Beyond Unity: Reading Hermeneutic Frictions in Biblical Literature

Elser, Ashleigh, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Bouchard, Larry, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Jones, Paul, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation takes up the interpretive challenges posed by the persistent conflicts between biblical narrators (such as those we find in the gospel writers’ variant accounts of the resurrection, or in the parallel but divergent royal histories of Israel in the Hebrew Bible). While these conflicts—or “hermeneutic frictions”—seemed a matter of some urgency to the tradition’s first interpreters, and then again, in a different way, to higher critical scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they appear to have been largely dismissed by modern literary guides to the Bible or recent theological readings of biblical narrative as a subject for historical rather than literary study. The dissertation aims, first, to clarify how a persistent element of biblical literature—the hermeneutic frictions between multiple accounts of the same event, character or history—became marginalized in both literary and theological readings of the Bible; and second, to offer an alternative proposal, exploring how these frictions might be revisited as constitutive elements of the Bible’s literary form, and thereby promising sites for both literary and theological reflection.

The first part of the dissertation considers the history behind this division of interpretive labors. It begins by looking at the work of German biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen who popularized higher critical study by lending literary and theological significance to the frictions and fissures these scholars identified in the Biblical canon, using the divergences between source texts as a way to distinguish between more and less reliable narrators and therefore more and less authentic biblical texts. It then considers the rise of literary guides to the Bible and theological approaches to biblical narrative in higher criticism’s wake, demonstrating how these texts utilized a largely defensive approach to literary reading in order to reclaim the higher unities of the Biblical canon and reframe its authority on aesthetic rather than historical grounds. Rather than simply rejecting the interpretive prejudices or hermeneutic suspicions of higher critical scholars and developing their own approach to the conflicts between biblical narrators, literary and theological readers yielded these textual elements entirely, advancing a vision of the text’s coherence and internal integrity and thereby exiling the hermeneutic friction between the Bible’s narrators from the realms of both literary and theological inquiry.

The second part of the dissertation lays out an alternative proposal, considering how the friction between biblical narrators might be understood as a productive site for literary and theological meaning. After tracing the way in which the “narrative turn” in Christian theology came to sideline hermeneutic frictions in the name of the larger coherence of the biblical story, the project turns to an unlikely resource for interpreting the work of textual frictions by examining two novels contemporary with the rise of higher criticism: George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In these texts, conflicts between narrators or variant angles of vision are not simply exceptions to an underlying narrative coherence but rather, form a key aspect of the text’s literary meaning as the novels use these frictions to explore the nature of human perception, and the production of knowledge. Finally, the dissertation returns to Biblical texts, exploring the constructive possibilities for literary and theological reflection held open by the Bible’s internal hermeneutic frictions.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Bible, Hermeneutics
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