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Brian Mitchell

"How far apart, after all, are 1922 and 2011?"

My, high school history instructor once said to me "History doesn't repeat it rhythms" and, I have found that to be the case especially in regards to the study of the Biblical text. It appears that trends come and go in patterns every so many decades. People, continue to ask the same question of the text or against the text that have been brought up years before and have equally been answered.

This is ironically where Reception history might come in usefully if it is defined as, exploring "the diverse ways in which the Bible has been interpreted, including its reception in different cultural media, such as literature, art and music."

I am a proponent of the historical-grammatical method and of the so called lower criticism of the Bible. And, while for my opinion those are the standard I like you respect right of others to engaged the texts in other various ways.

But, then again
"without morphology there is no theology"
attributed to Peter Gentry


Hi Brian,

It is instructive to study the reception history of biblical literature. It is a great intellectual adventure.

But frankly, the study of biblical literature according to the classical disciplines of lower and higher criticism is an even greater intellectual adventure, and ought to take precedence over the other.

By the way, you too practice higher criticism. It cannot be avoided. Higher criticism involves among other things genre identification. For example, identify the genre of Psalm 72:12-14. Is the narrative historical or mythological and in what sense(s)?

These are higher critical questions, and those who resist dealing with them risk drowning in a sea of obscurantism.

Brennan Breed

Sorry, but I couldn't help but notice that you agreed with C. Heard when he wrote:
"Reception history does not assign an ideological primacy to singular textual meanings ‘uncovered’ by historical-critical exegesis."

But then you just wrote:
"But frankly, the study of biblical literature according to the classical disciplines of lower and higher criticism is an even greater intellectual adventure [than reception history], and ought to take precedence over the other."

So you think that Boer wrongly critiqued reception historians for assuming the primacy of historical-critical exegesis, but then you asserted the precedence of historical-critical exegesis? I am not quite sure why you bothered to critique Roland, then. Or am I misunderstanding?


Hi Brennan,

Nice to hear from you. I believe I heard a paper of yours at an SBL meeting. You are an engaging speaker.

Here's the deal. I am not a reception historian. The best exegesis I can think of is the kind von Rad was famous for, a vital brew shaped by historical, literary, and theological sensibilities.

I am open however to the insights of reception historians. In fact, I depend on their insights when I teach, since I teach a course at a state university whose focus is "The Bible and Current Events." I teach it attuned to the very kind of questions Roland Boer majors in, with, ahem, slightly different results.

It is undeniable that the reception historians Chris Heard cites, and perhaps Chris himself, do not assign primacy to a discussion and understanding of the kind of questions the traditional disciplines of lower and higher criticism treat.

If you wish, I believe Roland is wrong on two counts, whereas I think Sawyer and Callaway are wrong on one count only. If I am not being clear enough, let me know.

Brennan Breed


Thanks for your response–and for the compliment. Likewise, you are an engaging writer.

Perhaps I could ask one further question. You wrote that you seek the "meaning presumed to have existed at the intersection of ancient author and reader... specific to its time and place, a meaning that deserves to be understood as primary even if we can only seek to recover it." I appreciate that you don't locate the meaning of a text in the mind of the author (since the "intersection of ancient author and reader" moves beyond the author-centric approach.) But what, then, do we do with texts whose production spans many different contexts, so that readers would necessarily interpret the text differently? Take, for example, the story of Noah. We already have layers of text within the text itself, and these even build from previous stories emanating from a different culture. At what intersection among these many intersections do we locate the meaning "specific to its time and place," and what do we do with all of these other meanings? How should we read texts which are themselves receptions of previous texts that are also contained in those very texts? In my own opinion, it seems that, in many cases, it is "reception all the way down." I'm not sure how we decide which layer of the layer cake is the one with the meaning that deserves to be understood as primary. Do you have any thoughts on these admittedly ill-formed questions?


Hi Brennan,

With respect to the specific example of the Noah seder, I defer to Angela Roskop who sometimes comments on these threads. She has, I'm guessing, thought this through, certainly more than I have.

