April 6, 2005

The Power of Allusion

Category: Hermeneutics :: Permalink

In his Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark, Rikki Watts illustrates how allusions work:

As an Australian student studying in the United States I was fascinated by my lecturer’s occasional references to “four-score and seven years ago” and the uniformly “knowing” response of my American fellow-students. Only on learning that the phrase was the first line of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address did its significance become apparent. By evoking the Founding Father’s ideology these few words functioned as a hermeneutical indicator, pointing not so much to the text of Lincoln’s address per se — but to the larger interpretation of American history which Lincoln’s speech assumed and with which it interacted (p. 3). 

Watts points out that when a person uses the phrase “four-score and seven year ago,” he is deliberately alluding, not merely to Lincoln or even to the Lincoln’s speech, but to the particular view of history which is embodied in that speech.

Even more importantly, this “history” is not the “objective,” detailed, even quiescent version of the academic élite, but rather a popularist, highly processed and digested, yet pungent and persuasive “history,” cast in terms of the parameters set by the Founding Fathers mythology. That is, although the text is a part-citation, its primary function is to allude to and therefore to invoke, a powerful hermeneutical framework originating with the Founding Fathers, namely, the ideologically shaped popular recounting of the “essence” of U. S. history” (p. 31). 

So, too, when a biblical author cites Scripture, he isn’t referring simply to the few words he quotes, isolated from their context, nor is he even referring only to the original context of the line he quotes. He’s alluding to the whole framework assumed and generated by the passage he’s quoting and he’s inviting you to read what he’s writing in terms of that framework.

For instance, when Mark starts his Gospel by quoting Isaiah 40:3, he isn’t simply saying that this verse — or the passage it appears in — is a prediction of the future which happens to have been fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist. He’s also inviting you to read the whole story of John and of Jesus — his whole Gospel! — in terms of the narrative assumed and interpreted by Isaiah, the narrative of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, entrance into the Promised Land, sin in the land, exile from the land, and future restoration, the narrative in which the coming of a voice crying the message of Isaiah 40:3 is the preparation for the climax, when God would at last return to become Israel’s king. Mark isn’t simply alluding here to one specific prophecy; by quoting these particular words, he’s inviting you to read his whole Gospel in the light of Isaiah’s (and the Bible’s) telling of Israel’s story. He’s not simply invoking a verse of Scripture; he’s invokiing Isaiah’s whole understanding of God and of history.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:08 pm | Discuss (0)

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