Exploring Babylon: Chapter 6.2
If asked a few months ago, I would have guessed that “reception history” had to do with radio or internet signals or, possibly, some diplomacy pattern. But I’ve learned in the course of #ExploringBabylon that “Reception History of the Bible” is a frequently used, sometimes controversial, approach for many authors who are interested in exile, Babylon, and related topics. There is a lot of current argument about the definition of Reception History, what term to use for the field (more on this below), and its worth.
….In my studies so far, I haven’t found many scholars of Judaism who see themselves as having a dog in this fight (or however academics express it); but I also suspect that some aspects of Reception History are intrinsic to this project, particularly when it comes to disentangling the many ways Babylon has been understood over time, in- and outside Judaism….
This installment of #ExploringBabylon, therefore, offers a few glimpses into Reception History of the Bible, as well as related pursuits, which I hope will be of use as this series unfolds.
The Introduction to Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (2011) notes that the “reception of the Bible comprises every single act or word of interpretation of that book (or books) over three millenia,” going on to define the field:
[Reception History is] usually—although not always—a scholarly enterprise, consisting of selection and collating shards of that infinite wealth of reception material in accordance with the particular interests of the historian concerned, and giving them a narrative frame.
— Jonathan Roberts, Introduction, p.1
Oxford’s Susan Gillingham explains, in a “Theory and Practice” volume, that she heard the field referred to as ‘biblical studies on holiday,’ and that, while the characterization was intended as condemnation, she finds it helpful in understanding how Reception History works:
…things which really mattered ‘back there’ seem to be not quite as urgent or pressing as you have time to focus on different opportunities – perhaps in art, or music or literature. And you can return with new projects which might complement the older, more familiar ones.
So the metaphor of a ‘holiday’ might work well in defining reception history in relation to biblical studies. It offers a change of perspective….
— Gillingham, p.17
See also Further Adventures #2
In The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship, Peter Machinist (now professor emeritas at Harvard) describes Reception History as illuminating two forms of biblical complexity:
The history of the ways in which the Hebrew Bible has been received and dealt with by various human communities (Rezeptionsgeschichte), it may be argued, reveals two perspectives on the problem [of biblical complexity]. The first is historical [the Hebrew Bible as historical artifact]….[In] the second…the Bible is an object of study and appreciation in its own right, the text itself defining, at least primarily, the world within which it is to be read and interpreted [i.e., as religious scripture or as literature].
–Machinist, p.210, 213, The Hebrew Bible
As seen in the Handbook footnote quoted below, the origins of Reception History are traced to German scholars of Christian Scripture, thus many discussions reference German terms:
- Rezeptionsgeschichte, and
These are translated, respectively, as follows (more or less):
- “history of effects,” or influence, including use in homilies, visual arts, etc.
- “history of reception,” or how faith communities understood the text, and
- “history of interpretation.”
A pioneer in Reception History defines the field as focusing on reception of the Bible “during the formative centuries of the Christian religion.” Many others are less explicit but assume that “Bible” means Scripture as understood by Christians or simply default to Christian views of scripture. Oxford’s Centre for Reception History of the Bible, for example, does not specify a religious community as primary, but neither does it step very often outside of Christianity, even for comparative talks, such as “Picturing Abraham in Judaism, Christianity and Islam” (Dr. Aaron Rosen, Spring 2011).
A few scholars take a more inclusive view, either explicitly or by default.
Roland Boer objects to “Reception History” on the basis that it “assumes that the text is in some way original, the pad from which subsequent trajectories launch themselves forth.” He goes on to note that, in this view, “‘reception history’ may now be lumped under all those other approaches, like feminist, Marxist….all of which are supposedly anachronistic.” (Bible and Interpretation).
Boer is professor of humanities and social science, University of Newcastle (AU) and author of Rescuing the Bible, “a manifesto for general readers who are interested in the current relations between the bible and politics” (more below). He also has a piece in the “Implication, Difficulties, and Solutions” section of Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice.
Brennan Breed takes a different critical view:
It appears that the supplementary nature of biblical reception adequately describes the entire history of the biblical text, from the beginning of its production until the present day. Those qualities presumed to be “original” by traditional biblical criticism simply do not exist. For this reason, I use the phrase “biblical reception history” to describe the entire history of production and transmission of the Bible – and it is important to note that one cannot delineate between two temporally discrete periods, one of “production” and another of “transmission.”
— Breed, “A Dangerous Supplement“
Breed is faculty member of Columbia Theological Seminary and another contributor to Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice. His article from that volume is available through Academia(dot)edu.
Many other scholars take issue with Reception History for various reasons, and some wonder if it’s really a new name for something their field has always done. Beyond the basics offered here, for background and orientation, most of the discussion is “academic,” so to speak, and not even tangential to this project.
Instability, Variety, and Giants
Returning to the Oxford Handbook, the Introduction addresses concerns that Reception History does not “coalesce” in one reading:
The more history of reception of the Bible one reads, the clearer it becomes that the human importance of the Bible does not lie in a single foundational meaning that, by dint of scholarly effort, may finally be revealed. This is…an acknowledgment that both inside and outside the doors of academia all of us live in a changing world in which engagements with the Bible are themselves every changing….
It is a recognition of the dynamic, living relationship between texts and readers, rather than an attempt to isolate and stabilize textual meanings from the mutability of human life.
— Roberts, p.1, 8
Responding to the publication and its Introduction, this preliminary review (from 2011, when the volume was brand new) highlighted a few of the challenges faced by the field. The most salient to #ExploringBabylon is “limiting the field of RH to the beliefs of certain, usually dominant, religious groups.” As it happens, the author of this comment is also a co-founder and editor of Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception, which has as a policy inclusion of views from “any religious tradition at any point in history.” (So far, the publication appears to be drawing scholars from Christian traditions.)
In addition to editing Relegere, Deane Galbraith teaches religion at the University of Otago (NZ) and blogs at “Remnants of Giants: Biblical Giants and Their Reception.”
Handbook Footnote on Terms
Terms currently being offered to designate the kind of study encourged here include the German terms Wirkungsgeschichte and Rezeptionsgeschichte, harking back to H.-G. Gadamer and its subsequent development by H.R. Jauss, with those terms being translated into English equivalents such as the ‘history of effects’ or ‘reception history’, ‘reception criticism’, ‘reception studies’, ‘reception theory’, ‘biblical reception’, or ‘reception of the Bible’, ‘cultural history’, and in two essay in this volume…’cultural impact’ …and ‘ethology of the Bible’….The popularity of the term reception history, favoured here, is therefore for use now primarily because of its ubiquity, we would argue, and not for its explanatory power.
— Introduction to The Oxford Handbook. Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, eds., p.4
Rescuing the Bible
Roland Boer, Rescuing the Bible. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007)
My task is to rescue the Bible from the clutches o the religious and political right, its most systematic abusers….
…the Bible is so multi-vocal that it is perfectly plausible to draw from it a deep current of revolutionary themes.
–Boer, from Preface & Introduction
The Oxford Handbook. Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)
“Biblical Studies on Holiday? A Personal View of Reception History”
IN Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice. Emma England and William John Lyons, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)