The general question again:

"But what, then, do we do with texts whose production spans many different contexts, so that readers would necessarily interpret the text differently?"

I would want to interpret the text first of all in its finished state, the text as we have it, and put myself at the intersection of the author of the finished state and the intended addressees of the finished state.

What I am arguing is that the finished cake deserves to be privileged in the act of interpretation. Once one has read the cake from the point of view of the one who finished the cake and those whom that same author wanted to eat the cake, it's possible to go on and read the apparent layers of cake separately, on their own. It's also possible to examine the way the cake has been read by successive generations in contexts beyond the horizon of the text per se.

Let me illustrate with another example, the book of Jeremiah. We have two editions of the book, both of which may be quite early in most respects. Regardless, it makes sense to try to understand the ways the particular shapes of each responds to particular situations, how each final form reflects an attempt by an author/ redactor to create meaning in conjunction with intended addressees.

That's primary. It is a relatively secure and logical starting point. Beyond that, one might choose to go behind the text as we have it in order to construe the text as it would have been construed in a pre-book context. Jeremiah's temple sermon might be read, in fact, often has been read, by trying to walk again in the shoes of those who would have heard him say something like what J is reported to have said in that context. I have no issue with that, nor for example with looking at Jeremiah from the point of view of the parabiblical materials based on Jeremiah from Qumran.

The value of a common starting point, however, should not be underestimated. Perhaps however I am trying to define that starting point too narrowly, or not narrowly enough.

Angela Erisman

Thanks, John, for inviting me to weigh in. Brennan, I think your question about the layers of reception and where we locate meaning is important. I don't have a thoroughly thought-through answer, but I can offer a couple of relevant observations.

An author writes a text in order to convey some sort of message to some envisioned audience. I agree with John that an effort to recover this as best we can is a crucial starting point.

With the flood story, it is important to recognize that the purpose of different versions (Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, Greek versions, Noah) is not to explicate the previous version, but to use it as a tool for some larger thematic purpose. To put it differently, they are playing with a tradition. So, on one level, to ask whether the authors of Gen 6-9 were honest to what the author of Atrahasis was trying to communicate to his audience is missing the boat entirely, because that wasn't their goal. They were riffing on/playing with cultural tradition to communicate something to their own audience.

Of course each of the layers of the Noah story in Genesis should be taken as its own situation as well. The Priestly version changes details, theme, and message in the story, and his version seems to dominate the composite, but we've got them both. When we read Gen 6-9 in the Bibles we now have is itself the residue of reception history.

Perhaps we should look at things a bit differently when the "reception" of a text claims (explicitly or implicitly) to be offering an interpretation. The example that comes to mind (and I do not know for sure if it is a good one) is the story of Adam and Eve. Taken on its own, it's an etiology for a lot of the way life is; a parable about the human condition, you might say. Of course, when you put Jesus on the other end of the Bible and throw some early church fathers in there, you get a Fall from grace complete with the temptation of Satan. That latter reading is clearly a very meaningful and significant one within the Christian tradition, even if it plays a bit fast and loose with some of the nitty gritty details of Gen 2-3 as its author shaped it to communicate to a pre-Christian audience.

While I agree with John in general about the primacy of the meaning for the initial author and audience, this is a case of reception history that has always challenged me, precisely because the reading of this text is so significant within the Christian community. I am frankly not sure how to resolve that tension. But I am also, frankly, o.k. just sitting with it, noticing it, navigating it, and accepting it for what it is as part of the history of the Bible, just like I do when I read Genesis.

I like John's framing of a historical-critical reading as a "logical starting point." Even in the Gen 2-3 example, it can be hard to see what early Christian exegetes were doing with this text and why if we don't have that backdrop of its shape and meaning in its pre-Christian context. For what it's worth, the same is true for Gen 6-9 and Atrahasis.

Brennan Breed

John and Angela,

Thanks for taking the time to respond. I appreciate your willingness to discuss these issues.

