’s probably true in the frog analogy, too. I just think it bears emphasizing that we do need to re-create the context in places.

  dave beldman wrote @

I just stumbled across your blog today—great work! I am interested in many of the issues which you are dealing with here.
Your analogy reminded me of something from my own experience about a year ago. I had finished a paper on the structure and theology of the book of Proverbs and I sent it to a friend of mine. He enjoyed the paper and at the end of his email he wrote “make sure the frog still jumps.” I knew precisely what he meant and I fired an email back explaining that not only does it have to jump, it has to get off the operating table and start to dissect me. This, I think, is one of the biggest challenges of biblical interpretation in the academy (or elsewhere)–to become subject to the Word.

  Kevin A. Wilson wrote @

Unfortunately, when we dissect a frog, the frog dies. I hope the same does not happen with our interpretation of the text!

I just came across your blog today while doing some research on theological interpretation. I am enjoying reading it. We have been having a debate in our theology department about theological and non-theological readings of the Bible. The question whether theological use of the text is something that comes after the text is interpreted or whether it is part of the interpretive project. Although I did graduate work with Brevard Childs, I am still not convinced that theology is not something we do with the text after we have interpreted. Perhaps your blog can convince me differently.

I look forward to hearing what you have to say on the topic. It is always great to find a fellow biblioblogger.


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