Thursday, July 17, 2008

the receptionist turn?

James Crossley is currently posting a series on the future of biblical studies and the possibility that "reception history" (as opposed to historical criticism?) might be the defining perspective in just a few years. To quote from the first (of three, as of this writing; see here first, then here, and finally here) post, James says,
Reception history is becoming the next big thing in NT studies, or at least it seems that way to me. It may also be the future for the simple reason of how much interpretation of the same small collection of texts can be done without coming close to exhausting the options or doomed to repeating old arguments over and over (as Dale Allison showed)? The big advantage is that reception history has masses of material waiting to be exploited.

In my own research I am becoming more and more aware of the ways that our own myopic interest of the NT texts without much awareness of later dynamics of reading, interpreting, transmitting, and transcribing those texts have stunted our own interpretation of the NT texts themselves. (This criticism is similarly directed against my own work.) Understanding how NT texts shaped and were shaped by later Judeo-Christian discursive programs at the very least provides constraints against some of the things that have been seriously said of those texts (e.g., that John's Prologue is a non- or even anti-Jewish text; cf. Boyarin, Border Lines, 89–111).

I am not necessarily engaging in James' discussion at this point, but I would like to springboard off of it to raise a question about critical NT interpretation and reconstruction. That is, What fruit could we anticipate from shifting our reading of the gospels (all of them) from approaching them as deposits of data for the life and teaching of the historical Jesus and toward analyzing them as instances of reception of Jesus' life and teaching? In other words, rather than analyzing Jesus traditions in terms of "authentic" vs. "inauthentic," what would it look like to analyze those traditions in terms of how images of Jesus shaped and were shaped by later sociocultural milieux. This sounds a bit like redaction criticism, I suppose; but I think that discipline is overtly and explicitly concerned with issues of in/authenticity. Similarly, James Dunn's Jesus Remembered moves in this direction (with his focus on "Jesus' impact" on his followers), but again Dunn maintains an interest in authenticating Jesus traditions and also explicitly rejects a major methodological tool that provides ways of effecting this perspectival shift: social memory theory.

I think certain texts suggest themselves as, perhaps, the best place to begin working on this "new perspective" (to use an over-used phrase) on Jesus and the gospels, e.g., Mark 7.19 and especially all of the Johannine passages in which sayings of Jesus are explicitly misunderstood until after the Resurrection. Perhaps also the "uncomprehending disciples" motif throughout Mark's gospel. Funnily enough, Paul's letters, too, might be fruitful texts to read in this light; certainly approaching the so-called Deutero-Paulines in terms of the reception of Paul in the early church would be more interesting to some than rehashing the old arguments about Pauline or pseudonymous authorship.

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