One thing I have become increasingly aware of during my time in graduate school is what type of scholar I am, and what type I am not. And while scholarship seems to follow quite particular trends, what is ‘in-vogue’ does not, I would argue–and thankfully so–replace the ‘vogue’ methodological emphasis. But my struggle has always been negotiating these two voices, broadly labeled synchronic and diachronic.
I, myself, as should be evident by my blogger profile, am a synchronic, literary reader of biblical texts. I take many of my hints from Robert Alter, for whose The Art of Biblical Narrative I am tremendously grateful. This methodology has opened up the shear beauty and artistry of the Hebrew language, and I stand now convinced that the ancient Hebrew authors were far more intelligent than they are often given credit for being (which has led me to an increasing frustration when scholarship, commentaries, or the BHS critical apparatus suggests a so-called “better” reading, but cites no corroborating manuscript evidence). And I firmly believe, with this point in mind, that there is great meaning in how the text has been preserved . . . what has become its final form — warts and all. The meaning is in the warts of the text. But how ‘authentic’ is such an interpretation if a responsible diachronic analysis can account for and also make sense of the warts?
Diachronic analysis (transmission history, tradition history, redactional analyses, form criticism) seem to me to have many difficulties, not least of which I would say is often a subjective dismantling of the text. For me, these methodologies themselves are often quite circular, and can be quite jarring when applied in tandem with one another. I thus found Odil Hannes Steck’s Old Testament Exegesis: A Guide to the Methodology, to be quite interesting; he argues (correctly, at points) that these different diachronic methods intersect, inform one another, and cause one to rethink prior conclusions. Steck’s methodology, though, is wholly bound up with the German school of thought, and while I am thankful for his contribution, it has not only helped me to dialogue with those doing diachronic analyses, it has also confirmed for me what type of scholar I am not.
The underlying question here is whether one can successfully integrate diachronic and synchronic analyses together in a single study. To this question, I would venture a modest ‘yes.’ I am mindful here of the work of David Carr in his volume Reading the Fractures of Genesis. He opens the volume very clearly by stating his sentiment that diachronic and synchronic ways of reading are mutually illuminating. Just as synchronic analysis may reveal the “fractures” of the text, so also diachronic analysis may lead to a greater understanding of the text’s wholeness. Of course, Carr is still largely doing genetic work with the Genesis material, but there are helpful literary insights throughout. My teacher, W.H. Bellinger, Jr., argues for what he calls a “hermeneutic of curiosity,” which includes an admixture of diachronic and synchronic analyses. Pertaining to the Psalms specifically, he sees five necessary questions one must ask so as to gain the fulness of interpretation: (1) What is the form of the text; (2) What was its setting in worship/in ancient Israel’s context; (3) Where is the psalm in the Book of Psalms; (4) How does the text use language and rhetoric; (5) What does the reader bring to the text? It is quite easy, I think, to see how this list could be applied to any given biblical text. But I have a question: are each of these questions in harmony with one another? Put another way: does methodological pluralism lead one, potentially, to a text that is ultimately un-interpretable? Is it not likely that these questions would be jarring rather than producing a full, coherent whole? I don’t know.
I lament the divide that exists within scholarship. I also, though, think there is much to be learned from one another. And while diachronic analysis is surely not for me (to put it bluntly, once I see a verse broken down into ‘alpha,’ ‘beta,’ and ‘gamma’ I check out!), I think it has much to commend itself and much to teach. Similarly, synchronic, literary analyses it seems have much to teach scholars of the more diachronic persuasion. But how should one bridge this gap? Can we? And are we in a period of methodological particularity . . . or pluralism?