John's Jeremiah example helps at first glance, but I think it brings up as many questions as it seems to answer. (Let me preface this by saying that I am no expert on Jeremiah, but I know enough to respond a bit.) You begin by stating that we have two "finished" versions, the proto-OG and the proto-MT. But these are both, at some level, expansions of earlier texts (as the presence of Jer 10:11 in both proto-OG and proto-MT shows). And the process did not stop with the proto-OG or the proto-MT texts, either (as the very label "proto" suggests). So there are, as any text critic soon finds, many separate layers of Jeremiah, some more recoverable than others. But it seems to me that we can see at least three layers of Jeremiah: (1) proto-proto-OG/MT Jeremiah (which, say, had no Jer 10:11 and other redactions that appear in both proto-OG and proto-MT - which suggests another pre-redactional layer even under layer (1)), (2) proto-OG and proto LXX-Jeremiah, and (3) OG/LXX (itself a shifting process) and MT (likewise not a mnolithic textual tradition). What I am saying is this: I am not sure why the cake is presumed "finished" at one of these points. I assume that lots of these texts were presumed "finished" by various communities, but they continued to be altered by others. Who gets to determine the moment that the cake becomes "finished" for everybody on earth (for it to be a logical starting point, it has to be non-sectarian, and thus necessary), and why them? Perhaps this carries the metaphor too far, but it looks to me like we have lots of cakes that people kept adding to, and you are pointing at the middle of one of the cakes and saying it's clearly the endpoint. A starting point like that isn't, to my mind, logical, or necessary- it seems contingent. One could see this perhaps more clearly in the example of Daniel- is Bel and the Dragon part of the finished book of Daniel, or is it reception of the Daniel tradition? It was part of Daniel for many Christians, and for some it still is. How does one judge the position of the last layer of the Daniel story? (Or think of the Samaritan Pentateuch- does that prove that the Torah was not yet finished at the proto-MT stage? I like my MT, but that's not a logical, necessary reason to judge the SamPent a reception rather than a text).

This brings up Angela's comment- she claims that it's the author's intention that creates the moment that we should reclaim as the "meaning" of that text. Permit me to quote a bit of Angela's comment about the Noah story:

"the purpose of different versions (Atrahasis, Gilgamesh, Greek versions, Noah) is not to explicate the previous version, but to use it as a tool for some larger thematic purpose. To put it differently, they are playing with a tradition. So, on one level, to ask whether the authors of Gen 6-9 were honest to what the author of Atrahasis was trying to communicate to his audience is missing the boat entirely, because that wasn't their goal. They were riffing on/playing with cultural tradition to communicate something to their own audience."

It is probably true (though hard to know for sure) that the folks who shaped, say, the P-version of the Noah story were using a previous version of the story for some particular intended purpose. But it seems to me that, when somebody uses a popular story from tradition for their own purposes, they can't be in full control of all the effects that story creates for their hearing/reading public. There always seems to be some "residue" or "sedimentation" that comes with the story that could amplify or contradict, or whatever, the intention of the author - but this is precisely beyond the author's control. When, say, Sarah Palin co-opts a story from the Revolutionary War, she can't make it do whatever she pleases- it is bigger than her intentions, and can sometimes "fight back" against appropriation. In other words, traditions are bigger than authors, and as such the author usually isn't the absolute master of what tradition says. Take the Noah story- it wasn't made up by the author-redactors of P, or the non-P version, or etcetera. Is every little detail about the P-Noah story supposed to communicate some determinate content to the audience of P? Isn' t the ideology implicit in the cosmology of the ANE something beyond the purview of P? And this gets us back to John's point- in a layer cake, the last person to put the cherry on top probably doesn't "mean" the whole text in any particular way- the "last redactor" of the book of Proverbs, say, inherited most of that sprawling book, and so may not even have "intended" parts of it. It was a traditional text- that is, it had to be handed down, albeit at times altered as it was handed down.

