Good quote on authorial intent

“In academic terms, I approach texts first as a literary critic. My immediate interest is to ask how the work I am considering is likely to have been heard and understood by those who first encountered it; and since I do not suppose that the texts I am examining were composed by the totally incompetent, I suspect that that may have some bearing on the author’s purpose. Despite the claims of some twentieth-century critics, I remain convinced that through authors’ words it is possible to see something of their minds, and something of what they are trying to tell us. We all base our convictions on our own stories, and perhaps the reason that I think like this is, in the last analysis, because I too, in a small way, use words and make texts in order to tell stories and share ideas. I should be frustrated indeed if I believed that it were all finally a matter of luck or coincidence whether my readers received from my words anything at all of what I intended.

Equally, however, I concede that words need to be interpreted, and that any interpretation — and particularly any interpretation of an ancient text that was evidently never regarded as easy (see 2 Peter 3.15-16) — will be a construct, involving partly what the author intended and partly what we ourselves have brought: our histories, our cultures, our hopes, and our fears. You and I may listen to the same words on the same occasion, but the chances are we shall each learn something different from them, because we are not the same person. If the words are about something fairly limited in scope or significance, like the distance from Rome to Naples, the difference may not matter much. If it is about something more complex, arousing our emotions or our commitments, then the difference may be very great indeed. One value of critical scholarship — that is, of the best historical and literary understanding we can obtain of our texts — is that it affords us a measure of defense (I do not say a complete defense)3 against interpretations that simply indulge our fantasies, our fears, or our desires.”

Christopher Bryan, A Preface to Romans: Notes on the Epistle in Its Literary and Cultural Setting. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 4.

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