Sunday, January 17, 2010

Evidence in the Eye of the Beholder

Our interpretation of evidence is influenced by our perspective. We are aware to varying degrees of the conditioning that colors our interpretations. Presuppositions and theological commitments lead us to naturally bend our reading of the evidence to fit our preconceived understanding. Sometimes we're driven by an agenda - an outcome that we'd like to see proven or disproven. We're all prone to gratuitous readings of the evidence whether a biblical text or an ancient inscription. This is how difficult, fragmentary texts like Gabriel's Vision or the Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon can make such a big splash in the news. The sensational reading is the one that makes news by claiming to answer long-standing questions and settle controversial debates. I found the following quote to be a helpful reminder of how we must be aware of the factors that influence our interpretations.
Am I, a man living long after the authors of Genesis, with ideas and mind-sets made possible by twenty-five hundred additional years in the development of human consciousness, using these as tools to better understand these ancient texts, or am I ascribing meanings that are simply echoes of my own time and my own life? That is always the risk.  Awaiting any attempt at biblical interpretation is the conscious and unconscious imposition of norms prevalent in one's own time and place, these having become so ordinary, so natural, so obvious, that surely they must have been typical of human culture at all times and in all places. "Perspective," writes Harold Bloom, "governs our response to everything we read, but most crucially with the Bible. Learning from scholars, whether Christian or Jewish, one still questions their conditioning, which too frequently overdetermines their presentation. Obviously, that caution applies to me as well . . . " And to me, and to you. Indeed, any one of us attempting to come to grips with the Bible would do well to consider the multiple factors that influence perspective: family, religion, education, where one was born, and even when one was born. (p. 78)
John R. Coats, Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis, New York: Free Press, 2009.

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