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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More reception history 2: stating more of the obvious

[UPDATE: I should have mentioned the return of Rafael and Verily, Verily - see also the comments)

1. Some invented speculative questions now. One is on the influence of the Bible and biblical verses. Now that’s a big, big question and gets us back to the old issue of ideas versus more socio-economic ‘forces’. It is also one John Lyons discussed a while back and I develop some of those ideas in this post.

In many Western, obviously enough the Bible is a major cultural reference point, consciously or unconsciously. We might think of literary and theological traditions where the Bible has been integral and the old chesnut that is the weight/anxiety of tradition and influence is, obviously, very much present. Ok, but no general problem here.

But West is far too broad. Let’s take the US and UK for two very distinct views and politics in particular. A nice obvious example, yes, but one which should help make the point that this question is very complex. In the UK it is difficult to see how the use of the Bible has any significant impact on party politics. Certainly some politicians may well be motivated by faith and the Bible but there is not yet a big Bible-belt style vote to be won and things overtly biblical are usually avoided. In the US, well we all know how interpretation of the Bible is a big issue. But even then the problem is not simple. In terms of Christian Zionism and their currently influential interpretation of the Bible, it has only really emerged as a force, post-1967, post Six Day War. And even that shows greater problems of causality: CZ becomes a big influential issue after a major historical event which, for many, seemed to confirm biblical prophecy. And in turn, it is a particularly American issue, with all the history and theology underlying it. While it is relatively easy to explain the various influences on US politics, it is not so easy to make division in terms of primary influence and say just how much the Bible and biblical interpretation play a role and how much itself was a product of historical events or that history and ideology is just so embedded that the task is near impossible. Perhaps all we could do is suggest that the Bible and biblical interpretation is one factor among many, not as influential as wider geopolitical trends and urges but an influence…?

Another good example would be the current problems facing the Anglican Church over homosexuality. On one level there is a debate over interpretation of the key biblical verses and if it could be said that they are fairly explicitly anti-homosexual (or whatever terms you want) then the Bible is having an influence. But again, why now? Why not 150 years ago? Well the obvious reason is that more liberal views towards homosexuality have developed in the past 40 years and so it becomes an issue, with the Bible kind of dormant on the issue, just waiting to be woken. Then there are all sorts of complex local histories that need to be factored in and so on. So again, it starts to become a bit chicken and egg and again we are seeing another example of how broader cultural trends spring the Bible into action but with the influence of the Bible always lurking and perhaps its sheer presence always influencing and only now being reacted against…?

One example which I think shows how the Bible is being used and not a significant influencer is the emergence of liberal democracy. There is common rhetoric that the West is so wonderful and liberal because of the Bible in contrast to the East, Arabs, Muslims, Islam, or whatever. Now I’ll have more to say on the whole clash of civilisations stuff in the following months but I find the idea of the Bible somehow ‘causing’ liberal democracy a problem. For a start it took so long. Another point is that the Bible has nothing really to say on liberal democracy and most biblical writers would be most happy with some form of theocracy. We could invoke other influences, such as the taking up of certain classical Greek traditions as ‘Western’, perhaps add other things such as interlinked geographical and technological locations, among many, many things. Whatever, you get the point. More generally, is this not a good example of how the Bible gets invoked after the event rather than having any serious causal function?

Another twist, is the ‘unconscious’ use of the Bible. It is not difficult to find (as has well and truly hit home in writing a forthcoming paper) plenty of examples of the Bible and biblical language being used by people (esp. in pop cultural contexts) without any care for religion, Christianity, the Bible and so on. Famous words and lines are used for a variety of ‘secular’ and previously unheard of reasons. This takes us back to the general cultural and historical contexts and who knows where using and being influenced begin and end.

2. My own other question: what should reception history be like? Both its strength and weakness is that there is simply so much material waiting to be analysed. One problem for the commentary and a problem that presumably faces the writers of the Blackwells series on reception history is what to include and exclude. Selecting evidence is a problem at the best of times but selecting evidence for a reception-historical commentary is even more difficult, with the probable exception of If the commentary was a mainstream theological type of thing (something like Luz’s Matt commentary or Thiselton’s 1 Cor. commentary, say) then this the boundaries are relatively easy: look at the patristic, medieval, Reformation, modern etc. theologians. What is to be done is then another issue: explain why the given theologian made the interpretative decision they did or see whether they have interpreted the given verse ‘correctly’ or have a particular insight that historical criticism has missed.

