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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Exegetical Modesty: Interpreting Religious Texts as a Form of Self-Criticism

Richard Landes.

Religious texts pose a serious threat to tolerant, global relations, just as modernity poses a serious threat to religious exegesis. The insistence on a ?literal meaning? of religious texts ? at once obvious, and one?s own ? reflects an exegetical immodesty that can generate religious coercion, hostility and violence. But texts can also provoke more ?historical? and self-critical readings, where narrative invites the reader to examine oneself and increases our ability to empathize with others.

The biblical narrative, in this sense, offers accounts of generations of struggle with negative impulses ? jealousy, hatred, violence ? and hence lessons in the struggle with them, rather than set prescriptions for handling those impulses. Our stance as self-critical exegetes, permits us to engage in a dialogue with the characters and in interrogating our own impulses, learning about and from theirs, including the ability to challenge and criticize them. This approach to the texts offers an alternative to the fundamentalist impulse to insist on the literal meaning of the texts, and establishes a way to wax passionate about religious texts, and remain tolerant of others who do not ?read? them in a similar fashion.

With the time available after explaining the general approach, we will apply this modest exegesis to ?reading? the Genesis narratives, offering an answer to the question: ?Why is there so much injustice and violence in Genesis?? The violence, even the divine violence shows us the behavior of people caught in the difficult and messy world of the constant human struggle and competition. Rather than see such events as prescriptive, it sees them as descriptive. The moral or normative lessons that one derives from these narratives, then, is not a ?literal? meaning, but a invitation to consider and learn from someone else?s experience. The honesty of the texts ? how many ?bad things? it includes in the narrative, even about the heroes ? invites us to self-critical modesty. This then avoids immodestly insisting that one knows the single, obvious, literal, and prescriptive meaning of the text, and needs to enforce that reading for the sake of social order and salvation.


Richard Landes  (United States)
Center for Millennial Studies
Boston University

Trained as a medievalist, I have moved into millennial studies (study of people who believe that a messianic age is coming). I have been director of the CMS for 7 years now, and next year's conference will be on millennialism and globalization.

  • Biblical exegesis
  • Genesis
  • Empathy
  • Religious intolerance
  • Religious passion
  • Tolerance
  • Globalization
  • Fundamentalism
  • Religious dialogue
  • Modesty
  • Self-Criticism

(60 min workshop, English/French)