Biblical Reception History: A Dangerous Supplement

Reception historians do not necessarily focus on art or literature. One could analyze the Bible’s role in advertising, politics, scientific discourse, historiography, hagiography, or anything in between. How could one decide whether to classify one of John Calvin’s sermons, or the philosophical system of Maimonides, for example, as either a creative production or a scholarly interpretation? Accordingly, Jonathan Roberts writes in his introductory essay to the Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible: “The reception of the Bible comprises every single act or word of interpretation of that book (or books) over the course of three millennia… No one and nothing is excluded.”

See Also: Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception History (Indiana University Press, 2014).

By Brennan Breed
Columbia Theological Seminary
October 2014

In the past few years, reception history has transformed from a marginal fringe interest into something generally acceptable in biblical scholarship.[1] There are now several monograph series, commentary series, journals and encyclopedias that are devoted solely to the study of biblical reception. Perhaps more important, however, one can now find frequent mention of reception history – and at times even whole essays and chapters dedicated to it – in publications that focus on more traditional methods of biblical criticism. In other words, reception history has gone mainstream. It now receives mention, for example, alongside textual and redaction criticism as a valid scholarly approach to biblical studies in the third edition of Michael Coogan’s textbook, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures.[2] Thousands of university students and seminarians every semester will now, so long as they actually read their textbook, be exposed to the idea that reception history is a typical scholarly activity. This is, to be sure, a relatively new development in the field.

And yet, there seems to be little consensus on what biblical reception history is. As Coogan writes in his introduction, “Interest has also increased in the history of interpretation of the Bible over the ages by scholars and theologians and in what is called reception history – how creative artists such as writers, painters, sculptors, choreographers, and composers have incorporated biblical characters and themes into their works.”[3] This is often how biblical scholars conceive of reception history: it focuses on non-specialist interpretation of the Bible as it is embedded within aesthetic productions of various types of artists, while the “history of interpretation” analyzes scholarly readers’ understandings of biblical texts.[4]

Most scholars currently working with reception history, however, would avoid such distinctions. Artists are never entirely isolated from larger cultural, political, religious and historical structures and traditions, and it is often difficult to discern a qualitative difference between an artist’s appropriation of a biblical text and that of, say, a medieval cleric. Thus even a scholar focusing purely on the use of biblical texts in medieval Christian depictions of Job, for instance, would likely work with ancient and medieval biblical interpreters, textual criticism of the medieval Vulgate, medieval liturgies, and even the political and social context in which the images were commissioned and produced in order to understand how those images function.[5]

Moreover, reception historians do not necessarily focus on art or literature. One could analyze the Bible’s role in advertising, politics, scientific discourse, historiography, hagiography, or anything in between.[6] How could one decide whether to classify one of John Calvin’s sermons, or the philosophical system of Maimonides, for example, as either a creative production or a scholarly interpretation? Accordingly, Jonathan Roberts writes in his introductory essay to The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible: “The reception of the Bible comprises every single act or word of interpretation of that book (or books) over the course of three millennia… No one and nothing is excluded.”[7]

If nothing is excluded, however, then how does one go about delimiting studies and selecting appropriate data for analysis from among the infinite possibilities? Though this often seems to be a tricky question, the answer is simple. Scholars have to ask particular questions and discern their own criteria for including and excluding particular examples of reception from their studies. The point of Roberts’ remark is that none of these exclusions are natural, universal or necessary. Each new question will allow for many different perspectives, require assembling different sets of data, and demand the construction of new criteria in order arrange the data into meaningful patterns. If one wants to ask about the role of Job in medieval art, that is a perfectly good question. But it is not different in principle from a study of the use of the book of Job in medieval sermons, liturgy and politics.

But even with this assertion, a problem remains. One of the founding assumptions of this relatively new sub-discipline is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to analyze. As Roberts claims, biblical reception encompasses everything that interprets the Bible. And according to Coogan, biblical reception involves whatever artists have done with biblical texts. Both of these definitions – and the many hundreds of other definitions of reception history, as well – presume a distinction between the Bible and all of the interpretive “stuff” that begins once the period of the formation of the Bible ends. These definitions assume that the Bible, like its original context of production, is properly understood by means of biblical criticism, and in particular its methods of source, redaction, form, and textual criticism. Reception begins after the original text is produced, or “published,” when it leaves its original context and enters into the various worlds of out-of-context readers. Receptions, in this understanding, are the secondary supplements that emerge only after the Bible is finished, after the original audience has given way to the unoriginal audiences that followed.

