How to Determine the Meaning of a Sacred Text, a collection of 22 essays by Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Religion Jay Williams ’54, was recently published by Edwin Mellen Press. The essays, written over a period of almost 40 years, cover a variety of subjects including mythology, the Hebrew scriptures, Confucian texts, Buddhist texts, gospels and classical spiritual poetry.
According to Williams, “much modern scholarship has been guided by what has been called the historical-critical method. That is to say, the basic questions have been: Who wrote this and when? Did these events as recorded really happen? What was original and what has been added to the text? These are, to be sure, very good questions that should be asked, but they are not the only questions and, in fact, if made too all-consuming, may steer the reader away from important questions of meaning.”
Williams says that the articles apply many different approaches to the study of texts and that each article contains an argument that stands by itself so that the reader can enter the book at any point and understand what is going on. “There are articles influenced by structuralism, phenomenology, the study of self-referentiality, and Zen. Sometimes Eastern thought is applied to Western texts, sometimes vice versa. Throughout, the aim is to think outside the box and to read old texts in new ways.” He adds, “My hope is that after reading this volume, each reader will not so much agree with me as develop his or her own methods for bringing old texts alive as the quest for meaning continues.”