The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,Though Lewis Carroll was fond of nonsense, he knew how to make a point: context is a powerful aid to understanding. Even in a text sprinkled with unknown words, the known words serve as guideposts to help us unravel the meaning. It's hard to imagine any definition of the nonsense-words that would change the basic ideas in the poem that contains them. (I'm also fond of this poem for its use in J.R.R. Tolkien's scholarly work, in which he lampooned certain scholars for "whiffling through the tulgey wood of speculation".)
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came.
(from Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky", in case anyone didn't recognize it)
When we look at context and meaning in the Biblical gospels and the non-Biblical gospels alike, I'd like to start with some basic premises:
- If an author writes, the author has a purpose in writing: there is something they intend to remember, or express, or convey.
- If an author writes to communicate with others, the author generally takes measures so that the reader can gather what the author is trying to remember, or express, or convey.
- If we have a complete document (or reasonably complete), and the author has done an adequate job writing, then we can reconstruct the author's point adequately to understand that point
For the documents under consideration in this series, I'll adopt the method of looking at the different parts or segments of each document, and first of all consider the type of item in the collection and what we can understand simply from the type of item included. If a writing consists of a collection of sayings, we can reconstruct from that alone that the author believes the sayings are important, useful, and memorable for a purpose; if the sayings are from a particular person then we can understand that the author has a particular interest in that person and a certain view of their importance. We can take a similar approach whether a writing consists of a collection of sayings, a collection of events, or a collection of philosophical ponderings. The approach is intended to get at what the author thought was important, according to how the author developed their own framework and selected their own content.
I know this sounds incredibly basic; so did some of the other items we've surveyed like quotations of Jewish Scripture or geographical references. And yet there have been some findings that surprised me at each turn. That is to say: even though the method is straightforward, it can still reveal some unexpected findings.
(Yes, I know, we haven't gotten much out of this yet. Stayed tuned for the next scheduled post, please.)