Archives of Reception of the Bible

Past blogging in more ways than one.

Monday, July 24, 2006

My conference paper (1 of ?)

Part of the idea of blogging was to try out ideas on-line, and this I have signally failed to do. So let's have a go at writing an essay on-line. Here is section 1 of my conference paper so far (no prizes for seeing that the title is different to the post below-par for the course, I think).

The Man Comes Around”:
Gauging the Impact of Revelation on a Contemporary Apocalypticist

William John Lyons
University of Bristol

1. Introduction

It came to me a while ago that most of my thinking about the Bible as an object moving through history was predicated on a view of that book as being almost wholly passive. Readers have constructed the text, used it, abused it, but, strangely, appeared to me to have been little changed by their interaction with ‘it’. That this is in fact an accurate depiction of what has happened in the examples that I have been studying should not have blinded me to the possibility that the Bible may also function as an active agent, influencing and altering those who encounter it.

Reading Heiki Räisänen’s essay, ‘The “Effective History” of the Bible: A Challenge to Biblical Scholarship’,[1] has set me to considering these things somewhat more rigorously. He opens by describing his embarrassment at being unable to answer the lay-person’s ‘very reasonable’ question, ‘what effect has the Bible had?’ The initial problem, for Räisänen, is that the Bible’s influence has been assumed rather than critically demonstrated.[2]

Compounding this has been our failure to adequately define our terms. Here I want to note three of Räisänen’s distinctions before building on them in the rest of this paper.

(1) ‘Effective history’ is not the same as the ‘history of interpretation’.[3] Räisänen points out that allegorical readings, for example, are not important for ‘effective history’ but are fundamental for the ‘history of interpretation’.[4] Allegory generally permits promiscuous ‘use’ of texts to back up pre-existing views, but for Räisänen, the effective history’s object of study can only be ‘a (new) consequence of [a] reading; mere justification of something with the Bible will not qualify.’[5] Effective history is thus being defined by Räisänen as ‘an actual history of empirical effects’,[6] albeit with the caveat that ‘[d]rawing a line between effect and use is surely somewhat hazardous and subjective’.[7]

(2) For Räisänen, the ‘Bible’ of effective history cannot be restricted to the text as originally ‘meant’.[8] He suggests instead that ‘[t]he Bible is an effective factor when something results from a reading which is plausible in the circumstances.’[9] This clarifies his earlier comment that ‘it would be impossible to exclude the allegorically understood Bible when we consider the influence of the Bible on medieval and Rennaissance art and literature.’[10] In that context allegorical readings were also plausible readings. As a reading appears less plausible and more contrived therefore, it becomes increasingly peripheral to the concerns of effective history.

(3) Räisänen notes the sheer complexity of effective history’s object of study—the Bible’s influence may be uneven and indirect, is always augmented and sometimes deeply compromised by other influences, and is, often, disturbingly widespread on both sides of any particular argument.[11] Nevertheless, he is obviously of the opinion that its influence may be critically discussed, subsequently offering a number of effect-types: (a) specific words (e.g. Origen, St Francis); (b) the general impact of religious and moral ideas; (c) emotional impacts—both positive (e.g. hope) and negative (hell); (d) the showcasing of exemplars to imitate; and (e) the idea of a holy book.[12] Significantly for my purposes here, he also notes ‘the Bible has often exerted its influence indirectly through means which certainly have left their own marks on the biblical stuff.’[13] The impact of material produced by the Bible’s influence therefore may also propagate that influence, albeit indirectly.

With these distinctions in mind, I want to ask about the effect of Revelation on a specific reader, the American vocalist, Johnny Cash. I want to suggest that Cash’s description of the process involved in writing his 2002 song ‘The Man Comes Around’ supplies us with an effect-type that is not included in Räisänen’s examples, that of interpretive failure. In other words, I am suggesting that an expression of readerly confusion is the visible marker of an effect that almost certainly results from an encounter with the Bible rather than with the tradition in which an interpreter stands. In my experience, traditions generally know what the Bible means. (I’d be interested to hear your comments on this.) If the Bible has influenced Cash’s song, it also follows that subsequent impact of the latter must also be considered part of the Bible’s indirect influence. Whether any of this counts as something genuinely ‘new’ in Räisänen’s sense is less certain, however.