Roland Boer has argued this very point in his Bible and Interpretation article “Against Reception History” ( He concludes that the distinction between reception history and biblical criticism – namely, that biblical criticism handles the original context and meaning, while reception history handles all subsequent contexts and meanings for the text – merely establishes traditional methods of biblical criticism as the arbiters of the original, and thus true, meanings of the text. Reception history, then, is concerned with secondary meanings of lesser importance. Boer’s point is quite right.

But then Boer concludes by asking about the status of contemporary musician Nick Cave’s interpretation of the Bible: “Is this ‘reception,’ to be addressed after the solid ‘scientific’ work of biblical critics? Not at all, for in the same way that 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.”[8] Yet I would push this point further. Boer retains the assumed existence of a line that divides “Bible” from its “interpretation,” and it is precisely this line that cannot stand up to scrutiny.

When and where is this line between original and reception? Who is the last producer, and who is the first interpreter? This problem proves incredibly difficult to solve – and, in the end, it threatens the identity of biblical criticism. It seems to me that one might draw this line in two ways: (1) by means of the “original text,” which could be opposed to “later” texts, or (2) by means of the “original context,” which could in some way distinguish between original meanings and later receptions of the text. Where and when can one distinguish between the original thing and its secondary supplements?

Elsewhere, I have argued that both of these lines are produced, not discovered, by scholars.[9] In short, as the work of Eugene Ulrich has shown, the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate that the biblical texts were pluriform throughout the Second Temple period – that is, they existed in multiple, irreducibly different forms without any apparent hierarchies of “better” or “worse” manuscripts of the text, and some versions of texts demonstrate ongoing compositional activity throughout this period.[10] What would “original” mean in this case? Many recent textual critics have responded to biblical pluriformity by asserting another boundary that created a distinction between the “original” and “later” periods. Often, this is called something like “the Great Divide,” and it posits the apparent textual stabilization after 132 CE as the moment that marks the beginning of reception history.[11]

But what happened around the time of the “Great Divide” was not the end of textual pluriformity or scribal transformation of the text. Texts continued to change after this date, merely in different ways – the vowels, accents, and other marks added to the Masoretic Text, as well as emendations and the introduction of alternate readings in the form of Ketib-Qere notations, are examples of this continuing transformation. And there was not a universal move towards adopting the Masoretic Text as the ideal form of scripture; there was, instead, a further differentiation of texts among specific religious groups. Rabbinic Jews used the proto-Masoretic text, early Christians used the Old Greek and then Septuagint forms of the text, and Samaritans used their own distinctive form of the Pentateuch, which derives from a pre-Samaritan form of the Pentateuch distinct from the Masoretic Text, evidence of which has been found at Qumran.[12] Thus the biblical texts remained pluriform. The ideas of the reading communities about their texts were the only thing that had changed. Accordingly, this shift did not create a standard form of the text which would serve as the springboard for all later reception. It looks like the only constant in the textual history of the Bible is change. In some communities this textual change moves slowly, in other it moves more quickly. Generally, biblical scholars will talk of a period of textual formation that culminates in a finished text of some sort. It is this moment of finalization that constitutes the starting point for reception (defined casually as the interpretation and use of the text after its completion). In the “later” period of reception, the original text functions as a baseline, a source to which one can return when too much tradition accretes or when the text is altered beyond recognition, such as when Jerome “returned” to the Masoretic Text, or when the Renaissance and Reformation scholars tried to “return” to the sources. This is the same impulse that led to Daniel Bomberg’s two Rabbinic Bibles in Venice, of which the second was considered “authentic” because it recovered the text from errors.[13] Deviations from the original text – such as the translations of the Septuagint tradition often labeled, in a sexist fashion, “daughter versions” because of their relative lack of worth – are part of reception history that attaches, in a supplementary fashion, to the true history of the text. Assumed in this portrait is the following: the virtues of the original text are its stability, its uniqueness (there is only one, of course) and its perseverance (it can always be returned to). The vices of the reception historical supplement, on the other hand, are the constant variations found within its objects of study, its diversity (the overwhelming confusion of reception history is often the first lament of the biblical scholar), and its ephemerality (it does not matter to everyone else what the Armenians did with their text, though the Dead Sea Scrolls do matter to everyone).

