Topic for 1997-1998: Textual Commentary as Social Practice

For 1997-98, the PSCO brought together scholars of early Judaism, scholars of early Christianity, and classicists to examine interpretation as a social practice in the Mediterranean world of the first through fifth centuries CE, from Philo of Alexandria through Augustine of Hippo. Among the various literary forms in which interpretative practice is expressed, we have chosen to focus on the commentary as a genre (and the commentary mode within texts in other genres) -- precisely the mode of writing that most appears to subordinate the writer to the authority of the text under interpretation. In order to make sense of commentary writing in late antiquity, we wish to situate it within the context of ancient modes of reading, ancient modes of construing the relation of text and meaning, and ancient modes of transmitting knowledge, as these can be reconstructed within particular communities and cultures.

More about the Topic

The post-classical social milieux of the Mediterranean world witnessed the creation of pagan, Jewish, and Christian commentaries on authoritative texts of the past. Early examples included commentaries on the Iliad, the Timaeus, Habakkuk, and the Gospel of John. Interpreters, interpretations, and interpretive communities flourished. This year's PSCO will consider the intersection of textual and social issues raised by interpretive writings in the early centuries of the common era.

Participants in the seminar are invited to consider such questions as the following. What motivates the production of commentaries and other interpretive texts? What is their relation to oral teaching? What assumptions, aims, and strategies characterize the commentaries? How do interpreters and interpretive communities develop their interpretive aims and methods in response to their foundational texts and contemporary pressures? How do they respond to one another's interpretive aims and methods? What relations can we discover between orality, textuality, literacy, and social power on the one hand and the interpreter, the interpretive community, and the written commentary on the other?

What norms of reading inform the interpretative strategies of a particular writer? Are canonical texts seen as produced according to common strategies of production, such as the rules of rhetorical composition, and explicated as such? How do texts function in communities where a canon is still developing? How do such assumptions reflect the social setting of the interpreter, whether elite and metropolitan or marginal? Do certain types of interpretative practice enact the claims of those who use them to social power by asserting their elite status? How do specifically Jewish and Christian modes of interpretation and commentary appropriate or reject the ground-rules of other contemporary writing in similar genres?

During this year's seminar, we wish to explore questions like these in relation to a wide range of materials, including the pesharim of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo of Alexandria's Questions on Genesis, Neo-Platonic commentaries, Heracleon and Ptolemy, and church writers such as Hippolytus, Origen, and Augustine.