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date: 06 December 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This introductory article focuses on the meaning and practice of reception history. The reception of the Bible comprises every single act or word of interpretation of that book (or books) over the course of three millennia. Reception history, on the other hand, is usually a scholarly enterprise, consisting of selecting and collating shards of that infinite wealth of reception material in accordance with the particular interests of the historian concerned, and giving them a narrative frame. Reception history is grounded in the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002). Until recent years, reception work on the Bible was principally a German-language phenomenon. The best-known German-language theologian working in reception history is Ulrich Luz (1938–), and the context of his work and the responses of others to that work are briefly discussed. An overview of the two parts of the book is also presented.

Keywords: Bible, reception, reception history, Gadamer, Ulrich Luz

The reception of the Bible comprises every single act or word of interpretation of that book (or books) over the course of three millennia. It includes everything from Jesus reading Isaiah, or Augustine reading Romans, to a Sunday‐school nativity play, or the appearance of ‘2COR4:6’ as a stock number on military gunscopes.1 No one and nothing is excluded. Reception history, however, is a different matter. That is usually—although not always—a scholarly enterprise, consisting of selecting and collating shards of that infinite wealth of reception material in accordance with the particular interests of the historian concerned, and giving them a narrative frame. In other words, to get from the plenitude of reception to the finitude of reception history requires that historians of reception—like any others—envisage parameters: in particular, when reflecting on the history of responses to the Bible, whose responses do they deem to be of importance? That is the first, practical, question, and the second, which cannot be disentangled from it, is its theoretical counterpart: how is the choice of material to be justified, and to what end is it being marshalled? These questions are, as it were, the exegetical and hermeneutical faces of reception history, and it is the special character of reception history that they are thought of as interdependent facets of the same whole.

Reception history is grounded in the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans‐Georg Gadamer (1900–2002). One of Gadamer's accomplishments as a philosopher was to draw attention to the situated nature of all interpretive acts. This situatedness means more than acknowledging that, as an interpreter, I always work from within (p. 2) my historical locale; it means acknowledging that my very consciousness exists within that locale. Gadamer famously puts it this way:

History does not belong to us; we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self‐examination, we understand ourselves in a self‐evident way in the family, society, and state in which we live. The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self‐awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgements, constitute the historical reality of his being. (Truth and Method, 276–7)2

Gadamer's critique of individual subjectivity has a counterpart in his critique of the dominance of empirical method in intellectual enquiry. The exclusive focus on either subjective experience or empirical knowledge as interpretive paradigms might appear to present an irreconcilable binary, but Gadamer shows these two to be photographic positive and negative images, as it were, developed at the same historical moment. He demonstrates that the Romantic valorization of individual subjective experience is the reverse face of the Enlightenment empiricism whereby subjectivity is disregarded by the individual examining a particular object of study. The model of enquiry that Gadamer advocates is different: as I encounter the past, I must enter a dialogical relationship with it, gradually coming to recognize the alterity of my historical interlocutor, and in the process coming to recognize my own prejudices through that difference (prejudices are not anathema to Gadamer, they characterize historical consciousness itself). The understanding gained thereby is dialogical, and this rapprochement between interpreter and subject is sometimes described by Gadamer as a ‘fusion of horizons’ (ibid. 305) That metaphor provides a way of thinking about our relationship to the past that is distinct from the one‐way (object 7 subject) street of empiricism.

Gadamer is concerned with empiricism as an example of the Enlightenment valorization of ‘method’, whereby method appears to be a kind of practice that transcends context, that is above history, and that discounts the interpreter. From the Enlightenment, Gadamer argues, the hope grew that a trust and commitment to method alone would provide total understanding of human life. This burgeoning positivism came to be adopted not only in the natural sciences, but in the human sciences as well. The consequent evolution of a false binary of ‘reason’ and ‘tradition’ has impoverished human self‐understanding ever since. In making this argument, Gadamer is not, of course, disavowing empiricism, but is providing a critique of a historical tradition of interpretation. By showing that consciousness exists as an aspect of historical being, he is able to argue that, from an interpretive perspective, any looking out must, as it were, also mean a looking in. That looking in does not mean a focus on individual subjectivity, but rather implies taking (p. 3) account of the historically specific prejudices—the pre‐judgements—through which any one of us is granted the ability to think in the first place.