To be continued.


[1] In his Challenges to Biblical Interpretation: Collected Essays 1991–2001 (Biblical Interpretation Series 59; Leiden: Brill, 2001), pp. 263-82.
[2] ‘Effective History’, p. 263.
[3] ‘Effective History’, pp. 269-71.
[4] ‘Effective History’, p. 270
[5] ‘Effective History’, p. 271. Räisänen writes that ‘[i]f it can be shown that a particular allegorical interpretation had actually brought about a new idea or a new practice, and not just legitimated an existing one, that would belong to effective history’ (p. 270).
[6] ‘Effective History’, p. 265 n. 12
[7] ‘Effective History’, p. 270.
[8] ‘Effective History’, p. 271.
[9] ‘Effective History’, p. 271.
[10] ‘Effective History’, p. 270.
[11] ‘Effective History’, pp. 267, 272.
[12] ‘Effective History’, pp. 273-79
[13] ‘Effective History’, p. 267.

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The Book of Revelation and Effective History, 4-6th September 2006

A bit of info on the conference that has been occupying me recently (both in terms of organisation and it terms of writing my own paper.

The Book of Revelation and Effective History: An Interdisciplinary Colloquium

Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Bristol.

Monday 4-6th September 2006

Christopher Rowland, Jonathan Roberts, Jo Carruthers, Alison Jack, James Harding, Melanie Wright, Anke Holdenried, Simon Woodman, Kenneth Newport, Michael Northcott, Hanna Strenström, Jorunn Økland, Heikki Räisänen, William John Lyons

Colloquium rationale

In 2003 Christopher Rowland and Judith L. Kovacs published their commentary on the Revelation of John in the Blackwell Bible Commentaries series. The series deals broadly with the ‘effective history’ of the biblical texts (on this term, see, and is thus a radical departure from the norms of the commentary tradition. Well received as this commentary was, however, its significance is also related to the fact that its publication has opened up a new field of research. It is now easy to see both the richness of the material that has been covered in the commentary and the gaps that remain, the material that is not examined and the questions that are not asked. Similarly, reflection on the actual process of doing ‘effective history’ on Revelation and the potential impact of this commentary on future interpreters provide two new research tasks generated post-publication.

It is with the intention of celebrating these opportunities that this Colloquium on Revelation and ‘effective history’ is being organised. The conveners are Dr William John Lyons of the University of Bristol and Dr Jorunn Økland of the University of Sheffield, and the Colloquium will take place at the University of Bristol’s Institute for Advanced Studies, Bristol, on September 4-6th, 2006. The event is intended to be a small but concentrated interdisciplinary event that will deal some of these materials and questions in more detail and depth. The invited speakers are drawn from a number of different disciplines (although the majority will be biblical scholars), and Christopher Rowland will be an active participant. It is anticipated that a volume on the effective history of Revelation in various areas—religious life, academic life and thought, art, music, broader/popular culture, etc—will be published in due course (allowing some time after the Colloquium for rewriting and editing, hopefully around Easter 2008).


Introduction: Reception of Revelation: Christopher Rowland (University of Oxford)

Session 1a: Jonathan Roberts (University of Liverpool), “The Apocalypses of World and Word in Coleridge and Wordsworth.”
Session 1b: Jo Carruthers (University of Bristol), “'Prayer is the safeguard of interpretation': Negotiating the curse on commentary (Revelation 22) in Rossetti’s Face of the Deep.”
Session 1c: Alison Jack (University of Edinburgh), “Revelation, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: RL Stevenson’s Strange Case.”

