THINKING IN SIGNS: SEMIOTICS AND BIBLICAL STUDIES …by ArchBishop ROSARY
Thinking in Signs: Semiotics and Biblical Studies … Thirty Years After
Daniel Patte, ed.
Copyright © 1998  by Society of Biblical Literature.
Published in Atlanta, GA.
Contributors to This Issue
Part I. Semiotics and Biblical Studies Yesterday and Today
Orientations of a Literary Semiotics Questioned by the Bible
From Biblical Text to Literary Enunciation and Its Subject
From Linguistic Methodology to the Discovery of a World of Metaphors
From Historical-Critical Exegesis to Greimassian Semiotics: A Christological Issue, the Meaning of Jesus’s Death
Part II. Semiotic Studies of Biblical Texts
John the Baptist’s Head—The Word Perverted: A Reading of a Narrative (Mark 6:14–29)
A Fresh Look at the Garden of Eden
Mary Phil Korsak
“Like One of Us, Knowing tôb and ra˓” (Gen 3:22)
The Creation of Coherence
Ellen van Wolde
Response from the Philippines to Some of the Semeia Articles
Renate Rose, with Revelation Velunta
On the Semiotic Reading of Genesis 1–3: A Response from Argentina
J. Severino Croatto
Contributors to This Issue
J. Severino Croatto
Faculty of Theology
Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudio
1406 Buenos Aires
25, rue du Plat
Université de Montréal
Faculté de théologie
C. P. 6128, succursale v
Montréal (Québec) Centre-ville
751 46 Uppsala
Mary Phil Korsak
European Society of Women for Theological Research, Brussels
7 Sentier OP Linkebeek
25, rue du Plat
69002 Lyon FRANCE
Nashville, TN 37235
Union Theological Seminary
1022 Prospect Street, Apt. 907
Honolulu, HI 96822-3470
Box 1585, Station B
Nashville, TN 37235
Saint Paul University
223 Main Street
Ottawa, ON K1S 1C4
Ellen van Wolde
Tilburg Faculty of Theology
NL-6525 ZC Nijmegen
Critical Biblical Studies from a Semiotics Perspective
In this volume, practitioners of semiotic biblical studies in different parts of the world were asked either to reflect on the changing role of semiotics in their research during the last thirty years (so the articles by Jean Delorme, Louis Panier, René Kieffer, Olivette Genest), or to illustrate how they use semiotics in the study of a text (so the articles by Jean Delorme on Mark 6 and by Mary Phil Korsak, Walter Vogels, and Ellen van Wolde on Genesis 1–3), while practitioners of semiotics in biblical studies in the Philippines (Renate Rose and Revelation Velunta) and Argentina (J. Severino Croatto) were asked to respond.
Some might have expected in a volume on “Semiotics and Biblical Studies” presentations of a well defined analytical method honed by twenty or thirty years of practice. Reading this volume shatters such expectations. Semiotics is not a methodology; it is a scholarly paradigm in terms of which critical biblical studies can be conceived.
As such, semiotics can be used as a basis for developing critical methods—but many kinds of methods, rather than a single one. Thus, the retrospective articles illustrate the diversity of roles semiotics played in the authors’ research over the years, and still plays today. Even more clearly, the articles which present semiotic studies of Mark 6 and Genesis 1–3 use analytical approaches which are very different from each other. These essays are representative. They concretely show that semiotics cannot be reduced to any single critical method.
When semiotics is defined as “thinking in signs,” that is, as a set of theories and analytical practices concerned with the process of “production of meaning,” it becomes clear, as Jean Delorme says in “Orientations of a Literary Semiotics Questioned by the Bible,” that:
Semiotics does not replace exegesis, but it reminds exegetes and semioticians that in each of their multiple tasks, they are first of all readers. We are not natural readers; we become readers and each book produces its subject-readers. The practice of semiotics can facilitate an apprenticeship in reading, not to learn “what to read, but how to read in order to always face the notknown, the unexpected” (Greimas, 1977:228). The semiotician’s know-how does not permit him or her to interpret meaning with more competence than others. Their know-how helps them to deconstruct the way they read in order to try to elucidate, to imagine, to describe the operations that we accomplish in spite of ourselves when we construct as text and as discourse whatever we read … (below, p. 52; my italics).
Each of the essays in this volume does just this. The authors use a semiotic approach for deconstructing one aspect or another of the way they read. According to their subject matter—the specific reading process they seek to elucidate—these essays call upon different features of semiotic theories and therefore develop quite different analytical practices.
In this introductory essay, I propose to review the contributions of these diverse essays as I personally seek “to describe the operations that we accomplish in spite of ourselves” when we practice critical biblical studies. From this semiotic perspective, critical biblical studies construct as texts the biblical passages that are read; it also constructs discourses about the reading of these texts. This semiotic examination of our practice of critical biblical studies confirms essential conclusions of hermeneutical research. Critical biblical studies cannot be reduced to a positivist description of what the text is and says, since we are constructing the text. Similarly it cannot be reduced to an elucidation of “what the text meant” as a basis for an appropriation of the “content” of the text by modern readers (the model which still governs the practice of much biblical scholarship; see Stendahl), since our critical study of any given text is already a constructed discourse framed by our own categories and by our contextual, life-centered concerns.
Throughout this discussion, I will highlight what is for me the overall contribution of semiotics to critical biblical studies: a perspective which clarifies the nature, task, and goals of critical biblical studies and which, consequently, helps biblical scholars to perform their roles in a self-conscious, critical, and responsible way.
The Complex Interrelations of Semiotics and Critical Biblical Studies in the Essays of the Present Volume
Together with several of the authors of this volume, I want to retrace the role that semiotics has played in my own research over the years. For some of us, it has been for the last thirty years. Jean Delorme had first encountered semiotics at the 1968 conference in Versailles (with A. J. Greimas, Michel de Certeau, Claude Chabrol, Louis Marin); René Kieffer at the 1969 conference in Chantilly (with Roland Barthes, Paul Ricoeur). This was also my first encounter with semiotics, though an informal one (ἔσχατον δὲ πάντωνὡσπερεὶ τῷ ἐκτρώματι, 1 Cor 15:8!). In1969, when semioticians arrived at Chantilly, I was totally unaware of the conference; I just happened to be at the library of this research center working on Early Jewish Hermeneutics in Palestine which, as a consequence of these few days of interaction, underwent a semiotic twist (Patte, 1975:1–7).
As I look back it becomes clear that my constant preoccupation has been the interface between semiotics and critical biblical studies: How does semiotics transform our view of critical biblical studies? Yet, clearly there are other ways of envisioning this relationship. One can also ask: What is the role which semiotics should play in critical biblical studies? This amounts to looking for semiotic methods to be added to the set of tools for biblical scholarship. Conversely, one can ask: How does the study of biblical texts contribute to the development of semiotics? The expectation is that the answer to this question will allow the scholar to envision a practice of biblical studies according to a semiotic paradigm which is distinct and thus separated from other forms of critical biblical studies developed on the basis of other paradigms (such as the historical or hermeneutical paradigms). These methodological questions are important, and I pursued them. They proved very fruitful. Yet, for me, the most valuable contribution of semiotics to biblical studies turned out to be, to my surprise, a refined understanding of critical biblical studies gained by looking at it from the perspective of semiotics.
Semiotics as Providing Methods to Address Issues that Traditional Exegetical Methods Cannot Address
For a long time, my primary concern has been to determine what role semiotics could play in critical biblical studies. The last thirty years have demonstrated the value of raising this question, as semiotics offered the basis for either developing or contributing to the development of new critical methods which could eventually take their place besides historical-critical methods. Several of the authors in this volume raised it at one point or another of their careers. It was and still is important to identify in the field of biblical studies the issues, topics, problems which were left open by existing methods but could be addressed with the help of semiotics. Many examples of this quest for semiotic-based methods (especially methods based on structural semiotics) could be listed here. In addition to the works published by European scholars cited in these essays, see, for instance, the North-American works by John Dominic Crossan, Robert Polzin, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, Dan Via, David Jobling, listed below in the bibliography. The model of the genre is Hendrikus Boers, Neither on This Mountain Nor in Jerusalem: A Study of John 4, in which a semiotic study and a historico-critical study are juxtaposed. This is further exemplified by the essays in this volume.
René Kieffer, in his essay From Linguistic Methodology to the Discovery of a World of Metaphors, retraces and illustrates with his study of Acts 10:1–11:18 how, from his 1969 encounter with semiotics until today, his primary concern has been to discern what are the contributions which semiotics can make in the field of “critical biblical studies.” For him, semiotics first offered its synchronic linguistic-based approach as a complement to the diachronic historical approach, then its semantic sensibility to the “world of metaphors” of the text, which can therefore be systematically studied.
The title of Olivette Genest’s essay, “From Historical-Critical Exegesis to Greimassian Semiotics: A Christological Issue, The Meaning of Jesus’ Death,” directly expresses how semiotics addresses issues left unresolved by traditional approaches. In this essay, she shows how her use of Greimassian semiotics has helped her to address (in two books and numerous essays) “a problem of exegesis: the meaning of Jesus’ death in the New Testament,” because the different conceptual range of semiotics has progressively transformed the initial question, and thus opened new hermeneutical possibilities.
As is already clear from the preceding examples, semiotics has the potential to make quite different contributions to critical biblical studies. This is further illustrated by the three essays on Genesis 1–3. In his essay, “Like One of Us, Knowing ṭôb and ra˓ (Gen 3:22),” Walter Vogels shows how a semiotic, synchronic (text-centered) approach which reads Genesis 1 together with Genesis 2–3 helps to resolve what is for other kinds of critical biblical studies “the mystery of the tree of knowledge.” Turning away from an exclusive focus on structural semiotics, Ellen van Wolde also addresses the problem of the relationship between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2–3 in her essay, “The Creation of Coherence,” but this time by showing from the perspective of semiotics the role the reader plays in the creation of coherence in this text; as reader we construct the marking on the pages as a coherent text. Mary Phil Korsak’s essay, “A Fresh Look at the Garden of Eden,” provides another example. In it she shows how a semiotic approach, in her case an ethno-poetics which she uses in her work as translator, clarifies dimensions of the text—including mother-like attributes of the Godhead—forgotten by other approaches; as a consequence, reading the Garden of Eden story can be a liberating experience, rather than a negative confrontation with a moralizing teaching.
In my own work, for a long time my primary preoccupation was to identify how structural semiotics could complement historico-critical methods in biblical studies (as I state in Patte, 1976:1–20, a chapter entitled, “The Place of Structural Methods in the Exegetical Task”). Among the many possibilities, I chose to focus on a method of “structural exegesis” which (as is explained in Patte and Patte, and in Patte, 1990a) is aimed at elucidating a dimension of biblical texts which historical-critical methods cannot systematically study: their mythical structures, which can also be described as their “systems of convictions” as self-evident truths. In my view structural exegetical studies, such as my books on Paul’s letters (Patte, 1983b) and on Matthew (Patte, 1987), complement other kinds of critical studies of these texts, and most directly those studies dealing with these texts in terms of the “history of traditions” and of the “history of religions.” I remain convinced (as I state in Patte, 1990b) that structural semiotic methodologies are ideally equipped to elucidate the “religious dimensions” of biblical texts—dimensions which are strangely neglected in other kinds of critical biblical studies.
This development of semiotic methods to be used in critical biblical studies is clearly important. The study of biblical texts with such methods makes significant contributions to understanding them. But, these methods are not truly integrated in the field of critical biblical studies, even when the complementarity of historical-critical and semiotic methods is emphasized as René Kieffer and Olivette Genest do in their essays in this volume. This situation can be viewed either as a sign of the marginalization of semiotic studies by a historically-minded guild, or as a failure by the practitioners of semiotic biblical studies to relate their work to the other types of critical biblical studies. Whatever might be its cause, this situation became, for me, a first reason for considering the field of critical biblical studies from the perspective of semiotics.
Semiotic Studies of Biblical Texts Seeking to Contribute to the Development of Semiotic Theories
Simultaneous with my quest for semiotic methods that would complement existing methods of critical biblical studies, an important concern for me has been to contribute to the development of semiotic theories so that they might better account for religious texts such as the Bible and for their readings. This is what I have done in my own way in a series of fourteen entries in the second volume of Greimas’s “dictionary of semiotics” (Greimas and Courtés, 1985) as well as in the book which systematizes these essays (Patte, 1990b). I do not need to emphasize this point here, since it is the focus of Jean Delorme’s magisterial contribution in his own retrospective essay, “Orientations of a Literary Semiotics Questioned by the Bible”—in which he tells the story of the development of research in biblical semiotics from his European perspective. Contrary to what many believe on this side of the Atlantic, biblical semiotics evolved way beyond the narrative and semantic models introduced in North America at the conference on “Semiology and Parables” (at Vanderbilt University, 1975; see Patte, ed.) and by the early volumes of Semeia. All kinds of dimensions of the production of meaning through the reading of religious texts have been explored. As is clear from Delorme’s essay, as well as from Louis Panier’s contribution, “From Biblical Text to Literary Enunciation and its Subject,” the “post-structuralist” and “de-constructionist” movement did not end this process, but re-directed it.
With them, I want to affirm that literary semiotic theories which account for the peculiar features of the readings of biblical texts need to be developed so as to provide a basis for developing semiotic methods of critical biblical studies—my initial intent. Yet, the more semiotic theories are developed the more they function as a new paradigm. This means that semiotic analyses of a text can be conducted in complete isolation from the other critical studies of this text, since they are respectively conducted in terms of different paradigms. This practice, which is typical of the many insightful essays published since 1975 in the journal Sémiotique et Bible, is exemplified in this volume by Jean Delorme’s second essay, John the Baptist’s Head—The Word Perverted: A Reading of a Narrative (Mark 6:14–29). This remarkable analysis could not have elucidated the rich texture of Mark 6:14–29 if it had not been free to consider the text exclusively from the semiotic paradigm—and thus, without constant reference to studies of this text according to the methods of another paradigm.
Yet, precisely because it provides a different paradigm, semiotics also opens the possibility of considering afresh, from a new perspective, everything one does, including one’s entire practice of critical biblical studies. Then, according to the wishes of the respondents from Argentina and the Philippines, the development of biblical semiotics cannot remain disengaged, at an abstract level (as Renate Rose and Revelation Velunta note in their “Response from the Philippines to Some of the Semeia Articles”). This means that biblical semiotics cannot stand outside or beside critical biblical studies (as René Kieffer, Olivette Genest, and Ellen van Wolde also emphasized in their own ways). Furthermore, as J. Severino Croatto underscores in On the Semiotic Reading of Genesis 1–3: A Response from Argentina, semiotics needs to participate with all other approaches in the overall practice (and praxis) of critical biblical studies.
For Croatto the practice of critical biblical studies includes not only the critical study of the biblical text in and of itself (what is “within the text“), be it with historico-critical, literary, or structural semiotic methods, but also the study of the world behind the text by means of sociological analyses and investigation of the cultural Sitz im Leben of the text, as well as the hermeneutical study of the present-day readers and their situations before the text. If the role of semiotics in critical biblical studies is limited to offering methods of analysis of neglected dimensions of the text—such as the approaches used by Korsak and Vogels in their respective studies of Genesis 1–3, or such as the method of structural exegesis I use elsewhere—then semiotics would exclusively concern what is within the text. But, as Croatto underscores (following van Wolde, also Delorme and Panier), semiotics is concerned with the entire process of production of meaning and also with the world behind the text as well as with the production of meaning by present-day readers in concrete situations before the text and thus with hermeneutics. Thus, Croatto writes:
I point out this plurality of approaches as a fruitful convergence directed towards a “production of meaning” that is not a repetition of the author’s intention, but its re-creation. Such re-creation may be clarified by semiotics, but it is brought into existence—during the reading process—by the interrelation between the context of the text and that of the reader. (Below, p. 188; author’s italics)
In the rest of his response, Croatto does not follow up on his own suggestion that the process of the production of meaning could be “clarified by semiotics.” Actually, as he explicitly did in his earlier methodological work (Croatto, 1987), he ends up keeping hermeneutics as the dominant perspective in terms of which he conceives the entire process of the production of meaning, including the praxis—the “forward” of the text. Yet, it is worth pursuing his suggestion that, along with the entire process of production of meaning, critical biblical studies as a whole be considered from a semiotic perspective.
Critical Goals of “Critical Biblical Studies” From a Semiotic Perspective
What is Critical Biblical Studies? a General Definition
A good starting point for our examination of “critical biblical studies” from a semiotic perspective is a general definition of a “critical biblical study”—even though, as we shall see below, the field of “critical biblical studies” is not simply to be equated with the sum of discrete critical interpretation of a biblical text.
What is a “critical biblical study?” I define it most generally as “an interpretation of a biblical text which strives to make explicit the interpretive processes and the evidence upon which its conclusions are based.” This broad definition keeps in mind that scholars see biblical criticism as an ongoing quest for transparency (and thus “strives to make explicit” how they interpret). I believe most scholars can agree with this definition, even though each of us works with a more specific definition which reflects the specificity of our projects. The question is: What are the interpretive processes which we, as critical biblical interpreters, need to make explicit? How can semiotics help us identify these processes, and thus help us to get a clearer understanding of the vocation of critical biblical studies?
Mieke Bal’s Semiotic Analysis of Critical Biblical Studies: The Legitimacy and Plausibility of Divergent Interpretations
Considering critical biblical studies from a semiotic perspective could not be initiated by biblical scholars. It needed to be envisioned by an outsider to the field, such as a literary critic in the field of comparative literature, who would dedicate several years of her career to “observing the natives.” Mieke Bal is this specialist of semiotics—well known for her works on “narratology” and visual poetics (see, in English, Bal, 1985, 1991a, 1991b, 1994, and 1997). She was first interested in the Bible because of its importance for feminists in Western cultures and wrote two insightful feminist studies of biblical narrative, especially the book of Judges (see Bal, 1987 and 1988a). As she was writing these books, unlike many outsiders, she did not feel that she could ignore existing critical studies of Judges. She took the time to examine the biblical scholarship on Judges and to make sense of it from her semiotic perspective. The result is, for me (and the American Academy of Religion, which gave it a prize), one of the most important works in critical biblical studies of the last twenty years: Murder and Difference: Gender, Genre, and Scholarship on Sisera’s Death (Bal, 1988b).
What is so remarkable about this book? Looking at the shelves of books on Judges, Bal with her semiotic perspective did NOT see a series of studies progressively moving forward in a quest for “the” true meaning of this text. The succession of critical studies of a given text does not represent a progress toward a better understanding of it, each time closer to the ultimate truth about it-as a historical paradigm tempts us to assume in our practice, even though we have disavowed this positivist myth of scientific progress. Rather these studies represent readings of the text in terms of different “codes,” each of which is the focus of a coherent “interpretation” of the textual features.
Bal illustrates this point by choosing a text, Judges 4 and Judges 5, which includes a clear textual feature: the story of Sisera’s death is told twice, once in each chapter. She can then compare the ways in which different critical biblical studies have interpreted the relationship between the two chapters and their respective telling of the story. For this, she uses the semiotic concept of “codes” developed by Barthes and Eco, which she presents in a systematic way in her methodological introduction (Bal, 1988b:1–11). Then, she reviews the scholarship on Judges 4 and 5, elucidating in each instance the code and sub-codes used for interpreting the relationship between these two chapters. Certain commentaries are framed by a historical code (focused on the history of the texts, the history of the people, or on connoted history), others a theological code (including religious codes), others an anthropological code (be it focused on the anthropological concept of “judge,” on ethnography, or on orality), others a literary code (focused on lyric, narratological, or aesthetic literary codes), others a thematic code (each time selected among several possibilities). She concludes by proposing her own feminist interpretation framed by the gender code.
Through her semiotic analysis of critical biblical studies of Judges 4 and 5, Bal reads these studies “against the grain.” Each of these implicitly and often explicitly proposes itself as the most legitimate and most plausible interpretation by directly or indirectly rejecting all previous interpretations as less legitimate and plausible. By contrast, from her semiotic perspective, Bal establishes that all these divergent interpretations are equally legitimate and equally plausible. They are divergent and offer very different conclusions about the text, because their respective readings of the text are “framed” in different ways by the historical, theological, anthropological, literary, thematic, or genre codes. Yet, these divergent interpretations are equally legitimate insofar as each is appropriately grounded upon actual features of the text—those features which are highlighted when, during the reading, the text is framed by a certain code. They are also equally plausible, insofar as each allows the code it uses to frame fully its reading; the interpretation then has the coherence of the code used in the reading process (a point similar to that of van Wolde’s article).
An Invitation to Pursue the Semiotic Analysis of Critical Biblical Studies
For me, Bal’s Murder and Difference: Gender, Genre, and Scholarship on Sisera’s Death is a ground-breaking book primarily because it looks at biblical studies from the perspective of semiotics and therefore re-defines it in terms of the production of meaning. This book is remarkable because it introduces the concept of codes for studying biblical scholarship; because it provides thorough analyses of existing commentaries; because it offers an insightful study of Judges 4 and 5 framed by the gender code; and because it demonstrates that a plurality of divergent interpretations are equally legitimate and plausible. But what makes it a ground-breaking book is its initial step: the recognition that critical biblical studies are “interpretations,” that is, interpretive discourses which can be, and should be, understood from a semiotic perspective.
Saying that these critical studies are interpretive discourses means, as Bal underscored, that they make explicit the codes which frame their readings of a text. Yet, in order to be truly critical, critical biblical studies should also make explicit several other interpretive processes, which Bal exposes by elucidating the role these codes have in each type of critical studies of Judges 4 and 5. In making this point, she carefully maintains the polyvalence of the role of “codes,” which she examines from the perspective of semiotic understanding of texts and reading. For instance, she writes:
Texts by definition being semiotic constructs, necessitating the active participation of readers or listeners for their existence, the textual object is dynamic, unstable, elusive. To study it we cannot be content with merely analyzing the text; it is after all the attribution of meaning that constitutes it … It is naïve to believe that we can analyze without interpreting, that we can work and live without lending meaning to the world around us. (Bal, 1988b:135–36)
Looking back, from the perspective of this statement, at her study of the codes in critical studies of Judges 4 and 5 in the rest of the book we can recognize that she at one time or another deals with different functions of codes: 1) Codes which belong to the text, contribute to its construction as text-object, and can be elucidated by an analysis of it (codes functioning as critical categories); 2) Codes used by the critics to understand the text-object (codes functioning as hermeneutical categories); 3) Codes through which, as readers of the text, we are “lending meaning to the world around us” (codes functioning as bridge categories).
As the above quotation shows, throughout her book, Bal simultaneously deals with these three functions of codes. She does this deliberately, as her definition of “code” confirms (Bal, 1988b:3–10), because her concern is the nature of each code rather than the ways they function. A valuable contribution. Yet, for our present purpose—clarifying the diverse interpretive processes which we need to make explicit as critical biblical scholars—we need to pay close attention to these three functions, and to acknowledge their respective thrusts. In the process, I outline three “goals of critical biblical studies.”
First Critical Goal: Making Explicit the Critical Categories Which Form the Analytical Frame of Our Study of a Text
Codes function as critical categories that biblical scholars apprehend through their analysis of the text, especially when they are those disciplinary and interdisciplinary codes which we readily present in both the methodological introductions and in the conclusions of our exegetical studies. As such codes belong to the text; the exegesis identifies them in the text. Yet, as Bal has underscored, each one of the diverse critical analytical studies of the text is focused upon a single code (or a single small set of codes). In each case, this code is viewed as the most significant one; as the “frame” which brings together the many textual features into a “meaningful text.”
When it is recognized that different scholarly studies use different codes as frames for the text, it is clear that the “meaningful text” is each time a “semiotic construct.” Then, unless one wants to arrogantly claim that a single analysis (one’s own, of course!) is the only truly scholarly study of the text, one has to agree with Bal that any given text involves a plurality of codes. Each of these codes can legitimately be viewed as the most significant “subject-matter” of the text, and thus can function as the frame of the text as semiotic construct.
Consequently, when as critical biblical scholars we make explicit the interpretive processes involved in our interpretations, we have to acknowledge that we have chosen certain critical categories among several codes which can function in this way. The elucidation of the critical categories we used and the recognition that these categories form an analytical frame through which we read and constructed the text are critical steps we commonly take in biblical studies which make explicit their methodologies. Beyond what we are already doing these observations have for us the additional requirement to make explicit that there are other equally legitimate and plausible choices of codes which can function as critical categories. Yet this additional requirement is not really new. We readily acknowledge the legitimacy and plausibility of a plurality of “thematic studies”: we commonly presuppose that a study of the christology of a text, for instance, does not make illegitimate or implausible the study of its eschatology, or ecclesiology, or its ethics.
Second Critical Goal: Making Explicit the Hermeneutical Categories Which Form the Hermeneutical Frame of Our Interpretive Discourse About a Text
Codes also function as hermeneutical categories which biblical scholars use for understanding the text-object. Though in a given interpretation the same code might function both as a critical category and as a hermeneutical category, formulating it in two different ways is important, because any given formulation privileges one function and hides the others.
This second function of codes in interpretations of texts is to promote “understanding of the text.” Grenholm and I call this function “hermeneutical” to signal that it is the function emphasized by hermeneuticians such as Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur. In the context of reflections on critical studies of the Bible, Schneiders’s discussion of hermeneutical categories is most helpful, because she deliberately takes into account that believers read this religious book as a revelatory text, Scripture.
Regarding hermeneutical theories, Schneiders underscores that before embarking on an elucidation of the “meaning” of the New Testament it is essential to clarify “the meaning of meaning” by recognizing that it has two dimensions (she leaves aside the third one that I discuss below):
1) Meaning as”information,” that is, as what the text says (“sense”) and what it is about, its subject-matter (“reference,” be it a historical event, theology, or other content) (see Schneiders: 14–15).
This is the meaning apprehended when we read a text through an analytical frame and its critical categories, as discussed above.
2) Meaning as hermeneutical “transformation,” that is, meaning as “what is understood,” “what expands our human being,” and thus transforms us because, as Heidegger and Gadamer have emphasized, “understanding” is “our characteristically human way of being, our fundamental mode of being-in-the-world” (Schneiders: 17).
This is the meaning which we appropriate for ourselves when we read a text in terms of hermeneutical categories.
It is instructive at this point to consider with Schneiders the hermeneutical appropriation of the meaning of the biblical text as Scripture by readers who are believers. As she underscores, for such readers this appropriation is a revelatory moment that involves a “transformative understanding of the subject matter of the text” (Schneiders: 169–78), that is, an understanding of the text through which the readers/believers are themselves transformed by “a fusion of horizons.” “The world horizon of the reader fuses with the horizon of the world projected by the text” (Schneiders: 172). A believer’s interpretation is “neither a mastery of the text by the reader (an extraction of its meaning by the application of method) nor a mastery of the reader by the text (a blind submission to what the text says) but an ongoing dialogue with the text about its subject matter.” (Schneiders: 177). The code chosen by the readers/believers as a focus for this reading-dialogue is, appropriately, some kind of theological subject-matter of this religious text. This code can be elucidated as a critical category by analyzing how it is expressed in the text. Yet, this code also needs to be apprehended as a hermeneutical category which frames the believers’ understanding of this theological subject-matter, not only in the text but also in the believers’ vision of human experience.
So it is with believers who read the Bible as Scripture through the frame of their hermeneutical categories. And so it is also with biblical scholars when they study the Bible; they also read the biblical text through a hermeneutical frame.
With Schneiders (who follows Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur) and with Bal (when she says “It is naïve to believe that we can analyze without interpreting, that we can work and live without lending meaning to the world around us”; 1988b:136), I want to emphasize that this hermeneutical appropriation as “fusion of horizons” is one of the interpretive processes which occur when we read the text as biblical scholars. Whether or not we ourselves hold the Bible to be Scripture, we cannot ignore that believers do. Therefore, as Bultmann and many other biblical scholars have noted, we cannot read without “preunderstandings” regarding the theological subject-matter of the text. We read the text through a theological frame, whether it is a positive one (when the theological “horizons” of the text and of the readers reinforce each other) or a negative one (when the two theological “horizons” clash, and when the readers discover that their views on the subject matter contradict those of the text). As Schneiders reminds us, this fusion of horizons does not involve “a mastery of the reader by the text (a blind submission to what the text says).”
Consequently, when as critical biblical scholars we make explicit the interpretive processes involved in our interpretations, in order to be truly critical we should acknowledge that we have read this religious text in terms of a certain hermeneutical frame and its categories which reflects not only certain theological subject-matter of the text (in a broad sense which includes all kinds of existential and ethical subject-matters) but also some kind of transformation (fusion) of our own theological views and hermeneutical concerns. The perennial question is: How can we truly become self-conscious about “pre-understandings” which function as such only insofar as they remain sub-conscious? I believe this practical question answers itself when we, biblical scholars, account for the pragmatic function of the codes and for the didactic goals of critical biblical studies.
Third Critical Goal: Making Explicit the Bridge Categories Which Form the Contextual Frame of Our Interpretive Discourse About a Text
Codes also function as bridge categories through which as biblical scholars we interrelate our lives with the text, in the process of “lending meaning to the world around us” (as Bal says). Although in a given interpretation the same code might function as a critical category, as a hermeneutical category, and as a bridge category, it is important to recognize and formulate this code in its bridge-function.
Once again it is instructive to consider how readers/believers relate the biblical text as Scripture to their lives. Let us take the case of devotional readings of the Bible in which believers deliberately bring to Scripture their concrete lives with the expectation that the text will have a teaching for them in these situations. The “Word of God” for them is a new way of perceiving specific aspects of their lives and/or what they should do in this situation. The same is true in faith-interpretations which emphasize more lofty theological issues in church life, moral issues in the believers’ life, as well as social, economic, political, and/or cultural issues in society.
This brief evocation of faith-interpretations is enough to illustrate that the pragmatic dimension of reading which they foreground is neither text-centered (as a scholarly analysis of the text in terms of critical categories is), nor fusion-centered (as an appropriation of the text in terms of hermeneutical categories is), but life-centered. In this pragmatic aspect of the reading process, readers/believers allow the biblical text to “read” their life-experiences. The question is: What is the teaching of the text (new insights, new instructions) for or about the readers’ life? The codes involved in the pragmatic dimension of the reading process are bridge categories formulated for instance, as practical “interests” which the text promotes and reinforces; as contextual “concerns” which the text addresses; as “problems” in the readers’ life-situation for which the biblical text provides “solutions”; or again, as “needs” of the readers which the text meets.
The pragmatic dimension of interpreting the Bible as Scripture is usually excluded from critical biblical studies, because such faith-interpretations inappropriately “read into the text” (eisegesis) and thus are a priori illegitimate and implausible. Such dismissal of faith-interpretations from critical biblical studies is most problematic, for three main reasons: it misconstrues faith-interpretations; it ignores instead of making explicit an important interpretive process involved in any interpretation of the Bible, as semiotics shows; and it is ethically irresponsible.
A dismissal of faith-interpretations from critical biblical studies on the ground that “they read into the text” something which is not there is a complete misconstruing of these interpretations which foreground the pragmatic dimension of interpreting. As we noted, of primary importance for faith-interpretations is the way in which the text affects the readers in their lives, that is, the way in which they allow the biblical text to “read” their life-experiences. Thus, they do not “read something into the text.” They are life-centered, not text-centered.
Far from making them suspect of illegitimacy and implausibility, the fact that they are life-centered enhances the probability that they are legitimate and plausible. Precisely because their faith-interpretations are life-centered, believers/readers are quite careful to ground them in the text because their life literally depends on it. This important point is underscored by Fewell and Phillips (1) by referring to Magonet who recounts in A Rabbi’s Bible the story of young Czech Jews whose sophisticated reading of the newspaper “as if your life depended on it” trained them to read the Bible with “a keen eye for textual nuances and a remarkable feel for the Bible’s underlying concerns.” Similarly for believers and their faith-interpretations. When they truly read the Bible as if their lives depend on it-as is normal in authentic readings of the Bible as Scripture—believers strive to make sure that it is truly some aspect of the biblical text (and not their imagination) which has this effect upon them and their lives. The features of the text which are particularly significant for the pragmatic interpretations of believers might be textual features which analytical and hermeneutical readings neglect. Yet, this is not a reason to brand the faith-interpretations as illegitimate. On the contrary, one needs to recognize that faith-interpretations often end up contributing to our knowledge of the text.
The negative assessment of faith-interpretations is fueled by the construction of the relationship between text and readers according to a historical paradigm. Accordingly faith-interpretations which emphasize the teaching of the text for the believers’ lives today, “what the text means,” can only be legitimate and plausible when they are the appropriation of “what the text meant,” as previously elucidated by an exegesis/analysis. According to this model, the text is conceived as having a meaning-content (or in the more sophisticated cases, a meaning-pattern) which is appropriated by being transferred in a modern container for contemporary readers (or which can be used as a pattern for present-day life). Thus, faith-interpretations and their concerns for “what the text means” are completely subordinated to the analyses/exegeses of the text; indeed, faith-interpretations and analyses/exegeses are not part of the same reading process.
From a semiotic perspective, this view of the reading process, and therefore this negative assessment of faith-interpretations, do not reflect in any way how people read and make sense of texts. As Bal puts it: “It is naïve to believe that we can analyze without interpreting, that we can work and live without lending meaning to the world around us” (1988b:136). From a semiotic perspective, the pragmatic dimension which is foregrounded in faith-interpretations is an integral part of any reading of biblical texts; without it readers would not perceive the text as meaningful, as semiotic theories and pragmatic philosophies have argued for a long time.
It is not the place for a detailed discussion of the close interrelation between semiotic theories and pragmatic philosophies. Allusions to a few of their main features will be enough to ground the rest of my semiotic comments on the nature, roles, and tasks of critical biblical studies.
The pragmatic dimension of the reading process through which readers allow the text to transform their lives (as the text “reads” their lives and as they bring to the text the concerns and interests related to their life-situations) is emphasized by the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce (on the close relationship between Peirce’s pragmatic semiotics and Greimas’s structural semiotics, see Parret). From a pragmatic (and neo-pragmatic) perspective, one “resist[s] the positivist dichotomy of facts and values in [one’s] explanations of human life and actions” (Anderson: 3–4). Thus, a reading process which would “not make cognitive and moral sense of the world and of human experience” even as it makes sense of the text, is simply inconceivable. In Peirce’s terminology, a reading is meaningful (there is “semiosis”) only insofar as a text as “sign” is read in terms of its dynamic interaction with its “object” (subject-matter) and with its “interpretant” (e.g. a reader in a concrete context). And Peirce insists: “this tri-relative influence [is not] in any way resolvable into actions between pairs” (Peirce: 484, quoted in Parrett: 34). In other words, without the dynamic interaction between readers (“interpretant”) and both the text (“sign”) and its subject-matter (its “object”), there is no meaningful reading.
When we apply Peirce’s pragmatic perspective to biblical scholarship, attempting to reduce critical biblical study to an analytical description of the interaction between the text (sign) and its subject-matter (its object)—as positivist exegeses pretend to do, by reducing interpretation to an analytical process—cannot result in a meaningful reading. But in view of the fact that these exegeses actually result into meaningful readings, we can infer that even in such interpretations the dynamic relationship with the interpretant/readers is present, though in an occulted way.
Reducing critical biblical studies to the first two dimensions—the analytical and the hermeneutical ones—does account for the readers and their lives (the “interpretant”) in the reading process. Yet, both these dimensions remain text-focused; the analytical dimension of reading is text-centered; and the hermeneutical fusion of horizons is “an ongoing dialogue with the text about its subject matter” (Schneiders: 177, my italics).
Critical biblical studies as interpretations which strive to make explicit their interpretive process also need to account for the pragmatic dimension of reading which emphasizes how the text itself (the “sign”) and its subject-matter (its “object”) affect readers in their life contexts. In fact critical biblical studies needs to account for faith-interpretations, simply because they are themselves interpretations, and that there is no meaningful interpretation of a text without a life-centered pragmatic dimension, through which the interpretant/readers read the text in terms of a contextual frame and its bridge categories and thus allow the text to “read” their lives.
The Overall Critical Goal of Critical Biblical Studies: Making Explicit the Reasons for Our Choices of Analytical, Hermeneutical, and Contextual Frames
In sum, from a semiotic perspective, a critical biblical study as “an interpretation of a biblical text which strives to make explicit the interpretive processes upon which its conclusions are based” needs to make explicit three main interpretive processes which it implicitly or explicitly involves. It needs to make explicit the critical categories which form the analytical frame of its study of the text; the hermeneutical categories which form the hermeneutical frame of its interpretive discourse about the text; and the bridge categories which form the contextual frame of this same interpretive discourse.
Furthermore, since the critical interpreters (and other readers) chose in their interpretive discourses to emphasize or give priority to one or another of these frames, they also need to explain this choice. Similarly, since the interpreters chose among several analytical frames, several hermeneutical frames, and several contextual frames, their critical biblical studies also need to make explicit the reasons for these choices. Such reasons are related to the specific pedagogical goals of each critical biblical study—and thus requires that the critic acknowledges that a critical biblical study is a didactic discourse—as well as to the critic’s ethical responsibility for the effect that the chosen interpretation has upon people.
The Didactic Goals of Critical Biblical Studies: A Semiotic Perspective
In What Sense is a Critical Biblical Study a Didactic Discourse?
The general definition of a critical biblical study as “an interpretation which strives to make explicit the interpretive processes upon which its conclusions are based” already expresses that such a study is not the direct presentation of an interpretation. Rather, it is a discourse about an interpretation; a discourse which clarifies how an interpretation took place. From a semiotic perspective, this shows that a critical biblical study is a didactic discourse, which by definition is a second level discourse.
For instance, think of the pedagogical explanations teachers give to their classes of technical scientific books. They speak about another discourse (its subject matter, the technical book). Yet, what they present is not simply a summary of the technical book; in order to catch the interest of the students and to be understood by them, they develop a second level discourse about the technical book (see Patte, 1981 and 1983a).
Keeping in mind this brief example, we can now ask: What does it mean that a critical biblical study is a “didactic discourse”? First, of course, that it is written so as to teach something to someone. As biblical scholars we are not writing commentaries or other studies for ourselves, but for a certain audience (students, ministers, colleagues).
Second, the subject matter of this didactic discourse is one or several existing interpretations of a given biblical text: usually, an interpretation with which the scholar identifies herself or himself and other interpretations which he or she rejects. These existing interpretations—first level interpretations—are in most instances “faith-interpretations” of the biblical text as Scripture by believers. This is clear in the cases of all the integrist, dogmatic, fundamentalist, or pietistic interpretations which many critical studies reject; I want to argue that this is also implicitly true of the interpretations which these critical studies promote.
Third, the second level discourse of a critical biblical study is characterized by the elucidation of the interpretive processes involved in each of the existing interpretations. This second level discourse is, of course, not content to repeat the conclusions of the interpretation it promotes or even to retrace the actual interpretive processes which led to these conclusions—often intuitive, insightful processes. Similarly, for the existing interpretations it rejects. Rather, a critical biblical study makes explicit interpretive processes which were implicit in the existing interpretations, and in so doing underscores the textual evidence which the interpretations either took into account or neglected.
In sum: a critical biblical study is a didactic discourse which bring to critical understanding faith-interpretations of biblical texts. Negatively, this means that a critical biblical study is NOT really the production of a new interpretation—as we have the tendency to believe.
The Didactic Goals of the Field of Critical Biblical Studies: Helping Interpreters to Bring to Critical Understanding Their Interpretations.
Since a specific critical biblical study is often the effort of a particular reader to bring to critical understanding his or her own (positive or negative) faith-interpretation, our role as critical biblical scholars and teachers includes teaching people how to gain this critical perspective upon their own interpretations. Of course, when we do so as individual scholars we always remain interpreters who strive to bring to understanding our own faith-interpretations; our own didactic discourse is also addressed to ourselves. But speaking of critical biblical studies as a field, we can envision our collective didactic goals. In brief, these include helping readers of the Bible (including ourselves) to recognize that they have made a choice among a plurality of analytical frames (with their critical categories), among a plurality of hermeneutical frames (with their hermeneutical categories), and among a plurality of contextual frames (with their bridge categories). This also means that the didactic goals of critical biblical studies as a field is not so much to bring to critical understanding specific faith-interpretations (although this necessarily takes place), but to provide the information, understanding, or skill that other interpreters need to assume responsibility for their interpretations.
Consulting the dictionary helps us clarify these didactic goals of critical biblical studies as a field. According to Webster’s most general definition, to “teach” “applies to any manner of imparting information or skill so that others may learn.” More specifically, still according to Webster’s, to “learn” has a threefold object; it is “to gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in” something which the learners do not know, or do not understand, or in which they do not have skill (my italics). Thus a teaching (i.e. what is taught) is necessarily new for learners. For instance, according to this definition, a teaching about a biblical text transforms either the learners’ knowledge of this text, or their understanding of this text, or their way of practicing their faith (a “skill”) according to it.
This means that critical biblical studies as didactic discourses can be distinguished among themselves according to the primary didactic goal they have, that is, the primary kind of transformation they seek to bring about in the learners: Is it an informational transformation of the learners’ “knowledge” of the biblical text? Or, is it a hermeneutical transformation of their “understanding” of this text? Or, is it a pragmatic transformation of their “skill” in applying this text to their lives?
Beyond Webster’s and in terms of the above discussion, it is clear that, because of their subject matter, any given critical biblical study (as a didactic discourse which bring to critical understanding existing faith-interpretations) necessarily pursues these three didactic goals, even though one is preponderant and the two others are subdued and often remain implicit.
This also means that critical biblical studies as a field needs to help interpreters acknowledge the choices they have made in these three dimensions of their interpretations. Thus, at times critical biblical studies needs to have primarily informational didactic goals (when interpreters are not aware that they chose among several possible critical categories and analytical frames), but in most instance it also needs to have primarily hermeneutical didactic goals (when interpreters are not aware that they chose among several possible hermeneutical categories and theological frames) and pragmatic didactic goals (regarding choices among several possible bridge categories and contextual frames).
In saying so, I grant that most critical biblical studies have first of all an informational didactic goal. They are primarily concerned to convey some kind of knowledge or information about the text—be it a “knowledge” about textual, historical, literary, structural, rhetorical, ideological, or social-scientific, ethical, religious and/or theological features of the text. As specific scholars’ critical biblical studies, they make explicit the kind of analytical code upon which they focus, as well as the critical method they use, be it a textual, historical, literary, structural, rhetorical, ideological, or social-scientific, feminist, political, thematic, history of religion, or anthropological critical method. As parts of the field, each of these critical biblical studies contributes to teach other interpreters about the range of possible critical categories and of possible analytical frames. Yet, even if communicating information about the text is the primary didactic purpose, when the subject-matter is a text which Christian or Jewish believers regard as Scripture, each given critical study cannot help but to have a hermeneutical and a pragmatic dimension. Then, in order to be truly critical—in order to make explicit its interpretive processes—this critical study has to account for the way in which this new knowledge about the text transforms the “understanding” of the scriptural text for believers (hermeneutical dimension) and the way it affects the believers’ life and the way it indirectly affects for better or worse other people around the believers (pragmatic dimension).
Yet from this semiotic perspective we have to acknowledge that, as a field, critical biblical studies must make sure that it also teaches interpreters, on the one hand, about the range of hermeneutical categories and theological frames, and on the other hand, about the range of bridge categories and contextual frames among which they made choices as they constructed their interpretations. This is a first challenge that semiotics addresses to critical biblical studies.
The Ethical Responsibility of Critical Biblical Studies: A Semiotic Perspective
By the very fact that this examination of critical biblical studies from a semiotic perspective brings to the fore the three kinds of choices biblical scholars have, it also puts us, biblical scholars, as well as all other interpreters of the Bible, under the moral obligation to assume responsibility for our interpretations.
Regarding each of our individual interpretations, the question “Why did we choose this interpretation rather than another one?” can no longer be avoided by pretending that it was demanded by the text and that we had no choice. As we have seen, our interpretation is framed by analytical codes and frames which we consciously or not chose among several possible analytical codes and frames; by hermeneutical concerns that reflect a choice among several possible hermeneutical frames; as well as by pragmatic interests that reflect a choice among several possible contextual frames. This means that assuming responsibility for our critical studies is not simply a matter of scholarly deontology (making sure that our studies are truly scholarly), but also a moral obligation toward all those believers and unbelievers who are affected by our critical biblical studies.
Semiotics calls for an ethics of biblical interpretation. Theoretically it emphasizes communication with others, and thus contributes to the recognition of the mysterious otherness of the Other (see Levinas). Semiotics also calls for ethical responsibility in biblical interpretation in very pragmatic and political ways. Interpretations of the Bible matter and deeply affect people (see Schüssler Fiorenza; Patte, 1995; Fewell and Phillips).
As I argued in Ethics of Biblical Interpretation, we critical biblical scholars cannot afford to ignore the interested character of our interpretations—that is both the pragmatic effects of these interpretations and their theological dimensions which closely tie them to the believers’ faith interpretations (Patte, 1995:73–107). Yet, in most instances we do, and at great cost. A practice of biblical scholarship which overlooks faith-interpretations and other “interested” interpretations unfortunately leads to the dramatic excesses of biblical interpretations which condone, and at times promote, anti-Semitism, racism, patriarchalism and sexism, colonialism, imperialism, apartheid, and/ or related injustices, oppressions, and horrors. I do not need to repeat these essential points here, even though we are always tempted to minimize them by pretending they merely concern “potential problems.” Be it enough to say that these problematic effects of our scholarly interpretations signal that our choice among alternative didactic goals for our critical biblical studies is far from being inconsequential.
Actually, we assume the responsibility for our interpretations as soon as we truly bring them to critical understanding, because when we are confronted by the range of possibilities among which we repeatedly made choices, a fundamentally ethical question cannot be avoided: “Why did I choose this interpretation rather than another one?” As we strive to address this question, we assume responsibility for our interpretation and cannot but take into account how it affects others. This attitude demands from us to stop, ponder, and marvel at the mystery of the Otherness of others in the different interpretations which they offer to us and which we have to assume are somehow legitimate and plausible.
In turn, it means that the ultimate didactic goal of critical biblical studies as a field is an ethical one. It is to teach interpreters of the Bible to assume responsibility for their interpretations. This is a second challenge—actually, an admonition and a charge—that semiotics addresses to critical biblical studies.
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Orientations of a Literary Semiotics Questioned by the Bible
Catholic University of Lyon, France
Thirty years later … It is rather difficult to evoke a past only thirty years old—its future is not yet apparent! The interests and paths of semiotic analysis as applied to the Bible have considerably evolved in thirty years, and research in that field continues to diversify. I can only speak in reference to the experimental work at the “Centre pour l’Analyse du Discours Religieux” (Center for Analysis of Religious Discourse, CADIR, Catholic University of Lyon, France), in collaboration with the research of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, of Semex (Semiotics and Exegesis) in the Netherlands, of ASTER (Semiotics Workshop on Religious Texts) in Canada, and also in collaboration with various groups of biblical research in France.
CADIR officially received its name in the Fall of 1975 while inaugurating the journal Sémiotique et Bible. It was less a founding than the outcome of a long gestation. The beginnings go back to 1968 (the first meeting in Versailles between francophone biblical scholars and A. J. Greimas and the members of his biblical workshop, among whom were M. de Certeau, J. P. Chabrol, J. Courtés, L. Martin, F. Rastier). In 1969 the conference of the French Association for the Study of the Bible (A.C.F.E.B.) had a broader audience for R. Barthes (Léon-Dufour, director). The biblical scholars felt the need for a fundamental reconsideration of the practice of exegesis, seemingly lagging behind the developments in general linguistics, literary studies, and “structural analysis of narrative” (the title of Communications 6, Barthes, 1966). Biblical scholars aware of new and dispersed research projects throughout France gathered together in ASTRUC (Association for Structural Analysis, named in homage to Astruc, biblical scholar of the 16th century), founded by P. Geoltrain in 1970. Other groups were instituted in Paris, Strasbourg, Lille, and Lyon. They met every semester until 1977 in order to compare their research.
