Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Katz Center Fellow Jacqueline Vayntrub on the Revitalization of Philology, Biblical Poetics, and Generational Dynamics in Biblical Authorship

Katz Center Fellow Jacqueline Vayntrub on the Revitalization of Philology, Biblical Poetics, and Generational Dynamics in Biblical Authorship
March 03, 2020
by Jacqueline Vayntrub 
This blog post is part of a series focused on the research of current fellows. In this edition, Katz Center Director Steven Weitzman sits down with Jacqueline Vayntrub, whose work examines practices of knowledge transmission in biblical and ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean narratives.
Steven P. Weitzman (SPW): It’s a distinctive pleasure to have this chance to ask you a few questions about your work because you and I have tackled some overlapping areas in our research and share some interpretive sensibilities, and yet you think in ways that go beyond the limits of my thinking. I appreciate having my mind challenged and opened in that way.
Your recently published book, Beyond Orality, begins with a quote from Johann Gottfried Herder that all poetry has its origin in speech. What did he mean by that, and how does your work challenge that claim as it applies to biblical poetry?
Jacqueline Vayntrub (JV): It’s a privilege to speak with you—and in particular, I don’t think enough of these conversations happen in our field, but I think we stand to learn much by looking at our objects of study through the questions of others. One interesting paradox of the classic model of the “biblical philologist”—the scholar of biblical texts and language—is that this model is marked by a deeply held value for uncovering the text’s singular origin story. But at the same time, this value is accompanied by the goal of arriving at the “true” or “singular” reading of the text. This often means that one’s interpretation is construed in competitive terms, to render itself superior to all previous readings. This kind of socialization makes it both difficult to recognize the effect one’s own time and place has on their work—how we too are products of history—and to see the value in the intellectual engagements others have had with these same texts, to understand where they are coming from.
I decided to open the book with Herder’s voice because, recognized or not, his thinking on ancient textualized language and what it can tell us about culture has had an outsized effect not only on our area of study, but on other fields such as philosophy, comparative literature, and history, to name a few. And, in fact, the Hebrew Bible is a unique locus of inquiry in that its study leads us down varied paths. It leads us from the ancient Near East and the birth of writing, to the role of the Bible’s interpretation in early modern self-fashioning and political theory, to contemporary challenges, to orientalism and colonialism. Herder’s statement, that all poetry has its origins in speech, captures much of the Bible’s role in a persistent way of thinking about the deep past—as both powerful in its truth but primitive in its articulation—and how we consider ourselves in relation to that past. Herder’s statement is also complicated by the fact that we do not have transcripts of ancient Israelite singing but a textualized anthology. And yet Herder’s statement is also profoundly resonant for a reading of the biblical text, since the narratives in the Hebrew Bible have painted a picture of their own past as one punctuated by poetry and song. The task I wanted to set before me was to reconcile these dissonant phenomena—the perception of poetry as a kind of emotive, less rational literature that comes before the development of prose; biblical poetry as it comes to us in written texts; and the role poetry plays as character speech in the Hebrew Bible.

SPW: In my work on related topics, I was under the sway of my dissertation advisor James Kugel, who challenged how scholars distinguished between prose and poetry in the Bible, and argued that the application of the category of poetry to the Bible is anachronistic, a projection of a later Hellenized literary category onto biblical texts that has distorted what scholars and translators understand them to mean. Do you share his challenge to the idea of biblical poetry? If you accept poetry as a non-anachronistic category for the Bible, what is it exactly? What are its defining characteristics or what distinguishes it from prose?\
 JV: Kugel’s observation in that regard is a rather important one. The study of biblical poetry has long relied on Greek-inflected literary categories, and yet genre categories and rhetorical principles native to the Greek tradition do not correspond neatly to many of the categories and principles that underlie the biblical texts. But perhaps the question of what in the Bible is poetry and what is prose obscures a more fundamental problem that we face as biblical scholars. The language we speak as scholars is deeply indebted to forms of intellectual expression that go back to fifth century BCE Athens. One of my goals in the book was to show how our reliance on this intellectual tradition fails to account for the different ways in which the biblical literary tradition reflected upon itself in its compositional practices. Biblical literature did not develop a theoretical and critical language—or at least, a language that is recognizable from a Greek-inflected system of literary categorization and evaluation. For that reason, the ways in which biblical authors theorized and challenged generic boundaries will necessarily look distinct from how Plato or Aristotle theorized their own literary tradition. Instead of developing an external critical apparatus, the biblical authors participated in literary criticism within their craft, reshaping genres, themes, devices, and patterns of expression. A deeper understanding of the biblical literary tradition can be gained through mapping rhetorical strategies across genres, including poetry, prophecy, wisdom, and law. A simple answer to the question of what characterizes biblical poetry is that those texts we frequently identify as poetry, with its recognizable rhythm and patterns of organization, are speeches attributed to characters and often given in their narrated voice. From that point, the questions—at least from my perspective—can widen from “How do these texts fit into our literary categories?” to “Why do these texts look the way they do?” and “Why is a character’s voice an important way to frame certain kinds of literature?” When you move towards those kinds of questions, you’ve created the distance necessary to defamiliarize the text and the world that created it—you allow antiquity to come back to life in a fuller and clearer way, not molded by our own values and assumptions.
Click through for the rest of the dialogue.

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