Note: What is written here is intended as an intuitive speculation that has not been well-researched and explored. I present it a hypothesis at a very early stage, which further research may verify, challenge, or reject.
In a previous post I presented the idea that one distinction between the intellectual currents of Second Temple Judaism and Hellensitic philosophy was that Second Temple Judaism was decidedly focused more so on matters of hermeneutics, whereas Greco-Roman philosophy more focus on matters of epistemology. Consequently, within Judaism there was a diversity of hermeneutic frameworks that different sects seemed to have worked from. I want to suggest a hypothesis that one difference that emerged in the early Christians was that they developed a different practice or hermeneutics based upon an implicitly different understanding of language.
To explain, allow me to make an appeal to the modern field of the philosophy of language to provide a theoretical backdrop for understanding the differences that I postulate occur for the early Christians. Gottlobb Frege, who many have reputed as the grandfather of analytic philosophy, put forward a theory of meaning that made a distinction between sense and reference. Very roughly speaking, sense refers to what a word expresses, whereas reference referred to what a word points to. The specific details of Frege’s philosophy is not as important, as I think Frege’s attempt to try to treat language as logical system lead him and much of the analytic philosophy of language that followed to misunderstand the fundamental nature of language. What is highly useful, however, is that sense and reference can correspond to two different phenomenon in cognitive linguistics: prototypes and targeting.
Eleanor Rosch first brought up the idea of prototypes in the 70s to describe the way we use categories. When we have an idea of a category, there are some instances that are better examples of the category than another. For instance, the category of “breakfast foods” would include certain items such as eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, etc. as central staple items for breakfast food. However, other items might not be as clear. For instance is steak a breakfast food? It is commonly eaten in breakfast with eggs, but I myself have trouble consider steak a breakfast food much as I do bacon and sausage. But it is still more of a breakfast food than a hamburger is.
This is also true of language as a whole. When we think of words such as dog, running, car, etc. each of these words have some “idealized” prototype of what those words were typically used to refer to. When we stop to think about a word by itself, what comes to mind partly corresponds to the neural image that is stored in our brains. We know that not every instance of the word will be the same as is what is in our head usually. When I think of a dog, I think of a Sheltie having grown up with them, but I am perfectly capable of recognizing Rottweillers and Great Danes as dogs even though they are different from my idealized protoype, whereas wolves and coyotes don’t fit my image of a dog as well but they do partly fit. Or, when I think of the action of running, I think of a sprinter dashing as fast as they can. I can also see someone moving at a brisk pace as running, even though they aren’t sprinting.
Why is this the case? Because whereas prototypes are an idealized image, we also neurally encode various other examples that don’t match the ideal prototype but we are perfectly capable of recognizing of thinking of them in conjunction with the same word. When I think of the word “theology” I think of Christian theology specifically because I am a Christian, but at the same time, I recognize that other religions have their own theology. Consequently, when we use these words ourselves, we will tend to use them in reference to the ideal prototypes we have, but we are capable of registering other uses of those words that do not match the prototype. When I speak of and think about theology, I am speaking of and thinking about Christian theology almost all of the time. These collections of idealized prototypes and auxiliary images make up the cognitive content that our sense of words come from.
Meanwhile, Leonard Talmy has proposed the idea in The Targeting System of Language that one cognitive system is responsible for two different processes in language: the phenomenon of referring back to something that has been previously said in a discourse, referring to as anaphora, and referring to something in the spatiotemporal surroundings, referred to as a deictic reference. He suggests both of these linguistic processes emerge from the cognitive system known as targeting, This targeting system ultimately relates to the cognitive system of attention. If I am sitting with you at a restaurant and you say “The bread is really delicious” my attention will be directed towards the bread that is on the table. This roughly corresponds to Frege’s understanding of reference as pertaining to real world objects. However, because the targeting system also applies to cognitive schemas that emerge within the discourse and not just in our spatio-temporal world, targetting is broader than Frege’s understanding of reference.
My purpose in pointing this out is to point out there are different angles one can analyze how language functions. One can analyze it from the perspective of sense/prototypes or from the perspective of reference/targetting, but a robust understanding of language would take both together. Language is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that can be legitimately understood from multiple angles.
However, the cognitive process that undergird sense/prototypes and reference/targeting influence each other, much as what we pay attention to determines what it is we will better remember down the line. When we were kids and saw a cow and someone said the word “cow” the targeting-attentional system of language was helping to shape the earliest prototypes of what a “cow” is. However, as we grew older and started read books in school about and they talked about cows and basic facts about them the targeting system pointed towards the cognitive image we developed about cows in the book and began to fill out our understanding of the word “cow.” The targeting system in language helps to form the prototypes and auxiliary images we have with our words.
However, there is a significant difference in external, spatiotemporal targeting and internal, discursive targeting. When our attention is focused only on discursive content, there is no radically new cognitive content that can come into our mind. We may use words in a very creative way that creates a novel presentation that we are previously unfamiliar with, but there is not the possibility of radically new cognitive content in our language. Discourse-internal targetting creates a closed linguistic system where the prototypes and auxiliary images of language remained relatively fixed. However, when our words get used to refer to things in the external world, the possibility arises that our understanding of words can take on radically novel understandings that simultaneously (a) correspond to the prototypes and auxiliary images that we have of the word but then (b) changes the protoypes and auxiliary images we have for that word into the future.