The group from Lyon became a research team at the Department of Theology of the Catholic University of Lyon in 1971 under the leadership of J. Delorme and of J. Calloud. The group had its first public appearance in 1974 when it sponsored a three-week international conference in Annecy, attended by biblical scholars from Vanderbilt University (six professors and graduate students with D. Patte, J. Crenshaw, and G. Phillips), from Rome (R. Lack), from Canada (O. Genest), from Holland and from Switzerland (C. Galland), and, of course, from Paris (J. Escande, C. Turiot), with the participation of J. Geninasca. Among the research projects related to “structural analysis,” Greimas’s theory seemed to us the most stimulating for biblical study because of his interest in semantics, and also perhaps, because of its difficulty. We could not immediately apply his proposed theoretical models and they resisted our desire to learn them rapidly! Greimas would later incorporate the CADIR into a research unit of the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research), which he directed.
I. Research Developments
During the past twenty or thirty years, semiotics has changed tremendously so that those who saw its birth are incapable of recognizing it. Paralleling the work of Greimas and of his Seminar, research by the CADIR group has substantially evolved. Literary studies provide sufficient proof of the complexity of texts. Thus, one should not be surprised to find that semiotics had to consider texts from diverse and partial points of view. Interest has dramatically shifted from signifying systems towards the singularity of texts, or yet again from general problems towards signifying practices, beginning with that which is implied by all literary study—reading. And we have become increasingly aware of the difficulty in accounting for the operations we perform while reading. In sum, “semiotics, before being a method, is a way of thinking, an ethic that posits the necessity for rigor towards oneself and towards others” (Greimas, 1977:227).
If we simplify, we can distinguish two periods: the seventies and the eighties.
1. Beginnings and First Fruits
1.1 The seventies were years of apprenticeship and of first fruits (see Delorme and Geoltrain). Interest was principally focused on narrative, found frequently in the Bible. It is the most widely used form of human discourse in all cultures, the easiest to recognize as a unit constructed according to rules that are beyond sentences and their relations. The narrative schemas proposed by Greimas were enjoying a certain amount of success then. They were used to explore short narratives in order to identify narrative programs and 1979 anti-programs; the three tests (qualifying, principal, florifying); the four broad narrative phases (establishment of the will, of ability, main performance, and sanction); the roles of actants, the inverted contents between the beginning and the end; and so on. We quickly noticed that these models were not the key to narratives. They imitate signifying functions and become exploratory tools provided that they be used to question the text and that, conversely, they be questioned by the text. Although it is easily forgotten, they are only pertinent on the level of a general grammar of narrativity. Texts, including narratives, are not limited to this dimension (see the debate on Greimas’s models between Patte and Crossan in Crossan; Chatman: 115, following Barthes, tends to confuse the dimensions where characters, actors, and actants are respectively located; Greimas, 1983:49–66 on “actant, actors, and figures”).
As is well known, Greimas distinguished among several structuring levels of discourse: a) the elementary articulation of basic semantic categories according to the logic of the “semiotic square” (deep structures); b) the articulation of the contents as actants and as anthropomorphic functions (narrative structures); c) the properly discoursive articulation of actors (or of semantic entities such as liberty, science, etc.) in a figurative trajectory in time or space (discoursive structures). This theoretical representation limited the range of application of narrative models. We could not overlook either the concrete manifestation of an oral narrative (the figurative level of characters, of plot, space, and time) or the semantic investment taking place underneath the differences, the relations and oppositions among the obvious surface representations of the text. The first published works of non-biblical scholars (members of the biblical working group of Greimas’s Seminar) on gospel narratives show that the identification of actants and functions is nothing but one step in research aimed at elucidating the overall articulation of meaning in a given text (Marin, 1971a; Chabrol-Marin, 1971, 1974). The first publication by a biblical scholar—a book introducing a theory and an analytical method for the study of gospel narrative (Calloud, 1973)—presented, in addition to narrative structures, the structuration of semantic contents undergirding characters, places, and the broad signifiers of the word and of the body (see also Galland; Escande; Geoltrain, 1970, 1974). It was the method of our group to work with texts such as the book of Revelation, which is not a narrative, but in which narrativity (the syntax of operations and transformations) cannot be analyzed without examining the figurative representations of the characters (Calloud, Delorme, and Duplantier), or with narratives in which narrativity is insufficient for the realization of the virtual meanings that generate diverging interpretations because of the interrelationship of several figurative and semantic fields (Calloud, Combet, and Delorme).
Our analytical practice was soon organized around the distinction between narrative and discoursive components. It seemed convenient to start with narrative analysis which allows a first overview of the interaction between narrated situations and transformations. Then came the discoursive analysis (at least in our publications, since research constantly shifts from one dimension to the next) applied to qualifications and transformations of characters, to characteristics and changes that affect time and space; the goal was to grasp the thematic differences and oppositions that are thereby manifested. In order to summarize the emerging results, from time to time during the analysis and at the end, we risked putting them in a “square.” This was the method of CADIR in the research published under the name “Groupe d’Entrevernes” (1977). This research can be compared to that of D. Patte (1976a, 1976b, 1978) that distinguished the surface structures with the deep structures and among those the narrative structures (following Greimas) and the mythical structures (according to Levi-Strauss’s method applied to the figurative and deep contents). O. Genest (1978) was inspired rather by Barthes (1966) to distinguish the levels of function, action, and narration in the Passion narrative. In order to challenge itself, CADIR often called upon J. Geninasca whose interest in the “discourse” and the analysis of actors and the figurative trajectory stimulated us even as it convinced us of the progress still left to be accomplished (Geninasca, 1977, to be compared to other studies by the Groupe d’Entrevenes, 1977).
1.2 Retrospectively, it seems that at that time the published studies of biblical texts were not up to par with the theoretical ambitions. Nevertheless, we must recognize that the tools were being tuned for more refined analyses of texts. We thought through the issues concerning the semantic implications of the way in which a text is divided into “sequences” (sets of units) and into discoursive units either to be studied in themselves or, on the contrary, to be studied as “part of” a larger whole (Delorme, 1979). The definition of narrative and discoursive levels allows us to go beyond the empirical distinction between “narrative” and “discourse.” The narrative cannot be reduced to “narrativity.” Non-narrative discourses do not escape narrative syntax of transformations. Both narratives and discourses involve a figurative trajectory the structure of which must be carefully analyzed. The notions of “character” and of “plot” play a role on both of these levels and must be deconstructed. It is possible to compare texts of different literary forms. Values such as love and freedom may belong to a figurative trajectory just as well as characters; and a scientific discourse can present the transformations of knowledge in a skillful plot on a par with the best novels (Greimas, 1976; Greimas, Landowski, et. al.).
Decisive progress was made when two levels of transformation in the narrative were distinguished. Transformations that result from exterior actions (the pragmatic dimension) are usually accompanied by others that deal with the knowledge that the actors have or do not have about what is going on, about what they are, and what they do (the cognitive dimension). The cognitive dimensions are especially manifested when it is a matter of convincing an actor to act, and when afterward the value of the action is assessed in order to be either praised or rebuked. But these narrative functions can give rise to autonomous discoursive forms that have nothing to do with the narrative, such as in a persuasive discourse, an apology, or a reprimand. Semiotics meets rhetoric here, but with tools that force one to look more closely at the textual data. Thus, it was necessary to provide more precise definition of the modalities of the informative and of the interpretive knowing, of persuasion, of veridiction, and of believing, and the modalities of the necessary and the contingent, of being and seeming, true and false (Calloud, 1978a; Delorme, 1982; Greimas, 1983:67–134; Geninasca, 1983; Patte, 1983a, 1983b). These modalities are found in the most diverse texts and provide a ground for comparing texts.
With these achievements and in spite of critics accusing structural analysis of replacing the subject by anonymous structures, a semiotics of the subject and of intersubjectivity was being developed (Coquet, 1984–86). How does a subject establish itself and realize itself in relation to others? How does it go from duty or from knowledge to will, from knowledge to power? How do its qualifications change during a dialogue? Dialogue and communication are not a simple exchange of words but reciprocal actions of subjects who, invested with different competencies, are mutually transformed. Conflicts of interpretation can oppose them to one another; and then the text, through which they are interrelated, interprets and raises questions about the scale of values these subjects as interpreters used.
1.3 It is remarkable that during this whole period the parables appeared as privileged places of analysis and thought (Chabrol and Marin, 1974:93–192; Funk, esp. 234–35; Crossan, esp. the articles of Via, Crossan, Patte, and the debates among them; Patte, 1976b:71–178; Stiker, Escande, et. al.). It was not enough to apply the tools of narrative grammar to them. As narratives of metaphorical fiction set in a broader narrative, they provoke a confrontation between semiotics and hermeneutics and are shown to be powerful semantic operators, as, for example, the two parables of the sower and of the murderous tenants that establish and bring out the isotopies undergirding the entire book of Mark (Almeida, 1978). In these narratives with two levels, the transformations of the actors and of the semantic values, the interpretive operations that are accomplished within the narratives, and those that are left to the hearer, are all more significant than the story itself—a mere anecdote. It was necessary to confront the parables with texts such as miracle narratives and to compare their respective interpretative roles in the gospel narrative as a whole (Groupe d’Entrevernes, 1977: chap. V). As another sign of broadening perspectives, we can point out the growing interest in the epistolary genre (Semiotics and the Bible 11  7–25 [on Philemon]; Calloud, 1980; Calloud and Genuyt, 1982) and also the exploration of eminently biblical practices such as the commentary and the quotation (Panier, 1978 and 1984; Almeida, 1979).
1.4 Towards the end of the seventies, it seemed that greimassian semiotics had acquired distinctive traits and could be presented as a whole. The wellknown dictionary of semiotics evaluated theoretical research and became the benchmark for semiotics (Greimas and Courtés, 1979; English translation 1982). The Groupe d’Entrevernes (1979) proposed a pedagogical guide for the analysis of texts, whether biblical or not; this book reflected the practice of CADIR, was translated into several languages, and was broadly used.
2. The Turning Point of the Eighties
2.1 Many believed that the “dictionary” presented a body of concepts carefully thought through and interdefined; and that it was the “standard theory.” It was less noticed that the dictionary pointed to many unsolved problems. Likewise, many referred to a “Paris school of semiotics” (Coquet, 1982). But the second volume of the dictionary would soon give the impression of a dispersion resulting from divergent interests (Greimas and Courtés, 1986). Actually, the eighties were marked by important changes. The aim of semiotics was sufficiently established to accept new interrogations. It was no longer enough to distinguish between being and doing, between utterances of state and utterances of action. It was necessary to deal with the multiple figures of becoming within the texts, as well as the aspectualization of time and space according to the punctual or the continuous, the accomplished or the unaccomplished (compare the articles “Aspectualization” and “Continuous” in Greimas and Courtés, 1979 and 1986; Greimas, 1987c). The distinction between pragmatic and cognitive was shown to be too hasty, so it was necessary to study the modes of inscribing passions and emotions in the discourse and to describe the figures of surprise and anger, of love, jealousy and hatred. Theory had to make room for the attractions and repulsions that often precede, underlie, or challenge the positive or negative value judgments as well as the value systems expressed in a text (Geninasca, 1983: Greimas and Fontanille). More profoundly, we were getting to the relation, mostly unconscious, between language and the body, as well as the heart-rending situation of a talking subject confronted with that which cannot be said.
These advances and these new questions are the signs that interest has shifted from privileging the exploration of abstract structures to exploring the “surface” of texts, or, in other words, to the representations offered of people, of things, and of the world as they are transcribed in discourse. It is the “figurative” dimension of texts, turned towards what they are speaking of—something which remains necessarily outside the texts and outside of language. This dimension was never completely forgotten, for the simple reason that deep and narrative structures cannot be identified without observing what is manifested on the surface. But such observation always risks being too quick, in haste to extract some major oppositions and to construct a structural model deemed capable of elucidating the in-depth organization of the text. The resistance of the surface led to reflections about figuration and its signifying capabilities.
Henceforth, it was impossible to continue avoiding the long ignored but decisive question of enunciation. There can be no discourse without a subject who constructs and articulates it. Therefore, there can be no discoursive analysis without an examination of the enunciating subject. It is relatively simple to analyze how texts represent and stage dialogues or discourses addressed to an audience (for example, Jesus’ parables, the speeches of Acts). But how does one reach what holds together the text that presents these exchanges and discourses? A great step was taken when Greimas defined enunciation by “la mise en discours” (“setting into discourse”). Every text must be approached as an enunciated discourse; one approaches the text in very different ways when the focus is on the result of the process of enunciation or on the process of enunciation, the “setting into discourse.” Analysis deconstructs the text in order to discover its construction and articulations, or, in other words, in order to elucidate the discoursive operations of the enunciation to which the text points and that imply a speaking subject. In saying this, we are not reverting to issues concerning the author and circumstances of the production of the text. For the text detaches itself from these issues and can be read from a great temporal and cultural distance from its origins. This shows that the operations which articulate and make significant all of its elements remain available within it and are ready to be realized by the act of reading.
2.2 At this turning point of semiotic research, concerns for the Bible and certain poetic texts studied with literary experts were determinative for CADIR. We could no longer begin with narrative analysis. Even in the case of a narrative, the examination of figures of actions, of actors, and of their relations often contradicted the conclusions of an analysis performed by applying a syntactic narrative model too rapidly to the text. It appeared, for example, that in the so-called “healing narratives,” healing was not the main transformation and that its value changed according to its position among the other figures of the text (Delorme, 1985b; La foi et le miracle. Propositions de modèle narratif pour les récits de miracles et évangiles Panier, 1985). More and more attention was to be given to the discoursive level, or, in other words, more concretely to figurative trajectories, whether it were in narratives, that of characters, or, in the epistles, that of apparently more abstract values, such as light and truth, Law and Gospel, justice and peace. The three organizational levels determined by Greimas remained a useful warning against confusion but did not risk any longer being mistaken for an analytic procedure. It was not important to imagine signification as a process of complexification growing from simple semantic categories, as if meaning resulted on the surface from a series of conversions from one level to the next. It was necessary to rethink everything starting from the enunciation. Enunciation strangely activates the resources of language, the building blocks of a conscious and unconscious memory of the discourses from a specific context and culture, and the structures involved in discoursive performances, both individual and collective. A suggestion by J. Calloud made it possible not to forget, during the analysis of a text, that discourse bonds together the world it refers to, the language that it activates, and the human subject without whom there would be no discourse (Delorme, 1988b). A discourse refers to the experience we have of the outside world, of life, of others and of self, since we speak of it. But we would not speak of it if we did not have the experience of language and of speech. Most importantly, this is human speech; in what is said of the world through its “being set into discourse,” something of humanity seeks to speak itself.
We were therefore confronted with the question of speech, a question constantly asked but often repressed during the evolution of semiotics. Biblical scholars could not avoid it while working on a book in which God is represented as a speaking being, a book read according to an ancient tradition as the “Word of God” (la Parole de Dieu). Semiotics cannot decide this point. Nor should critical exegesis. But the modalities of biblical enunciation should be scrutinized. By illustrating in many ways the act of speaking and of hearing, the Bible constructs various enunciative devices from which it is possible to investigate how speech (la parole) can occur through writing and reading (Delorme, 1993). Texts from the New Testament that comment on their own writing regard it as the birth of a “child of speech” (parole; Panier, 1993). And the problem of the inspiration of Scripture can be approached in a new light from the treatment of figures in texts such as 2 Peter and the narrative of the Transfiguration (Martin, 1996). CADIR’s setting in Lyon and the partnership with specialists in poetics, psychoanalysis, and philosophy has shaken the practice of semiotics, or, rather, stimulated it through collective research on structures of interhuman relations and of the desiring and speaking subject (Cusin; Gelas).
II. Research Options and Orientations
This rapid survey of research shows the options and orientations toward certain perennial fundamental questions which semiotics, to its credit, raises once again in its own way. For example: What is discourse? What is signification? Why and how are great texts being read and re-read? What happens to speech when it seems to disappear into the silence of writing? As long as the Bible is read, these questions will always remain.
1. Text, Discourse, and Meaning
From Text to Discourse. Greimas was interested in narrative from the perspective of semantic discourse. Contrary to appearances, signification does not lie in the meaning of words which we only need to learn how to place in sentences; rather, words maintain the memory of their usage in the discourses of a society. Dictionaries classify these usages. Then, the process of signification and its rules must be clarified at the level of a discourse and its organization. That is what the narrative organizational models elaborated by Greimas demonstrated starting from the narrative, which is clearly presented as a semantic organization on a larger scale than the sentences that compose it.
What is discourse? This term is not taken here in the usual meaning of “political discourse” or “religious discourse,” or as an oral presentation, or “discourse” in opposition to “narrative.” Discourse is defined as “a self-contained unit of signification” (Greimas and Courtés, 1979:102; Geninasca, 1987a:48f.), or, in other words, as an articulated and oriented unit that calls for overall comprehension.
Materially, a text is an object among others, found on a library shelf or on a desk between a phone and a computer, or a pipe and an ashtray. It exists as a text, i.e. as a signifying object, only when it is read (or, in the case of an oral text, when it is uttered and heard; but because of our interest in the Bible we focus on the written text). Reading is transforming the letter of the text into a self-contained unit of signification, i.e. a discourse. A discourse is not manifested in and of itself. Only the “letter” is visible, drawn on the page; as Greimas suggests, the letter of the text is the top of an iceberg. The discourse is the hidden mass below the water.
The letter (of the text) provokes the reading process aimed at “comprehending” (and “understanding”), that is, at “getting hold” of the text as discourse. It is not sufficient to identify the elements (words, phrases), it is necessary to recognize the relation that makes them signify with each other in the text as a whole. The writer reads what she writes in order to constitute her discourse. And the reader, if he wants to read this text and not simply use it or substitute another, must formulate proposals for its overall organization and deconstruct them in order to validate or invalidate these proposals according to the evidence offered by the letter. Semiotic analysis makes it possible to construe the operations that enable one to construct a text as a discourse.
From Signs to Signification. In French we often speak of the sens (“meaning”) of a word or a sentence, and also of the sens (“direction”) of a road or traffic. In the first case, we are talking about a set, established, or fixed, meaning; in the second case, about a dynamic and oriented process. “Signification” first designates an action or a dynamic process by which meaning is accomplished or apprehended. But we can also speak of “a signification” in a static way as the “meaning” resulting from this process. When we deal with a literary text, it becomes difficult to specify its meaning or signification as if we could fix them. Attempting to do so brings the reading process to a halt, but it does not stop the process of signification. On the one hand, this meaning could be expressed in different but more or less equal ways, and on the other hand, the text remains available for other reading acts, i.e. for other activations of signification.
The dynamism of signification is intuitively perceived when, to make a sentence understood, we transpose it into another sentence or when we translate it into another language. We then feel a moment of uncertainty or of suspension of meaning: yet signification does not end; on the contrary, it intensifies as if it was curling on itself in order to jump higher. This is what led Greimas to say that meaning is the translation of meaning.
This transitive conception of meaning is essential to discoursive semantics and suits perfectly the study of literary and biblical texts. It is difficult to account for the signification of a poem or an entire book. The perceived meaning of words, the contextualized and partial signification of an expression or a paragraph are transformed by the dynamism of the discourse orienting the significations in its own way. Remember what Paul did with a vocabulary that he had not created, such as dikaiosunē or eleutheria. While maintaining traces of their uses elsewhere, without which they could not be identified, words are taken in charge by contexts that open them up to new possibilities. Discourse does not add them; instead it decomposes them in order to extract what is needed for its overall signification, just as the millstone grinds the grain to produce flour for bread. It is as if discourse was digging underneath words in order to extract from them what is of interest to it and in order to form new significant units from the context. The literary phenomenon forces the deconstruction of the notion of sign as F. de Saussure defined it, the correspondence of a material signifier and a mental signified. This definition can more or less be enough for words as they are classified in dictionaries. At this level, they are constituted signs, to which agreed meanings are attached. But discourse can transform them. Literary texts make them produce unprecedented significations that cannot be found in any dictionary.
Literary semiotics cannot be content with a semiology that would seek to identify the signs of a culture in order to classify them, or to establish lexical and semantic fields, or to list their different functions and codes. For discourse deconstructs such signs in the process of producing an overall signification. In this perspective, the signified is not attached to the signifier and the literary text broadens the gap between the two. Signification is deferred but not exhausted when reading stops. Signification remains dormant until the next reading. Strong texts are recognizable by the resistance they offer to interpretations which would delimit them. They incite a quest that remains frustrated when the book is closed. The reader is pushed in the direction opened up by the text and is led to speak or write about it. The Bible is living proof of this by its ever different readings, translations, and commentaries.
Oriented Signification and Reading. Without leading to a single “meaning” that would be complete and final, this openness of signification does not legitimize just any interpretation. The semantic transformation that occurs through discourse is oriented, as is indicated in a narrative by the trajectory of characters or, in a didactic text, by the trajectory of the argumentation. This orientation is supported by the discoursive isotopies. What runs up and down the text are not “ideas,” but power lines along which semantic values freed by the deconstruction of the pre-existing signs assemble in order to constitute a specific framework of meaning, comparable to the musical staves (the lines on the printed page of music) that enable us to recognize the pitch, harmonies, and modulations of a composition. This framework is not the formulation of a ready-to-use message. It sets the orientation of signification by preventing meaning from escaping in all directions.
The orientation of discourse is its intentionality. It is not a question of authorial intention (which is not excluded but must be confronted with the orientation of the text). When speaking of the intention of the work, which is distinguished from the intention of the author and of the reader, and which we recognize from strategies directed to the reader, some studies of texts run the risk of limiting the intention of the text to an idea of intentional communication. But the signifying capacities of the figures of a text and the work of signification can escape consciousness. We prefer to speak of intentionality or of tension (in latin in-tendere, “to tend towards”) between the virtual state of discourse represented by the text-object and its actualization through reading. This actualization can bring forward various readings which are not arbitrary, if we strive to respect “the rules of the game that are supposed to guarantee the effective presence of the text and allow the reader to reinvent the text and not see him or herself in it” (Greimas, 1977:228). Such presence of the text can be felt when it resists the will and power of the reader during that original interaction, the process of reading. One should not confuse (dynamic) intentionality with single meaning (static); conversely one should not confuse the plurality of readings (they can be numerous) with plurality of meaning (several interpretations can go in the directions of the oriented signification of a text), nor with polysemy (or polyvalence of those linguistic expressions and figures that a discourse may attempt to reduce or use for its purpose).
2. Discourse Figurativity
Texts are distinguished by the special way in which they put into play the world, human beings, space, and time. Because texts refer to things, to beings, to behaviors which are parts of our common experience or which belong to the shared knowledge of culture, we often lack awareness of them, as if language was transparent and made us forget that it is between us and “reality.” In other cases, it happens that we treat texts as “images,” that is, as means to express ideas or, better, a thematic, which is supposedly more important. In fact, discourse has the capacity to draw in to itself what is exterior to it in order to incorporate it in the process of signification. Its representations of the outside world become discoursive figures of the content. The notion of “figure” does not correspond to the “figurative sense” of a word or expression by contrast with its “proper meaning,” nor to the “figures” (or “tropes”) inventoried by rhetoric. As a first approximation, we could apply to discourse the distinction that is made between “figurative” painting and “abstract” painting. But actually, there are no paintings without reference to the sense perception of space, if only for lines and colors, and there is no abstract discourse that would cut loose all relations to the outside world and the body. Philosophers themselves reflect on life and resort to metaphors drawn from sense perception. Inversely, “figurative” paintings cannot be mistaken for what they represent: the play of forms and colors transforms the most banal scene into an object of aesthetic contemplation. In the same way, the most “referential” discourse (e.g. a geography book) cannot reproduce the world as it is, but gives it a “discoursive” mode of existence, organized and meaningful, that it does not have naturally.
It is necessary for discourse to remain attached to the world (physical and psychological), but discourse detaches itself from the world in order to create another world, interior to the text (e.g. Mark’s Galilee) and presenting two sides. One side is turned towards the exterior (the referential or representative side), allowing recognition of what is told and its context. The other side is turned towards the discourse itself and towards the operation that is accomplished by the fact of speaking. In the same way that a painting imposes itself by the form of the lines and colors, so a discourse exists by the form that connects all its elements and makes them signify through their interrelations in the text and not through the way they exist in “reality.”
The Figurative and the Thematic. Interest in the figurative dimension arose because of the thematic content that it enables to construct. The danger of linking the figurative and the thematic with the signifier and with the signified (according to the saussurian definition of the sign) was not always avoided, as if representations of the world covered more general and abstract investments. Thus certain studies identify, for example, the theme of escape in the figure of a departure to a far-away land (spatial evasion), as well as in the figure of day-dreaming about the past (temporal evasion). Others find the worship theme in the figures of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. This corresponds too much to the practice (learned in high school) of identifying in a text its “themes” or “key ideas” (then, why not its “message,” “ideology,” “theology”) on the basis of “key words” or of specific emphases. This is a pedagogical and referential conception of signification that limits the scope of the “figurative.” It falls back into a semiotics of signs that would classify figurative trajectories under more abstract categories, just as plants are classified according to genre and species, or folkloric “motifs” according to general categories. But figures do not exist as such in nature or in dictionaries; they exist only in the work of the discourse.
The thematic level is where the reader is when he or she attempts to progress towards a hypothesis concerning a coherent reading of a text by asking himself or herself: where am I? what is this about? It is never easy to state this at first. We can call on codes suggested by the knowledge that we have of the represented world or of the culture of a society, for example, the socio-religious code that sets the differences between a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. But in the text, these characters are placed in the presence of a half-dead unknown individual, and their behaviors (i.e. their figurative trajectories) define them in completely different ways than do the given codes. The thematic does not develop as an idea would through its illustrations; it runs in parallel to the figures and formulates all sorts of hypotheses about the orientation of the text that must be verified once we are back on the figurative level. The figures can interfere with, join with, and be opposed to each other in such a way that they suggest more than what we could clearly express about them because they have the power to reach the reader more deeply than on the level of her conscious knowledge.
Figures, the World, and the Subject. Figures deal with the complex relationships that a human being has with the world and time, with society and others, and with him/herself and his or her body. These relationships structure human being, and figures are not just a reflection of it. Figures transpose a relationship with reality that calls for speech while resisting language. For words are not things, and this separation establishes both the possibility of speaking of them and the impossibility of languages coinciding with them. The same must be said of the relationship a human being has with him/ herself.
Figures, through their referential side, refer back to the world of human experience (both exterior and interior), to the point that they at times produce what Barthes called “effet de réel” (“reality-effect”) and Pierce an “icon.” But figures do not reproduce this world. Figures conform it to the internal world of the text (e.g. the connections between inhabited places, deserts, sea, and mountain in Mark) that should never be mistaken for the “real” world. Semiotics is not equipped to say to what extent a given representation is verisimilar or not, but it can help find what is said through figures. Fortunately, the represented world (e.g. in the parable of the master and his servants, or Jesus sitting on the donkey and the colt in Matt 21:7) discloses certain schematizations and deformations that turn the reader away from the anecdote towards something else. Similarly, behind ways of story-telling that deceive the historian, what is at stake is a relationship of human beings to time and to the process of becoming—a relationship that is both necessary and difficult to understand. When we are dealing with what is happening to a person, texts do not merely echo human emotions, likes and dislikes, because in such cases language has to deal with what is felt by the body (thymic feelings), indistinct and continuous: how do we talk about this with words that fragment, exteriorize, and feel nothing? Figures reveal the thorn in our fleshy confrontation with reality. Figures become signifiers in the process of losing the signified which challenge the signifiers which have already been inscribed in our memory and body by our experience.
The link between the figurative and the thematic link is situated on the level of the knowledge of the attentive reader. To this link we must associate (and even substitute) a link between what we will call the figurative and the figural (Geninasca, 1985:210–13; Martin, 1996:140–50). What we mean here is that the figure loses all or part of its ability to represent a reality exterior to the text in order to focus on the human subject who speaks or to whom the words are spoken. We will see examples of this in the Bible. What is spoken of and what belongs to the world exterior to language is inscribed as a figure in the discourse by utilizing the resources of language within its limits, for words cannot replace beings and things, and the speaker cannot put himself or herself into words. Discourse manages to strip the figurative of what could lead to its inappropriate identification with the reality evoked. In this way the figurative is put into a “figural” relation to the subject of speech (Panier, 1993; Calloud, 1993). The actual drinking water from Jacob’s well slowly loses its character as “real” water to become the vehicle of a spoken word to be heard in spite of everything that separates a Jew from a Samaritan (Calloud and Genuyt, 1987–89, II:81–90). The body of Jesus “metamorphosed” on the mountain escapes the limits of what is ordinarily visible—then disappears under the cloud’s shadow so that the call to listen may be heard (Martin, 1996:155–59, 173–75). The place of the subject summoned is not obvious. It can be represented by a character in the text, but, on the level of its writing, this place remains open as far as readers are concerned. It is indicated by the way figures and figurative trajectories are inscribed one in relation to the other, and by the way they manage a certain point of view from which it is possible to link them together, as a painting indicates the perspective from which it should be viewed. The figurativity of the discourse is inseparable from the enunciation to which it points.
2.3. Figures of the Object and of the Subject in the Bible
2.3.1 Would the Bible still be read if it was concerned to express itself in clearly defined concepts? It is by its abundant figurativity that the Bible continues to challenge its readers to search for meaning. Models of analysis and interpretation through which we must go in order to study it always leave enough aside to stimulate more study. Let us take, for example, the question of the subject, which is constantly raised if we want to read with care: Who does what? Who is who? How is the identity of a subject clarified and transformed in a text? The question was first formulated in terms of narrative grammar in the following form: What object for what subject? In fact, narratives often set a character in search of something good that is lacking or lost, representing something of value, and therefore desirable (Greimas, 1983:19–48 on “objects of value”). In this perspective, the subject is defined by the value of the object. But this value can be submitted to various estimations, spontaneous or reflective, according to the characters and the moments of action. The question can be argued in dialogues to the point where the relation “subject-object” depends on the network of relations established among subjects; the way in which this network of relations is transformed into figures must be carefully observed. Thus, in biblical texts that seem oriented towards the acquisition or the reception of a certain good, the quality of intersubjective relations takes on more importance than the desired object. This object, when obtained, changes value. A healing, for example, does not merely fulfill a desire, but attests to the transformation of the subjects during their meeting, and to the truth of the words they exchanged between them (e.g. Mark 5:25–34; 10:46–52).
These examples also show that the emergence of a new subject in a meeting between two can imply a third party. The place of the third party can be expected, just as when Jesus sends the leper to the priest after the healing (Mark 1:40–45) or before (Luke 17:12–19). There is a way of breaking a dual relation where the desire of each echoes the desire of the other: Jesus wants the accomplishment of the other’s desire, but does the other want what Jesus desires? The test occurs with reference to the third party, and it can fail, as when the healed leper does not follow through on Jesus’ wishes (Mark 1:43–44), and it is finally Jesus who no longer has the power to do what he had planned (compare vv. 38 and 45; see Delorme, 1991a:27–32). The place of the absent third party is shown in different ways, e.g. by speech: “Your faith has saved you.” This is not a general declaration on the power of faith; it can only be said at the end of a dialogue in which each of the partners is truly situated in relation to the other. So, as one seeks in the other a power that he attributes to the other, the latter, Jesus, abandons this power and puts it on the account of the “faith” of the first. The paradoxical power of “faith” that he recognizes in a person without power projects back to the third party who is not represented in the narrative but implied both through the sick person in the immensity of his desire, and through Jesus in the words he utters. In Mark 5:29 and 30, the two simultaneous events that occur to the woman and to Jesus already indicate the intervention of the absent third party (Delorme, 1991a:69–71, 74–77). Faith, mentioned here, corresponds to an opening up of the relation between two people so that it takes place in a relation among three.
2.3.2 In the construction of the subject, the desired and communicated object loses some of its importance while the interrelation of the subjects, their dialogue, their agreements and disagreements become more important. It sometimes happens that the object completely disappears to make room for what is generated from speech given and received. Thus, the actual drinking water, which brings together Jesus and the Samaritan woman, disappears from the narrative when the dialogue is truly focused upon the absent husband. The woman ends up forgetting her water jug by the well. Another lack of fulfillment is revealed during the meeting, and there is no identifiable object to fulfil it. Goods are often desired and missed, promised and not obtained, or, on the contrary, found without being sought. As with many travels and journeys in the Bible (Calloud, 1985–1986), the quest fails and changes orientation because a qualitatively different desire may have risen due to a necessary loss. It is no longer a matter of fixing a deficiency, but of revealing an insufficiency of a different order, of calling to a different way of being that goes beyond the possession of goods or the acquisition of values. This call deepens during a meeting in which the images that each might have of oneself and of the other disappear. The other is disturbing. So each insight tends to avoid or exclude the other, or to reduce the other to some resemblance with himself. To recognize in the other what is irreducible to the same or similar presupposes that in this relation a place is left for the Other as other, who simultaneously fascinates and terrifies. We would need to reconsider from this perspective the “messianic secret” in Mark.
Can semiotics speak of the place of the Other in texts? Is this not the language of theology? No, because the point is to mark a place in the structure of a relationship of subject to subject as it is figuratively represented in the texts. The place of the Other is not necessarily that of God, of whom the Bible gives many different representations which belong to various figures and roles. The same is true, at the actantial level, of the role of the sender. Is this concept ideological or theological, as some have suspected? It is true that both the sender and the biblical God are the source of an action to be performed, or appear at the end of the process when the action is evaluated. Yet the role of sender was first elaborated from texts that were supposed to represent a closed universe of values, in which all loss must be compensated and all shortcomings repaired, as prescribed by a master power over the choices of the subjects and their sanctions. While some biblical texts and some characters in them might conceive religion on this model, the Bible as a whole refuses it. It awaits the unexpected from God and the irreducible wound of sin; it defines salvation by its opposite, a loss (“For those who want to save their lives will lose it”), but a loss consented to in a relationship of alterity (“Those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it” [Mark 8:35 NRSV]). The law is preceded by a revelation and a liberation that are the foundation for a covenant. An unpredictable freedom calls forth a fragile freedom delivered from the closed systems where it might be tempted to seek refuge. The figures of sanction are finally inscribed in the figure of a face-to-face encounter. Instead of objects or values, words are exchanged, words which create a relation in which a subject can be born. The figures of dependency are surpassed by those of filiation and fraternity (Panier, 1991:311–36, 363–68).
Here again figurativity prevents the immediate application of an abstract actantial model. It is not the actantial syntax that helps to identify the place of the Other, but this syntax is called forth by the structure of the figures of the relation among subjects in texts that, also outside of the Bible, resist the model of a subject realized by the liquidation of its needs and the fulfillment of its desires. A subject is established in relation to another, recognized as other, beyond the projected images and expectancies. The desired object or the objectivized desire intervenes as a starting point or a temporary support, but the source of desire is deeper and secret. The place of the Other is indicated in the fact that the other always escapes the image, the knowledge, and the tendencies that bring it back to the same and to itself: there is something other in the Other. Semiotics here confirms the interests of psychoanalytical anthropology about the desiring and speaking subject. This should not be surprising since these two fields are based on the analysis of language, and the growing child reaches his or her humanity and is structured as a subject by language. It is not surprising either that these relations of exchange of objects among figurative subjects in texts follow the sociological models for the structures of the market or the gift and counter-gift, and elucidate the difference between what can and what cannot be given or exchanged (Geninasca, 1979:91–98).
2.4. Figures of Speech
2.4.1 From the start, semiotics was challenged by the parables. They accompanied all the steps of research, and at each step there was still more to explore. We could narrate the history of semiotics by relating the development of research dedicated to parables. This is due to the complexity and the expressive power of their figurativity. The parabolic narrative builds a first dimension of signification (told narrative) that aims towards a second dimension. The two dimensions are not those of the figurative and the thematic, for the narrative is already the locus of a thematic manipulation of figures, and the second dimension, when it is clarified, is still figurative (cf. Matt 13:47–48 and 49–50; Mark 4:3–9 and 14–20). The figures of the first dimension are oriented towards a signification that goes beyond what they represent—a signification that opens on the second dimension without losing its links to the figures of the first dimension. When the parabolic narrative is followed by an “explanation,” the explanation does not make explicit what the narrative would only hint at; rather, it renews the “speaking in parables” by giving it another figurative form. There are no strict equivalencies between the figures of the two dimensions. They are not reduced into each other because the figures of the word in Mark 4:14–20 retain something of the figures of the grain in Mark 4:3–9; the word requires deep soil, it can be “choked” by cupidity, and it “bears fruit.” This word is only talked about in a metaphoric mode and nothing regarding its contents is told. When the second dimension is reduced to the formula “the kingdom of God is like,” it is no less figurative and metaphoric, whereas the parabolic narrative underscores both its familiar and paradoxical side.
We can observe in the parables a phenomenon typical of the ways in which discourse deals with figures. More or less clearly, according to the texts, the concrete representations that constitute the referential side of figures are deformed, disfigured. “The farmer who went to sow” (Mark 4:3): it could be a usual sowing scene if things did not unfold in a strange manner (in spite of the efforts of the commentators to render the scene verisimilar). The deformation amplifies the call: “Listen” (vv. 3 and 9) and what happens to speech (vv. 14–20) reinforces the call: “Pay attention to what you hear” (v. 24). The figures are not turned towards certain ideas which should be remembered, but towards the act of listening to a word/speech the definition of which cannot be comprehended; a word/speech speaks by itself. To the auditor (and the reader) these figures are closely connected with the experience they have of a voice that catches their attention and warns them of another person’s desire. This call that finds or does not find a listener is present before any strategy of communication of a knowledge or of teaching. This is what happens when a parable intervenes in a debate around well-established social values, such as the difference between “righteous” and “sinners” in Luke 15: these values are challenged without having to be redefined in terms of morality or theology, simply by what is to be heard in three parables of loss and rediscovery.
2.4.2 The discoursive treatment of figures in parables is exemplary of what happens in the most diverse biblical texts (prophetic oracles, proverbs, wisdom teachings, psalms). Introductions which claim to state their “theology” give the illusion that it is enough to be knowledgeable about the ideas of the author, so as to recover them from the text without any surprises, whereas in fact the text gains its power over readers by transforming concepts, representations, or the expected course of events. Narratives that seem to stick to the reported facts can take on a parabolic dimension because of their contexts and/or because of their unusual developments (for example, the combat narrative without combat in Judges 7; the sequence of Mark 6:30–56 in which the walking crowd is quicker than Jesus and his disciples using a boat; or the incident of the bread, which escapes all logic and culminates in an excess of useless pieces of bread; or that of Jesus who would have passed the boat as he walked on the water …). These narratives end as enigmas and have the effect of interrogative speech. The deformation of figures can be pushed very far in revelation scenes: the struggle with the angel at Jabbok (see Barthes, 1971b), the burning bush that does not burn, the visions of Ezekiel or of Revelation, the Transfiguration … A figurative construction that torments and empties of their contents the representations that it uses, orients us towards that which cannot be presented as figures and makes room for the word to be heard.
This word is not always quoted; it remains mostly implicit, as a question addressed to the readers by the strangeness of the figures. It can also happen that a narrative builds a figurative scene presented as a sober report, without emotional asides, without subjective investment, but in such a way that it imprints itself in the memory without giving readers the possibility of defining its meaning effect (Ezekiel 1; Rev 21:10–27; or in a different register, the Passion narrative in Mark, the scene of violence against Christ). The figurative has the power to affect the human subject more deeply than the significations one can extract from a text. Figures in a discourse cannot be reduced to what they represent, or to ideas, or to the thematic values they could convey; as such they are turned towards the subjective and subjectivizing side of discourse. Figures go through a vacuum that makes them available and opens them up to a horizon that one cannot close by assigning to them a well-defined meaning. This “figural operation” (Martin, 1996:149–51, 169–75) beckons to a subject of speech with a call rising out of the depth which this subject cannot answer by simply saying: this is what the text means. The figure tends to become a signifier whose signified is beyond the readers’ reach; and the figure as signifier summons the readers all the more in that it awaits interpretation.
2.5. Figures in Semiotics and in Typological Exegesis
Semiotics talks of “figures” differently than exegesis that deals with the “realities” of the Old Testament as “figures” or “types” of “realities” of the New Testament. Both deal with a signifying process. These “realities” of the Old Testament, like those of the New, are inscribed in texts just as figures in the semiotic sense: think of the representations of the flood, the exodus, the Covenant, the meal, the sacrifice, then of those of the last Supper, baptism, etc. These figures contribute to the construction of signification in various texts and according to different orientations. Nevertheless, in the Bible as a whole, from one text to another, they form a chain of signifiers that call each other, not as ideas that are repeated or as a theology that would progress by small statements, but as an insistent call that speaks to the body and awaits interpretation.
In exegesis, the relation between “types” and “antitypes” is traditionally understood as between the veiled and the manifested: “Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet” (St. Augustine). Hence, this dialectic of the manifest and the latent is already that of the semiotic figure (and that of all textual analysis): the figure is manifested by the representation that it offers of an easily identifiable reality, but the immanent operation that deconstructs and reorients it remains hidden (Calloud, 1993:39–50). The figure emptied of its preestablished contents still continues to demonstrate its strength, just like the grain that is no longer grain but without which the Word would not be seed. Similarly, the Old Testament “types” are deconstructed in the New Testament, but they are not abolished: baptism gains in suggestive importance by being linked to the flood and the crossing of the sea. Furthermore, what was revealed by the interplay of (semiotic) figures during their passage from the Old Testament to the New is less the “reality” that would be hidden in the Old Testament than the veil that was covering these obvious “realities” but which was not perceived. The warning against the temptation to identify a figure and what it represents is strong. This dialectic of the veiled/manifested affects in turn the manifested “realities” of the New Testament. The detour by the Old Testament “types” warns the readers that the veil can remain in their minds, as long as the promise of the Encounter remains, until they notice, like Jacob upon his awakening, “YHWH is in this place, and I was not aware of it!”
3. From Utterance to Enunciation
By privileging the analysis of the utterance of discourse, Greimas’s semiotics has seemed for a long time to lag behind the research on speechacts and pragmatic linguistics. This research bears on the conditions of verbal communication between present partners that, to be understood, must take into account the content of their reciprocal utterances and their function in the context of interaction in which they participate. It is important, though, to respect the difference between the conditions of signification in the utterance and the conditions that the context imposes and which are a matter for other semiotic systems (gesticulation, corporal expression, exterior constraints, social relation rules …). From this point of view, Greimas’s reserve could be justified. For our own purpose, i.e. the study of written texts, this reserve has allowed us to study more closely the notion of enunciation. This notion cannot be reduced to the act of saying or writing situated before and outside of the utterance (anterior enunciation, actorialized). We must deal with an enunciation that nothing signals and that, so to speak, inhabits the utterance (immanent enunciation).
Enunciation Undergirding the Utterance. The utterance is not the simple medium of a preexisting message that would only need a channel of communication, as if there were no room for a subject of enunciation, but only before it (on the transmitter side) or after it (on the receptor side). In the case of the written text, which through reading becomes the locus of discourse in the absence of the writer, we must elucidate what becomes of the enunciation implied by the discoursivization. This enunciation must be the topic of a specific study, that investigations into the writer, the context, and the original recipient must not replace. This is especially true when we are dealing with ancient texts such as the Bible, whose context of production must be reconstructed from those texts that have been transmitted to us. Our uncertainties on this subject do not prevent them from making sense. The letters of these writings both hide and signal that a process of discoursivization has taken place and that the readers have to actualize it.
This aspect of the enunciation is not and cannot be manifested as such in the utterance. All the representations of an act of saying (“Jesus was saying to his disciples”) or of writing (Gal 6:11), all the instances of “I” or of “You” in the utterance, refer to historical acts and to characters (referential effect) that the discourse transforms into figures among others. The articulation of these figures implies an instance of internal enunciation that the figures do not manifest. That is why we distinguish “non-uttered enunciation” and “uttered enunciation,” i.e. signaled in some manner in the utterance. This distinction is related to (without being confused with) the widely accepted distinction between the implied author and reader on one side and the historical actors who produced and used the text on the other. We prefer to speak of an instance of enunciation, conceived of as a relation between the two poles (and roles) of enunciator and enunciatee. Yet these should be confused neither with the empirical author or reader, nor with the images that the text can give of the implied author and reader. This relation between enunciator and enunciatee is constructed by the discourse and remains virtual in the text (as the discourse also is) until the relation is actualized during reading. The text-object remains as the trace of a particular enunciation, which cannot be reduced to the context of the text-object, and which is implied by the discoursivization. Everything that concerns text pragmatics (discoursive strategies, projected effect on the reader, direction to gain the cooperation of the reader, etc.) can be understood from this perspective, without maintaining the idea of intentional communication. The articulation of figures that reflect the enunciation does not simply originate from intentions, motivations, or finalities, i.e. conscious operations. For language precedes the uses made of it. It can make us say more or something different than what we want. And the impact of speech, especially in the act of writing, goes beyond any awareness that the writer and the reader may possess.
Enunciation and Speech. But how can we talk of speech concerning immanent enunciation, especially if it written? The problem is not limited either to the differences between oral communication and written communication, or to the passage from one to the other and the resulting transformations. The term “speech” immediately evokes the image of orality, i.e. an act of exterior enunciation. That is why semiotics hesitates to use this term about immanent enunciation. F. de Saussure did not consider the role of speech in activating language; Greimas considered “speech” as “a kind of conceptual grab bag,” although he conceded that it is “very suggestive” (Greimas and Courtés, 1979:269). Yet Greimas noted that the successors of de Saussure included certain aspects of speech in their linguistic theories by dealing with the “process” and the “use” of language (Hjelmslev). And Greimas himself had to refer back to something related to speech when he characterized discoursivization (i.e. enunciation) as a “convocation” of figures of actors, time, and space in discourse. Linguistics and semiotics find it difficult to get rid of “speech”: dismissed by the door, it comes back through the window!
The greimassian idea of enunciation should provide the possibility of formulating a definition for speech that reflects the experience of literary writing and reading. Writing does not merely come to the rescue of oral discourse or replace it. Writing cuts off direct communication and marks the disappearance of speech in the articulation of signs and figures, but this articulation makes room for the subject of enunciation. Just as it constructs another relationship to the world than that of direct experience, it establishes a new relationship to speech by means of the letter. Immanent enunciation summons the materials of discourse, but also and especially a subject of speech. We experience this when resumed study of a text we remember prompts the question “What does this text want with me?” This question goes beyond the rhetorical problem of the effect aimed at by the processes of persuasion and of textual pragmatics. This rhetorical point might become irrelevant (Demosthenes’ discourses or the epistle to Philemon no longer concern us directly) even though the text is still being read and still makes demands on readers. The summons that the enunciator addresses to the enunciatee is much deeper than the summons that the authors addressed to their historical audience.
By replacing a speech-act (dire), the written (l’écrit) makes room for a new speech-act (dire). We can apply the model of parabolic communication. When Jesus starts to tell a parable, it interrupts the direct discourse that he is addressing to his audience. The parable introduces other actors in other locations and other times. This narrative which is detached from the one who speaks and from those who listen becomes a locus of language from which a speech is to be heard, although it does not come either from the one who speaks or from those who listen (Delorme, 1989:138–49). Classic literary works are similar: they resist our manipulations, they impose themselves upon us as “others.” The distance between us and these works is not merely historical. For we never quite master language, theirs or ours. A work remains, like time and space, available for a speech-act that can be greeted or neglected, but not appropriated, because it results from a pole of enunciation that the text does not make explicit, around which it is constructed, and from which it becomes speech. The text reflects a struggle with words to make them say something which is beyond them. Thus, we never stop writing and reading about love and hatred, violence and peace, the flesh and the spirit. Writing just like reading results from a speech (parole) which relentlessly knocks on the door without ever allowing itself to be caught. Speech passes away, leaving traces which the written materializes and which mark the summoned subject with their imprint. These traces bring back to life in the subjects the traces of the voice that, before they realized it, turned them towards the other and awoke them to desire.