Gadamer argues that understanding comes from open‐minded, benevolent dialogue, and when linked to his attempts to recuperate tradition, this leads to him endorsing a way of thinking about the past that can be quite surprising to those schooled in a hermeneutics of suspicion. He depicts tradition as a kind of benevolent inheritance in which the acolyte may trust. The trusting, questioning relationship that can be developed with tradition is a paradigm of his dialogical model of truth. Given Gadamer's attempts to rehabilitate tradition in this way, it is perhaps unsurprising that his work has been so attractive to some theologians. To the relief of those disaffected by poststructuralism, Gadamer appears to provide a philosophically respectable oeuvre that is centrally concerned with the rehabilitation of tradition as something that may embody truth. But for those seeking the certitudes of the past this is a double‐edged sword, for the reclamation of tradition as a dialogue partner also demands the relinquishment of a foundationalist dream that the meaning of biblical (or indeed any) texts can be settled once and for all. The reason for this necessary relinquishment, of course, is that this hope is itself a hermeneutical sibling of the positivism discussed above.

How, then, have these factors played out in biblical studies? Until recent years reception work on the Bible was principally (though by no means exclusively) a German‐language phenomenon.3 The best‐known German‐language theologian working in reception history is Ulrich Luz (1938– ), and it is in the spirit of reception history to say a little about the context of his work and to quote from the responses of others to that work. Luz is known for his series of commentaries on Matthew's gospel, which pay particular attention to its reception history. Luz's work on Matthew comes out of—and makes sense in the context of—the Evangelisch‐Katholischer Kommentar series, which has its own interesting history. The series was born in the post‐Second World War situation of the need for rapprochement between Protestants and Catholics in the German‐speaking world, and is a deliberately ecumenical project which seeks to incorporate the best from the two traditions (the Protestant focus on historical criticism and the Catholic focus on what the church has taught) in a commentary format. The series is, as Ernest Best described it, a ‘joint effort by Catholic and Protestant scholars whose native language is German’, which ‘sets out to bridge the gap between the formal academic (p. 4) commentary useful to students for passing examinations and writing theses, and the commentary which the minister might use in sermon preparation.’4 Luz's model of reception history is, then, allied to a particular set of hermeneutical goals, and works within a particular scholarly, ecclesial, didactic, and homiletic tradition.

How, then, has Luz's work been received? In reviewing one of his Matthew commentaries in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Donald A. Hagner notes that Luz's reception work ‘provides exceptionally rich insight into what might be called the interpretive potential of each passage’, and that this has ‘revolutionary implications for traditional, historical‐critical exegesis in its quest of a single, objective meaning—the intention of the author’. Hagner's review brings out the double‐edged character of reception history mentioned earlier. On the positive side (for Hagner), Luz—as a practitioner of reception history—is opening up all sorts of new meanings in the biblical text, further disclosing its immense richness. But on the negative side (for Hagner), he is simultaneously surrendering the quest for a foundational meaning of that text. What concerns Hagner is that Luz puts the ‘new meanings’ of a text on the same level as the ‘original sense’, and therefore ‘what the author may have intended…is regarded as having no special importance’.5

