Is there nothing outside the text? (A plea for textualists)

Because of our lifelong fascination with classical legal and religious texts like the Twelve Tables of ancient times and the Ten Commandments of biblical times–and with the rules and methods of interpretation of such texts–, we stumbled upon Steven D. Smith’s critical review of Jaroslav Pelikan’s erudite opus Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution (Yale, 2004) by accident. (The first two sentences of Smith’s review are the two best sentences we have ever read in a book review.) And we are so happy we discovered Smith’s review. Among other things, Professor Smith, a law professor at the University of San Diego, identifies three “vital questions” that scholars should try to answer when they study old texts: (1) why was X text produced, (2) what practical effect, if any, did X text have, and (3) what is the true meaning of X text. For your reference, we restate and summarize these three vital textual questions below the fold:

1. Questions about the Production and Distribution of Old Texts
Or why did X group create or write up Y text? In Smith’s words: “The recognition of similarities–in persons, practices, cultures–often provokes such questions. Suppose we observe, say, similar religious practices in ancient Greece and ancient Crete, or in ancient Egypt and pre-Columbian America… Such observations will immediately provoke a desire for an explanation. Are the similarities mere coincidence? Or is there a causal connection–some sort of historical influence, for example?”
2. Questions about the Efficacy or Practical Effects of Old Texts
According to Prof Smith, questions of efficacy build on questions of explanation, and he illustrates this type of question with the following example: “Suppose we observe that legal systems in the High Middle Ages employed some of the same techniques of legal reasoning that had been used centuries earlier in Roman law. And suppose further that we plausibly explain these similarities by identifying historical influences: legal scholars in Bologna rediscovered some older Roman texts, for example. The observation and explanation may well prompt us to ask whether these techniques, native to the Roman world, were equally compatible with medieval needs and assumptions.”
3. Questions about the True Meaning of Old Texts
Prof Smith refers to this ultimate type of question as “presuppositional questions.” : “We say of some nebulous passage in an old text, such as Jesus’ more esoteric parables or the Fourteenth Amendment: ‘The people who wrote these words never consciously imagined that they meant X, and the unacculturated reader today probably would be surprised to learn that they mean X; nonetheless, through careful and conscientious “interpretation”, we now affirm that the passage means X. We’re not just imposing our ideas on the text: like it or not, that is what it really means.'”
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Image credit: adityaanupkumar, via WordPress

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2 Responses to Is there nothing outside the text? (A plea for textualists)

  1. jecgenovese says:

    Interesting, I recently rigged up a tablet computer on my treadmill so I watch youtube lectures while I walk in the morning. Currently I have been watching Christine Hayes’ course on the Hebrew Testament:

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