Speech and Writing in the Bible. The Bible offers an immense repertoire of speech forms: narratives of spoken communication, shouts and rumors, prophetic oracles and wisdom teachings, commandments, threats and promises, etc. Speech is quoted or represented in many ways: human beings speak, but animals also, and even the mouthless and faceless God of whom the Prophets claim to speak and whose words they relate. Semiotics is first interested in the fact that the emphasis often is not only on what is said and related, but also on the conditions of speech or on the way it is received. Men and women take risks by speaking. Listening also challenges the desire and the imagination of the audience that commits to the speech or eludes it. Figures of the birth of a new being, whether it be communal or individual, are frequent and are usually linked to a speech received in truth. There is enough here to clarify the problematic of the instauration of a subject of speech, whether it speaks or listens.
Furthermore, the Bible presents speech as a figure—the figure of the Word. This is a remarkable example of discoursive treatment of a major figure. Speech is not limited to the field of spoken language: the heavens, day, night, all tell stories although their voice is not heard (Ps 19:2–5). Events, acts, and behaviors are all said to be “speech” (with a Greek word, rhēma, used for that specific purpose) when they are spoken of, when they incite people to speak, or when they embody or incarnate speech (e.g. Gen 15:1; 22:16; Deut 4:32; 1 Kgs 11:41; Luke 2:15, 17, 19). The connection of speech with the body and with action, is close and reciprocal.
Finally, and perhaps especially, the Bible states that speech as the Word precedes all. The Word is at the beginning of all creation (Genesis 1). Those who proclaim the Word (Prophets and Wisdom sayers, Jesus and the Apostles) are characterized by the reference they make to a preceding word, already heard, forgotten, or misread: word of promise, of covenant, of law, and then of gospel. The biblical narrative as a whole is itself the story of the various manifestations of a word. This word is never exhausted by its eventual successes and its failures. It is always reborn, until it is accomplished, neither in a book nor in a message but in the body of a man, whose death gives birth to “the good news” (euaggelion). And when the New Testament speaks of its own writing, it is in order to set its foundations on this primary word (Luke 1:1–4; John 20:30f.; 1 John; Revelation). The New Testatment is to be read through the Word to which the Scriptures bear witness (see Mark 1:2f. and the formulas of fulfillment of the Scriptures), which was manifested in the body of Christ (John 1:14), and which has already touched and “given birth” to the readers (Luke 1:2, 4; Gal 2:4; 1 Pet 1:23; 1 John 2:24–27).
The figure of speech as the word is in a way emptied of its preestablished contents by the elimination of agreed meanings attached to the language and its current uses. The figure of the word becomes available to carry something else than conventional knowledge. It becomes a signifier capable of reaching a subject on the border line between what can and cannot be said. It is an “other” word, but not a foreign word, because it is through the summons that the speech/word of an other is for us that one becomes truly human. Therefore, the phrase, “Word of God,” in the Bible and in the reading tradition of the “inspired” Scriptures, does not only designate the message of a divine sender. It calls upon the founding experience of humanity, while it emphasizes the “otherness” of a Word which cannot be reduced to the discourses that invoke or concern it. This Word is designated as the word of the absolute Other in common human words. This word coincides in a human being with the experience of encountering the Other as other, and of the awakening of one’s desire for the Other conveyed by the voice of the Other (see Luke 1:41–45; Panier, 1991:146–56).
When it is attentive to the structures of the relationship to the other(s) and to the structures of the subject as desiring and speaking, and studies how those structures are manifested or implied by the texts, semiotics can, without replacing theological thought, challenge it to re-open the question of “Inspired Scriptures” (Martin, 1996). This question, framed by JudeoChristian tradition, can be considered from the point of view of an enunciation extended to the Book as a whole. Neither the gathering of the diverse writings into the Book nor the inspiration of the overall Book is due to the authors of the individual writings. By intertwining the diverse texts, their variations, and their oppositions, the Bible constructs a new text in the interior of which inter-textuality becomes intra-textuality and broadens the space of the Other. The Bible amplifies the operations already at work in each writing. Thus, it disconnects the figures from what they represent in order to shift them towards enunciation and orient them towards speech. In this way, the figures of speech as word become speaking figures, although they do not fill the lack of representation of the origin of the Word. Readers are warned about the trap of imaginary identification with any of the characters of the Book, and are invited to listen without being stopped by any of the images that the readers can make from what they read, of themselves, of the authors, or even of God.
By Way of a Conclusion: Reading and Interpreting
Semiotics does not replace exegesis, but it reminds exegetes and semioticians that in each of their multiple tasks, they are first of all readers. We are not natural readers; we become readers and each book produces its subject-readers. The practice of semiotics can facilitate an apprenticeship in reading, not to learn “what to read, but how to read in order to always face the not-known, the unexpected” (Greimas, 1977:228). The semiotician’ ys know-how does not permit him or her to interpret meaning with more competence than others. Their know-how helps them to deconstruct the way they read in order to try to elucidate, to imagine, to describe the operations that we accomplish in spite of ourselves when we construct as text and as discourse whatever we read.
The movement of to and fro between studying the text and its interpretation must be controlled. Since meaning cannot be directly apprehended, and since visible writing does not manifest the invisible side of discourse that must be constructed, the relationship of the discourse to the text is never a mere reproduction. Different readings of the same text are instructive, not in order to judge them over against a standard reading, but in order to assess what is at stake in the variations of readers both regarding the textual features emphasized and regarding the readers’ interests. Sometimes a hasty distinction is made between naive and scholarly readings. When the latter aim at elucidating a historical, sociological, philosophical, or theological knowledge, they transform the text into a resource document or an archival record for research purposes that do not originate from the text. Scholarly readings might also set for themselves research goals (e.g. the definition of “literal meaning” as the meaning willed by the author in the circumstances of text production) which drastically limit the interpretive possibilities offered by the language and the figurative articulations of the text. Conversely, naive readings, echoes of spontaneous reactions from readers, might signal the points where clarification is needed, where the text leads astray (the wages of the first hour workers are unfair! the treatment of the fig tree without fruit before the season is inappropriate!) and might expose the desire of the reading subjects.
Semiotic analysis intervenes in the process of reading and of interpreting in such a way as to keep this process open. The analysis attempts to describe a discoursive organization and to explain parts of the way it functions (Ricoeur, 1986). But this explanation is not like those of the natural sciences; in texts, signifiers are not the cause of signification, and signification requires an interpreting subject. Methodology provides a certain competence (knowledge and know-how) for performing description. But the text initiates another kind of competence, the competence of an interpreter-subject who becomes an interpreted-subject; the competence of a linguistic being open to the speech of another which calls him or her to speak.
It is not enough to know the theory and the methods to become aware of one’s own impressions and expectations and to become less dependent on these—theory and methods are not enough to help us recognize our role and place as enunciatee resulting from the fact that we are actualizing the enunciation of the text. With its slow and patient work semiotics can help us experience the prolonged time with the text which is needed to transform the curiosity and desire for knowledge, with which we come to the study of a text, into a readiness to be taught how to listen.
Translated by Jean-Paul Pichot, Daniel Patte and Victoria Phillips
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1979 “Trois cas de rapports intra-textuels: la citation, la parabole, le commentaire.” Sémiotique et Bible 15:23–42.
1988 “Le devenir discursif du sujet. Remarques sur le traitement sémiotique d’un Psaume.” Sémiotique et Bible 50:2–26.
Arrivé, M. and J. C. Coquet
1987 Sémiotique en jeu. A partir et autour de l’oeuvre d’A. J. Greimas. Amsterdam: Benjamins; Paris: Hadès.
1964 “Eléments de sémiologie.” Communications 4:91–135. Paris: Seuil.
1966 “Introduction à l’analyse structurale du récit.” Communications 6:1–27.
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1966 Problèmes de linguistique générale. Paris: Gallimard.
1990 Neither on this Mountain Nor in Jerusalem: A Study of John 4. Atlanta: Scholars.
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1978a “Véridiction, vérification et vérité. A partir d’une analyse de quelques textes bibliques.” Pp. 199–215 in Stratégies discursives. Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon.
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1979b “Diversification des lectures bibliques et problème de l’intertextualité (sur Mc 5, 1–20).” Sémiotique et Bible 15:43–55.
1980 “Ce que parler veut dire (1 Pierre 1, 10–12).” Pp. 175–206 in A.C.F.E.B., Etudes sur la première lettre de Pierre. Paris: Cerf.
1981 “Paul devant l’Aréopage d’Athènes. Actes 17, 16–34.” Recherches de Science Religieuse 69:209–48.
1983 “L’acte de parole. Une analyse du récit de la crétion en Gen 1a.” Etudes Littéraires (Québec, Université Laval) 18:13–38.
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1985 Le discours d’adieu. Jean 13–17. Analyse sémiotique. L’Arbresle-Lyon: Centre Thomas More-CADIR.
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1987–89 L’évangile de Jean (I) Lecture sémiotique des chapitres 1 à 6 et (II) Lecture sémiotique des chapitres 7 à 12. L’Arbresle-Lyon: Centre Thomas More-CADIR.
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1996 L’évangile de Matthieu. Lecture sémiotique des chapitres 1 à 10. L’Arbresle-Lyon: Centre Thomas More-CADIR.
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1991 L’évangile de Jean (IV). Passion et résurrection. L’Arbresle-Lyon: Centre Thomas More-CADIR.
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1974 Le récit évangélique. Paris: Aubier-Cerf-Delachaux-Desclée de Brouwer.
1978 Story and Discourse. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
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1987 De Jésus et des femmes. Lectures sémiotiques. Montréal-Paris: Bellarmin-Cerf.
1988 “Qui roulera la peur? Finales d’évangiles et figures du lecteur.” Etudes Théologiques et Religieuses 65:171–89.
1976 “Du nouveau dans le permis: Marc 2–3, 6.” Sémiotique et Bible 2:6–15.
1982 L’Ecole de Paris. Paris: Hachette.
1984–86 Le discours et son sujet. Paris: Klincksieck.
1985 Eléments de bio-bibliographie. Pp. 1iii–1xxxv in Parret and Ruprecht.
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1974 The Good Samaritan. Semeia 2.
1987 “Parole et symptôme dans la parabole.” Pp. 37–48 in Delorme, ed., 1987.
1993 The Narrative Jesus. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.
1972 “Luc 5, 1–11. Analyse structurale et histoire de la rédaction.” NTS 18:331–51.
1979 “L’intégration des petites unités dans l’évangile de Marc du point de vue de la sémiotique structurale.” NTS 25:469–91.
1982 “Savoir, croire et communication parabolique.” Actes Sémiotiques. Documents IV/38; “Knowing, Believing and Communicating in Parables.” Pp. 161–82 in Paris School Semiotics. II Practice. Ed. P. Perron and F. Collins. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.
1985a “Sémiotique du récit et récit de la Passion.” Recherches de Science Religieuse 79:85–110.
1985b “Mise en discours et structures narratives ou la dynamique du récit.” Pp. 709–18 in Parret and Ruprecht.
1988a “Salut dans les évangiles synoptiques et les Actes.” Dictionnaire de la Bible. Supplément XI/62:585–689.
1988b “La geste de Gédéon (Juges 6–8). Analyse discursive.” Sémiotique et Bible 52:34–40.
1989 “Récit, parole et parabole.” Pp. 123–50 in Delorme, ed., 1989.
1990 “Text and Context: The ‘Gospel’ according to Mark 1: 14–15.” Pp. 273–88 in Text and Logos: The Humanistic Interpretation of the New Testament. Ed. T. W. Jenning. Atlanta: Scholars.
1991a Au risque de la parole. Lire les évangiles. Paris: Seuil.
1991b “Parole, Evangile et mémoire.” Pp. 113–26 in La mémoire et le temps. Mélanges offerts à Pierre Bonnard. Ed. D. Marguerat and J. Zumstein. Geneva: Labor et Fides.
1992a “Sémiotique et lecture des évangiles. A propos de Marc 14, 1–11.” Pp. 161–74 in Naissance de la méthode critique. Colloque du Centenaire de l’Ecole biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem. Paris: Cerf.
1992b “Lire dans l’histoire, lire dans le langage.” Pp. 197–206 in Les cent ans de la Faculté de Théologie. Ed. J. Doré. Paris: Beauchesne.
1992c “Sémiotique.” Pp. 314–17 in Dictionnaire de la Bible. Supplément XII/67. Paris: Letouzey.
1993 “Signification d’un récit et comparaison synoptique (Marc 9, 14–29 et parallèles).” Pp. 531–47 in The Synoptic Gospels. Source Criticism and the New Literary Criticism (BETL CX). Ed. C. Focant. Leuven: University Press.
1995 “Prises de paroles et parler vrai dans un récit de Marc (1, 21–28).” Pp. 179–99 in “Ouvrir les Ecritures.” Mélanges offerts à Paul Beauchamp. Ed. P. Bovati and R. Meynet. Paris: Cerf.
Delorme, J., ed.
1987 Parole. Figure. Parabole. Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon.
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1989 Les paraboles évangéliques. Perspectives nouvelles. Paris: Cerf.
Delorme, J., and P. Geoltrain
1982 “Le discours religieux.” Pp. 103–26 in Sémiotique. L’école de Paris. Ed. J.-C. Coquet. Paris: Hachette.
1974 “Jésus devant Pilate. Jn 18, 28–19, 16.” Foi et Vie. Cahiers Bibliques 13:6–81.
1974 A Structuralist Approach to the Parables. Semeia 1.
1973 “Introduction à la méthode de Greimas.” Etudes Théologiques et Religieuses 48:35–48.
1989 “La parabole comme texte.” Pp. 109–22 in Delorme, ed., 1989.
1978 Le Christ de la Passion. Perspective structurale. Paris-Montréal: Desclée-Bellarmin.
1987 “De la fille à la femme à la fille. Luc 8, 40–56.” Pp. 105–20 in Chené, Daviau, et al.
1977 “Pêcher/Prêcher. Récit et métaphore (Luc 5, 1–11).” Pp. 144–73 in Groupe d’Entrevernes, 1977.
1979 “Interpréter, persuader, transformer. L’Essai sur le don de Marcel Mauss.” Pp. 71–101 in Greimas, Landowski, et al.
1983 “Composantes thymiques et prédicatives du croire.” Pp. 110–29 in Parret, ed.
1985 L’identité intra- et extratextuelle des grandeurs figuratives. Pp. 203–14 in Parret and Ruprecht.
1987a “Sémiotique.” Pp. 48–64 in Introduction aux études littéraires. Ed. M. Delcroix and F. Hallyn. Paris: Gembloux.
1987b “La semence et le royaume.” Pp. 103–24 in Delorme, ed., 1987.
1990 “Du texte au discours littéraire et à son sujet.” Nouveaux Actes Sémiotiques 10–11: 9–34.
1985 “La comparution de Jésus devant Pilate. Analyse sémiotique de Jean 18, 28–19, 16.” Recherches de Science Religieuse 73:133–46.
1989 “La porte et le pasteur (Jean 10, 1–21).” Pp. 375–88 in Delorme, ed., 1989.
1970 “La violation du sabbat. Une lecture de Mc 3, 1–6.” Foi et Vie. Cahiers Bibliques 9:70–90.
1974 “Les noces de Cana. Jn 2, 1–12.” Foi et Vie. Cahiers Bibliques 13:83–90.
Giroud, J. C.
1989 “La parabole ou l’opacité incontournable. A propos de Marc 4, 1–34.” Pp. 235–46 in Delorme, ed., 1989.
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1966 Sémantique structurale. Paris: Hachette.
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1970 Du sens. Essais sémiotiques. Paris: Seuil.
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1977 “Postface”. Pp. 227–37 in Groupe d’Entrevernes, 1977.
Greimas, A. J.
1983 Du sens II. Essais sémiotiques. Paris: Seuil.
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1987a De l’imperfection. Périgueux: Fanlac.
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1987b “Les paraboles au regard de la sémiotique.” Pp. 385–92 in Delorme, ed., 1987.
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1987c “Entretien.” Pp. 209–14 in Chené, Daviau, et al.
Greimas, A. J.
1993 “La parabole: une forme de vie.” Pp. 381–87 in Panier, ed., 1993.
Greimas, A. J. and J. Courtés
1979 Sémiotique. Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage. Paris: Hachette.
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1986 Sémiotique. Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage 2. Paris: Hachette.
Greimas, Algirdas Julien, and Jacques Fontanille
1993 The Semiotics of Passion: From States of Affairs to States of Feeling. Trans. Paul Perron and Frank Collins. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Greimas, A. J., E. Landowski, et al.
1979 Introduction à l’analyse du discours en sciences sociales. Paris: Hachette.
1977 Signes et paraboles. Sémiotique et texte évangélique. Paris: Seuil (Trans. G. Phillips, Signs and Parables. Pittsburg: Pickwick, 1978).
1979 Analyse sémiotique des textes. Introduction. Théorie. Pratique. Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon.
1983 L’engendrement d’un récit. L’évangile de l’enfance selon Saint Luc. Paris: Cerf.
1987 La mise en discours. Recherches sémiotiques à propos de l’évangile de Luc. Paris: Cerf.
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1987 Parabelverhalen in Lucas. Van semiotiek naar pragmatiek. Tilburg University Press.
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1971 Exégèse et herméneutique. Paris: Seuil.
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1987 Semiotiek en christelijke uitingsvormen. Hilversum: Gooi-Sticht.
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1987 Constructief Bijbellezen. Zelfstandig en Actief in de Bijbel Lezen. Een Semiotische Methode. Hilversum: Gooi-Sticht.
1971a Sémiotique de la Passion. Topiques et figures. Paris: Aubier-Cerf-Delachaux-Desclée de Brouwer.
1971b “Essai d’analyse structurale d’Actes 10–11.” Pp. 3–238 in Léon-Dufour.
1989 “Sortir du livre.” Sémiotique et Bible 54:1–18.
1996 Pour une théologie de la lettre. L’inspiration des Ecritures. Paris: Cerf.
1978 “La citation biblique dans le discours didactique.” Pp. 115–60 in Ecritures et pratique chrétienne. Ed. P. De Surgy. Paris: Cerf.
1984 Récit et commentaires de la tentation de Jésus au désert. Paris: Cerf.
1985 “La foi et le miracle. Propositions de modèle narratif pour les récits de miracle et évangiles.” Pp. 771–82 in Parret and Ruprecht.
1989a Lecture sémiotique de la parabole des mines (Lc 19, 11–27).” Pp. 333–47 in Delorme, ed., 1989.
1989b “Une lecture sémiotique des textes: Question de théologie biblique.” Sémiotique et Bible 56:19–37.
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1993 “Le statut discursif des figures.” Sémiotique et Bible 70:13–23.
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1993 Le temps de la lecture. Exégèse biblique et sémiotique. Recueil d’hommages pour Jean Delorme. Paris: Cerf.
1983 On Believing. Epistemological and Semiotic Approaches. De la croyance. Approches épistémologiques et sémiotiques. Berlin-New York: W. de Gruyter.
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1976a What is Structural Exegesis? Philadelphia: Fortress (D. et A. Patte, Pour une exégèse structurale. Paris: Seuil, 1978).
1976b “Structural Analysis of the Parable of the Prodigal Son: Toward a Method.” In Semiology and Parables. Ed. D. Patte. Pittsburgh: Pickwick.
1978 Structural Exegesis: From Theory to Practice. Philadelphia: Fortress.
1980 “One Text. Several Structures.” Semeia 18:3–22.
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1983b Paul’s Faith and the Power of the Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress.
1987 The Gospel according to Matthew A Structural Commentary on Matthew’s Faith. Philadelphia: Fortress.
1989 Greimas’s Structural Semiotics and Biblical Exegesis. Atlanta: Scholars.
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1983–85 Temps et récit. 3 vols. Paris: Seuil.
1986 “Qu’est-ce qu’un texte? Expliquer et comprendre.” Pp. 137–59 in Du texte à l’action. Essais herméneutiques II. Paris: Seuil (1970).
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1977 “La communication parabolique. Matthieu 13, 1–53.” Sémiotique et Bible 5:29–45, 6:5–26.
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1987 “Le Maître maîtrisé. Matthieu 15, 21–28.” Pp. 19–34 in Chené, Daviau, et al.
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1987 “La métaphore engloutie. Le langage métaphorique du Psaume 80.” Sémiotique et Bible 47:30–43.
1985 “Autour de la sépulture de Jésus. Les figures du corps, de la parole et de l’argent dans le récit de Matthieu.” Recherches de Sciences Religieuses 73:161–76.
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From Biblical Text to Literary Enunciation and Its Subject
Catholic University of Lyon, France
In this paper, I would like to discuss some questions and proposals concerning the reading (or the reception) of biblical texts. I shall take the point of view of a semiotician, and I would like to disclose how the analysis and reading of biblical texts have led us towards the elaboration of a theory on literary enunciation. I say “us,” for the work emanates from the group CADIR,1 which has been interested in the semiotic approach to biblical texts and the anthropological and theological questions resulting from it.
From this perspective, the Bible appears as an eminently “literary” text, in the sense that what distinguishes it is the “literariness,” or the signifying power of the letter (“the grace of the letter” according to R. Sublon’s expression), or to use a semiotic formulation, the density of the figurative plane.
My presentation has two parts. First, I give a brief account of the analysis of certain texts—published elsewhere in greater detail (Panier, 1991b)—in order to present what, to me, characterizes a New Testament conception of the writing act, or of the literary act as related to reading. Second, I attempt to present a semiotic theory of literary enunciation that accounts for what biblical texts propose. This presentation of enunciation will conclude with certain exploratory propositions on the relationship between literary reading (or interpretation) and the anthropological (and vital) question of the human subject. The power of the letter affects the structure of human subjects.
New Testament Writing and Its Reader
It is said that the Bible is one of the most read books in the world. History shows that this book and the necessity (or the obligation) of reading it (for this book must be read despite all of its obscurities) have generated many diverse theories of interpretation. What is to be read? How, why should it be read? (This is approximately the question of Queen Candace’s eunuch in the Book of Acts, chap. 8.) And why continue to read and reread texts that we know so well? I propose that reading is not merely the necessary and transitory operation that ends with the result to which it leads, i.e. with the meaning or the message to which, accordingly, the texts would point and which alone would be worthy of meditation for our religious instruction. Rather, reading has its own value as the act of a subject, as a practice of language and of letters. Thus, I shall attempt to describe reading as a practice, as an act of enunciation.
In order to explain this view of reading, I shall use several texts from the New Testament (the prologue of the Gospel according to Luke, the end of the Gospel according to John, the prologue of John’s First Letter, and the Book of Revelation) that display the act of writing, its two agents (writer and reader), and its function. These texts seemed to suggest an original and coherent conception of the New Testament writing and of its reading, or better, of the scriptural function of the New Testament writings. This function offers a perspective that could provide an appropriate focus for a semiotic study of reading in general. Yet, in the present essay, I limit myself to texts from the New Testament.
We can therefore characterize the scriptural function of the New Testament writings as follows:
The written (l’écrit) is not a copy or a reproduction of the oral.
The written is not the substitute or the re-presentation of live speech. It is its effect. The act of writing is not a substitute for verbal communication; it has a distinctive enunciative process that needs description.
We can illustrate this suggestion with the prologue to the Gospel according to Luke, where the writer proposes to play a role quite distinct from that of the “eyewitnesses of the word” and from that of the “numerous narrators” who have put this experience in a narrative form.
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:1–4 NRSV)
This prologue seeks neither to recall the historical stages of the communication of the gospel message (the writing down of oral traditions), nor to justify the value of the work of the historian Luke by referring to his sources and verifying their contents—he remains very discreet concerning the contents and does not even mention Jesus. Rather, in my view, the prologue underscores the sequence of the effects of this word/speech that is successively “accomplished in us,” set in narrative form and set in an orderly account, the order of the written. The prologue seeks to present the written as an effect of the word/speech. The writer finds his place and his function in the sequence of effects of the word/speech. The specificity of the process involved in writing and reading reflects this sequence of effects of the word/speech.
Thus, if the written involves a specific process of enunciation, we must draw up an approach appropriate for the study of the enunciation of the written (the scriptural or literary) that is a priori not identical to oral enunciation, all too often understood in terms of simple models of communication.
The Written is Not Limited to Giving Information About the World or About Historical Events.
To state it briefly, the New Testament writings are not the story of Jesus. They are not texts that document. We must differentiate texts that document and texts that commemorate. In his Prologue, as we have seen, Luke does not introduce himself as a simple “scribe,” transcribing oral information concerning the story of Jesus (although this is often the role bestowed on him by exegetes!) In order to clarify this point, I quote the prologue of 1 John:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1–4 NRSV)
We can easily follow, in this passage, the trajectory of the effect of the word/speech that culminate in the act of writing: the text deals with the corporal perception of speech (vision, touch), a testimony and a proclamation. The act of writing crowns (makes complete) this original effect of the word/speech on the writer.
Note in this text the strange vagueness of the contents (“what was,” “what we have heard”). The word/speech does not identify itself with the message; the writing (scripture) accounts more for the effects of the word/speech than for its contents or for a teaching to be transmitted. While it remains to be determined what this communication through writing/scripture is, we can already say that it is not aimed at transmitting a message and insuring the preservation of its authentic contents (Latour), but rather at establishing a relationship between the dialogue partners and by specifying the status of “us” and of “you.” The vagueness of the contexts would then correspond to the density of the written, the opacity of the text.
Other passages from the First Letter of John illustrate this characteristic of a writing/scripture, which keeps its distance from the function of informing:
But the Holy One has anointed you, and all of you have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it. (2:20–21)
As for you, the anointing you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. (2:27)
This is about writing; writing is a must; but this letter does not teach. We must therefore conceive of the function of writing as independent of the message and of transmitted knowledge; and a function of reading as other than the acquisition of a knowledge which one lacks (Calloud, 1984). There is no transparent writing/scripture. This is not an obscurity due to a veil that would need to be lifted in order to reach the clarity of an accessible and usable meaning (writing/scripture is not a nut to be cracked). Writing/scripture is not in this case the quotation of prior word/speech. Writing is not focused on the message-object. Rather it is the medium of a relationship between the dialogue partners. For both the writer and the reader, writing is an experience which emanates from enunciation.
Writing Establishes a Relationship Between the Writer and the Reader, But This Relationship is Not Simply Based on the Process of Communication.
The famous model of communication proposed by Jakobson does not really apply in the case of New Testament writings. The partners in this writing experience have more complex roles, and their relationships are established on several levels.
We can illustrate this point with Luke’s prologue: the function of the reader (Theophilus or a “theophile” reader) is not limited to the reception of a message. Reading must reverberate (bring back to life)—and not reproduce—the original impact of an already received word/speech. Similarly, while the prologue of the First Letter of John does bring about a communication between “us” and “you,” it speaks of “communion.” This communion is with “the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Thus, the relation which the written establishes between the writer and the reader is a testimony to, a reverberation of a pre-existing and presupposed relation through which one is established as child of the Father, and as brother or sister of the Son Jesus Christ, and consequently of the other brothers and sisters repeatedly mentioned in the rest of the Letter. Thus, the love that God first has for us is reverberate in the love that we have for the brothers and the sisters. The law of reverberation that articulates writing/scripture and word/speech also applies to the interrelations of the brothers’ and sisters’ love and God’s love.
Note the correlation between word/speech, writing/scripture, and kinship relations with God as Father and the Son Jesus Christ: we shall encounter it again when developing the anthropological dimensions of a theory of scriptural enunciation.
We could then suggest that the written, as a writing/scripture to be read, is a testimony to the word/speech that precedes it. For the person who is writing, the literary act does not merely address the reader to inform or to persuade rhetorically him or her. This writing does not induce knowledge or belief; it does not aim at fulfilling the reader’s lack.
The process of writing is determined, beforehand, by a prior encounter with a word/speech (original encounter) and by the series (or trajectory) of testimonies to this word/speech. Thus, the writer is not the source of this word/speech—nor the reader, its target. They are both preceded by this word/speech.
Because they are speaking subjects, this word/speech calls them to become writer and reader. Then, through it they are in communion. The linearity of Jakobson’s model is broken (Cusin), and we can actually be the enunciatees of a letter of John, even though this letter was not addressed to us.
Radical anteriority of the word/speech: for the one who writes, the speech-act is closed, past; in a way it has disappeared. Yet this speech-act, that involved the giving and receiving of a word, has left behind traces. These are the traces of the effects of this word/speech that remain inscribed in the bodies of the witnesses (“eyewitnesses and servants of the word” says Luke). The writing/scripture rests on the bodies of these witnesses.
From the reader’s perspective, who receives the writing/scripture, it is the same thing. The reader has also already received the word, and the act of reading the writing/scripture rests on this prior reception of the word/speech. Reading is not an experience that allows the acquisition of some speech-object or word-object that one lacks. This is what we noted regarding the prologue of Luke’s Gospel: the writing/scripture addressed to Theophilus should be confused neither with a proclamation of the gospel nor with already received catechetical teachings. The writing/scripture is offered in order to show (or to give the experience of) the stability of what has already been heard. In the same manner, the First Letter of John is addressed to readers who have already heard the word/speech (“the word of the beginning”); the author has nothing to teach to them except what they already know. The writing/scripture of the Letter does not quote this word/speech; but, at the time of the reading, the writing/scripture manifests that this is the “word of the beginning” (2:7). Actually, John’s text predicts a change in the function of speech: the locus of the word/speech and its concern are now in the sister or brother whom one should love. It is up to the reader—caught between the letter of writing/scripture and the historical reality—to experience once again the word/speech that establishes him or her from the beginning.
Hence, for writers, as for readers, the experience of a received word/speech is the basis for their relation to writing/scripture, which is specific to each. The act of writing and the act of reading (which are both literary) reverberate for both writers and readers the primary and original effect of the word/speech. The written is about subjects who have been established by the word/speech; and the two processes of (literary) writing/scripture and reading reverberate and re-play their origin in the word/speech. Thus, communication through writing/scripture (between writer and reader) presupposes a communion related to the status as a child of God that each has received from the word/speech. In this sense, we can claim that the writings of the New Testament presuppose a specific theory of enunciation, based on the correlation of the letter, the word/speech, and the body. We can speak of scriptural enunciation, or in broader terms, of literary enunciation. The Bible is also a theory of literature.
The New Testament Writing is Also Characterized by Its Temporal Position
The New Testament as the written word happens at a specific moment in time and does not simply refer to past events which it should keep present in the memory of its readers. In this sense, the written is not merely the preservation of word/speech. We could say, in terms of certain Johannine texts (John’s letters and Revelation), that writing/scripture characterizes the “dusk of dawn”; the moment of writing is that of the passage from darkness to light.
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; this old commandment is the word that you have heard. [See above, the relations between word/speech and writing/scripture.] Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. (1 John 2:7–8)
There is a time for writing/scripture, the moment when darkness fades and when the event (or the advent) of an encounter is announced. This encounter is the moment where the original experience of word/speech will be both re-called and questioned. At that moment, on the threshold between the absence and the coming, between the hearing and the forgetting of the word/speech it is necessary to go back through the paths of the writing/scripture, in order to uncover in the letter the trajectory of the word/speech.
Writing/scripture by itself does not make the light shine; it belongs to the time of vanishing darkness. Writing/scripture represents the status of the word/speech in the time of darkness—the time of the absence of Christ where the word/speech which had been given was buried in the letter. Writing/scripture is word/speech in waiting and waiting for word/speech, just like the tapestry of Penelope. In 1 John, writing/scripture becomes relevant when the word/speech (re) emerges, elsewhere, in a different way, in the sister or brother to be loved where it needs to be recognized. Similarly, in John’s Revelation, writing/scripture must be present and is to be read at the moment of the “real” event which goes beyond all discourses and in which the word/speech of the beginning (the one marking the creation of humanity) runs the risk of being abolished in horror or in seduction.
Writing/scripture is ultimate because it comes at the end of a trajectory of testimonies to the word/speech. But as the ultimate it also runs the risk of an erasure, of a real disappearance of the word/speech in the words of discourse. This is so because writing/scripture is not the word/speech. Writing is radically different from the word/speech although it is in a time when it is absent and hoped for. As ultimate, writing/scripture points toward the critical moment of the end of the word/speech and toward the event when the word/speech will need to be heard in a new way. As a result of the reading of the writing/scripture, the coming event will remind people of the word/speech of the beginning. Writing/scripture may be the keeper of the word/speech, but only if a reader takes the risk, as a subject, of interpreting its letter.
This specific temporal position of the New Testament writing/scripture, as I outlined it, reminds us of the theme of fulfillment often attached to the Scriptures in the New Testament. In the biblical domain, there seems to be a necessary correlation between “writing/scripture” and “fulfillment,” and this in two different ways. For the New Testament texts, the Scriptures (Old Testament) are fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ as the end of the scriptural trajectory, a closure, or rather a folding of the biblical corpus which is thus “polarized.” This fulfillment is the act that anchors discourse and gives it a completion beyond all measure. In the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ, the word/speech finds a body. The fulfillment of the writing/scripture is the incarnation of the Logos. It is a fulfillment, and not an abolition or a lapsing, because there is a human body to carry and manifest the word/speech Writing/scripture finds its raison d’être.
The Scriptures are fulfilled in Christ. But at the same time in Christianity, it is the incarnation of the Logos that transforms all these different and ancient texts into “the Scriptures.” The writings of the New Testament, with the characteristics I mentioned earlier, presuppose a specific way of reading the Scriptures (see Luke 24), according to which the ancient Jewish texts are posited as a “text” to be read as the Old Testament.
The Scriptures must be fulfilled (so as not to remain as dead letters); but it is the fulfillment (as incarnation of the word/speech) that establishes the Old Testament as “writing/scripture.” A sentence often repeated after Augustine by the ancient exegetes clarifies this rule: “Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet; Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet.” The New Testament is latent in the Old; the Old Testament is patent—obvious, manifest—in the New. There is, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, the necessary articulation of the dimensions of immanence and of manifestation (Calloud, 1993). The overall structure of the biblical corpus is therefore to be treated as a semiotic, not a chronological, structure. I have suggested elsewhere how this semiotic structure is one of the fundamental principles of patristic exegesis (Panier, 1993).
The fulfillment of the Scriptures, a classic biblical and theological theme (Beaude; Martin), is also, it seems to me, the confirmation of a semiotic principle, concerning the enunciation. Reading fulfills writing/scripture when the traces of the absence of the word/speech in the letter are collected as a sign that the word/speech disappeared because it gave itself, and as a reminder of the word/speech heard “from the beginning.” By following the literary trajectory of the letter, reading gives a body to the word/speech. The act of reading is a reply, a proclamation, and a waiting for the incarnation of the Logos.
“Reading in order to hear,” such would be the motto given to the reader who loves God (Theophilus). When the reader tracks the word/speech closely in the letter of the text, he or she delays his or her immediate entry into the “world” pictured and represented by the text. The reader refuses to be the mere receiver (or target) of a message originating with and guaranteed by the author. Thus, the reader suspends his or her need to “know”—a need which discourse of the text could fulfill. If the written is a place where is manifested, in the opacity and the density of the letter, the effect of the word given and lost, it is the place which the reader must explore until the signifying effect happens and until a word/speech is once again heard, among the signs of the discourse, in their brokenness and in their interplay, in the form of the letter. Reading fulfills writing/scripture when the dormant word/speech lying in the letter of the text becomes flesh and body in the reader, who is then interpreted by the writing/scripture which speaks about him as a human subject (“it was there and I did not know it” said Jacob after his dream …).
The fate of the word/speech which was “in the beginning” is manifested with the most clarity, or is emphasized with the most obscurity, in the written word, which is marked by the seal of “differance” of the letter and by the absence of the word/speech, and destined to be read (for only reading gives it body and life). This Word of life offers itself without reservation and creates human subjects. It is received and marks its reception and its disappearance in the subjects that it creates and in whom it is buried (“what our eyes have seen, what our hands have touched of the word of life …”). It is suspended over and offered to those who will read it, who will give it body, and who will bear witness to the life that is given when it seems to disappear.
A Theoretical Post-Script
From Figures of the World to the Letter of Scripture: Elements of a Theory of Enunciation
I mentioned earlier that the New Testament texts developed a coherent and original conception of the act of writing/scripture and of reading, and I presented several of its characteristics. These propositions point in the direction of an original semiotic view of literary enunciation. I will briefly outline some of its features.
Since our concern is with literary enunciation, we need to look for models that are different from those used to describe oral enunciation or conversational interaction. Since our concern is with a semiotic approach to enunciation, we need to look for models that differ from theories of communication and of information, or from sociological and psychological models. From a semiotic perspective, literary enunciation is about the way in which meaning is structured and not about the communication and the reception of messages. The term enunciation refers to the structuration of meaning, and thus to both the pole of the sender and the pole of the receiver. Writing/scripture and reading are, each in its way, enunciative acts that presuppose enunciative positions that should not be confused with the empirical actors, the writer and the reader.
Enunciation is best described in a semiotic way by calling it with Greimas “putting into discourse” (“mise en discours”) (Greimas and Courtés; Geninasca; Martin and Panier, 1993). When a text is considered from the perspective of enunciation, it can no longer be viewed as a pure object, and described as a closed structure. Rather it is viewed as a discursive network of figures, which results from “putting these figures into discourse.” Figures are therefore appropriate units of discourse, in that they are features of the contents that do not directly correspond to features of the expression plane. Figures can be individualized and are recognizable. For instance, “jealousy,” “travel,” and “healing” are figures that we recognize in texts, whatever might be the words or sentences that express them. These features of the content have a twofold existence: they are virtualized in the enunciator’s memory and are actualized in the texts (Calloud, 1985–86).
“Figures” as the constituent units of a discourse have to be understood from three points of view.
a) As “figurative” features, figures are related to the natural world, to the configurations of world experience and to the (social and individual) encyclopedia. The texts speak of the world and give us a representation of the world that we can confront with the reality of our experience (there is a world of the text). Our reading of texts is done in terms of our knowledge of the world and our representations of it. This dimension of the figures is the focus of “referential” reading, which are primarily concerned with the information provided by the texts.
b) The figures belong to the discourses where we discover them, and which we remember (discoursive memory). In the texts that we read, figures refer back to the linguistic structures and to the narrative, rhetoric, or stylistic forms that organize them. Certain readings (especially semiotic readings) can emphasize the description of these narrative forms and of these thematic structures that organize and interpret figurative systems.
c) If a text is viewed as the putting into discourse of figurative features borrowed from language, the figurative organization of discourse presupposes an enunciative process as well as a domain of enunciation (Greimas and Courtés: 103–105), which should not merely be identified with an empirical author (his or her intentions, concerns, interests, and historical background). The domain of enunciation refers to the ability of activating language in which a speaking subject takes the risk of manifesting him/herself. Because the text is viewed as a discourse, it discloses this activation of language by a subject of speech. A reader can then devote him/herself to tracking the process through which the figures have been set into discourse. The reader is then called to question his or her relationship with language and his or her status as subject of speech/word. This can become the topic and the way of practicing a discoursive semiotics.
This third dimension of the figurative is clearly the one which is most emphasized in the biblical texts discussed. This dimension is in many ways closely related to the traditional conception of “figures” in ancient exegesis (Calloud, 1985–86; Panier, 1993). The figure is understood in terms of the discoursive organization of texts, and is fully understood as a figure when it is interpreted in terms of its relationship to other figures which repeat and deform it. Because it is set into discourse, the figure loses its status as a specific sign; it does not any longer refer to a given and stable meaning (as a signifier corresponds to a signified). This suspension of the meaning of figures is proof of the enunciative act which, after borrowing figures from language (and from previous discourses), empties them of the meaning which they had in the encyclopedia in order to set them on a trajectory, or into discourse, so that they might bear witness to the subject of word/speech. Figurative trajectories are the organization of signifiers.
In this sense, enunciation is not the communication of knowledge between a sender and a receiver. Enunciation is the act of structuration of a subject in language; similarly, we can suggest that the literary character of literary texts is due to the setting into discourse of figures that are manifested by the texts. Literary texts are more than the referential information they provide (we reread them even though we know what they say); they are more than a representation of the “state of language” (otherwise literature would be reduced to a series of “grammatical examples”); they arouse readers (they gather communities of readers with their traditions). These readers are, so to speak, attached to the letter of writing/scripture, in order to listen for, in the range of figures, what concerns them as human subjects who are constructed by the word/speech and structured within language (Cusin).
In this way we might be rediscovering the intuitions of Origen, one of the founders of biblical exegesis:
And in the first place we must point out that the aim of the Spirit who, by the providence of God through the Word who was in the beginning with God, enlightened the servants of the truth, that is, the prophets and apostles, was preeminently concerned with the unspeakable mysteries connected with the affairs of human beings—and by human beings I mean at the present souls that make use of bodies … (On First Principles IV.1.7 )
Translated by Jean-Paul Pichot, Daniel Patte and Victoria Phillips
1980 L’ Accomplissement des Ecritures. Paris: Cerf.
1984 “Propos libres sur la lecture.” Bulletin des Facultés Catholiques de Lyon 109/72:21–32.
1985–86 “Sur le chemin de Damas. Quelques lumis sur l’organisation discursive d’un texte.” Sémiotique et Bible 37, 38, 40 and 42.
1993 “Le texte à lire.” In CADIR, Le temps de la lecture. Paris: Cerf.
1979 “Quand lire, c’ est dire.” Sémiologiques, Linguistique et Sémiologie, 6:139–61.
1991 “Du text au discours littéraire et à son sujet.” In La littérarité. Ed. L. Milot and F. Roy. Sainte-Foy, Québec: Presses de l’Université de Laval.
Greimas A. J.- J. Courtés
1982 Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary. Trans. Larry Crist, Daniel Patte, et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
1961 Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
1993 “Les anges ne font pas de bons instruments scientifiques.” In La clef de Berlin. Paris: La Découverte.
1988–89 “Parole, Ecriture, Accomplissement dans l’Evangile de Matthieu.” Sémiotique et Bible 50–54.
Martin, F. and L. Panier
1993 “Figures et Enonciation.” Protée (Chicoutimi) 21/2.
1966 On First Principles. Ed. G. W. Butterworth. New York: Harper & Row.
1991a La Naissance du Fils de Dieu. Sémiotique et Théologie discursive. Lecture de Luc 1–2. Paris: Cerf.
1991b “La Naissance.” Pp. 98–118 in La littérarité. Ed. L. Milot and F. Roy. Sainte-Foy, Québec: Presses de l’Université de Laval.
1993 “Devenir des figures – Figures en devenir. La théorie des figures dans l’exégèse biblique ancienne.” Colloque Le Devenir. Limoges: Presses Universitaires de Limoges.
1971 “Evénement et Sens.” In La théologie de l’histoire: Révélation et histoire (colloque Castelli). Paris: Aubier.
1989 “Signe et Sens.” In Encyclopedia Universalis, vol. 20.
From Linguistic Methodology to the Discovery of a World of Metaphors
University of Uppsala
The author presents first a biographical survey of his work. In the seventies he studied the possible relationships between traditional historico-critical exegesis and modern linguistics. In “epistemological” and “hermeneutical” commentaries on Pauline texts and on the Gospel of John, he examined the subtle interplay between author, commentator, and reader. In the meantime the semiotic approach had enriched his sensibility for the world of metaphors in John. The article ends with a detailed study of mirrored narratives and discourses in Acts 10:1–11:18, the main text discussed at a conference in Chantilly in 1969. The author uses both semiotic and traditional exegetical methods.
A Biographical and Bibliographical Account
In 1969 I attended a symposium in Chantilly, organized by Professor Xavier Léon-Dufour. Exegetes at the conference were able to meet with linguists and semioticians, such as Roland Barthes, Louis Marin, Joseph Courtés, Paul Beauchamp, Edgar Haulotte, with psychoanalysists such as Antoine Vergote, and with philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur and Léon-Dufour. For many French speaking biblical exegetes this conference was decisive in their scientific development. Professor Jean Delorme was one of those who discovered the value of Algirdas Julien Greimas’s work, which he came to study closely and develop with other semioticians in the “Groupe d’Entrevernes” (1977, 1979).
While following the work of this group, I chose another way. In a Swedish, almost positivistic, context I had written a doctoral thesis on text-critical aspects in John 6:52–71 (1969), where I had used both quantitative and qualitative methods to test received hypotheses on different text-groups. The conference allowed me to reorientate my exegetical work.
Greimas’s semantic investigation (1966), which was compatible with Swedish positivistic view-points, opened a new era of scientific research, but the discussions during the symposium also created a distance from his system, thanks especially to Paul Ricoeur’s reflections (1971). Before coming to Sweden I had studied philosophy in Paris and in Freiburg im Breisgau. I had been fascinated by Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutics, which made me sensitive to Ricoeur’s problematizing questions about structuralism. I did not want to follow a new scientific model blindly, but I admitted that it would change traditional exegesis in a radical way. In order to find my own way between old and new fields of knowledge, I wrote my Essais de méthodologie néo-testamentaire (1972; cf. 1974 and 1980).
Going behind Greimas’s semantic structures, I studied different linguistic approaches of texts since Ferdinand de Saussure. I felt much indebted to the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev, who in his Omkring sprogteoriens grundlaeggelse (1943) distinguished three kinds of relations between linguistic unities: interdependence (both terms are dependent on each other), determination (one term is dominant), and constellations (both terms are independent). In a linguistic “process” (or syntagmatic relation of linguistic unities in praesentia) Hjelmslev called them “solidarity,” “selection,” and “combination,” and in a linguistic “system” (or paradigmatic relation of linguistic unities in absentia) “complement,” “specification,” and “autonomy.” A philosophy of the concept of relation inspired by Aristotle could justify these distinctions, as there can be according to this philosopher three kinds of relative terms (τρός τι):in action and passion; in what is numbered (Categ. ch. 7, 6a36–8b24); and in what is measured (Metaph. D 1020b26–1021b11). The relation of unilateral dependence between measure and the measured is in fact different from a categorial relation of interdependence or independence. With the help of these distinctions I wanted to promote systematic studies of relations between words, sentences, and paragraphs in the New Testament. Discussions with the eminent Swedish linguist Bertil Malmberg helped me in my ambition to continue the work of Hjelmslev by reflecting on scientific models and especially on literary genres and codes.
At the same time I tried to show with the help of a concrete example, the Beatitudes (Matt 5:1–12 and Luke 6:20–26), how an exegete should scientifically treat different aspects in a text: its delimitation, its text-critical problems, its historical background; the interaction between the whole and the parts, the morpho-semantic field of words, their denotation and their connotations, and finally the “sense” of the text, which ought to be distinguished formally from the many “significations” the text gets in its Wirkungsgeschichte. Here I followed Eric Donald Hirsch’s critique (1967) of Heidegger in a free way.
This gave me an opportunity to reflect on the problematic task of commentating a text. In an aphoristic way I presented the presuppositions of all New Testament methodology: relationships between oral and written texts; scientific traditions which the exegete unconsciously takes over; problematic nature of methodology; difficult assessment of subjectivity and objectivity; different levels of scientific investigation, etc.
Ernst Käsemann, to whom I sent the book, wrote me that the worth of methodological propositions must be proved by their fruitfulness. So I tried to show this in a commentary on 1 Corinthians 13, which I called “epistemological” (1975): the commentator ought to be conscious of the relationship between his commentary and the commentated text. His chief aim is not to indicate how learned he is, but to elucidate the text with relevant material. I criticized the way Ceslas Spicq (1966) had commented on each word of 1 Corinthians 13 by referring to a huge documentation of Greek texts, which had little or nothing in common with the commentated text. In Paul himself I tried to privilege the normal context, that of 1 Corinthians, and not the whole Pauline corpus. My study was “epistemological” also in the sense that it reflected on the use of both classical methods and models borrowed from Greimas, philosophy, and psychology. To illustrate my point I even added a musical commentary.
The same epistemological preoccupation is found in an article (Kieffer, 1979), which comments on a semiotic analysis of the Good Samaritan by the Groupe d’Entrevernes (1977). I use there the words “methodological games” (467f.), in analogy to Wittgenstein’s philosophy of “word-games.” I propose that in order to choose between different games, you need an epistemological discussion of the limits of your own methodology. Where does your commentary start? Already with a well disposed Greek text, which is a substitute for the absent manuscript? I distinguished between classical philological commentaries which tried to elucidate obscure passages, and Jewish or Christian commentaries which made the text meaningful for a community, in a process similar to that used in jurisprudence. Since the Renaissance, historical and philological questions have been central. Modern commentaries tend to become bigger and bigger, and they seem able to absorb any matter the commentator wants to put into them, provided his editor is willing to publish the work. Semiotic analysis reminds us that there could be other kinds of commentaries.