Hagner's appeal to the ‘original sense’ suggests that he is working with a foundationalist hermeneutic which assumes that behind the biblical text's ‘supplementary’ meanings there must be an empirically verifiable original meaning. Aside from textual meanings not being empirically verifiable in the way that, say, the DNA sequence of a kingfisher may be, the search for an ‘original sense’ implies that original senses are singular, not plural. But of course it may be the case that ‘original meanings’ are themselves intrinsically multivalent, and that the hermeneutical genius of painters such as Rembrandt and writers such as Kierkegaard lies in their ability to sense and explore those multifaceted meanings. Reception history also picks up this variety of meanings by showing us different individuals and groups seeing the same texts from different angles. Seen in this way, empirical scholarly research is one more kind of exploration, not one that exists on a separate or superior plane, but one that can exist in dialogue with the others. It is not the purpose of this volume to make the argument against hermeneutical positivism— that discussion can be found in the works of a range of philosophers including Gadamer and Richard Rorty, and it is a premise rather than a conclusion of reception history. Nonetheless, even if we accept the idea of ‘tradition’ as a sort of contained multivalency, difficult questions still remain. In particular, what this volume must ask—because assumptions about this topic have been central to the (p. 5) reception work in biblical studies—is how decisions are reached about ‘tradition’ itself.

Luz's work demonstrates how the concept of ‘tradition’ can be a way of putting parameters on the multivalency of the biblical text by setting out what is and is not acceptable to the interpreter. As Hagner points out, it is not the case for Luz that ‘any or every interpretation of a text is acceptable’ (ibid., p. 767). Luz may not have a foundationalist commitment to the ‘original sense’ of the text, but in setting out parameters for separating ‘valid interpretations from false ones’ (ibid.) he has replaced that commitment with a different kind of foundationalism: a belief in what he calls the ‘ “trajectory” of biblical texts’ and ‘the totality of the Christian faith’ (p. 768), and what Hagner describes as ‘the essential elements of the history of Jesus and congruence with an expression of love’ (p. 767). This all sounds benevolently ecumenical, but the complication is that Luz's parameters are not universals: they are shaped by the very tradition that he then uses them to define. The ‘expression of love’, for example, is not simply a given, and certainly not something that is restricted to Christianity. There is a great deal of interpretive work packed into those parameters, and to the degree that Luz treats such concepts as givens—as they may be within his own theological/denominational setting—he is operating a kind of contextual foundationalism. This circularity raises concerns for critics such as Mark Elliott who writes, ‘I wonder: when it comes down to considering what the theological legacy of Matthew is, should we accept that Matthew had no more to say than moral advice and tips in favour of an ecclesiological identity? This could too easily be the way that Luz has “brokered” Matthew for scholarship and the Church.’6

It is impossible to judge these matters from the outside, because the experiential truth of a particular tradition may only be evident to those within it. Perhaps this suggests that if one is sure of one's own tradition, then the reception enterprise works well. But what if one inhabits a multicultural, multi‐disciplinary, multi‐faith environment—such as a university? In that case, what are the parameters of ‘validity’ to be? Or to come back to the beginning of this introduction, what material do we decide to interest ourselves in? Given the billions of individual lives shaped for better or worse by the Bible over the millennia, it is a contentious task to compile a work that says ‘in the total history of humankind's reading of the Bible, these are the voices that matter’. If this was, say, The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of Genesis amongst English Non‐Conformists, 1770–1800, then these parameters would already be provided, and the philosophical questions might be muted. But in the present case, the task—in terms of time, place, and religious tradition—is completely open‐ended, and this brings the hermeneutical questions that all reception history faces right to the fore.

(p. 6) It should now be apparent how the current volume differs from the kind of work that Luz does, because unlike his work, it is not attempting to found its discussion in a particular model of religious faith. In so far as the editors, the publishing press (OUP), and the majority of contributors share a tradition, it is that of the university. Yet almost the opposite is true of the subjects of discussion. From the outset the editors intended to foreground rather than occlude the hermeneutical questions raised above, and did so by commissioning a highly diverse set of responses to the Bible. The chapters include studies of the Bible not just of individuals and groups from Jewish and Christian backgrounds, but from Islamic, Hindu, Gnostic, and agnostic backgrounds too; the chronological range stretches from biblical times to the present day, and covers locations including Europe, India, Japan, Latin America and the United States. This diversity is also reflected in the contributors, who—despite largely sharing an academic background—are of any or no religious position, and write from many countries around the globe.