I do heartily agree with Angela's comment about the importance of history: "it can be hard to see what early Christian exegetes were doing with this text and why if we don't have that backdrop of its shape and meaning in its pre-Christian context."

But I am less sure about the criteria by which we judge any point along this conjoined history of composition-transmission to be the "logical starting point" of analysis wherein the "primary" meaning is to be found.

Any thoughts would be most welcome. These are difficult issues, and I hope I don't sound combative. On the contrary, I am very glad to hear any criticism of my comments.

Angela Erisman

Brennan, I did not claim that the author's intent controls meaning, but that meaning sits in an act of communication that takes place between an author who creates a text and reader who reads it. The author shapes a text in order to create certain possibilities of meaning (or, put differently, to constrain and guide our process of reading and getting meaning out of it), but once that's done, it's out of his or her control, and what we take to be the meaning of a text happens in our brains as we read it—shaped and constrained, of course, by the text (among other things). In other words, we as readers have a lot to do with what counts for the meaning of a text, but we don't get to make it up. For a fuller exposition of this (which is not unique to me by any means, but I do spell it out), see chapter 2 of my forthcoming book, The Wilderness Itineraries: Genre, Geography, and the Growth of Torah.

You are surely right that a well-known tradition may play a role in how a reader interprets even a new twist on it. But it is not necessarily a control, such that one can't legitimately play with the tradition. For a musical example, take Mozart's variations on what we now call "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Nobody listens to that and says, "Hey, Wolfgang, how come you didn't stick to the original?" We get that he is playing with a tradition we know. What's more, because we know the tradition, we can see and appreciate what he's doing with it (which is really fun, by the way, if you don't know the piece). We're facing the same kind of thing when we see an ancient author play with a tradition. Heck, most of literature works this way. Should we berate Milton because he didn't stick in sensu stricto to the Bible?

Your Sarah Palin example falls in a different category, because we don't judge her to be deliberately and creatively playing with American history. It seems as though (from the initial incident and especially the interviews after, where she explicitly claimed she got it right) she really thought she was representing history accurately.

But, since her twisted version of Paul Revere did serve an ideological point (anti-gun control), let's say for the sake of argument that she knows the accurate history and was deliberately twisting it to serve her point. We might rightly judge that to be nefarious because she did give the impression that she intended to provide accurate foundation in history for a modern ideological and policy position. If that's the case, she intended to mislead by distorting history while claiming it was accurate.

(Of course, she did this casually and on the spot, which suggests the first interpretation is right. Still, note to self: Don't open your mouth about things you haven't got a clue about, especially in front of a camera, unless you want to end up looking like a complete fool.)

I take that to be different from what the scribes who wrote Gilgamesh or the Genesis flood story were doing with a cultural tradition — first, because there's no claim to accurately represent a tradition (and study of the comparisons clearly suggests that's not what's going on), and second, the tradition is something that is fluid in the first place, so there is more room for play than there would be with the facts of history.

Perhaps how we respond to such things is an act of exegesis itself. We do so based on judgments about the nature of the material at issue (genre), the nature of the speaker/author's claims (part of rhetoric), etc. A thought to ponder.

Brennan Breed


Thanks for your response. I think my comments have not been very clear- and I do apologize for misunderstanding your take on authorial intent.

But perhaps I can try to state more clearly my main question: When we look at Genesis, we find overlapping authorial intents (the intents of the ancient storytellers whose work forms the foundation of the Noah story, of the authors of the various particular texts within Gen 6-9, and the various redactors who put all of these together) and overlapping contexts of audiences (the audiences of the precursors, and of the oral stories underlying the written ones, and of the early written forms, and of the redacted written forms, and of the various Second Temple audiences that heard this redacted version). Which of these authors and audiences deserves to be the "primary" author and audience, and why? What necessary, objective criteria do we use to judge the identity of the "primary" author and audience of the text(s) of Genesis 6-9? We have overlapping authorial work (redactors reuse previous texts which reuse previous stories and motifs) and a series of quite different audiences to whom these words were directed. John seems to suggest that the final redaction gives us the proper author and audience with which to form this matrix of meaning. But I am not sure how we decide what's finished and what is not yet finished - that is, what criteria, besides the authority of religious communities (for there are many of these, and they give varied answers) can help us find a starting point that is logical, and thus not contingent? On the other hand, you seem to say that each text has an author and an audience, and we should divide up the text into its constitutive parts that each had an author and an audience in order to analyze them. But I wonder about the redactors who stitched these stories together- should we not also analyze these stories in that setting, as John suggests (though, I would caution, not considered as "primary" to which all others- the setting of P, say - would be "secondary")? But if we are looking at the multiple settings of the development of this text, and not considering any one as primary, shouldn't we then assume that it is "reception all the way down"?