As a prolongation of these reflections, I wrote a short, often quoted article (1976), in which I proposed that the commentator had to relate to both the commentated text and his reader. His aim is to make the reader a better reader of the commentated text and not of the commentary. He must be aware both of his own “habitus” and that of his reader, if he wants the latter to become a better reader of the commentated text.
In a monograph on the conflict at Antioch in Gal 2:14–21 (1982), I used a linguistic approach in order to elucidate the “sense” of the text. I studied the rhetorical transition from the addressed “you” (Peter) and the inclusive “we” (Peter, Paul, and all Christians of Jewish origin) to a literary “I,” which progressively expresses Paul’s most personal mystical experience, where the “I” finally gives way to Christ. Greimas’s “modalities” allowed me to explore the special interplay of knowledge (“savoir”), possibility (“pouvoir”), and willingness (“vouloir”) in the process of justification. By following the Wirkungsgeschichte of the text I elaborated a kind of “structuralist psycholinguistics.” This allowed me to make the distinction between “sense” and “signification” more concrete. Against extreme structuralists I maintained that the reader and the commentator had to be careful in regard to what makes every text unique, but also to know that the exploration of its “sense” is always made through different “significations” it has received during history. Some significations come close to the explored sense of the text, while others substitute a new text for it and do “eisegesis” rather than “exegesis.” Here again an epistemological awareness helps the exegete to see how his or her methods and cultural starting-point condition the results of the investigation.
Linguistic methodology allowed me to elaborate a new model for writing a New Testament theology (1977; abridged in 1987). Being unsatisfied by current theologies where diachronic and synchronic aspects are blended, I proposed to present the material as a corpus, which one has to divide into its normal unities: literary genres (gospels, letters, Acts, and Revelation), and small unities (each individual text). The structure and main theological concerns of each text are studied first in a synchronic way, taking in account the whole “corpus” constituted by the canonical New Testament. The diachronic aspects are studied as hypotheses after the synchronic exposé. Since the book would be used as a handbook in Scandinavia, I had to be restrictive in my development. But I still think that an even stricter linguistic model would improve the usual presentation of New Testament theology.
If I could rewrite the book I would develop the synchronic part with the help of rhetorical and narrative models that have been developed recently (see Kieffer, 1993). The theological ideas of Paul or John can no longer be presented in an absolute way but must be considered in a dialectic process between author and reader. Different kinds of “hermeneutics of suspicion” oblige us today to take into consideration the historical limits of New Testament authors who are dependent on models from a patriarchal society. Even deconstructions of the coherence of Paul’s or John’s theology are necessary in order not to oversimplify your own synthetic discourse. Semiotic research not only of fragments of texts (Panier) but also of a whole individual “corpus” can complete narrative and rhetorical analyses. Ole Davidsen has shown how this could be done on Mark, if you concentrate on the “narrative Jesus” with the help of Greimas’s and Bremond’s schemes. I have myself developed this in a more accessible way in my book Jésus raconté (1996), studying in the four canonical gospels three stages of virtual, actual, and fully realized narrativity of Jesus as healer, as announcer of the gospel, and as Saviour.
A theology of the New Testament must also integrate sociological, anthropological, and psycholinguistic considerations. A major problem is to find your way through the huge amount of particular view-points. The theologian ought to have an epistemological knowledge of how to use a multitude of methods in an overall view. He has to consider whom he wants to address with his own synthesis. As the word of God, mediated in limited human language, is meant to be used in different cultural environments, Jesus’ actions should normally be presented in a liberating perspective.
My theoretical considerations about New Testament commentaries came to a decisive test when I was asked to write a commentary in two volumes on John’s Gospel (1987b–1988). The planning team around Birger Olsson agreed that in the Swedish KNT series, the New Testament texts should be put into the centre, not their historical background, nor their Wirkungsgeschichte. We agreed that modern linguistic approaches to the text should be the normal starting-point. Therefore the commentary would be presented in three parts. In Notes we would indicate textual, philological and historical problems. The central part, the Analysis, would consider the context, the genre of the text, its function and structure. The Interpretation finally would closely follow the text, building on main results of the Analysis and of the Notes.
In a preparatory article about time and space in John (1985) I showed how concrete spatial and temporal indications in John had two functions: to insert Jesus’s life in a precise framework and to organize the text according to theological purposes. This was even clearer when I studied vague temporal and spatial factors. The author wants to demonstrate how Jesus must be put into humanity’s temporal and spatial centre. He shows how Jesus accomplishes the deep meaning of Jewish feasts in which he participates. His missionary activity is seen in the large perspective of his coming from his Father and returning to him. Transcendent aspects illuminate human time and space.
In a second article (1987a) I studied different levels in Johannine imagery. I explored first the figurative process in five typical scenes: John 1:35–51 can be conceived as an exhortation to become able to see; 3:1–21 tries to make the reader realize the passage from darkness to light; 5:1–47 not only shows how a sick man is healed, but the discussion which follows the miracle manifests that Jesus gives life to whom he wishes. In 9:1–41 we have parallel developments: a man blind from birth is not only healed but gradually discovers who Jesus is. In contrast to him some Pharisees and Jews fall back into spiritual blindness. In 11:1–53 the result of Lazarus’s illness is death, and at the same time is not. Jesus describes his friend both as one who has fallen asleep (v. 11) and as one who has died (v. 14). The reason for this is that Jesus has his own conception of life and death. The passage from death to life has its counterpart in those who surround Jesus and who are either believers or non-believers. Lazarus in his tomb embodies the power of death. When, after Jesus’s loud call, he comes out and is freed from his grave clothes, he illustrates the freedom which Christian faith can give. But the death and the raising of Lazarus also foreshadows what will happen with Jesus himself. The revivification of Lazarus is only a pale anticipation of Jesus’s own resurrection. The reader is thus invited by a rich stage-setting to believe in Jesus who will soon die and rise again.
In a more systematic way I study in this article how form and thought cohere in Johannine imagery: A subtle technique tries to involve the reader. The stage-scenes are enriched by dialogues or monologues, and by commentaries of the implied author. They have a sign-function: beneath the significatum-level of the narratives we constantly meet a significandum-level, an ideology which tries to promote a high christology.
Both studies made me aware of the richness of the Johannine world of metaphors. Following Paul Ricoeur’s theories about dead and living metaphors (1975), I show in my commentary how John is aware of the value of well chosen metaphors. Ricoeur, with whom I had several opportunities to meet, agreed with me that his theory could not capture all the richness of John’s imagery. Whole stage-settings have in his Gospel a metaphorical function. One can speak of a “metaphorization” which progressively enriches the text (Le monde symbolique de saint Jean Kieffer, 1989).
Being aware of this fact I added a special heading, “Imagery,” to the Analysis in my commentary, under which I tried to capture the subtle use of images in every scene. I could thus concretely apply some of my main ideas about how a commentary should be written.
“Mirrors” In Acts 10:1–11:18
In order to indicate where I stand today I propose to study a text which was at the centre of the Chantilly conference (Léon-Dufour, 1971:179–265). I rework an article which has been published in Swedish (1994). The personal evolution I just have accounted for makes me look on this text with insights both from semiotics and from alternative models of analysis. Moreover I should like to make use of exegetical observations which unfortunately are lacking in some semiotic studies.
I use as instruments the distinction which is usual in Greimas’s school between surface and deep structure (Groupe d’Entrevernes, 1977 and 1979). I refer to the surface structure with the help of the narrative programme of different “actants” and their special competence and performance. The “discourse” in which the author clothes his narrative material is studied by the relationship between words and thematic roles of the actors. I use “discourse” also in another meaning: to design commentaries, speeches, and dialogues which elucidate different narratives in Acts 10:1–11:18. As all written texts must be understood in their communicative context, where a message is addressed by an author to explicit or implicit readers, it is important to see what happens in the communication described in our text.
Surface Level and Deep Level in Acts 10:1–11:18
The reader notices many repetitions in this text: Peter’s vision is narrated twice (Acts 10:9–16 and 11:5–10) and is referred to in Peter’s speech in Jerusalem (11:13). Cornelius’s vision is narrated twice (10:3–6 and 10:30–32) and is referred to twice, once in a dialogue with Peter (10:22) and once in Peter’s speech in Jerusalem (11:13). Already the fact that Peter first hears about the story of Cornelius’s vision and then himself speaks about it proves that for Luke he is more important than Cornelius, even if the latter has had the first vision.
At the same time one must admit that neither Peter nor Cornelius are the most weighty “actants.” God’s angels and the voice which appears in the visions, and the Spirit who acts twice, are far more important. The Spirit addresses Peter in 10:19f., which the latter recalls in his speech in Jerusalem (11:12). The Holy Spirit also falls upon the Gentiles in 10:44, a fact which Peter also recalls in his speech in Jerusalem (11:15).
The reader perhaps does not at first observe that there is another important “actant”: the Jewish law, which in the beginning hinders Peter from taking the serious step of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles. The importance of the law is implicit in Peter’s protest during his vision: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” (10:14). It is expressed clearly in Peter’s short speech to those who are gathered in his house: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile” (10:28). In Jerusalem the law is present in the circumcised believers when they criticize Peter for having gone to uncircumcised men and having eaten with them (11:2f.).
In Greimas’s “actant”-model one can call Peter the “subject” of the pericope. The Spirit (10:19, 44), the angel of God (10:3, 22), and the voice are “helpers” in the plan the “sender” God has for humankind (= the “addressee”): to promote the Gospel in the whole world (= the “object”). Cornelius is also a kind of helper, when he obeys the voice of the angel. The law—which is internalized in Peter—and all the circumcised Jews are “opponents” that must be defeated with the help of the Spirit (cf. Courtés, 1971:205f.).
In order to overcome his own and others’ hesitation, Peter needs to see the intervention of God. His main argument in Jerusalem is: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (11:17). Peter has become aware of an action from God which overcomes the impediments which the law has raised against unclean meat and uncircumcised people. God alone can change the application of the law. After that Peter and the other Jewish-Christians can spread the gospel to the Gentiles. God who is the “sender” is also the “helper” in the narration. The two visions are instruments which God uses to make a communication possible between Peter and the Gentiles. Both Peter and Cornelius must be moved in order to obey God’s will.
The naming of localities is important in our text (cf. Marin, 1971: 228ff.). Cornelius is a centurion of the Italian Cohort, living in a big town, Caesarea (10:1). Simon Peter is lodging with his namesake, Simon the tanner, in a minor town, Joppa near the sea (10:6). According to Luke, Peter came from Joppa in order to raise Tabitha from the dead (9:36–43), after he had healed Aeneas in Lydda (9:32–35). It is obvious that Luke wanted to transmit a tradition about Peter, in which two miracles introduce the missionary revolution in Caesarea.
The visions take place one after the other in Caesarea and Joppa: the spatial distance is necessary to bring about a transformation in time. Therefore different days separate the events (10:3, 9, 23, 24, 48; 11:2). The vision makes Cornelius send three of his men to Joppa. They are still on their way, when Peter in his turn has his vision. It opens his mind to the point that he invites the men in and gives them lodging (see 10:23).
After this it is Peter’s and his Christian brothers’ turn to go to Caesarea in order to meet Cornelius and be witness of how the Holy Spirit falls upon the Gentiles. Peter baptizes them in a pagan place, but the decisive decision is taken in the holy city of Jerusalem, where the circumcised Christians finally accept what Peter has done. The way from Joppa leads via Caesarea to Jerusalem, the religious capital.
Another topographic code is important in the whole text: the region above and the region below. Cornelius’ “prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (10:4). Peter on his part “goes up on the roof to pray” (10:9) and does not know that the men sent by Cornelius have appeared (10:17). The Spirit himself must inform him about their arrival at the bottom of the house (10:19f.). On Peter’s appearance Cornelius meets him, falls at his feet, and worships him (10:25), but Peter makes him get up. One can say that Peter comes down from the height where he had a vision, but Cornelius has had his own vision and will soon, with the other Gentiles, experience how the Spirit is poured over him (10:44f.). God’s intervention from heaven suppresses the laws which decide on earth over the impurity of animals and Gentiles.
The different visions lead to the main event: the Holy Spirit himself takes the initiative in the conversion of the Gentiles (10:44ff.). This compels Peter in his short speech to propose to baptize them (10:47), which finally is done on his command (10:48). Peter’s long speech in Jerusalem has the effect that the audience recognizes that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (11:18). The initially negative attitude of the circumcised Christians gives way to a positive “sanction” of what Peter has done in Caesarea.
God’s will that the Christian mission should be extended to the Gentiles becomes obvious to the actors little by little. Cornelius is decribed with the help of different thematic roles: first as a centurion of the Italian Cohort (10:1), which adds a historic code to a story which begins as a fairy-tale: “In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius” (10:1; cf. Barthes: 231–34). His other role is more important: Cornelius is a devout man who fears God with all his household; he gives alms generously to the people and prays constantly to God (10:2). He is not described as a proselyte who is circumcised, but as a pious Gentile who has obvious sympathy for the God of the Jews. He prays probably on fixed hours of the day (10:3) and helps the Jewish community by his alms. His prayer and alms ascend as a memorial to God (10:4). An extension of the author’s indications could be that Cornelius participates in Jewish worship, observes the sabbath, and follows some purity laws. Anyway, he is the right person to be an intermediary between Jewish-Christians around Peter and the great number of non-Jews who soon will become Christians.
Cornelius is drawn near both God and the Jewish people. His piety is recognized by God and gets a divine “sanction” through the calling of Peter (10:4–6). The centurion obeys the order without knowing why Peter should come. He is an officer who is used to obeying a thematic role which Luke also underlines in his story about the centurion in Luke 7:8f. (cf. Matt 8:8f.).
In Acts 10:22 the men who were sent underline that Cornelius wants to hear what Peter has to say. The meaning of this remains unclear until Cornelius in 10:33 explicitly says to Peter: “All of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” Only during Peter’s speech before Cornelius (10:34–44) is the “event” itself (ῥῆμα) elucidated: it is “the message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced” (10:37).
As he does often in Acts, Peter sums up the most important events in Jesus’ life and the task of the disciples. He describes Jesus’ baptism, his miracles, his death, and his resurrection which has been seen by chosen witnesses. The task of the disciples is to preach to the people, that they may receive forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name (10:38–43). Finally, the miracle of the Holy Spirit falling upon the Gentiles makes Peter decide to have them baptized.
The threefold vision of profane or unclean food which Peter is invited to eat (10:9–16) becomes clear first when he as a Jew can associate with the Gentile Cornelius (10:28f.). At the deep level there are two oppositions which could easily be presented as “semantic squares”: “to eat profane or unclean meat” and “to accept uncircumcised pagans in the Christian community” against “to abstain from unclean meat” and “from all integration of Gentiles.” The separation between clean and unclean food symbolizes the separation between circumcised and uncircumcised people, and inversely the mixture of clean and unclean meat in Peter’s vision anticipates the mixture of circumcised and uncircumcised people in the Christian community, a blending which fulfils God’s will. The large sheet which comes down from heaven symbolizes the transgression of a rule concerning two bodily aspects: food and circumcision. To go against Jewish dietary laws becomes the model for how one can abolish the importance of circumcision in the Christian community.
One can also observe another opposition at the deep level of the text. Cornelius is depicted with positive features in his character (his prayers and alms, his piety), but he lacks what Peter can give him. Peter is negatively described as hesitant when he is hungry and does not dare to eat. But he has something important to communicate to Cornelius: the message about Jesus. The text smoothes the differences between Cornelius and Peter by describing the intervention of the Spirit in their life.
The Technique of Narration and of Discourse in Acts 10:1–11:18
I would like to look more closely at how different narratives and discourses create a special unity in our text.
The first sentence in 10:1 introduces the main story: “In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius …,” which is divided into two narratives. The first narrative about Cornelius’s vision, with a dialogue between the angel and Cornelius (10:1–8), functions as a model for the second one about Peter’s vision (10:9–16), where we have a dialogue between Peter and the voice. Both Cornelius and Peter have their visions when they are praying, the first in the afternoon at about three o’clock (10:3), the other about noon on the next day (10:9). In the case of Cornelius the exact place remains unknown, whereas for Peter it is the roof of a house. Cornelius stares at the angel in terror, a normal reaction to a divine revelation in the Bible. Peter reacts first negatively to the invitation of the voice to kill and to eat the animals in the sheet.
For Cornelius the main message of the angel is an order to send men to Simon Peter at Joppa. For Peter himself the narration is more complicated. We are informed that he is praying, but suddenly that he becomes hungry. He falls into trance while his meal is prepared. The message he gets in his vision is repulsive, that he should eat from a mixture of clean and profane food. In order to overcome his resistance the vision is repeated three times, and the voice tries to calm his conscience with the words: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (10:15). Contrary to Cornelius, Peter does not come to a clear decision; this is indicated by the sheet’s being taken up to heaven before Peter tries to eat. (But one must not forget that the whole story is about a dream-like vision).
In order to continue this main story about visions, we need a third narrative (10:17–23). Peter is forced to leave his ruminations when the three men from Cornelius come and call for him. The Spirit informs him that they are searching for him and orders him to go down and follow them (10:19f.). Here Peter is confronted with a simple command which replaces the former one to eat from the mixture of clean and profane food. It is easier for him to obey this new order and therefore he meets those whom the Spirit has sent. One can observe that Luke now explicitly names the Spirit, whereas in Cornelius’s vision it was an angel (10:3, 4, 7), and in Peter’s vision a voice (10:13, 15). The Holy Spirit “isotopically” reveals himself as a visible figure or as a voice.
In a short dialogue between Peter and the men (10:21f.), the latter sums up the vision Cornelius has had. They describe him as “a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (10:22). They omit the details about his prayers and his almsgiving, but they stress his relationship with the Jewish nation. The message of the angel is likewise more distinct: “He was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say” (10:22). In the Greek text we have the word ῥήματα, which in Luke can mean “events” or “words.” Here we have perhaps both at once: “to hear what he has to say on events, which are described with the help of (God’s) words” (see below, on Peter’s speech).
A fourth narrative describes Peter’s departure to meet Cornelius (10:24–33). When Cornelius falls at Peter’s feet and worships him, Peter underlines that he is only a mortal. In a short speech (10:27–29), he feels obliged to explain his unlawful behaviour in visiting a Gentile. He alludes to his vision by these words: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” The vision about pure and profane animals is interpreted as taking away the distinction between clean and profane people. But Peter still does not know why Cornelius has sent for him.
That gives Cornelius an opportunity to speak of his own vision (10:30–32). This report is longer than what the men had said to Peter in 10:22, but it is shorter than the account given in the main story (10:1–12). Now the angel is replaced by an equivalent: “a man in dazzling clothes.” God has heard Cornelius’s prayer and remembers his alms. Cornelius repeats the order from his vision and explains how he obeyed it and sent for Peter, who now has come. Then he adds the remark: “Now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say” (10:33). These words finally open Peter’s eyes on what he is meant to do and are a natural introduction to his longer speech in 10:34–43. In this address nothing is said about Peter’s vision, but we have a proper missionary speech to Gentiles. The introduction in 10:34f. is adapted to the situation: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Then follows the real subject of the discourse, which resembles what Peter does in 2:14–39; 3:12–26; 4:9–12; 5:29–32.
In this proclamation we can distinguish three important aspects: narrative aspects about Jesus, a discourse about messianic proofs, and a pragmatic aspect about conversion, faith and baptism.
Our text is rather detailed about Jesus’s life: God has sent to the people of Israel a “message of peace by Jesus Christ who is Lord of all” (10:36; cf. 3:26 and 4:10). Jesus’s public life starts with the baptism that John announced and “the anointing of Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (10:37f.; cf. 4:27). The message was spread in Galilee and throughout Judea (10:37). There is no parallel to this in Peter’s other speeches, but Judea and Galilee are named together with Samaria in the introduction to Peter’s visit to Lydda and Joppa (9:31). Jesus came from Nazareth (10:38; cf. Ναζωραῖος in 2:22 and 4:10). He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (10:38; cf. 2:22).
“They” (probably both Jewish authorities and Roman soldiers) put him to death by hanging him on a tree (10:39; cf. 2:23, 36; 3:13–15; 4:10; 5:30). That Jesus was handed over to Pilate is not explicitly said in this speech to Gentiles (contrary to 3:13f. and in a certain sense to 2:23). “God raised him” is mentioned in every missionary speech of Peter (cf. 2:24–32; 3:15; 4:10; 5:30), but only in our text (10:40) does Luke add “on the third day,” and that God allowed him to appear “not to all people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (10:41). This is meant to help the Gentiles who are present to understand why even the Jewish people needed to listen to Peter’s and the other missionaries’ speeches in order to be converted and baptized.
Our text alone underlines that Jesus is ordained by God as “judge of the living and the dead” (10:42). A similar statement is given in Paul’s speech to the Gentiles in Athens (17:31). The messianic proofs are the witnesses of the apostles (10:39, 41f.; cf. 2:32; 3:15; 5:32) and of the prophets (10:42; cf. 2:16, 25; 3:18, 21–25). The witness of the Holy Spirit, which is important in 2:33 and 5:32, is not named in our speech, but he will soon fall upon all who listen to Peter (10:44).
The speech is concluded by an implicit exhortation to believe in Jesus and “receive forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43; cf. 2:38; 3:19, 26; 5:31). But there is no exhortation to repent (see 2:39; 3:19; 5:31) and be baptized (2:38). The reason is that the coming of the Spirit upon the Gentiles in 10:44 makes this superfluous. When Peter and the circumcised believers around him hear the Gentiles “speaking in tongues and extolling God” (10:45f.), Peter concludes in a natural way: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (10:47). The Gentiles have experienced a miracle similar to that of the Pentecost for the Jews (2:1ff.). Therefore Peter orders the Jewish Christians to baptize the Gentiles, just as the Jews were baptized after the miracle of the Pentecost (2:41).
A fifth narrative follows the narration about the turning-point of the mission to the Gentiles. Peter goes up to Jerusalem in order to explain to the apostles and to the believers in Judea what exactly has happened. Even this narration is done with the help of a long speech of Peter (11:5–17). It sums up his vision in Joppa (11:5–10), the arrival of three men (11:11), and the exhortation of the Holy Spirit to overcome his hesitation (11:12). Peter then refers to Cornelius’ narration about his own vision (11:13f.), and how the Spirit fell over the Gentiles when the apostle was speaking to them (11:14f.). Peter makes a short commentary about all he has mentioned, and adds new information: “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’ ” (11:16). This discourse, which is a key to the whole story, is concluded with a formula similar to that of 10:47: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit as we have?” In a kind of “metatext” before the authorities in Jerusalem, Peter establishes a clear connection between their Pentecost and what has happened to the Gentiles in chapter 10. He has to submit to God’s will: “Who was I that I could hinder God?” (11:17).
The effect on the audience is described with a few words: “They were silenced and they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’ ” (11:18). We observe that Peter in his account of the vision at Joppa omits that he had gone up on the roof, that he was hungry, and that people prepared a meal (10:9f.). He underlines how the sheet came down from heaven and how he looked closely at it. The fourfooted animals are now divided into two groups: the tame and the wild (11:6). The narration which formerly was in the third person is assumed by Peter in the first person. With the exception of small stylistic variations, 11:5–9 is identical with the narrative in the main story (10:11–16).
The report on Cornelius’s vision is on the contrary very short. Peter does not mention the officer’s prayers and alms (10:1f., 4) but only how he had seen the angel standing in his house, who ordered him to send men to Peter (11:13). But something new is added: “Peter will give you a message by which you and your household will be saved” (11:14). These words lead the short account directly to the important event: the Pentecost of the Gentiles (11:15).
The allusion to the speech Peter held in 10:34–43 is even shorter than the narration of Cornelius’s vision: “As I began to speak the Holy Spirit fell upon them.” The new speech in Jerusalem makes a description of the former address to Cornelius superfluous. It was not Peter’s speech that was decisive, but the intervention of the Holy Spirit.
Mirrored Narratives and Discourses
In different ways we have shown how 10:1–11:18 is structured with the help of repetitions. We can with Barthes (240–44) ask the question how elaborated summaries must be in order to be identified with the main story. How ought Peter’s or Cornelius’s vision be retold in order that the reader can identify the same story despite different forms of narration? We had in fact no difficulties in recognizing the main story in all partial narratives.
When you have read the main story with the two visions in 10:1–16, you could think that the summaries are unnecessary. Why was Luke so keen to repeat the same story, adding some details or omitting others?
The fact that Luke structures 10:1–11:18 as a text with many mirrored narratives and discourses has in my opinion something to say to the reader. He or she should understand that the important step which was taken from a gospel for Jews and proselytes to a proclamation first to pious Gentiles and then to all Gentiles was discussed in every detail in the Christian church. When all were hesitating, the Holy Spirit himself intervened. The complicated pattern of narratives and discourses describe a multifold development in the church: the Spirit had a message for Peter and Cornelius; they communicated the messages they had got to each other; finally Peter submitted all that had happened in Joppa and Caesarea to the judgment of the assembly in Jerusalem.
Implicitly the text exhorts the reader to become aware of the complicated process that took place. Different “actants” or actors were active in the transmission of the message. The text reflects in its mirror-reflections what the reader is meant to understand: that the Christian message, when it wants to abolish frontiers between pure and profane or between circumcised and uncircumcised people, is difficult to accept from an older Jewish perspective.
Again we discover in a text how “metaphorization” functions in a manifold way. Circumcised and uncircumcised are bearers of metaphors for purity and impurity (and the reverse). The suppression of the distinction between them can in its turn become a metaphor for the integration of all nations. In John we meet stage-settings which progressively are transformed into christological metaphors with the help of monologues, dialogues, and commentaries. In Acts 10–11 the mirrored narratives and discourses try to convince the reader in another way. He or she should free himself or herself from the powerful impact of a metaphor which assimilates Gentiles to uncleanness and Jews to purity.
The analysis above, which goes back to the main text discussed at the conference in Chantilly, shows that my concern from that time is still alive. But I never wished to be caught in a system, even so powerful a one as that of Greimas. An exegete is not only interested in structuring the surface or the deep level of the text, but wants also to have a personal relationship to concrete expressions and manifestations in the text. He does not want to neglect text-critical, grammatical or other philological aspects, either in the examined fragment or in the larger corpus to which it belongs.
This corresponds to what I early formulated in a tentative way in my Essais de méthodologie (1971). I rejected there an evolution, where on one side you would have semioticians who neglect the original text, and on the other side exegetes who only work with traditional models inherited from the historico-critical method. I did not want to favour an evolution where two parallel truths would be elaborated, one for semioticians and another for exegetes, without any dialogue between them.
I always have been interested in the communication that both exegetes and semioticians have or ought to have with their readers. Commentaries are meant to help the reader, and not to accumulate complicated models or unnecessary erudition around the analyzed text. The reader wants to make the text his own in a hermeneutical approach, where different kinds of information are subordinate to the process of understanding. I still think that semiotic thought can be fruitful, provided it is not done in splendid isolation.
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From Historical-Critical Exegesis to Greimassian Semiotics: A Christological Issue, the Meaning of Jesus’s Death
University of Montreal
This article presents the application of greimassian semiotics to a problem of exegesis: the meaning of Jesus’s death in the New Testament. It describes the reasons for passing from historical criticism to semiotics and its actual conceptual impact. This radical shift in paradigm has produced a progressive transformation of the initial question, and has constantly given a new impetus to hermeneutical activity. Evaluation of the trajectory covered discusses the results reached by a semiotic study of the epistles focused on their discourses on Jesus’s death, and on their literary identity as “parallel thinking” or discursive rationality, a reasoning which belongs to a figurative level. In this case, what should we do with readings that produce christological and exegetical discourses, which themselves function in a logical and causal mode? The question is raised but remains open, as part of an ongoing research.
The Initial Question
Twenty years after the introduction of semiotics within one’s own practice of exegesis … Writing an essay about one’s own methodological memoirs brings back numerous recollections. Among them, questions related to one’s personal life, the anguish of a problematic thesis, the encounter with key people and works, the constraints of university life, and the pleasure of research. However, the adventures of a reminiscing “I” are of no concern here. Our focus is the use of greimassian literary semiotics to address a problem of exegesis.
The initial question had its roots in christology, in Anselm of Canterbury’s treatise on the theory of satisfaction, more precisely, in the conflict (obvious to me) between the perfect logical entity presented by a renowned theologian, and the limitless generosity of the creator of the universe presented by the Bible. Born of dissatisfaction about Anselm’s “satis-faction,” of too easy play on words, the question concerned nothing less than the entire meaning of Jesus’s death. From the explanatory theological systems I was sent back to the New Testament. Fundamental questions of this category are rarely popular. They are so enormous that one does not know where to start. Omnipresent, they constantly multiply the channels of reflection.
The twenty years that followed would above all witness a progressive transformation of that question, which would constantly stimulate hermeneutic activity. In chronological order, I wish to narrativize, schematically, the methodological migration and the semiotic process, and attempt a first evaluation of the trajectory followed so far.
When I asked exegetical scholarship the question I had assigned myself, which imposed itself on me, I believed it to be entirely solved within that field. Inspired by Stanislas Breton’s excellent monograph, La Passion du Christ et les philosophies (1954), I intended to apply to the results of exegesis a reflection similar to that in use in philosophy of religion. The seventies were witnessing a rediscovery of the Resurrection and of the dynamics of the Spirit. Our sensitivities had achieved some distance from both juridism and dolorism. In churches, the atoning meaning of Jesus’s death was still being presented as an absolute, but its sacrificial aspect was no longer accepted. One remembers the erudite works of Stanislas Lyonnet (Pontifical Biblical Institute), aimed at bypassing this aspect and expurgating it from the text of the Bible.
The task of interpreting Jesus’s death had never ceased down through the centuries. I found myself facing what appeared to be miles of library shelves on the subject. Yet, among historical-critical studies, beyond the works on textual criticism, historical questions, and source criticism, I only found a single literary analysis of the Passion narratives, namely, Xavier Léon-Dufour’s long article published in the Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible. I was greatly surprised. In addition three categories of works included the targeted narratives and analyzed other textual facets of Jesus’s death. Here, I shall summarize their content, which I presented in more detail in my chapter of the Recueil d’hommages pour Jean Delorme (Genest, 1993).
Soteriological vocabulary—Dictionaries and specialized working tools present remarkable philological studies of terms considered distinctive because of their recurrence in the Gospels, the Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation in connection with Jesus’s death. With a knowledge, itself remarkable, of the ancient Middle-East, the Greek (Koinè, Septuagint and classical Greek), Hebraic, Assyro-Babylonian, Sumerian terms, were explored in depth, going back in time in search of their roots. Receiving special attention were the verbs: to deliver up, to buy, to redeem, to free; and among the substantives: ransom, redemption, sin, cup, sword, baptism, alliance; the vocabulary on atonement and purification. Among the larger textual units studied were phrases built with the preposition “for”: for us, for you, for me; for the ungodly; a righteous one, the Church, our sins, our trespasses; the literary motives such as: the third day, the fate of the prophet, the shepherd’s devotion; some passages like Mark 10:45 and the narratives of the Lord’s Supper; some references to the Old Testament, mostly to Isaiah 53, to the concept of atoning death and of the martyr within the universe of Jesus as a character, within Hellenistic Judaism, early Rabbinic Judaism, and the Greco-Roman world.
This important philological and diachronic scholarship even supplied self-criticism in the name of the progress of semantics outside the field of biblical studies. One thinks here of James Barr’s works and his forceful critique of Kittel’s dictionary and those of David Hill on the Hebrew and Greek soteriological vocabulary.
The “Jesus facing his death” corpus—The seventies witnessed the birth of a series of studies all having, with minor variations, the title “Jesus facing his death.” As the logical consequence of redaction criticism, which distinguished between the stratum of the historical Jesus and that of the Jesus of faith, these studies undertook a broader questioning over Jesus’s self-consciousness regarding his fate, a questioning often linked to confessional theological positions concerning the two natures, divine and human, of Christ.
These studies attribute to the post-Easter community all the declarations of Jesus as character concerning the meaning of his imminent death. Thus, denied to the historical Jesus are: the clear or veiled predictions pertaining to his Passion as the Son of Man’s destiny; passages such as Mark 10:45 and its parallel in Matt 20:28: “to give his life a ransom for many”; the narratives of the Last Supper, which speak of the “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” This dichotomy leads to the conclusion that the Church proclaims that Jesus’s death was voluntary and salvational, while the historical Jesus underwent a death determined by the intention of his murderers. This brutal conclusion gave a new impetus to scholarship. The goal was now to fill the gap between Jesus’s life and his death as defined either by his enemies or his followers and successors. In 1975, Heinz Schürmann proposed the most promising solution; he attempted to demonstrate that the prophet from Nazareth’s “death-for” was grounded in within his “life-for-others” during his ministry.
The “New Testament Theologies” corpus—The phrase “New Testament Theologies” refers to that series of books which characterize themselves as such by their titles and their topic. Produced by exegetes, these works include famous classics that aim either at extracting the theology of the text, or at producing theology with the text, or again at describing early Christian religion. Yet all these works are very ambiguous, since their methodological identity is never clear. Actually, they assign themselves the task of systematizing the results of exegetical works, in search of a synthetic view of the meaning of the New Testament texts, over against the reading grid of confessional theologies and heuristic amplifications.
In fact, the theologies published in those days used a thematic approach, selecting in turn one or another theme that would bring together as many biblical features as possible. These were broadened “biblical themes.” Strange fact: they had generally little to say on the rather fundamental issue regarding the meaning of Jesus’s death. Soteriological vocabulary and synthesis of its various occurrences were their immediate research tools. Their starting points—i.e. the selected passages—were different and circumscribed, whereas their conclusions were extended to the whole question. For example, Bultmann’s theology of the New Testament (1948 and 1965), which still dominates the entire series, was heavily focused on Paul’s view of Jesus’s death; this was also the case with Conzelmann’s theology (1947) even though he does not state it and he adds a study of Mark 10:45. Dodd limited his theology of Jesus’s death to citations from Isaiah 52:13–53:12; 42:6; 49:8 and to the sacrificial aspect; Jeremias (1971) focused on Jesus’s words in the Gospels and the sacrificial perspective; Ladd (1974) limited his study to the Gospels.
Some of the works of the series remain masterpieces of scholarship on the historical context of the biblical texts and are fascinating to read. On the subject of Jesus’s death, however, they attain neither the synthesis nor the global vision that might be expected. Actually, none of the three kinds of research surveyed ever considered being definitive on that point. Yet, none of them expressed any sense of the limited validity of their partial conclusions. This is unfortunate, because by the end of these studies, we had the comforting impression that we knew everything on the meaning of that death.
Nevertheless these studies of the soteriological vocabulary, “Jesus facing his death,” and biblical theology taught me to go beyond the illusion that the New Testament proposes a single, absolute, unique, univocal meaning of Jesus’s death. Their valuable inventories, catalogues, and analyses of isolated fragments of text comprised a lexicon of biblical language on Jesus’s death. Yet they do not answer questions concerning the relative and reciprocal status of the elements of this specific “language,” when it becomes uttered language, text, and Word.
What was the relative value of isolated images, such as cup, baptism, sword, in relation to the qualifications of atonement, of redemption, of reconciliation, or of victory, and in relation to the narratives of the Lord’s Supper? What was the relative value of the sacrificial interpretation of this death as compared with a political, even martial, interpretation, which one sees in the death, a direct challenge of the Powers of evil? Did these various designations and literary formulas have the same theological weight as regards the “truth” of that death? What was the linguistic status of the elements identified as soteriological: direct, figurative, metaphoric, or parabolic language? What status does the New Testament text give them? The same status for all their uses in a given work? In several books? I looked for a connection between the “selected passages,” phrasing this quest to myself in those days as “the necessity to penetrate the text.” My historical-critical training did not furnish me with the key to this problem or the tools to analyze it. Classical modern exegesis made prodigious progress; but beyond the synoptic comparison, it was unable to proceed with a literary analysis of New Testament texts.
The willingness to pay attention to the synchronic and rhetorical dimensions, as we have learned to do in the meantime, did not resolve everything. For instance, the difficulty persists for an analysis focused on the vocabulary. Chantal Reynier chose that approach in dealing with “The language of the cross in the paulinian corpus” (1996), a thoughtful and rich essay published in the 1995 Acts of the French Catholic Association for the Study of the Bible. On the basis of the vocabulary from the semantic field of the cross, she endeavors to show that the language of the cross irradiates the Pauline writings in their entirety (365). Starting with the “strict” vocabulary about the cross, then proceeding to related vocabulary, she constantly has to complete it with vocabulary from different semantic fields, such as suffering, trials, everything related to death, including cultic and forensic images. In doing so, she is perfectly right, but we have left the semantic field of the cross.
Such progressive broadening of the semantic field from vocabulary to vocabulary attests to the omnipresent references to Jesus’s death, and cleverly sheds light on the richness of several aspects of the relevant texts. Yet it clarifies neither how these different vocabularies are articulated to form discourses, nor how they are interrelated (the vocabulary pertaining to the gift and to life is not merely found in relation with the Resurrection ; it is also found in relation to death), nor how they are organized into positive and negative categories.
Fundamental theoretical and practical questions remain in spite of the recent alliances of historical criticism with narratology, rhetorical criticism, and sociological and psychoanalytical approaches. In 1972, prior to these developments, the impact their discovery had on me in the quietness of the library of the Biblical Institute of Rome was such that I had to reorient my dissertation. In this decisive period, a simple word in the context of a consultation sometimes acquires prophetic value. I can still hear Professor Luis Alonso-Schökel: “Your intuitions are valid. Go towards new methods. Open the windows and let in fresh air. There will be some losses because they are still experimental, but introduce these new methods in exegesis.”
Sémiotique de la Passion by Louis Marin (1971) had just been published. I read it with avidity. My familiar horizon was shattered. I painfully deciphered a foreign language, but it was really the kind of approach I was looking for. Soon after, I went to France to attend Barthes’s and Greimas’s seminars; and I met Jean Delorme and the pioneers of what would become the CADIR of Lyon. The geographical journey Québec-Rome-Paris was a short trip in comparison with the conceptual migration that awaited me. The historical-critical methods coopted each other within the historical paradigm. I still thought I would complement them with literary approaches. But I quickly discovered that beyond unprecedented analytical methods, I had just migrated inside another paradigm, wherein altogether different concepts awaited me, of language, of linguistic phenomena, text, and the process of reading.
What happened to my initial question in the light of a new theory, of a new analytical tool, of another field of knowledge? The initiation into the method and its application to the New Testament would, in my case, follow the development of Greimas’s semiotics. For me, the “meaning of Jesus’s death” was now a part of the kaleidoscope of the sciences of language and of their spectacular efflorescence in Europe at that time. As I gradually absorbed them, I expected to appropriate these new methodological approaches and to master the standard theory while progressively developing my own application of it.
In the seventies, Greimas had just perfected his narrative grammar and his modal grammar. The book published from my dissertation: Le Christ de la Passion—Perspective structurale (1978) and two chapters from the collective series: “Le Dieu énigmatique de la Passion” (1978a) and “Les annonces de la Passion et de la Résurrection” (1980) belong to that period. “Le discours de l’exégèse biblique sur la mort de Jésus” (1985) is more a reflection over a limited series of productions in historical criticism: the Jesus-facing-his death corpus.
In 1982, Greimas’s seminar in Hautes-Etudes, Paris, which I attended during a sabbatical leave, broadened the domain of the figurative, which until then had been studied as an aspect of narrative. Now, the figurative was studied for itself, as was also the notion of the figural, with its diverse meanings according to different scholars. The figural revealed the presence of the enunciation, which, until then, I had assumed was established through the thematic, and had been encouraged in this assumption by the ambiguities of the Dictionnaire of Greimas and Courtés (1979 and 1986). After a lengthy study of the enunciate, the theory developed in the direction of the enunciation, linking the principle of immanence to the dimensions of reading and of the continuant of the subject in the semiotics of passions.
The following publications reflect my passing through this gate of the figurative, and my moving from the narrative of the Passion toward the rest of the New Testament, equally preoccupied with proclaiming the death of Jesus: “L’interprétation de la mort de Jésus en situation discursive. Essai d’articulation des figures de cette mort en I–II Corinthiens” (1988), “Lactorialisation de Jésus dans l’épître aux Colossiens” (1992), “La sémiotique et l’interprétation de la mort de Jésus. Parcours méthodologique” (1993), “Le Temple de Jérusalem et ses rites dans le discours des épîtres et de l’Apocalypse sur la mort de Jésus” (1994), Le discours du Nouveau Testament sur la mort de Jésus. Epîtres et Apocalypse (1995), “Savoir et sciences du langage” (1995a), “La figurativisation de la mort de Jésus dans les épîtres du Nouveau Testament” (1994a), “La lettre de Paul aux Philippiens, figure de l’épistémè chrétienne” (1996), “Lecture sémiotique et parcours critique des theologies bibliques sur la mort de Jésus” (1995b), “Le discours non passionnel du récit de la Passion” (1992). In progress: a continuation of the 1995 book that will cover the gospels and Acts, followed by a third volume in which I will reread modern christologies in light of the results of semiotic exegesis. These two books are related to the creation of a subsidized research project on “Gospels and Foundational Narratives” in which Jean Delorme and Louis Panier from the CADIR of Lyon, and jacques Pierre from the University of Québec, Montreal, have agreed to participate. These books are also related to initial research for a project on “The act of reading as a theological locus: hermeneutical and epistemological implications for christological studies,” in collaboration with Anne Fortin, a theologian at Laval University, and Jean-Yves Thériault from the University of Québec, Rimouski.
To my eyes, familiar with their content, all these publications follow, as far as my modest participation is concerned, the same trajectory which Jean-Claude Coquet (1997) has recently described regarding “the foundations of semiotic research in Europe, and especially the contributions of the School of Paris” to which he has belonged since its creation. In the early sixties, he contributed to the linking of linguistics with the humanities and the social sciences. He participated in the switch from “narrative semiotics” and its focus on the object to “discursive semiotics” and its focus on the subject. He defines the former as a third person semiotic, a semiotic of the non-subject, of predication, of Euclidean space, of objective time, of the event (rather than the experience) of the observer. The latter kind of semiotics moves out of the structural paradigm. It is a first person semiotic, a semiotic of the subject, of assertion, of topological space focussed on the enunciator, of the present tense of the self, of experience, of the participant. Semiotics had moved from the formalist paradigm primarily concerned with the utterance in the sixties, to a phenomenological paradigm primarily concerned with the enuncation in the seventies.
My first paradigmatic migration regarding the question that concerned me in biblical exegesis followed the meanderings of an ongoing methodological quest. Retrospectively, I can describe it, as Eco would, as the progression from the author’s intention (intentio auctoris) to the intention of the work (intentio operis), then to the reader’s intention (intentio lectoris). Certain paths, which seemed very tentative, can be recognized as having a definite shape when one looks back at their trajectory. The surprise of a progressive unification of my research does not erase the memory of gropings, constant adjustments, hypotheses that had to be abandoned because they could not be verified, the moments, finally, when the text being studied overtook the method.
The surprise does not erase either the memory of the friendly debts towards the “helpers,” pilgrims on the same quest. I am thinking of Greimas himself, of the members of his research institute, of CADIR of Lyon, of the founding of the Groupe ASTER (Ateliers de sémiotique du texte religieux) which, since 1982, gathers together professors from six Québec and Ontario universities, in a generous collective work that provides to all of us a platform for exchange and growth. Born of the simple desire to keep in touch with other semioticians isolated because of their preference for this method, and by the great distances in Canada, this group has organized several international conferences and published a book well received in scholarly circles: De Jésus et des femmes. Lectures sémiotiques, suivies d’un entretien avec A. J. Greimas. (1987); an entire issue of Laval Théologique et Philosophique devoted to “Lectures sémiotiques de l’Epître aux Colossiens” (1992), and a volume of studies on biblical and extra-biblical call narratives.
I should list also among the long-term “helpers,” the “qualifying tests” of university courses set up on basic semiotic concepts, articles presenting the method in forms predetermined by publishers of specialized dictionaries and journals, the supervision of theses and dissertations—a process through which instructors learn much from their students’ questions. May I conclude on an even more personal note by sharing the happy circumstance of an unexpected coincidence. In 1972, I was taking my first step in semiotic territory by reading Louis Marin. In 1990, when the New Jerome Biblical Commentary was first published, I found my name quoted side by side with his in the chapter on “Modern New Testament Criticism,” where John S. Kselman and Ronald D. Witherup only quote two examples of applying to the Passion narrative this “more complicated structuralist approach,” of which “the arcane terminology has frightened off readers” (1144).
Evaluation of the Trajectory After the Thirty-Year Stage
The enthusiasm of participating in a great intellectual venture and in an intense activity does not necessarily bring valuable progress. The twenty-year milestone offers an excellent opportunity to check what we have learned regarding (a) the approach to Jesus’s death according to the New Testament, (b) the redefinition of critical studies through the use of a semiotic methodology, and (c) the implications of the results reached so far.
The Redefinition of the Quest for the Meaning of Jesus’s Death According to the New Testament
One is dependent on one’s background, and on the moment in time when one sets foot into the already open furrow of research, a furrow that others have always already opened. I asked the question of the meaning of Jesus’s death in historical-critical exegesis. The question was neither unknown nor new. The purpose of all exegetical methods is clarifying of the text, and this particular question had received attention for centuries. However, for several decades, the relevant texts had been examined from a historical perspective with a philological method characterized by a diachronic orientation. I felt the need for a synchronic analytical approach, although in 1972 I did not use the distinction between diachronic and synchonic. I conceived of it, at the time, as a need for a literary method, as a means for both entering the text and distancing myself from the theological interpretations that had accumulated on each of its sentences and that had become self-evident in Christian circles. I expected that a formal, “objective” analysis would allow me to achieve this essential task.
Won over to what was then called structural analysis, I remained aware of the results regarding the historical purpose of the text obtained by historical critical studies, for which I will always have a high regard. Yet the methodology I had acquired at last provided me, in addition to its analytic tools, with a theory of text. Now I could more clearly see that the many features of textual content, which were regrouped in different categories, are found in the text as parts of system(s), within interrelated literary structures. Translating them into semiotic terms and continuing their study in the paradigmatic dimension would not suffice. It was necessary to go through the organization of contents through which signification is produced.
As I faced this fundamental issue of semiotics in its greimassian formulation, my approach to my initial question was totally transformed. As is well-known, Greimas had distanced himself from Saussure, abandoning a semiotics of sign, a semiology, to develop a semiotics of signification. From this point of view, my contribution to the present issue of Semeia contradicts its title: Thinking in Signs! Also from this point of view, the “meaning of Jesus’s death” was neither one or several nuggets to be dug out from the text and sorted out, nor the sum of accumulated knowledge on that text. Meaning is a construct, a product of the interaction between text and reader in a meaning-producing process. The “meaning of the death of Jesus” is a discourse on the death of Jesus which includes the reader who, in turn, is constructed by this discourse. In the same line of thought, my project, rereading of modern christologies, can no longer be the assessment of these discourses in terms of the sum of knowledge drawn from an exploration of the New Testament.
The Redefinition of Critical Biblical Studies Through the Use of Semiotic Methodology
Before the development of semiotics, biblical exegesis did not have any analytical method for the study of discourse qua discourse, just as literary criticism before the fifties lacked a method to account for narrative qua narrative. By this historical reference, I do not oppose narrative to discourse. Yet, I do oppose the analysis of a text viewed as the juxtaposition of sentences to a completely different study of the text as a discourse. Now we have the means: procedures, methods, and theories. They allow handling of large passages and entire texts so as to account for their global coherence. For example, one can easily imagine that discourse analysis might completely renew comparisons among the Synoptic Gospels.
Unfortunately, semiotic exegesis is slow to take off in this direction and to this extent. Even though astonishing theoretical advances have been registered, it is still mostly known for some remarkable analyses of short sequences. These theses written in universities further suggest that semiotic exegesis is limited to microscopic studies: a young scholar can hardly face a broad exegetical problem. We tried to deal with synoptic comparisons in a research project: “Gospels and foundational narratives,” looking for the specific literary form of the Gospels. In my view, this research team, which experienced delays unrelated to semiotics, moves in a direction well prepared by the twenty years of patient work aimed at integrating the semiotic method in the field of biblical studies.
