For a book such as this, which explores the underlying processes of the act of interpretation, it is appropriate to begin with a discussion of its own underlying ideas. Such ideas help to reveal the particular world-view that guided both the organization and content of the book.
The editors Charles Bobertz and David Brakke delineate two such ideas. First, as is adeptly explained in the introduction to the book, is the idea that a “dramatic transformation” has occurred in the discipline of interpretation in the Twentieth Century. Modern critical methods and their attendant narrative of objective and “literal” interpretation have collapsed under their own weight. In the postmodern world it has become clear that objectivity is impossible and that interpretations are always “culturally embedded.” Thus, while interpreters may help to reveal universal truths, they can never claim that their interpretations are universally true.
A new paradigm has emerged. The “totalizing discourse” of culture, historical period, etc., in which a particular text was created is the context in light of which one must interpret a text. This process is particularly complex in Reading in Christian Communities since the authors of the various essays in the book attempt interpretations of early-church interpretations. One need only look to the disciplines of historical Jesus research and liturgical studies, for example, to recognize that this interpretive paradigm shift has exerted its influence far beyond the field of biblical exegesis.
The second foundation of the book is the work of Rowan A. Greer, Walter H. Gray Professor of Anglican Studies at Yale University emeritus, to whom Reading in Christian Communities is dedicated. The contributions of Greer to the study of early-church interpretation are extensive and well-known, but for those in need of an introduction, the book includes a bibliography of and two essays on his work. For Greer, the complex task of interpreting ancient interpreters requires one to place said interpreters in their own contexts—a context in which “exegesis and theology were largely indistinguishable.” Scripture, furthermore, must be viewed as a “part of the entire way of life of early Christian communities.” The task of the contemporary interpreter, then, is twofold. S/he must take into account not only the context of the “specific interpretations of the past,” but also “the act of interpretation in the present.”
Reading in Christian Communities is organized in two sections and takes up Greer’s “agenda by studying the connections between the act of interpretation and formation of religious identity.” In the first section, the contributors consider “interpretive locations” or the aforementioned “totalizing discourse” in which early-Christian interpretation took place. These essays include “‘To Sojourn’ or ‘To Dwell’?: Scripture and Identity in the Martyrdom of Polycarp” by Frederick W. Weidmann, “The Seed of Seth at the Flood: Biblical Interpretation and Gnostic Theological Reflection” by David Brakke, “The Insufficiency of Scripture: Adversus haereses 2 and the Role of Scripture in Irenaeus's Anti-Gnostic Polemic” by Richard A. Norris, “Zoological Marvel and Exegetical Method in Origen and the Physiologus” by Alan Scott, “Porphyry of Tyre's Biblical Criticism: A Historical and Theological Appraisal” by Michael B. Simmons, “Paradoxes of Now and Not Yet: The Separation between the Church and the Kingdom in John Chrysostom, Theodore, and Augustine” by Arthur Bradford Shippee, and “Vision of God and Scripture Interpretation in a Fifth-Century Mosaic” by Wayne A. and Martha F. Meeks.
The second section takes up the task of “locating interpreters.” Here the contributors examine the “act of interpretation” and bring their consideration of ancient interpreters more immediately into the realm of contemporary concern, since an examination of the act of interpretation in the past unavoidably sheds light on the act of interpretation in the present. Following Greer’s example, “the contributors to Part 2 all identify themselves as speaking from within the Christian tradition and as seeking to explicate a mode of interpretation appropriate to that location.” These essays include “Gender Refusers in the Early Christian Mission: Gal 3:28 as an Interpretation of Gen 1:27b” by Mary Rose D'Angelo, “Prolegomena to a Ritual/ Liturgical Reading of the Gospel of Mark” by Charles A. Bobertz, “The Transfiguration of Christ: The Transformation of the Church” by Frederick W. Norris, and “Enduring, or, How Rowan Greer Taught Me to Read” by Stanley Hauerwas.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the essays in this volume is that by Charles Bobertz, namely, “Prolegomena to a Ritual/Liturgical Reading of the Gospel of Mark.” Here Bobertz places Mark’s “ritual location” in the foreground. For him it is a mistake “to interpret the Gospels as if they were not produced by early Christians who were shaped by and practiced external, particular, and highly exclusive rituals.” While there is not room for an adequate consideration of the details of his argument here, exegetes would do well to take a look at this essay.
One critique of the book is its title. The fact that Reading in Christian Communities is dedicated to and heavily influenced by Rowan Greer should be stated on its cover. If one were to casually consider this book either at a bookstore or on-line, it would not be immediately evident that Greer’s work played a foundational role in its creation.
Overall, the volume is outstanding in both its form and content. The contributors take up their task with scholarly rigor and Bobertz and Brakke frame the essays in the context of the postmodern interpretive paradigm shift well. The editors stand out among the contributors, not only in regard to Bobertz’s Ritual/Liturgical essay, but also in the introduction to the book in which they raise many critical questions for the contemporary interpretive effort. Indeed, Reading in Christian Communities meets the challenge of Rowan Greer head-on and successfully considers his hopeful question: “May it not be the case that we, like the Fathers, are obliged to take our theologies and, while revering the text and respecting its autonomy, use them boldly in our exegesis?”