The Ethics of Biblical Interpretation

New Testament scholarship has changed over the years.  Recently,  in the trajectory of liberation theologies, a bewildering diversity of perspectives for studying the bible has emerged.  Trained as a historical-critical scholar, Daniel Patte–a professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University–wades into the landscape of biblical scholarship.  He was, for a long period of time, resistant to the “biased” views of what he terms “advocacy critics”: feminist, womanist, mujarista, black, third world and other theological interpreters of the bible.  These voices demanded that the white, European-American, male institutional establishment examine their own biases and take seriously the experiences of other people.  “Advocacy critics” demanded attention to the ethical implications of biblical scholarship.  Patte initially ignored these scholars, but when their voices grew too loud to be ignored, he then dismissed them as “interested” and “agenda-driven.”  Proper historical-critical scholarship should always be “dis-interested” and “neutral” in character.

Over time, however, he began to find that there was considerable substance to those challenges.  In this book, Patte charts his metanoia, or change of mind, from an andro-centric critic to an androcritical reader of the New Testament.  In other words, he moves towards a kind of biblical scholarship in which he gives attention to his socio-cultural position and the ethical implications of his exegetical efforts.  He moves auto-biographically, sharing his experience as a teacher engaging those who brought different concerns and life experiences to biblical texts. 

Patte’s interpretive strategy for exegeting the bible was “flat” in that it aimed at the one, final meaning of the text.   A meaning that, so long as historically accurate, could not be socially or culturally “interested” (grounded in assumptions by the exegete’s cultural and social situation).  After repeated questioning and challenging by certain students and colleagues, one day, Patte began to see the “interested” character of all readings of the bible. 

Slowly, painfully, he began a change in his own reading patterns, recognizing the “legitimacy” of diverse readings.  Any text is “poly-semic” (multiple meanings).  What validates a legitimate reading includes responsible attention to the ethical implications of the exegesis.

Patte’s work is interesting, though his language is quite dense and difficult to wade through at times.  Ultimately, he ends up affirming a “wider” angle of vision on the discipline of biblical studies itself and advocates a polysemic approach to all texts.  The ethical implications of any reading requires responsibility of all readers, including biblical scholars.  The assumed “vacuum” of “objectivity” in critical historical scholarship must be exposed and honestly reframed to attend to the contours of lived human experience–experience too often filled with exploitation, oppression, and degredation.  Only an andro-critical interpretation can be sufficiently self-aware to navigate the sin-riddled road of biblical interpretation. 

Daniel Patte.  The Ethics of Biblical Interpretation: A Reevaluation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995.

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