Textual Reasoning, Modernity, and the Limits of History

By Meskin, Jacob | Cross Currents, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Textual Reasoning, Modernity, and the Limits of History


Meskin, Jacob, Cross Currents


Textual reasoning offers a not-merely-literary way of reading the Bible, other than history, that would tell us "the truth."

Textual reasoning names both a nascent scholarly movement and the set of practices this movement tries to describe and analyze. [1] In this brief essay I will be arguing that textual reasoning helps us to gain perspective on a misleading view of modernity -- namely, the view that what defines modernity is the triumph of history or the historical perspective. From this triumphant vantage point, history alone is seen as revealing the truth of the past and of the human condition in general. However, textual reasoning facilitates the recognition that this is, in fact, both a one-sided view of modernity, and an overly ideological elevation of history. [2]

The essay begins with a personal anecdote which forcefully illustrates these issues (section one). I then pause to recount the emergence of textual reasoning and to describe its three basic dimensions in some detail (section two). Taking up the focus of this essay once again in section three, I explore textual reasoning's challenge to the absolute status of history, and offer some observations on how making history ultimate in this way engenders an essentialist view of modernity. I propose instead a pluralist conception, where "modernity" becomes the contested institutional space within which irreducibly different things -- like textual reasoning and history -- can productively coexist.

Reading between History and Literature

Several years ago, at one of those pleasant dinners during academic conferences where old friends and colleagues get a chance to reconnect and catch up, I found myself in an unexpected imbroglio over a book which, I later realized, represented a shot fired over the bow by "textual reasoning." The book was Daniel Boyarin's Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash. Toward the end of an entirely amiable dinner conversation the atmosphere grew strained as I began to summarize for my colleague -- a broadly educated scholar of the Hellenistic period with training in Tanakh and in New Testament -- a challenging new book I had been reading on midrash. I explained that in Intertextuality Boyarin was, among other things, carefully exhibiting the Mekilta's intriguing way of reading gaps, apparent contradictions, and repetitions in the text of the book of Exodus. According to Boyarin, I said, the Mekilta interpreted such passages by actually enacting the latent intertextuality of Tanakh: it read a passage in its own c ontext, compared this passage-in-its-context with an apparently contradictory or repetitious passage in its context, and then proceeded to offer a multiplicity of ways to read the divergences. In this way the Mekilta displayed an expansive network of contextual differences among verses; it revealed a living field of organic, intertextual relationships through which the Biblical text generated an endless harvest of meanings.

My colleague was growing somewhat uncomfortable, but still seemed basically peaceable -- until I mentioned that Boyarin had also compared the fertility of this sort of reading with that supplied by the documentary hypothesis. I explained, with a sense of the growing tension between us, that Boyarin had of course carefully distinguished his way of reading the Mekilta from any sort of dogmatic theology; still, Boyarin maintained that midrash avoided the Higher Criticism's reductive, diachronic reading, which entirely eliminated precisely those fascinating "fault-lines of difference" in the text which had called out to the rabbis so long ago: "interpret me!" Thus midrash, with its synchronic reading and its implied Author, offered a richer reading of the Bible -- hermeneutically richer, richer in irony and insight -- than the documentary hypothesis.

As I finished this last point, my colleague erupted. "What are you talking about?" he asked angrily. "The documentary hypothesis is simply the truth, it describes what actually, what really happened; it is the basis of all serious scholarly work on the Bible. …

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