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Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception History

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Brennan W. Breed claims that biblical interpretation should focus on the shifting capacities of the text, viewing it as a dynamic process rather than a static product. Rather than seeking to determine the original text and its meaning, Breed proposes that scholars approach the production, transmission, and interpretation of the biblical text as interwoven elements of its overarching reception history. Grounded in the insights of contemporary literary theory, this approach alters the framing questions of interpretation from "What does this text mean?" to "What can this text do?"

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7 Chapters

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1. The Miltonesque Concept of the Original Text

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Wyman’s overpopulated universe is in many ways unlovely. It offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes, but this is not the worst of it. Wyman’s slum of possibles is a breeding ground for disorderly elements…. I feel we’d do better simply to clear Wyman’s slum and be done with it.

—W. V. O. Quine

You know, I like to walk in the slums. I can breathe when I walk through the slums.

—Jorge Luis Borges

According to many biblical scholars, biblical critics study original texts and contexts, while reception historians are responsible for studying later versions of texts and their meaning in later contexts.1 The reception historian looks beyond the original text, while the traditional biblical scholar looks at the original text itself. Thus, in order to begin a thorough study of the later texts and contexts that constitute the field of reception history, one must know what the original is, where it begins, and where it ends.2 Textual criticism is the field entrusted with discovering the original text of the Bible, so one might look to text critics to learn where, exactly, reception begins. However, the field of textual criticism has yet to give a definitive answer about what constitutes the original text, and in this chapter I argue that, ultimately, it never can. Yet textual criticism can offer the means to rethink the concept of reception history in a systematic manner.

 

2. Living in Pottersville: An Alternate Approach to Textual Criticism

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In actual textual criticism “original” … is used relatively: given the fact of different readings, a normal and probably a necessary way of ordering, classifying, and understanding them is to ask which of them may probably be considered secondary and derivative in relation to others; and what is thus perceived to be not secondary and derivative in relation to other readings is in that respect more “original.” … [It is] doubtful whether any serious thinking about the text at all can be carried out without this piece of the conceptual apparatus.

—James Barr

Léfebure, ce n’est pas mal.

—Jacques Derrida

Some visual illusions play on the skill of the human brain, honed by many millennia of evolutionary pressures, to locate clear borders delineating objects.1 In the case of the famous Kanizsa triangle, a white triangle complete with clear borders seems to emerge from the image. If one looks closely, however, it quickly becomes apparent that no borders are present. Our brains supplied them for us. What actually exists is the impression of a triangle, which then creates the impression of three circles—yet they are not, in fact, circles—and an underlying, black-bordered triangle, which is instead three open angles. When looking at the Kanizsa triangle, the viewer constructs a nonexistent border that not only brings into being a ghostly triangle; it also retrospectively alters all other objects in the frame.

 

3. Anchor or Spandrel: The Concept of the Original Context

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The prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible have also been interpreted in creative ways and made to refer to whatever crisis people in any given time have found themselves in. But it seems clear that both prophecy and apocalyptic originally had a specific reference in mind, anchored in the period of writing.

—John Barton

Only something which has no history can be defined.

—Friedrich Nietzsche

In light of the biblical text’s pluriformity, textual criticism cannot identify the boundary between the original text and its reception. Alternatively, many scholars locate the boundary between original and reception by means of the concept of the original context. The concept of original context allows scholars to select a particular meaning of a particular text and declare it to be original. A historical context allows scholars to separate meanings proper to an original setting from later, unoriginal meanings that a text could not have had within that context. Original meanings are defined variously as the author’s intention, the understanding of the original audience, or more broadly the interpretive possibilities opened by the semantic, cultural, and historical context of the text’s production. All of these definitions posit a boundary dividing the proper meaning of the text from later meanings, the former constituting the domain of biblical criticism and the latter constituting the domain of reception history. If there is such a boundary, then what forms the barrier between the original context and later contexts? The answer, if deduced, would allow for a rigorous formulation of reception history.

 

4. On Tigers and Cages: Rethinking Context

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There is always another town within the town.