As a practice, reception history is undatable, as there is nothing new in collating the responses of different readers to a particular text: a scrapbook of reviews of a work, a collection of letters to an author responding to his or her writing, a gallery collection or museum exhibition—each of these may constitute a reception history. Nonetheless, the accompanying hermeneutical questions raised by the practice of reception history are often not in evidence. In the present case these are of great importance, because, as I suggested above, they put the question of who owns the Bible centre stage. Take one instance: the cover of this book. Other volumes in this series are adorned by details of venerable ancient manuscripts that have a reassuringly scholarly aura about them. We have chosen a photograph of a neon sign in Lampe, Missouri, beaming the message ‘Jesus is the light of the world’. Why? The image is a work by the US photographer Sam Fentress, who has spent twenty‐five years travelling his home country recording the ways in which the Bible—here a slightly modified John 8:12—has become a part of everyday life. Whether or not he thinks of himself in this way, Fentress is a kind of reception historian, and his work provides a complex, human insight into the place of the Bible in the United States. In engaging with this sort of work, this volume is not, however, ignoring the more traditional academic approach to reception history, but in the spirit of Gadamer is attempting to provide space for a dialogical relationship between what that has meant and what that might mean, between the dominant scholarly lines of interpretation of a range of biblical books, and new scholarly readings of moments of biblical reception, many of which have not been part of that tradition. Our challenge, then, in planning and editing this book has been to provide a structure in which the essential movement—the dialogue between the traditional and the novel—can be made visible. To this end, the volume is in two parts.

The chapters in Part I provide a survey of the outline, form, and content of a number of key biblical books which have been influential in the history of interpretation. (p. 7) In most cases7 these chapters provide an overview of scholarly post‐Enlightenment readings of the form and content of each book. This tradition provides a helpful panoramic view against which to locate the more specific case studies of Part II, and gives readers some sense of the features of our selected biblical books which have led to particular readings in the history of interpretation. The following books are considered in this first section: Genesis, Judges, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, the Gospel of John, Romans, First Corinthians, Galatians, Revelation. Part II offers a series of in‐depth case studies of particular key passages or books with due regard for the specificity of their socio‐historical context. There is no attempt to be exhaustive in coverage of either books or contexts. These case studies are deliberately close readings which show the contingent character of the particular interpretations in question, and in some cases the relationship of this character to wider patterns of interpretation. We have aimed to ensure that a range of different historical circumstances and different books and methods of interpretation are covered. Many of the chapters consider the specific appropriation of a particular book at a particular time and place. To take some examples of the variety of what is to come: Jo Carruthers looks at the celebration of Purim at Terezin, a transit camp, and at the incorporation of the figure of Hitler into the celebration of Purim during the Second World War; John Hedley Brooke examines the 1860 debate and intellectual fall‐out in Oxford between Wilberforce and Huxley over the relationship of Genesis 1–2 to the new work on evolution; Jay Emerson Johnson scrutinizes the impact on the Anglican communion of the conventional wisdom that ‘sodomy’ in Genesis 19 concerns a sexual act; Robin Griffith‐Jones takes another contemporary starting‐point: Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and—resisting the temptation to dismiss this as an ‘airport novel’—uses it to open out current assumptions about Jesus' marital status that inhibit readers from seeing, for example, the echoes of Adam and Eve in the encounter of Jesus and Mary in the Garden in John 20; Zoë Bennett examines John Ruskin annotating a page of a manuscript medieval Gospel lectionary in the unspoken context of his grief over the death of Rose la Touche. In addition, there are chapters on artists who have—in astonishingly innovative and diverse ways—reimagined the Bible in different media: Dante, Handel, Blake, and Bob Dylan; and theologians who have rethought the same: Luther wrestling with Galatians, Barth with Romans, Augustine and Pelagius likewise, and Kierkegaard with Matthew 6. There are also chapters that provide wider surveys of hermeneutical appropriation, notably Valentine Cunningham's concluding chapter on the sometimes parasitic, sometimes symbiotic relationships of biblical studies, literary studies, and cultural theory.