But for a reception historical commentary that doesn’t want to go this way then what are the boundaries? A theme could be chosen but a theme for a whole commentary? Some verses might have an obvious route to choose (maybe) and perhaps it might be worth focusing on one tradition, an ideology (e.g. feminism, liberation etc) or what country or something like that. But, ultimately, how does a reception historical commentary of a more open variety avoid the problem of being sort of, well, random? The commentary format is something of traditional biblical studies and theology and there’s no reason (obviously!) why it should be the route for all, many, or most (likewise in traditional biblical studies) but for those working on commentaries there are problems of choice. I know one or two who hang out online and are working on such commentaries, so is this a fair comment?

There is a danger of a reception historical work being little more than cataloguing: this book says this about Luke 6, that text work of art says something else, this singer references this, that and the other biblical verse etc. (though collections of reference works would be very helpful). I suppose there are many ways in which to develop this. One way would be to emphasise the historical aspect and avoid simply the question of this person interprets this way, another that. And by historical…well that could mean a lot of things but how about this… If someone works on the reception of the Bible in art then it would no doubt be a good thing to get into art history and the historical and cultural context of the given work of art and explain why certain interpretative decisions were made in context, in addition to contexts in the history of ideas. Likewise, film, music, literature or whatever. That seems an obvious enough point and may seem banal to those trained in traditional historical criticism but I’ve been to enough reception historical papers to know that serious study of historical and cultural contexts is often avoided. In some ways, it is an extension of many of the methods used in conventional historical criticism of the Bible. Just lots of new detail with which to work.


Blogger Doug Chaplin said...

James, thanks for these thoughts. Hovering somewhere in the background, I think unanswered, is the question of whether studying reception history is a purely descriptive work, or whether there are questions of how to assess the interactions of new cultural contexts with the text which produce readings which are not merely fresh, but appear alien to previous readings. Are there better and worse readings, or is reception history simply a way of avoiding that question?

July 16, 2008

Blogger James Crossley said...

Yes, I strongly agree on the issue of the possibility of reception being purely descriptive. That's the point I meant by cataloguing. I think there is a bit of this around but I don't find it that appealing, other than as a resource, a bit like a dictionary or an encyclopedia.

As for the alien readings, yes, there are no doubt countless examples of how new cultural conditions produces or re-awakens very different interpretation. For a start I think this can be documented quite a lot in the history of scholarship and explained in terms of cultural shifts. One blunt example is that Sanders' views on Judaism via Paul...not wholly new but certainly pretty radically different to the dominant views of earlier scholarship. There are plenty of cultural reasons to explain this too.

Better or worse readings is also a question that can be raised with reference to the history of historical critical scholarship. The history of scholarship shows that different historical and political contexts have raised new interpretations, some terrible, some helpful, some a mixture. We'd have to accept too that even if the social location of scholarship was problematic it could still lead to new helpful insights and even better readings. To sound mysterious, I'll have more on this in the next few months...

BUT, in some circles the issue of better or worse readings will be avoided. For some it may well be a place to hide from tricky questions. Some may not think it is fair to judge their subject(s) in such terms.

On a lot of the material I am working on at present, this is a question I have avoided. There are various reasons for this. One is that some are not necessarily intended to be 'correct' or 'better' readings but are using the biblical language in a deliberately creative fashion with no interest in the rights and wrongs of correct reading.

July 16, 2008

Blogger Doug Chaplin said...

I look forward to the revealing of what you're being mysterious about!

July 16, 2008

Blogger Geoff Hudson said...

One explicit anti-homosexual verse is Rom.1.27: "men committed indecent acts with men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion." What did the writer have had in mind for "the due penalty"? For example, was "the due penalty" death? Could such acts have led to premature deaths in ancient times?

Apart from their ridiculous Essene toilets, Joe Zias and James Tabor have faied to provide any satisfactory answer to the mystery of the young age of the skeletons (mostly male) found at Qumran.

July 16, 2008

Blogger Leon said...

I would not be so quick to dismiss the influence of the Bible on democracy. It would stem from when Tyndale made it possible for everyone to read it in a good English version. It contributed tremendously to literacy which itself had a profound effect on the development of demoncracy. It also gave people a sense of their own individual ability to think for themselves. There are a lot of good arguments to made here. And there are democratic ideas in the Bible as well. But we owe so much of this to Tyndale as did Shakespeare. Tyndale — perhaps the most underrated genius in history.

