Authorial Intent

Today, while I was sitting in my office waiting on students to drop off their writing portfolios, I had an interesting debate of sorts with my officemate, Raven, on the subject of authorial intent. One of my 1010 students was there and chimed in occasionally. We agreed in the end, I think, that authorial intent is impossible to determine, but it remains a “useful fiction,” in his words, allowing the profitable exploration of texts through the educated consideration of probable meanings. Raven, going for a textual studies Ph.D., has a slightly different take on the subject than I, and emphasized the role of the reader – and naturally, with my rhetoric & composition emphasis, I championed the writer. As usual, we bantered until we held essentially the same position.

I continued thinking about our roughly two-hour talk later this afternoon, and tried to apply it to a interesting observation I made while observing my dissertation chair’s Rhetorical Theory course a few weeks ago. We were reading the inaugural address of John Quincy Adams to the Bolyston Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard in 1805, and I noticed two quotes of the Old Testament in the speech that made me get up, go to my office and pull down my copy of the Septuagint.

The quotation in question is from Exodus 4:10-14. Moses is complaining that he is not up to snuff in terms of public speaking, and God, annoyed, instructs Moses to use Aaron as a mouthpiece. JQA quotes selectively from the KJV translation, which follows:

4.10 And Moses said unto the LORD, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.
4.11 And the LORD said unto him, Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the LORD?
4.12 Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say.
4.13 And he said, O my Lord, send, I pray thee, by the hand of him whom thou wilt send.
4.14 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and he said, Is not Aaron the Levite thy brother? I know that he can speak well. And also, behold, he cometh forth to meet thee: and when he seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart.

By “I know that he (Aaron) can speak well,” the KJV suggests that God has chosen Aaron to go to bat for Moses because of Aaron’s skill in speaking. JQA uses this quote twice in prominent sections of his speech – the conclusion, most vividly – to drive home the point that students coming to study rhetoric at Harvard (and maybe, just maybe, going on to be preachers) are doing so at God’s bequest – that speaking well is part of doing God’s work.

This bugged me. So I looked in the Septuagint for the Greek for Exodus 4.14, and there isn’t anything there about “speaking well.” Instead of the KJV’s “I know that he can speak well,” the Greek, epistamai oti lalwn lalhsei autoV soi, suggests something much more tame – “I know that while speaking, he himself will speak to (or, for) you.”

There isn’t a word there that suggests quality of speech. In 4.10 Moses says ouc ikanos eimi – I don’t speak well / I am not capable. You’d think if God had quality of speech on mind, he would reply with similiar language in Aaron’s case, but instead we have lalwn lalhsei, “while speaking, he will speak” or “speaking, he will speak” or “he will speak, speaking.” The speaking verb + participle sounds awkward, but it happens in English all time. “The senator talked, saying X.”

Thus in this reading, Aaron is not a skilled speaker, but a warm body. God knows that as Moses’s brother, he will take on the job; therefore, this is nepotism, not meritocracy.

So a question of authorial intent appears. What was JQA doing here? Let’s consider the possibilities. JQA was classically trained and knew Latin and Greek, so:

1) he knew the KJV rendition of this passage was questionable and used it anyway, knowing that his audience generally only used the KJV, and needing a hook for his speech. This is the edgy theory.

2) he was aware of the Septuagint’s language but believed that the KJV was close enough to base an entire speech on it, with some knowledge I don’t possess, perhaps, that lalwn lalhsei is an idiom for “he speaks well.” I haven’t found an argument for this reading anywhere yet, alas.

3) he used the KJV translation without doublechecking it, making his speech rather ironic in its emphasis on classical training. This is pretty likely, I’d say, using Occam’s razor.

4) he knew enough Hebrew to know that the KJV rendered the passage ok.

5) he knew enough Hebrew to know that the KJV translation was dodgy, but used it anyway, similar to 1).

My NSRV gives this for the passage in question of Exodus 4.14: “I know that he can speak fluently.” This made me think initially that 4) was the explanation – the Hebrew suggests quality of speech. So I looked for translations straight from the Hebrew by rabbis, and found the following:
I know that he will surely speak

I know that he knows how to speak!
Curiouser and curiouser. Both are closer to my rendition than the KJV. The first shares the future tense of the Septuagint version, but adds an adverb. The second lacks the future tense, but has emphasis in the pronoun and adds an infinitive. Neither speaks to quality of speech – both are pretty faint praise, considering Moses’s professed lack of talent. God might even be sarcastically calling Aaron a motormouth – and given Aaron’s future behavior, it wouldn’t be a shot out of line, either. Add to this that I have no idea if JQA knew any Hebrew, and option 4) seems out of the question.

So in terms of probability, and lacking evidence as to rhetorical malfeasance, 3) is the likely culprit – JQA hung his speech linking Aaron’s charge to rhetoric entirely on a translation that he thought was accurate. Any Adams scholars out there that know what was in his library around 1805? If there was a copy of the Septuagint, perhaps probability 3) might become 1). Looks like it’s time for another trip to Harding’s library.

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