Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Sociocultural analysis, the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, and Manners and Customs of the Bible. Yes, they do have a connection...

Last month, OT scholar John Walton gave a public lecture entitled “Do believers have to make a choice between science and faith?” at which he “explore[d] how we might faithfully read Genesis 1 and 2, in light of its Ancient Near Eastern context”. [1] Unsurprisingly, as Christadelphian - Origins Discussion noted, [2] Walton’s eminently sensible approach was met with unremitting hostility by an ultra-conservative part of the Christadelphian community which to date has twice attacked Walton, accusing him of denying the inspiration of the Bible and promoting an intellectual, elitist approach to the Bible. Christadelphiain - Origins Discussion has ably refuted these criticisms of Walton so there is no need for me to beat this particular dead horse into the dirt. However, the ongoing argument in the US about interpreting the Second Amendment of the US constitution provides a fascinating insight into the need for sociocultural analysis to more fully understand the Bible, which unlike the US constitution was written thousands of years ago in three different languages by people living in an alien culture to ours.

In an April 2018 article at her JSTOR blog Lingua Obscura, linguist Chi Luu points out how the question of whether the Second Amendment was written to enshrine individual gun rights hinges on matters of grammar. She points out that for modern people:
“it’s not the clearest piece of legal text ever drafted. The founders’ colonial dialect is decidedly not the same American English spoken, or even written, today. It’s important to remember how much words can change over time. The archaic structure of two clauses seemingly mashed together has led some legal analysts to assume it must be ungrammatical (it is not) and the first part doesn’t really matter, while others have fought tooth and claw over its errant commas.” [3]
The question of whether the Second Amendment was written to give state militias constitutional protection from the possibility of federal disarmament, with the reference to “bearing arms” being written with militias use rather than individual use in mind has only recently been decided eleven years ago when the US Supreme Court in DC v Heller asserted that “private citizens have the right under the Second Amendment to possess an ordinary type of weapon and use it for lawful, historically established situations such as self-defense in a home, even when there is no relationship to a local militia.” [4]

Given the confusing language in which the Second Amendment was written, it is reasonable to ask on what basis this decision was made. Luu notes that the opinion by (former) Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
"championed using textualist or originalist principles to support his reading of the law. That means using the actual text as it was written to interpret the original “plain” meaning of the words, without necessarily looking at other contextual evidence, such as the problem it was trying to solve at the time or previous legislative history, other drafts of the text, or its impact or relevance on modern life."
It should be quite easy to see both the potential difficulties in textualist jurisprudence and the relevance of this to biblical exegesis. As Luu implies, without formal training in linguistics, a judge who espouses textualist jurisprudence could “end up looking up words in the dictionary without understanding where those words and definitions come from or the sociolinguistic context they’re used in”. Luu notes Scalia’s penchant for regarding dictionaries as “objective, infallible, external legal authorities on word meaning”, which to anyone even remotely familiar with linguistics was anything but a sound approach to lexical semantics. As Luu reminds us:
“Legal language is not logical and unchanging as it’s often supposed; it’s like any other sociolinguistic discourse. Likewise, dictionaries are not sacred, definitive authorities of the true meaning of a word, set in stone. Using older dictionaries published when the law was written may not match the meanings actually intended by legislators who drafted the law. This is because dictionaries are compiled by very human humans, who, from lack of space or time, may not get around to capturing all the relevant, representative meanings that exist in the spoken language. Words, many of which carry different meanings that can change dramatically over time, are not used in isolation the way they appear in a dictionary, but need a context to be understood.”
Unsurprisingly, if we need the late 18th century US sociocultural context to better understand these words, then it should hardly surprise anyone that we will better understand the biblical text if we understand the sociocultural context in which it was written. While fundamentalists generally [5] don’t believe the AV ‘fell from heaven’, the way in which they disparage the need to understand the sociocultural background of the Bible or take a Scalia-like approach in regarding lexicons as “objective, infallible, external legal authorities on word meaning” without taking into account the fact languages change with time [6] shows that in reality, their exegesis presupposes such a view of the Bible which ignores the need to recognise that, to invoke a well-used cliche, it was written for us, but not originally to us. Luu finishes the penultimate paragraph of her article by noting that “archaic laws can change, just as archaic language can be misread by a modern audience, whether willfully or well-intentioned.” The relevance of this to sound biblical exegesis hardly needs stressing.

I suspect that part of the problem some have with applying sociocultural analysis to the Bible is simply a function of unfamiliarity with the term. If we use the phrase “manners and customs of the Bible”, then not only does some of the unease at academic-sounding language go away, we find that Christadelphians have long made appeal to sociocultural analysis to clarify difficulties, even if they did not use the term. For example, in 1903, C.C. Walker, then editor of The Christadelphian in response to a question by a correspondent worried about how 2 Sam 12:31, with its reference to David apparently making people “pass through the brick-kiln” made the “man after God’s own heart” look like a torturer made use of sociocultural analysis to provide a plausible explanation:
The “tortures” appear to have been introduced by errors in transcription and translation. See the margin of the R.V. in this place, where against “put them under,” &c., it says: “Or, with a slight change in the Hebrew text, ‘made them labour at.’” As to “making them pass through the brick-kiln,” the R.V. suggests “brick-mould”; but we learn that the word is of doubtful meaning (Oxford Gesenius, quoted by Rotherham). And some time ago, in the Quarterly Statement of the Palestine Exploration Fund, a resident of Palestine (Mr. Baldensperger, if we remember rightly), who is thoroughly conversant with the native dialect and manners and customs, made a plausible suggestion that the word means nothing more or less than “market-place.” This (which we are unable to verify in the pressure of the moment) would reduce the whole matter to “hard labour,” like the Gibeonites in the days of Joshua, and a public procession in token of subjection, something like the Roman triumphal processions of later times. Here again we say: Don’t condemn David. Wait and see. And if our friend the enemy says he does not believe David will ever be seen again in the land of the living, we reply that the principle of God is, “According to your faith be it unto you.” If men will go to the grave in unbelief no one is injured but themselves. [8]
The concept itself is hardly novel, as anyone familiar with the venerable “Manners and Customs of Biblical Lands” would quickly realise. As the author of that text notes:
It is easy for Occidentals to overlook the fact that the Scriptures had their origin in the East, and that each one of the writers was actually an Oriental. Since this is so, in a very real sense the Bible may be said to be an Oriental Book. But many are quite apt to read into the Scriptures Western manners and customs, instead of interpreting them from the Eastern point of view.

Many passages of Scripture that are hard for the Westerner to understand, are readily explained by a knowledge of the customs and manners of Bible lands. On the other hand, to ignore this subject is to deprive one's self of a thorough mastery of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.


2. “Another Swing at Walton” Christadelphian - Origins Discussion. 8th August 2019
3. Chi Luu “Revisiting the Messy Language of the Second Amendment” Lingua Obscura April 4, 2018
5. There does exist a small ground of fundamentalists who believe the KJV translation itself was verbally inspired
6. For those not familiar with lexical semantics and the exegetical fallacies fundamentalists make when ignoring them, I thoroughly recommend Moisés Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.
7. Fred Wight “Manners and Customs of Biblical Lands”, p 3
8. C.C. Walker “Torture or Hard Labour, Which?” The Christadelphian (1906) v 43:74