As I work on writing my paper for the Codex Judas Conference, I have been thinking about astrology and the idea of sympathy or correspondence, the old saying "as in heaven, so on earth". This has led me to further thoughts about the job of the historian interpreting these ancient documents. Is locating anything close to "authorial intent" possible? Because texts are what readers say they are, does that mean that the historical inquiry is without merit? Since texts are multivalent in terms of their interpretation, is there a point to historical methods?
Certainly this is not a new discussion to this blog. But what is new to me is something that is sort of in my peripheriel vision, not quite focused clearly. It has something to do with convergences or correspondences. Although a text can be multivalent in its interpretation, not all interpretations are historical, nor are all historical interpretations equally convincing. Why is this (here I am speaking of the latter observation)? Because some historical interpretations have a more convincing frame, have more elements that converge with what we know from other literature (and material remains).
What should govern our historical inquiry so that the convergences or correspondences with other information is the fullest it can be? I can think of several things. First, the frame that I want to use when I am discussing any given text is traditional. That is, I want to make sure that the text I'm discussing is being discussed against the frame of its tradition(s). If the text is Valentinian, then I want to talk about it within the pool of Valentinian literature and information that we have access to, and I want to do it against texts that are regionally and chronologically similar (if at all possible). So besides framing it traditionally, I also want to frame it geographically and chronologically.
The other frame I try on is an oppositional one. Are there texts which are competing with the ideology, the sociology, the narrative of the one I'm studying (again, always with regionality and chronology in mind)? What can be known from this comparison?
The final frame I try on is turning to material external to the particular tradition (i.e, not Valentinian) to see if the discussion in my text is being developed or discussed in other places? What can be gained from this frame? is a question I then pursue.
I find this way of working to be very valuable and honest, because it transcends in many ways the interpretative cavern that post-modernity has left us with. But this is hard work, and it requires historians to become more careful and sensitive exegetes. It means that we have to try to work from inside the texts and traditions we have, rather than imposing on them our own wishes for their meaning.