Leon Zitzer

July 17, 2008

Blogger Rafael said...


Enjoying this series. I'm also wondering to what extent a shift toward reception history might not just be a shift in material (you've said a couple times that there's a lot of stuff out there waiting to be analyzed) but also a shift in perspective on material we're already reading. I don't think this is an either/or thing, but I think this is yet another way that reception history is (or should be) affecting and shaping the future of biblical research. I've raised this question on Verily Verily (shameless plug, I know).

July 17, 2008

Blogger Leon said...

There is a big question about biblcal interpretations that is often suppressed: Whose interest does any approach to the Bible serve, the powerful or the powerless? No one put it more elegantly that a gentleman from South Carolina in the 1830s. He said that anyone who proposes that slaves be taught to read the Bible should be put away in an insane asylum. That captures it all.

Today, the powerful are the scholars of academia. Outsiders who have not been indoctrinated into the scholarly approach should be confined to the lunatic fringe. That would include William Tyndale whom scholars have still not forgiven for putting the Bible into the hands of the people (which is what Henry VIII feared the most).

A history of the Puritans is also revealing. As the outsider group in England, they embraced the Geneva Bible with all its marginal notes about tyrant kings. In Massachusetts, they became the group in power and gave up the Geneva Bible for the King James, more suitable to authority figures. But a renegade in their midst, Anne Hutchinson, continued to quote from the Geneva Bible (illiterate, she had memorized large portions of it).

There are no winners here, only losers, striving for a modicum of rationality.

Leon Zitzer

July 20, 2008

Blogger James Crossley said...

Leon: The Tyndale argument is interesting and who knows there could even be something biblical that inspired it but of course there are all sorts of issues late medieval social history to be taken into account and the blunt fact that even Tyndale (never mind democracy) was centuries and centuries after the biblical texts. But indeed the translations into the vernacular, the Reformation etc, did pave the way for democracy to take root, even if their influence was not so explicit (soon-to-be developed secularising views would be more explicit here). But here we have complex factors all playing a role, right?

You'd have to give me the democratic ideas in the Bible I'm afraid...Which texts do you mean?

The influence of the Bible on democracy is a bit yes/no. People have consistently shown how easy it is to read their present ideas back into the Bible but did the biblical texts influence in any significant way is always a question worth considering.

Rafael! How could I not have remembered your return! Your suggestion of 'a shift in perspective on material we're already reading' is interesting and no doubt right. I'd also add that reception history is one logical development of not only a 'final form' reading but also the rise of things like reader-response and postmodernism, including some of the more 'radical' reader response and the heavy emphasis on communities making meaning. I mean once you go down the latter route, why not look at those different meaning makers...? Your comments of the resurrected (?) Verily, Verily are more aimed at a development even within historical criticism and the study of Christian origins, which seems right enough to me. In addition to memory (Dunn, your good self, et al) think of the increasing interest in C2 and things like GThomas, 'Gnosticism' etc by scholars traditionally working on C1.

July 20, 2008

Anonymous BenjaminL said...

Cf point 1: Walter Russell Mead's article has more on sources of US support for Israel, not to be too quickly simplified...

Israel's broad American base

July 22, 2008

Blogger Leon said...

Somebody actually wants to know what I think? Good God, the world must be coming to an end. Before I rush out to get some bottled water for the impending apocaplypse, I will answer your questions, James.

There is a lot more to ask about Tyndale. I would want to know where he learned Hebrew. He could have learned it from a book, he was such a linguistic genius. But if he studied with rabbis, I would want to know if he picked up any Jewish influences on reading the Hebrew Bible. Or did he get it from Luther's connection to Rashi's work? We may never know the answers, but that does not mean we should not ask the questions.

Whether and when the Bible had a democratizing influence on European or Christian culture is one question. Another is whether the Hebrew scriptures had a democratizing effect on Jewish culture centuries earlier. The answer is a resounding yes, a thousand times yes. Yet another question is whether there is any of this aspect of Jewish culture in the NT. Yes.

Here are 4 democratizing influences from the Hebrew scriptures (you'll forgive me if I don't have all the citations ready to hand):

1) Jethro's advice to Moses to create a decentralized system of governing so that people did not have to go to the top to solve all their problems.

