Biblical scholarship is a very difficult field of study, requiring expertise in many areas. One of the most challenging aspects of understanding the true meaning of Biblical (or any ancient) text is making sense of the wording in the context of the contemporary cultural and linguistic milieu of the period in question. As an example of the perils and trials of textual analysis, lets take this example of a future study of an obscure American text from the early 19th century.
The text is written in the form of a poem, but many authorities believe it was a song. Some scraps showing musical notation associated with parts of the text have survived, but the fact that all attempts to actually sing the melody indicated by these notes is virtually impossible has led to strong doubts that this poem was actually ever sung. At least not to the tune as notated.
The text follows along with commentary on its analysis.
Title: The Star Spangled Banner
Oh, say can you see,
By the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight’s last gleaming?
Here we are being asked if we can see something in the light of the dawn. Since there is no specification of what we are being asked about, we cannot give a definitive answer. The only clue seems to be that it was something that was hailed – perhaps a taxi cab, or Julius Cesar, at the end of the shining of the twilight. So this must mean (since Julius Cesar was long dead at the time) that we are being asked if we can still see the taxi cab that brought the group of people referred to as “we” home the previous evening, and then parked outside their house in the early dawn. Generally cabs would not have stuck around all night outside of the house they delivered people to, so the answer must be no.
Whose broad stripes and bright stars,
Through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched,
Were so gallantly streaming?
So apparently, this taxi cab which is the subject of the first stanza was covered in stripes and decorated with stars, which sounds bizarre (almost all NYC taxicabs were painted yellow for unknown reasons or significance), but then again, so is the idea that people would hail a taxi cab with pride. Maybe there was something special about the cab. The perilous fight is easy. Ever try to get a taxi in midtown NY at the height of the rush hour? It probably wasn’t any easier back then. There is no possible clue to what ramparts they watched over (assuming that the omission of the “v” in “over” has some reason). And it appears that the stripes and stars in the first line were streaming, which makes the appearance of this taxi cab even more bizarre. And why the word “gallantly”, unless it refers to the driver who managed to get them home?
And the rockets’ red glare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there.
This is really a stumbling block. Its either allegorical (I mean Manhattan can be rough, but rockets and bombs didn’t generally glare and burst in the streets) or this entire incident occurred on July 4th, which actually also fits the last line, since flags were also displayed on that national holiday. The third line is hopelessly obscure. The issue of proof is completely outside of anything related to the rest of the piece.
O say, does that star-spangled
Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free
And the home of the brave
This last stanza seems to hold some important keys, since it contains the title of the piece (the star spangled banner). Again, as in the first stanza it asks a question, which seems impossible to answer or even understand. Banners are flags (see previous stanza) but what does this have to do with our taxi cab? “Star spangled” is clearly an idiom whose meaning is lost to history, although it might relate to the stars painted on the taxi (see above). The last two lines are extremely difficult. It appears that this banner may or may not be waving over two places, whose descriptions are… well much too general to give any clues about their precise location. The land of the free could be almost anywhere, depending on who exactly (humans? Animals?) are the free creatures referred to. As for home of the brave, well that could be the subjects (“we”), since they did venture out into the night of July 4th in New York City, found a bizarrely decorated taxi, and made it home in one piece. In conclusion, this text is most likely an insignificant personal record of a wild night in New York on a national holiday that clearly involved considerable loss of cognitive function on the part of the writer, probably due to intoxication.