Interpreting the Scriptures (Part 3)

When authors are not speaking but merely quoting others

Consider the following example given by Steve McVey which demonstrates that the way a sentence is punctuated can change its meaning entirely:

An English professor wrote the words: “A woman without her man is nothing” on the chalkboard and asked her students to punctuate it correctly.
All the males in the class wrote: “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”
All the females in the class wrote: “A woman: without her, man is nothing!”

The original Greek and Hebrew texts of the scriptures didn’t use punctuation. Thus, all the punctuation you see in modern translations were added by translators. But since all punctuation is added by inference, it is not necessarily correct (both where there is punctuation and where there is no punctuation, i.e. everywhere!).

Let’s take a look at some examples of how punctuation could affect our interpretation of the scriptures. Specifically, we will look at the modern usage of quotation marks, whose function is to mark off text that is a reference to the words of another person.

We know that various concerns and questions came to Paul from the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:11; 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1). 1 Corinthians thus serves our purpose well; it is chock-full of instances where Paul quotes something the Corinthians wrote to him and then immediately responds to it.

Let’s start with the most obvious: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-2). Here, explicitly states prior to quoting the Corinthians that he is addressing what they wrote to him. Note, however, that Paul doesn’t need to explicitly say that he is now going to quote something the Corinthians wrote like he did in the previous verse every single time he’s about to quote them, because the Corinthians would know when they were being quoted, since they wrote the letter to Paul. (Note that this is also true for every other letter Paul wrote.) Keep this in mind as we consider some other verses in the following paragraphs.

1 Corinthians 6:12 reads, “‘All things are permissible for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are permissible for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.” You’ll notice that there are quotation marks around the phrase “all things are permissible for me” (this phrase also occurs in verse 10:23). In the Greek, however, there is nothing to indicate that this phrase is a quote. Why do translations, then, add quotation marks here?

Well, there is no solid, irrefutable reason. In fact, these verses in 1 Corinthians have not always been understood as quotations. It was thought for hundreds of years that this was simply Paul himself saying “all things are permissible for me.” It is simply the case that as time passed, more and more people became convinced that Paul, rather than stating something himself in these passages, was quoting what the Corinthians had written to him.

Now I want to take a look at another passage in 1 Corinthians that can be interpreted in a similar manner, although this reading is not popular at the moment.

“Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first one keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches. Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:29-35).

The careful reader who reads this in context will have noticed that elsewhere Paul is clear that women do speak in church (specifically, they pray and prophesy; 11:2-16). Paul also encourages the whole church to function in Chapter 14. He writes, “for you can all prophesy one by one” (v. 31) and “when you assemble, every one of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation . . .” (v. 26). These contradicts the complete forbiddance of women speaking at all in verse 34 and should hint you that something else is going on here.

Contrary to what the verse says, the command actually is not even in the Law (i.e. the Torah). What’s actually being referred to is the additional Jewish rules created by ancient Rabbis and passed down by oral tradition called the Talmud. Specifically, it says:

It is a shame for a woman to let her voice be heard among men.
The voice of a woman is filthy nakedness.
A woman’s voice is prohibited because it is sexually provocative.
Women are sexually seductive, mentally inferior, socially embarrassing, and spiritually separated from the law of Moses; therefore, let them be silent.

We are now better equipped to understand the verses. Paul was quoting the Talmud and rebuking the Corinthian view of women. Thus, he responds, as he does in other parts of the letter, to the paraphrase of the Talmud or quoting the Corinthians with, “What! Did the Word of God originate with you? Or has it come to you only?” (v. 36).

My point here is not to convince anyone that this is in fact the correct and true interpretation of this passage. Rather, it is to point out that, for the vast majority of people who read the scriptures, the possibility of interpreting this passage in this way did not even enter their minds. And yet, such an interpretation is completely valid and, furthermore, says the exact opposite of what a “normal” interpretation (that Paul is not quoting but simply speaking) would say. If a phrase is not in quotation marks, that means Paul himself is affirmatively stating it. If it is in quotation marks, however, that basically means that Paul is referencing it in order to refute or correct it. So the significance of whether something is in quotation marks or not is huge! (And so is people’s general ignorance of this interpretive possibility.) And yet, there’s no way for us to be absolutely sure whether a phrase should or should not be enclosed with quotation marks!

I close with an explanation of how this literary technique is used in Romans:

Romans 7, for most of western Christian history has been read as an autobiographical text about Paul’s post conversion struggle. It isn’t. It is the human story prior to our being liberated in Jesus. It is a retelling of the old Adamic story. There is a shift in “voice” between Romans 7:6 and 7:7. This was an ancient rhetorical technique known as prosopopoia. Witherington: “This rhetorical technique involves the assumption of a role, and sometimes the role would be marked off from its surrounding discourse by a change in tone or inflection or accent or form of delivery…signaling a change in voice. Unfortunately for us, we did not get to hear Paul’s discourse delivered in its original oral setting, as was Paul’s intent.” Thus it is that when we read Paul’s letters where he is “role playing” we don’t pick up on the signals and read everything as though it was all Paul! A contemporary novelist writing in the first person does the same thing. This is also why Paul sent someone to read his letters out loud, they would know where to make the change of voice or inflection! The same phenomenon occurs in Romans 1:18-32 which is Paul role playing the false teacher he is combating throughout Romans. Douglas Campbell has used this to good effect in his book The Deliverance of God. Romans 1:18-32 is the false gospel being combated, not Paul’s view. Try that one on for size! Paul also role plays the false teacher in Romans 2-4 and 9-11. For a long time, Christian exegetes read everything in I Corinthians as having come from Paul. Now we know that at certain places Paul is quoting from the letter the Corinthians wrote to him. We also do this when we want to accurately reproduce something someone wrote before we respond to them. These ancient ways of communicating are not lost to us. We have the manuals of the ancient rhetoricians to guide us and help us understand just how it is that when Paul’s letters were read in the house churches, the lector (reader) would orally change the tone of voice. For too long Paul has been viewed as double minded, saying first this, then that. When he is read this way his letters are really mumbo-jumbo and we can spend centuries arguing back and forth and throwing “well, what about this verse?” questions at one another. But when we realize that Paul is using a device where he role plays then we can distinguish his own thoughts, beliefs and voice from those opponents he is arguing against. – Michael Hardin

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