Reception history is the study of how biblical texts have changed over time in different cultures and communities, through transmission, translation, or reading, retelling, and reworking. In other words, reception history explores all the different ways that people have received, appropriated, and used biblical texts throughout history.
Reception history’s elder sibling is the history of interpretation or history of exegesis. Scholars have long been interested in later interpretations of the biblical text. They would look to learned Jewish sources such as the Talmud, famous rabbinic exegetes and various midrashim, and professional Christian interpreters such as Origen, Augustine, and John Calvin to understand how biblical texts developed new meanings and uses in later contexts. This practice eventually developed into broader studies of cultural appropriations, now known as reception history, and includes in its purview political uses, artistic renditions, literary retellings, musical, dramatic, and film adaptations of biblical texts, and much more.
Reception history is often contrasted to the practice of biblical criticism—the work of discerning the original text of the Bible—and the attempt to understand what biblical texts originally meant to their authors and audiences in the ancient world. This work involves ancient literary conventions as well as broader political, economic, and cultural forces that existed when the texts were produced.
For example, a scholar doing biblical criticism would deny that the serpent in Gen 3 is the devil, as the ancient Israelites did not seem to believe in a particular embodiment of cosmic evil. In addition, the narrator makes no judgment about the serpent. A reception scholar, however, might take interest in the perception of the serpent as an embodiment of evil and would identify the interpretive twists and turns that led to this reading, whether the original text and times would have endorsed the notion.
A reception historian might first look at the Second Temple–era Jewish books of Sirach, 1 Enoch, Life of Adam and Eve, and Wisdom of Solomon, which clearly interpret the serpent in Gen 3 as an evil figure. (The receiving and altering of earlier traditions is present in the pages of the Bible itself!) At the time of their composition, a larger shift in Jewish thought led to belief in a system of spiritual forces of both good and evil that interacted with the human and material realm. After the end of the Second Temple period in the late first century C.E., the Christian New Testament book of Revelation calls this serpent “the Devil and Satan.”
The serpent continues to take on a life of its own outside the text: the third-century C.E. gnostic creation story called Nature of the Rulers casts the serpent as a hero who helps Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, despite the self-serving command of the jealous deity Ialdabaoth. Though this interpretation did not significantly influence Jewish and Christian traditions, it is nevertheless a part of the reception history of Gen 3.
Another part of the reception history of Gen 3 is the prominent motif in medieval Western Christian art that depicts the serpent with a female human head, which is just one aspect of a long tradition of misogynistic uses of Gen 3. This influential tradition has its roots in antiquity, with authors such as Philo and Jesus ben Sira and texts like 1 Timothy suggesting that Eve’s sin was due to her gender. Thinkers such as Augustine argued that Satan chose to tempt Eve because, in his view, women were naturally less intelligent than men.
Peter Comestor, a French theologian in the 12th century C.E., was the first to speculate that the devil appeared to Eve in the form of a woman. From there, the theme of a woman-headed serpent became tremendously popular, appearing in many famous works of art such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Even today, contemporary advertising often uses images of snakes wrapped around nude women to sell luxury items, playing off the identification of Eve with the tempter. Researching these connections and tracing their developments is an important part of reception history.
Reception historians can also analyze the reuse of the Edenic serpent by Aztec converts to Christianity in the 16th century, or its function in the work of early modern philosophers such as David Hume, or Toni Morrison’s use of Gen 3:1 in her 1973 novel Sula. All of these avenues of research, and many more, would be included in the practice of reception history.
Some scholars use the German term Wirkungsgeschichte (“history of effect”) to describe this practice, whereas others use the phrases Nachleben (“afterlife”) and “history of consequences.” Though these names suggest philosophical differences and attachments to the various scholars who coined them, quite often the studies employing these terms look fairly similar.
Is there a cut-off point where biblical criticism ends and reception history of the Bible begins? That’s a question open to debate. Though some reception historians begin their studies in late antiquity (mid-third century C.E.), after the close of the so-called biblical period, recent scholarship reveals that the composition of biblical texts was a lengthy process that had no discernible end point.
Scholars used to think that there were original texts of every biblical book, and so reception historians would research everything that came after the completion of the original text. But we know better now: biblical texts were constantly edited and updated throughout the ancient world, until about the second century C.E. There were even different versions of the same biblical books circulating during the Second Temple period! If there were at least three very different versions of the book of Daniel that Jewish groups were using in the year 50 C.E., and if they all developed somewhat independently, then which one is the original? Where would one draw the line between original texts and receptions? This is a tricky question and one that is still the subject of debate
Regardless of where reception of biblical texts actually begins, one thing is clear: this is an important frontier in biblical studies. Reception history can help us see the connections between earlier interpretations of biblical texts and later readings, and it can explain why people have read it in millions of different ways throughout history.