Reviews of

Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception History

In Brennan Breed, HB/OT, Indiana University Press, Kengo Akiyama, Reception history on July 5, 2016 at 10:24 pm


2016.07.12 | Brennan W. Breed. Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception HistoryIndiana Series in Biblical Literature. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2014. pp.xii + 299. ISBN: 978-0-253-01252-4.

Review by Kengo Akiyama

Many thanks to Indiana University Press for providing a review copy.

This book, a winner of the Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise 2016, is based on Breed’s doctoral dissertation, which was written under the supervision of Carol Newsom at Emory University. The book consists of introduction, seven main chapters, and conclusion, followed by notes, bibliography, and index.

The introductory chapter (‘Introduction: The Constitutive Divide of Reception History’) frames the discussion by problematising ‘borderlines’, a concept that all critical studies implicitly or explicitly employ. Breed identifies the foundational assumption of reception history as follows: ‘Once a finished text leaves the pen of its author, or perhaps once a text moves beyond its original context, it enters into the world of reception history’ (p.3). But where exactly is the line that divides the production of a text and its reception? 
Who gets to make the call of when the text is ‘finished’ and adjudicate the precise point where authors become redactors, and redactors become copyists? When does the ‘biblical period’ begin and end, and according to whom? The book seeks to undertake the ambitious task of challenging the fundamental constitutive divide between the ‘original’ (con)text and its ‘reception’ that has shaped much of scholarship. But Breed’s aim is not simply to tear down the edifices of historical criticism; rather, he wants to take a hard look at the nature of the divide and to demonstrate the fact that a borderline is alw
ays ‘historically contingent, unoriginal, and carries with it no natural moral authority’ (p.12).

Chapter one (‘The Miltonesque Concept of the Original Text’) refutes one of the mainstays of text criticism: the existence of the original text. Breed’s principle contention in this chapter is that the irreducible, synchronic pluriformity of manuscripts renders this key idea of Paul de Lagarde’s urtext model and the ‘Archetype’ text theory of others’ highly problematic. Breed takes Emmanuel Tov’s seminal work Text Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, the Oxford Hebrew Bible project, and the Hebrew University Bible project as points of departure, as he offers an extensive critique of their basic narrative of recovery. He characterises the prevalent ‘Miltonesque’ narrative as follows:

At one point in time, there was a text—either an original text, an autograph, a pristine copy, an archetype, a text that was considered authoritative, a final form of the text or merely a relatively more original version—that stood at the end of a process of composition and simultaneously at the beginning of a process of copying. Everything was as it should be. It was, in some sense, perfect. But at that paradoxical point in time, alterations to the text ceased to be compositional and henceforth became corruptions. Authors became copyists. From that point on, the long history of the postoriginal textbecomes a history of transmission and reception. Thus, the perfect thing was not immutable. The many changes to the text in the last several millennia include both intentional and unintentional changes, expansions and emendations, translations and misspellings. But whatever their cause, they pose a problem for textual criticism by detracting from the purity and authenticity of the text. Paradise is lost. Textual critics mourn for the lost original and marginalize nonoriginal texts by means of several literary tropes: namely, the binary tropes of degradation (corrupt text, incorrect text, or errors versus pristine text or correct text), pathology, and perversion (deviating texts versus corrected texts or texts with textual integrity), and decline (transmitted text versus original text), among others (pp.50-51).

Chapter two (‘Living in Pottersville: An Alternate Approach to Textual Criticsm’) attempts to conceive afresh the ontology of the biblical text and thereby the task of text criticism. Breed repudiates the putatively ‘universal’ form of the original text and argues for the contingencies of textual development. Interested faith communities may naturally select particular forms of texts—even their exact points of origins—and deem them authoritative. But such a move is not warranted for scholars who aim for critical objectivity; they have no way of knowing the universal origin(s) of any biblical text nor can they ascribe ontological superiority to a given tradition on critical grounds. The reality is that ‘stemmatics and historical information brings us no closer to knowing which text we should use at any particular time; it gives us no insight into the relative worth of texts’ (p.56). As such, Breed urges text critics to do away with ‘the evaluation of texts in terms of universal worth’ and prioritise simply registering the textual-processual changes (p.55).

In Breed’s estimate, biblical scholars tend to think in essentialist terms vis-à-vis the problem of universals, and these are manifested in two distinct directions: [i] the Platonic realism, which views each manuscript as an instantiation of the ideal textual form, that is, ‘a perfect, nonmaterial, and atemporal ideal of an author’s thought’ (p.60), and [ii] nominalism, which rejects universals altogether and sees each manuscript as wholly independent, an island to itself, as it were. The problem with both is that ‘whereas the Platonic view of text criticism argues that manuscripts are nothing other than a witness to something that they are not, the nominalist view seems to tack too hard in the other direction, claiming that manuscripts are nothing more than what they are in and of themselves’ (pp.62-63). Against these approaches, Breed proposes to construct ‘a nonessentialist ontology of biblical texts’ (p.65) and thinks of texts as ‘processes, not essences’ (p.66) that function ‘in an odd way as an open, contingent universal’ (p.68). Breed posits no authentic, pristine or primary version and instead thinks of pluriformity as the very identity of biblical texts. This pluriformity is, according to Breed, derived from ‘difference’, a key Saussurean concept that Breed adopts via the works of prominent literary critics like Gilles Deleuze and Jacque Derrida. Breed thinks that the ‘identity of each biblical book is a function of its own internal differences, and the limits or edges of its identity are functions of the differences between its self-differential identity and other self-differential identities (i.e., other biblical books) that are recognizable as something else’ (p.71). In the light of these observations, Breed contends that:

[T]he biblical text is at its most authentic when it reveals its internal variance. …textual critics can affirm the continued and continuing pluriformity of the biblical text, insisting that the SamPent, the Septuagint, the Vulgate, the Peshitta, the Targums, the so-called daughter versions, the nonaligned texts from Qumran, as well as the variants within and among all these groups, are not failed witnesses, phantasms, or simulacra but are rather fully legitimate expressions of an ongoing process of textual development (p.68).

Chapter three (‘Anchor or Spandrel: The Concept of the Original Context’) shifts gears and takes another sacred cow of biblical studies to task: the original context. Familiar is the boundary between the historical context in which the text was produced (the original context) and its subsequent ‘unoriginal’ meanings (reception), and the metaphor of an anchor is a commonplace: the scholarly task is to moor the anchor in the purported original context so as to arrive at the correct meaning. Breed observes,

Original meanings are defined variously as the author’s intention, the understanding of the original audience, or more broadly the interpretive possibilities opened by the semantic, cultural, and historical context of the text’s production. All these definitions posit a boundary dividing the proper meaning of the text from later meanings, the former constituting the domain of biblical criticism and the latter constituting the domain of reception history (p.75).

Breed attempts to demolish this common belief in the possibility of determining a singular and proper original context. He maintains that if one takes seriously the hard won insights of biblical criticism that redaction and inner-biblical exegesis are found even at the earliest layer of the Hebrew Bible—that is, the Bible is already shot through with diachronic splinters from its inception—then it follows that one cannot speak in terms of the text’s singular point of origin orthe original historical context. Privileging one stage of development over another necessarily involves an evaluative judgement that takes the scholar beyond critical objectivity. Just as textual pluriformity problematises the notion of urtext, ‘the layered and multicontextual biblical text may confound contextual criticism’ (pp.75-76). Breed draws on the seminal work of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin’s (‘The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme’ [1979]) to illustrate this point. The value of context in biblical criticism rests on two fundamental premises: the context [i] makes the utterance comprehensible while constraining its potential meaning, and [ii] points to individual events of language use that emanates from a particular subject in a singular point in time and space (p.79). The attempt to determine the context then is a way of reducing (anchoring) the text’s possible meanings. Three modes of contextualisation are customarily deployed: semantic (viz., synchronic contextualisation or the ascertainment of a certain historical ‘moment’), genre (viz., socioliterary conventions of the culture that generated the text), and historical (viz., reconstruction of the text’s referents in its general cultural milieu). Breed proffers incisive criticisms of all these approaches.

Chapter four (‘On Tigers and Cages: Rethinking Context’) extends the argument of chapter three. Breed likens the quest for the singular original meaning to zoo keeping in which

all the textual animals keep escaping their contextual cages, and we scholarly zookeepers are kept very busy capturing and returning them. So busy, in fact, that we have not often asked why it is that the cages do not ever seem to do anything to stop them. Actually, the situation is even worse: original contexts simply disappear into the mists of time while the texts romp around in the present. Biblical scholars are not only busy catching escaped texts but are even more busy (re)building their proper habitations from the fragments that remain. How do texts escape in the first place? Is there something about contexts, or texts, that prompts this escape? (p.93).