Regarding the question of Jesus’s death, the semiotic method opened up a large field of research by broadening its quest and by providing means to manage it. The question of Jesus’s death cannot be limited to the Passion stories. These stories are not just a mere narration of a fact later commented upon in the Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation. The entire New Testament speaks of this death and continues to do so after the resurrection, which did not erase it like a bad memory, as one might have expected. (The short texts of 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, James, 2 and 3 John, and Jude are the only ones that do not refer to Jesus’s death.) In the New Testament discourse, the dividing line does not run between the narratives and their soteriological interpretations but between the two large families of texts: Gospels and Acts primarily characterized by narrative; Epistles and Apocalypse primarily characterized by the figurative. More exactly, this death is discoursivized either narratively or figuratively; but neither of these discourses is the origin of, or commentary on, the other. Thus, the conclusions of my study of the Epistles and Revelation (in my first volume, 1995) can only be partial: they need to be complemented by a similar study of the Gospels and Acts.
Still, regarding the redefinition of critical biblical studies, a broader range of questions: is it possible to adopt a method without also adopting its ideology? I thought so during the first years of my methodologic migration. I was going to appropriate a technique and its theory without adhering, in my case, to structuralist philosophy and its proclamation of the non-existence of the subject. Now that the subject reappears within the cultural movements born of structuralism, this issue is less threatening. Nevertheless, it remains true that the practice of structuralism, then of semiotics, brought with it a new vision of language, text, and reading, along with a new vision of the world. It would be interesting, along the lines of these reflections on our “contamination” by the method we practice, to assess, for example, in the enormous work of Thomas Aquinas, the distance between his theology-philosophy, elaborated on the basis of Aristotle, and the theology presented in his commentaries on the Holy Scripture; and also to assess the distance between the outburst of faith found in the hymns he composed and the strict logic of his five proofs of the existence of God, which he actually called “ways” to God.
In order to be really semiotic, the method which bears that name involves the crossing of an irreversible threshold. To me, it has been the best introduction to post-modernism. In this way I became post-modern before the fact and without realizing it. In the field of exegesis and theology, few seem to have taken this step. Is it from fear of the stripping that comes with deconstruction and with a non-positivist conception of history? Hesitating to cross this threshold is thus a possibility—though many do so.
Implications of the Results Reached So Far
For obvious reasons, in this essay it is impossible to make a detailed presentation of the results obtained so far. My 1995 book presents those related to the Epistles and the Revelation. The discussion is left open, awaiting subsequent analysis. At this stage, the research has the following general characteristics:
The plurality of meanings attributed to the death of Jesus was a wellknown phenomenon, even if, in exegesis and in the life of the churches, the meaning of atonement for our sins still has an unquestioned hegemony. Yet this plurality of meanings becomes problematic when one is familiar with the New Testament. How are these different meanings interrelated? Should we look for one which would summarize them all? A primary, absolute meaning? Should this not be one of the sacrificial interpretations? But this is a “thorn in the flesh” of our socio-cultural context, in which these interpretations do not make any sense, other than being tied up with atavistic feelings of guilt that need to be purged.
The polysemy of these meanings was not as well known, and thus less analyzed. In any case, the passages most worked on brought new insights, and the research presented in my 1995 book had other goals. The cluster of figures constructed around the death of Jesus progressively appeared as the analysis successively explored the figures, figurative trajectories, thematic roles, and thematic trajectories (227–39). All these semantic features were diverse and amazingly diversified. Furthermore, the figures of Jesus’s death in this cluster are also divergent, and sometimes in obvious opposition (241–54). How to harmonize, inside the same Pauline corpus, the humbling and obedience of Philippians 2, the suffering and abjection, with the victorious death of Colossians 2, all triumph and exaltation? One can of course appeal to the second part of the hymn in Philippians 2, but there the exaltation follows the death, as its consequence, unlike in Colossians where it is part of the discoursivization of Jesus’s death. Can one hold together, in synchrony, two opposite and even contradictory representations of Jesus’s death found at times in the same epistle and at other times in the same corpus? How can one do so on such a fundamental topic?
However, the epistles do not dissolve into nonsense. Christian communities lived by them and found in them food for their identity. For a long time I thought I needed to look for the key to the coherence of these figures. The method provided me with a large array of analytical tools focused on different textual dimensions: figurative paradigmatic homologations, semantic distinctions, elementary structure of signification, linguistic logic, tension between the poles of binary semantic oppositions, assessment of the maximum tension among the terms of categories, production of a third generation term on the semiotic square—a mysterious complex term that constantly eluded me (246). This was my way of looking for a deep cognitive organization through logical, hierarchical reduction of the thematic trajectories; I was reading the text in terms of causal, logical, and homologizing categories.
Doing research on the parables brought me an unexpected light; I realized that the thematization of Jesus’s death in the Epistles was functioning like a mythical and parabolic discourse. What they have in common is the unfolding of reasoning on a figurative plane, not on a logical and causal plane. This is “a form of discoursive reasoning, which is at least as important as the syntagmatic way of thinking, and which organizes the discourse beyond the level of sentences” (Greimas: 1983, 131–33).
Greimas gave to this discoursive reasoning the name of “parallel thought” (Genest 1995:239, 256–60). Thus, concerning Jesus’s death, the Epistles belong to the second dimension of the figurative discourse. The first dimension refers to the figures of the world; the second projects both a deep and abstract thematic isotopy, and a new lateral and parallel figurative isotopy. (See my book for further explanation of this metalanguage.) At this stage, the implications of these observations for an understanding of the literary function of the Epistles (which rhetorical analysis does not exhaust) remain to be tested on other themes, such as the resurrection and the Spirit. This identification of a reasoning process which follows a figurative line of thought (instead of a logical and causal one like that of traditional theologies and exegeses) allows us to envision new unexplored research avenues and promises to help us clarify the world of the Epistles and their interpretations.
Coming back to the case of Jesus’s death, an appropriate reading of its discoursivization needs to follow an interpretive process which duplicates that of the figurative “monstration” performed by the text, instead of seeking to formulate its basic principles in the form of syllogisms and dogmatic formulas (260–62). The Epistles metaphorize Jesus’s death; its reading must cease to function in a literal mode holding onto literality as if it were solid ground. The Epistles use numerous representations of Jesus’s death; reading must stop its quest for a univocal meaning. In their discoursive situation within the Epistles, none of these representations is more “real” than the others; none is more spiritual; none dominates the others by providing criteria to verify their validity. The Epistles uphold a profusion of representations of Jesus’s death and do not make them uniform; reading must cease to give priority to one or another of these representations. The Epistles do not solve the tension between the thematic trajectories; consequently, reading must stop its quest for logical solutions. The Epistles link their choice of one representation rather than another to the immediate context of the life of the community to which they are addressed and to the nature of the communication; reading must not isolate their representation of Jesus’s death from their concrete contexts and transform them into direct revelations and systematic postulates.
Despite the commonplace character of their formulations, such conditions do not make reading easy. They not only demand that we back off from centuries-old habits, but also, and mainly, that we move forward, taking the risk of a creativity stimulated by the example of the New Testament text itself. These conditions for reading also apply to the prolongations of a reading into other discourses, such as the exegetical, theological, ethical, catechetical, pedagogical, liturgical discourses; and also into written, oral, pictorial, musical, filmic, choreographic, architectural discourses. In all of this, the initial text provides the criteria for the verification of the continuity between these discourses and the text—a continuity that must be maintained, unless one has chosen to speak of something else or to engage in a different prolongation of it, sui generis.
Conclusion and Prospectives
Twenty Years Later
The panoramic vision of the past offered in this issue of Semeia did not bring any nostalgia (this longing to return home, according to the etymology of the word) for its methodological and biblical trajectory. The issue of Jesus’s death continues to stimulate new questions. More and more serious ones in my opinion. Whenever I get involved in a semiotic study of it, I am twice rewarded. I have the satisfaction that one experiences in the encounter with intelligence, here embodied in the entire greimassian system. I also have the satisfaction of using an amazing reading tool, extremely rich, and open to further growth. While looking for it and adopting it, I hoped to gain distance from the too familiar Passion narratives. But, I found much more: a practice of reading which is a participation with the text in its enunciation, of apprehending the globality of the text and, at the same time, appreciating every one of its facets.
For Its Twenty-First Year …
This article has already presented the foreseeable developments of my quest. Questions give birth to new questions, and this process pushes the exegete and the hermeneut forward. One of these questions, however, received less attention in the development of my concerns. Despite the relationship of the terms “Passion” of Jesus and semiotics of “passions,” so far my research has hardly dealt with the thymic (euphoric and dysphoric) dimensions of texts. Greimas’s last book, written in collaboration with Jacques Fontanille, deals with the semiotics of passions. This book was published in 1991 and is the result of works begun in 1978. All through the pages filled with treasures of all kinds, I have mostly been impressed by one expression which he repeats several times: “the epistemological minimum we need” in order to work, and “the epistemological minimum without which the autonomy of the thymic dimension is no longer assured” (99). In my opinion, this characterizes the whole book.
This theoretical construction still has to evolve. The technical apparatus suggests identifying different expressions of passions: phories, pathemes, pathemic roles, process-pathemes that would be called the canonical pathemical schema (85, 170–71). The exercise identifies the signs of passion but does not allow us to reach the pathemic dimension as such, because it is sometimes expressed without pathemes. Strangely enough, as far as my research is concerned, I find more pathemes in the Epistles, where the discourse is detached from the event, than in the narratives of Jesus’s tragic death in the Gospels (Genest, 1992b). Paraphrasing the sub-title of Sémiotique des passions, “the present status” of my own practice remains far from mastering the analysis of the “states of consciousness.”
Concerning the immediate future of semiotic exegesis, I have already expressed my wish to see it turn more towards fundamental questions of exegetic research and participate more closely in present exegetical and theological debates. As to the future of the greimassian method and theory, I am fully supportive of the critique of the generative trajectory which Jacques Geninasca has expressed for several years, as well as of his judgment summarized by Jean-Claude Coquet (1997:295) in these words: “It is the epistemology of semiotics that must be changed in order to escape the relative immobilism of these past twenty years.” Coquet himself concludes his article by giving his own diagnostic: “Therefore, the major problem facing the Ecole de Paris does not seem to be at the present time to identify some epistemological oppositions—which are already obvious—but for the sake of unity to search for the articulation of the two paradigms of reference: the formalist paradigm of the enunciate, and the phenomenological paradigm of the enunciating subject” (Coquet 1997:303).
More than thirty years after the birth of greimassian semiotics, problems of maturity become visible. What is at stake is enormous. The issues concerning specific methodological points and those concerning the strengthening of the so-called standard theory have long become obsolete. The fact that the concern of semioticians is now the articulation of different paradigms is, in my opinion, not a sign that we have reached a dead end, but rather a sign that semiotics is alive and growing.
Translated by Jean-Paul Pichot and Victoria Phillips
1961 The Semantics of Biblical Language. London: Oxford University Press.
1954 La Passion du Christ et les philosophies. Studi e Testi Passionisti 2. Teramo 5. Gabriele dell’ Addolorata: Edizioni “Eco.”
Bultmann, Rudolf Karl
1952–55 Theology of the New Testament. Trans. Kendrick Grobel. London: SCM.
1969 An Outline of the Theology of the New Testament. New York: Harper & Row.
1997 “Deux paradigmes de la sémiotique européenne: la narrativité et la discursivité.” Pp. 289–305 in Action, passion, cognition d’après A. J. Greimas. Ed. Pierre Ouellet. Québec: Nuit blanche; Limoges: PULIM.
Dodd, C. H.
1952 According to the Scriptures: the Sub-structure of New Testament Theology. London: Nisbet.
1978 Le Christ de la Passion. Perspective structurale. Recherches 21. Paris and Tournai: Desclée; Montréal: Bellarmin.
1978a “Le Dieu énigmatique de la Passion.” Pp. 97–111 in Dieu parole et silence. Essais et recherches. Montréal: Fides.
1980 “Les annonces de la Passion et de la Résurrection.” Pp. 115–28 in Jésus aujourd’hui. Historiens et exégètes à Radio-Canada II. Ed. Gilles Langevin. Montréal: Bellarmin.
1985 “Le discours de l’exégèse biblique sur la mort de Jésus.” Pp. 123–76 in Essais sur la mort. Héritage et projet 29. Montréal: Fides.
1987 De la fille à la femme à la fille. Luc 8,40–56.” Pp. 105–20 in De Jésus et des femmes. Lectures sémiotiques suivies d’une entrevue avec A. J. Greimas. Ed. Groupe ASTER, Recherches, Nouvelle série 14. Montréal: Bellarmin; Paris: Cerf.
1988 “L’interpretation de la mort de Jésus en situation discursive. Essai d’articulation des figures de cette mort en I–II Corinthiens.” NTS 34: 506–35.
1992 “L’actorialisation de Jésus dans l’épître aux Colossiens.” Laval Théologique et Philosophique 48:19–30.
1992a “Analyse structurale et exégèse biblique.” Pp. 11–21 in Dictionnaire de théologie fondamentale. Ed. René Latourelle and Rino Fisichella. Montréal: Bellarmin-Cerf.
1992b “Le discours non passionnel du récit de la Passion.” In Actes du colloque: Rêves bibliques/Passions littéraires. ACFAS Congress. Montréal. Forthcoming.
1993 “La sémiotique et l’interprétation de la mort de Jésus. Parcours méthodologique.” Pp. 173–83 in Le temps de la lecture. Exégèse biblique et sémiotique. Recueil d’hommages pour Jean Delorme. Ed. Louis Panier. Lectio divina 155. Paris: Cerf.
1994 “Le Temple de Jérusalem et ses rites dans le discours des épîtres et de l’Apocalypse sur la mort de Jésus.” Pp. 365–87 in “Où demeures-tu?” (Jn 1,38). La maison depuis le milieu biblique. Recueil d’hommages pour Guy Couturier. Ed. Jean-Claude Petit. Montréal: Fides.
1994a “La figurativisation de la mort de Jésus dans les épîtres du Nouveau Testament.” In Actes du colloque: La dimension figurative des textes bibliques. University of Urbino. Forthcoming from Presses universitaires de Lyon.
1995 Le discours du Nouveau Testament sur la mort de Jésus. Épîtres et Apocalypse. Québec: Corporation Canadienne des Sciences Religieuses and Presses de l’Université Laval.
1995a “Savoir et sciences du langage.” Laval Théologique et Philosophique 52: 319–26.
1995b “Lecture sémiotique et parcours critique des théologies bibliques sur la mort de Jésus.” In Actes du colloque: Exégèse et théologie: perspectives sémiotiques. Québec: Université Laval.
1996 “La lettre de Paul aux Philippiens, figure de l’épistémè chrétienne.” In Acts du colloque. Les lettres dans la Bible et la littérature. Le travail de l’énonciation dans l’écriture. CADIR, Université catholique de Lyon. Forthcoming from Presses universitaires de Lyon.
1992 Et maintenant? Hommage à Greimas à Urbino. (Unpublished ms.)
Greimas, Algirdas Julien and Joseph Courtés
1979 Sémiotique. Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie de langage. Paris: Hachette (English: Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary. Trans. Larry Crist et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).
Greimas, Algirdas Julien and Joseph Courtés
1985 Sémiotique. Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie de langage II. Paris: Hachette.
Greimas, Algirdas Julien
1983 Du sens II. Essais sémiotiques. Paris: Seuil.
Greimas, Algirdas Julien and Jaques Fontanille
1991 Sémiotique des passions. Des états de choses aux états d’âme. Paris: Seuil.
1987 De Jésus et des femmes. Lectures sémiotiques suivies d’une entrevue avec A. J. Greimas. Recherches, Nouvelle série 145. Montréal: Bellarmin; Paris: Cerf.
1992 “Lectures sémiotiques de l’épître aux Colossiens.” Laval Théologique et Philosophique 48:3–79.
1967 Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1971 Neutestamentliche Theologie. Gütersloh: Mohn.
Kselman, John S. and Ronald D. Witherup
1990 “Modern New Testament Criticism.” Pp. 1130–45 in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, Roland E. Murphy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Ladd, Georgem E.
1974 A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
1960 “Passion, récits de la.” Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible VI: cols. 1419–92.
1971 Sémiotique de la Passion. Topiques et figures. Bibliothèque des sciences religieuses. Paris: Cerf, Delachaux and Niestlé, Desclée. (English: The Semiotics of the Passion Narrative: Topics and Figures. Trans. Alfred M. Johnson, Jr. Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1980.)
1991 La Naissance du Fils de Dieu. Sémiotique et Théologie discursive. Lecture de Luc 1–2. Cogitatio fidei 164. Paris: Cerf.
1996 “Le langage de la croix dans le corpus paulinien.” Pp. 361–73 in Paul de Tarse. Ed. J. Schlosser. Lectio divina 165. Paris: Cerf.
1975 Jesu ureigener Tod. Exegetische Besinnungen und Ausblick. Freiburg-im-Breisgau: Herder. (French: Comment Jésus a-t-il vécu sa mort? Lectio divina 93. Paris: Cerf, 1977.)
John the Baptist’s Head—The Word Perverted: A Reading of a Narrative (Mark 6:14–29)
Catholic University of Lyon, France
The narrative of John the Baptist’s murder has inspired numerous works by painters, writers, musicians. Must they be considered as readings or rereadings of a primary text? One could rather say that these are variants or variations on the basis of more or less identical or common data. Yet it seems more respectful to consider them as original works between which various connecting lines are tied or untied. Today, one would say that they represent intertextuality at work. From this point of view, each of them could be read anew. In any case, one must provide a general definition of what one calls “a reading” in terms of the use one makes of that notion. I will try to do so, not by formulating a general theory but by considering the story of the murder of John the Baptist according to Mark.
We have before us a textual object which would remain a piece of mumbo jumbo if it did not become, through reading, a signifying text. If reading is not simply deciphering or identifying words and sentences, but entering a certain universe of language, then the reader must interrelate its diverse features in order to construct a “discourse” out of the text. This discourse constructed with the text is always primarily a discourse about the process of reading the text. It gives meaning to the text, even if it is in order to oppose it or to take some liberties with it, according to one’s purpose in reading it.
My goal is a reading which would subordinate itself to the text. But since the text does not speak, this means that I try to subject myself to the conditions the text sets and to take advantage of the possibilities it offers. In addition, I must pay attention to the rules I selected for that purpose, and to the operations I have performed as I comply with the suggestions of the letter. This is an initial form of the interaction between the reader and the book, which is something other than an implementation of the enunciation underlying the text. In the reading process this enuciation is actualized as one formulates the discourse. The reader has the entire responsibility for the quality of the relationship to the other, a relationship which materialized by a silent letter, and in which I, as reader, take the risk of involving myself through a speech act.
1. Rumor and Identification of Jesus (Mark 6:14–16)
The story of John’s murder is limited to Mark 6:17–29, and could easily be removed from its context. But, introduced by a γὰρ, it presents itself as an explanation of the judgment given by Herod about Jesus on the basis of what he has heard. Consequently, verses 14–16 establish a point of view, opening a perspective, which occasions a double level of reading: the story of the murder may be read for itself; yet it takes another meaning by being told as a flashback by contrast with the questions asked about the identification of Jesus and the various positions taken concerning him. All this is already a phenomenon of discoursive enunciation, signalled by a specific articulation of the time of the story about John with that of the story about Jesus.
As we consider the way the sentences are interrelated, we note that vv. 14–16 are focalized on Herod’s opinion about Jesus. The construction is complex: first, Herod hears talk (ἤκουσεν); a long digression presents in detail what people say about Jesus (vv. 14b–15); then according to what he hears, Herod passes judgment (v. 16). The focus is on the way Jesus is spoken of, which comes to Herod by hearsay. From these rumors, Herod retains a single element: the relationship established between Jesus and John. But Herod’s words do not concern what he could learn about Jesus; rather, what is said reminds him of John and of what he had done to him: “the one whom I beheaded, John, has been raised from the dead” (v. 16, reading Ἰωάννην, οὗτος ἠγέρΘη).
Before establishing the difference between what Herod is saying and what the others are saying, it is of interest to note that, even if mention is made of Jesus, whose “name had become well known,” he is not actually named. The last mention of “Jesus” was at 6:4, and the last deed attributed to him, was at v. 10 (in vv. 12, 13 it is the twelve who act in his absence). All the opinions cited are expressed as if he was overshadowed by the one they are referring to instead of him. They do not say: “Jesus is John, Elijah, a prophet,” but: “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead (reading ἐγήγερται ἐκ νεκρῶν) … miraculous powers are at work in him … (He) is Elijah … A prophet like one of the prophets … The one I beheaded, John, has been raised from the dead.” The present must be interpreted: the verbs are in the perfect tense (ἐγήγερται) or in the present (ἐνεργοῦσιν, ἐστίν), and it is the present celebrity of Jesus which prompts the reflection of the people. But this present assumes the figurative form of characters from a past which reappears. However, this appearance of the past does not have the same meaning for Herod as it does for the others. For them, the past opens in the new: John raised from the dead is a manifestation of the “miraculous powers” or miracles, which are designated elsewhere by this word (δυνάμεις, cf. 6:5); if Elijah reappears, it is because people recognize in him something of the future which the figure of his return represented; and if reference is made to “a prophet like (ὡς) one of the prophets” who were known, the “like” maintains the possibility of a difference. For Herod, by contrast, the past is awakened in his memory with the precision of an act that he himself performed, so the raising of John raises the specter of the beheaded body (v. 20; the two verbs in Herod’s sentence, 6:16, are in the aorist, the tense which expresses the past in its punctuality, ἀπεκεφάλισα and ἠγέρθη). The image of the past covers up the present and prevents any questioning concerning it.
Since the text does deal with the inner feelings of the characters, let us not talk about remorse. More simply, the text forcefully delimits the question of the identity of Jesus. Let us review three aspects. The question is set up within a context of hearsay, at some distance from Jesus, as if behind his back. From the time the Twelve were sent on their mission (6:7–11) until their return (6:20), Jesus remains outside the scene of the story. He makes people talk, and his identity is less acknowledged than spoken of. It is what is said that prompts the narration of the murder. Besides, this question is centered on and reduced to the relationship of the present to the past and the capacity the images of the past have to render the present. Do these images open to what is actually happening or do they obstruct it? Finally, this way of problematizing Jesus’s identification inevitably implies the question of death. In fact, it is noticeable that the many opinions expressed gloss over a death which has already somewhat faded away: John “has been raised from the dead” (perfect tense); Elijah, who was “raised” without dying, comes back; and even if the prophets are dead, a prophet like one of them now manifests himself. Herod’s opinion presents at least the distinctive characteristic of not erasing John’s death, which is vividly remembered because of what is said about his rising from the dead. but this does not imply any interest or any quest regarding Jesus.
These three interconnected questions concerning identity and images, the relevance of of the past for identifying the present, the passage through death, puts the story of John’s murder under spotlights, which give it a perspective not self-evident, and a scope which exceeds its immediate context. At the very least these questions invite us to read this text as something else than an anecdote.
2. The Story of John’s Murder (6:17–29)
This story is somewhat autonomous. Despite its being introduced by Herod’s reminiscence of the past, it is not narrated from his point of view. It unfolds through the interplay of actors and circumstances without any commentary and obvious intervention from the narrator. Two moments can be easily identified: that of the situation created by John’s arrest and imprisonment, which prolongs itself in time (vv. 17–20: the two aorists of v. 17 are followed by verbs in the imperfect), and that of the distinct but interconnected incidents during the banquet celebrating Herod’s birthday and up to John’s death and burial (vv. 21–29: verbs in the aorist predominate). As to the way the actors are related to each other, the whole story is united by a series of internal relationships which could be represented as follows:
a. John arrested and imprisoned by Herod because of his word (v. 17a)
b. Herodias against John (17b–19)
c. Herod and John (20)
d. Herod, his guests and the girl (21–23)
e. the girl and her mother (24)
d’. the girl, Herod and his guests (25–26)
c’. Herod and John’s head (27)
b’. Herodias obtains John’s head (28)
a’. John’s body buried by his disciples (29)
The process set in motion by John’s arrest (a) will lead to his burial by his disciples (a’), and this end of the narrative should impact its overall meaning. Herodias intervenes three times in this process (b, e, b’), particularly at the moment when the story tilts toward its denouement (e), without ever directly interacting with Herod or John. The relationships between Herod and John, at first verbal and auditory and unfolding in time (c), result in John’s murder (c’), as they connect, during the banquet, with the relationships Herod has with his guests and the young dancer (d, d’), and with her relationship with her mother (e).
These remarks on the interplay among the actors direct attention to the complexity of the interferences and detours by which the drama builds up, then rushes towards its end. At this point, a reading must supply itself with a means of analysis, if it wants to be more than a summary of the plot, or a paraphrase of the text.
2.1. Herod, Herodias, and the Word of John (Mark 6:17–20)
According to the text (Mark 6:20), Herod puts himself in an embarrassing situation, and the narrative itself seems confused. It proceeds backwards: it goes back from the fact of John’s imprisonment by Herod because of Herodias to the mention of their marriage (6:17), then it moves to John’s word which occurs between these two events (6:18). “Because of Herodias“: this way of placing her at the origin of John’s arrest remains ambiguous: Did she put pressure upon Herod? Is it an initiative on his part in order to please her? It does not matter, for in any case without her nothing would have happened. The temporality of 6:19–20 is less clear. Herodias’s hostility towards John (ἐνεῖχεν) and her determination to have him put to death (6:19) remains inflexible even after the arrest, but may have preceded it, like her inability to carry out her design. As for the fact that Herod feared John and was protecting him (a statement given as an explanation of Herodias’s powerlessness, 6:20: γὰρ), the text does state that this concerns only the period of time after the arrest. In the same way, is it only at that time that Herod was listening to John (6:20)? In any case, nothing suggests that Herod would go to meet with John in his cell, or that he would have him brought to him in order to converse with him. This lack of precision regarding the space-time frame found in 6:19–20 directs all the attention toward the relationships that develop among the actors, regardless of the place or the time.
The story resembles a sketch with only three actors. All the ingredients of a drama are in place, but frozen, in a sort of enduring unstable equilibrium. The profiles of John and Herodias are reduced to a few strokes; clearly they confront each other. By contrast, Herod’s character is particularly complex. Only Herod and John are placed in direct relationship. Herodias remains apart, behind the scenes. The relationship between Herod and John involves speaking and listening, except for the acts of arrest and imprisonment, which are the deeds of emissaries (6:17: ἀποστείλας) and are matters of coercion. John is presented as a man of the word, first when he reminds Herod about the law, then when we are shown Herod listening to him without any indication of the topic of their conversation. This last piece of information deals less with John himself than with Herod’s attitude towards him. Likewise, when John is called “a righteous and holy man,” it is still from Herod’s point of view (6:20).
In this sub-sequence (6:17–20), John is designated by his name, without any title. He stands as the herald of the law, and, more precisely, of the interdiction the law places on the marriage of Herod and Herodias: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” The law represents a superior word, introducing into human relationships a relation that we shall call for practical purposes “the relationship to the Other,” because it establishes differences to be respected by human beings in their relationships with each other. The inter-diction (inter-dictum: what is said is situated “between”) states the place of the word of the Other which interposes itself between desire and the object towards which it tends. It sets a limit, which can be violated, as in this case, but with the risk of a confusion which it tries to prevent. “Having the wife of one’s brother” disturbs marital relations and according to the Jewish law borders on incest, and behind incest looms a relationship to the mother and a refusal to separate from her. It is not marriage and sexual desire as such that are called into question, but the tendency (or impulse) to “possess” the object of desire without any distance, in spite of the word that comes from elsewhere and which regulates the growth of the human being through the establishment of otherness.
Despite the fact that in this passage Herod is not given the title of “king” (as in 6:14, then in 6:22–27), he was also in his own way a man of the word, the word that has power to be obeyed: he has John arrested by men executing his word. In other respects, he is receiver of a word which is not his, be it that of the law (6:18) or that which he “willingly” (or “gladly”) listens to (6:20 ἡδέως) from John. In any case, this word goes beyond his status as a king, it concerns him as a man, and as a subject of desire. The law contradicts his desire regarding the woman. If he willingly and gladly listens to John, it is a sign that within him something has been touched, that a desire of another quality has been awakened. It is not surprising that this left him “greatly perplexed” (6:20). His perplexity points out his division: his desire is to possess his brother’s wife and, at the same time, through John’s word which blocks his desire and at the same time attracts him, he is interested in something else.
Herod’s attitude toward John is equally ambiguous: he imprisons him, but he also fears him and protects him. He abuses him but not unto death. In a certain way, Herod protects his life against Herodias’s murderous intention, but he imprisons John and ties him up. One remains in a mixed, undecided situation where values are being perverted. Herod considers John to be “a righteous and holy man“: righteous, meaning, in the biblical context, well- adjusted to others and to God in conformity with the law which ensures that each has his/her rightful place; and holy, that is, participating in some way in a holiness that belongs only to God. “Fear” expresses as much the dreadful difference as the attraction or respect owed to a man marked by justice and holiness beyond understanding. This is once more a way to acknowledge the place of the Other. But at the same time, Herod keeps that man tied up, and his word locked up. That word which is meant to circulate he keeps at his disposal for whenever it pleases him. Whenever it denounces him, he confines it. He uses his power to be obeyed in order to deprive this word of an audience—this word which concerns him as a man, but also concerns others. As a king, his word is not anchored to the word of the Other.
By contrast, Herodias is a one-dimensional character, entrenched in her hate against John, and in her determination to have him put to death. She cannot do it. Herod is the one with that power. For her as well as for him, it is the attitude towards John’s word which remains the issue: Herodias refuses this word to the extent of being determined to suppress the one who utters it, whereas Herod keeps John alive but locks up his word. Herodias’s reaction is diametrically opposite to John’s freedom. For he is free, even in prison, to speak the word which is not his, and which could well promote a dialog since it belongs to no one. On the contrary, Herodias’s murdering violence does not leave room for a spoken exchange, for an authentic relationship to the other. She cannot engage in such a relationship, because she remains caught in her impulse, in her instinct, and finally caught in her imaginary, since what she imagines, the murder of the speaker, has no power against the word.
2.2. A Head for a Dance (6:21–29)
The equilibrium between Herodias’s hate for John and the fear he inspires in Herod could just go on. But it depends only upon the king’s indecision. It only needs the circumstance, or as the text puts it “the opportune time” (εὐχαίρου, v. 21), for everything to topple over. The story then takes another turn. Time is made up of a succession of rapid actions which are inexorably linked to one another. Spaces and actors’ movements are well defined: Herod and his guests in the banquet room; Herodias apart; John in the prison. Herodias’s daughter comes in; goes out; comes back in; goes back and forth between the room and her mother; a guard moves between the room and the prison.
2.2.1 The birthday, the dance, and the king’s promise (6:21–23). Herod celebrates his birthday by giving a banquet “for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.” The birthday is a reference to birth (γένεσις) and, by extension, to the mother. The status of the guests marks the solemnity, the prestigious character of a celebration, a jubilee, not designed for simple human beings but for royalty. High ranking officials, military, civil servants: Herod is surrounded by all the aristocracy “of Galilee,” the area of his dominion. But the king is also a man, and, should he forget it, the story will not let him. For the moment, the text presents him celebrating life, his own (his birthday, the banquet), with all the magnificence corresponding to his rank.
The sentence which expresses this is long and complicated (6:21–22a). It only takes three participles to tell about the day the celebration takes place, about the banquet, then the entrance of Herodias’s daughter and her dance, so that the emphasis falls on the main clause, which notes the impression made by the dancer upon the spectators: “she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.” The text does not show any interest regarding the scene briefly suggested by the dance. But how could one miss the fact that this represents the second comment about Herod’s emotions? He “willingly” and “gladly” listened to John, and now it is with pleasure that he is watching Herodias’s daughter dance. Approval changes register and moves from hearing to watching, from the word heard to the gracefulness of rhythmic movements performed by a young body. As if by pure coincidence, we find once more the two conflicting figures of Herod’s perplexity of 6:17–20, that of the word witnessing of the Other, and that of the female body. Whereas his attraction for his brother’s wife was in contradiction with the law, his interest in the young girl’s body and the hearing of John’s word are not conflicting but harmonize under the effect of pleasure. However, this rapprochement between the word that was heard with pleasure and the delectation brought by the sight of the dancer casts doubts on the quality of his hearing: Does that word from John listened to with pleasure keep its impact on his conscience? Or, does not this pleasure betray complacency and imaginary self-satisfaction? What follows seems to be leaning towards the second hypothesis.
Herod’s pleasure can be measured by the recompense he is ready to grant the dancer. Henceforth, he is simply designated by his title ὁ Βασιλεύς (6:22, 25, 26, 27). With regard to the young girl and in front of his guests, he engages his word as a king as if he had the power to satisfy any desire: “Ask me for whatever you want, and I will give it.” As if that was not enough, he binds his promises with oaths (6:23a, 26a), hence calling upon a superior authority not subject to human deficiencies. He stipulates: “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” This apparent conspicuous reservation, “half of my kingdom,” does not however restrict the scope of the desire. Spoken by the “king” to a young dancer, it expands it beyond measure. The king does not know the limits of his power; he fancies he possesses his kingdom like an object, which he can dispose of at will. He completely gives way to the imaginary and he has lost control of his word.
This is not simply imprudence: he begins to pervert the word. He ties himself up by an irrevocable promise made under oath. An oath is a way of appealing to another word which forces him to keep his promise. Therefore, he summons the word of the Other in order to strengthen his own. But his word remains to be invested by the young girl’s desire. In other words, the promise made under oath offers an empty shell, indifferent to its content, but granting in advance the power of law to the content to come, whatever it may be. By a word placed under the authority of the law, Herod ties himself to an alien, indefinite desire, to be formulated in the open field of unlimited desire. Nothing real, no law, nothing can obstruct that desire Herod allows the other to express, not even the power he imagines he has and grants to himself.
2.2.2 The mother, her daughter and John’s head (6:24). Carried by the young girl who is going out to her mother, the promise sworn by Herod is going to come back to him loaded with content. This spatial detour is not a diversion; it demonstrates the logic of a word delivered without rule, at the mercy of whosoever will manipulate it. From that point of view, it is not surprising that the conversation between the girl and her mother constitutes the crucial moment of the plot. This is the moment to define what is being spoken of and who is speaking, i.e. the two components of the word without which it does not carry any weight. Herod omitted to define these. Who is speaking? Herod, caught in the imaginary, without any challenge from reality, talks too much to represent the speaking subject of an authentic word. The young girl is without personal desire and has nothing to ask except what her mother wants. As for Herodias, her relation to the word deserves to be examined. She decides what the issue is: “the head of John the Baptist,” this is clear. But what becomes of the word when it is thus treated?
The promise was not made to the mother but to her daughter. However, since the girl asks the mother, the mother is the one who decides. The mother takes her daughter’s place and uses her in order to impose her will. Their relationship does not leave room for even the smallest space that would render possible a dialogue where the word of each would count. This wordless relation gives the mother full control over Herod’s empty word which has been warranted by an oath. Diverted into the space of a possessive mother, this word is filled with her desire. That desire, which refuses in John’s word the law that stands in contradiction with it, succeeds in assuming the role of a word of law. That desire holds the word captive instead of being modulated by it in relation to its object. Herodias’s murderous will speaks instead of the Other. She becomes John’s perfect antithesis, or rather a caricature of the source who makes him speak. The fact that she requests John’s head confirms this. She wants to put him to death because of his word. At this point, her hate is not directed toward his life in general, because she clearly designates the part of his body she wants to overpower: she wants his head to be severed as if that would suffice to put an end to the word, as if the mouth were the word’s source instead of its momentary organ.
2.2.3 Return of the perverted word and its execution (6:25–28). When the girl comes back to the king (6:25) she is in a great hurry to relate her mother’s will with precision: “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Under the spell of the dancer, Herod believed he could give her everything, unable to reflect about anything but his inclination of the moment. In the same way, the haste with which the girl returns (εὐθὺς μετὰ σπουδῆς), like the “at once” (ἐξαυτῆς) of the request, indicates the same lack of an interval in which a word might fall upon that desire and delay it. The request to have John’s head “on a platter” (ἐπὶ πίνακι) leaves no doubt as to the object of the request: the head severed from the body. One may hesitate between “on a platter” and “on a board”—the Greek word could be applied to either (πίναξ, “board, platter, tablet …”)—but maybe there is no need to choose. A board would in some way serve as a sort of display for that head now reduced to silence: be it to rejoice about it, to mock, or to inspire horror, the fact is that it can be seen and everyone can ascertain that the word has been nullified, that there is nothing to be heard. Within the context of a banquet, a platter would serve the same purpose, and also underscore a contrast bordering on the intolerable: a speaking man’s head not only reduced to silence, but also to the status of food served at a table. Contempt for the word and confusion between speaking and eating could not be expressed more forcefully.
The word from the girl finds Herod as he has already been presented to us. Susceptible to emotion: he is greatly distressed (6:26). He is divided, but this is no longer perplexity: he is making a decision, but reluctantly. The phrase that explains it is particularly dense: “The king was greatly grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” The considerations overriding his feelings apply therefore to the oaths he made, his guests, and mostly to the young girl. Although she is referred to at the end of the series, she is in a grammatically privileged position within the sentence by being the complement of the main clause. Herod does not want to deprive her of his commitment on her behalf and to jeopardize the right he granted her (ἀθετῆσαι αὐτήν). This motive demonstrates therefore the weight of oaths. They take precedence over everything. But it is obvious that their value has changed since they were formulated, and now they cover a murder that the king had not wanted. Without reconsidering the oaths, he acts as if they compelled recognition without any reference to “reality” or any law whatsoever. Similarly, that right given to the young girl is also considered independently of any superior right. Finally, this right exerted through the girl cloaks the mother’s desire. The murdering desire of the illegitimate wife and devouring genetrix takes the place of the law.
The presence of guests adds a detail that should not be overlooked. They have witnessed the promise, and when comes the moment that it should be either fulfilled or annulled, in their eyes it is the image of the “king” that is being challenged. On the other hand, they are all implicated with him in the pleasure they had from the dancer whom he made a point of rewarding. Herod is caught in a community involving feasting, appearance, and self-consideration in relation to others, so many things taking precedence over his relationship of responsibility to the other and to the word of the law. The emphasis of the text in designating him by his title as a “king” stresses even more the contrast between his power and the way he wields it according to his mood and to circumstances. Worse, the king is trapped by a word thrown out without due consideration, that has become the toy of a desire mimicking the law. He yields and gives the order which ratifies the elimination of the law.
The officer sent to execute that order becomes an executioner (6:27). The prison was holding John’s word captive. Refusing that word (Herodias) or evading it (Herod) transforms the prison into the place where its witness ends up being decapitated. Brought back on a platter, John’s head is given to the one who requested it, and to the one to whom it had been promised as a “gift” from the king: a head finally silenced for a dance. The pleasure of listening to it is permanently erased by the pleasure that came from the young girl, for which she received a reward. Then the girl passes on the gift to her mother from whom she does not detach herself, and who plays the role of her own thought and will. John’s head passes from hand to hand, doing in reverse the journey of the manipulated word. The head ends up where the intent to get it by violence originated, where the will to cause death succeeded in taking hold of a sworn word. Herodias receives the trophy of the apparent victory of desire replacing the law.
The disciples and John’s body (6:29). The story ends with the intervention of John’s disciples. This is not mere information about what happened to John’s body. The disciples are set up in contrast to Herodias. The text presents to us the divided image of a mutilated body: the head has been handed over to the instigator of the murder, the body has been taken away and buried by the disciples. We do not know what Herodias did with her trophy. The story leaves it with the illegitimate spouse and abusive mother like a sign of the hated word which she seems to have vanquished, as if she were the one who had the last word. John’s disciples represent the opposite: the word which continues its work in them and through them. The text states that “they took his body and laid it in a tomb,” or, rather, in a place of memory μνημεῖον The tomb hides the body, but it also becomes a monument which perpetuates remembrance and generates words. It sets a seal upon John’s silence, but keeps him alive through his disciples’ word.
This final contrast prevents the reader from stopping with the cruel image of John’s decapitation. The image of the head severed from the body imposes itself on memory and makes its significance bear fruit without giving that signifier a clear and permanent meaning. The head severed in order to silence a man of the word becomes a signifier which compels the reader to be silent in the presence of a non-formulated word. The mutilated body denounces the perverted word of which it bears, so to speak, the deadly wound. The executioner inscribed upon John’s body an atrocious caricature of a different cutting which the word performs, and not to bring death. The word cuts through the confusion and decides where passion, self-image, and desire bent to sensual enjoyment have a tendency to confuse the imaginary with reality, subjects with objects, and where confused feelings lead to perplexity and indecision. The sword of violence is hurled against the body and cuts it into pieces because it is powerless to exclude the word and to imitate its cutting edge.
3. John and Jesus
Let us return to the opinions about Jesus offered by Herod and the people. It goes without saying that the story of John’s death presents a point of view different from Herod’s concerning Jesus, and thus opens a new direction to identifying Jesus in relation to John.
Herod speaks of John whom he had beheaded, and who has been raised from the dead, while the story concludes with John buried by his disciples. Unlike Herod, haunted by a “ghost,” i.e. the dead coming back with the face of death, the story confronts John’s “after-death” with the symbol of the severed head, the presence of his disciples, and the memorial that has been erected for his body. Herod did not understand his prisoner’s death and what was said about it, any more than he succeeded in making sense of John’s word/speech when he was gladly listening to it. He remains in a state of confusion that prolongs the confusion that perplexed him before. In contrast, the story of John’s death clarifies.
It reestablishes the borderline between past and present, which is in danger of being overshadowed by the rumors concerning Jesus. It does so by focusing on the opinion that speaks of John as “raised from the dead,” and also on those opinions which refer to Elijah or to “a prophet like one of the prophets.” The relationship between Jesus and these great witnesses of the word is not satisfactory if the past is the object of an imaginary fixation. Evoking images of well-known and perhaps idealized characters, and attaching these images to Jesus, prevents one from paying attention to what is different and extraordinary about Jesus. In order to dispel these images, it is necessary to tell about John’s death and burial, which mark a division in time and also the difference between the lost body and the rising new word.
As a whole, this text perfectly fits in its place within the book of Mark. Between the activity of the Twelve whom Jesus sent by themselves to preach (6:7–13) and their return to the scene with Jesus (6:30), the focus given to public opinion, and the way the story of John’s death corrects it, are not mere digressions. The word is spreading, constantly threatened by simplifications, delays, and projections from the public. It is waiting to be received as a word for change (6:12). Herod and Herodias present a counter-example of reception of the word. Those by whom the word is being heard may disappear, but the word is not extinguished for all that. Thus, among all the opinions circulating about Jesus, there is something right that deserves to be retained. Elijah, the prophets, and John all testify to a word that transcends them, a testimony which Jesus now takes over (cf. Mark 1:14). The image of one cannot be assigned to the other, nor their testimonies confounded in a single message they might have in common. The word also passes through their differences.
The relationship between Jesus and John, on which Mark focuses in several ways, it is not defined as a relationship of power, but, contrary to Herod’s opinion (6:14), as a relationship of the word. More precisely, according to the story of John’s death, both Jesus and John are related to the excluded word, the word alienated against its witness and sealed by a death that spreads it further. There are numerous analogies between the story of John’s murder and that of Jesus (Mark 14–16). Both are arrested or accused because of their word. An actor wants the death of one or the other, without having the power to inflict it (Herodias, the Sanhedrin, motivated by hate or jealousy). That death is finally decided by an actor who does not want it (Herod, Pilate, both holding political power). A third actor, one who can be manipulated (Herodias’ daughter, the crowd), causes the person who does not want to kill to have someone else do the killing. The scheme is successful because of a word of the person who does not desire the death, an empty word which recognizes the right of the one who does desire it (sworn promise, established custom), and comes back filled with a death wish.
However, unlike John’s, Jesus’s delivered body is not divided except within a sign (Mark 14:22). It is not taken by disciples (at least in Mark), and will not remain in the hands of any one. The memorial-tomb (μνημεῖον, 15:46) where it is laid will be found open by some women who cannot be compared to those presented in John’s story. The tomb is empty, or rather it is occupied by a young man dressed in white who substitutes for the missing body this announcement: “Jesus … who was crucified. He has been raised.” The memorial denies John’s resurrection but signals that of Jesus. It becomes the location of a word which is not only that of a dead person remaining alive in his disciples’ memory. It is a new word that sprang up from death and is open to the present like the one whom it claims is alive.
Having brought this study to completion, did we produce a reading or a commentary? There are no pre-defined labels. The procedure is more important than the results, which are always deficient. I think we have attempted to follow the procedure of readers who try to set themselves at the intersection of the possibilities made available by the text itself and the proposals of meaning which they can bring to the text. Assigning meaning always involves the readers who must take a risk with it, while checking if it is appropriate for the letter of the text considered in its totality.
The resistance of the text can be felt on several levels. The levels of vocabulary and of the grammatical structure of sentences are readily apparent but are not sufficient. Articulated in sentences and paragraphs, the discourse brings forth more subtle dimensions which carry the totality of the relationships among the representations of the actors in time and space. These representations are easy to identify. But when they are considered from the perspective of the web of the text, they become figures of content, freed from what they represent (e.g. Herod as a character within his historical dimension, the setting of the royal celebration banquet, a dancer) and invested with a signifying power reaching beyond the mere production of ideas or lessons. It is not only a question of assigning one or more plausible meanings to the behavior of a character at a given moment, although this might have to be done, but of entering into a process of production and capture of meaning, i.e. of overall orientation (the same way one speaks of the “direction” of a road). These lines of force that underlie the figures, imply, as in a painting, a point of convergence which gives them a common orientation. This point is nowhere written in the text and cannot be determined once for all. This is why reading never succeeds in superseding the text, and can always start over again by coming back at its own discretion, and exerting its power of appeal to the reader.
This story does not teach, nor does it explain. It allows for the interplay of figures that can speak to any human being. The relationship between man and woman, mother and daughter, like the relationship between political power and law, love and death, body and word, etc. may resonate within the conscious and unconscious memory of the readers. Thus, it is not surprising that this text has provoked so many interpretations. The history of its readings is not so much the accumulation of knowledge but rather a testimony to its power. This power dwells in the text and is not exhausted. In this power we experience what is called, in semiotics, its immanent enunciation: the letter inscribes the trace of a virtual power of the text which the reading actualizes while allowing the text to guide one as it constructs its discourse. The readers submit to a constant to and fro movement between their reading discourses and those which the features of the text are capable of evoking. They are situated in-between. The interferences between the discourse to be constructed in order to honor the text, and those that our culture makes us produce or hear, are not necessarily to be feared, provided that one maintains between them the distance necessary to prevent echoes or resonances that can interfere with listening. The questions brought up by our culture might make visible in ancient texts deep tracks that might been overlooked by a purely historical reading, just as high altitude photographs reveal towns that have been buried by the accidents of a moving landscape. Conversly, because of those rediscovered tracks, our view of our own cultural environment changes.
Within the great texts which have stood the test of time and continue to attract new readers, something is getting through, crossing through cultures, testifying to the “being of word” (the speaking being) who never ceases to conceal and reveal him/herself in the language of which he/she makes use. Textual enunciation touches us to the quick where each of us struggles with a word that we can and cannot express. This view of reading owes much to the contemporary discourse of poetics and psychoanalysis, and this is not necessarily a flaw. When this way of reading submits itself to the test of Mark’s Gospel, recognizing there an interest in the word which confronts—in the existence and the behavior of John and Jesus—a reality which escapes it, the point is not to know what Mark thought about it, but to probe the text’s openness and the possibility of a global interpretation along the lines that it indicates.
Against the range of current opinions about Jesus’s identity (6:14–16), a question emerges: how to say who he is? The story of John the Baptist’s beheading sets up precisely the separation and internal conflicts between body and word, between self-delusion and selfishness and the other who disturbs and calls for openness. This might be the reason why this story has remained engraved in the cultural memory, and why it has generated so many inventive and variant readings in literature and in the arts.
