Vanderbilt University
Department of  Religious Studies, College of Arts and Science

RLST/DIV 3159 Semiotics and Biblical Studies
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celebrating diversity at vandy
celebrating diversity at vandy

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Here's a brief description of the course.  Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions, or you need to make clarrifications, or you want to discuss whatever class-stuff there is to discuss.  I would appreciate your suggestions on how to make our seminar more interesting and fruitful, hopefully, for everyone.

Daniel M. Patte

Garland 301, Box 1585 Station B, Nashville, TN 37235 : Tel (615) 322-4884 : send comments and suggestions to webmaster

RLST/DIV 3159 Semiotics and Biblical Studies
Syllabus | |  RequirementsBooks  |  Faculty  | Notices  |  Assignments   | Home
Course Description
This advanced seminar for Ph.D. Candidates in biblical studies and upper MDiv students seek to address the question: Why are several, different, and often opposed interpretations of the same biblical text equally legitimate and plausible? (This is the question raised by Ricoeur in The Conflict of Interpretations, and Fish in Is There a Text in This Class?, and also raised by the shelves of diverging scholarly commentaries on the same biblical book.) Thus, why do interpreters of the Bible have the moral responsibility of choosing among these legitimate and plausible interpretations one which "does no harm" and to take the risk of choosing an interpretation which will be helpful, liberating, and constructive by challenging systemic evil?


Semiotic theories address these questions by providing theories of the way meaning is produced through the interaction of texts, intertexts, contexts, and readers. These theories are not new: these were already the concern of Plato and Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm of Canterbury and Abelard, Bacon, John Duns Scotus (to name a few historical figures). Modern scholars developed these theories in two opposite orientations (although:


a) either in a pragmatist line with Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), followed by Charles W. Morris, Thomas Sebeok, and Umberto Eco - who start with the question: How do we communicate by means of signs? (a "semiotics" about "signs"-semeia); communication through signs frames the question of the production of meaning;

b) or in a linguistic line with Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), followed by Louis Hjelmslev, Roland Barthes, A.J. Greimas (and Russian semiotics) - who start with the question: How do we produce meaning? (a "semiotics" about "semantics"; "structural semantics"); the production of meaning frames the question of communication by means of signs.


The question is: Which approach is most helpful in biblical studies? My response will be: a "semiotics" about the production of meaning (closely related to hermeneutics; Greimas was a dialogue partner with Ricoeur and Lévinas), although the semiotic theory of Umberto Eco (A Theory of Semiotics and The Role of the Reader) provides helpful insights. Semiotics as structural semantics opens the possibility to account for the several Religious Dimensions of Biblical Texts; it is this structural semiotics that Mieke Bal presents Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative and On Meaning-Making: Essays in Semiotics and applies in spectacular ways to biblical studies in her study of Judges 4 and 5 Murder and Difference: Gender, Genre, and Scholarship on Sisera's Death; and Loving Yusuf: Conceptual Travels from Present to Past, in which she reads biblical texts together with modern literature, feminist issues, visual art, and other religious texts (in the latter case, the Qur'an). A semiotic approach shows different options for reading any given text. We have a choice as readers, and thus also an ethical responsibility; Lévinas (who was in dialogue with Greimas) will help us for this through his Ethics and Infinity.


*animated gif from, photo from VU photo library