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Richard B. Hays and the fire of texts

… Despite all the careful hedges that we plant around texts, meaning has a way of leaping over, like sparks. Texts are not inert; they burn and throw fragments of flame on their rising heat. Often we succeed in containing the energy, but sometimes the sparks escape and kindle new blazes, reprises of the original fire.

That is a way of saying that texts can generate readings that transcend both the conscious intention of the author and all the hermeneutical strictures that we promulgate. Poets and preachers know this secret; biblical critics have sought to suppress it for heuristic purposes. At times, the texts speak through us in ways that could not have been predicted, ways that can be comprehended only by others who hear the voice of the text through us—or, if by ourselves, only retrospectively.

Such phenomena occur repeatedly in all significant discourse: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your hearts.” The texts that envelope us speak through us; resonant speech discovers typologies that interpret present experience through the language of predecessors. But these typologies come to us unbidden, impose themselves upon us in ways that we understand through a glass darkly. Anyone who has ever acted in a play knows the experience of discovering that lines from the play come unexpectedly to mind in real-life situations different from the original dramatic context. The aptness of the quoted line does not depend on exact literal correspondence between the original meaning and the new application. Indeed, the wit and pleasure of such quotations lie partly in the turning of the words to a new sense. In such cases, the act of quotation becomes an act of figuration, establishing a metaphorical resonance between drama and life. Paul’s uses of Scripture often have a similar character: Scripture is for him the text of the word-play in which he performs and from which familiar lines repeatedly spring to life in new situations.

To limit our interpretation of Paul’s scriptural echoes to what he intended by them is to impose a severe and arbitrary hermeneutical restriction. In the first place, what he intended is a matter of historical speculation; in the second place, his intertextual echoes are acts of figuration. Consequently, later readers will rightly grasp meanings of the figures that may have been veiled from Paul himself. Scripture generates through Paul new figurations; The Righteousness from Faith finds in Paul a new voice.

Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, Richard B. Hays. Yale University Press: London, 1989. Print. 33.

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