Spectrums of Scripture: Introducing a Spectral Approach

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.

axes-outline-3d_cartesian_coordinate_systemIn addressing the questions of how to determine when one text is received by another text and in what ways texts are received in other texts, scholarship has turned to two conceptual schemata: the proposal of criteria lists and the use of spectrums. The spectrum or continuum concept remains particularly popular among those working with the Second Temple era literature oft termed “Rewritten Bible.” By using spectrums, Molly Zahn notes, “the various texts that rework Scripture can be plotted, from texts that depart relatively infrequently and in more minor ways from the scriptural text as known from elsewhere to those that make frequent, major changes.”[1]

I propose building on the practice of using spectrums to discuss the relationships of texts, albeit with some changes to current model. Instead of advocating consideration of one spectrum, more appropriate for the varying ways in which ancient writers deployed sources is a “three dimension Cartesian coordinate system.”[2] In this system, the first axis plots the spectrum of verbal correspondences, including quotation, allusion, and echo. The second axis charts thematic correspondences, including thematic explication, typology, and thematic echo. The third axis graphs correspondences of authority ranging from formal quotation to unknown or passing references. This spectral system offers a map to the varieties of late antique citations.[3]

In order to populate these spectrums, I turn to the other major schematic impulse of scholarship considering ancient textual relationships. In seeking to recognize, categorize, and understand the differing ways in which late antique writers employ sources in their writings scholars have often posited criteria checklists, as noted above. While this study adopts no single existing, this impulse toward careful definition of criteria remains intact. My argument suggests that scholars have tended toward the creation of an overarching list of criteria without recognizing the different levels on which each citation of a text was functioning.[4] For example, 1 Clement includes a citation of a saying of Jesus (46:8), a narrative summary of Judith and Esther (55:3-6), and a thematic prayer (59-60). While each of these passages reveals something about Clement’s knowledge and use of other texts, scholarship flattens the details of the presentation by tending to only talk about quotations, allusions, or genre.

To allow such passages to “speak on their own terms,” we must recognize the different verbal, thematic, and authoritative substantiations that influenced their inclusion in a work of late antiquity. Therefore, given my postulation of different spectral axes, it follows that we might rightly have distinct groups of criteria for each spectrum. In contrast to some scholarship, however, these criteria function less as requirements for crossing the threshold of being a “quotation” or an “allusion” and serve more as guidelines for where to locate a particular text’s reception of another along the map of possibilities. The number of criterion benchmarks need not bear unnecessary weight. Instead, locating which criterion are satisfied allows us to speak more precisely about how these sources appear in the texts being examined. The parameters of this model in hand, I now turn to consideration of the verbal, thematic, and authoritative spectrums.

[1] Molly M. Zahn, Rethinking Rewritten Scripture: Composition and Exegesis in the 4QReworked Pentateuch Manuscripts (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011), 8. [2] See Appendix A below. Thanks to Samuel Prahlow for his assistance with the mathematics and terminology behind this concept, which is also sometimes called a “3D Cartesian Plane for 2D.” [3] Brennan Breed’s discussion of mapping stands as the creative impetus for this model, particularly his argument that reception history “involves mapping the garden in which the paths fork.” See Breed, 138. See also Daniel A. Machiela, “Once More, With Feeling: Rewritten Scripture in Ancient Judaism—A Review of Recent Developments,” Journal of Jewish Studies 61.2 (2010): 312-3. [4] Zahn (Rethinking, 10) points toward this when she writes that the “distinction between quantity of difference and quality of difference is critical to a proper understanding….”


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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