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writing things down…

Seams and Headings

This week in my Exegetical Methods class we are discussing structural issues of texts, specifically the breaks and seams that demarcate one pericope from another. To use Erickson’s image, we are looking at the way bricks in a wall are separated. We will then consider how the placement of a brick or a group of bricks fit into the wall as a whole, how the brick(s) gives the wall some of its character, and how the wall as a whole gives character to the brick(s). We are not yet considering the structure of the brick itself. Rather, our concern is 1) to delimit, and 2) place in literary context. This, to me is a rather important early step in the exegetical exercise. For one it forces students, who are likely accustom to jumping straight in to a passage, to first consider the context of the passage. This is a literary parallel to the habit I am trying to instill in the students to consider the social and cultural contexts in which they are before even looking at the texts. Contexts on several levels are important to careful, close readings of any text, but especially texts considered sacred.

Contexts, however, are not the point of this post. I am more interested in the idea of seams and structure. Let me recommend something to everyone. When you are wanting to engage the biblical texts with depth and care, do yourself a favor and begin your exploration with a Bible (preferably a good translation! A topic for another day) that does NOT have paragraph headings. Read the text for yourself. Create your own paragraph headings.

I like the UBS text of the Greek New Testament (GNT), but it bugs me that the editorial committee provided English headings and sub-headings for all of the major breaks and paragraphs. For one, the placement of the breaks is somewhat arbitrary. I admit though, it would be a bit silly to have printed one continuous text with no breaks at all. But, did they have to title each of the breaks? The headings are actually pretty good, but that is not the point. The point is that I want to encourage my students to see the breaks for themselves, and maybe discern seams in different places. Of course, I want them to justify their decisions. Making these decisions by their own engagement with the text is what I want for them. The same things applies to readers of translations. The discernment of structure, breaks and seams is not an exercise only for seminarians or biblical scholars.

I think my frustration with this one smaller issue comes from a larger frustration. Too often readers of Scripture rely on tools and do not engage the text itself. Study Bibles, amplified versions, and the like should not be our first stop on the journey with the text. The bare bones text ought to be the first place we go. We should explore here before we go on to see the results of other people’s explorations. If we can engage the Greek, we should. If we cannot, we should get a good translation and dive in. Only after we have read the text carefully, noticing things like keywords, key themes, structural ambiguities, cultural complexities, etc., should we move on to the tools that will answer, correct, support, or amplify our initial observations and questions.

I am also keenly aware that one does not engage even the bare bones text without one’s own baggage. In other words readers are never bare bones readers. We should acknowledge this and even take the time to know ourselves. Still, I would hope that readers, no matter the marks of life they bear, could come to the biblical texts as they (the readers) are and engage the texts as they (the text) are. Seems a good way to approach people too!

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1 Comment»

  Pat McCullough wrote @

Well said. I couldn’t agree more. We had a prof at Messiah who forced his New Testament students to go through the whole NT and black out the headings with a marker. It was with a cheapo NRSV that they bought for the class.


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