Translated by Jean-Paul Pichot, Daniel Patte and Victoria Phillips
A Fresh Look at the Garden of Eden
Mary Phil Korsak
European Society of Women for Theological Research
Certain attributes of the Godhead have been forgotten by interpreters of the Garden of Eden story. Furthermore, biblical commentary imposes a negative image of the first human couple and particularly of the woman in the garden. Words with moral overtones such as “fall,” “evil,” “temptation,” “shame,” legal terms such as “prohibition,” “forbidden,” “guilty,” “punishment,” “time of judgement,” psychologically dismal terms such as “doubt,” “suspicion,” “anxiety,” “broken relationship,” “hostile,” “estrangement,” characterise biblical footnotes to this “temptation story” (cf. The Oxford Annotated Bible; RSV, 1962:3–5).
This article sets out to demonstrate how working on a new translation of Hebrew Genesis has led to fresh exploration of the text. First the translation, At the start … Genesis made new, is presented along with the translator’s working method. This presentation illustrates in particular the hermeneutical possibilities of Hebrew/English word patterns. Second, a creative approach to the unravelling of a new interpretation of the Garden of Eden story is proposed. The intention is to give the myth new life and keep it in touch with modern (post-modern?) times. Emphasis shifts from a negative, moralising interpretation to a positive understanding of the story.
My work as translator of the Hebrew text of Genesis, which falls into the category of ethno-poetics, had led me to discern vital forces at work in the Garden of Eden story: the basic theme of the story concerns the emergence of life. This theme emerged thanks to an “archeological” approach to the text. In the translation At the start … Genesis made new (Korsak, 1993) Hebrew word patterns are retained in English. This method of “excavating” the ancient text suggested new hermeneutical possibilities. In the latter part of this article, two specific aspects of the story are examined: they concern the nature of the stay in the garden and the divine figure of YHWH Elohim.
The presentation of At the start … Genesis made new (henceforward referred to as At the start) is illustrated by quotations. Whenever this is deemed helpful, parallel passages are cited from The Revised Standard Version (henceforward referred to as Genesis). This juxtaposition facilitates the highlighting of fresh hermeneutical insights.
At the start is inspired by the biblical translations of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, whose work set an example for a twentieth-century school of translators. The working method adopted represents a radical break with that of many translators. The source text is the Hebrew text: influences stemming from ancient Greek, Latin, and vernacular versions are purposely left aside. Furthermore, an attempt is made to narrow the gap between the original Hebrew and the English version. This is achieved by echoing Hebrew word order and rhythm, and by a word-for-word rendering of Hebrew vocabulary. One English word systematically corresponds to one Hebrew word. The rules of mutual concordance are also respected. One English word translates only one Hebrew word, not two. In this way, verbal repetitions and distinctions that have often been lost or obscured in the translation process are transferred to the English version.
In The Revised Standard Version the first book of the Bible is entitled The First Book of Moses commonly called GENESIS. In the new translation, the term Genesis is rejected because of its Greek origins. Instead, in keeping with the tradition of the ancient near east, the first word or phrase of the book, bereshit, provides the title (cf. the Babylonian Poem of Creation, known as Enuma elis̆, “When on high,” and the Epic of Gilgamesh, Sa nagba imuru, “He who experienced all”: Speiser, 1962: xvii). The novelty of the title At the start for bereshit announces the colour of the translation, which proposes a “Genesis made new.”
Fresh initiative is also taken with regard to the lay-out of the text. Whereas the pages of Genesis are made up of two columns of prose subdivided into paragraphs, the text of At the start is presented in the free verse form. This lay-out recalls the structure of the Hebrew text, in which the spoken rhythms of biblical, oral tradition correspond to consecutive units of meaning. These rhythms, which are heard when the text is recited, are projected onto paper by means of a line-by-line breakdown, which acts as a guide for the eye as well as the ear. The frugal use of punctuation harks back to the Hebrew text, whilst linking up with modern poetics. To illustrate how this lay-out functions, here are two passages from the Joseph story. They tell how Joseph interprets the dreams of the chief butler and the chief baker. The passages quoted are at once similar and different. The structure of the new lay-out sets off verbal repetitions, variants, and omissions. In particular, the crucial words “off you” in the second passage stand out in a startling manner.
This is its interpretation
The three tendrils? They are three days
Within three days
Pharaoh will lift up your head
and return you to your office (40:12–13)
This is its interpretation
The three baskets? They are three days
Within three days
Pharaoh will lift up your head off you
and hang you on a tree (40:18–19)
The word for word method of translation ensures the transfer of Hebrew word patterns to the target language. These patterns are formed by interconnected words, which are related etymologically, e.g. adam/adama, or associated through the sound links of “folk etymology,” e.g. isha/ish. The combination and repetition of such words form an extended word pattern. In Genesis no importance is attached to this phenomenon. In chapter 2:5–9a, adam/adama are translated as “man/ground.” Consequently, the repetitive pattern which characterises the Hebrew text is lost in English:
In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground—then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food … (2:5–9a)
In the above translation, the loss of the word pattern formed by adam/adama involves a loss of colour and a consequent weakening of impact. In At the start, adam/adama are echoed by equivalent paronyms: “groundling/ground.” Here, the same passage, in which the Hebrew words are inserted for the purpose of clarification, reads as follows:
On the day YHWH Elohim made earth and skies
no shrub of the field was yet in the earth
no plant of the field had yet sprouted
for YHWH Elohim had not made it rain on the earth
and there was no groundling (adam)
to serve the ground (adama)
But a surge went up from the earth
and gave drink to all the face of the ground (adama)
YHWH Elohim formed the groundling, (adam)
soil of the ground (adama)
he blew into its nostrils the blast of life
and the groundling (adam) became a living soul
YHWH Elohim planted a garden in Eden in the east
There he set the groundling (adam) he had formed (2:5–8)
The verbal link “groundling/ground” emphasizes an important aspect of human identity: the adam, the human being, is closely related to the “ground.” The repetition of the words “groundling/ground” underscores the nature of this relationship: the vocation of “the groundling” is “to serve the ground” (2:5); “the groundling” is formed from the “soil of the ground” (2:7). These statements at the beginning of the story are counterbalanced by similar statements at the end of the story: the “groundling” “will return to the ground” (3:19) and will be expelled from the garden “to serve the ground from which it was taken” (3:23). In summary, the word pattern draws the reader’s attention to two facets of the human situation: the destiny of the groundling is to emerge from the ground and to return to it; the groundling’s vocation is to serve the ground.
Moreover, the word pattern points to further relationships. Through their common origin “the ground,” and “the groundling” are also connected with trees:
YHWH Elohim made sprout from the ground (adama)
all trees attractive to see and good for eating … (2:9a)
and with the beasts and fowl:
YHWH Elohim formed out of the ground (adama)
all beasts of the field, all fowl of the skies
and brought them to the groundling (adam)
to see what it would call them (2:19)
Ecologists interested in biblical sources may find food for thought here.
The second word pattern to be discussed here is formed by the pair isha/ish. Though isha and ish are not true paronyms, they are connected by the sound of their common syllable ish. Happily for the translator, although familiarity has effaced awareness of this, the English equivalents “woman” and “man” also share a common syllable. To recuperate this advantage, in At the start, a hyphen is inserted in the English word “wo-man.” The hyphen draws attention to the similarity and dissimilarity of the pair “wo-man/man” (see quotation below).
In Hebrew, isha/ish and adam/adama form two distinct word patterns. When the rule of mutual concordance is applied, these distinctions emerge in English. In Genesis, no importance is attached to this phenomenon. Hebrew ish and Hebrew adam are both translated as “man.” The choice of one English word for two Hebrew words has hermeneutical consequences. In effect, Genesis relates that “man” exists before “woman” and that “woman” is made from “man’s” rib:
So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.” (2:21–23)
In At the start, “groundling/ground” (adam/adama) and “wo-man/man” (isha/ish) are dissociated. On the one hand there is the “groundling” related to the “ground,” on the other there is “wo-man” related to “man.” When these distinctions are maintained in English, the translation conveys the following message: “wo-man” and “man,” like and unlike, issue from the “groundling.” The word “man” does not appear in the text before 2:23. In order of appearance the word “wo-man” precedes the word “man.” The translation conveys the following message: the word “man” represents a new identity, that of “man” facing “wo-man.”
YHWH Elohim made a swoon fall upon the groundling (adam)
He took one of its sides
and closed up the flesh in its place
YHWH Elohim built the side
he had taken from the groundling (adam) into woman (isha)
He brought her to the groundling (adam)
The groundling (adam) said
This one this time
is bone from my bones
flesh from my flesh
This one shall be called wo-man (isha)
for from man (ish)
she has been taken this one (2:21–23)
It is important to note that the systematic choice of one English word for one Hebrew word respects the shifts of meaning present in the original text. Both languages allow for semantic evolution: first there is the “groundling,” described as “male and female” (1:27); then there is the “groundling” who, in the absence of its counterpart, is seen to be alone (2:18, 20); subsequently the “groundling” falls asleep to wake up as “man” facing “wo-man”; finally, the “groundling” is used for the male when accompanied by the female (2:25).
Despite these shifts of meaning, the term “groundling” (adam) appears to be a generic term. The presence of a common noun is signalled by the definite article ha. The definite article, ha, accompanies the noun adam throughout the text with three exceptions. In two of the three cases (1:26 and 5:2) adam is defined as “male and female”: it is a generic. The remaining example (2:25) may be considered the exception that proves the rule. Even when ha-adam refers to the male in particular, it remains a generic. This is signalled by the presence of woman. The phrase “the groundling and his woman” (2:25) can be compared to the phrase “the bear and its mate,” in which both male and female are “bear.” Despite the fact that in the Garden of Eden story, ha-adam is said to be “alone” in verses 2:18, 20, the term is a generic here also. This is signalled by the remarked absence of the female: the groundling is incomplete, in need of “its counterpart.” A final remark: in 4:25 adam appears for the first time as the proper name of an individual, “Adam.” The proper name is not accompanied by the definite article ha.
Another form of word pattern based on the sound associations of folk etymology plays an important role when names are given. In so-called naming verses, a new name is followed by an explanation justifying the choice of a particular name. The word-play connecting name and explanation points to the nature of the one born, the circumstances of birth, the character’s destiny or vocation. A change of name implies a vocational change, e.g. Abram becomes Abraham, “Father of a Multitude” (17:5). Hebrew names are thus seen to be meaningful. Hebrew word-play in these verses indicates in what way they are meaningful. In Genesis, the explanations in naming verses are translated without any echo of Hebrew word-play in the text. Here are three examples:
And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel” (4:25)
Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth (11:9)
The man called his wife’s name “Eve,” because she was the mother of all living (3:20)
In At the start Hebrew word-play is reproduced. Sometimes, rarely, it seems best to add the familiar name in a bracket, e.g. “Life (Eve).” Here is how the above verses are translated. The Hebrew terms are inserted for the purpose of clarification:
Adam knew his woman again
She bred a son
She called his name Seth (shet)
“for Elohim has set (shat) another seed in Abel’s place” (4:25)
So they called its name Babel (babel) for there YHWH made the lip of all the earth babble (balal) (11:9)
The groundling called his woman’s name Life (Eve) (havva) for she is the mother of all that lives (hay) (3:20)
The last example is particularly important. It marks a radical break with standard translations, which do not echo the word pattern in the text and which have thus allowed the name “Eve” to drift away from its significant root and to be associated with sin, guilt and death. Ignoring the word-play has led to a shift of stress from “life” to “mother.” Eve is thus currently seen to be mother but she is a bad mother! In the Hebrew text, the word-play havva/hay connects the woman with life-giving forces. Indeed, the name havva derives from the verb hava, “to live, to dwell” and hay, “lives” derives from haya, “to live, to be alive” (Korsak, 1994–95).
The word-play of naming verses is sometimes extended beyond the original naming verse. When repeated, it provides a hermeneutical key to the story of the one named. Isaac, “He Laughs,” is an example. Laughter occurs eleven times in the Isaac story (17:17, 19; 18:12, 13, 15, 15; 21:3, 6, 6, 9; 26:8). In Genesis, however, the meaning of Isaac’s name is not communicated in the naming verses (17:19; 21:3). Moreover, in verse 21:9, “laughing” is replaced by “playing” (the words “with her son Isaac” are added from the Septuagint and the Vulgate) and again in verse 26:8, “laughing” is replaced by “fondling” to fit the context of sexual play. In all, four fewer laughs for Isaac! In At the start, the meaning “He laughs” appears in the naming verses and the key word is repeated in the text wherever it appears in Hebrew. Laughter bubbles up in unexpected ways. In the following passage, where Elohim tells Abraham that he will have a son, Abraham falls over with laughter; spluttering with laughter, he interrupts his own sentence; finally Elohim joins in the joke (Liebenow, 1987:21–22):
Abraham fell upon his face and laughed
he said in his heart
Shall a child be bred for a hundred-year old?
And if Sarah …
Shall a ninety-year old breed? (17:17)
You shall call his name He Laughs (Isaac) (17:19)
When the laughter theme is examined more closely, it provides a possible key to the intrigue involving Isaac and his family. Adrien Bledstein convincingly argues that it is Isaac who outwits Rebekah and not the contrary, as is usually supposed (1993:282–95). If Bledstein’s theory is right, Isaac laughs longest and last.
It has been shown above that technical details in translation, such as word patterns and word-play, have repercussions on the interpretation of meaning. The close examination of the vocabulary it uses is one way of entering into the spirit of a text, of absorbing its literary, poetic, mythological implications. I have stayed a long time with the Hebrew text of Genesis and perceive, as a result of this experience, a new way of understanding the Garden of Eden story. This alternative reading is about growth and birth. It suggests that the groundling, male and female, is formed in the garden like the child in the womb and, like the child from the womb, is expelled from the garden to face life and death. Only two main points will be developed in this article, however. First, whereas it is generally taught that the groundling is put into the garden and is expected to stay there, a reexamination of the text suggests that, on the contrary, the groundling is put into the garden with a view to leaving it. Second, an attempt is made to explore obscure sides of the divinity. How does YHWH Elohim relate to what is bad in life? Does YHWH Elohim have mother-like as well as father-like attributes?
The argument suggests that an in/out movement characterises the groundling’s stay in the garden. It is clear in verses 2:7–8 that the groundling exists before the garden and that the garden is made subsequently as a setting for the groundling:
YHWH Elohim formed the groundling, soil of the ground
he blew into its nostrils the blast of life
and the groundling became a living soul
YHWH Elohim planted a garden in Eden in the east
There he set the groundling he had formed (2:7–8)
The question then arises as to whether the garden is to be a temporary or a permanent setting. Observation of the four rivers provides a clue to the answer. Indeed, as soon as the groundling has been put inside the garden, the story is interrupted by the following passage:
A river goes out in Eden to give drink to the garden
From there it divides and becomes four heads
The name of the first is Pishon
It winds through all the land of Havilah
where there is gold
The gold of that land is good
Bdellium is there and onyx stone
The name of the second river is Gihon
It winds through all the land of Cush
The name of the third river is Tigris
It goes east of Asshur
The fourth river is Euphrates (2:10–14)
A river rises in Eden and enters the garden to water it. From there it flows out to form the four great rivers of the known world. The four rivers set a precedent for the in/out process. They also effectively draw the attention of the reader to the outside world. If the human horizon is to be limited to the garden, why introduce the outside world here? Why map out those particular areas where water makes life possible on earth and name rivers that evoke early cultural development? Who will delight in the gold and the precious stones that are mentioned? The world described here is attractive to human-kind. The story suggests that it is waiting for the groundling, who to profit from it must come out of the garden.
This destiny is confirmed by the groundling/ground relationship evoked earlier. Three sentences, which all include the verb abad, “to serve” are particularly relevant here:
and there was no groundling to serve the ground (2:5)
YHWH Elohim took the groundling
and set it to rest in the garden of Eden
to serve it and keep it (2:15)
… the groundling … (3:22)
YHWH Elohim sent it away from the garden of Eden
to serve the ground from which it was taken (3:23)
In the above examples, we are told twice that the groundling’s vocation is “to serve the ground” (le abod et ha-adama): first, before the garden is planted (2:5); second, when the groundling is expelled from the garden (3:23). In both cases, the ground to be served is outside the garden. These two examples suggest that the vocation “to serve the ground” outside the garden exists independently of the garden episode.
The intervening passage (2:15) presents an anomaly. If one reads the text in translation, one understands here that the groundling is to serve and keep the garden. The Hebrew word for “garden,” gan, however, is masculine, while the following pronoun “it” of “serve it and keep it” is feminine, like adama, “ground” (Humbert, 1940:79). The Hebrew phrase is le obdah u le shomrah. There is a grammatical mistake here, which, curiously, (purposely?), has not been rectified. It suggests that “to serve” is associated with adama, “ground” as in the two preceding examples and that gan, “garden” has replaced adama, “ground.” The feminine pronoun, however, remains like a fossil in the text pointing to the groundling’s two-fold vocation. Its basic task is “to serve the ground” outside the garden (2:5; 3:23). Its temporary task is “to serve and keep the garden” (2:15). This analysis of the phrases le abod et ha-adam, “to serve the ground,” and le obdah u le shomrah, “to serve it and keep it,” points in the same direction as the observations about the river/rivers: the stay in the garden is a transitory experience to be interpreted against the larger background of the outside world.
Turning now to the figure of YHWH Elohim, it may be said that in Jewish and Christian traditions, certain images of God have had little or no press. In effect, concepts such as divine goodness and divine fatherhood are so familiar they have hardened and become exclusive: God’s goodness tends to eradicate the association of God with bad; God as father has come to exclude God as mother. In the first case, a taboo seems to lie on the association of the divine with bad. This is illustrated by versions of the serpent’s words to the woman. In the Hebrew text, the serpent pronounces the name Elohim (3:1, 5). In Genesis, the divine name is rendered as “God,” in At the start, as “Elohim.” As both these translations are systematic here, they call for no special comment. Looking further afield, however, one finds that many Bibles, which commonly translate Elohim as “God,” prefer to speak of “divine beings” or “gods” when the divine name is linked with “knowing good and bad.” To illustrate, here are the textual renderings of the Jewish Publication Society of America and the New Jerusalem Bible:
Did God (Elohim) really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden? (3:1) but God (Elohim) knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings (Elohim) who know good and bad (3:5 JPSA,1978)
Did God (Elohim) really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden? (3:1)
God (Elohim) knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods (Elohim), knowing good and evil (3:5 NJB,1968)
Commentators also shy away from associating God with bad. The inherent difficulty is sometimes avoided by the argument that “knowing good and bad” means “knowing everything.” In this way the image of God, in whom “knowing everything” is considered an acceptable attribute, is redeemed. Everett Fox summarises as follows: “Interpreters disagree on the meaning of this phrase. It could be a merism (as in knowledge from A to Z—that is, of everything) or an expression of moral choice” (1983:11). Textual evidence, however, confirms that YHWH Elohim knows good and bad. First, YHWH Elohim grows “the tree of the knowing of good and bad” (2:9). Second, the serpent’s words to the woman (3:5) are corroborated by YHWH Elohim. Here are the relevant passages from At the start.
YHWH Elohim made sprout from the ground
all trees attractive to see and good for eating
the tree of life in the middle of the garden
and the tree of the knowing of good and bad (2:9)
YHWH Elohim said
Here, the groundling has become as one of us
knowing good and bad (3:22)
When “God” (RSV) or “Elohim” (At the start) is retained throughout the serpent’s speech, the difficult and profound question raised by the Hebrew text remains in the translation. The question might be phrased as follows: is YHWH Elohim, who plants a garden with the tree of knowing good and bad at its centre and who puts the groundling in that garden, in part responsible for what takes place there?
A similar taboo affects the association of God and motherliness. Here the reader of this article is invited to accept the idea that God can be both father- like and mother-like and with this in mind to listen to the following passage with fresh ears. Two commands, one positive and one negative, are given in verses 2:16–17:
Of all the trees of the garden, eat! you shall eat
but of the tree of the knowing of good and bad
you shall not eat
for on the day you eat of it
die! you shall die (2:16–17)
“Of all the trees of the garden, eat, you shall eat”: the first command expresses a total giving of all that is needed for human sustenance. The tone of voice expresses care. “But of the tree of the knowing of good and bad you shall not eat”: the second command establishes a limit or law. The tone of voice expresses authority. The structure here is not either/or but both/and. The Hebrew language expresses this structure admirably. The co-ordinating conjunction vav, “and/but,” establishes perfect balance between the two poles, “you shall” and “you shall not.” Two commands, two tones of voice. Here is the third part of the sentence: “for on the day you eat of it, die! you shall die” (2:17). Here an intriguing question arises. What tone of voice is heard now? How should this be recited? What emotion is suitable here? “Die! you shall die”: is this a threat, a reminder that consequences do follow upon deliberate action? The text is usually read this way, whence the current sin/punishment interpretation of the story. However, the third part of the sentence can be read as a warning expressed with a note of anxiety. It has been argued above that the stay in the garden is transitory. It is argued here that the voice knows that the groundling will leave the garden, will risk free choice and autonomy. The apparent threat masks anxiety and fear concerning what will happen outside the garden. I call these mother-like propensities in YHWH Elohim. Furthermore, subsequent events described in the text show that these sentiments are well-founded. Outside the garden, the woman will give birth but it will be at the cost of hard labour. She will be drawn to her man but will have to recognise the limits he sets her.
Increase! I will increase
your pains and your conceivings
With pains you shall breed sons
For your man your longing
and he, he shall rule you (3:16)
Outside the garden, the ground will yield crops for food but again at the cost of hard labour. The ground that produces life-giving sustenance will also be burial ground.
cursed is the ground for you
With pains you shall eat of it
all the days of your life
Thorn and thistle it shall sprout for you
You shall eat the plants of the field
With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
till you return to the ground
for from it you were taken
for soil you are and to the soil you shall return (3:17–19)
The reality of life’s experience thus proves to be good and bad like the symbolic fruit of the tree. But worse follows. Subsequently, moral evil is introduced into the world through the murderous sin of Cain (4:8) and Cain’s violence is amplified in his descendant Lamech.
For I have killed a man for wounding me
a child for bruising me
For 7 times is Cain avenged
but Lamech 77 times (4:23–24)
When—with Cain’s sin—bad takes on the dimension of moral evil, the fears of YHWH Elohim are fully justified. This observation prolongs the earlier difficult question: does YHWH Elohim, who knows bad, apprehend evil? Chapter 6 tells that YHWH is pained by the growth of evil in the world. YHWH therefore not only apprehends evil, he suffers from it.
that the groundling’s badness increased on earth
All the thoughts its heart formed were only bad
all the day long
YHWH was sorry he made the groundling on earth
he was pained in his heart (6:5–6)
Interestingly, the same Hebrew root atsab is used for YHWH’s pain, for woman’s birth pains (3:16) and for the pains of agricultural labour (3:17).
To conclude, if we search for the mother-like in YHWH Elohim, we may find meanings and analogies that resemble the birth process in the Garden of Eden story, in the first stirrings of human life, the preparation for autonomy, the expulsion from a protected environment, the vulnerability of the newly- born, the irrevocable severing from the life source, the risks and dangers (including sin) involved in life’s adventure. This search enhances divine attributes such as generosity, concern, worry, tenderness. With these in mind, the last verses of the story lend themselves to gentler interpretation than the current, punitive one.
YHWH Elohim made for the groundling and his woman
robes of skin and clothed them
YHWH Elohim said
Here the groundling has become as one of us
knowing good and bad
Now, let it not put out its hand
to take from the tree of life also
and eat and live for ever!
YHWH Elohim sent it away from the garden of Eden
to serve the ground from which it was taken
He cast out the groundling
and made dwell east of the garden of Eden
the Cherubin and the scorching, turning sword
to keep the road to the tree of life (3:21–24)
Translating the first book of the Bible has proved a liberating experience. Long frequentation of the text has bred familiarity with the Garden of Eden myth, has led to creative hermeneutical exploration, inspired initially by Hebrew word patterns, punning, and key words. An analogy between the Garden of Eden story and the birth process has given rise to this article. Textual evidence has been brought forward to support the view that the garden, like the womb, is a temporary dwelling place, that from the outset it is part of the divine plan that the groundling should leave the garden to assume its destiny, which includes the experience of good and bad, of life and death. Metaphors facilitating God-talk have been discerned in the text, widening the image of the Godhead to include a mother-like figure, closely involved in the experience of good and bad. If the groundling must leave the garden because it has become like YHWH Elohim (3:22ff.), the patriarchal/good image alone is not sustainable as a model in our lives. These concepts distance us from God. A shift of emphasis to a mother-like divine figure, affected by human experience, good and bad, brings God closer to us, makes God more worthy of our veneration and especially of our care.
Bledstein, Adrien J.
1993 “Binder, Trickster, Heel and Hairy-Man: Rereading Genesis 27 as a Trickster Tale Told by a Woman.” Pp. 282–95 in A Feminist Companion to Genesis. Ed. Athalya Brenner. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
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1983 In the Beginning: A New Rendition of the Book of Genesis. New York: Schocken.
1940 Etudes sur le récit du paradis et de la chute dans la Genèse. Neuchâtel: Secrétariat de l’Université.
Korsak, Mary P.
1993 At the Start … Genesis Made New. A Translation of the Hebrew Text. New York: Doubleday.
Korsak, Mary P.
1994–95 “Eve, Malignant or Maligned?” Cross Currents 44:453–62.
Korsak, Mary P.
1996 “Hebrew word patterns retained in English.” Amsterdamse Cahiers 15:9–21.
1987 Is There Fun after Paul? A Theology of Clowning. San Jose: Resource Publications.
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“Like One of Us, Knowing ṭôb and ra˓” (Gen 3:22)
St. Paul University
The story of paradise in Genesis 2–3 mentions two mysterious trees in the middle of the garden. There is general agreement among scholars on the symbolism of the tree of life but no agreement at all on the meaning of the tree of knowledge. It keeps its secret still. Many studies on the issue have sought an interpretation in the area of ethics (moral discernment or the ability to determine good and evil for oneself). Others have looked in the intellectual domain (age of reason, omniscience, or magic, which is a practical omniscience) while still others have searched in the area of sexuality (sexual relations). Since many authors have summed up the pros and cons of these solutions, there is no need to repeat this work here.
God’s statement (Gen 3:22) poses a special problem. How could humanity become like God by transgressing a divine command? To avoid this problem the statement of God (3:22) has been described as ironic and the serpent’s promise (3:5) as deceitful. All this shows how hard it is to grasp the meaning of the tree of knowledge of ṭôb and ra˓.
Until recently biblical studies were primarily diachronic. Since the account speaks of two trees and contains other doublets such as the double divine name and the double clothing, there is a tendency to distinguish two accounts in Genesis 2–3 (von Rad: 76–77; Westermann: 288–92; Vawter: 68). The original account would have spoken of one tree in the centre of the garden: the tree, without qualification (2:9, 17). It is argued, consequently, that “the tree of life,” found only at the beginning (2:9) and the end of the account (3:22), belonged to another story and that when the “tree of life” was placed beside “the tree” in the final version, it ended up being called “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” because of its function in the rest of the account (3:5, 22). Diachronic studies, therefore, study the tree of knowledge without any relationship to the tree of life and reach the different solutions mentioned above.
Some recent synchronic studies show that the text of Genesis 2–3 works quite well as it stands. I have shown that the doublets which have been labelled contradictions do not fracture the harmony of the account (Vogels, 1983 and 1992:65–115). Therefore, the synchronic approach may offer new possibilities for the resolution of the mystery of the tree of knowledge. Even exegetes who use diachronic methods offer encouragement. They noted long ago that, contrary to what is true of the tree of life, there is no extra-biblical or biblical parallel to help us discover the meaning of the tree of knowledge. All we have is the text of Genesis 2–3 in its present form. This, then, is the first place we should seek an answer: “By gleaning what is relevant in the text” (Lambert: 930).
The text speaks specifically about this tree in four places: the introduction of the tree (2:9), the prohibition (2:17), the temptation (3:4–5), and God’s statement (3:22). It is reasonable to hope that if we compare these four passages, we can find a solution that respects each of them. Such a solution would be validated by the text itself. Only later will we have recourse to other biblical passages to confirm or reject the options taken. The paradise story, after all, is not an isolated text but a part of the Bible as a whole.
We should also keep in mind that the paradise story (Genesis 2–3) follows the creation account (Genesis 1). Historical-critical studies insist on the differences between the two accounts; synchronic studies, on the contrary, underline their similarities (Vogels, 1978:34–35). In a synchronic approach the reader necessarily links the two accounts. What is read in the creation account influences what is read in the paradise story. The creation account affirms: “Elohim said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’ … Elohim created humankind in his image, in the image of Elohim he created them” (1:26–27) (Vogels, 1994). The idea that there is a resemblance between the human being and God recurs in the paradise story. The serpent says, “Elohim knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like Elohim, knowing …” (3:5), and God concludes, “See, the human being has become like one of us, knowing …” (3:22). Despite the differences, the similarity of the two accounts on this point is remarkable. The paradise account, which normally uses “Yahweh Elohim” for the divine name, here refers to “Elohim,” the title used in the creation account. In the two stories, these two places are the only ones where God speaks in the plural. These facts should caution us not to be too quick to conclude that the serpent is lying and that God is being ironical.
1. The Introduction of the Tree (Gen 2:9)
In describing the vegetation of paradise, the text mentions two trees in particular (2:9). The first, “the tree of life,” is easy to identify. The conclusion of the account says eating of it gives “life forever” (3:22). The symbolism of a life-giving tree is known through other biblical and extra-biblical texts. It is safe to say that all exegetes agree on this.
The second tree which is found beside the first is called “the tree of the knowledge (root yada˓) of ṭôb and ra˓.” This is the tree we shall discuss.
We must try, first of all, to determine what kind of knowledge the tree is thought to give. The root yada˓, used in relation to the tree, occurs twice elsewhere in the account: once in reference to God (3:5) and once in reference to the man and woman (3:7). The serpent says, “For Elohim knows (yada˓) that when you eat of it …” (3:5). Everyone translates yada˓ here as “to know.” God knows intellectually what will happen before it takes place. The verb is used a second time in reference to the man and woman who, having eaten of the forbidden tree, “knew (yada˓) that they were naked” (3:7). Everyone now translates yada˓ as “to realize” and not as “to know.” The eating did not give them the use of reason; they already had that. They were already capable of discernment because the human being was able to give the animals their names (2:20); they recognized one another as man and woman (2:23); and, in particular, they knew without any sense of shame, that they were naked (2:25). Consequently, the fact that they now realize that they are nude must refer to an awareness beyond a purely intellectual knowledge. It must be an experiential or existential knowing in their whole being. They have made a discovery or had a new experience. In the two passages, therefore, the verb yada˓ refers once to knowledge that is intellectual and once to knowledge that is experiential.
Elsewhere in the Bible, outside of the paradise account, the verb yada˓ sometimes has other connotations. Esau is a man “yada˓ the hunt” (Gen 25:27), which the Jerusalem Bible translates by “a skilled hunter” and the New American Bible by “a skillful hunter.” Esau’s knowledge is more than intellectual; it is of the practical order: “knowledge is power.” Thus the tree has been given the meaning of knowledge-power. The magical interpretation derives from this. The verb yada˓ can have an even more specific meaning. The first verse of the chapter which immediately follows the paradise account reads: “The man knew (yada˓) his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain” (4:1; see 4:17, 25). The verb clearly speaks of something other than a purely intellectual knowledge; it refers to carnal knowledge and sexual relations. This explains why some authors give a sexual interpretation to the tree of knowledge.
In order to understand the symbolism of the tree of knowledge we have, first of all, enlisted the help of the paradise account in which it is found. The verb yada˓ occurs there twice outside of the expression “to know ṭôb and ra˓” (3:5, 7). There is no sexual connotation. The reference is to intellectual and experiential knowledge rather than to power (O’Brien and Major: 102; van Wolde, 1989:195). We are invited, then, to look for the symbolism of the tree of knowledge in the same direction.
The text specifies that what is known is “ṭôb and ra˓.” Practically all Bibles translate this by “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This leads, then, to ethical interpretations. The tree is seen in relation to what is morally good and what is morally bad or sinful. The translation “good and evil” and the ethical interpretation that follows from it can easily be understood in an account which speaks of human transgression of a divine prohibition. This translation is, nonetheless, debatable.
The word ṭôb is encountered a number of times in the creation account. God regularly evaluates what he has just created: “God saw that it was good (ṭôb) (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) (Kugel; Janzen); furthermore, when creation is complete, God even concludes that it is “very good” (1:31). This evaluation is not the equivalent of a moral judgement. God says simply that things are as they should be, that they are good, beautiful, appropriate, and harmonious. The same word ṭôb is found in the paradise account outside of the expression “the tree of the knowledge of ṭôb and ra˓.” The verse which introduces the mysterious tree for the first time says of various other trees that they were “pleasant to the sight and good (ṭôb) for food” (2:9; see 3:6). The parallel between “pleasant” and “good” clearly shows that ṭôb has the same meaning as in the previous account. The text says nothing whatsoever about it being morally good to eat of these trees but that these trees are beautiful and their fruit delicious. When God says a little further on, “It is not good (lō’-ṭôb) that the human being should be alone” (2:18), he evaluates how he has created humanity at the beginning of the account (2:7). God does not say that what he has done is “bad”; he says it is “not good.” Here too there is no moral connotation. God has not done something morally wrong nor even morally imperfect. He affirms that he has made something which can be improved, which can be better and more harmonious. For a human being, “being alone” is not a sin but a lack of fullness. If ṭôb in the paradise story is referring not to moral values but to beauty, delightfulness, and harmony, then ra˓, its opposite, is not referring to moral values. It is not, then, referring to evil or sin but to ugliness, suffering, and disharmony. We can, then, suggest the translation “the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.” This tree is the symbol of having the experience (yada˓) of what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, of happiness and misery, harmony and disharmony (Resplandis: 22–23).
The Bible frequently uses the words “good” and “bad” separately, but sometimes “good and bad” are found together as an expression. Indeed, many texts speak of “the knowledge of good and bad” or of “the knowledge of good and evil” with a moral connotation. The expression “ṭôb and ra˓” can be disjunctive in meaning: ṭôb as distinct from ra˓. “And as for your little ones … your children who today do not yet know (yada˓ ṭôb and ra˓” (Deut 1:39; see Isa 7:15–16). This is generally translated: “these children are not yet able to discern good and evil.” This text can be used then to confirm the interpretation which sees the tree as the symbol of moral discernment. But there is another interesting text. Barzillai answers King David who offers to provide for him in his old age: “Today I am eighty years old; can I yada˓ between what is ṭôb and what is ra˓?” (2 Sam 19:35). The text is usually translated, “Can I distinguish what is good from what is bad?” Even at an advanced age, Barzillai is still capable of distinguishing what is morally good from what is morally evil. He still has a sense of morality, but he is too old to be interested in the pleasures of life at the royal court. The following verse makes this clear: “Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women?” Barzillai wants to live out his last days in peace and quiet. This text buttresses our proposal that the tree may be the symbol of experiencing or tasting what is good and what is bad.
Furthermore, in some biblical texts, the expression “ṭôb and ra˓” does not have a disjunctive meaning: good/good as distinct from bad/evil, but a conjunctive sense. The two words in this case connote universality and mean “everything” (Gen 24:50; 31:24). A woman from Tekoa says to King David, “My lord the king is like the angel of God, discerning ṭôb and ra˓” (2 Sam 14:17). A few verses further on she says, “But my lord has wisdom like the wisdom of the angel of God to know (yada˓) all things that are on the earth” (2 Sam 14:20). The paralleling of the two verses shows that “ṭôb and ra˓” are synonymous with “everything.” The king’s universal knowledge makes him similar to an angel of God who, in biblical thought, may be God himself in the visible form in which he manifests himself to humans (Gen 16:7–13). In literary studies, mentioning the two extremes to express the whole is called “merismus.”
The paradise account sometimes uses two terms in a disjunctive sense: is; (man) as distinct from ˒is̆s̆â (woman) (2:23). The account also clearly distinguishes between the human being and the animals, but merismus is present as well. The account begins, “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” (2:4b), which means “the universe.” The same merismus but in reverse order is found in the creation account: “heaven and earth” (1:1; 2:1, 4a).
The tree of “the knowledge of good and bad” in paradise may then refer to experiencing what is good and what is bad (disjunctive meaning) or it could refer to experiencing everything (conjunctive meaning) (van Selms: 52, 56; Nothomb: 77; Louys). This “everything,” obviously, is not an indeterminate everything but everything in relation to good and bad. There is, actually, more than merely “good” and “bad” involved. The “very good” (1:31) and the “not good” (2:18) have already been mentioned. “Very bad” and “not bad” could also exist. There is a whole gamut of values that could be experienced (Vogels, 1986:64–67).
2. The Prohibition (Gen 2:17)
The second reference to the tree of knowledge is found in the first word God speaks to the human being. It includes a permission and a prohibition, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (2:16–17).
Although the text does not say it explicitly, the tree of life is included among the trees from which the human being may eat. Only the tree of knowledge is excluded. Each of the two trees represents a specific divine privilege or prerogative as the conclusion of the account (3:22) demonstrates. God gives the human being one of the divine qualities, life, but he reserves the other, the knowledge of good and bad, to himself. God remains God and the human being, while having access to one of these two prerogatives, remains human. If the human being were to become completely divine, it would cease to be human. Its humanity would disappear and there would be nothing left but divinity. The human being would be truly dead, “You will surely die.”
The entire first part of the paradise account (2:4b–24) speaks of harmony. It describes a God who is constantly concerned about the happiness of the human being whom he has placed in a paradise with abundant water, marvelous trees, precious stones, and gold. In some extra-biblical mythological texts, such as the Gilgamesh epic, the gods reserve life for themselves. In the biblical account, on the contrary, God gives the human being access to the tree of life. This enables the human being to escape the death to which it is subject like every other creature taken from the soil. The human being is truly happy and “knows good.” God prohibits access to the other tree because he wishes to spare the human being the experience of bad.
Suddenly, and for the first time, the ideas of disorder and death appear in this text which, until this moment, has spoken exclusively of happiness and life. The tree of knowledge, which is found beside the tree of life, can become a tree of death, if the man and woman eat from it. There is much discussion on the meaning of “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (2:17) because, in fact, they do not die that day.
In any text there is always a correlation between the beginning and the end. This is true of the paradise account as well. At the beginning, the human being may eat of the tree of life but not of the tree of knowledge. At the end, the man and woman have eaten of the tree of knowledge but no longer have access to the tree of life. The eating of the forbidden tree constitutes the transformation between the beginning and the end of the account and upsets the whole thing. It is at the centre of the account (3:6); God verifies it (3:11) and punishes it (3:17). The day the man and woman ate of the forbidden tree, they lost access to life, precisely as God had said, “You will have to die.” At the beginning, as at the end, one tree is accessible and another is not. There has, however, been a reversal of the order. The human being may have one tree but not both at once; otherwise, humankind would be entirely divine. There is a touch of the divine in the human being, but he always remains human nonetheless.
3. The Temptation (Gen 3:4–5)
The serpent’s dialogue with the woman is full of trickery and ambiguity. He starts by asking: “Did Elohim say, ‘You shall not eat from all the trees in the garden?’ ” (3:1). His presupposition seems inaccurate and the contrary to what God actually said: “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden” (2:16). God had put only one tree off limits. But, if we give it a bit more thought, we can argue that the serpent’s statement is accurate after all. If they may eat of all the trees, except one, it is correct to say that they cannot eat of all the trees.
After the woman’s answer, the serpent continues: “You will not die; for Elohim knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like Elohim, knowing good and bad” (3:4–5) (Moberly). Again, these words are loaded with ambiguities. The serpent promises, “You will not die.” On the one hand, it is true that they did not die the very day they ate of the tree; but, on the other, that day they did lose access to the tree of life and, consequently, they will die. The term “Elohim” is also ambiguous. It may refer to “God” or to “divine beings” who constitute the divine council (1 Kgs 22:19; Job 1:6). “To know good and bad” may be understood disjunctively (good and also bad) or conjunctively (everything). The serpent’s promise that their eyes will be opened is fulfilled and is, therefore, true (3:7a). But the second part of his promise, that they will be like Elohim, knowing good and bad, does not seem to be fulfilled because what they know is, rather, that they are naked (3:7b). But later God states that this part of the promise has also been fulfilled (3:22).
The man and woman find the idea of being wholly like God tempting. Since the serpent promises that and, moreover, that the tree of knowledge will not cause death, they should logically conclude that this tree of knowledge will bring them nothing bad as disjunctively distinct from the good. They have nothing to lose by eating its fruit. On the contrary, they have everything to gain. Therefore “the woman saw that the tree was ṭôb food, and that it was a delight to the eyes” (3:6). This tree is exactly like all the other trees, beautiful and delicious (2:9). Moreover, it is “desirable for the knowledge it could give” (3:6). This tree is seen to be good (ṭôb) and to offer them the knowledge of everything (conjunctive meaning). A new possibility of life is envisioned: a better awareness of the good and a more complete experience of it. The human being longs to surpass the limits with which he is confronted.
After eating the fruit of the forbidden tree “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew” (3:7) exactly as the promise of the serpent that their eyes would be opened and they would know (3:5) had led them to believe. Human beings can learn from every experience, even from those that are painful and “bad.” But what the man and woman know is different from what the serpent had promised: “they knew that they were naked.” The primary significance of nudity is not sexual. Nudity refers to poverty, weakness, and human limitations (Vogels, 1983:528–29; 1987a:562–65). To be nude before someone indicates that you have nothing to hide, that you are showing yourself as you are. The man and woman already know they are limited: “The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (2:25). They accept their human limitations as normal and good. There is nothing bad about being human rather than divine, in being man or woman and needing the other. They wanted to surpass these limits to become completely like God; they are astonished to discover that they are still humans. They know that they will never be able to do away with these limitations. They now experience their limitations and their nudity as bad and as deficiencies. What was good has become bad. They feel ashamed and embarrassed: “They sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (3:7). Despite their loincloths they realize that they are still nude before God and they hide from him (3:10). They thought that the serpent had promised them the knowledge of everything (good and bad conjunctively) or a heightened experience of good. The reality is different: until this moment they have only known good, now they also experience bad as disjunctively distinct from good.
Before they ate the fruit of the tree they knew and experienced the pleasure, harmony, and life spoken of in the first part of the account (2:4b–24). After they eat the fruit, their knowledge and experience include the suffering, disharmony, and death spoken of in the second part (2:25–3:24). Earlier they had experienced only what is good; now they also experience what is bad. The tree has truly given them something new. God wanted humanity to be happy and he wanted to shield them from unhappiness. But the human desire to experience “everything” had led to the experience of good and bad.
4. The Divine Statement (Gen 3:22)
Whatever the serpent meant to say and the human being understood, God states at the end of the story “See, the human being has become like one of us, knowing good and bad” (3:22). He thereby proves that the serpent who had promised that they would be like Elohim (3:5) was right. God’s statement could mean that the human being has become like God himself (grammatically, Elohim is plural) or else that he has something in common with God and the members of the divine council. In both cases the human being had become like God through the experience of good and bad.
Knowing good and bad is, indeed, a divine attribute. God created the human being as a partner with whom he enters into communication. An authentic relationship must be based on the liberty of the two partners. If one dominates the other, there is no mutual respect. God does not completely dominate the human being but leaves him free. God runs the risk of experiencing not only joy and harmony but also anguish and disharmony in his relationship with the human being (Vogels, 1987b).
The creation and paradise stories state that God not only knows what is “good” (ṭôb) (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) and “very good” (1:31) but also what is “not good” (2:18) and what can be improved. When the human being abuses his freedom, God also knows what it is like to be deceived: “What is this that you have done?” (3:13). God’s suffering increases (4:1–6, 23–24). “The Lord saw that the ra˓ of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only ra˓ continually … and it grieved him to his heart” (6:5–6). God experiences bad. He is capable of regretting or even of being ashamed of what he has done. Following the Flood, he is not very proud of the destruction he has caused (8:21). God knows good and bad. In the experience of good and bad, the human being is really like God.
After affirming that the human being has become like Elohim, Yahweh God adds: “And now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (3:22). The man and the woman are driven out of paradise: and it becomes impossible for them to reach the tree of life. The situation is reversed: the tree of life which was accessible is no longer so. The acquisition of the knowledge of good and bad gives the human being a quality that makes him like God. But he now loses the other divine quality, the possibility of “living forever.” There is something divine in the human being but he always remains human. This account is often entitled “the story of humanity’s fall” but it is actually an account of God saving humanity from extinction. The history of salvation has started.
It is significant that the paradise account which speaks of two mysterious trees also gives God a double name: “Yahweh Elohim” (van Wolde, 1989: 203–5; 1994:45–47). The human being is “like one of us.” He is like Elohim (grammatically plural) knowing, as the tree of knowledge has given them to know, both good and bad. But he does not have access to the tree of life. He knows what it is like to die. He is not, then, like “Yahweh” whose name means “I am who is” (Exod 3:14) (Vogels, 1981).
The creation account says that the human being is like God, “in the image of God,” but also distinct from God, “male and female” (Gen 1:27). This division is found only among the animals. The paradise story also states that the human being is like God. At the beginning this is through access to the tree of life and at the end through the knowledge of good and bad. But the human being is also distinct from God. At the beginning this is because he is barred from the tree of knowledge and, at the end, because he is unable to reach the tree of life. “You have made them a little lower than Elohim” (Ps 8:5).
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The Creation of Coherence
Ellen van Wolde
Tilburg Faculty of Theology, The Netherlands
Write down three or four sentences on a piece of paper and let someone read them. Usually the reader tries to make a temporal and causal relationship between the sentences. Without a relation the lines seem incomprehensible. Why do people create coherence? Are they longing for a grip on the phenomena they are confronted with? And whose coherence is it anyway: the reader’s or the text’s? Most exegetes, among whom most structuralists, consider coherence to be a textual device. Others, especially in recent poststructuralism, stress the reader’s contribution. In the integrated approach proposed here, the thesis is defended that coherence should be studied as an interaction of: 1. culturally defined co-operation principles; 2. textual cohesive features; 3. the reader’s pre-existing knowledge; and 4. the process of inferring by the reader resulting in a mental representation of coherence. These aspects are studied in Genesis 1–3, and this analysis clarifies how the story of creation indeed requires a creation of coherence by the reader.
It is wartime. A scout is dropped on some God-forsaken hill, in order to explore the situation for future operations. The very first thing to do is to specify the map coordinates of his own vantage point; that is where he stands when drawing the picture. Every description is useless without those coordinates; the exploration of the unknown landscape is incomplete, indeed uninterpretable, unless it specifies the point of view from where the project is undertaken (Givón, 1989:1). A specification of the frame is also required: what are the limits of the view, the direction of viewing, the area covered? With these two data, vantage point and frame, the scout can start to make a coherent description, which he finally sends to headquarters. Headquarters receives other descriptions from other scouts as well, and is thus able to make a well-founded operational decision.
It is peace time. Exegetes are allowed to use their time and energy to describe a text of the Hebrew Bible. One falls on a God-filled text. Specification of the personal vantage point is the first task to complete. What are the coordinates, what is the specification of the personal point of view from which research starts? From this vantage point the exegete makes his or her selection from the plurality of textual phenomena. He or she determines which “data” may be considered to be decisive for the analysis, thus defining the frame. The process of description and explanation which follows cannot be achieved without an idea of the general (linguistic, literary, historical, theological) rules of what may be relevant and what may not. At the same time it is a fact that the general rules and theories are deduced from the textual data in the Hebrew Bible. It is undeniable, too, that the choice of one general rule applicable to this or that textual phenomenon is partly contextbound and exegete-dependent. The rules are given, but not the decision which rule is suitable for a particular text. Textual research is looking for good rules, good applications, good facts, in order to create good coherences and good interpretations. Exegesis is, therefore, an interaction of generality and individuality.