In the example of Sarah Palin, I was merely saying that she isn't fully in control of the tradition of Paul Revere no matter how hard she tries to imprint her intent (whatever that may be) upon it. I'd say the same with the author-redactors of the Genesis flood story, too. As you say, "The author shapes a text in order to create certain possibilities of meaning," but I think there are lots of things that shape the text in ways outside of the author's consciousness that nevertheless constrain and guide reading. Say, the semantic possibilities that exist when a particular text is inscribed.

As a particular example, maybe I can point to something James Barr said about distinguishing the words of Amos from the words of a redactor. As Barr writes: “The words of (say) the prophet Amos must mean what they meant in the language system of the time of Amos, [but] the words of a commentator or glossator three centuries later must be understood as they functioned in the language of his time.” According to Barr, the primary critical task confronting biblical scholarship is the identification of various unified textual strata, while the derivative tasks involve identifying each strata’s historical context of production, recreating the synchronic language systems of those contexts, and then reading these texts within the semantic constraints of those language systems. If the scholar fails to do so properly, disaster awaits: “Serious mistakes can be made by reading biblical Hebrew words with the sense that the same word had some centuries later.”

As Barr argues, Amos’ words must mean what they meant at the time of Amos, and the glossator’s words must be understood in the language of his time. But what does one do when the same words are the words of Amos and the words of a redactor? John Sawyer provides an example of this very problem by noting a scribal re-writing within the biblical text that divides Amos’ meaning from a later reading:

"What does wehelilu širot hekal in Amos 8:3 mean? It seems likely that wehelilu šarot hekal ‘the palace singing-girls will wail’ is what Amos actually said, and that he was addressing this judgment oracle to the high-living royal establishment at Samaria. The reasons for the change to širot hekal in the masoretic tradition would then be straightforward: hekal in Jerusalem denoted ‘temple’ rather than ‘palace’…and while there may have been širot ‘songs’ in the temple, there were certainly no šarot ‘singing girls’. For the masoretic tradition, followed by AV and RSV, the original meaning of these words, as they were understood in Samaria in the eighth century BC [sic], would have been of purely academic interest, whereas the words as they stand are addressed to Jerusalem and foretell the destruction of the temple in 587 BC [sic]… The decision on what it means today [i.e. in translation] depends on arbitrary considerations…"

Amos was describing Samarian female palace-singers, but the redactors certainly understood this phrase - and the masoretes pointed it as - a description of laments ringing through the temple, understood to be a reference to the temple in Jerusalem. I can't help but conclude that Barr’s distinction between “Amos’ words” and the “glossator’s words” is a misleading distinction, since the same words are sedimented with multiple meanings before the book of Amos was “finished.”

I know this leads us into all sorts of troubles, but I am not sure how to decide who gets to be the "logical starting point" in the mess of complex and multiply-traditioned biblical texts. What criteria could there be besides the authority of a religious community, or some aesthetic principle, or something that could help us decide?

Sorry this is so long. Perhaps I should break these long comments up.

Angela Erisman

Perhaps the way out of those troubles (and I'm thinking out loud here) is to realize that a text is never really finished. Even when a text becomes more or less ossified within a community, a body of interpretation builds around it, the goal of which is to explain and apply the text for the sake of people in successive generations and different cultural contexts. This, in effect, keeps the text alive. But of course our perception of the text changes in the process, sometimes quite significantly.

