taking the HB/OT seriously

Rob Barrett barrett at almaden.ibm.com
Tue Dec 12 21:40:17 EST 2000


It seems that an important aspect of the recent discussion/argument
concerning history and the HB/OT turns on what it means to "take the HB/OT
seriously."  I hope it can be assumed that everyone contributing to this
forum agrees that we should be doing that.

One approach to modern literary theory recognizes four components to a
literary artifact. Focusing on these different components produces four
different ways to take the literary artifact "seriously."

1) Universe:  literature reflects the external world.
2) Reader:  literature is interpreted by readers and has effects on them.
3) Author:  literature is the expressive result of an author (or multiple
authors, or authors and redactors).
4) Text:  literature is itself a text.

The focus on history crosses several of these.  Much of our recent
discussion has focused on how well the texts reflect the universe (in this
case, actual historical events).  If this were accomplished, the next step
would seem to be to consider the author to try to determine why the author
represented the universe in this way.  When things are out of kilter with
the universe, explanations could be offered such as that the author was
misinformed or that the author actively sought to misinform the readers,
etc.

But there are other ways to take texts seriously rather than focusing on
their connections to the universe, i.e. without necessarily being assured
of their historical referants.

For example, we could focus on the author to determine how thoughts,
feelings, artistry, language, etc. were brought together to produce this
text.  Note that historical issues may influence this exploration, but need
not dominate it.

Or we could focus on the reader to see how these texts are read and
interpreted.  Again, historical studies could illuminate us, but they
aren't completely necessary.  We can study how ancient commentators read
them, how they were understood to function within the canon, or even how
modern Christians and Jews use these texts.

Finally, we could focus on the texts themselves.  Narrative criticism has
recently taken the lead here, downplaying any knowledge (or lack thereof)
about the author, historical setting, etc. and focusing on the internal
coherence of the literature itself.

I hope that reflecting on the larger issue of universe, authors, texts and
readers can help us see that different emphases are actually complementary
rather than opposed to one another.  Of course, we all have our combination
of emphases that seems like the "right" combination for reading a text, but
the last forty or so years of the study of literature concludes that there
are a wide range of legitimate possibilities.  Fundamental focus on
historical connections behind the text is only one direction of exploration
and we may differ on how fruitful that direction has been and will be in
the future.

Rob Barrett




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