Reception history is a scholarly discipline that “is still in its infancy and even now is sometimes regarded with suspicion or disdain by practitioners of traditional exegetical methods,” like historical criticism. As a method of biblical studies, reception history concerns itself with how the Bible has been interpreted and received in various communities, times, places, and media, rather than with the “original” meaning of a text. In a series of works considered to be reception history, the series editors of the Blackwell Bible Commentaries wrote, “How people have interpreted, and been influenced by, a sacred text like the Bible is often as interesting and historically important as what it originally meant.” Reception history is a discipline of biblical studies which elucidates the necessity and inevitability of community in interpretation, such that no community is truly and utterly alien to one another.
Though reception history as a term and as a formalized method is relatively new, it is not wholly foreign to academia. The up-and-coming approach to biblical studies is conceptually related to “wirkungsgeschichte,” or “history of influence,” from Hans Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method. There he writes, “The real meaning of a text, as it speaks to the interpreter, does not depend on the contingencies of the author and his original audience. It certainly is not identical with them, for it is always co-determined also by the historical situation of the interpreter and hence by the totality of the objective course of history.” Reception historians look at how a text’s meaning is constructed and reconstructed by different communities and in different times. Alexander Eastwood points out that
shifting interpretive power to the reader’s construction of textual meaning through reading… problematically presumes the reader possesses an epistemologically superior position to the text….[I]n reading for context, we presume to know a text ‘far better than it can ever know itself.’ Positioning the reader as the producer of knowledge and revealer of power structures reduces texts to mere symptoms.
While there is certainly a degree of fluidity and ambiguity of meaning in any given text, reception history should not be thought of as the study of how readers construct meaning; rather it is the study of how different people or communities engage with a text. For the text may “speak for itself,” or it may be wholly unclear, requiring deeper study. Reception history is thus the study of interpretations and practical applications of a text.
The discipline is driven by three main questions: Who is reading? How is their reality shaped? How did these people in that reality interpret a text? “Who is this hearer,” writes John Riches,
who responds to the divine Word? How has her consciousness been shaped, even before the critical encounter with the Word, by the history of past readings as they have affected and informed the culture she has imbibed? And in the light of this, what account are we to give of those moments of illumination, when we see things anew and understand ourselves in relation to the great texts of the past?
In contrast to Hegelian dialecticism, this approach is related to Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of “dialogism.” In biblical texts, there is not only a dialogue internal to the ancient Israelites/Christians, but also a dialogue between them and their neighboring peoples (e.g. ancient Babylonians, first century Rome). As we see in the biblical texts, dialogue is the communion of perspectives. Thus, most importantly, it is not that one of these perspectives takes primacy over another; these people, as well as their perspectives, continually exist together, despite their contradictions. They are often incommensurable, but they do not necessarily synthesize as would be expected in Hegelian frameworks. Rather, they continue together either in conflict or in peace. In the words of the Bible itself, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” If the Bible were, in fact, presenting a metanarrative, we should not need the juxtaposition of 1 & 2 Chronicles and 1 & 2 Kings.
Reception historians tend to choose a sample of subjects to depict the variety of ways that different people groups interpret a text. “[T]he collecting of data is a discriminating activity, like the picking of flowers, and unlike the action of a lawn mower; and the selection of flowers considered worth picking, as well as their arrangement into a bouquet, are ultimately matters of personal taste.” In this way, it is much more a discipline of the humanities, akin to literary criticism, than it is a social science. Empirical data is not of immediate concern for reception historians, as it is with other forms of religious and biblical studies. This indifference is largely due to the fact that one cannot conduct surveys on subjects in the past. If a reception historian is interested in how Christians read the Bible in medieval France, she cannot jump in a time machine and conduct a survey or do an extended time of immersion. The same is true even if she were to study the use of the Bible during the American slave trade or during the American AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It is not that empirical analysis is worthless, but that in most cases it is methodologically impossible.
Nonetheless, empirical analysis is particularly valuable in reception history when the historian is studying contemporary subjects, and the historian has the resources to conduct the appropriate tests to gather empirical data. Here, reception history meets the social sciences wherein the historian attempts to supplement historical critical questions like “What does the Bible say about group x?” with questions about “the meanings swirling through the experiences of social actors.” The contemporary reception historian cannot expect such questions “to provide the kind of direct intellectual leverage that is needed to do the work of the social analysis of evidence. Rather, these questions have to be approached indirectly, mediated through the interpretation of social meaning. She directs her efforts, then, to reconstructing the textures of human subjectivity, and to the meaningful worlds of social life in which subjects act in a certain place and a certain time.” In this way, reception historians (contemporary or not) actually do the kind of work that is necessary for meaningful social science, even if reception historians’ interpretations typically can’t be generalized, lacking statistically significant data.
