Against “Reception History”

By Roland Boer
University of Newcastle
Religion and Theology
May 2011

I have recently completed a book on the work of Nick Cave, a singular, idiosyncratic and brilliant musician, specifically through his engagements with theology and the Bible. During the writing of the book – Cave Droppings: Nick Cave and Religion (Equinox 2012) – I had to ask myself the question: is this book an exercise in reception history? “Reception” means a growing self-designation of biblical scholarship in which all engagements with the biblical text outside direct “exegesis” deal with the way that text has been “received” in the two millennia or more after its initial production.1 Innocent enough, is it not?

The problem here is that this term relies on a spurious distinction drawn from German historical-critical biblical scholarship: one first engages in exegesis of the original biblical text, usually with three steps: translation, paraphrase (restating the key moments of the text in question), and exegesis proper, the “leading out” of the meaning of the text. This is the only “sound” and “scientific” approach to biblical interpretation, an approach that is by definition free of ideological concerns such as gender, class, ethnicity, or politics. The catch with such a method is that it carries in its saddlebags the assumption that this is the only, properly “scientific,” way to interpret the Bible, the only one that is appropriate to the text itself, to its historical conditions, and so forth. Any other approach is by definition anachronistic, the application of ideas and assumptions from another age (our own) to the Bible. Apart from the sheer blindness of such an assumption (the inability to see that historical-critical “exegesis” itself is just as anachronistic since it developed in a historically specific period well after the Bible was written). It also bears with it another assumption: there is one “right” meaning that such a method needs to uncover. And beneath that assumption is a theological one, namely a singular perception of what God really means. IN other words, this approach is ultimately theological: one method, one meaning, one God. Now, these “scientific” scholars would argue until they are blue in the face that there is nothing theological or ideological about their method, but that is part of the spectacular avoidance of any critical analysis of their own method.

Now for the second step: after exegesis comes reception history (Rezeptionsgeschichte) and the history of the text’s use (Wirkungsgeschichte), although the latter is usually subsumed within the former. A little detail: the distinction derives from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Wahrheit und Method,2 with Rezeptionsgeschichte marking the active task of interpreting, appropriating, and applying a biblical text, whether in scholarly work, religious observance and sermons, conscious cultural re-readings in literature or film or art and so on. By contrast, Wirkungsgeschichte designates a more passive and unwitting effect of the text on society and culture, especially in the way the Bible shapes law, art, politics, social values, prejudices, and preconceptions. Often the two are blended, if not confused, so that “reception” becomes the blanket term.

But what is wrong with the category of reception history? Apart from the blurring inherent in the term, the problem is that reception history assumes that the text is in some way original, the pad from which subsequent trajectories launch themselves forth. If “exegesis” is the primary method appropriate to the originary biblical text, then reception history is secondary. It is a linear straightjacket that preserves the primacy of that strange guild of biblical “exegetes.” So, under the label of “reception history” may now be lumped all those other approaches, like feminist, Marxist, postcolonial, psychoanalytic, ideological, queer, and so on, all of which are supposedly anachronistic. But the proponents of this approach also understand any interpretation of the text outside exegesis by biblical scholars as secondary, especially the way the Bible is interpreted in art, literature, film, politics, or music.

All of this brings me back to Nick Cave and his interpretations of the Bible. Cave has written novels, plays, poetry and, above all, music which often engages with the Bible in creative ways. Is this “reception,” to be addressed after the solid “scientific” work of biblical critics? Not at all, for in the same way the 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.


1 The term has been popularized in the Blackwell Bible Commentaries (, but it is also increasingly used as a self-designator by biblical scholars dealing with “Bible and …” areas of research, such as literature, film, culture and politics.

2 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, vol. 1 of Gesammelte Werke (Tübingen: Mohr, 1990; original 1960).

Comments (3)

Boer criticizes a caricature. Indeed, he spins the attitudes and practices of actual scholars working in reception history almost 180 degrees.

#1 - Christopher Heard - 06/12/2011 - 05:10

Mr. Heard,

Pony up a little.

With at least enough example-to-theory stuff to make a half-dead forum a little more lively.

I’m no expert in biblical studies. I don’t want to be. I’m modestly further along than a general reader. My few acquaintances with the discipline have been limited to asking how and why religious texts can become a part of the rough and random concatenation of history, so as to tumble into concrete case judgments in a casuistry.

I don’t have a pony in this race. But, I didn’t think Mr. Boer’s linear sequence of interpretation and reception had to be read so woodenly as to pretend that all biblical scholars really treat texts as somehow so “original” that texts are never approached with a nearly a priori sensibility (based on the history of scholarship itself) in which scholars are too dumb to think that texts involve no prior discourse, no efforts at competition between dominating monologues, no transient politics, no erotic attachments, no random and inexplicable compromise, and no built-in refractoriness to many readings inside the texts themselves, all before moving on to all these same features in reception. It seemed to me that his main criticism aimed at a science of method which threatens to kill intuitive poets under the crush of a cult of experts prone to logic-chopping.

Surely, you’re not saying there are no remaining exemplars of the geschichtes?

Or that you wouldn’t curb the twitching romanticism of undergrads by teaching some sort of linear sequence of method, that is, before graduating them to the multivalent dance of experts?

It strikes me that a 180-degree misrepresentation would imply that biblical studies really are an orgy of non-linear free for alls.

Where’s the misrepresentation? – at the 180-degree scale?


#2 - Jim - 06/14/2011 - 05:23

Chris, what you describe is reader-response criticism. Gadamer would turn in his grave.
My response to both Heard and John Hobbins is now at

#3 - Roland - 06/18/2011 - 10:19

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