Scholars seem drawn by some deep desire to pronounce one version of the Hebrew Bible as better than another, as final with respect to another, so as then to uncover one change that can be baptized a redaction, and to expose another change as an unseemly corruption. But if every version contains within itself a long history of formation and transmission that provides no special moment of finality, then perhaps there simply is no original text. Perhaps there is no archetype of each textual family, either. The effort by some to posit an archetype as the goal of textual criticism only substitutes one hierarchical relationship of these constantly changing texts for another, which is no better for being one degree removed from the original text.[14] The same goes for hyparchetypes, as well, which are only one degree further removed.[15] Instead of originality, hierarchy, stability, and uniqueness, we find everywhere variation, diversity, and heterarchy.[16] These, however, are the hallmarks of the secondary supplements – biblical receptions, as opposed to the Bible “itself.”

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.” These two processes are evident at every point along the diverse lines that together constitute the complex family tree of biblical texts. And even if one uses source, redaction or form criticism to reconstruct an ancient Vorlage of all existing texts, it is quite often clear that the “original” texts themselves develop older material. Whatever the “original” form of the Noah story reflected in Genesis 6-8, it adapted older materials that derive from materials made available from other cultures many centuries in the past.[17] And even the Akkadian flood narratives are likely supplementary to some sort of Sumerian flood story mentioned in Ziasudra and the Sumerian King List. And were those even original?

From this example, one can see the associated problem of the original context. If there is no original text – if there is, instead, a constantly changing series of more or less interlinked textual traditions – then what would constitute the originality of an original context? Would it be the author’s intentions – which are, by the point of any proposed textual finality, far removed from the originary context of the stories or poems themselves? In other words, why would we posit a difference in kind between original meaning and reception when the “original” authors were recasting older versions of texts? Is the redactor’s reworking of the Priestly and Non-Priestly traditions of the story of Noah into a single narrative an original meaning or a reception? Is the integration of the Primeval History, including the story of Noah, into the overall narrative of Genesis then a reception, or it is yet another original meaning? Of course the answer in part depends upon your theory of the formation of the Pentateuch. But then again, no matter your theory, it involves multiple layers of original meanings that actually function more like receptions. Yet again, the original turns out to have always been yet another supplement.

In his essay “…That Dangerous Supplement…”, Jacques Derrida discusses writing, which has often been considered a supplement to speech in the Western philosophical tradition.[18] Since writing is meant to preserve speech and increase its mobility through both space and time, writing is thus a mere extension of speaking. Yet it is often not only a mere supplement: writing has been known to change speech, alter speaking patterns, and even introduce new sounds into speech. Thus, the supplement is often dangerous, because it meddles with the object that it is supposed to simply project. Derrida, in turn, shows that the very qualities philosophers dislike about writing are also important components of speech. In other words, the dangerous aspect of the supplement is indistinguishable from the original thing that it is supposed to supplement. One can see this logic of the supplement at work in many different aspects of the world, not merely in writing. The dividing line between the original text and its supplementary reception history is yet another instance of this logic.[19]

What does this mean for the study of the Bible? There are too many issues than can be dealt with in this space.[20] But perhaps one can start with our basic idea of a biblical text. Biblical scholars have often imagined the text as something stationary, sealed in an original context, with an ideal form that time and careless hands have altered, and that careless eyes and ears have misunderstood. Thus the task of the biblical scholar was to discern the original and save it from the supplement that always threatened to overwhelm or pervert it.

For generations of biblical scholars, the standard form of communication, especially with the public, was as follows: “Here is what you thought the Bible said – but the original text actually says this. And here is what you thought it meant – but it actually meant this.” For many, this is a very convincing argument. Text and meaning had gone awry over time, and scholars exist to put it back in its place. Yet if it is true that the entire textual and interpretive history of the Bible is one of supplementarity, continual variation, pluriformity, and heterarchy, then we must conceive of the biblical text as a process, not a product.

We biblical scholars must imagine ourselves not as zookeepers racing around trying to fit escaped animals back in their contextual cages. Instead, we must set out to study the text, including its variable forms and its varying capacities to make sense out in the wild, wherever it has managed to roam, from the ancient world to the modern. Biblical scholars can work together to chart the wanderings of such texts, looking at how they work – or do not work – in different local contexts, examining how they change – quickly or slowly, discontinuously or gradually – in different settings. In short, biblical criticism need to imagine itself again as a marginal fringe, a discipline comprised only of supplements all the way down.