Session 2a: James Harding (University of Otago, NZ), “The Risk of Knowledge: Echoes of the Book of Revelation in Eco’s The Name of the Rose.”
Session 2b: Melanie Wright (University of Cambridge), “‘Every eye will see him’: Revelation and Film.”

Session 3a: Anke Holdenried (University of Bristol), “Revelation: A Trajectory of Interpretation in Daniel Clasen’s De oraculis gentilium (1673).”
Session 3b: Simon Woodman (South Wales Baptist College), “‘The Plain Meaning of the Text’: A 17th Century Baptist Perspective on Revelation 20.1-7.”

Session 4a: Kenneth Newport (Liverpool Hope University College), “‘Be thou faithful unto death’ (cf. Rev 2.10): The Book of Revelation and Apocalyptic (Self) destruction.”
Session 4b: Michael Northcott (University of Edinburgh), “Postmillennial Tensions: From the Fathers to the Brethren.”

Session 5a: Hanna Stenström (Uppsala universitet), “Feminist Exegesis of Revelation: A Critique and a Proposal.”
Session 5b: Jorunn Økland (University of Sheffield), “‘… and death shall be no more, nor grief, nor cry, nor distress’: The Apocalypse and the Marxist dream of the classless society.”

Session 6a: Heikki Räisänen (University of Helsinki), “Revelation, Violence, and War: Glimpses of a Dark Side in the Effective History of the Book.”
Session 6b: William John Lyons (University of Bristol), “‘Can You Feel the Heat?’: Gauging the ‘Effectiveness’ of the Book of Revelation.”

Reflection: Christopher Rowland.

Please note that this is not a public event. If you would like further information, then please contact Dr John Lyons (email:, extn: 45930).

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

New Testament: Use and Influence seminar papers

New Testament: Use and Influence seminar, British New Testament Conference, University of Sheffield, 30th August-2nd September, 2006.

Chair: Prof. Christopher Rowland and Dr Christine Joynes

Session 1:

Dr Ela Nutu (University of Sheffield) 'Salomé in Text and Performance: The Bible, Wilde and Strauss'

Session 2: Reception history of Pauline letters ~ (joint session with Paul seminar)

Emeritus Professor John Riches (Glasgow University)'The Reception History of Gal. 6:15'

Dr. Mark Elliott (St. Andrews University)'Behind and beyond Parker: the key moments and voices in Reformation Romans commentating''

We are indebted to T.H.L. Parker's Commentaries on Romans 1532-1542 (T&T Clark, 1986) in which he deals painstakingly with 11 commentaries proper written between 1532 and 1542. Parker was prepared to state his opinions: Melanchthon was a giant, Calvin is to be praised for his single-minded objectivity(x). There is admiration for Bucer even though he is unreadable. Bullinger is great on theory, less so in practice. Yet, Sadoleto (pace Roussel) is quite mediocre; indeed, as a group, the Catholics seemed to find Romans hard going. They did not use rhetorical tools to explain texts. Perhaps they were looking over their shoulders; after all, Sorbonne and Catharinus censured Caietan’s attempts for being interested in Erasmus NT and the OT Hebrew.

There are three matters in which there is room for complementing Parker's work. There seems in Parker a tip-toeing around controversial and polemical theology and no real account of the awareness of other opposed views. Second, in giving us what 11 commentators had to say on Rom 1.18-23; 2.13; 3.20-28, he does not centre on the passage which must have given the sharpest differences of opinion: Romans 7:14-8:4. Third, in limiting himself to a decade the story of Romans in the Reformation lacks its beginning as well as its resolution. Parker’s work is invaluable, but is a spur. In this paper, a review of treatments of Rom 7:14-8:4 and their reception will aim to show more clearly what was at issue between the interpreters.

Session 3:

Panel discussion: 'What do we mean by reception history and why do we do it?'

Prof Christopher Rowland, University of Oxford
Revd Dr Rachel Nicholls, University of Cambridge
Prof Kenneth Newport, Liverpool Hope University
Prof John Riches, University of Glasgow

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