In fact, it makes quite a bit of sense to see the composition history of the texts themselves as part of this very same process (albeit a part that took place before the text became ossified). I tend to prefer work with a supplementary model for composition history rather than a documentary model, so I don't see "redactors" quite the same way you do; these guys sometimes profoundly changed the shape and meaning of the text as they reworked it, sometimes quite substantially. (Some good examples of this in my book.) But the previous versions were kept there to be had.

Which meaning is primary? Frankly, I'm not sure that framing of the question is meaningful to me, because it implies that one meaning or one view should trump all others. The anthological character of the Tanakh itself resists such an approach. In terms of the layers of the Torah: They're all there to be had. Take them for what they are. Yes, the later writers changed the shape of the text, but we can in some places still see what he changed and recover other texts, with their own meanings, that we can take from what we will.

I might frame the issue differently. The range of meanings that might have been produced in the historical context in which a text (or a layer of it) was composed and initially read is "primary" in the sense that all later readings should be in dialogue with it in one way or another. Assumptions, worldviews, even meanings of words change (as you point out), and all of this influences how we read. The farther away we get (in space, time, or culture) from it, the harder it is to be in dialogue with it, the more we have to work to understand it.

Later interpretations (whether later redactional layers or later interpretations after the ossification of a text) continue to have value, so I wouldn't go on the search for "the" primary meaning. Texts are often quite multivalent, and I think we should let them be that. But of course the fact that there is more than one way to interpret and apply a text doesn't mean that anything goes. Sometimes later interpretations or applications are just plain wrong/misguided, and understanding that initial historical and cultural context as well as we can is one important basis for evaluating. I can't speak for John, of course, but I sense that this is what he may be getting after.

Thank you for the opportunity to think about these issues. They are indeed complicated, but very, very important.


Great discussion. I doubt I can add anything of significance to it.

Still, I think the logical starting point for the interpretation of Amos 8:3 is the Masoretic Text. From there it is legitimate to go backwards and forwards. It's a great example because the MT presents us with a text that has to be read on two levels simultaneously, or at least can be, once one notices that the text as it would have been intended by Amos would have been otherwise vocalized.

The layeredness of the MT, after all, is not a strike against it. I am reminded of a point made long ago by Sean McEvenue:

The Bible, taken with all its diverse meanings, demands of its reader the range of vision which can be defined as the Christian vision.

Sean McEvenue, “The Old Testament, Scripture or Theology?” Interpretation 25 (1981) 229-242; 242.

Brennan Breed


I very much concur with your statements that "a text is never really finished" and "the composition history of the texts themselves as part of this very same process." This is why I think that we hurt ourselves more than we help by drawing boundaries between historical criticism (understood as a study of the "original" text and its "original context") and reception history. I think ultimately Boer is right, if only because treating reception history as "everything that happened after the stuff historical criticism looks at" functionally reproduces the same ideology. But I am not sure that your conclusion escapes this same subtle dichotomy (as you wrote, "The range of meanings that might have been produced in the historical context in which a text (or a layer of it) was composed and initially read is "primary" in the sense that all later readings should be in dialogue with it in one way or another" - I am not sure why it is necessary for all later readings to be in dialogue with one moment rather than another if we have established that these moments are contingent.) I may be misunderstanding your point, but I do think that we must be suspicious of any claims that seem to center around a divide between "original" and "later".


I confess that I cannot understand your reply. You seem to agree that the MT is a contingent moment (itself changing!) within a broader spectrum of text forms, but you then again assert that this is a logical starting point. What is the logical criteria which leads you to this conclusion? If I were to say, "the proto-Samaritan Pentateuch is the logical place to begin," how would you respond?

Thanks for your thoughts.



I would reply that the proto-Samaritan Pentateuch might well be a logical starting point for a practitioner of text-criticism (not a likely scenario) in the Samaritan community.

