Reflections on “Nomadic Text” (Part II)

Open BibleIn this first half of Nomadic Text, Breed does much to complicate a notion of biblical reception history.[1] The problematic nature of borders frames this argument, specifically the murky ways in which biblical scholars often define (or fail to define) the differentiations between the composition and reception of texts. No longer may complicated zones be neglected and ontological assumptions about the character of the biblical text be allowed to dictate the approaches of biblical scholars to the biblical formation and reception. Instead, Breed highlights the problem of determining where authorship and editing mix, how textual combination, redaction, and editing indistinguishably merge with the beginnings of scribal copying and textual corruption. Reception history involves more than just what happens after the final form of a text comes into existence. Rather, this field of inquiry should encompass the complex and pluriform ways in which the multiplicity of biblical texts have arisen, the difficulties of explanatory contextualization, and the recognition of the sign/signifier/substitution realities of language.

Furthermore, for Breed the concept of “original text” causes considerable trouble for biblical studies. Whereas most biblical scholars adopt a basic schema of the creation, fall, and redemption of the biblical text, Breed severely problematizes attempts to ascertain the original (or archetypal, pristine, authoritative, more original) versions of the biblical text. This process argues that because of the walls of time, lack of sufficient philological evidence, numerous literary emendations, and historio-contextual complexities there exist extreme difficulties in locating any form of original text. Focusing on the fluidity of biblical textual evidence and eschewing theologically or ontologically informed perspectives on the nature of these texts, “recovery” of a single original becomes an impossibility, especially given the messy origins, pluriform nature, and reality of no actual original biblical text.[2] For Breed, “[i]n the first place, there was the secondary.” (115) That is, biblical texts have only and ever been part of a process of reception, there has never been a pristine originality devoid of complexities and multiplicity.

nomad-tuaregsIn terms of Breed’s metaphors for explaining how to understand the fact that there exists no original text, the most illuminating for this reader was his employment of Pottersville, Jimmy Stewart’s alternate reality from It’s a Wonderful Life. This image successfully highlighted the stark contrasts between two perceptions of the biblical text and demonstrated the paradigm shifting force of Breed’s argument. The dynamic and variegated nature of texts, importance of process in reception history, and clear demarcation of the claim that no exemplar texts exist comes across clearly in this metaphor. As for the anchors or spandrel image (besides the need to figure out precisely what a spandrel was prior to fully understanding this metaphor), while helpful for understanding the argument, the conflation of rather different images only helped reinforce the perception that Breed conflates fluidity of use with fluidity of purpose in this section’s arguments. With tigers and cages, the metaphor again admirably highlighted Breed’s purposes, although it seemed to lack the rhetorical force of excluding counter-metaphors. The assumption that biblical scholar’s pursuit of a meaning necessarily entails the advocation of a single answer as the proper meaning is particularly unconvincing, especially in light of the foundational approach many interpreters seem to take. In all, the discussion of this metaphor seemed a topic better suited for arguments in favor of humility and plausibility in presenting findings instead of suggesting the renovation of the whole biblical studies edifice.

[1] Although most of the first half of this volume could—in this reader’s opinion—be rightly classified as concerns with “transmission history” rather than “reception history.” Hopefully, the second half of Breed’s presentation will clarify the parameters of the later portions of what happens “once a text moves beyond its original context….” (3)

[2] Although this reader felt that Breed’s presentation requires additional clarification on several important definitions and issues (especially those concerning authority, use, and literary-historical origins) in order to be fully persuasive.


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