In Tents #81: A Note on Hermeneutics

Hermes was the messenger of the gods, so the branch of philosophy dealing with how to interpret messages from God, and interpretation generally, bears his name.

When Jonathan Langford asked me to do a column I thought it would be an exercise in re-interpreting the stories of Jesus’s debates with the Pharisees, an opportunity to point out things like Mark’s first mention of the Pharisees. They ask three questions, and Jesus answers them without rebuke. The first question is not addressed to Jesus, but to his disciples:

And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?
When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
–Mark 2:16-17

It’s a charming answer, especially since the story doesn’t say he was preaching to his dinner companions, or calling them to repentance.

The second question probably came on a different occasion:

And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?

Note the pronoun they,  In English the antecedent for a pronoun is usually the closest preceding noun, but that’s unlikely here because the Pharisees would be talking about themselves in third person. What interests me is that the Pharisees are paired sympathetically with people we’re disposed to like, the disciples of the imprisoned baptist.

And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.
But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.
No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse.
And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.

–Mark 2:18-22

This answer is longer, but still aphoristic or proverbial. It feels to me a lot like a teacher answering questions from students. The third incident feels a lot the same way.

And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.
And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?

Our interpretive tradition disposes us to see this as a challenge to Jesus, but read it with a different assumption, that the Pharisees are students to the rabbi, rather than some kind of righteousness police following him around looking for violations. If your teacher changes or challenges something you’ve practiced all your life you would want to know how the new teaching relates to the former practices. Think of the question (quoted in #79) Bruce R. McConkie received from members after the priesthood revelation:

There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?”

The question is the same as the Pharisees’, how does this new teaching square with the old? Consider Elder McConkie’s response:

And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

Jesus’s response is the same:

And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him?
How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?
And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath:
Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.
–Mark 2:23-28

It’s paradoxical to say the responses are the same, when Elder McConkie is instructing his hearers to disregard earlier teachings and Jesus is appealing to tradition, but the underlying point is the same: the new teaching supersedes the old.

That’s what I thought I would be doing in this column, rethinking Jesus’s debates with the Pharisees and trying to tease out what they might have meant before the Christian-Jewish split. But rethinking an interpretation leads to the question of how the interpretation came about, which leads to questions about the nature of scripture, how it came about, who defines scripture, and how the concept of scripture relates to a culture’s concept of God.

In thinking through these questions I’ve been impressed over and over that the ideas about scripture that we find in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants are radically different than traditional ideas that support a closed canon, including notions of truth as fixed and unchanging–as the canon of truth should be. In contrast a May 6, 1833 revelation about progressing from grace to grace connects truth with change, not stasis:

 And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;
–D&C 93:24

The picture of scripture that develops in The Book of  Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants can help us understand change and how truth and change are related, how new wine can go in new bottles without tossing the old wine. And yet we often use the vocabulary and assumptions of a closed canon fixed in time, so that something like the essay on “Race and the Priesthood” can provoke a crisis in faith in a person of color because it discredits earlier teachings he has dutifully taught. More about that next month.

Your turn.

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