But for Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, the logical starting point, or at least *a* starting point of unique interest, is the (proto-) MT.

Barthelemy has argued this in great detail in the context of the massive textual commentary of the Old Testament he oversaw (in French and still not completely published). Childs came to similar conclusions by a different route. From a Jewish perspective, Tsevat conceded that MT 1-2 Samuel is defective on some definitions but is still the logical starting point for exegesis.

On the other hand, I am perfectly willing to accept that from your perspective, all texts are created equal. Fine, but I'm not convinced that your position is neutral either.

Perhaps we can agree thus far, that whatever text we take to be the logical starting point will be the function of a complex set of loyalties in tension, if in fact we do scholarship from within a complex set of cultural and professional locations.

I trust that you were not expecting a different conclusion to this conversation than the one we've reached. I would think that this topic is an inherently intractable one in the sense that bridge-building is possible, but not total consensus.

Put another way, I think canonical commentaries like those of Childs on Exodus and Fishbane on the Haftarot are marvelous. All the various levels (if not all the texts) receive attention. Still, MT is the point of departure in both cases. I remain convinced that this is logical from any number of points of view, confessional and non-confessional.

But I concede that a neutral approach is, at least on the face of it, also defensible.

Brennan Breed


Thanks for your reply. I am not 'neutral' if by that you mean disinterested. I am a Christian, but one who is trying to take very seriously the objectively problematic nature of the biblical text. For me, the idea of the final form does not explain or justify anything - rather, it is something that itself needs to be explained and justified. So many different forms of the biblical text have informed and produced Christianity (among many other religions and ideologies) that I think it is important to acknowledge that there is no form that is in any sense final. The Bible is a productive thing, and that includes its own continuing production. We miss this if we use a concept such as the 'final form' to reduce the multiplicity of biblical texts to something singular. At least, this is what I am struggling with. I understand if you don't care to continue building this bridge.


On the contrary, I am happy to continue working on this and many other bridges.

Here's another way to think about the question. Given that the MT has been taken as the logical, or at least the de facto starting point for treatment of the biblical text, at least for a widening circle of Jews, Protestants, Catholics, and beyond, what would an alternative look like, in terms of a commentary format?

I have already stated my preferences - the models of OTL Exodus and JPSBC Haftarot - for their rich attention to reception history.

Brennan Breed


This is a good thought experiment.

It seems to me that commentators usually see it as their job to close down discussions. One lays out the options, assesses them, and says which one is the real meaning, or the like. I do like commentaries that show other options, and these are usually historical interpretations. Childs and Fishbane are good examples. Usually, these take the form of "the text used to mean this singular, determinate thing, but then these other interpreters did other things with the text." A sort of E.D. Hirsch approach (meaning versus significance). But instead, I think it would be much better for commentators to see it as their job to open up discussions, even in the domain usually traversed by historical criticism.

For example, Michael Fox offers three possible meanings for the word אמון in Proverbs 8:30: either it means (1) artisan, (2) constantly/faithfully, or (3) nurturing/growing up. Of the three, Fox selects “growing up,” reading the word as an infinitive absolute working as an adverbial complement. While Fox concludes that it is possible to construe the text in a limited number of ways, he assumes that one reading in particular is not only possible according to the historical context, including its semantics and syntax, but that it also existed in reality (the "Real" meaning.) While this approach does offer the reader a decisive answer to a question, it is difficult to imagine what exactly constitutes this reality. Fox has just enumerated the possible meanings and proven that they function perfectly well within the semantic and syntactic structure of both the language system and the text. What exactly separates the real from the possible? Fox would likely answer, “the intention of the author, of course.” If this is true, then the difference between reality and mere possibility lies in the thought of an author. What sort of existence is that, and why would our ruminations about the contents of a momentary flutter of neurons force us to tell readers, “That is not the real meaning of this text?”

