Spectrums of Scripture: Foregrounding Method

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.

medieval-scienceThe method of reception practice should begin with the recognition of the need to clarify assumptions, the subjectivity of scholarship, and the transformative reception of ancient texts. Amid the winds of postmodern criticism, all scholarly discussions should foreground their confessional, methodological, and/or post-methodological claims. Methodology in the humanities involves drawing boundary lines around that which is studied and then offering comparative explanations for why those concerns are worthy of attention.[1] Thus, method should address the mechanics employed to draw those boundaries and make meaning of what comes within them.[2]

Especially critical to studies of ancient source use is the issue of textual meaning: is there meaning—inherent or otherwise—accessible to contemporary readers within or brought about by ancient texts? The conflux of authorial intent, original audience, textual form, and readership form an important conversation, albeit one that we do not engage in-depth here.[3] By-and-large the study of ancient textual borrowing has operated under the assumption that readers would have expected to access, on some level, embedded texts.[4] In this way, as Umberto Eco claims that, “There is an intention of the text.[5] Even though interpretations are incomplete or contested and intentions are missed or misread, when authors put stylus to page they intend to convey meaning to their audience and we may thus seek to ascertain that intention.

The limits of that intention are, of course, another story, as are the steps taken to claim knowledge of that intention. Discussions of the historical past are necessarily limited by time and space, as well as the human mind’s capacity to understand. Furthermore, much like translation of one language to another, ascertaining the use of one text in another incorporates both science and art.[6] While there are guidelines which form the basis for such study, those guidelines are always at risk of being transcended by the artful needs of making sense of the texts before us. Dale Allison has argued that there is no “scientific method of determining allusions,” and this is true, but only if “scientific” means entirely objective and without room for interpretation.[7] The humanities should aim at being scientific in the sense of undertaking inquisitive and holistic study and theory-building.[8] Academic rigor and intuitive investigation must work hand in hand, always pressing for greater precision while recognizing the subjective nature of the endeavor.

Methodology must also not forget the transformative nature of textual reception.[9] The concept of transformation does not necessarily express corruption. Rather, transformation signals that no use of one text in another avoids recontextualizing, resituating, and/or reinterpreting that text. [10] Even for ancient authors who were intent on maintaining the exact wording and correct interpretation of an earlier text, their use of those texts transformed literary contexts. The various methodological spectrums suggested below are thus ways of determining the depth of transformation, translation, or transmutation occurring through each (re)use.

[1] Anders Runesson and Eve-Marie Becker, “Introduction: Reading Mark and Matthew Within and Beyond the First Century” in Mark and Matthew II: Comparative Readings: Reception History, Cultural Hermeneutics, and Theology (ed. E. Becker and A. Runesson, Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 1. [2] Frances M. Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Peabody, M.A.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 202. [3] See Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 310. Roy E. Ciampa, “Scriptural Language and Ideas” in As It Is Written: Studying Paul’s Use of Scripture (ed. S.E. Porter and C.D. Stanley, Atlanta: SBL Press, 2008), 46, 51. [4] Stanley, “Paul’s Use,” 129. [5] Umberto Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 24-5. On this, Eco writes, “Some contemporary theories of criticism assert that the only reliable reading of a text is a misreading, that the only existence of a text is given by the chain of responses it elicits…. Even if that were true, the words brought by the author are a rather embarrassing bunch of material evidences that the reader cannot pass over in silence, or in noise.” [6] Leonard, 264-5. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 309-10. Molly M. Zahn, “Identifying Reuse of Scripture in the Temple Scroll: Some Methodological Reflections” in A Teacher for All Generations: Essays in Honor of James C. VanderKam, Volume One (ed. E.F. Mason et al, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012), 357. [7] Emandi, 13-14. [8] Porter, “Use of OT in NT,” 94-6. [9] David Brugge, “General Reflections: Receptions and Transformations of the Bible in Literature” in Receptions and Transformations of the Bible: Religion and Normativity, Volume 2 (ed. K. Nielsen, Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2009), 20. Breed, 131, 134. Brugge comments that, “True, any reception includes a construction and so, to some extent, a transformation, just as every transformation implies reception. This is but a hermeneutical truism. In our everyday language, however, there is a difference of degree between the two concepts in question, of great use when forming a general view of the varied constellations of the Bible in literature. While reception simply indicates the pure act of receiving a certain text, transformation points to the change or metamorphosis that takes place.” [10] Although what is meant by transformations of each text is not our direct concern, Roman Jakobson helpfully discusses three forms of transformation: “1) Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal sings by means of others signs of the same language. 2) Interlingual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of some other language. 3) Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of nonverbal sign systems.” See Roman Jakobson, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation” in On Translation (ed. R.A. Brower, Cambridge Harvard University Press, 1959), 233.


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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