Whereas historical criticism is a methodology that seeks to establish context and original meaning, reception history is a study in hermeneutics – or, in the words of Richard Rorty, “a way of coping,” and “an expression of hope that…our culture should become one in which the demand for constraint and confrontation is no longer felt.” I do not mean to insinuate, like Freud or Marx, that religion is simply an illusion to make people feel good. Nonetheless, the therapeutic role (as well as the disruptive role) of religion has been well-documented. Insofar as historical criticism is an epistemological endeavor (to know how and why a text means something specific), Rorty is especially relevant because he points out that “the dominating notion of epistemology is that to be rational, to be fully human, to do what we ought, we need to be able to find agreement with other human beings.” On the contrary, reception history revels process that precedes (dis)agreement—dialogue, disagreement, and the malleability of meaning.
These connections in mind, there is a level of debate among reception historians about whether reception history is compatible with historical criticism. Some contend that historical criticism’s legacy is objectivist and positivist in nature, while others insist that the two are not mutually exclusive. Whatever position one takes, it is evident that reception history provides something to biblical scholarship that traditional methods like historical criticism do not. These contributions of reception history, in part, include destabilization and deconstruction of a text and canon, but these are not goals themselves. Burnette-Bletsch and Økland write that “reception history deconstructs the Bible as a unitary, fixed book by drawing attention to differences with regard to content.” Reception history emphasizes diversity between traditions as well as diversity within a single tradition. If the author truly is dead, as Barthes wrote, then reception history is the afterlife, where we commune together in all our diversity and contradictions. In short, reception history is about listening to communities other than your own.
Rachel Nicholls argues that “the effects of a text are not mere external accretions to be sanded off by the use of a rigorous method. They are, rather, the framing of the text within a pattern which makes it readable or intelligible in any way at all.” While historical criticism has acquired an awareness that we are all socially and hermeneutically situated, reception history uses this awareness as its primary launching point. Following Gadamer’s description of philosophical hermeneutics, reception history “is not…a methodology of the human sciences, but an attempt to understand what the human sciences truly are, beyond their methodological self-consciousness, and what connects them with the totality of our experience of the world.”
The task of reception history may be thought of rhizomatically as well. Reception history creates a map of present knowledge of a landscape within certain parameters, identifying landmarks and topographies. Reception history is, at its very core, rhizomatic. Deleuze and Guattari write:
A rhizome…is characterized by “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.”…Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.”
The borrowed botanical term, rhizome, refers to roots of a plant which can sprout new plants that may appear, above the surface, to be independent of each other. The task of reception history is, in part, connecting certain historical contexts with ancient texts. We may feel alienated from Scripture, but we are indeed not so alienated (which suggests somewhat the opposite of a Marxist approach). With its reputation for deconstructing Scripture (a la Derrida) and its resistance to the rhetoric of “original meaning,” it might be disconcerting for some Christians. But in fact, some of the major thinkers in reception history are themselves Christian. Christians (especially those who are part of high church liturgies) often emphasize the importance of reading Scripture in community, and how reading in community helps us interpret the text and be edified by it, no matter how alienated we are from the authors of Scripture by time, culture, language, geography, etc. As Rorty writes,
Hermeneutics sees the relations between various discourse as those of strands in a possible conversation, a conversation which presupposes no disciplinary matrix which unites the speakers, but where the hope of agreement is never lost so long as the conversation lasts. This hope is not a hope for the discovery of antecedently existing common ground, but simply hope for agreement, or, at least, exciting and fruitful disagreement….For epistemology conversation is implicit inquiry. For hermeneutics, inquiry is routine conversation.
For reception historians and a portion of high church Christians alike, Scripture cannot be understood outside of our own community, as relationship and community are necessary and inherent to reading a text. Reading as if we can transcend our own contexts as readers is not only foolish, but it is fundamentally impossible.
In sum, reception history is a relatively new discipline in biblical studies that interrogates interpretations of Scripture throughout history rather than probing for the “original meaning.” As a developing approach, “the question the study of the reception history of the Bible raises is…a phenomenological one.” Its focus on the hermeneutics of specific communities is not new, but serves as a developing partner to historical criticism. Though they may stand without empirical data, reception historians of the contemporary sort will benefit greatly by introducing social scientific methods into their approaches where applicable. Reception history will thus become a greater force in elucidating the inevitability of community when it comes to interpretation.