I don’t think all readings of texts are created equal. Some are better than others, and its better to have good readings than poor ones. I certainly don’t want to encourage an environment in which everyone’s private, idiosyncratic reading of the text is seen as equally valid, or to perpetuate an environment where everyone is their own authority.
In fact, I think its an important spiritual practice to consider readings other than my own–to let another perspective interrupt my own. This is important, because I know that my tendency will be to conscript the text in the service of my own project, and that I will be blind to the most significant ways in which this is actually happening. It is only by considering another horizon that I will be able to see the limits of my own.
This, for me, is the biggest value in considering how the first readers of a text might have heard or interpreted it. By trying to place myself in the shoes of someone with a different set of cultural perspectives and values, I can sometimes see those places where my own values are limiting my understandings.
Also, I do think that there is an advantage in understanding a text and its possible meanings by considering how the original audience might have understood the text. I want to give them a privileged place given the fact that they were the audience imagined by the author. Of all the “other” perspectives I might consider related to understanding a text, this one should always be considered.
Notice here, however, that I am not replacing my perspective with theirs. I am not limiting all meaning to what the text might have meant to them. Part of this is because it is not always clear or obvious what that might have been. But I am also convinced that texts, especially sacred texts, continue to speak and generate meanings over time. I am allowing whatever light I can receive from the original setting to augment my perspective, not replace it.
Let me give you an example of what I mean here. In reading Ephesians 5:21ff, a text on household relations, it is certainly enlightening to consider household structures of the ancient world. It is very instructive to know that this text is similar to other “household code” texts found in literature contemporary to the NT. We see, for instance, how unique the advice is to fathers and husbands in Ephesians. And we see how the story of Jesus challenges some of the cultural assumptions of the ancient world.
Many scholars, and I agree with them, suggest that while this text may have challenged certain conventions of the day, the author of Ephesians 5 and the original audience could not have imagined “egalitarian” structures or relationships.
Now, if I’m replacing my perspective for theirs, I must conclude either that Ephesians 5 has nothing to say to a world not defined by patriarchal social structures, or that as a Christian I am limited only to relationships that have patriarchy built in.
I believe, in contrast, that Ephesians 5 continues to speak beyond the horizon of understanding of the original audience. Ephesians 5 has something to say to a world that can imagine egalitarian relationships. In our world, we tend to define egalitarianism in terms of individual rights. Ephesians 5 holds out the possibility for egalitarian relationships rooted in mutual submission, meanings not available either to the original audience or moderns steeped only in the contemporary, cultural story of individual rights.
My understanding has been augmented and not replaced. And because of this, its possible that the story of Jesus can continue to speak, continue to be good news in a cultural environment other than the one that produced the text.