on seeing in a mirror

As an interpretive strategy, ‘mirror reading’ is controversial but hugely significant.


Qmran_mar_morto by shi_dolcelei, on Flickr

In a nutshell mirror reading is about reasoning from solution to plight. If I tell you I’m taking cold and flu tablets, then it’s not usually too much of a leap for you to reason that I have a cold (or the flu).

Of course, like all tools it must be handled carefully. The all too common failure to show discernment in applying mirror reading goes a long way towards explaining the flak it tends to cop. There’s always a danger of reading too much in: e.g., because I’m talking cold and flu tablets it doesn’t mean I have a cold and the flu.

And you’d want to test your (hypothetical) reconstruction by looking for confirming or falsifying evidence in the present, or turning to your sense of my character built up from past experience, etc. I could be taking cold and flu tablets because I like the buzz or because I have a headache and have run out of regular painkillers.

This is particularly important when it comes to the Bible. On the one hand, when we start asking why Paul places so much emphasis on unity in 1 Corinthians, for example, we might be able to imaginatively reconstruct all sorts of ‘plights’ that help explain it. But we need to exercise cautioun and hold our conclusions with a degree of strength (or tentativeness) reflecting the weight of available evidence.

What we see in our mirror reading, we often see dimly.

On the other hand, we can’t dispense with it — especially when we’re dealing with the concrete historical situation into which the book or letter we’re reading speaks. As far as I can see, the only alternative is a functional docetism in which we try (vainly) to strip back the time-bound historical aspects of the text to expose the ‘timeless truth’ we imagine lies behind it.

What’s the attempt to reconstruct authorial intentions other than a sometimes disguised exercise in mirror reading?



  1. Good word, Swanny.

    The ‘mirror reading’ gets so much stick, but everyone uses it, and how else can you read the epistles, many of which are highly occasional.

  2. Swanny…O Swanny…

    I was pretty much on board until your final sentence. I completely agree that you can’t drive an epistemic wedge between the historical and theological facets. I agree that mirror reading is a necessary, albeit oft abused and taken to ridiculously tenuous lengths tool in the exegete’s belt. But to equate this with the reconstruction of authorial intent?

    I know that the two are closely related, especially in highly polemical texts such as Galatians (Barclay’s written a good article on this), but there is a distinction, nonetheless. Firstly, some texts, even polemical ones, provide the authorial intent within them (such as 1 John), without any recourse to mirror reading. This isn’t to say that some awareness of the historical context wouldn’t be useful and perhaps even sharpen the picture, but the reason for writing doesn’t involve a degree of historical speculation. Secondly, mirror reading isn’t as suited for texts which are not written in such a polemical fashion. Again, granted that the Word of God will always confront our sinful ways and conceptions and so is polemical in that sense, but surely a consideration of genre is necessary. That is, mirror reading narrative or poetic texts in the same fashion as an epistle will probably lead to the often crazy search for the Sitz im Laben of years (and critical methods) lost past. Moreover, it is possible to identify the authorial intent of, say, Psalm 32, without the need to reconstruct the original historical situation into which David wrote, or any problem he was trying to address.

    1. Hey Dan,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I want to take you up point for point — I probably largely agree with you anyway!

      I guess my final sentence (and most of the rest of the post) was motivated by two things:

      (1) I’ve been won over by the incredibly compelling article by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels called ‘Against Theory’. I won’t bore you with the details (although I’m happy to point you in the direction of the article if you’re interested — it’s really very, very good), but suffice to say, a very particular literary theoretical concern animates statements like these when I make them.

      (2) When he was my chaplain (in 2nd year), Paul Barnett made an incisive observation about the way we tend to downplay the historical and time-bound in our reading of the Bible. I reckon I could count on one hand the times I’ve heard preachers in our circles bust out extra-biblical texts (such as those we’ve uncovered from various streams of 2nd Temple Judaism) or archeological evidence in sermons. And we generally seem to distrust this sort of move. But why? I wonder if it isn’t hermeneutical docetism — plain and simple.

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