James Clarke & Co is proud to present a guest blog post from Zoe Hollinger, a PhD student studying the intertextuality and the use of the Old Testament in Hebrews from Belfast.
Review of Margaret G. Sim’s, A Relevant Way to Read: A New Approach to Exegesis and Communication. Cambridge: James Clark and Co., 2016; 136 pages; £17.50; ISBN: 9780227174425.
In A Relevant Way to Read, Margaret G. Sim draws from her background as a linguist and Bible translator in order to provide a brief introduction to relevance theory and its application to biblical studies. Relevance theory originated as an attempt to explain how humans communicate, emphasising the importance of inferring information and optimising relevance. Although some of the insights gained from relevance theory have influenced how linguists translate Scripture, little work has been done on how the theory may benefit NT exegesis. Through her utilisation of relevance theory, the subject of her PhD, Sim intends to provide a new angle through which old interpretive problems can be examined (p117).
Sim’s study can be divided into two parts: the first section provides the theory behind her study (chapters 1-2), whilst the second demonstrates how one can apply this theory to particular areas of NT interpretation (chapters 3-7).
Chapter 1 introduces the reader to debates regarding the nature of communication and authorial intent. In contrast to deconstructionism, which denies that texts have meaning, Sim argues that relevance theory provides a more satisfying explanation for how humans communicate. This is because the very creation of a text implies that the author intends to communicate with her audience (p2). This reality coheres with the basic premise of relevance theory: “The speaker assumes that a hearer listens to what he has to say because she is interested in it: it has relevance for her” (p4).
In chapter 2, Sim begins with a short orientation to the topic of relevance theory, charting its origins in the work of Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber, before discussing the main points of the theory and providing a definition of key concepts used: underdeterminacy, inference, metarepresentation, and ostension.
Chapters 3-7 demonstrate the working out of relevance theory by applying it to a number of contentious issues in NT interpretation.
Chapter 3 deals with how the NT authors re-present their thoughts, and the thoughts of others, in their writings. As a result, Sim examines the understanding of NT metaphor and issues surrounding the use of the OT within the NT. She concludes that the expectation of exact resemblance in citations is a modern notion and should be abandoned, and that more weight should be given to the use of metaphor, echoes and allusions when attempting to gain insight into a NT author’s communicative intent (p51).
Sim redefines irony in chapter 4 as “echoing a thought, belief or utterance of another while maintaining a distancing attitude to such an utterance” (p70) and demonstrates the usefulness of such a definition through an analysis of 1 and 2 Corinthians.
In chapter 5, Greek particles are analysed to determine how they can guide interpretation. Sim is rightly critical of the idea that each particle has a fixed lexical meaning and shows, through the use of relevance theory, how these words signal to the reader what the author desires to communicate.
Chapter 6 examines the difficulty of understanding conditional sentences. Sim encourages a move away from traditional categories ‘factual’ and ‘counterfactual’ since the potentiality of a conditional sentence is decided on pragmatic terms. Instead, she focuses on the logical relationship between the two clauses of the conditional sentence in order to provide a clearer exegesis of NT passages.
Chapter 7 concludes the book by providing a summary of Sim’s argument, as well as touching on issues relating to tense and time in Greek verbs. This is not a detailed discussion, however, since the chapter’s aim is to encourage scholars to employ the basic insights of relevance theory in their future research. Sim illustrates and provides support for her arguments with a wide variety of examples drawn from day-to-day interactions, NT passages, ancient Greek authors, and even classic works of literature. Each chapter ends with a summary of the key points dealt with in the chapter. Sim also provides a more substantial glossary at the back of the book as well as further reading for those interested in understanding relevance theory in more detail.
For non-specialists with no previous background in linguistics, A Relevant Way to Read provides a clear and concise introduction to relevance theory. The book is comprehensive in its summary of the main ideas associated with relevance theory, but does not overwhelm the reader with unnecessary information. Sim avoids the over-use of technical vocabulary and only provides enough linguistic theory to enable a biblical scholar to apply it to the text of the NT. Scholars more aware of the intricacies involved in the arguments surrounding relevance theory may protest that Sim has not covered everything that there is to be said about relevance theory, but that is not her purpose (p28), and, as with any short introduction, the book is necessarily selective.
Sim’s book is to be commended for its originality. It sets a precedent for further research into biblical texts, since relevance theory has not garnered the attention it deserves in biblical studies. Nonetheless, the novelty of this theory may mean that some of Sim’s conclusions are open to further questioning or refinement, but the benefit of this is that it invites scholars to interact with how relevance theory applies to specific problems in NT interpretation.
Sim’s attention to the original NT Greek text will appeal to students with a background in Biblical languages, but the provision of her own English translation of each text means that students with little or no grasp of the original Greek are still able to understand the force of her arguments.
Overall, Sim has written an incredibly accessible orientation to relevance theory and its application to NT exegesis, one which will appeal to senior biblical scholars and graduate students alike. It is sure to influence a number of future studies as scholars seek out new and original methods to apply to NT texts.
Zoe Hollinger is currently undertaking a PhD on intertextuality and the use of the Old Testament in Hebrews, under the supervision of W. Gordon Campbell at Union Theological College, Belfast.
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