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Journal Article

The Letter Kills: On Some Implications of 2 Corinthians 3:6

Carlo Ginzburg
History and Theory
Vol. 49, No. 1 (Feb., 2010), pp. 71-89
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25621453
Page Count: 19
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The Letter Kills: On Some Implications of 2 Corinthians 3:6
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Abstract

The paper focuses on an argument put forward by Augustine in his De doctrina christiana: there are passages in the Bible that need to be read in a literal, contextual, and ultimately rhetorical perspective. This approach to the Bible (usually overshadowed by Augustine's own parallel emphasis on the importance of allegory) was needed to deal with customs—for instance the patriarchs' polygamy—that had to be evaluated, Augustine argued, according to standards different from those prevailing in the present day. This need inspired Augustine to utter some sharp remarks on the need to avoid (as we would say today) ethnocentric, anachronistic projections into the Biblical text. The long-term impact of Augustine's argument was profound. The emphasis on the letter played a significant role in the exchanges between Christian and Jewish medieval readings of the Bible, which affected Nicholas of Lyra's influential commentary (Postilla). The same tradition may have contributed to Valla's and Karlstadt's audacious hermeneutic remarks on the Biblical canon, which covertly or openly focused on contradictions in the Biblical text, questioning the role of Moses as author of Deuteronomy. Traces of those discussions can be detected in Spinoza's Tractatus theologico-politicus. The paper suggests that the emphasis on a literal, contextual reading of the Bible provided a model for secular reading in general. The possible role of this model in the aggressive encounter between Europe and alien cultures is a matter of speculation.

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