[1] For the purposes of this essay, I conflate the concepts of reception history, Wirkungsgeschichte, afterlives of texts, and history of consequences, and several others. There are, to be sure, helpful and interesting conversations to be had that parse the distinctions in theoretical backgrounds and practical approaches represented in these different terms. But overall these concepts are affiliated especially when set against more established methods of scholarly biblical criticism.

[2] Michael Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (3rd ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 11.

[3] Coogan, The Old Testament, 11.

[4] Ulrich Luz, who has done so much to further the theory and practice of reception history as well as its legitimacy in the field of biblical studies, argued for a distinction between Auslegungsgeschicte (history of interpretation), which studies the works of professional scholars and trained theologians) and Wirkungsgeschichte (history of effects), which studies non-scholarly and non-specialist use of the Biblle. Luz would include artistic work in this category, but he also includes sermons, political interpretations, popular culture, and so on – and thus not limited to the work of trained artists. Coogan’s distinction likely draws from this distinction, which has been enunciated in many different ways by different biblical scholars. See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7 (trans. W. C. Linss; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989; German original, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus, Teilband 1, Mt 1-7 [Zürich: Benziger, 1985]) 95-99.

[5] See, for example, my article, “Et Oculi Mei Conspecturi Sunt: Interdiegetic Gaze and Devotion,” pages 61-84 in Ut Pictura Meditatio: Meditative Image in Northern Art 1500-1700 (ed. Walter Melion; Turnhout: Brepols, 2012).

[6] Note Katie B. Edwards, James Crossley, etc.

[7] Jonathan Roberts, “Introduction,” pages 1-8 in The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (eds. Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 1.

[8] Roland Boer, “Against Reception History,” Bible and Interpretation, May 2011. Accessed at

[9] Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception History (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014), 1-51, 75-92.

[10] See Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 17-33.

[11] See Shemaryahu Talmon, ‘Textual Criticism: The Ancient Versions,’ in Text in Context: Essays By Members of the Society for Old Testament Study (ed. A. D. H. Mayes; Oxford: Oxford University, 2000), p. 147.

[12] See Ulrich, Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible, 32.

[13] E. Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 78.

[14] See See Ronald Hendel, “The Oxford Hebrew Bible: Prologue to a New Critical Edition,” VT 58 (2008): 329, quoting E. J. Kenney, "Textual Criticism," Encyclopedia Brittannica (vol. 18; 15th ed.; Chicago, 1984), 191.

[15] See Michael V. Fox, “Editing Proverbs: The Challenge of the Oxford Hebrew Bible,” JNSL 32 (2006): 6.

[16] Different religious communities construct various points of origin among these chains of continual transformation, to be sure, but should any of them become a standard used by critical scholarship?

[17] See, for instance,T. Frymer-Kensky, “The Atrahasis Epic and Its Significance for Our Understanding of Genesis 1-9,” The Biblical Archaeologist 40 (1977): 147-155.

[18] My general argument, but also this paragraph, is quite obviously indebted to Jacques Derrida, who discussed Rousseau’s notion of the “dangerous supplement” in Of Grammatology (trans. G. Spivak; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 141-164.

[19] See also the notion of the parasite as it applies to reception history in Samuel Tongue, Between Biblical Criticism and Poetic Rewriting: Interpretative Struggles over Genesis 32:22-32 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 152-162.

[20] For a more detailed examination of this question, see my Nomadic Text, 52-74, 93-141.

Comments (1)

Perfectly good essay--until you ruined it by citing Derrida! Why?! Why does this always happen?!

I'm kidding. Very thought-provoking essay. I still think that the idea of "ancient context" is a useful analytic for archaeologists like me whose primary interest is in ancient social history and what the biblical texts can tell us about the lifeworlds of those who produced them.

Authorial intention may be irrecoverable, but there is still a "world of the text" (in the Ricoeurian sense) that refers to certain external social realities that were present when scribe put pen to paper. This "world" is easier to pinpoint with some texts than others: Pentateuchal texts are very hard to date, but the last 6 chapters of Hebrew-Aramaic Daniel (if not the whole book) are clearly referring to a detailed context of the 160s BC, and we can assume there was some major activity in the production of the text in that period, even if those chapters subsequently spawned constant reinterpretation almost since they first started circulating.

I'm wondering, if we accept that there is no "true" original (which on an ontological I agree with), is there still room for this sort of scholarly analytic that brackets certain questions in order to bring others into sharper focus?

#1 - Robert M. Jennings - 10/23/2014 - 08:37

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