On Authorial Intention
Yesterday I drew attention to a paragraph from David Carr’s new book, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible where he suggests that variations in similar texts may be due to the fact “that these texts were written by authors who typically accessed precursor texts by means of memory” (5). He also writes that “to the extent that exemplars of the tradition or parts of the tradition were reproduced from memory, we will . . . see the sorts of variation typical of memory-reconstructive processes: substitution of synonymous terms, radical adaptation of the tradition, etc.” (17), and these are what Carr calls “memory variants.”
The recognition of these memory variants, like the ones I pointed out in Amos 1 and 2, continues to have interpretive significance as we think through the implications of the process that brings them about. These variants are not actually variants to ancient ears or eyes. Ancient readers would not have assumed that every unique verb or noun in an otherwise standard line requires explanation, theological or otherwise. Carr writes:
What would have counted as the “same” in early stages of Mesopotamian and Jewish transmission of textual tradition was looser than what counted as the “same” in later stages. In addition, it is often impossible to separate intentional alteration from unintentional memory shifts in textual transmission, and there are mixed cases, such as places where an exchange of a word or phrase by a scribe might manifest that scribe’s unconscious wish to have the text address his or her audience in a particular way. From our perspective in a later period, it often is difficult to distinguish these cases. Contemporary exegetes may be a bit too inclined to find authorial intention in every shift, yet it is also likely that scribes did intervene in subtle ways (whether consciously or unconsciously) to update and shape their texts for their audiences. . . . We have far less data in our present text(s) for the hypothetical reconstruction of the Bible’s prehistory than we might presuppose or wish. (36)
Carr introduces a now well worn debate in literary critical studies once again to the biblical studies mainstream, the question of authorial intention and its place in our interpretive matrix. To be clear, I do not see Carr giving up the notion of authorial intention or suggesting that it is an irrelevant perspective or lens of study. What I do see Carr saying, and I agree with what he says, is that authorial intention is a much less certain means of arriving at conclusions about textual meaning, at least the kind of meaning that biblical scholarship largely tends to be interested in (i.e., historical). Those who invoke the author, especially those engaged in influence studies (e.g,. the re-appropriation of language from one text in another text), would do well to reckon with Carr’s argument.
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