Hat Steal

by Aug 25, 2009Books, Exegesis, NTScholarship12 comments

This is not just a hat tip; it’s a hat steal.

I had to get this absolutely brilliant content (written by a fellow graduate of my alma mater!) to both of my readers. Moisés Silva is an exegetically and linguistically careful scholar, and this is brilliant, just… brilliant!


It is approximately the year 2790. The most powerful nation on earth occupies a large territory in Central Africa, and its citizens speak Swahili. The United States and other English-speaking countries have long ceased to exist, and much of the literature prior to 2012 (the year of the Great Conflagration) is not extant. Some archaeologists digging in the western regions of North America discover a short but well-preserved text that can confidently be dated to the last quarter of the twentieth century. It reads thus:

Marilyn, tired of her glamorous image, embarked on a new project. She would now cultivate her mind, sharpen her verbal skills, pay attention to standards of etiquette. Most important of all, she would devote herself to charitable causes. Accordingly, she offered her services at the local hospital, which needed volunteers to cheer up terminal patients, many of whom had been in considerable pain for a long time. The weeks flew by. One day she was sitting at the cafeteria when her supervisor approached her and said, “I didn’t see you yesterday. What were you doing?” “I painted my apartment; it was my day off,” she responded.

The archaeologists know just enough English to realise that this fragment is a major literary find that deserves closer inspection, so they rush the piece to one of the finest philologists in their home country. This scholar dedicates his next sabbatical to a thorough study of the text and decides to publish an exegetical commentary on it, as follows:

We are unable to determine whether this text is an excerpt from a novel or from a historical biography. Almost surely, however, it was produced in a religious context, as is evident from the use of such words as devoted, offered, charitable. In any case, this passage illustrates the literary power of twentieth-century English, a language full of metaphors. The verb embarked calls to mind an ocean liner leaving for an adventuresome cruise, while cultivate possibly alerts the reader to Marilyn’s botanical interests. In those days North Americans compared time to a bird—probably the eagle—that flies.

The author of this piece, moreover, makes clever use of word associations. For example, the term glamorous is etymologically related to grammar, a concept no doubt reflected in the comment about Marilyn’s “verbal skills.” Consider also the subtleties implied by the statement that “her supervisor approached her.” The verb approach has a rich usage. It may indicate similar appearance or condition (this painting approaches the quality of a Picasso); it may have a sexual innuendo (the rapist approached his victim); it may reflect subservience (he approached his boss for a raise). The cognate noun can be used in contexts of engineering (e.g. access to a bridge), sports (of a golf stroke following the drive from the tee), and even war (a trench that protects troops besieging a fortress).

Society in the twentieth century is greatly illuminated by this text. The word patient (from patience, meaning “endurance”) indicates that sick people then underwent a great deal of suffering: they endured not only the affliction of their physical illness, but also the mediocre skills of their medical doctors, and even (to judge from other contemporary documents) the burden of increasing financial costs.

A few syntactical notes may be of interest to language students. The preposition of had different uses: causal (tired of), superlative (most important of all), and partitive (many of whom). The simple past tense had several aoristic functions: embarked clearly implies determination, while offered suggests Marilyn’s once-for-all, definitive intention. Quite noticeable is the tense variation at the end of the text. The supervisor in his question uses the imperfect tense, “were doing,” perhaps suggesting monotony, slowness, or even laziness. Offended, Marilyn retorts with a punctiliar and emphatic aorist, “I painted.”

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Leave a comment.

  1. John F.

    What, no lacuna or hypothetical reconstructed text from along the no doubt damaged edges? It seems a clever forgery to me. Whether the hoaxer was ancient or more modern, well, tu wakati atakuambia.

    • Mark Ward

      Ha! Good call. More could be added!

  2. Lindsay Hislop

    Yes, nailed it. This reflects so well much modern preaching and commenting. Something like this demonstrates the need for a reevaluation of so much seminary training–to avoid the deprograming that many young pastors have to go through in order to communicate with their congregation. We don’t do this with any other kind of literature. I know the Bible was written in ancient languages in the context of ancient cultures, but doing this kind of exegesis is not the answer. Great fun and a powerful message.

  3. Paul Nitz

    I’ve seen this before, but where? Was it in Silva’s “God, Language, and Scripture”? Well worth reading again!

  4. Paul Nord

    Mr. Ward, thank you for bringing this fine text to our attention. Since you have joined the Logos Pro team, perhaps we should link to the version of Moisés Silva’s book offered by the excellent Logos Bible Software. “Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation”: /www.logos.com/product/17265/foundations-of-contemporary-interpretation

  5. Jim Kerr

    What? No chiasms?

    • Mark Ward

      Jim, that is a major omission! You are exactly right!

  6. Brent

    What is not discussed in this humorous tale but needs to be stated in light of the responses of application is that in dealing with Scripture you are exploring an inspired book that states that its very words are inspired and will be fulfilled completely. When we study this book from a different time and place, our exegesis must examine in detail every word in order to explore its meaning and faithfully communicate its truth. It doesn’t mean we have to share all those details to others but it must be explored to accurately represent God’s Word.

  7. Mark Ward

    Brent, yes, by all means, interpretation of the Bible is different from that of any other book. But the key question is: in what respects is it different? I think Silva has done a good job showing what kinds of supposed differences are actually invented by interpreters.

  8. KStock

    On a similar issue, C.S. Lewis’ comments on literary criticism are well worth reading. When his friend, Roger Lancelyn Green published a novel called “The Lord High Tiger”, critics said that the Tiger was inspired by Lewis’ Aslan. But Lewis knew that Green had imagined his Tiger long before Aslan came on the scene. As Lewis points out, if people can make such mistakes about people of their own generation who are still alive and can be consulted, how can we trust their reconstruction of the distant past? Lewis says that their only qualification for reading between the lines is their inability to read the lines themselves.

    • Mark Ward

      Fantastic. I found this reference in one of the volumes of Lewis’ letters, but is there another you know of? What you say about “reading between the lines” sounds so familiar… I’d like to use this.


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