What Is Reception History? by Brennan Breed

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.

Brennan Breed, "What Is Reception History? ", n.p. [cited 16 Oct 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/bible-basics/what-is-reception-history

Contributors

Brennan Breed

Brennan Breed
Assistant Professor, Columbia Theological Seminary

Brennan Breed is assistant professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Much of his research focuses on the reception history of the Bible, which studies the ways in which biblical texts function in diverse contexts in liturgy, theology, visual art, literature, and politics.

Tracing the reactions and uses of a given text throughout history.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

The Hebrew designation for the book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, a book of instruction and proverbs.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

The critical interpretation or explanation of a scriptural text.

Related to a set of beliefs that emphasized the pursuit of "gnosis" (enlightenment) and the divide between the spiritual and the material. Most notably present in Christian traditions that were later deemed heretical.

In second- and third-century C.E. Judaic and Christian Gnosticism, the name for the demiurge, one of the beings that created the world.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Period of history between classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, roughly from 250 to 750 C.E.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

The historical period during which the second temple was standing in Jerusalem, from its dedication around 516 B.C.E. until its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E.

A collection of rabbinic writings, mostly interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and the Mishnah (another rabbinic collection). There are two Talmuds, the Palestinian and the Babylonian, so called after the region in which each is believed to have been compiled. The Talmuds were likely composed between the third and the sixth centuries C.E.

A Wisdom book located in the Apocrypha.

Gen 3

The First Sin and Its Punishment
1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘Yo ... View more

Gen 3

The First Sin and Its Punishment
1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘Yo ... View more

Gen 3

The First Sin and Its Punishment
1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘Yo ... View more

Gen 3

The First Sin and Its Punishment
1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘Yo ... View more

Gen 3

The First Sin and Its Punishment
1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘Yo ... View more

Gen 3:1

The First Sin and Its Punishment
1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘Yo ... View more

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