Archives of Reception of the Bible

Past blogging in more ways than one.

Friday, August 08, 2008

EABS and Reception History

James has already posted a report on the Reception of the Biblical World session in Lisbon. I have to agree with him about Lisbon being a great city, though I suspect I saw a much more sedate and touristy version than he did. Strange then that EABS didn't have an empty session partway through for people to schedule a trip out. The end result seemed to be that people just took off at anytime, and you could not rely on anyone being there at a given time. The distance of the Faculty from the conference hotels meant you couldn't just pop in and see who was around (something I will definitely consider in future decisions about attending these conferences). I also understand (because I didn't go, of course) that one or two later sessions also moved papers around when speakers didn't turn up, which adds to the sense of a conference not quite comfortable with itself. I hope EABS will manage to sort this out because the three and a half hour slots are brilliant (though my timekeeping was pretty poor), much better than the SBL format, and the lack of dominant text based themes makes the possibilities much more exciting than the BNTC's depressing reliance on text seminars (yet another added this year on the Catholic Epistles!). The sooner the BNTC abandons these, the better!

Anyhow, enough whining.

The session on Reception history took place on Monday morning and was both great fun (very important) and full of academic interest (also important, but slightly less so :)

Emma England's paper on the retelling of the Noah story in children's stories analysed the ways in which the stories characters were represented as the tale was being re-told. Very striking was the freedom that these authors felt to refocus and alter the tale to achieve their own ends, whether moral or literary. One suspects that if asked about this, they would feel none of the guilt that many other bible readers would feel if caught out doing the same thing.

My paper was... well, my paper. I got away with arguing that Cash wrote a better apocalypse that John of Patmos, I think. Of course, I had loaded the dice somewhat, but, hey, it was my paper and hence my prerogative. I also felt a certain weight lifting from my shoulders. When I first started out writing about Cash, I took his own words about his puzzlement too literally and saw him as a poor exegete. But scrap the term exegete - as I wish we all would - and in fact his song is a great apocalypse, written by an inspired interpreter of the biblical texts. It was also good to get Depeche Mode's "John the Revelator" in there. Why bother critiquing Revelation when they did such a good job of it!

James Crossley's paper on the Manchester music scene was an inspired tour through the changing musical tasts of the late 70's thru early 90s. The use of biblical materials was spectacularly broad, but very noticably different as you went through Joy Division, The Fall, The Stone Roses and The Smiths. As James went on to show, so much related to the social setting of the music scene of each of the segments of the period, with each one's drugs of choice and differing takes on Manchester as either dull and dreary or as Madchester. There was so much there, and clearly James was enjoying himself hugely.

Whereas James and myself had kept biblical materials light or late on, Mark Blackwell started his paper with the Genesis 19 narrative of Lot in Sodom before going on to The Grateful Dead's song "Gomorrah". An excellent analysis of the song and its setting against the background of gay activism in the San Francisco of the late 70s ended the paper. Call me a bit hardcore, but I found the readings of the song with its "don't look back" motif against 70's San Francisco really intriguing and wanted more of that rather than the traditional readings that Mark started with. But that is the thing with presenting in a session - sometimes it is not just about your paper but also about the order in which they come. In Boston, the Cash Youttube paper follows two papers on Ruth and two on Job, before the Apocalypse and the Zombies hit town. Not a clue how to handle that yet .

James has written quite a bit about Reception History recently, here, here, and here, and I just haven't had the time to respond. We had a good chat about this with others on Monday lunchtime and it is clear that there are different views on what all this means. For some, the discipline will continue as it is, with the withholding of jobs being the primary means of restricting Reception History. For others, the discipline is on the verge of collapse as its narrow concerns become less convincing to those who fund our departments. I guess I am somewhere between the two. I think jobs remain an issue, and I think it wise for someone working in Reception History to try to write a traditional piece if they can easily do so (just to prove they can teach NT 101). But the truth of the matter is that there is no real difference between Historical Criticism and Reception History in terms of method - in fact, what else is the synoptic problem but a study in Reception History, or Schweitzer's Quest or Sanders' Paul? Anyone well trained in the skills needed for the latter, can do the former (if they have the language skills). They won't be a Neutestamentler in some people's eyes, but that breed is losing ground anyway. The fact is that New Testament studies is a narrow over-studied field (as anyone who strays into Patristics can tell you) which offers little in the way of exciting PhD topics for students. (Other will no doubt disagree, but then some people can get excited about anything - I certainly have in the past :) In the near twenty years that I have been doing this, Sheffield has had a significant influence on things, and its former students are placed at a number of institutions now. Some are very traditional, but others are not. Glasgow and Bristol, with certain folk in Oxford mean that more opportunities are available now than then and this can only continue, I think.

Perhaps the biggest change coming is that Reception History is going to lose any sense of embarrassment about itself. Unlike James, I don't think that Reception History and Historical Criticism will peacefully co-exist because they have different interests. I think that the former is going to 'colonise' (and I use that word advisedly) the current discipline of New Testament Studies and effectively make it a sub-set of Reception History regardless of its protestations. This is the obvious outcome of the ideological criticism of current scholarship and its social location. It is really all about naming the old discipline correctly. What is currently thought of as OT or NT Studies is really an imaginative game played by scholars and it is those people and their interests and ideas that are an irreducible part of what Reception History will one day call the 'Historical Critical method'. Personally I am looking forward to it :)


At 9:03 am, Anonymous steph said...

so historical crit is busting with closet receptionists?:-)

At 9:13 am, Blogger John Lyons said...

