Spectrums of Scripture: Intertexuality

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.

Richard B. Hays
Richard B. Hays

The phenomenon of intertextuality involves the imbedding of portions of one earlier text within a later text.[1] Intertextuality is more than exploring how writers cite other sources, but also why such citations were made and the effect of those intertexts.[2] Although scholars now recognize the practice of intertextuality in literature as ancient as Plato’s Socratic dialogues,[3] the term “intertextuality” itself is only several decades old. Building on M. M. Bakhtin’s notion of all utterances as double voiced (that is, responding to an addressee and a cultural milieu),[4] Julia Kristeva coined the term “intertextuality,” arguing that all texts are simultaneously in conversation with their audiences and their surrounding sociohistorical environments through the recycling of earlier texts.[5]

For Kristeva, texts are dynamic sites at which relational processes and practices converge. Texts are not “self-contained systems but…differential and historical…traces and tracings of otherness, since they are shaped by the repetition and transformation of other textual structures.”[6] Incorporating John Hollander’s theory of the transumption and recovery of metaphorical echoes across texts,[7] Richard Hays’s Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul brought Kristeva’s literary study of intertextuality into conversation with studies of late antiquity. For Hays, intertextual study should not involve merely scientific analysis of the source employed; rather the intertextual reader ought to “feel the rhetorical punch of the meaning-effects produced by the interplay of text and subtext…. Intertexts are not discovered by mere method, but only by those ‘with ears to hear.’”[8]

Old BooksIntertextual analysis resides in the complexities of literary criticism, straddling the fuzzy line between art and science. To a certain extent, as Hays argues, all discourse is intertextual “in the sense that its conditions of intelligibility are given by and in relation to a previously given body of discourse.”[9] Since literary critics, theologians, and historians alike have long recognized the pervasiveness of reused traditions, consideration of intertextual uses are not entirely new to the study of ancient literature. However, only in recent decades have scholars moved away from source-hunting and allusion-counting towards consideration of poetic influence.[10] Just as when two readers engage the same poem they might take different meanings from it and apply those meanings diversely, so also intertextual studies have come to recognize that scriptural antecedents are read and applied differently or employing different senses than are commonly found or assumed today. Thus, intertextual studies have shifted toward an understanding of poetic effect—the larger meanings which are produced by the echoing of preceding sources.[11]

While most scholars agree that intertextuality exists within ancient texts, Samuel Emadi demonstrates that “there still remains a great deal of debate regarding the locus, purpose, and meaning-effect of an intertext, the criteria used to discern the presence of intertexts (if in fact there are any), and the theological value of intertextuality in Scripture.”[12] Particularly popular among scholars are lists of criteria for ascertaining intertextual engagements. Beginning with Hays,[13] scholars such as Dale Allison,[14] Michael Thompson,[15] Jeffrey Leonard,[16] and a number of other scholars have proposed varying sets of concerns and criteria.[17] A final noteworthy concern is the categorization of the texts considered in studies of intertextuality, where Matthew Bates’s taxonomy reveals that most contemporary intertextual studies are preoccupied with connections between “texts” and “pre-texts.”[18]

[1] Hays, Echoes, 14. [2] Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 59-60. Samuel Emadi, “Intertextuality in New Testament Scholarship: Significance, Criteria, and the Art of Intertextual Reading,” Currents in Biblical Research 14.1 (2015): 10. [3] Maria Jesus Martinez Alfaro, “Intertextuality: Origins and Development of Concept,” Atlantis 18.1-2 (1996): 269. [4] M.M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (ed. C. Emerson and M. Holquist, trans. V.W. McGee, Austin: UT Press, 1986), esp. 94. [5] On the philosophical influence of Bakhtin and Kristeva’s creation of “intertextuality,” see Alfaro 272-7. [6] Alfaro, 268. [7] John Hollander, The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 31, 62. Emadi (12) summarizes Hollander with the following: “In an intertext necessary transumes correspondences between two or more text… [demanding] ‘recovery’ and creative development—development that the text in and of itself is insufficient to accomplish. These transumed correspondences, or ‘meanings’, seem only to find their voice as the text interacts with the reader.” [8] Hays, Echoes, 19. [9] Ibid., 15. [10] Ibid., 17. Gregory K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 40. Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: OUP, 1973), 30. [11] Hays, Echoes, 18. [12] Emadi, 9. [13] Hays, Echoes, 29-31. Criteria: availability, volume, recurrence, thematic coherence, historical plausibility, history of interpretation, and satisfaction. [14] Dale C. Allison, Jr., The Intertextual Jesus: Scripture in Q (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 2000), 11-2. Criteria: common vocabulary, common word order, common theme(s), similar imagery, similar structure, and similar circumstance(s). See Dale C. Allison, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 19f. [15] Michael B. Thompson, Clothed with Christ: The Example and Teaching of Jesus in Romans 12.1-15.13 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 30-7. Criteria: verbal agreement, conceptual agreement, formal agreement, place of the Gospel saying in the dominical tradition, common motivation and rationale, dissimilarity to Greco-Roman and Jewish traditions, the presence of dominical indicators, the presence of tradition indicators, the presence of other dominical echoes or word/concept clusters in the immediate context, the likelihood the author knew the saying, and the exegetical value. [16] Jeffery M. Leonard, “Identifying Inner-Biblical Allusions: Psalm 78 as a Test Case,” JBL 127 (2008): 246. Criteria: shared language, non-shared language, distinctive language, shared phrases, accumulation of shared language, similar contexts, shared ideology, and shared form. [17] See Emadi (17-20), Carlos Raul Sosa Siliezar (Creation Imagery in the Gospel of John [London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015], 14-22), Leroy Andrew Huizenga (The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew [Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009], 57), and Peter J. Leithart (Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture [Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009], 113). [18] Matthew W. Bates, The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation: The Center of Paul’s Method of Scriptural Interpretation (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), 54-5.


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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