How does this apply to Jewish and early Christian hermeneutics? My basic contention is this: whereas the trend within hermeneutics in Second Temple Judaism was towards the exploration of the meaning of words as they were, and thus became a more close, linguistic system, the disciples experience and memory of Jesus created a radical shift in how they understood the Scriptures in virtue of the external, spatiotemporal targeting that created a radically different, dynamic reading of the Scriptures. In other words, the hermeneutics of Second Temple Judaism and the early Christians subtly diverged because of the radical shift the person of Jesus presented to the early Christian’s language community. Rather than understanding Jesus through the Scriptures, they shifted towards understanding the Scriptures through Jesus.1
This is not intended as a linguistic recapitulation of the common stereotypes that Jews were formal legalists whereas Jesus presented a dynamic religion of the heart. In fact, I would posit that closed linguistic systems are often responsible for heightened passion within a speech community. When people have a closed, insulated understanding of the world that does not dramatically change or shift, this leads to the escalation of emotion and passions when dealing with life as the world fails to conform to idealized understandings one has. This is particularly the case when it comes to morality and ethics. When our moral concepts have become relatively fixed, we become increasingly aroused as we witness the divergence between the moral ideas our language refers to and the world around us. The failure of the world to accommodate to our moral and linguistic prototypes can heighten our emotional experience. By contrast, dynamic, changing linguistic systems takes time and effort to actually process and learn from. Changes in our linguistic systems are a product of rapid learning, which is more effectively realized with a decrease in emotion.2
Richard Longenecker notes that there were four types of interpretation: literalist, midrashic, pesher, and allegorical. For the literalist, midrashic, and allegorical modes of interpretation, there is a reliance on the already understood senses of the words. While it would perhaps be unhelpful if not potentially distortive to try to present any overarching cognitive analysis of these styles of interpretation, I will postulate that these three styles rely upon more fixed prototypes and auxilary images of words. Interpreting words as they are conventionally used in literal interpretation, exploring the various shades of meaning in midrash, and the esoteric meanings found in allegorical approaches do not rely upon a meaning derived from a target in their present day world, but rather emerges from different understandings of the already possessed idealized prototypes and auxiliary images.
There is one notable exception to this division of STJ is the pattern of pesher interpretation. In pesher exegesis, persons thought the Scriptures were referring to events that were occurred in their own day. Consequently, the interpretation within communities that employed pesher exegesis were engaged in more external targetting in their understanding of the Scriptures by connecting their true meaning to their present day circumstances.
However, there remains a distinctive difference between pesher exegesis and the early Christians. The early Christians went radically farther in that their language about God was radically altered by reference to Jesus. The early Christians did not just think the Scriptures talked about present-day events, but that the Scripture’s language about God pointed to Jesus. Hence, the language of oneness in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6.4 is expanded in 1 Corinthians 8.6 to include Jesus. Paul’s understanding of God’s promise and faithfulness to Abraham became understood in terms of Jesus’ death and resurrection in Romans 4. For the preacher of Hebrews, the heavenly realm that the temple represented has now been made known in Jesus. God did not just bring about some set of events that the Scripture pointed towards; God made Himself known.
Therefore, to rightly understanding the language of the early Christians, one needs to imagine a radically different language game being played by them, to borrow Wittgenstein’s famous metaphor, where Jesus changed the rules of the game. While some continuity with Second Temple Judaism is still retained such that Second Temple Judaism is the best historical backdrop to interpret the New Testament as a whole, understanding the New Testament as a whole entails understanding the early Christian’s understanding of the Scriptures, including about God, being radically novel in some fashions such that is not reliably analyzable in terms of the conventions of Second Temple Judaism. The God-language of the early Christians was “re-prototyped” to their knowledge of Jesus, and as such, their knowledge of Jesus served as the structure by which they made sense of the Scriptures.
However, this wasn’t type-archetype exegesis of later generations that saw Jesus being implicitly mentioned everywhere in the Old Testament, but rather that Jesus provides an expanded understanding about God and His promises by which the Scriptures could be made coherent sense around. It isn’t that Jesus was “in” the Old Testament, but rather that He as the pre-existent Logos, Wisdom, etc. stood “behind” the Old Testament understanding of God. Hence, in 1 Corinthians 10.4, Paul can say that Christ was with the Israelites in the wilderness, even though the story makes nothing that could be construed as a reference to Jesus. This isn’t some form of fanciful exegesis of the words themselves; Paul doesn’t talk about what was written in the Scriptures, which is customary for Paul when appealing to the authority of the Scripture to make a point. Rather Jesus is a fundamental assumption that Christ was operated behind the scenes in what the Scriptures describe about Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness. “Reprototyping” one’s understanding of God to Jesus didn’t lead to a radically different exegesis of the words of Scripture so much as it leads them to see resemblances between what the Scriptures described and the person of Jesus.
- Now, you might hear an echo of Barthian theology here. The Christ-o-centric emphasis of Barth certainly influences me. However, I would distinguish this from Barthian theology as a whole, because Barth’s theology is principally a concern about epistemology. But to project this epistemic concern onto the New Testament and the early Christians is to risk treating them as more like Hellenistic philosophy with its concern about knowledge. My point here is linguistic and hermeneutical: how is it that Christians read the Scriptures emerges not from a specific epistemic practice regarding God, but rather how the traditions and worship of Jesus radically changed the linguistic system of the early Christian community.
- Beyond this hypothesis, I also present my life as an anecdote: when I was dealing with the full burden of anxiety and stress, I found that I struggle to really understand new ideas and concepts, but as I got to a calmer place in life, I found more and more my language capacities changed more rapidly.