Historical Interpretation and Literary Interpretation: Is there any common ground?

John Barton
John Barton

In an essay with that title, John Barton – who has written many very worthwhile things on the same topic – describes the impasse this way:

There is thus no way, at the theoretical level, in which older and newer-style critics can even communicate their differences, let alone find agreement. They cannot even agree what it is they disagree about. On both sides there is an awareness of belonging to irreconcilably opposed parties, which do not even enjoy a shared vocabulary for debate and are not, in fact, talking about the same things… Very few envoys pass between these two opposing forces; at most the odd giant challenging opponents to single combat.

That sounds as though he reaches an entirely negative conclusion. But I should point out that Barton does also indicate several grounds for rapprochement between the chosen ones and their philistine opponents. He also concludes by noting one especial advantage in employing multiple perspectives and methodologies: together they provide a better understanding of the meaning of the text:

… the Old Testament contains some very strange literature; perhaps it will not be surprising if it takes more than one kind of sensibility to understand it.

– John Barton, ‘Historical Interpretation and Literary Interpretation: Is there any common ground?’ Pages 127-136 in The Old Testament: Canon, Literature and Theology: Collected essays of John Barton (Ashgate, 2007), pp. 128, 136.


3 thoughts on “Historical Interpretation and Literary Interpretation: Is there any common ground?

  1. Somewhere, someone has written, ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment’.

    I’ll leave it up to you, Tyrone, to sort out the eyes from the hands, and the heads from the feet, etc.

    BTW: Nice post.


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