Individuality is what biblical exegesis tends to focus upon. Older exegetical work expresses this tendency through a special interest in understanding the authors of a text: What did the author want to express with this particular text? More recent exegetical work expresses the same tendency by concentrating on the stylistics of a particular text. What is the rhetorical power of this particular text? What is the influence of the implied or actual reader on the interpretation of the text? On the other hand, structuralism or structuralist semiotics, which was introduced in biblical exegesis in the 1970s, pays much attention to the general systematic features of texts, especially of narrative texts: the narrative system of transformations or plots, the characters, their actions and interactions, the building of meaning within textual contexts and the semantic analyses in elements of meaning arranged into semiotic squares. This structuralist semiotics starts from a certain idea of linguistic and literary rules which are considered to be applicable to individual texts (in all languages, i.e. independent of a specific language). The text is not considered as a product of an authorial strategy or as a reader’s construct, but as a realization of universal narratological rules. Its assumption is that narratives are characterized by structures and features, which are actualized in different texts.
An American variant of semiotics, the semiotics according to Charles Peirce, is not restricted to universal features but is focused on the process of “thinking in signs” or “semiosis.” It considers four constituents to be of vital importance: 1. the subject or person who attributes meaning; 2. the sign system or language system by which this meaning is expressed; 3. the object, i.e. the impetus of what invites or activates a subject to attribute meaning or “to think in signs”; and 4. the effect of the process, which is usually expressed in new signs or in actions (van Wolde, 1989, 1994). This semiotic approach is not widespread in the field of biblical exegesis, although it shows tendencies similar to structuralism, in so far as it takes the sign system or linguistic rules into account, and although it shows tendencies similar to readerresponse criticism, in the sense that it explicitly deals with the subject of interpretation. Because of its high validation of the impetus of reality or object on the process of signification, it shows tendencies similar to some historical approaches.
Either starting from the recent developments in biblical exegesis or inspired by the insights of this Peircean semiotics, one has to conclude that it is time to put in perspective the long-standing opposition between the unique realization of meaning in a text and the individual interaction between text and reader on the one hand, and the general language system and text system on the other. One cannot ignore the aspects of a text relating to the language system nor the actual functioning of linguistic features in a unique text written by an author and used by a reader in his or her interpretation. Thirty years after the rise of structuralism in biblical exegesis, the division between the system and the individual, between the language system and the unique text written by an author or edited by a final redactor and read by an individual reader, should be removed. An approach should be defended in which the Hebrew language system, the authorial strategies, and the reader’s mental representation are integrated. This integrational option is the vantage point of the present essay. Its “frame” or area covered is the generation of coherence in Genesis 1–3.
What is coherence? Write down three or four sentences on a piece of paper and let someone read them. Usually this reader tries to make a temporal and causal relationship between the sentences. Without a relation the lines seem ununderstandable. Why do people create coherence? Are they longing for a grip on the phenomena they are confronted with? Is it the causal web into which the sentences are woven, so that the reader is able to deal with them? Is this generation of coherence fulfilled or achieved along similar and universal lines?
In structuralism the coherence in narrative texts is studied on the basis of the general rule that a story is characterised by an initial situation and an end situation, and by a narrative development which can be analysed as a process of transformation brought about by the actions of the characters. Chronology and logical relationships are thus presupposed to be valuable for narratives. Analyses of the narrative structures of the story of the creation in 1:1–2:4a and of the story of paradise in 2:4b–3:24 may reveal the advantages and limits of such a structuralist approach to coherence.
Coherence in the Story of Creation
The beginning of the story of creation is obvious, but its ending is not quite clear: it might end in verse 2:4a or in verse 2:4b (for a survey of the discussion in this century, see Stordalen). Five characteristics make it, in my opinion, plausible that verse 2:4a is the final verse of the story: the naming of the main character, God, in 1:1–2:4a as אלהים and in 2:4b–3:24 as יהזה אלהים; the description of the action of creating as ברא in 2:4a and as עשׂה in 2:4b; the representation of the object of creation as את השׁמים ואת הארץ (with definite articles and in this order) in 2:4a and as ארץ ושׁמים (without definite articles and nota accusativi, and in reverse order) in 2:4b; the temporal adjunct ביוםֹ in 2:4b which marks the beginning of a new episode or textual unit; and the form בהבראם in 2:4a, a nif’al infinitive of ברא with the suffix ם—which describes the creation activities as completed. One may therefore conclude that the narrative of Genesis 1 begins in 1:1 and ends in 2:4a.
The opening verse of the story of creation is impressively poetic. The alliterating sounds and iconic imagery evoke in the reader’s mind a picture of the creation: בראשׁית ברא אלהים. The act of creating, its subject and object, are painted in one brush. The totality of what will be created is expressed by the words את השׁמים ואת הארץ, the heaven and the earth. “Will be created,” because 1:1 does not tell us about the realisation of the creation at that narrated moment. Since in 1:1–2:4a God’s speaking is the instrument of creation, and no word is yet heard, it is more likely that 1:1 precedes creation. This is confirmed by the account of the creation of heaven in 1:8 (“God made the firmament. And God called the firmament heaven, שׁמים.”) and by the account of the creation of the earth in 1:9 (“God said: ‘Let the dry land appear.’ And God called the dry land earth, ארץ.”) It follows, therefore, that the first verse as a narrator’s text constitutes a kind of caption of the entire story, and expresses at the outset the main thought of the creation story.
The ending of the story of creation in 2:4a expresses the same theme:
בראשׁית ברא אלהים את השׁמים ואת הארץ 1:1
אלה תולדות השׁמים והארץ בהבראם 2:4a
A comparison between the initial and final verse shows the great similarity between the two verses. In both three components are mentioned: time (בראשׁית and תולדות) the creating act (ברא and בהבראם), and the object of creation: the heaven and the earth ([את]השׁמים ו[את]הארץ). While the opening verse introduces the beginning of the coming events, the final verse resumes these events as “begettings.” What starts with God’s creation is finally resumed as “in their being created.” These verses point the reader to what is to be considered as the main framework of the story: the creation of the heaven and the earth.
The announcement of the theme in 1:1 is not followed by the first stage of creation, but by a depiction of what the situation existing prior to creation looked like:
והארץ היתה תוה ובהו 1:2a
וחשׁך על־פני תהום 1:2b
ורוח אלהים מרחפת על־פני המים 1:2c
The initial situation is characterised by the earth being תהו ובהו (1:2a). The term תהו occurs twenty times in the HB with the meaning of “desert” or a “desert-like place,” “emptiness” or “nothingness.” The term בהו only occurs three times in the Hebrew Bible, always in combination with תהו (here, Isa 24:11 and Jer 4:23), and also refers to emptiness and void (Tsumura: 30–43). These words together describe the earth in its bare state: the earth is empty and void, lacking plants, animals, human beings, or whatsoever. Later, when God creates plants, animals, and human beings, this lack will be removed.
The second clause (1:2b) presents a תהו wrapped in darkness. This word תהום (related to the general Semitic term tiham, primeval ocean) refers to the unspecified waters or immeasurable expanse of water existing before the creation of heaven made a division between the waters above and the waters below. This is shown in 1:6 when God makes a firmament or solid expense, רקיע, that establishes a division between the waters above and the waters below, and this firmament is called שׁמים, a plural form that shows great resemblance to מים, waters. The first syllable of שׁמים might even point to –שׁ (as an abridged form of אשׁר) or “that which relates to” the מים. Thus, word and text express the same motion: the שׁמים separates the מים above from the מים below. Before this שׁמים existed, there was only a vertical mass of water, the תהים which is characterised by a lack of light (cf. Westermann: 146; Perry: 2–11). Clause 1:2b therefore is a description of what existed before the heaven, שׁמים, came into being (cf. Tsumura: 45–83).
The third clause, 1:2c, introduces the third factor, the רוח אלהים facing the waters. Here the word על־פני, “upon the face of” shows that, apart from water (both the horizontal waters that cover the earth and the vertical waters that exist before heaven emerges) there is nothing, nothing but the spirit of God. In this initial situation, the רוח אלהים might allude to God as he is before he starts creating, because from the moment God begins to speak or create, he is called אלהים.
In short, verse 1:2 shows us the initial situation as a “not-yet” situation: the earth is empty, there is no heaven, only a mass of water lacking light, and God is merely active as רוח אלהים, not yet as a speaking, seeing, dividing, creating, generating or name-giving אלהים. Gradually the reader comes to realise how skilfully the first two verses of Genesis 1 have been structured.
1. in a
the heaven and the earth
2. the earth
This is the primeval situation: no “nothing,” nor a chaos that needs sorting out, but a situation of “before” or “not-yet” in view of what is to come. Even God is not yet the creator God but is moving upon the face of the waters as an indefinable “spirit of God.” These are the main actors of the story to come.
From 1:3 onwards the creation of the heaven and the earth starts and develops, until it is finished and summarized in 2:4a. The Hebrew syntax presents this narrative development clearly by a series of wayyiqtol forms presenting the chain of actions which makes up the process of creation, each link opened by the wayyiqtol-form זיאמר אלהים. Starting from 1:3 and ending in 2:1, this series of actions achieves a transformation of the initial situation into the end situation. The transformation takes place in stages: God creates the heaven (1:6–8), makes appear the earth and the growth of plants on the earth (1:9–13); consequently God creates the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars) and relates them to the earth (1:14–19) and he creates the earthly bodies (birds, fishes, animals, human beings) and relates them to each other (1:20–31). The final situation is described in verse 2:1:
ויכלו השׁמים והארץ וכל־צבאם 2:1
All lacks in the initial situation have been removed: heaven and earth and “all the things with which they were fitted out” have been made by God. God “completes” כלל everything (כל), and God rests שׁבת from all (כל) his work. This one whole represented by the word combination of השׁמים והארץ which only occurs in 1:1, 2:1, and 2:4a. That is to say, השׁמים והארץ are presented in the announcement of the plot in 1:1 and in the summary of the plot in 2:4a, and in the depiction of the final situation in 2:1, whereas in the initial situation (1:2) the lack of these components is described. One particular thing becomes very clear in this sketch of the transformation between the initial and final situation in the creation story of Genesis 1. This story is not solely about the creation of humankind, nor about the creation of the earth, nor even about the way human beings should behave on the earth. Genesis 1 is primarily focused on God’s creation of the heaven and the earth and their “inhabitants.”
Coherence in the Story of Paradise
The story of paradise in 2:4b–3:24 starts with an indication of time: ביום עשׂות, “On the day YHWH God made earth and heaven” (2:4b). It is striking that the openings of the creation story and paradise story are quite similar. Both start with a time indicator, בארשׁית and ביום respectively, followed by a verb form referring to the act of creating, ברא and עשׂות respectively; then the subject of this act is presented, אלהים and יהוה אלהים respectively; and finally the object is mentioned, את השׁמים ואת הארץ and ארץ ושׁמים respectively. This correspondence gives rise to the idea that 1:1 (and the following story) concentrates on the beginning of the creation process, and 2:4b (and the following story) refers to one moment or period of time or one day in this previously described creation process. Could this simple impression of coherence be true?
After this indication of time the story refers to the initial situation:
וכל שׂיח השׂדה טרם יהיה בארץ 2:5a
וכל־עשׂב השׂדה טרם יצמת 2:5b
כי לא המטיר יהוה אלהים על־הארץ 2:5c
ואדם אין לעבד את־האדמה 2:5d
It deals with the earth exclusively, and no mention is made of the heaven whatsoever. This earth’s condition is characterised twice by the term טרם: the earth is “not yet” filled with vegetation. The causes of this lack are given in 2:5cd: “Because YHWH God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no human being to till the earth.” Thus the second verse in the story of paradise (2:5) is built up like the second verse of the creation story (1:2), describing the initial situation as a “not-yet” situation.
In 2:6 one of these two deficiencies is removed: “a אד wells up from the earth and waters the whole surface of the earth.” From the words יעלה מן־ארץ one might infer that this אד refers to subterrestrial water, and because it moistens the whole surface of the earth, a translation of אד with “flood” or “flow” could be possible. This word אד functions, as the great similarity in sounds shows, in close relationship with אדם and אדמה. The אדמה will produce vegetation only if אד and אדם are active on the אדמה. After the water supply has been arranged, and the earth is moistened, only the human being is missing. It is therefore still impossible for the earth to bring forth vegetation.
Against this backdrop, the story of the garden begins in 2:7, as is shown by the wayyiqtol form, which is the first in the chain of wayyiqtol forms with God as subject. Immediately God forms (יצר) the human being from dust of the earth (עפר מן־אדמה) and blows breath of life in his nostrils. The link between the אדם and אדמה is apparent: the earth is described as dependent on the human being for its vegetation in 2:5d and now the human being is made of earth matter; and there still is, of course, the obvious similarity in form between אדם and אדמה. All that remains to be done is placing this human being on the earth to cultivate it, and that would be the end of the story. However, events take a different turn. God plants a garden in Eden and places the human being in this garden (twice in 2:8 and 2:15) to till and protect it. As for the earth, אדמה, outside the garden, this as yet lies fallow: there is no tiller present and consequently there is no crop. For the time being the story continues inside the garden.
The end of the story is formed by verses 3:17–24, in which the deficiency which existed in the beginning is removed: אדמה now receives אדם as its tiller. If in the intermediate period the earth was only linked to the human being within the garden, it now establishes contact with the human being outside the garden as well. Verse 3:23 sums this up well: “So YHWH God sent him/her from the garden of Eden, to till the earth from which (s)he was taken.” Instead of the easy task of tilling and protecting the garden, the human being is required to accomplish the much more arduous task of tilling the earth. The trees which grew independently in the garden of Eden are replaced by crops which are dependent on human attention. The mutual dependence between human being and earth has increased considerably: the earth is cursed because of humankind, so strong is its relationship. The human being is dependent on the vegetation yielded by the earth, as the earth is dependent on being tilled by the human being to sprout this vegetation. And finally, the human being will return to the earth, from which (s)he was taken. The relationship between אדם and אדִמה has developed throughout the story, it marks both the beginning and the end of the story and is the framework in which the garden episode is laid. In the last decades a growing number of authors have come to see the relation between human being and earth as at least one of the main themes of Genesis 2–3 (Walsh, 1977; Naidoff, 1978; Vogels, 1983; van Wolde, 1989, 1994).
Coherence in Genesis 1–3
This brings us back to the relationship between Genesis 1 (1:1–2:4a) and Genesis 2–3 (2:4b–3:24). The story of paradise turns out to be closely connected with the previous creation story: whereas Genesis 1 pictures the totality, i.e. the creation of heaven and earth, Genesis 2–3 zooms in on one aspect: the relationship between the human being and the earth. It is like a film or a picture: one detail or one day in Genesis 1, namely day six as described in 1:26–28, is blown up. The human being (אדם) in his/her biological distinction of זכר and נקבה in 1:27, is specified in a long episode in Genesis 2–3, in which זכם becomes אישׁ and אשׁה. The story tells about developments in their relationship. The human being in his and her relation to the earth which was sketched in general terms in 1:28 as כבשׁ את־הארץ, is fully elaborated in Genesis 2–3 as a transformation process in which the human being (אדם) is in the end inextricably linked to the earth (אדמה) and in which the earth is inextricably linked to the human being, each depending on the other for work, life and food.
The building of coherence in modern cultures is usually chronological: the first occurring events are told first, the next occurring events are told later. This is called “the diagrammatic iconicity” of narrative texts, explaining the fact that the systematic relationships of language elements reflect the experienced relationships of their referents in reality. This iconic relationship enables the reader to understand the difference between “she becomes pregnant and marries” and “she marries and becomes pregnant.” Textual order reflects, or is understood as reflecting, the order in the experienced world. Our modern and western chronological arrangement is understood as universal and logical, thus reflecting the reader’s need to create causal relationships between previous elements (cause) and later elements (effect). From this vantage point it is difficult to understand, for example, how it is possible that in Genesis 1 first the creation of light is described (in 1:3) and subsequently (in 1:14–16) that of the sun, moon, and stars. This causes problems in the mind of a reader anticipating and creating chronological relationships.
However, in Genesis a different kind of coherence-making is presented: the text starts with a general survey and next concentrates on one particular aspect. This is true for the content of Genesis 1 in general: in the first place attention is paid to the creation of light in general, and subsequently to the creation of the sun; then attention is paid to heaven as a totality, and subsequently to the creation of the heavenly bodies; later again attention is paid to the creation of the earth with plants in general, and subsequently to the creation of the inhabitants of the earth.
This is also true of the relationship between the story of creation and the story of paradise. First Genesis 1 presents all days of creation in one overall sketch, then Genesis 2–3 zooms in on one particular day. A similar pattern can be discovered in Genesis 10–11. After Genesis 10 has given a general survey of the genealogy of the sons of Noah and the dispersion of this people in nations over the world, 11:1–9 elaborates one aspect, viz. the reason why human beings are dispersed in language-groups and languages over the earth. The book of Genesis as a whole shows the same characteristic: Genesis 1–11 relates to the all-embracing universe, the plants, animals and humankind, and subsequently the scope is limited to one family and one people in Genesis 12–50. Probably one might conclude that the so-called linear approach is less universal than is often thought, as the non-linear coherence in Genesis 1–11 shows.
The “spatial” and “concentric” arrangement of coherence in Genesis 1–11 in which the scope is more and more limited, is a more visual way of presentation, comparable with films: after a general overview, the camera zooms in on one particular detail. An explanation could be found in the stories’ origin and function in an oral culture, in which a speaker tells his audience about the beginning. This audience is first confronted with the scenery, the set in which the events occur and is subsequently asked to focus on some particular element. Thus, surprisingly, our comparison in the beginning of this article with the scout in wartime who first has to describe his vantage point and frame, is also valuable for our study of coherence in Genesis 1–11. In an oral setting the hearers know the vantage point of the story-teller, therefore no specification of his vantage point is needed; but they do need a primary orientation in the area covered, which the speaker therefore provides in the first place.
Whether this hypothesis is valuable or not, our main point is that the reader’s building of a coherent interpretation is not universally the same, but partly the result of culturally determined interaction. This interaction is a “co-operation” in such a fashion as participants who are socialized as members of a culture will expect and experience as within the norm (Grice). In the building of coherence in Genesis 1–11 no linear co-operation is presupposed. Our culturally determined expectation, on the other hand, is linear: our texts require linear co-operation of readers in their generation of coherence. One of the mistakes of structuralism in general and of structuralist exegesis in particular is the implicit presupposition of the universality of linear building of coherence.
Reflections on Coherence
Another, still more important point of correction concerns the structuralist approach to coherence as a static feature of the text: coherence is, however, a product of a dynamic interaction process between the text and the reader. This has been acknowledged in biblical exegesis in the late 1980s, when reader-response criticism and rhetorical criticism made their entry. In literary criticism the role of the reader was already previously recognized, giving rise to post-structuralism and deconstructionism. In linguistics, the field in which structuralism originated, the structuralist approach was replaced at the end of the 1970s by functionalist linguistics, text grammar, and, later still, by cognitive linguistics. In this field an explicit distinction is made between “cohesion” as a textual phenomenon, which refers to the linguistic devices by which a text creates continuity, and “coherence” as a mental phenomenon in the mind of the reader (Halliday and Hasan, Halliday). Since then this distinction has been taken as a standard (Thompson). Coherence refers to the linguistic quality which is created by the reader’s interpretation of a text as a meaningful whole: the reader can interpret the text coherently, that is to say, not a text itself is coherent, but a reader’s interpretation makes it coherent. Consequently one has to distinguish four fundamentals on which coherence is built: culture-dependent cohesion and co-operation principles, textual cohesion, the reader’s pre-existing knowledge and experience of life, and the reader’s mental activity of representation.
Reference has already been made to culture-dependent principles such as the “spatial” arrangement of cohesion in Genesis 1–11 in which the scope is more and more limited, quite differently from our modern linear cohesion principles. I will concentrate therefore on the second and main basis of the reader’s coherence building: the cohesive features of the text. Structuralism has offered a well-developed procedure by which textual cohesive features can be analysed. Its main characteristic is the study of the narrative transformation between the initial and end situations in a text as based on the series of actions of the characters or actants and on their relationships. This approach has been, and still is, very valuable. Nevertheless, textual cohesion is more than a sequence of actions. Probably structuralist approaches have too often neglected other cohesive material, viz. non-sequential information. In functionalist linguistics this omission is remedied by Hopper and by Hopper and Thompson who demonstrate that a narrative text is characterised by the information presented in verbal clauses expressing sequential actions and indicating the story line, on the one hand (cf. in Biblical Hebrew the series of wayyiqtol forms), and by the information presented in nominal and circumstantial clauses (cf. in Biblical Hebrew the clauses marked by אשׁר) or in other language forms expressing supportive material (cf. the x-qatal clauses, x-yiqtol clauses, x-qotel clauses in Biblical Hebrew), on the other. The former type of information is called “foreground” information, i.e. the sequence of actions which relates events belonging to the skeletal structure of the discourse, and the latter “background” or non-sequential information. Background clauses do not themselves narrate, but instead they support, amplify or comment on the narrative. They interrupt the sequence of actions and subjects and present new elements. In this way they give depth to already known elements, which become part of the memory of the reader.
For example, in Gen 2:24 the narrator interrupts the narrative sequence of actions, stating: “Therefore a man will leave his father and mother, and will cling to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” The opening word על־כן, the yiqtol form of the verb (יעזב) referring to a general statement the word-order x-yiqtol, and the lexemes “father and mother” (occuring in the text at a moment where in the story only two human beings exist) make visible the particular cohesive function of this verse in the story. These four linguistic features show the interruption of the narrative sequence of actions and events: 2:24 offers non-sequential evaluative information. Here the narrator offers the reader his view on the process of actions, and refers to a situation outside the paradise story which is familiar to the reader. This kind of evaluation strongly influences the reader, because (s)he builds up the information in this perspective presented so far and arranges information presented later on in the text in the light of 2:24. The history of interpretation confirms the success of this procedure, since both in the Jewish tradition and in the Christian tradition the texts are arranged into a coherent interpretation in which this verse is used as the signpost: they read Genesis 2–3 as the foundation story of marriage. This interpretation is based on the evaluative background (=non-sequential) information in 2:24, seen as the main cohesive device in the story of paradise.
Although here much attention is paid to the background clauses, it would be wrong to overemphasize the role of these clauses at the expense of the foreground clauses. The chain of wayyiqtol forms in foreground clauses is still the main cohesion-building feature of a text. They define the skeleton of the story. And when summarizing a story, one usually tells this main line of action. Nevertheless, attention to narrative-chain interrupting clauses and information is necessary in order to understand the influence of this information in the reader’s creation of coherence.
From the mid–1980s onward, the background-foreground distinction is reframed in cognitive terms as “ground” and “figure,” as “norm” and “counternorm,” or as “grounding” and “saliency” (Givón, 1987). “Grounding” means that a coherent text is organized in a way that makes information accessible and predictable to a reader. A coherent text tends to maintain the same referent or topic, the same or contiguous time and location, and sequential action. At the same time, new or marked information is focused upon by the procedure of saliency. Therefore the “ground” is the context vis-à-vis which new or salient information is given (Givón, 1990:896–99). Texture or textual cohesion is determined by the way information is grounded in a narrative text.
A grounding procedure consists of two processes. The first is essentially anaphoric, involving grounding of a particular point in the discourse in relation to the preceding text; or, to be more precise, grounding with regard to what the author can assume about knowledge shared with the reader. The second is a cataphoric process, involving clues the author gives the reader at a particular point in the text on how to ground it in relation to the following discourse (Givón, 1987:176). The differentiation between anaphoric and cataphoric orientation in a text is known as the grammar of referential coherence. Thus, for example, definite articles are primarily anaphoric devices, while indefinite articles are primarily cataphoric devices, cautioning the reader on what to expect in the subsequent text. Anaphoric references, as related to previously given information, very often function as a motivation or explanation of introduced topics or topic-subjects. They reactivate the available information in the reader’s mind, keep information available for the reader by referential grounding. In contrast, cataphoric references, which are related to material in the following context, have a wider and less predictable scope of reference: they open new windows, introduce new information (which needs additional description in the text to come) and make it figure in the previously presented ground-information.
Take for example Gen 1:14–16. “God said: ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to separate the day from the night …’ And God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars.” In the first clause of the direct speech, no definite article is used and “lights” are introduced here for the first time. They are defined by their place in the firmament. The definite article in ברקיע השׁמים (status constructus) refers back to 1:7, where the firmament and the heaven have been created and named. The connection with the previous text is thus confirmed, in other words the new information about the lights is grounded in the old or given information. The new information which is grounded in the context, is concentrated on the introduction of the heavenly bodies which carry out the separation between day and night, mentioned earlier. Here again the process “from general to specific” can be detected: first the general distinction between darkness and light is introduced; subsequently the specification is presented of the bodies which execute this distinction. The definite articles in “God made the two great lights” also function anaphorically, but here a linkage is made to generic knowledge. The texts grounds the new textual information in the reader’s experiential knowledge of two heavenly bodies, sun and moon, and of the stars.
Another example is Gen 2:4a and 2:4b. Perhaps the functional study of grounding might clarify a longstanding exegetical problem. In 2:4a reference is made to השׁמים והארץ, with definite articles and in 2:4b to שׁמים וארץ, without definite articles and nota accusativi. In 2:4a the definite articles show a backwards reference. The clause functions anaphorically and thus confirms the cohesive function of 2:4a with the previous text. The lack of definite articles in 2:4b, on the other hand, shows the anticipatory function of this clause: it creates an expectation of cohesion to be fulfilled in the subsequent text. These linguistic features mark the difference in referential coherence: the first clause (2:4a) functions “face backwards,” referring anaphorically to the preceding text, and the second clause (2:4b) functions “face forwards,” referring cataphorically to the subsequent text. Thus the reader is guided by the textual grounding of information.9
Some more attention must be paid to the reader’s contribution to the generation of coherence. The cohesive information is present in the text, but the mental representation of coherence is the result of an inferring process by the reader. The text gives rise to inference-making on the part of the reader, but it is the reader who realizes this on the basis of his or her knowledge of the world that has resulted from interactional processes of individual experiences, culturally determined education and previously constructed mental representations. Readers do relate their pre-existing ideas, experiences, and emotions to the text and a text provides the reader with devices to ground the information into his or her knowledge. Grounding therefore is very much related to the author’s idea of the reader’s knowledge. Accessibility relates to this presupposed generic knowledge. The author presupposes the reader’s ability to integrate new knowledge into previously accumulated knowledge. Language and culture provide the writer with devices to ground the information differently into the reader’s existing knowledge. The reader’s processing ability is therefore required by the text itself: the textual information is offered in such a way that the reader needs to use his or her reservoir of experience and knowledge, in order to be able to “think in signs.”
For example, in Gen 1:1 the definite articles which accompany שׁמים and ארץ presuppose a linkage to the reader’s knowledge. That is where “generic knowledge” comes in. But the encyclopedic knowledge of the author’s idea of the reader’s idea of the world and of heaven differs from ours. The text refers to this intended mental representation of the reader in which the world is seen as a disc with water underneath and a firmament (heaven) above, and with water above the heaven. We have a different mental representation of the earth; here intended readers and actual readers differ.
In conclusion, coherence is constructed by a reader who is guided by textual cohesive features, by cultural and language habits, by an inferring process, and an incorporation of pre-existing knowledge. The cohesion of a narrative text is partly based on foreground information, i.e. the series of sequential actions expressing a narrative transformation from beginning situation to end situation, and partly based on background information, i.e. information of a non-sequential status functioning either anaphorically as explanation, motivation, or evaluation of previously introduced material, or cataphorically as anticipatory orientation to material to come. The textual information is therefore strongly context-bound. These textual cohesion procedures guide the reader to make a coherent mental representation of the text. A story of creation requires indeed a creation of coherence by the reader.
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Campbell, Kim Sydow
1995 Coherence, Continuity, and Cohesion. Theoretical Foundations for Document Design. Hillsdale, NJ and London: Lawrence Erlbaum.
1987 “Beyond Foreground and Background.” Pp. 175–88 in Coherence and Grounding in Discourse. Typological Studies in Language 11. Ed. Russell Tomlin. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
1989 Mind, Code and Context. Essays in Pragmatics. Hillsdale, NJ and London: Lawrence Erlbaum.
1990 Syntax. A Functional-Typological Introduction. Volume 2. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
1975 “Logic and Conversation.” Pp. 41–58 in Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts. Ed. Peter Cole and J. L. Morgan. New York and London: Academic.
1985 An Introduction to Functional Grammar (1st ed.; 2nd ed., 1994). London: Edward Arnold.
Halliday, Michael and Ruqiaya Hasan
1976 Cohesion in English. London: Longman.
1979 “Aspect and Foregrounding in Discourse.” Pp. 213–41 in Discourse and Syntax. Syntax and Semantics 12. Ed. Talmy Givón. New York: Academic.
Hopper, Paul and Sandra Thompson
1980 “Transitivity in Grammar and Discourse.” Language 56:251–99.
1978 “A Man to Work the Soil: A New Interpretation of Genesis 2–3.” JSOT 5:2–14.
Perry, T. A.
1993 “A Poetics of Absence: The Structure and Meaning of Genesis 1,2.” JSOT 58:2–11.
1992 “2,4. Restudying a locus classicus.” ZAW 104:163–77.
1996 Introducing Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold.
1987 Coherence and Grounding in Discourse. Typological Studies in Language 11. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
1989 The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2. A Linguistic Investigation. JSOTSup 83. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
Ungerer, Friedrich and Hans-Jörg Schmid
1996 An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics. London and New York: Longman.
1983 “L’être appartient au sol. Gen 2:4b–3:24.” Nouvelle revue Théologique 105:515–34.
1977 “Genesis 2:4b–3:24: A Synchronic Approach.” JBL 96:161–77.
1976 Genesis. BKAT I.1. Neukirchen Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag.
van Wolde, Ellen
1989 A Semiotic Analysis of Genesis 2–3: A Semiotic Theory and Method of Analysis Applied to the Story of the Garden of Eden. Studia Semitica Neerlandica 25. Assen: Van Gorcum.
van Wolde, Ellen
1994 Words Become Worlds. Semantic Studies of Genesis 1–11. Biblical Interpretation Series 6. Leiden: Brill.
Response from the Philippines to Some of the Semeia Articles
Renate Rose, with Revelation Velunta
Union Theological Seminary, Dasmarinas, Cavite, Philippines
I have been asked to respond to the articles in this issue from a Philippine perspective and to relate how “structural exegesis” in general has been helpful for Philippine students. Since I have so to speak no research tools at hand and no telephone for e-mail, internet etc., my remarks will be quite general. Also I will respond from the perspective of my students in the Seminary whose main concern is how new methods of interpretation can be helpful in the church and especially for their preaching. Therefore, this response will consist of two parts:
1. The usefulness of “structural criticism” in teaching Filipino students who prepare for the Christian ministry;
2. Some remarks on the articles of Panier, Korsak and Kieffer which came out of a discussion with my former student, Revelation Velunta, now a Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt University.
I. The Usefulness of “Structural Exegesis”
In order to study the Gospel of Luke, we used in class two works of Daniel Patte (1990, 1993) relating to texts in Luke 10 and Luke 24 and then tried to do our own structural exegesis of the Gospel of Luke as a whole. I found that combined with “narrative criticism” and “feminist criticism” semiotics can be most helpful for recognizing certain features of the text which otherwise are easily overlooked. Since most students in the Philippines come to the Seminary without being aware of their “system of convictions” or “faith pattern,” which they often learned from the disciples of American missionaries as dogmas of eternal truth, it seemed appropriate to concentrate, as Patte does, on those features of the text that want to convey “Luke’s” own faith or system of convictions. Once the students recognize the author’s faith or other people’s convictions, they are more likely to take a critical look at their own pattern of convictions and make those more conscious. It was interesting to discover that this did not “threaten their faith” but rather strengthened it, since they learned to respect other people’s convictions and, therefore, to relativize their own. Some, especially women, also learned that they could “change” their convictions without feeling bad about it. The students were excited to see different possibilities for reading and connecting various chapters of the Gospel of Luke. The debate in class was fun but at the same time serious. They learned to understand that the author whom we call “Luke” presents a theological narrative (Loening) of the history of Israel as he sees it and not some “objective” historical facts. Whatever he might have known about the “historical Jesus” is woven into his larger theological goal of persuading his reader(s) of the “reliability” that Jesus is the long-expected Jewish Messiah who, filled with the spirit of God, proclaimed and demonstrated in actions God’s kingdom in a unique way. Luke wants to show how Jesus relates to John the Baptist, to his disciples and, as the Resurrected One, to the early church (narrated in Acts). Jewish rituals, Jewish disciples, and Jewish leaders frame the two-volume book from the beginning to the end. Paul’s last attempt in Acts 28 (bound in chains for the sake of the hope of Israel) is to call together the local leaders of “the Jews” to convince them about Jesus “from the law of Moses and from the prophets” (Acts 28:23). It was fascinating to discover how Zechariah in the temple of Jerusalem in Luke 1 relates to the disciples of Jesus in Luke 24:53 in the same temple: Jewish rituals, the Temple, and Jerusalem are important to Luke who sees the Scriptures “fulfilled” or “accomplished” in his own life and community.
Three examples may illustrate particular discoveries of the students:
1). Looking for “inverted parallelisms” (and oppositions of actions) to determine a complete thematic discourse unit, one group showed how Luke 12:1–13:21 is held together by “leaven” or “yeast.”
The discourse starts in Luke 12:1f with Jesus warning his disciples of the
(bad) yeast of the Pharisees, that is their actions of hypocrisy (which they try to cover up)
and ends in Luke 13:21 with Jesus’s teaching in the synagogue, comparing the kingdom of God with the
(good) yeast that a woman took and hid in a huge amount of flour until it was all leavened.
Yeast was usually considered as an agent of corruption, and hypocrisy “covers up” or “hides” one’s true motives. The yeast of the Pharisees is “bad.” But in the hands of a woman—as she hides it under flour—it causes positive activity, creates a rise and adds vitality to the flour. Yeast and the process of hiding now become not just good, but a metaphor for the “kingdom of God.” The transformation of this image was experienced by the class as a revelation. I leave it up to the Editor of Semeia to determine whether “yeast” in this chapter of Luke is a “metaphor,” an “isotopy,” a “figure,” a “figurative trajectory,” a “musical stave,” or something else. It clearly starts a process of new creation for the baker-woman God. By enunciating the opposition of two kinds of yeast in such a way, the students as readers were “pushed in the direction opened up by the text” (Delorme, above, p. 37) seeing a tension which made them “re-invent the text” (p. 38). The Scripture or “written text” became “a spoken word” heard again, to use Panier’s words (p. 70).
One might argue that a feminist reading alone could have discovered this dramatic contrast and change of perspective; however, deliberately looking for inverted parallelisms and oppositions of actions helped in the process.
2). The second example that struck the students as particularly insightful was when we studied Luke 10:25–37. Patte pointed out that the priest and the Levite, who pass by the wounded man without helping him, are people of firm religious convictions who have a clear goal before them (1990:109). They know where they are coming from and where they are going. Such people have no time and no inclination to see the half-dead man.
But the Samaritan, considered a religious heretic, who just “journeyed around” without a clear direction in life, is prepared to be interrupted and able to help. We all felt indicted and wondered how often we might have been merciless because our goals were rigid, prestigious, and too urgent for interruption. How often, we wondered, have our “achievements” prevented us from “showing mercy”? It came as a revelation to us that in not showing mercy, whenever we have an opportunity or are called upon by the situation of our context, we are no better off than the robbers themselves. We learned that so-called “heretics” might have the advantage of keeping themselves open for encounters with people of other “faiths” and religions. The students found this interpretation helpful for preaching on this text.
3). The third example from Patte’s book which we discussed vividly was whether the discourse unit of the Good Samaritan starts at Luke 10:21 and ends at 10:42 as Patte suggests, in which case the Lukan Jesus would compare Martha to the wise and understanding and Mary to the infants. Such an interpretation would reinforce the rebuke of Martha and the domineering role of the kyrios demonstrating the “kyriarchal” triangle with Jesus at the top: Martha looks up to the kyrios for help (rather than addressing her sister) but is rebuked and Mary sits silently at the feet of the master and is praised for having chosen “the better part.” This reading is dangerous for women and calls for a feminist correction. It cannot be proclaimed as “the Word of God” even if it is the word of Luke. Rather we must imagine a different type of Jesus and a different type of God! We may see “God” at the center of a democratic circle and Jesus, Martha, and Mary as brother and sisters around it. Then everyone helps everyone else, God at the center being the spirit of empowerment for mutual love and service. The Lukan text as it stands must be deconstructed, and re-imagined to show its patriarchal limitations, in order to become empowering for women.
II. Remarks on Some of the Articles
I am not qualified to comment on the rather abstract articles of Delorme and others, for I have not studied “semiotics” in any depth. My question is rather: is it useful for the Third World when interpreting the Bible? The answer seems to be: sometimes “yes,” sometimes “no.” It is one thing for European or American scholars sitting behind a comfortable desk with computer and latest software to reflect on how language is used “to make sense” or “to construct meaning” in a biblical text. It is quite another thing to live in a context of survival where on the one hand, faith in God is the only thing left for people who search the Bible for a word of liberation and up-liftment and find it in certain texts, but where on the other hand, the Bible is most often used by the oppressors to impose a one-dimensional “self-evident truth” that keeps the powerful (including bishops) in place. In the latter case there is rarely a liberating and “saving” message for the poor. The ethical question we wish to address to Western scholars is: How does a particular semiotic theory or analysis of a biblical text help the marginalized, the oppressed, the poor, especially women and children, in the Third World? Does it help in their liberation/salvation? In this regard I found the article by Delorme on John the Baptist, for example, irrelevant.
Still, unless students are made aware of “the effects of the spoken word,” enunciated in a written text and re-interpreted in the reading process by every reader through the centuries, they will hardly be able to experience the rich possibilities and the excitement of new readings, they will hardly see the scope of new methods of interpretation and the “abundant figurativity” (Delorme, above, p. 41) of the Bible, stimulating more study and new incarnations of “the Word of God.”
a) Panier’s Article (without post-script): EFFECTS OF THE WORD
We find this article helpful in its emphasis on “reading as a practice of enunciation,” capturing “the effects” of the spoken word but not reproducing it as a copy of the oral. If all students of the Bible would understand that the Scriptures are not a “substitute of” or “for” the live speech of the prophets or of Jesus or of the characters in the biblical narratives but rather “its effects,” the church could find a new mission, sermons might become more imaginative and the incarnation of the “Logos” might become more manifest and visible. Indeed, the hermeneutical key to reading the Scriptures is found in Acts 8:31 where the eunuch, the treasurer of Queen Candace of Ethiopia, asks Philip to teach him how to read, (not “what” and “why” as Panier claims). The eunuch wants only guidance for interpreting what he is reading and nothing else.
This means that the New Testament itself teaches us that “Scriptures” require interpretation and a new “enunciation” of the written word, itself the effect of something that came before. It can be proclaimed only in a new interpretation/re-invention/re-articulation.
We certainly agree that the New Testament writings “are not the story of Jesus” (p. 65), documenting historical events, but rather a means to establish a relationship between dialogue partners, that is between the speaker, the writer, and the reader, in order to initiate a trajectory of the effect of the once spoken word. The Scriptures are not “transparent” (p. 66) by themselves but rather obscure. They require “struggle” with the text and continuous questioning. They are a “site of struggle over meaning” (Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza). Only if the reader takes the risk of interpreting the writing can “Scripture” become the keeper of the spoken word. A “body” is needed at every time to carry and manifest the spoken word either in new writings/interpretations or new oral proclamations/testimonies.
We see a new church dawning if these insights would be taken seriously in the Seminaries and Divinity Schools. It would certainly be easier to deal with “interpretive conflict” (Georgia Warnke) if the students were to realize that every reader of the Bible is automatically an interpreter in his/her reading process whether s/he is aware of it or not, since most people have some idea of what the Bible is all about even if they have hardly read it. Somehow, they have “heard” the “Word” before, however distorted, and approach the text with “effects” of their own.
b) Korsak’s Article: EVERY TRANSLATION IS AN INTERPRETATION
The FRESH LOOK AT THE GARDEN OF EDEN involving a new translation/interpretation/enunciation/articulation of the Genesis story rings a bell in a country like the Philippines where most people still know what it means to be a “groundling,” closely connected to mother earth as the ground of all our grounding. We found Korsak’s article to be the most fascinating and stimulating of all. It is an excellent work which could be very helpful for the Philippine context. Her use of “ground/groundling” affirms the earthy spirituality of those who walk the earth barefoot and commune with God on earth, not in heaven. Korsak provides the academic world of western society—whose members walk on concrete floors!—a biblically based invitation “to serve the ground” which means to take care of the earth and to take off their shoes and feel the warm soil under their feet!
Her translation also pursues the quest Phyllis Trible began more than 20 years ago in rediscovering the equality of Woman in creation. She convincingly develops the “ish/isha” play of words the same way she does with “adam/adama.” Her work provides not only a biblical grounding for an egalitarian society, but also affirms the egalitarian creation myths of other peoples. The Philippine creation myth, for example, states that both, woman and man, were created at the same time and emerge together from a bamboo tree. Also, in the Filipino languages there is no word for “sin”; the concept did not exist before the Spaniards arrived. Today it is a Spanish word put into the Filipino language.
Contrary to Phyllis Trible who reads Genesis 2–3 as a story about life and death or about obedience and disobedience (111), Korsak sees a story about “growth and birth,” about womb-like metaphors. As a mother must let go of her child at birth, expelling it from her womb into independence, so Adam and Life had to leave the protected garden to serve the ground everywhere. All growth processes involve stages of temporariness and “flows” of “in” and “out.” To be human then means to have experiences of transitoriness which may be good or bad because of the risk of free choice and autonomy. Korsak also shows how God’s pain and anxiety about our choices “bring God closer to us” (p. 143). God lets Godself be affected by human experiences, be they good or bad, and raises us from the dead by breathing new life into our “dust.” Creation then remains a life-giving process and not a static achievement, because we participate in creation in joy when we trust the goodness of the Divine and destroy it when we forget that we must “serve the ground.”
However, in spite of the promising results of such new re-interpretations, the Bible remains a book written in a patriarchal society. Even today it is mostly read with the underpinnings of our own patriarchal signs and signifiers. Thus a new reading of the biblical stories in Genesis may be useful for initiating a trajectory of the spoken word that could be liberating, but such a reading cannot just “define” Filipino life and struggles; the Bible as a prototype of life’s struggles (not archetype, as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has often pointed out), of people struggling with “the wilderness” and “woodlands” in the hill country of Palestine on mountain slopes hard to cultivate (Meyers: 47ff.) may teach us to delve more into Filipino traditions, myths, legends, and languages in order to harness insights, values, and inspiration toward human liberation and well-being/shalom for all.
c) Kieffer’s Article: A WORLD OF METAPHORS OR A WORLD OF POWER-POLITICS?
We have had some trouble in seeing the usefulness of Kieffer’s “mirroring” in his exegesis of Acts 10:1–11:18 since it seemed rather incomplete. We certainly agree that a “dialogue” is needed between semioticians, exegetes, and readers and that other aspects than those of semiotics and structural methods should enter into consideration and not be “neglected” when reflecting on a text (pp. 90–91). It seems to us what is most needed in reading Acts is a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” which he mentions briefly but never applies. Had he done so he would have noticed that the discourse unit in Acts which he examines does not start at 10:1 but at 8:4, and that there are four visions and four conversions, not two.
After Stephen’s death and burial, there was apparently such a persecution in Jerusalem (we learn this only in 11:19 where this theme is taken up again) that even the apostles “were scattered” and “went from place to place” missionizing the country-side. Luke claims “except the apostles” (8:1) but contradicts himself by going on to show that the apostle Philip went to a city in Samaria and then to the South. Peter and John went to check out the work of Philip in Samaria and then Luke tells us that Peter “went here and there among all of them” (9:32) until he found himself in Joppa (9:38) and Lydda and again Joppa from where he proceeds to Caesarea. The whole discourse is about the first missions and conversions outside Jerusalem and it probably started with Philip, but Luke wants Peter to be the hero and the first to convert an important Gentile. Therefore Luke gives us only the shortest notice of the important work of the apostle Philip.
Visions: Philip, Ananias, Centurion, Peter Conversions: Eunuch, Paul, Peter, Centurion
Kieffer fails to see that Peter had to be converted by the Spirit before he could go to Caesarea and convert the centurion and his family.
It was the apostle Philip (8:26) who first had an angel speak to him: get up and go … and Philip got up and went, without any hesitation.
The second vision mentioned comes to a disciple in Damascus, Ananias, (9:10). He is told by the kyrios to get up and go. He hesitates, but finally he goes and Saul/Paul is healed of his blindness and converted to Christ.
Before proceeding with the third vision Luke has to build up the missionary capacity of Peter. Therefore he inserts another story to show that Peter is more powerful than Philip and all the others, because he can even raise people from the dead! In 9:36 we are told that a disciple, Tabitha/Dorcas, died and the disciples sent two men to Peter saying: come immediately. Peter got up and went with them and raised Tabitha from the dead.
Now follows the third vision. In 10:1 a centurion has a vision by an angel of God who tells him to send men to Joppa to get peter. Although first terrified, he does so without hesitation.
The fourth vision is to be found in 10:10 where Peter has a vision and hears a voice telling him: get up, kill and eat; he hesitates; then the spirit (10:19) speaks to him: get up, go down and go with them … So Peter goes down and invites the three men to stay overnight. Only the next day he goes with them, taking six companions (as we learn in 11:12). Did he want to make sure that he would not just be kidnapped or overpowered by the three? Peter must have been greatly scared. None of this is told about Philip. The latter seems far more courageous.
We really have second thoughts about this centurion. Why does the centurion drop out of Peter’s report to the other disciples in Jerusalem and become just “a man”? Is it possible that Acts 11:1–18 constitutes an earlier tradition of a Gentile conversion which Luke adopts and adapts? Centurions were powerful people watching carefully what was going on in the country. If there was trouble in Jerusalem between the orthodox Jews and the Jesus-Jews because of the death of Stephen, so that the Jesus believers started being dispersed and scattered, that could have been of great concern to the centurion in Caesarea. Those people proclaimed Jesus as kyrios all over Palestine. The centurion in Caesarea could interpret that as a challenge to Caesar. After all, it was a centurion who crucified the “king of the Jews”! Luke has to make sure that a powerful military representative of Rome is won over to the Christian faith in order to pacify the political situation, which was precarious, to say the least.
We wish to point out that centurions give orders, follow orders, and expect orders to be followed. They are not harmless fellows easily to be converted to the Christian cause. It is shocking, from our perspective, to see that in Luke 7:1–10 the Lukan Jesus buys into the “imperialist” system by just following the example of the centurion, “giving orders” at a distance rather than “touching a person to be healed” in person. Peter’s centurion might have wanted to check out the Jesus-movement and its threat to the Empire rather than listening to what Peter had to say about the kingdom of God.
A closer look at the whole discourse from 8:4–11:19 shows that “power politics” among the apostles and disciples of Jesus may have caused Luke to come up with the legend about the conversion of the centurion and of Peter and about the importance of Peter who achieves this momentous event.
The real issue at hand is the fact that it was not Peter who converted the first Gentiles, but Philip—he even found himself at Caesarea! (see Acts 8:40)—and that Luke suppresses this fact as Dieter Georgi showed convincingly.
This issue of Semeia shows the promises and limitations of semiotics and stimulates a greater diversity of methods of interpretation. I was surprised at the great variety of approaches as each author had his/her own way of thinking about “structuralism” or “signs” and semiotics. Everyone came to the task with a different method and combination of methods and with different results, a true “site of struggle”! They did not seem to have much in common as far as “method” is concerned, although there is, of course, the common ground of “linguistics” and the importance of language. The many different approaches may be an advantage and an enrichment for the scholarly endeavor, but it is also confusing for those who have not studied semiotics in any depth and want to get a handle on this complicated subject.
From a Third World perspective most articles are too abstract to be relevant or “usable.” However, personally, we learned a lot, especially as we delved over and again into Luke-Acts and became more aware of Luke’s particular convictions, aims, and theology.