—Gilles Deleuze

If I can caricature a little and say that the historian will always want to put it back into its context (the tiger is out of the cage, the historian always wants it put back inside), then Derrida will always also be urging the question: “How did it escape in the first place?”

—Geoffrey Bennington

Biblical scholars often claim that the original context holds the proper meaning of a text. Michael Fox, for example, claims that his “main concern in approaching a text is essentially … to ascertain the meaning of the text, which is to say, the authorial intention.”1 For many, the meaning of a text is singular, and it is equivalent to the intentions of an author as they existed in the original context. Thus the original context holds the key to a text’s meaning.

Imagine biblical scholarship of this sort as a zoo in which all the textual animals keep escaping their contextual cages, and we scholarly zookeepers are kept very busy capturing and returning them. So busy, in fact, that we have not often asked why it is that the cages do not ever seem to fulfill their assumed function of containment. The truth is that texts always leave their contexts, especially their putative original contexts, and contexts never seem to do anything to stop them. Actually, the situation is even worse: original contexts simply disappear into the mists of time while the texts romp around in the present. Biblical scholars are not only busy catching escaped texts but are even more busy (re)building their proper habitations from the fragments that remain. How do texts escape in the first place? Is there something about contexts, or texts, that prompts this escape?

 

5. Mapping the Garden of Forking Paths: A Nomadic Reception History

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In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives, he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable Ts’ui Pên, he chooses— simultaneously—all of them…. All the possible solutions occur, each one being the point of departure for other bifurcations. Sometimes the pathways for this labyrinth converge. For example, you come to this house: but in some possible pasts you are my enemy: in others my friend.

—Jorge Luis Borges

In “On the Genealogy of Morality,” Nietzsche outlines the basic rationale for a process-oriented study of cultural objects. The meaning of any cultural object, Nietzsche argues, is not defined or contained at its point of origin; rather, the cultural object transforms as it traverses contexts: “The origin of the emergence of a thing and its ultimate usefulness, its practical application and incorporation into a system of ends, are toto coelo separate; that anything in existence, having somehow came about, is continually interpreted anew, transformed and redirected to a new purpose.”1 In these few lines, Nietzsche issues several thoughts crucial for reception history: (1) an origin does not explain any current meaning or function; (2) all things are eventually repurposed and thus reinterpreted; and (3) this reinterpretation often ignores and obscures the previous uses and meanings of the adapted thing.

 

6. Justice, Survival, Presence: Job 19:25–27

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The suggestions [for Job 19:26] are endless.

—Norman Habel

Of the excessive production of texts, there is no end.

—Qohelet 12:12

As I construe it, reception history is not primarily an interpretative practice (i.e., “What does this text mean?”). Rather, reception history creates a model of repeated textual experimentation (i.e., “How might this text function?”).1 To be sure, creating a model of textual experimentation does require much reading, but this reading is of a different sort from interpretation. Instead of reading one version of a text and producing a meaning, reception history as I understand it would read—that is, organize and thus make sense of—the history of a text’s unfolding capacities. This kind of historical survey would thus produce a map of the text’s ever-expanding potentials.

To illustrate this theory of reception, I offer here one such mapping. I have chosen Job 19:25–27 as my test case, for several reasons: (1) it is widely accepted in critical scholarship as an important yet difficult set of verses within its larger literary context, (2) I am aware of its exceptionally broad and diverse history of reception in Jewish and Christian communities as well as outside of them, and (3) it is a short text, and thus its readings may be traced more clearly throughout history. This exercise functions as a suggestive example, not an exhaustive account of the text’s history.

 

7. Trajectories of Job 19:25–27: The Example of Survival

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To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger…. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers…. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the Redeemer, he comes as the subduer of the Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

—Walter Benjamin

In this final chapter, I offer a glimpse of Job 19:25–27’s problematic structure, manifest in its reception history. I have chosen to focus on the semantic node of survival simply by virtue of its breadth of receptions, but I also offer a brief sketch of presence and justice. While I briefly touch on transmutations and nonsemantic effects as they occur in the history of this text’s processual development, the greater part of these fascinating stories receive short shrift. I have selected to discuss receptions that demonstrate various capacities expressed by the text within various contexts.

 

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