Yes, but don't tell them yet.... :)

Still, if the shock killed one or two, that'd free up some jobs!

At 3:31 am, Blogger Leon said...

One of the things I find most fascinating about all Bible discussions is this: The more things chnage, the more they remain the same. Whether you call it historical critical method or reception history, it always come out the same. People start with their theological beliefs (e.g., about Jesus) and then they interpret the Bible to fit their theology. There is little history or criticism in the approach. As for reception, everything is well received as long as it isn't Jewish.

Now before you jump to conclusions about what I mean, let me explain. I read Michelle Krejci's (sp?) paper on the Bible and justice. I liked it very much. But it also reminded me of how much the Jewish point of view is always ignored. Before one starts runinating on whether the Bible could be used to promote justice, one might ask (i.e., if one had even a faint interest in history) what the first people who embraced Torah made of it.

There are many democratic ideas in the Bible. I won't list them all here. One is from Moses' great speech at Deut 30:11-14 where he tells the people that the word is not up in heaven, but in themselves, in their minds and hearts. This is a call to individual conscience, one of the most important components of democracy. In the Talmud, there is a story of a rabbi quoting Moses' "It is not in heaven" right back to heaven itself, making the point that heaven or God cannot decide the outcome of rabbinic debates. God gave us a constitutioon so that we can figure things out for ourselves and, after vigorous debate, we will decide the issue by majority vote. God himself only gets one vote and must obey due process.

The Pharisees were great proponents of a constitutional form of government and due process. If God has to follow due process, so do kings and priests. It is perhaps the greatest contribution that Pharisees made to Jewish culture, but Christian scholars still routinely ignore it and still misrepresent who the Pharisees were and what they stood for.

And you can see Jesus fighting for this Pharisaic view of things in the Gospels. This too is suppressed in all biblical studies. So one thing I am sure of in all developments of biblical studies: The Jewish point of view will be thrown to the side and, even more, it will be misrepresented so that no one ever sees what kind of Jew Jesus was and what his fellow Jews were like, and how they fit together so well.

Leon Zitzer

At 11:47 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leon, while I'm on your side on the historical Jesus and avoiding aspects of Jesus as Jew, it doesn't follow for reception history. There is plenty of reception historical work on Jewish readings (I remember seeing an Israeli scholar on the use of Exodus in contemporary Israeli politics, not to mention lots of readings of rabbinic uses of the Bible).

There is plenty of history in the approach, just different periods. If someone is doing the rception of pop music in a secular and non-Jewish context, then it might be no surprise that things Jewish do not turn up. In terms of asking what the people who embraced the Torah thought of things, fine! There are so many areas to study. Sometimes Jewish studies will turn up, sometimes it won't.

As for theology, I don't think that's fair. Yes, some people do heavily theological reception history with one eye or both eyes on 'true' interpretation but others (and I think it's fair to say everyone at the EABS session) were looking at the ways the Bible is used in different contexts without particular concern on how it conforms with pre-existing theological beliefs and in the case of me there's no way this could have happened (think more of studying the ways in which the Bible is used in literature or soemthing). Of course, *people we all study* may find the theological things they want to (though not always) but in terms of the interpreters this would be a fair criticism (if this is what you mean).


At 2:16 am, Blogger Leon said...

I have no objection to various creative approaches to the Bible and finding new things in it or old things creatively restated. I love the songs of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash on the Bible. I heard a late Cash recording a few weeks ago that knocked me for a loop.

But I have two points to clarify. There is a great forgetting that the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures, are originally Jewish books. Pharisees and rabbis were interpreting it for hundreds of years before gentiles (or pagans) ever heard of it and Jewish interpretations never stopped even after Christian theologians tried to take it over. From a Jewish perspective, this is exactly like any other minority or third-world culture which finds westerners raping their culture for their own use. Have a little respect and knowledge for the original culture. It is not that hard to do, if you have a heart for it. And always, always keep in mind that whatever interpretations you offer (some of which may be great), this is still a late arrival and can never trump the original culture which the Hebrew scripture comes from. For Jews, there is a feeling that our history and culture is constantly being taken over and erased at the same time. If an Indian or an African made this complaint about how their culture is treated, you would listen. It should not be any different when Jews complain.

My other point is that the Jewish perspective is almost entirely ignored in NT studies. Who writes about how much Jesus talks about chutzpah in the Gospels? No one. Who has even mild curiosity about it? No one. Who writes about the Pharisees creating a constitutional form of government and Jesus as a constitutional lawyer? No one. Who talks about Jesus as a Jewish prophet who made predictions because he did not want the predictions to come true? The idea of Jewish prophecy is to prevent catastrophe. Who writes about that in relation to Jesus? Practically no one.

There is a little interest in Jesus' Jewishness, but it is superficial or trivial for the most part. The big questions and the major aspects of his Jewishness are avoided. Scholars only want a little bit of Jewishness in Jesus. Just enough so that they cannot be charged with anti-Jewish bias but not so much that they will feel threatened by his Jewishness.

I don't expect this to change. I am not criticizing because I believe anyone will take note and realize, Oh yes, we must dive deeper into what makes Jesus so Jewish. It's not going to happen. I cry out simply because I think the cry must be registered. It's wrong and someone has to stand up and say so. The silenced voices of the past have a right to speak, even if the world is dead set against listening to them.

Leon Zitzer


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