2) The warning from a prophet that the people should not ask for a king. God will give them one, if they insist, but they'll be sorry; the prophet lists all the ills that will follow. I'm sure King James (who hated the Geneva Bible) was thrilled when he read this.

3) Abraham's debate with God over Sodom and Gomorrah. Issues of justice and learning to question are more important than obeying authority. Also, if you can challenge God, you can certainly challenge human authority. I could also add the prophet Balaam twice asking God for permission to do something because a Talmudic rabbi gives this as an example of the usefulness of chutzpah towards God.

4) My personal favorite: Moses' magnificant speech at Deut 30:11-14 where he tells the people that the word is not up in heaven but in themselves, in their hearts and minds. This is a call to individual conscience (like #3 above), an important component of democracy.

The effect on ancient Jewish culture (i.e., I am not projecting this democracy into the past). Here is a thumbnail sketch of the Pharisees: They promoted a constitutional form of government; they promoted the Constitution (Torah) and a strong judiciary/legislature as checks on kings and priests; they frequently challenged kings and priests; they opposed concentration of power in one man (was it Hyrcanus who took on the role of king and high priest? the Pharisees fiercely objected); in the 1st century, they were still complaining about concentration of offices in one priestly family; they promoted a meritocracy so that no matter what your background (Jew, gentile, commoner, priest, king), if you had learning and could argue well, you could advance; a knowledgeable bastard takes precedence over an ignorant high priest (from the Mishnah); they spread public education; they recorded minority opinions in case a future generation might find them useful; and, most important, they encouraged freedom of opinion and debate as a means of resolving disputes.

On the connection between Moses' speech and all this, there is the famous Talmud story where a rabbi actually quotes Moses' "It is not in heaven" back to heaven itself, meaning that God himself only gets one vote in a rabbinic debate. The lesson was that human beings have to figure things out for themselves in a system where majority rules and not rely on an oracle, even if the oracle was a voice from heaven. If you want to refresh your memory of this story, it is at Baba Metzia 59b (hope that's right).

Are there any signs that Jesus believed in this Pharisaic program of consitutional democracy? There is at least one. I won't reveal it yet. I have a hunch you know what I am referring to. If not, you may enjoy looking for it. It is thematically connected to that last Talmud story I mentioned. Jesus makes the same exact point. Of course, the answer is also in my book. I don't say this to promote it. I'm just saying this is not the first time I have thought and written about this.

Leon Zitzer

July 23, 2008

Blogger Leon said...

Prof. Burton Caine of Temple University Law School in Philadelphia brings to my attention another example of a biblical story with a hint of democracy in it. At 1 Kings 21, we have the story of Naboth, King Ahab, and Jezebel. The king wanted Naboth's vineyard and offered to buy it from him, offering money or another field in exchange. Naboth will not part with the vineyard because it is a family inheritance. The king is quite depressed about it. But Jezebel contrives a way to get Naboth's vineyard. She arranges to have him murdered in a seemingly legitimate way, by having two false witnesses accuse Naboth of cursing God and king. He is duly tried and executed and the king gets his land.

As Prof. Caine points out, one significant part of the story is that apparently the king in ancient Israel (i.e., the government) did not have the right to just seize someone's property. Caine reasons there must have been a concept of due process in place. A person could not be deprived of property without due process. The government did not have absolute power. Individuals have rights. Even Jezebel seems to know this, because she has to abide by an Israelite notion of doing things by procedure (albeit she rigs it).

I would add that Josephus makes it very clear that the Pharisees in particular insisted on due process. If there appear to be hints of it in the Bible, it comes to full bloom with the Pharisees. It might be their most important contribution to ancient Jewish society. It is tragically neglected in historical Jesus studies. Jesus in the Gospels has to be understood in this context. All scholars have to make up their minds whether they have a nose for these clues in ancient Judaism, whether they want to follow up these clues and see where they lead, or whether they want to continue to repeat the same old stereotypes about the Pharisees and Jesus' place among them.

A related question is why the Catholic Church suppressed these democratizing tendencies in the Bible and what happened once the Bible became available in the native languages of Europe. It is a rich unexplored subject, but the beginning is to understand the role of the constitution and due process in ancient Israel.

Leon Zitzer

August 07, 2008


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