Hector Avalos's New Book is a tour de force, a Classic Text, Pt. 2

I began my review of Dr. Avalos's book, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship, in a previous post you can read right here. His book is divided into two main parts. Chapters 2-6 discusses the various strategies used by biblical scholars to mitigate the negative ethical implications of slavery in the Bible, while in chapters 7-16 he illustrates how the Bible was used to sustain slavery, arguing that "the Bible's stance on slavery posed an enormous, and sometimes insuperable, challenge for abolitionists." (p. 17) I'll not review part two of his book except to say that it is devastating to the apologist claims that the abolitionist movement was inspired by the Bible. We can see this in part one of Avalos's book alone, for in it he discusses the most important biblical passages on slavery in the Bible since that's what the abolitionists had to work with. Hint: they were backed up against the wall. Their movement went against the thrust of the passages found in the Bible.

In chapter one Hector speaks about three unethical types of hermeneutics used by biblical scholars and apologists. The first he calls representativism, which "affirms that a particular biblical ethical view is representative while others (usually bad ones, like slavery and genocide) are unrepresentative" of the over-all biblical texts. He questions this by saying that scholars "pick-an-choose what counts as representative texts, and leave out or diminish those texts that do not represent the 'core teaching of the Bible." (p. 24) But how do they determine that which is representative? If we use a statistical analysis we find a "very complex and confusing situation." If instead we use a "qualitative criterion" then it is "not much more helpful." Considering Deuteronomy 10:12-22 in light of the claim that the core message of the Bible is God's preferential option for the poor, Hector writes: "Statistically, we could make the case that this passage makes slavery to Yahweh 'characteristic and definitional' of Israel's status. Verse 14 reads: "To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it." So Avalos says, "we could just as well argue that Yahweh's imperialism is 'characteristic and definitional,' not some preferential option for the poor." (p. 25-26)

The second unethical hermeneutic is called trajectorialism, in which it's acknowledged that "certain undesirable biblical practices may exist in the Bible but they are nonetheless a step in the right direction or represent advances." (p. 27) Avalos dispenses of this fallacy in part by using the words of Moses I. Finley, who wrote:
It consists in assuming the existence from the beginning of time, so to speak, of the writer's values--in this instance, the moral rejection of slavery as an evil--and then examining all earlier thought and practice as if they were, or ought to have been, on the road to this realization, as if men in other periods were asking the same questions and facing the same problems as those of the historian and his world." (p. 27)
One flaw here is that it assumes that the interpreters of this generation have it right and that all future interpreters were wrong. It "is always precarious," Avalos writes, given the history of biblical interpretations of the texts, "to think that our current period represents some permanent telos in emancipatory trajectories because the world could revert to slavery in the future." (p. 28)

The third unethical hermeneutic, the most common one, is called reinterpretation, which "allows the original meaning of the text to be erased or changed to fit a later or modern context." (p. 29) Avalos presents biblical scholars with two options:
A. Authorial intent is the only one that matters
B. Authorial intent is not the only one that matters

If one chooses A, then biblical studies has been highly unsuccessful. We
often do not possess enough information to determine what an author meant,
even if we believe that authorial intent matters and should be the primary
goal of interpretation.

If one chooses B, then the only result is chaos and relativism that renders
all scholarly biblical studies moot and superfluous. Faith communities do not
need academic biblical scholars to inform them about any original context
in order to keep the Bible alive for themselves. So what is the purpose of
academic biblical studies in such a case?
At this point I must quibble with the good professor. I remember a doctoral class on Hermeneutic Theory I had at Marquette University where we read and discussed Hans-Georg Gadamer's book, Truth and Method, which Hector mentions. At the time as an evangelical I had accepted the arguments for authorial intent found in E.D. Hirsch's book, Validity in Interpretation, which Hector also cites. What I came to think, and still do, is that B is the case along with the biblical scholars Avalos criticizes. It's not that authorial intent is not important. It is, although, authorial intent is only important when the author is still alive to comment further on how someone interprets what he said. And even then authorial intent is not the only thing important since one could still argue that his original words leads the reader to a different interpretation. One could still say, "No, you said this....now don't back out of what you said."

Let's put it this way in practical terms. There are times when a friend will say something badly. And there are times when I will respond by telling him what he really meant to say. Upon hearing my interpretation he will respond by saying, "yes, that's what I meant to say." So there are times when the listener (or reader) can understand what the author or speaker meant to say better than he actually said it. The difference when it comes to ancient texts is that the authors are not alive to tell us we understood them better than what they wrote.

The most important factor for interpreting any document is the text itself. While the author in his cultural situation is also very important for understanding a text like the Bible, the intent of the authors is not decisive since we have no access to it. This hermeneutical issue plays itself out when it comes to Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution. I think the Constitution is a "living document" because it becomes a quagmire to determine which author's intent the Supreme court must consider when interpreting it; the original author(s), or the various intents of those who signed it (or who voted on the various amendments). So for consistency sake I must quibble when it comes to interpreting the Bible as well. But it's not a big quibble at all.

I would say it this way: Biblical scholars cannot ethically reinterpret a text when the text does not allow for that reinterpretation. And that should be all one needs to say about it.

Nonetheless, Avalos presents a show stopping challenge which takes into consideration my quibble about authorial intent when he wrote:
But even if we suppose that all authorial intention is irrelevant or indeterminate, the consequences of Levenson’s [reinterpretationist view] differs not in the least from rejecting that ancient text from modern life altogether. For if Text X has original Meaning A, then reinterpretation means accepting a different interpretation that can be described as Not-A (i.e., not the original meaning). But accepting Not-A is tantamount to saying that Meaning A no longer exists or has any relevance. If so, any reinterpretation of the Bible’s teaching on a particular issue is similarly a rejection and abandonment of the Bible’s teaching on that issue. (pp. 32-33)

Part three can be read here.