Keeping in mind “the ethics of Biblical interpretation” we feel it is extremely important to affirm the necessity of “multiple” interpretations and the need for a “contextual theology.” In a world where more than two-thirds of the population live in poverty, most of them women and children, biblical interpretation must focus on liberation of the poor, oppressed and marginalized, especially since the Bible has been used in the past (and still is in some circles) to condone the status quo of the powerful and the well-to-do. The experience of “the least of God’s children” must be the center of attention and of concern of biblical interpretation. It seems to us that the cries of the poor in the Two-thirds World in Africa, Asia and Latin America or even in the large cities of the first and Second World are not sufficiently heard in the theological faculties of European or American universities. Do we think daily about the people in Tibet, in East Timor, in Rwanda, in Mindanao? Has every theological student even heard about the Dalits in India who seem to be the only community in the world that has lost everything—land, culture, language, religion, political and social rights? The Christian communities in Divinity Schools, Seminaries, and theological faculties of the Universities of the world are now called upon to focus on the oppressive aspects of biblical interpretation in the past which is only possible by showing the Wirkungsgeschichte of past interpretations and the potential of a variety of new biblical interpretations. Most enslavements of the past and of the present are multi-faceted. Each enslaved community in the world must become aware that its enslavement is not God-ordained and inevitable but man-made and often a product of religion. James Massey, himself a Dalit, points out that the Dalits in India are “the remnant of a casteless community,” in contrast “to the divisive caste system created by human beings” in India (63). But many Dalits are not aware of their lost history and believe that they are part of a divine order that established them as outcasts.
Biblical interpretation can help all religions to become aware of their man-made myths and to reject old religious orders which perpetuate the captivity and oppression of people.
1997 Das Geschichtswerk des Lukas. Band I. Stuttgart, Berlin, Cologne: Kohlhammer.
1997 Downtrodden: The Struggle of India’s Dalits for Identity, Solidarity, and Liberation. Geneva: WCC.
1988 Discovering Eve. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
1990 Structural Exegesis for New Testament Critics. Valley Forge: Trinity.
1993 “Structural Criticism.” Pp. 153–70 in To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application. Ed. Stephen R. Haynes and Steven L. McKenzie. Westminster/John Knox: Louisville.
1983 God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress.
On the Semiotic Reading of Genesis 1–3: A Response from Argentina
J. Severino Croatto
Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teologicos (ISEDET)
My response to the essays presented in this issue of Semeia evidently comes from a different cultural and social background. In this part of the world, which is so full of basic needs, the exegetical task should have a clear objective, namely to relate the Biblical text to the present situation, or from a hermeneutical point of view, to arrive at the text from the present situation. In other words, if we are starting from life, it is better to approach the texts from all possible angles, as all of them let us recover something of the situation in which the texts were written.
We can distinguish five ways of approaching the texts: the historico-critical methods (literary criticism, genres and forms, traditions, and redaction), semiotics, sociological analysis, cultural Sitz im Leben, and hermeneutics. The point of departure of the latter, as we know, is the situation of the present-day reader; the Sitz im Leben, on the other hand, examines the moment of the production of the texts. Outside the text, these are the two extremes. Within the text, the historico-critical methods explore its language, its literary form and genre, the previous origin of these, its themes and motives, the different strata in the composition of the text, and the final redaction (that is, they start from the text, leave it, and go back to its final redaction, where the intention of the author is what matters). Starting also from within the text, and through its traces, the sociological analysis recovers the social situation that is behind the text. Semiotics stays within the text; at least in the case of structural analysis. When semiotics “thinks in signs,” it involves the reader as well, as is evident in its opening to some form of diachrony (see van Wolde above, pp. 160–61). Also, when we stay (within the text) at the level of the structuring of the meaning, we have to keep in mind two poles, enunciation and reception, even though we may not go down to the level of the author and the reader.
I point out this plurality of approaches as a fruitful convergence directed towards a “production of meaning” that is not a repetition of the author’s intention, but its re-creation. Such re-creation may be clarified by semiotics, but it is brought into existence—during the reading process—by the interrelation between the context of the text and that of the reader. This is the reason why every reading is a re-reading, or, in other words, a re-writing of the text that is being read (Croatto, 1995:20–24). The convergence of approaches to the text is fruitful because it enriches the “production of meaning.” It is also indispensable, since the “one way” of only one method—well employed as it might be—may generate false paths, which are widened precisely because of a good use of the one and only method (see below, concerning the themes of “paradise” and the “garden of Eden”).
2. Is the “One Way” Of Semiotics Operative for Interpreting Biblical Texts?
The essays presented in this issue are excellent; not only because they demonstrate the richness of the semiotic approach to the biblical text, but also because they try to open new paths for the future (Genest, Delorme). The profitable use during the last twenty years of structural analysis, and later of semiotics, in biblical exegesis, and the transformation and perfection of semiotics itself, are two points that are strongly stressed in several of the contributions (Delorme, Genest, Panier).
The fact that three of the essays (Korsak, Vogels, van Wolde) deal with the Genesis accounts—and particularly those of chapters 1–3—is an ideal opportunity to confirm the inexhaustibility of meaning of the texts and also to confront some applications of the semiotic method with the data provided by other methods.
My own experience in the exegesis of these chapters has taught me not to rely on the “one way” but to make good use of all possible approaches. While in my commentary on Genesis 1 archeological material and phenomenology of religion were fundamentally used (Croatto, 1974), in those on Genesis 2–3 (1986) and 4–11 (1997) I added diagrams of manifest structures, which are important to center the texts, to observe their harmony, their frame of meanings, their climax,3 and their macrotexture (for example in the Flood account; Croatto, 1997:281–87).
In my commentaries on Isaiah 40–55 (Croatto, 1994a) and Genesis 4–11 (Croatto, 1997) other methodological resources were added at the literary level. Semiotics was never abandoned, but special attention was given to the convergence of all the available methods to detect (and at the same time to “produce/enunciate”) the meaning of the texts.
While I was reading these essays, I was able to confirm that the “one way” tracks may make the train unstable. The semiotician needs also to be a historical critic; this is more essential than the opposite (Genest: p. 103), as the historical critic may, if he/she chooses, use semiotics as a complement, but the semiotician tends to stay within the text without ever confronting it with the extra-linguistic referential world from which it emerges.
At our theological seminary, ISEDET, every dissertation—whether for a Master’s or a Doctor’s degree in Bible—has to include a semiotic analysis, but at the same time (before, in a strict sense) the point of departure of the text must be established through an investigation of the cultural situation prevalent at the moment of the production (if the text can be dated, of course). Afterwards, all the historico-critical methods must be used, followed by the sociological analysis, and, only then, comes semiotics. The final stage is a “critical” extension of the meaning up to the present (hermeneutics), just as the present situation was the “naïve” starting point which first motivated the whole research.
We may now confront these observations with a number of assertions made by the authors under consideration.
It is striking that not even one of them has explicitly taken the texts of Genesis 1–3 as myths. They constantly employ terms like “story” or “account”. A few generic allusions to myth are not enough (Vogels: note 16, makes a good observation). If we understand a text as a myth we can read it at a different level of meaning, a fact that cannot be alien to semiotics. An example, to be analyzed below, is the interpretation of “nudity” (Gen 3:7) made by Vogels (see section 3), who classifies the term as a metaphor instead of a mythic symbol.
We should remember that the “historicity” of a myth does not depend on the original event it narrates (which is an imaginary symbolic construction) but on a present reality that is interpreted by the myth and codified in a characteristic language that has to be properly de-codified. Every myth says something about something. It does not describe a reality, but expresses it in another code. The de-codification of the myth (an operation that happens naturally in the mind of the original addressee) does not let us recover the reality interpreted by the myth (except indirectly), but alludes to that reality through a symbolic language (Croatto, 1994b:153, 155). Using Olivette Genest’s paradigm (pp. 104–105), the mythical discourse is narrative (according to its literary form) but it is at the same time figurative in its reference to reality.
Therefore, semiotic analysis of the account of a historical event, a novel, or a short story is by no means the same as analysis of a myth, even though all of them belong to the “historical” genre. The sender and the receiver of the myth suppose that there is a “coherence” in the text (van Wolde), which is given not primarily by the text itself, but by the reality which both of them “signify” in the respective processes of codification and decodification. Myths interpret not global but specific realities (laws, customs, institutions, significant events, the concrete world of a group, or that world as it is seen by the group). Thisis why they easily become stories or legends for a reader other than the original one. The phenomenon is different from what happens with other kinds of narratives.
Furthermore, if the biblical text speaks in signs, the semiotician needs to know also (through another method, sociological analysis) that there is a reality inscribed in, and reflected by, the text. What van Wolde points out (in the last paragraph of her essay) about “the reader’s contribution to the generation of coherence,” and about the anaphoric or background information, is very relevant and has to be kept in mind. But there is also a hidden information about which the text does not speak: it is the one that allows the text to say what in fact it says. It leaves traces that lead to reality through lateral avenues. The traditional way of interpreting the hybris myth in Genesis 3 as an anthropological and universal issue (Vogels: p. 151) is the result of not having added critical “suspicion” (sociological analysis) to the semiotic way. Sociological analysis clearly shows that the excess expressed in trying to be like God is a transgression that is not simply “human.” It is the transgression of a concrete distinct social and political group, perhaps that of the king and his world (Croatto, 1986:175–83).
Another global consideration, which has to do with the separation of semiotics from other exegetical methods, applies to the terms employed to identify themes and narratives. Semiotics must collaborate in the “production of meaning”—that the reader develops—by de-codifying the structuration of the meaning or “literary enunciation” (see Panier, above, pp. 71–73). In an exegetical “text” on Genesis 1–3, it is not the same thing to use the terms “paradise” or “garden,” as to use “farm” or “orchard” to indicate the place where Yahweh had planned to put the human beings forever (Gen 2:8–17). These are key terms that synthetically describe a symbolic universe which is reproduced in the reader’s mind. For that reason, the choice between them is not a matter of indifference. To say that “paradise” and “garden of Eden” are traditional and useful terms to recall a particular account is not a valid argument. Actually, they distort the account, or—through verbal redundancy and its rhetorical effects—they make the reader internalize an erroneous image of the meaning of the biblical text, which semiotics would supposedly help to clarify. It is precisely in such cases that the semiotician is expected to have a simultaneous mastery of the other exegetical methods.
3. On the Particular Analyses of the Accounts of Genesis 1–3
After making these general reflections, we will move into the consideration of the essays on Genesis 1–3 (or 1–11) presented in this issue of Semeia.
3.1 “A Fresh Look at the Garden of Eden” by Mary Phil Korsak
As I began to read this essay, I was filled with great joy due to the method employed by Korsak to translate the Hebrew text, respecting its rhythm, the sequence of the words, their repetition, and their position in the structure of the phrase or the discourse. This is more feasible than some people think when they exaggerate the cultural difference between the Semitic and Indo-European worlds. I have done the same kind of translation in my commentaries on Isaiah 40–55 (1994) and Genesis 4–11 (1997), and I am also currently doing it with Isaiah 56–66. The results are very encouraging. Even poetic texts, like those of Isaiah, can be translated in this way. Not only, as Korsak says, does this method of translation suggest “new hermeneutical possibilities” (p. 131), but it also lets us discover and diagram more clearly the manifest structures of certain linguistic units. Sometimes, however, the norm of “one English word translates only one Hebrew word, not two” (p. 132) may be too rigid. I think this principle must have its exceptions, not so much in order to avoid the non-senses of a version like Targum Onqelos, as to express the nuances of the variations in the meaning of a certain Hebrew word according to its literary context or its pragmatic force. Such is the case with mispāṭ and ṣĕdāqâ in the Second Isaiah, which generally do not mean “right” and “justice” (cf. the versions), but rather “(act of) liberation/ (project of) salvation/liberation.”
3.1.1 The translation of Gen 2:5–8 (pp. 133–34) is stimulating. The option “groundling/ground” for ˒ādām/˒ădāmâ is indeed a fine one. However, the written diagram of the text that she proposes brings about three observations:
a) Korsak does not show the alternation of the two terms in the parallel form /a-b//a-b/in the microunits of verses 5b and 7a, with the variations of /b/ in 6b and /a/in 7bβ. The motif of the ˒ădāmâ would be thus expressed as more significant than the motif of the ˒ādām. This coincides with the purpose of the presence of the human being (as transformer of the earth) in the account as a whole, as it is rightly pointed out by the exegete (p. 134; see Croatto, 1986:44).
b) Korsak’s translation of 2:6a generates an incoherence, which has not been perceived because the verb ˓ālâ is usually understood in qal (“but a surge went up from the earth”). There is a contradiction with what we have read in the previous verse (anaphoric level): if there is no vegetation upon the earth, because it does not rain and there are no humans, what happens with the subterraneous water that flows out and irrigates the whole earth? There is also an incoherence with what follows: what is the function of the four rivers of verses 10–14? A good reading of the “signs” in the text compels us to search elsewhere:
• First, the verb ˓ālâ may be causative and have the same “groundling” of verse 5 as its subject; and verse 6 could be a phrase that complements 5b. The translation would then be: “because Yahweh Elohim had not caused rain upon the earth and there was not a human being (˒ādām) to work the soil and make the spring flowout from the earth and irrigate the whole surface of the soil.”
• Second, if this translation is not accepted because of Hebrew syntax (Croatto, 1986:38), we may get a coherent sense—and in accordance with the narrative—if we understand the particle we (at the beginning of verse 6) as concessive (“although/even if”), and neither as adversative (“but”) (p. 133), nor as nonexistent (JSOT van Wolde: p. 165). The text means that even if there are springs and surges of water, and no rain (as in Mesopotamia), there will be no vegetation upon the earth if the human being does not work the soil, making good use of the only available water (which comes from springs and rivers) by means of the construction of channels and irrigation ditches. The land described in the text belongs to the Mesopotamian context, from where many of the representations of Genesis 2–3 come (Seux: 97–98; Croatto, 1986: 38–39; Rowton).
c) The understanding of the Hebrew ˓āpār as “soil”—which is actually an equivalent translation to the Hebrew ˒ădāmâ (“ground/soil”)—conceals a “sign” that should not be lost by literary and semiotic analysis, as the word anticipates cataphorically a serious statement that will be made explicit only in 3:19b. This same word is used in that verse to mean “dust (of the sepulchre)” and not “soil”. The intentional polysemy of the term ˓āpār in 2:7a (omitted in 2:19a because that verse does notdeal with human beings but with animals!) is best expressed using the English term “dust” (van Wolde: p. 165, see next paragraph).
3.1.2 If we compare it with the traditional English translations of Genesis 2:21–23, Korsak’s offers relevant improvements. One is the textual sequence “groundling/woman/man” (˒ādām/˒iššâ/˒îš), that makes the arrival of the woman precede that of the man. This is precisely what thinking in signs means. In this translation, moreover, it becomes much clearer that also the woman is “groundling” as she is a part of the original ˒ādām, which, as such, had not yet been differentiated into woman and man. In addition, the English language keeps the Hebrew lexical assonance between the terms “man/ woman” (˒îš/˒iššâ).
An observation, however, has to be made. Korsak finishes her analysis in verse 23, cutting the literary sequence, which must also include verses 24 and 25, especially verse 24, which uses the conclusive formula (“this is why”) that is a characteristic of all myths. This verse offers an essential reading key, as it points out that the account of verses 18–25 is a myth of the foundation of marriage, which includes the brief myth of the “construction” of the woman. In a strict literary sense, this brief myth is secondary with respect to the great myth of the foundation of marriage. For that reason, the terms ˒iššâ and ˒îš have a semantic polysemy that cannot be fully translated into English, but which is perfectly possible in Spanish, if we use “esposa/ esposo” (wife/husband), terms that imply sexual difference but at the same time remain in the marriage isotopy (Croatto, 1986:86–88). Verse 24 establishes, moreover, an internal opposition within the family isotopy, between “father/mother” and “husband/wife.” This opposition is lost if we opt for “man/woman.”
3.1.3 Such a carefully written text as Genesis 2–3, whose narrator precisely “thinks in signs,” does not allow us to draw certain conclusions concerning the vocation of the human being, which are outlined by Korsak in her altogether excellent analysis (pp. 138–43). From a literary perspective, the transgression myth ends in 3:19. The plot, which starts in 3:1b, has its climax in 3:6–7 and its conclusion (sentence and punishment) in verses 14–19. Even if the account is read as a whole (from 2:4b to 3:24) it is incorrect to affirm that the human beings’ vocation to “work the soil” is independent of their stay in the gan or “farm/orchard” (not “garden”!). In fact, work is not only prescribed for before (2:5) and after (3:24). Indeed:
a) In her observation about the feminine suffixes of the two verbs in 2:15b (le ˓obdah ulĕšomrah), Korsak does not see that the text is somehow forcing the grammar in order to refer to the soil (˒ădāmâ) of the farm/orchard (the gan is a realm, that which is worked or tilled is the soil). Human beings, therefore, are destined to work the soil:
1) as a project (2:5)
2) during their stay in the gan (2:15)
3) outside the gan (3:24) (Croatto, 1986:163, 206)
Consequently, the affirmation that the human beings’ destiny is to work the soil only outside the gan is incorrect.
b) Another affirmation that is not exact, narratologically speaking, is that “outside the garden, the ground will yield crops for food but again at the cost of hard labour” (p. 142). The sentence is actually given inside the gan, when there are no linguistic traces that indicate there is an “outside.”
The myth of the transgressions, moreover, is closed in 3:19 as we have already seen. Strictly speaking, the second myth, which concerns the origin of death (3:22–24), is not really necessary. If it has been incorporated into the present redaction, it must surely be to counterbalance the eating from the tree of the knowledge (= the human being is able to achieve a superior knowledge) with the non-eating from the tree of life (hence, the human being is mortal) (see below, on Vogels: end of section 2). In any case, the scenario of 3:14–19 is still the farm. The narrator is saying that in the farm, where the human couple broke the commandment, they will experience the pain and the severity of working the soil.
c) Therefore, the argument that suffering is the human condition “outside” the gan has no textual basis. Korsak exaggerates the importance of the “outside” (also Jobling: 44). In part, this preconception is an indirect result of understanding the gan as an ideal “garden,” or a lost “paradise” where there is nothing but happiness. The question of “inside” or “outside” the gan is important with respect to the access to the tree of life; it has nothing to do with the drama of the transgression, whose punishment is precisely the sentence of 3:16–19, not the expulsion from the gan (Croatto, 1986: 163, 166).
3.1.4 In exegesis, it is commonplace to affirm that the accounts about Cain (Gen 4:1–16) and Lamech (4:17–24) point to an increase in violence (p. 142). This is another instance in which it is evident that literary and semiotic analysis must be supported with other contributions, in this case by phenomenology of religion. In both accounts, literarily as well as conceptually, a “different” subtext can be identified (vv. 13–15 about the protection for Cain; vv. 23–24 about Lamech’s vengeance). Both cases deal with the custom or law of blood vengeance (promulgated, in the case of Cain; executed, in the case of Lamech) as an ancient resource to discourage the introduction or propagation of violence (Croatto, 1997:39, 61–65). These kinds of myths that regulate social life are well known in religious studies (Croatto, 1994b: 178–79).
The meaning of these texts of Genesis 4, consequently, is the opposite of the one that is usually ascribed to them.
3.2 “The Creation of Coherence” by Ellen van Wolde
The following affirmation of the author, “An approach should be defended in which the Hebrew language system, the authorial strategies, and the reader’s mental representation are integrated” (p. 161), is noteworthy. What we have signaled in the introduction of this paper (section 1) demands that such integration, which remains in the language isotopy, be based on the firm foundations of reality, both interpreted by the text (historical critical methods) or reflected by it (sociological analysis), as much as in the reality of the reader or exegete (hermeneutical perspective). The construction of meaning is not a purely linguistic phenomenon; only its expression is linguistic, as we have to resort to language “signs” in order to interpret reality.
To interpret is not to copy, or to repeat, but to “signify,” or to “make signs/transform into signs,” which implies a poiēsis or re-creation of that about which we are talking.
The coherence principle of a text is essential for its reading. Van Wolde’s description of that principle concerning Genesis 1 and 2–3 brings about the following reflections.
3.2.1 The delimitation of the story of creation is the starting point for understanding it. The option for 1:1–2:4a is supported by several arguments (pp. 161–62), some of which are not precise. “The description of the action of creating as br˒ in 2:4a and as ˓śh in 2:4b” actually works as a counterargument. In fact, both verbs belong to the narrative of 1:1–2:3, and neither of them will be used in 2:5–3:24. Furthermore, in every instance, the ˒ēlleh tôlĕdôt formula introduces the main story of each character, who is already known—in part, at least—from the former narrative (Croatto, 1997:443–46). Hence, the true ending of the creation story is found in 2:3. Verse 4 must not be divided. It is a literary suture from the final editor (Croatto, 1986:32–33), and it is woven as a perfect chiasm that must not be broken:
This is the history
A of heavens (a) and earth (b)
B when they were created;
B’ the day that Yahweh Elohim made
A’ earth (b’) and heavens (a’)
We may compare the equivalent redactional phrases in Gen 5:1 and Num 3:1, which in each case clearly belong to one single account.
Therefore, the correct delimitation of the two accounts we find in Gen 1–4 is: 1:1–2:3 and 2:4–4:26.
3.2.2 Van Wolde is right in calling attention to the similarities between 2:4a (for her, this is the end of the narrative) and the beginning of the account in 1:1 (p. 162). The former chiasm may even be enlarged in this way:
(1:1) In the beginning
A Elohim created
B heavens (a) and earth” (b)
(2:4) This is the history
B’ of heavens (a’) and earth (b’)
A’ when they were created;
A’ The day that Yahweh Elohim made
B’ earth (b’) and heavens (a’)
The resulting structure is AB (ab) BA (but ab) and AB (with ba).
Such a harmonious structure suggests that 1:1 is also redactional (Croatto, 1974:47–51). There are too many differences with the creation account itself (1:2–31). Verse 1 was essential to correct a widespread cultural tradition which supposed that the creating God emerged from an original “chaos” that, of course, had no origin. All this is helpful in understanding van Wolde’s affirmation concerning Genesis 1:1: “… as a narrator’s text (it) constitutes a kind of caption of the entire story …” (p. 162). Verse 2 describes the initial situation that the creation process will transform, while the end of this transformation appears in 2:1: “and (thus) heavens and earth were completed, with all their army.”
This redactional frame makes us think that the creation work, strictly speaking (vv. 2 + 3–31 + the closure of 2:1), does not constitute the whole creation account. There is a small fragment that also belongs to the account (2:2–3), about which van Wolde does not say a word in her fine analysis. Do we then have two conclusions, one in 2:1, and another in 2:4? If so, why?
I understand that the explanation lies in the fact that a basic myth (priestly?) of the creation in seven days (cf. 2:2a “on the seventh day Elohim completed his work, that he had done”) was re-written (most likely by the priestly editor) so that the divine “works” would be concentrated in six days, leaving the seventh for Elohim’s rest (2:2b) (Croatto, 1974:33). Hence, the present text should not be cut in 2:1; the very ambiguity of the term “seventh day” in 2:2a and 2:2b is an indication of the existence of a deliberate redactional operation.
Therefore, the present text of the creation story goes from 1:1 to 2:3. Verse 2:4 (as a literary unit) is a connection between that account and the following episodes. Strictly, 2:4 is the beginning of the macro-account of 2:4–4:26, up to the new recurrence of the formula ˓ēlleh tôlĕdôt, in 5:1.
From the point of view of semiotics, the inclusion of the theme of the divine rest changes the perspective of the account as a whole. The affirmation that “Genesis 1 is primarily focused on God’s creation of the heaven and the earth and their ‘inhabitants’ ” (p. 164) is not true anymore. It was true up to 1:31. But now, up to 2:3, the account is primarily focused on God’s work-and-rest. The new linguistic totality is not “heaven and earth” but “six days of creation + one day of rest” as a model for human work-and-rest.
3.2.3 At first sight, van Wolde’s explanation of the rûaḥ ˒ĕlōhîm of 1:2c is very interesting (9–10). However, I do not think that the text is talking about God; it is rather talking about a strong wind (“Elohim” is a form of the superlative in Hebrew). It is the wind that usually blows over the ocean. Anyway, the text does not allude to the rûaḥ ˒ĕlōhîm again. The same thing happens in 8:1b with regard to the rest of the Flood account (Croatto, 1997:240), in which the wind (rûaḥ) helps to dry the waters. On the contrary, in 1:6–8, 9–10 God acts through his word over the waters (separating them in organized realms), and over the darkness (creating light). The rûaḥ of 1:2c is not mentioned again in the creation story. This can only mean that it is only an aspect of the initial totality “darkness-waters.”
The text does not allow us to represent Elohim acting through his spirit, but only through his word (which is efficient) and with his hands (as an artisan). Hence, if we pay attention to all the “signs” assembled by the narrator, the motif of the rûaḥ is exhausted in verse 2c itself, where the rûaḥ is represented by a beautiful image from the world of the feathered creatures and its place is specified: “the spirit of Elohim (= strong wind) hovered over the waters.” It is by no means a representation of God, as van Wolde, however, insists. I think that the textual evidence is quite strong against such a reading. In any case, all the later re-readings of 1:2c—very rich and fruitful indeed—are unquestionable, provided they are taken for what they actually are, that is, re-readings.
Coherence in the accounts of Genesis 2–3
a) van Wolde’s correlation between the “not yet” of 1:2 and the “not yet” of 2:5 is quite significant. In any case, there are several other structural connections, especially between 1:1–3 and 2:4, which would take too long to expound here (cf. Croatto, 1986:44–49).
After the inscriptions of 1:1 and 2:4, both texts describe:
• a negative situation (1:2, chaos; 2:5, desert);
• the presence of a complementary element (1:2, wind) or an opposite one (2:6, subterraneous fountain);
• God’s action to suppress the negative situation (1:3, light, etc.; 2:7a, the human being);
• the indication of the outcome (1:3b “and so it was”; 2:7b “and ˒ādām became a living being”).
b) It seems to be a subtle observation to say 2:4b suggests that the situation that will be described in verse 5 “refers to one moment or period of time or one day in this previously described creation process” (p. 165). The narrator, however, becomes incoherent if we make him say that what follows happened in a certain moment of the creation process described in 1:3–31. The assumption would be false from the start, since between both accounts there is no harmony whatsoever. Van Wolde herself, moreover, points out that the subsequent account does not mention heaven, but exclusively earth.
The evident conclusion is that 2:4b is not the original incipit of the second account. This incipit remains unknown (verse 5 is not the expected opening for an account), because it was truncated by the redactional suture of both accounts in verse 4 (see above, in 3.2.1). What remains certain is that the “not yet” of verse 5 will generate a structural opposition:
• with verses 8–9a (Yahweh is not leaving the human being in a lifeless habitat).
• with the very destiny of the human being (v. 5b says there is no vegetation because there is no ˒ādām upon earth to work the soil and make good use of the water from the springs) (see above, 3.1.1.b).
These narrative oppositions are essential to the construction of the meaning of the account.
But, what happens with rain, whose absence is mentioned in 2:5 together with that of the human being? The subsequent account only deals with the latter. Rain disappears from the narrative. Why is it then mentioned in the description of the initial situation that is bound to be transformed? According to semiotics, it could be suggested that, by the mention of the rain, the narrative intends to focus the reader’s attention on the subterraneous water (v. 6). I think, however, that the semiotician becomes vulnerable in a case like this. He/she must resort to a piece of cultural information, which will tell him/her that it virtually does not rain in Mesopotamia (the background of the account). Then, he/she will “know” that the lack of rain is not a “not yet” (never fulfilled at the narrative level, anyway), but an important indication that, now, the initial situation can be transformed by the presence of the human being (vv. [6–]7).
c) The alternation of the terms ˒ereṣ and ˓ădāmâ must also be pointed out. We find the following diagram:
earth (v. 5ba)
soil (v. 5b)
earth (v. 6a)
soil (v. 6b)
To signal just one difference, ˓ereṣ refers to the earth as a whole realm, while ˒ādāmâ is related to human labour. The ˒ādāmâ plays a more relevant actantial role than the ˒ereṣ.
d) Transformations begin in verse 7 with the modeling of the human being—man and woman without distinction (Croatto, 1986:43). I would like to make two observations on the description of the relationships within the account made by van Wolde (pp. 165–66).
• On the one side, the text does not say that “God forms the human being from dust of the earth” but “forms the human being (as) dust, from the soil.” In Hebrew, the syntactically normal expression is yāṣar min hā˒ădāmâ (as in 2:19), but in 2:7 the narrator refers to the soil (˒ădāmâ, not ˒ereṣ as van Wolde supposes!) as the material origin, and to dust as the constitutive material element. The divine breath will turn this modeled dust into a living being (2:7a), but death (disappearance of the rûaḥ) will lay it open again. The narrator clearly anticipates what 3:19 will say: “for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (not “into dust you shall turn”!). The human being is dust from his/her origin. This is quite different from van Wolde’s interpretation, which makes this “sign”—essential at the narrative level—disappear from the text.
• On the other hand, the distinction between the ˓ădāâ outside the farm (“garden” for van Wolde), and the farm as such (also Vogels, 1983: 525–26) does not seem correct. In such a case, after his/her expulsion from the gan, the human being would return to the ˒ădāmâ. The text is using three terms: ˒ereṣ, ˒ădāmâ and gan, which do not oppose but overlap: the gan is a part of the ˒ădāmâ, and the latter is a part of the ˒ereṣ. That is why, in 2:15, Yahweh puts the human being in the gan to work and care for the ˒ădāmâ the feminine suffixes of both verbs refer—grammatically as well as contextually—to the cultivable soil, the ˒ădāmâ, where the gan is located (cf. above, 3.1.3.a). For that very reason, it is not correcto say: “instead of the easy task of tilling and protecting the garden, the human being is required to accomplish the much more arduous task of tilling the earth” (p. 166). Inside the gan, the human being did till the soil (2:15b), just as he/she will do it outside the gan (3:23b). What will make the task of tilling the ˒ădāmâ much harder after the expulsion will be the curse on the ˒ădāmâ (3:17b), which the text marks as an essential narrative “transformation.” Furthermore, the affirmation of 2:9a is decisive, as there is ˒ădāmâ inside the gan as well as outside—Yahweh makes trees grow in the ˒ădāmâ. This is a clear linguistic indication that the gan is only a realm inside another space (the ˒ereṣ); in both of them there is ˒ădāmâ (cultivable soil).
e) On the global coherence of Genesis 1–3, van Wolde and I agree. Such coherence has to be stressed in a reading of Genesis as a final literary work, and not as a weaving of previous sources or traditions. The constant movement of the text from the universal to the particular does not stop at chapter 11, but continues up to the end of the book (Croatto, 1997:441). I do not agree, however, in the application of this implicit principle to 11:1–9 (p. 167). If the dispersion of 11:1–9 were “one aspect” of the “dispersion of this people [the sons of Noah] in nations over the world,” the text would be contradicting itself. Indeed, 11:1–9 neither follows nor repeats the theme of 10:1–32; it rather ignores it completely, starting from an indefinite point.
The vocabulary, moreover, is clearly different. Chapter 10 does not deal with a dispersion, and 11:1–9 does not deal with a division or multiplication of peoples. In my commentary on Genesis 4–11, I proposed an interpretation of 11:1–9 that is completely different from the traditional one. I think 11:1–9 is a countercultural myth of the founding of Babylon. There are no references either 1) to the multiplication of languages, but rather to the confusion of language as such; or 2) to the division of peoples, but to the “dispersion” (= disintegration and loss of identity) of Babylon—the very city that “dispersed” the Judean nation (Croatto, 1997:353–93).
It is not only necessary to use at the same time other ways besides semiotics, but also to pay attention to the “signs” that the text is using in the production of its meaning.
3.2.5. Finally, I think van Wolde’s observations on the coherence of the texts are extremely valuable. She improves upon the former structuralist method, which used to leave the reader aside in the construction of meaning (pp. 168–72). Nevertheless, I find a small problem in her understanding of 2:4b—based on the absence of the article for the terms “heavens” and “earth”—as an anticipating (cataphoric) clause: “it creates an expectation of cohesion to be fulfilled in the subsequent text” (p. 171). Actually, the subsequent text does not deal with the creation of heavens and earth, and the expression of 2:4b is clearly anaphoric, in spite of the absence of the article. What cataphorically points to the subsequent account is precisely the temporal circumstantial clause “on the day that (when) Yahweh Elohim made earth and heavens …” For that reason, the affirmation “some more attention must be paid to the reader’s contribution to the generation of coherence” (p. 171), is correct, provided we take into account all the signs of the text and the convergence of semiotics with all the other exegetical methods.
3.3 “Like one of us, knowing ṭôb and ra˓ (Genesis 3:22)” by Walter Vogels
In the diachronic perspective of the development of the text of Genesis 2–3, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life belong to two different former accounts (2:5–3:19 and 3:22–24, respectively). These accounts were skillfully woven into one single account by means of the prospective mention of the tree of life in 2:9ba, and the retrospective reference to the tree of knowledge in 3:22ab. But it is not correct to affirm, as the authors quoted by Vogels do, that there was a previous account which dealt with just “the tree,” later changed into “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” because of the introduction of the tree of life, which had belonged to another account. Such an explanation contradicts the essential information from 2:9a. What sense would it make to say that “Yahweh Elohim made grow from the ˒ădāmâ all kinds of trees, agreeable to the eyes and good for eating, and the tree in the middle of the gan“? Just in order to say that there was a tree in the middle?
From the point of view of semiotics, the tree of 2:9–3:19 only makes sense if it is a “tree of knowledge.” The theme of the account, indeed, is not the mere disobedience to the prohibition of eating from a tree (a prohibition that, as such, would be arbitrary); on the contrary, it is a qualified, specific prohibition regarding a plant that brings about an eminent knowledge, specific to God himself (3:22a). The tree is obviously a symbol, which a proper use of the historical-critical methods helps to understand in the context of the production of the text (Croatto, 1986:175–83).
What then is the contribution of a synchronic reading of the text, such as the one Vogels proposes? Let us take a look at some examples.
3.3.1 Vogels’s concerns, directed to define the meaning of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (pp. 147–50), resort to an intertextuality (Deuteronomy, I and II Samuel, etc.), which exceeds the intratextual limit of the text of Genesis 2–3, without contributing any more light than that which comes from the historical-critical methods (see the commentaries). This fact is pointed out by the very ambiguity of his conclusion (“may then refer …”; “it could refer …”) (p. 150).
The text itself, however, must be able to give more clues to understanding the meaning of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” The relationship of the tree to the serpent—identified by a term (nāḥās̆) that recalls the universe of clairvoyance and fortune-telling—makes us think of the existence of an intentional polysemy (not an ambiguity!). “Good and evil” means totality; that is why it is a knowledge that makes one like God (cf. 3:22ab). At the same time, the expression refers to the knowledge of good and bad displayed in divination and fortune-telling, a widespread activity stressed in ancient Near Eastern texts, and in the Bible itself (Num 23:23; Deut 18:10, etc.). It is a knowledge that deals with people and their future, and therefore, with power. For this reason, its complete possession belongs to God himself (Croatto, 1986:123–26, with quotations from Sumerian texts).
3.3.2 Concerning the prohibition of eating of the tree of knowledge (2:17), Vogels (pp. 151–52) observes that the redactional form of the present text implicitly supposes that access to the tree of life was permitted (before 3:22, of course). This is an apparent possibility, suggested by a synchronic reading, but such reading by itself proves incomplete. In my commentary on this passage I wrote:
It is clear that the sole mention of the “tree of life” in 2:9 and 3:22–24 suggests an “it could have been”; this plant is in the farm and it was never forbidden. But, in the account, the yearning for immortality does not develop into any act of appropriation. This yearning is rather suggested, by the narrator to the narratee, as a suspense truncated beforehand. As if all the search for infinite wisdom implied the pursuit of immortality. This meaning-effect of the text may be useful for historical exegesis (the problematic of Israel). (1986:166)
The synchronic reading of the whole text of Genesis 2–3 not only suggests, but clearly denotes, that the human being never ate of the tree of life. In fact, he/she never became immortal like Yahweh, who just in time prevents the use of the tree by the humans. It is for that reason that the human being is mortal. Hence, the mention of the tree of life in 2:9 has a structural, but not thematic, importance up to 3:22–24, where it becomes evident that the human being never had the experience of eating of that tree. That is the reason why I think that Vogels overstates (even in a synchronic perspective) the signifying capacity of the text, maintaining that “in the Biblical account … God gives the human being access to the tree of life.” At the end of the account, “the man and the woman have eaten of the tree of knowledge but no longer have access to the tree of life” (p. 152). The “no longer” is, in a literary and semiotic perspective, inexact. If we read the whole text, the access to immortality is only apparent, from the point of view of semiotics. Above all, it is inadmissible in the perspective of Yahweh himself (3:22b). Narratologically speaking, what the text says is that which “could have been” but in fact “never was.” There is no place for a “never more”; there is only a “never.”
3.3.3 The consequence of having eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was that “their eyes were opened” and “they knew they were naked” (3:7). The serpent had promised the couple in 3:5:
• their eyes would be opened (a symbol indicating knowledge);
• they would be like God, precisely because of that eminent knowledge.
According to the narrative (3:7), they got:
• the openness of their eyes;
• the knowledge of their nudity.
The asymmetry, mentioned by Vogels, between promise and fulfillment is only apparent. It is correct to stress that “the primary significance of nudity is not sexual” (p. 153). It would be better to say that nudity’s significance is sexual, but symbolic, that is, through a concrete reference to sexuality, nudity is trans-signified into a second meaning (the symbolic), which the narrator presupposes is known by the narratee. We, as readers from a different background, have to discover that symbolic meaning, precisely not through semiotics, but through the historical-critical and sociological analysis of the text (Croatto, 1986:175–83).
It is considerably weakening for the rhetorical force of the text to interpret that “nudity refers to poverty, weakness, and human limitations” (p. 153, where Vogels also refers to two other articles of his). Such metaphorization of a symbol is a transgression of the mythical code (Croatto, 1994b:68–69). In such an important myth as that of Genesis 2–3, a symbol must not be mistaken for a metaphor (Ricoeur, 1959).
There is nothing in the text to confirm Vogels’s assumption that the couple experienced evil when they ate of the tree of knowledge (p. 153). When they hide from Yahweh (3:8b), when the male explains his fear of Yahweh: “because I was naked” (3:10), and when Yahweh “interprets” the situation of fear-because-of-nudity as something caused by their eating of the forbidden tree (3:11), the narrator is providing indications that nudity is a symbol of their identification with other Gods—the Gods of life and wisdom of Israel’s cultural and religious environment, Gods (like Baal or Astarte) who are generally represented in the nude. A myth never deals with the human being in general, but with a concrete and historical situation. What the myth of Genesis 3 is symbolically interpreting (the serpent, the tree of knowledge, nudity, etc.) is the cultural and religious reality of Israel. As I have already done the exegesis of this text elsewhere, I do not find it necessary to repeat it here (cf. Croatto, 1986:131–35).
Returning to the apparent asymmetry between the twofold promise of the serpent and the consequences of eating of the tree of knowledge, we find it has vanished:
• /having the eyes opened and being like God, knowing good and evil/ is equivalent to
• /having the eyes opened and knowing nudity / as nudity means identification with (the other) God(s).
The text is dealing with a very serious question in Israel’s life. As a myth, the text is interpreting—through certain motifs and a primeval scenario—a reality that the author understands as dramatic. For that reason, a concern with physical or metaphorical nudity would be no less than banal.
3.4 Global evaluation of the three essays on Genesis 1–3
It has been very fruitful to be able to respond to these three essays on the accounts of Genesis 1–3 (1–4). Semiotic analysis, in its various forms, allows us to discover new paths for the interpretation of texts. Nevertheless, it is a pity that there were some gaps in the reflection.
3.4.1 Of the three authors, no one has stressed the presence of the woman in these chapters, apart from some too conventional general indications, or the interesting elaboration of the semantic complex “wo-man/man” made by Korsak (see above, 3.1.2).
a) The traditional understanding of the ˒ādām of 2:7 as “man” (male) has given rise, as we all know, to a chain of prejudices concerning woman’s “secondariness” (already evident in 1 Tim 2:11–13). I think exegesis has to become aware, and then emphasize, that what Yahweh modeled from the ˒ădāmâ was a generic human being, or men and women at the same time. Only because of the addition—after the account of 2:5–17—of another myth (2:18–25), is the ˒ādām acritically assumed to be male. But even in the compound text we now have, the “man” (male, husband) only appears when Yahweh divides the original ˒ādām to “construct” the “woman” (female, wife). Man and woman do not exist without the other; they are the two parts that form a totality—the human being, the ˒ādām. This is what the account of 2:18–25 suggests, when it is read without forgetting its symbolic background (the motif of the androgynous).
Therefore, behind Korsak’s treatment of the ˒ādām of 2:7 as a generic (pp. 135–36) lies a very deep insight, but its exegetical outcome remains undefined. Here is where the “one way” of semiotics proves insufficient. Literary and tradition criticism—that allow us to separate 2:18–24 (25) as an originally independent myth—open the way to a better understanding of the of ˒ādām of 2:7 as a genetic. It becomes a generic again in 3:22–24 even after the insertion of the myth of the “construction” of the woman (Croatto, 1986:77). In 3:1b–5 the woman is included (use of the first person plural) in the allusion to the precept/prohibition of 2:16–17 (where the second person singular was used).
These references bring us back to semiotics: the complete narrative structure of the present text holds enough evidence to warn us that all that has been said about the ˒ādām from 2:5 (and from 1:26!) includes the woman. In 2:18–24 (25) this very ˒ādām is divided—not completed from outside—in “wife and husband” or, if it is preferred, “wo-man and man”
b) The action of the woman in 3:1–7 is another locus of misunderstanding. Is the widespread opinion that the woman was “the first” who sinned (see again 1 Tim 2:14) justified by the text? A good literary analysis denies such assumption (Croatto, 1986:107, 203, 207), but it would be necessary to see the contribution of semiotics in the de-structuration of the false readings of the text.
c) A synchronic reading of Genesis 2–3 must give a rational interpretation of the fact that in 3:22–24 the couple disappears and only the ˒ādām is mentioned. Criticism has a coherent answer. It is the textual indications in verses 22a (an evident reference to 3:1–7) and 22b, where the particle gam (“also of the tree of life”) presupposes that it was the ˒ādām who took the fruit from the tree of knowledge in 3:7, even though in that verse it was the woman who took the fruit. Could such language be an additional evidence that the ˒ādām of 2:7–17 is not the male but the generic human being? The couple “˒ādām-and-his-wife” only appears from 2:23 up to 3:21 (in the two “inner” myths of the narration as a whole), where the sexual differentiation is essential to the construction of the account. In the two “external” myths the (different) use of ˒ādām by the narrator implies for the narratee a perception of the inclusive meaning of the term.
3.4.2 None of the three authors has observed the threefold relationship with the soil (not the ˒ereṣ, but the ˒ădāmâ) of the humans (2:7a), the animals (2:19), and the plants (2:9a). The only difference is in the verbs: to “model” for humans and animals and to “make grow” for plants. The difference is further marked in the case of the ˒ādām in that apart from being “groundling,” he/she is also dust (˓āpār). The origin of the human being (2:7) implies and prepares his destiny (3:19b).
A synchronic reading cannot ignore this clear textual connotation.
3.4.3 Concerning a synchronic reading of Genesis 2–3, we could add that in spite of the great differences between the two accounts (1:1–2:3 and 2:4–4:26), it is possible to complement van Wolde’s suggestions (pp. 166–67) with some semantic threads that stretch from one account to the other.
a) The theme of the “image of God” of 1:26–28 refers anaphorically (within the first account) to the creative capacity of the human being, expressed through word and work (the two aspects of Elohim that the text has put to work, with the verbs ˒āmar/qārā˒ and bārā˒/˓āśâ, respectively). But in the present redaction of Genesis 1–4, that creativity is cataphorically extended to human work (2:5b, 15b; 3:17b–19a, 24a; 4:2b, 12a) and to the human capacity of “naming” (2:19–20, 23b; 4:17, 25a), the same that God had in 1:5, 8, 10.
b) The theme of the vegetal food granted to the human beings in 1:29–30 is also implicit in 2:8–9, but in the second account it generates a semantic opposition, as food can also be the fruit of agricultural labor (˒ābad ˒et hā-˒ădāmâ).
c) There is more than one way to see the macrounit 2:4–3:24 synchronically (the best diagram can be found in Walsh: 169–70). If we have in mind the importance of the lexeme ˒kl (“eat/food”), and the literary fracture produced in 2:16–17, we could diagram the intratextual relationships the following way (with some modifications from Croatto, 1986: 169):
soil without the filler
the ˒ādām brought up from the soil
Yahweh puts the ˒ādām in the gan
commandment: EAT (of every tree) (α)
prohibition: NO-EAT (tree of knowledge) (β)
the ˒ādām without his corresponding help
the woman taken from the single ˒ādām
Yahweh takes the wife to the husband
transgression: EAT (tree of knowledge) (α’)
expulsion: NO-EAT (tree of life) (β’)
As can be observed, A and A’ represent the two myths of the formation/ construction of the human couple, while B and B’ deal with the myths of transgression and expulsion. A twofold semantic opposition is thus generated in B-B’ between:
• /commandment: eat vs. expulsion: not to eat/ (a and a’)
• /prohibition:eat vs. transgression: act of eating/ (b and b’).
From a different viewpoint, the parallel sequence /eat-not eat //eat-will not eat/ (αβ-ᾶβ͂)
is overlapped by the following opposition /every tree-tree of knowledge //tree of knowledge-tree of life/ (ab-a’b’)
The tree of knowledge clearly is the main “actant.” But the dénouement of the account as a whole shows that the tree of life is no less crucial, since this tree alone (= not eating of it) makes the decisive “difference” from the divinity.
The account as a whole is a harmonious unity, not only literary but also semiotic.
These reflections take us back to the question of the convergence of exegetical methods. It is true that the text “detaches itself” from the moment of its production and that “it lends itself to be read at a long chronological and cultural distance from its origins,” making itself available for (re)readings (Croatto, 1995:18, 32, 66ff.). This is precisely one of the conditions of the text that open it to the eisegetical reading. But this is also the situation that allows the infiltration of misreadings (also the fundamentalist ones), since the process of the enunciation or the “mise-en-discourse” employs motifs that are intelligible not through the dictionary, but through the horizon that is common to the author and the extralinguistic addressees of the text (Croatto, 1998a, for the Pentateuch, and 1998b, for Gen 11:1–9). The “one way” of semiotics, or any other method, may cause “de-viations.”
The text arouses in the reader a (new) “mise-en-discourse” or enunciation process, which does not have to coincide with that of the author (Genest, Panier, Delorme), but neither must it coincide with another text, be it literary (as the Lxx) or belonging to tradition. Such was the case of the naive use of the motifs “paradise/garden” with regard to an account which does not include such motifs. Another example could be to understand Exod 3:13–14 as the revelation of a new name for God (“I am who I am”), when the text does not speak of the revelation of a new name, nor refer to the Divine Being (contrast Lxx!), but is interpreting the already known name “Yahweh” (cf. verse 16!) as “the-one-who-is- (with)” (Croatto, 1991).
Invaluable as it is, the semiotic way is, however, one of several ways of access to the biblical text. Conversely, the historico-critical methods, or sociological analysis, useful as they may be, are greatly enriched by the contribution of semiotics. The hermeneutical reading itself must presuppose this contribution (Croatto, 1995:15, 24). I think the expert in one of these branches of exegetical scholarship cannot be confident of achieving solid conclusions if he/she does not pay attention to the accomplishments of the other approaches, while working in his/her own field of study.
Translated by Cristina Conti
Alonso Schökel, Luis
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Croatto, J. Severino
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Croatto, J. Severino
1981 Exodus: A Hermeneutics of Freedom. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
Croatto, J. Severino
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Thomas, D. W.
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1983 “L’être humain appartient au sol: Gen 2:4b–3:24.” Nouvelle Revue Théologique 105:515–34.
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Published: January 20, 2015, 16:40 | Comments Off on THINKING IN SIGNS: SEMIOTICS AND BIBLICAL STUDIES …by ArchBishop ROSARY
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