Spectrums of Scripture: Reception History

This post is part of an ongoing series formulating a methodology for tracking and understanding the variety of ways in which early Christians received and utilized Scripture.

rossano-gospel-good-samaritanSimply stated, reception history involves critical engagement with the history of meanings associated with a particular event or text.[1] As Jonathan Morgan summarizes, reception history moves beyond traditional interpretive practices and “combines various insights and methods drawn from philosophical hermeneutics, reception theory (which is closely associated with both reader-response criticism and audience theory) and certain literary-influenced trends in historiography and the philosophy of history.”[2] When applied to texts within faith traditions, reception history incorporates “texts, stories, images, and characters through the centuries in the form of citation, interpretation, reading, revision, adaptation, and influence” not only in clearly theological texts, but in “visual art, literature, music, politics, and other works of culture” too.[3]

The roots of reception history run back to Friedrich Nietzsche and Hans-Georg Gadamer through Hans Robert Jauss’s “aesthetics of reception.”[4] Building from Nietzsche’s process-oriented study of cultural objects[5] and Gadamer’s principles of effective history (the historical and linguistic contexts of human discourse) and the fusion of past and present in literary works,[6] Jauss argued that textual meanings were located in the relationship between the text itself and the experience of its readers.[7] This theory was picked up and developed by literary theorists such as Gilles Deleuze[8]  and biblical scholars like Ulrich Luz and Heikki Raisansen.[9] These scholars have proven particularly influential, as their respective concerns for potential meaning and historical impact continue to shape studies of the reception of biblical texts.[10]

old-booksIn view of reception history, biblical texts have multiple capacities: some of them good, others bad.[11] Reception history traces the capacities which have emerged through other, later writers’ co-option and re-presentation of the language, themes, or ideas of a biblical text. Studies of the “history of development” or Wirkungsgeschichte (often translated history of effects or influence) or Rezeptionsgeschichte or Rezeptionsästhetik intend on locating “various semantic nodes where clusters of reading converge.”[12] Once these clusters of reading are discovered, their influence is comparatively examined and given a narrative frame:[13] why this reading proved popular rather than other, the concerns embodied in receptions of texts, which texts best served the needs of a community, and so on. Many scholars have welcomed reception history’s emphasis on effective history—consideration of production and reception together—and cross-disciplinary conversation—putting primarily textual fields into contact with other disciplines.[14] Stemming from these developments are three important practices: first, that study focuses on the receiving work rather than the parent text; second, that only a few themes or aspects of a text receive attention; and third that actual acts of reception limit the scope of the material studied.[15]

[1] Jauss, 15. Klancher, 125. Timothy Beal, “Reception History and Beyond: Toward a Cultural History of Scriptures,” Biblical Interpretation 19 (2011): 359. Jonathan Morgan, “Visitors, Gatekeepers and Receptionists: Reflections on the Shape of Biblical Studies and the Role of Reception History” in Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice (ed. E. England and W.J. Lyons, London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 62-3. On the need for a shift away from textually situated reception history to cultural history, see Beal, 357-72. [2] Morgan, 62-3. [3] Beal, 359. [4] Jauss. Beal, 361. [5] See Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic (trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan Swenson, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998). Brennan A. Breed, Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 116. [6] See Hans-George Gadamar, Truth and Method (New York: Seabury Press, 1975). Beal, 362. [7] Jauss, 15, 20. [8] Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 20-2. [9] Jonathan Roberts, “Introduction” in The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (ed. M. Lieb, E. Nelson, and J. Roberts, Oxford: OUP, 2011), 3. [10] Stefan Klint, “After Story – Returning to History? Introducing Reception Criticism as an Exegetical Approach,” Studia Theologica 54 (2000), 89-90. [11] Breed, 117, 121, 126. “We should think in terms of a text’s potential. What can it look like? What can it do? The point of biblical scholarship is not containment. It is knowledge—to what a biblical text is. And the only way to know what it is is to see it in many different contexts doing many different things. Reception history asks precisely these questions.” See Breed, 117. [12] Breed, 140. Klancher, 99. [13] Roberts, 1. [14] Beal, 364. [15] Klint, 103. On the situation of biblical studies within the practice of receiving the biblical text, see James E. Harding, “What is Reception History, and What Happens to You if You Do It?” in Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice (ed. E. England and W.J. Lyons, London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 31-44.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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