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The Relevance of the Original Faith-Communities

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  • Robert C. Davis
    Colleagues: The latest round of postings to this discussion have finally opened the door to an aspect of biblical interpretation which, I believe, greatly
    Message 1 of 2 , Sep 2, 2001
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      Colleagues:

      The latest round of postings to this discussion have finally opened the door
      to an aspect of biblical interpretation which, I believe, greatly needs
      attention: I refer to the faith-context of the biblical writers in question
      and those to whom they wrote.

      My impression has been (and if it needs correcting, please do so) that most
      of you have been doing your best to dance around the issue of where faith
      belongs in the larger scheme of writing, reading, and interpreting, and that
      your individual and collective conclusion has thus far been to ignore it as
      completely as you can. While I understand the temptation, particularly
      given the diversity of understandings and approaches in the matter,
      ultimately I do not think that you can quite pull it off.

      The main reason for this is that the people whom you are discussing made no
      secret about the fact that they were, each in their own ways, attempting to
      say something both cogent and persuasive about Jesus as the Christ and about
      faith in who he was and what he taught. This was no academic exercise for
      them. Indeed, as everyone of you knows, this was a high-stakes matter, for
      which many were willing to give their lives as the ultimate testimony of
      their commitment to what they believe and wrote about--and indeed did.

      Whether or not we can at this late date resolve particular questions of
      sourcing, dating, attesting, etc., we can and I believe must take seriously
      the intention of all the NT authors (and others whose works were ultimately
      not included) to issue their written witness to what they believed was the
      true reality of the world as they had come to understand it. We must not
      forget that they were attempting to make sense of a world which was
      powerfully arrayed against them, and that it was their own friends and
      acquaintances sitting chained up in cells--or hanging on crosses--that they
      were writing both to and for. Mark 13 is as good an example as any:
      whatever its ultimate origin, its teleology is certainly clear: there were
      people to whom just such things were happening, and Mark knew them, mourned
      them, and ultimately warned them that more of the same would be coming.

      I would also remind us all that we, whoever we are, do not leave our own
      faith-commitments--or lack of them--behind when we come to the task of
      interpreting these documents. To claim such is to be dishonest. We are who
      we are, for better or worse--the culmination of every experience (academic
      and non-academic) that we have confronted to the current moment. To even
      attempt to overlook this or leave it aside as we come to our professional
      work is simply to engage in a sort of intellectual suicide--and this we
      cannot do, otherwise whatever conclusion we reach, no matter how brilliant,
      will have no validity to them because they will ultimately come from
      premises which remain unexamined. Both intellectual and personal integrity
      demand that we look deep into ourselves as we approach this work, so as to
      insure that we are aware of the mixture which comes from the confrontation
      of who we are with who they (the original authors and readers) were.
      Whatever "truth" as we are able to reach can only be found in the midst of
      that confrontation.

      I learned a great lesson several years ago that I would like to close with:
      There is in the Coptic Christian Church a scholar of rare intellect and
      passion, who I only know as Bishop Peter. I met and worked for several
      years with him when we were both students at Princeton. In about 1978,
      Peter accompanied the leader of the Coptic community, Pope Shenuda III, on a
      speaking trip around the United States, after which they both went back to
      Egypt--where they were immediately arrested by the Egyptian government for
      "anti-government activities." Shenuda was placed under house-arrest in one
      of the desert monasteries of his community where, for 12 years, he waited
      for political circumstances to change--which finally they did. He was
      ultimately released and continues to lead his church as he always did.

      Peter, on the other hand, simply disappeared. Those of us who were his
      friends attempted to locate him through various embassies, government
      offices, State Department, etc., but with no success. Finally, after five
      years, a memorial service was held for him on the Princeton campus, and we
      gave him up for dead. However, in 1992 or so, he suddenly reappeared, alive
      if no longer quite "whole." It turns out that he had been taken to a desert
      prison where, for nearly 15 years, he had been beaten, starved, and tortured
      daily by his captors. Nearly every bone in his body had been broken at one
      time or another, and I understand from mutual friends that when they came to
      release him, Peter literally had to be carried out of his cell. He later
      told me through intermediaries that he spent his days in prison reciting to
      himself the scriptures he had studied and lived by for his entire life--both
      as a scholar and as a monk and bishop. These, he said, were got him
      through, along with a faith that was determined never to give up or give in.
      Today he lives and walks with great difficulty, but continues to study with
      the same intellect and passion the writings which he said kept him going
      during his ordeal.

      One time at dinner, before his return to Egypt and subsequent arrest, he
      told a group of us that the various documents of the New Testament were "our
      documents, not yours." When we asked him what he meant by that, he reminded
      us that they had originated in his part of the world, among people who lived
      and thought and wrote as he did, and who faced the same sorts of challenges
      as so many of his own people were then facing--and which he ultimate faced
      in his own 15 year "witness." From that day on I have never forgotten (I
      hope and pray) that regardless of what interpretive questions I ask or
      conclusions I may reach, this literature is, for Bishop Peter, for the
      original authors and readers--and martyrs!--and for a great many people
      today, still "sacred scripture," written and read in the context of faith.
      This demands from us, regardless of our own faith commitments, a certain
      respect and regard as we pursue our own work.

      With great respect and personal greetings to all,

      Robert Davis
      Pikeville College

      Robert C. Davis
      Division of Humanities
      Pikeville College
      Pikeville, KY 41501
      rdavis@...



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    • Richard Anderson
      Robert C. Davis wrote in part: The latest round of postings to this discussion have finally opened the door to an aspect of biblical interpretation which, I
      Message 2 of 2 , Sep 2, 2001
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        Robert C. Davis wrote in part:
        The latest round of postings to this discussion have finally opened the door
        to an aspect of biblical interpretation which, I believe, greatly needs
        attention: I refer to the faith-context of the biblical writers in question
        and those to whom they wrote.

        Question for Robert and Crosstalk2:
        Did Luke omit the sea walking epiphany from his gospel because he or his
        intended audience objected to the depiction and equation of Jesus as Yahweh?

        Richard H. Anderson
        Wallingford PA
        http://www.geocities.com/gospelofluke
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