In defense of reception history

Last month, the Bible and Interpretation website published an op-ed piece in which Roland Boer comes out ‘against “reception history”’ (and, implicitly, the Blackwell Bible Commentaries series for popularizing the term; see footnote 1). Ironically, the occasion for this criticism seems to be Boer’s completion of Cave Droppings: Nick Cave and Religion (to be published by Equinox in 2012), a book that those of us involved in the Blackwell Bible Commentaries might consider an exercise in reception history to the extent that ‘Cave has written novels, plays, poetry and, above all, music which often engages with the Bible in creative ways’ (Boer). Whence the disconnect between Boer’s attention to ‘Nick Cave and his interpretations of the Bible’ and his stance ‘against “reception history”’?

In Boer’s view, the term ‘reception history’

relies on a spurious distinction drawn from German historical-critical biblical scholarship: one first engages in exegesis of the original biblical text, usually with three steps: translation, paraphrase (restating the key moments of the text in question), and exegesis proper, the “leading out” of the meaning of the text. This is the only “sound” and “scientific” approach to biblical interpretation, an approach that is by definition free of ideological concerns such as gender, class, ethnicity, or politics. The catch with such a method is that it carries in its saddlebags the assumption that this is the only, properly “scientific,” way to interpret the Bible, the only one that is appropriate to the text itself, to its historical conditions, and so forth. Any other approach is by definition anachronistic, the application of ideas and assumptions from another age (our own) to the Bible. Apart from the sheer blindness of such an assumption (the inability to see that historical-critical “exegesis” itself is just as anachronistic since it developed in a historically specific period well after the Bible was written). It also bears with it another assumption: there is one “right” meaning that such a method needs to uncover. And beneath that assumption is a theological one, namely a singular perception of what God really means. IN [sic] other words, this approach is ultimately theological: one method, one meaning, one God. …

[R]eception history assumes that the text is in some way original, the pad from which subsequent trajectories launch themselves forth. If “exegesis” is the primary method appropriate to the originary biblical text, then reception history is secondary. It is a linear straightjacket that preserves the primacy of that strange guild of biblical “exegetes.” So, under the label of “reception history” may now be lumped all those other approaches, like feminist, Marxist, postcolonial, psychoanalytic, ideological, queer, and so on, all of which are supposedly anachronistic. But the proponents of this approach also understand any interpretation of the text outside exegesis by biblical scholars as secondary, especially the way the Bible is interpreted in art, literature, film, politics, or music.

All of this brings me back to Nick Cave and his interpretations of the Bible. Cave has written novels, plays, poetry and, above all, music which often engages with the Bible in creative ways. Is this “reception,” to be addressed after the solid “scientific” work of biblical critics? Not at all, for in the same way the such scholars offer their specific and particular interpretations of the Bible, so also does Cave offer yet other interpretations, which are as valid (or not!) as those who seek to maintain the fortress of biblical criticism or theological interpretation.

I quote at such length in an attempt to guard against misrepresenting Boer’s criticism, for I think that Boer has misrepresented the practice and attitudes of the majority of biblical scholars working in reception history, or at least on the Blackwell Biblical Commentaries. Combining both Rezeptionsgeschichte (read ‘history of use’) and Wirkungsgeschichte (read ‘history of influence’ or ‘history of effects’), reception history asks how the biblical texts have been used and understood in various time periods, and what influence and effects biblical texts and their uses have had in various time periods. To be sure, reception history treats biblical texts as ‘originary’ with respect to later uses thereof, but only in the undeniable and rather uninteresting sense that a biblical book must exist before it can have any effects or influence precisely as a book, just as you can’t use a dictionary or be affected by a sentimental love song until those textual objects exist. Reception history does not assign an ideological primacy to singular textual meanings ‘uncovered’ by historical-critical exegesis. In fact, the hermeneutical underpinnings for reception history resist such a view, as Mary Callaway explained in a 2004 Society of Biblical Literature presentation:

In 1982 Hans Robert Jauss coined the term Rezeptionsaesthetik to describe his theory of reading. Playing on Gadamer’s image of the horizon of the present, he described the criteria readers use to judge a literary text as a “horizon of expectations.” The way a literary work was understood by its first readers does not establish its meaning, because later readers, with different horizons of expectation, will interpret it differently. Jauss writes, “A literary work is not an object which stands by itself and which offers the same face to each reader in each period. It is not a monument which reveals its timeless essence in a monologue.” … The basic theoretical assumption of Reception Theory is that texts do not “have meaning;” meaning is rather produced by readers who engage texts. The “intention of the author” and the understanding of the original readers take their place alongside the interpretations of subsequent readers, not above them. (Callaway 2004: 9–10)

Lest anyone suggest that Callaway’s perspective is not typical of the Blackwell Bible Commentaries as a series, let’s hear from one of the editors, John Sawyer:

What is also new is the notion that the reception of a text is more important than the text itself, and even that a text doesn’t really exist until somebody reads it. “The bare text is mute”. It is like the philosophers’ old question: If a tree falls in the forest and no-one hears it, does it make a sound? A text without a reader has no meaning. It is the readers of a text that give it meaning. In a sense the reader creates the text as much as the author does. The role of the reader as creator was a new concept and that is one of the concepts underlying the Blackwells Series. (Sawyer 2004: 1)

Far from ‘understand[ing] any interpretation of the text outside exegesis by biblical scholars as secondary, especially the way the Bible is interpreted in art, literature, film, politics, or music’ (as Boer claims), Sawyer claims:

[E]ven the most professional, scientific, objective, scholarly, critical commentator on the text is none the less a reader like any other reader, part of the reception process, carrying all kinds of baggage with him and creating the text’s meaning in a way fundamentally no different from other readers. (Sawyer 2004: 7)

Callaway and Sawyer have, of course, no power or authority to prevent individuals working in reception history from taking up the attitudes that Boer criticizes. It is clear from these comments, however, that they do not share those attitudes. Nor, I suggest, are those attitudes typical or representative of the authors working on reception history for the Blackwell Bible Commentaries. Boer’s editorial criticizes a caricature.

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5 Responses to In defense of reception history

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