Professor Gaffney begins by positing an important if disputed principle of interpretation: that the circumstances of the production, publication and reception of any text, and therefore of a biblical legal text, form an essential element of its interpretation. It could be argued that only on this methodological basis is it possible to respect the distance between the past and the present, the world of the text and that of its interpreter. Where this principle is set aside, the way is clear for the interested appropriation of texts as authorization for positions on which the interpreter has already made up his mind—and nowhere more so than in the sphere of ethics.
The example offered is that of the death penalty for blasphemy in the Old Testament. In this instance it may seem altogether too obvious that the religious and cultural bases for this stipulation of law have altered, and that therefore, on any but the most doggedly literalistic reading, the Bible at this point provides no warranty for judicial policy. The matter is less obvious with the prohibition of killing in the decalogue with reference to the crucial issue of the death penalty. A formidable obstacle to arguing on this basis for the abolition of the death penalty is the exegetical fact that Israelite society sanctioned the death penalty and, in fact, had recourse to it more often than some other ancient Near Eastern societies (e.g., the Sumerians). I am not saying that there are no good arguments against capital punishment which draw on Jewish and Christian tradition, but we are warned against a simplistic and interested appropriation of isolated biblical texts in support of particular ethical constructions.