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.


5 thoughts on “On Authorial Intention

  1. If his last sentence is correct, and it is the only one I am inclined to really agree with, then what warrant does he have for the rest of the paragraph? Of course I am wondering what data he has and I still need to pick up his book.

    My overall contention is this: how does Carr engage in the types of assumptions and speculations that he makes, and then somehow it is called good methodology? There is no biblical evidence from the period he is speculating about. All we have to go on is the general portrait of scribal culture of the second millennium-300 BC and the evidence of the OT text history from 300 BC-135 AD.

    In the ancient world, there was still a focus on fixed texts (see Hammurabi and the Hittite treaties which have many clauses prohibiting the altering of the texts). There is also evidence from Egypt from around 1400 which indicates that the Book of the Dead, the Coffin texts and the Pyramid texts were all copied very carefully.

    There were updates to the OT text to be sure. The script was changed from proto-Canaanite to Aramaic square script. The spelling was changed with the introduction of the matres lectionis in the 9th-8th centuries BC. The grammar changed as final short vowels were lost around 1350 BC and therefore the case endings present in the Amarna correspondence and Ugaritic texts were probably lost in Hebrew.

    Whether any more substantive changes were made to the text at this time is too speculative to comment. It’s possible, but anything is possible. Another control that we cannot overlook is the state of the text from 300 BC to 135 AD. It is remarkably uniform and it may indicate how well preserved the text was in the earlier period.

    Sorry for the length of this comment. I am enjoying the conversation but I must admit my comments on Carr are limited because I do not have the book yet. Feel free to ILL the book to me out here :).

    1. I don’t care how lengthy your comment is if you are saying something meaningful and not needlessly repeating yourself (and you do well on both counts). I think the first sentence is important to addressing your concerns, and perhaps it would have been better for me to quote the entire paragraph. “Finally, we should recognize the complex ways in which memory interacts with authorial intention and target audience in the alteration of texts over time. On one level, audience expectations play a significant role in determining what counts as sufficient precision in the transmission of textual traditions. For example, the preceding paragraphs have discussed how both Mesopotamian and Jewish tradition seem to manifest an increasing expectation over time for ever more precise transmission of certain long duration texts. What would have counted the same . . . ”

      Obviously I cannot reproduce the chapter that sets this scenario up and the subsequent one that meticulously documents it. I’m largely presenting conclusions, but I do think that many of your concerns and directly addressed by Carr in the course of these chapters. In particular, I don’t think Carr would disagree with you that there is a focus on fixed texts, but he argues (and I believe demonstrates) that what constitutes “fixed” changes over time. Thus, what we see from 300BC to 135 AD is the end of a spectrum of what a “fixed” text looks like.

  2. Joseph,

    Did you happen to see that quote by Dale Allison pointed out yesterday on Theological Musings?

    “I remain convinced, I am intuitively certain, that literary texts, as the products of human beings, creatures whose public and private lives are pervaded by intentions, have the intentions of their authors encoded in them; and if we can often comprehend intentions while conversing with living human beings, we can do the same while reading the sentence on a page. There are, to be sure, great epistemological mysteries here. Nonetheless it is our common experience that, via speech, oral or written, we may gain access, however indirect, to others’ purposes. To deny this is to enter the wilderness of solipsism.”
    The New Moses: A Matthean Typology, 1-2.


    1. I had not seen the quote. Oh my! Where to begin?

      Yes, authors populate texts with intention. Yes, we can comprehend intentions, however partially and imperfectly (is this what he means by “epistemological mysteries”?). That being said, is Allison arguing that meaning is wholly occupied with authorial intentions? This is unclear to me from the quote, and deeply problematic. Solipsism is certainly not the only other alternative. Consider this quote from John F. A. Sawyer’s The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity:

      Our role in biblical interpretation must surely be more than that of our purist predecessors, whose comments not infrequently add up to: ‘We don’t know what this originally meant, but it certainly cannot mean that’ – despite the fact that it certainly does ‘mean that’ for millions of Christians and has done for centuries. It may not be what the original author intended, but provided no-one claims that it is, then it can be handled with the same degree of scholarly sensitivity and authority as another part of the data. 250

      Neither I nor Carr suggest authorial intention is inconsequential, but the idea that we must pay ultimate deference to such an epistemologically complicated matter is ultimately a matter of faith, not an academically established truth.

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