As this brief overview indicates, we have not tried to establish a consensus view on reception history, but what we hope to reflect is that no individual, school, or group does or can own biblical reception. There is, and can be, no single common (p. 8) denominator between these readings, as their richness and value lies in their multiplicity and diversity. Nonetheless, even though there is not quite a dialogue going on between these pieces, there is often a sense of them coexisting in a world in which they share the same hermeneutical strategies without even knowing it. It is a thought‐provoking and disconcerting experience, for example, to read alongside one another Michael Lieb's discussion of Black Nationalism and anti‐Semitism in the Nation of Islam; Brad Braxton's discussion of contemporary African American preaching that endorses economic materialism at the cost of forgetting its own history of exploitation; Jay Emerson Johnson's mention of African American readings of the New Testament that critique Paul on slavery, but accept him on sexuality; Peter Clarke's discussion of the Rastafarian apocalyptic vision of a holocaust of all whites; and Ann Loades's discussion of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose abolitionist husband would not make a stand on women's rights for fear it would undermine his work on slavery.

In the case of the present volume, the material is hermeneutically stimulating precisely because it will not coalesce. The more history of reception of the Bible one reads, the clearer it becomes that the human importance of the Bible does not lie in a single foundational meaning that, by dint of scholarly effort, may finally be revealed. This is not a resignation to postmodernism, but an acknowledgment that both inside and outside the doors of academia all of us live in a changing world in which engagements with the Bible are themselves ever changing. It is a world in which there are always new engagements between readers and the Bible (or ‘Bibles’, as that text shifts according to manuscript translation and tradition), and those engagements will never stabilize. No amount of taxonomical or theological effort will alter this, as the matter is ontological, not pragmatic: individually and corporately, we change through time; in its singleness and multiplicity the Bible changes too. In describing this relationship between texts and readers, empirical studies can only provide half the story, as reading itself is a process full of mystery: the quiet translocation of the reader into other times and scenes, the silent communion with voices long dead. The act of reading is both as light and present, and as dark and inscrutable, as consciousness itself. There can be no meaning except through the conjunction of readers and texts, and at no point can a clear line be drawn to divide where texts end and readers begin. The reception history of the Bible is the practice of making worldly records of those manifest and mysterious individual and corporate experiences of the biblical text. It is a recognition of the dynamic, living relationship between texts and readers, rather than an attempt to isolate and stabilize textual meanings from the mutability of human life.


(2) Hans‐Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G Marshall, 2nd edn. (London: Continuum, 2004).

(3) This balance has changed in recent years, principally due to the publication of the Blackwell Bible Commentaries series, which is devoted to the reception history of the Bible down the centuries and explores the influence of the Bible on literature, art, music, and film, its role in the evolution of religious beliefs and practices, and its impact on social and political developments. It departs from the dominant paradigm in biblical studies whose major preoccupation is with questions of sources, date, authorship, and above all the original intention, and instead sees all these as part of the history of interpretation and not the foundation upon which other forms of interpretation may be built.

(4) Ernest Best, ‘Recent Foreign New Testament Literature’, Expository Times, 93: 1 (1981), 13–18, at 13.

(5) Donald A. Hagner, ‘Review: Matthew 8–20, by Ulrich Luz. Trans. James E. Crouch. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001’., Journal of Biblical Literature, 121: 4 (Winter 2002), 766–9 at 768.

(6) Mark W. Elliott, ‘Effective‐history and hermeneutics of Ulrich Luz’, JSNT, 33:2 (forthcoming).

(7) There is no set formula here. David Gunn's essay on Judges, for example, forms a crossover piece anticipating elements of Parts II in Part I Study.