05 January 2008

Scripture and wisdom

In an exchange of comments on my ‘Gospel seeds’ post of Jan. 3, Tanasije Gjorgoski raised a couple of good questions which i'll try to answer today and tomorrow.

Tanas, you mention ‘two different scenarios (in both of which Jesus has access to extraordinary wisdom).’

First, let's make it explicit what we are assuming here: that this wisdom is real, and accessible, regardless of whether anyone (including Jesus) actually knows it or not. It is important, therefore, to distinguish between the wisdom itself and the expression or formulation of it. The expression, whether it's a written text, an oral text, or even a person's life, is only a sign of the wisdom, a medium through which the skillful sign-user might gain access to it.

Continuing with your message:
‘In the first scenario, Jesus expressed that wisdom, and his words were written.
In the other scenario, Jesus expressed that wisdom, but through a process as you described, his words got changed, some things were removed and some others added.
It seems to me, that (of course depending on the amount of the changes), the expressed wisdom of the original words can be lost.’

You seem to imply that the wisdom would not be lost if the words of Jesus were preserved in written form exactly as he said them. If so, i disagree with you on that point. What if the words themselves become an object of worship rather than a means of access to wisdom? What if people get so attached to the words that they fail to recognize other expressions of the same wisdom? What if ritual repetition of the words replaces the practice of hearing them, i.e. actively listening for the meaning to which they point? Indeed, as St. Paul said, the letter kills, while the spirit gives life. Besides, if Jesus had thought that his message could be adequately represented by a fixed set of written words, surely he would at least have written them down himself. Even if he was only human, he wasn't illiterate.

Turning to your (second) scenario, which is more in accordance with the historical record, you say that the access to that wisdom ‘might be impossible … given enough changes to the original words.’ Now, in the first place, i don't believe that the possible loss of wisdom would depend on ‘the amount of changes’ to the words originally spoken by Jesus. Rather, it would depend on whether people actually understood the wisdom represented by those words, and lived by its light in dialogue with others.

Besides, if the teaching did circulate orally over a period of decades before being written down, changes to the original words might be necessary in order to preserve access to the wisdom toward which the words point. Surely if Jesus himself had lived to preach for another 40 years, he would not have spent the time just repeating what he'd said before. Rather he would re-present the wisdom in whatever form was required by changing circumstances and audiences (exactly as the historical Buddha did in his 80-year life). And that's exactly what his followers would do, if they really got the message from Jesus—for the real ‘message’ is not the text uttered by Jesus but the wisdom signified by that text. Changes in the text could actually optimize the access to wisdom rather than reducing it. When scribes start copying the text letter for letter without understanding it, but just because it is believed to be the Word of God, that's where the transmission of wisdom begins to break down.

Of course, from a historian's point of view, it's a different story! But scholars in the history of the period, such as DeConick, say that the attempt to find out exactly what Jesus actually said or did is rather futile, since the only historical records we have are vague and contradictory. What the historian can study is what the various groups of early Christians believed, and how they expressed their beliefs. If they put words in the mouth of Jesus, it's because they felt those words to express the deepest wisdom. As the readers alive today, our responsibility is to read those texts with an open mind and decide for ourselves how deep that wisdom is.

You also wrote that ‘the text is not just WHAT IT MEANS to me, but what it CAN mean to me.’ I think this is a very important point, and will take it up tomorrow, along with some further reflections on the logic of reading scriptures.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the detailed response!

Yes, I agree that the wisdom is real and accessible. I used "the expressed wisdom is lost", but as your post shows that was not the best way to put it. The wisdom itself is not lost. So what I had on mind?

I wanted to point is that the text should make that wisdom more accessible through understanding of that text. But, that after enough changes the text might get into condition where it doesn't make wisdom any more accessible than it is without the text.

I would again compare it to a proof of a theorem in math. Given enough changes to the text of the proof, the actual proof might be 'lost'. (Again by 'lost' I mean lost to humans, like - 'not in possession'. Of course the proof as the wisdom is real and accessible, and 'outthere').

BTW, I don't want also to claim that any changes would render text useless, and I find very interesting your points about the need of change of the text in order to provide the access to the wisdom as the society changes. I think you are right there.

Also, I agree that even the text stays intact, it doesn't mean that it WILL actually make the wisdom more accessible.

Still, it seems to me that the issue of changes is important. Maybe they are good, in the way you described, but I think that they also can be bad, and that they can prevent the text doing what it was intended to do - make the access to the wisdom easier.

(BTW, I guess it is clear that I'm not saying that any of those scenarios are true in the case of scriptures. Just that they might be, at least as a logical possibility)