Other talented readers, such as Alan Lenzi, have a more nuanced approach: Lenzi argues that several senses of אמון in Proverbs 8:30 are real, but readers should see the meaning ‘artisan/advisor’ as the "primary sense" of the word. Lenzi allows that more than one possible reading may have been historically real, but he argues that these readings possess differing levels of reality. For Lenzi, one reading is primary and thus functions as the denotation, while others are secondary and thus function as connotations. While at first glance Lenzi’s position seems to avoid the problems encountered by Fox, upon closer examination the problems only multiply. One might ask here: what agent has the authority to arrange these readings into a hierarchy? And how did this agent come to possess such a privilege? Is it the author’s intention that sorts readings into primary and secondary categories, or do the diffuse rules of grammar force us to recognize the full reality of one reading as opposed to the others?

It seems to me that, at root, the commentary should serve to open up the text rather than close it down. Commentaries should not see the text as a problem with a pre-existent single solution, or with three solutions that need to be prioritized according to a pre-existent hierarchy. Rather, commentaries should see these complex, layered and uneven texts as problematic fields that are productive and supportive of many (but not any) readings.

If we consider problems in these broader terms without assuming that a single pre-determined solution, or even that a pre-extant hierarchy of solutions, will extinguish the problem, then we can think more clearly about processes and the means by which they evolve. We need to change our concepts of "problems" and "solutions."

For example, all local populations of biological species present different solutions to the general problem posed by their environments. There is no “correct” species and no natural hierarchy of species; rather, all species present different ways in which to solve their own environment-problem. The environment-problem does not propose a single solution that would extinguish its questions; on the contrary, its conditions engender a “domain of solvability.” As the problem changes, the types of potential solutions change as well. If a species fails to solve the environment-problem, or if the local terms of the problem change due to environmental changes and the species cannot adapt to solve the new terms of the environment-problem, then the species will no longer exist. Yet each species that survives continues to testify to the many different ways in which one might solve the “environment problem.”

One way to analyze a problematic field (as opposed to a problem with a pre-defined solution) is to locate its “degrees of freedom.” This phrase derives from dynamical systems theory, but it proves a helpful metaphor for textual reception theory.

Manuel DeLanda explains: "When one attempts to model the dynamical behaviour of a particular physical object (say, the dynamical behaviour of a pendulum or a bicycle, to stick to relatively simple cases) the first step is to determine the number of relevant ways in which such an object can change (these are known as an object’s degrees of freedom), and then to relate those changes to one another using the differential calculus. A pendulum, for instance, can change only in its position and momentum, so it has two degrees of freedom... A bicycle, if we consider all its moving parts (handlebars, front wheels, crank-chain-rear-wheel assembly and the two pedals) has ten degrees of freedom (each of the five parts can change in both position and momentum)... After this mapping operation, the state of the object at any given instant of time becomes a single point in the manifold, which is now called a state space."

Thus, a physicist looks at a bicycle and notes the points at which the bicycle can move and change; the freedom provided by this movement allows the bicycle to function in various ways. As for texts, we often find areas of ambiguity, indeterminacy and undecidability that provide “degrees of freedom” that allow for interpretive movement. Biblical scholars have long seen these textual “degrees of freedom” as problems in need of an ultimate solution; however, the reception historian, like the physicist, may analyze the ways in which these specific degrees of freedom create the potential for different readings. These readings created by the text’s degrees of freedom are certainly real–albeit in many cases ‘virtual,’ or ‘unactualized’–even within the broadly-construed initial context.

In textual terms, I think commentaries should show the text for what it is- namely, pluriform. That is, I think commentaries can give up on telling people which version is the right one, etc. Instead, commentaries should show some of the various versions and explore the problematic fields that different versions produce (for example, the fields produced by a Greek version of, say, Genesis would be different than an Hebrew version.) The goal should be to map out some "degrees of freedom" that would help readers to create readings, not limit them.

This is a very long comment, but I think it points to something that I would like to see in commentaries. Giving the correct reading for the ancient period and then a couple of readings at other times is better than just giving the correct reading for the ancient period. But that's not really what I am getting at.

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