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The diplodocus’s femur: metonymic quotations in the Bible

Michel Barlow

Translation Canon Tony Dickinson

In order to understand a biblical text properly, it is important to set it in context. Quoting one verse alone can induce error, especially if that verse refers to another biblical passage. In that case, linking it to another implied text can allow a marked modification in the way it is interpreted.

I admire those palaeontologists who, on seeing one fragment of fossil bone, manage to determine the animal from which it came and its age, to within the nearest few millennia. I admire those oenologists who, on sniffing a glass of wine, can recognise the wine and the vintage. One single element is enough for them to recognise the whole to which it belongs. But ordinary language is not doing anything different when it comes to one of the processes of metonymy: talking, for example, about a « jar » instead of a beer, a « sail » instead of a sailing-boat, etc. In the same way, in literature, one sentence is sometimes enough to suggest the whole text from which it is drawn. It is enough to quote: « Allons enfants de la patrie… », for everyone to carry on, aloud or mentally, « …Le jour de gloire est arrive », etc. And so the expression apparently synonymous with « Off you go, children », takes on a highly patriotic solemnity!

We could form the hypothesis (and it is only a hypothesis) that some biblical quotations operate in an analogous fashion. For a devout Jew, reared from his mother’s breast amid the chanting of the Psalms and the recitation of the Torah, a single verse evokes its textual surroundings. And this evocation can modify the meaning of what is phrased explicitly, as the context superimposes itself on the text. It seems interesting for the biblical scholar, even an amateur, to locate the way in which a quotation can received by someone who has its context in their head: that is what we are calling metonymic quotation.

The best-known example is the second verse of Psalm 22 which Jesus utters on the cross: « My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? » (Matthew 27:46). The sentence, severed from its context, appears to convey a desperate sense of abandonment. In fact, the beginning of the Psalm is the prayer of someone persecuted, a victim of torture – and the Passion gospels have picked up every detail of this in the account of the crucifixion. But the Psalm ends with a song of confidence and thanksgiving. So, for anyone who holds this finale in their head, the prayer of Jesus expresses not so much a sense of abandonment as a confident handing over into the hands of the Father.

Another, less well-known example: the story of the traders driven from the temple (John 2:13-22) quotes two verse from the First Testament. « Do not make of my Father’s house a house of trade » (verse 16) can be connected with Zechariah 14:21: « There will no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of the universe. » The saying of Jesus seems to exalt his desire to purify the temple in Jerusalem and so to reinforce his authority. But in the context of Zechariah, it has to do, on the contrary, with announcing the end of sacralised religion (everything will be holy from now on – even the bells on a horse’s harness and the cooking-pots) and the arrival of worship « in spirit and in truth » (John 4:24). This reading of the text seems, moreover, to cohere better with the increasingly violent conflict between Jesus and the priestly caste.

The second quotation in this story is drawn from Psalm 69:10: « The zeal of your house has consumed me ». But the text is in no way the secret of a scrupulous sacristan! It is the prayer of one persecuted who suffers all kinds of snubs on the part of his coreligionists, even though he was a just and pious person. Replaced in its metonymic context, the quotation then calls to mind not so much the Jewish piety of Jesus as the persecutions that he is going to suffer.

Is it necessary to underline that this hypothesis about interpretation is only a hypothesis? Undoubtedly it allows us to uncover the meaning which a good number of biblical texts can have for readers who are passionately interested in the Scriptures, but we should not claim to be able to decipher in this way the only authentic meaning of the texts! In the necessarily plural reading of the Bible, this metonymic perspective nevertheless opens some horizons… sometimes unexpected ones!



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À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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