The context is understood as ‘the network of circumstances surrounding and producing an utterance’, which encompasses ‘the macrocontext of broad categories such as the language of the utterance, cultural significations, or extant political or social networks. Circumstances can also include microcontextual data such as paralanguage (gestures, intonation, expressions, or font and formatting in written texts)’ (p.95). Breed maintains that the ‘skill of escaping contexts’ is not ‘an anomaly or a problem but in fact a central feature of texts’ (p.93). He goes further: ‘Reconstructing a context is an act of creation, not just reproduction’ (p.96)—an axiomatic point maintained by studies of ‘theory’ but often downplayed, sometimes even ignored, in historical-critical studies. Since one cannot know everything there is to know about the past and since ancient contexts cannot be constructed in their totality, one must without exception make the decision on how various elements relate to the complex cultural whole. This logically means that ‘contexts do not come prepackaged with directions for assembly. Even at the time of an event’s occurrence, the identity and significance of all of its elements and the relations between them areunderdetermined’ (p.96; italics Breed’s). Underdetermined, however, does not mean open to any determination; rather, the point is that context is not a predetermined puzzle piece that has an exact shape and a precise place to which it fits but more like ‘a set of particular building materials that allow for certain connections but not all’ (p.96). The text does not just mean anything that one wants it to mean, but it surely does not mean just one thing: ‘Not only is the scholar unable to ascend to a transcendental position from which to objectively adjudicate such a dispute; more importantly, there is no such position, since the truth of the context is that the elements and their relations are open to dispute’ (p.97; italics Breed’s). The perspectival differences, sometimes irreducible and irreconcilable, are ‘constitutive of true reality rather than a mere distortion of it’ (p.99). Furthermore, history is not a neat and easily separable succession of moments or events; rather ‘every moment requires traces of other past and now absent moments that constitute its very identity’ (p.100). The synchronic meaning of the present, or any given moment for that matter, is comprehensible only with reference to the past. But meaning is not determined by the past alone either, since the future also destabilises every present: ‘Statements of identity and meaning can be provisionally formulated, even in fairly stable ways, but such accounts always carry the qualification that the future may destablize them. …the identity and meaning of events and contexts depend on future events and contexts’ (p.101). By way of illustration, one may take the referendum on Brexit that has recently created a political shockwave. If one were asked about the significance of the outcome of the referendum, one could talk about issues and various factors (be they socio-political, economic, cultural, etc.) that gave impetus to the political decision, but no one knows the universal significance or the extent of the impact of Brexit on the national or global scale. The significance of any event then is always ‘structurally open and constitutively heterogenous’ that future events continue to impact and reshape the meaning of the past and the now (p.102). Breed also examines the meaning of meaning in the light of specific concepts, such as, author, authorial intent, textual intention, and audience. He draws on the works of Michel Foucault and others, though he resists the move of New Criticism to banish the author altogether. Breed opines, ‘Meaning is not a definite property of particular phonemes, words, or even phrases, and neither is meaning something inside a word or a phrase. Rather, like context, meaning is “a set of relations” between parts and wholes, “not a possession”’ (p.113). Thus context generates meaning, but context is determined by the interpreter’s semiotic world.

Chapter five (‘Mapping the Garden of Forking Paths: A Nomadic Reception History’) now spells out Breed’s conception of reception history. He proposes that ‘biblical texts are not objects but are instead objectiles, object-projectiles, that must be studied as something for which movement and variation is a necessary quality and thus for whom any static identity is an always contingent predicate’ (pp.116-17). Moving beyond essentialism, things should be distinguished ‘by their capacities—what they do’ (p.117; italics Breed’s). What biblical text is can only be known by what it does in a variety of contexts. Rather than treating ‘capacities as a predicate of an object, we should treat them as an event or action’ (p.117). Breed applies three Deleuzian concepts to advance this line of argument: ‘(1) the distinction between the virtual and the actual, (2) the inversion of the relationship between problems and solutions, and (3) a topological approach to structure’ (p.119). These concepts help in thinking about the possible as ‘whatever is permissible according to known facts and the rules of logics’ rather than a simplistic binary opposition of possible versus real (pp.120-21). This in turn enables one to reframe the relationship between problems and solutions and to reimagine identity and the boundaries of structures. In this model of reception history, the task is to ask what a text can do: ‘Here is the mandate: demonstrate the diversity of capacities, organize them according to the immanent potentialities actualized by various individuals and communities over time, and rewrite our understanding of the biblical text’ (p.141).

Chapter six (‘Justice, Survival, Presence: Job 19:25-27’) now applies Breed’s theoretical model to Job 19:25-27, a well known and difficult text, and attempts to give a suggestive example rather than an exhaustive account of its reception history. Breed surveys the ‘patterns of semantic dispersion’ in the initial context of Job 19:25-27 and divides the reading into three ‘semantic nodes’, namely, survival, presence, and justice (p.149). These separate nodes show that even ‘within the initial context, one can trace a general virtual structure of the text that may help in classifying its diverse readerly actualizations’ (p.161).

Chapter seven (‘Trajectories of Job 19:25-27: The Example of Survival’) focusses on the semantic node of survival and delineates the trajectories of its processual development, although Breed also briefly touches on the other two nodes. He freely traverses over centuries and a host of religious circles and discovers that the interpretative nodes ‘proffer a constellation of concepts that have no clear resolution. Rather, they create a space within which one may think. This space functions as an internal border that runs through the middle of the text as well as through each concept one may use to interpret it’ (p.201). His sustained analysis of Job 19:25-27 leads to an important conclusion: ‘Here is the truly natural, necessary borderline: it is the internal complicating folds that precede any external differentiation’ (p.201). Chapters six and seven read very much like standard reception-historical works, particularly the ways in which Breed organises the reception of the Joban passage.

The final chapter (‘Conclusion: Nomadology and the Future of Biblical Studies’) recapitulates the main thrust of his thesis and concludes with a metaphor of nomads for biblical texts: ‘Nomads do not come from any fixed point, and neither are they headed toward any fixed point. … Home is a process—the road itself. Movement and change is the sedentary state’ (p.203).

This is one of the most extensive and illuminative works on the theory of reception history. While reception-historical studies often expend some energy on methodology and justifying their approaches, Breed helpfully gives centre stage to theoretical discussions. He provides a valuable and in-depth guide to thinking critically about what one does when s/he engages in reception history. He strikes a nice balance between firmly contesting axiomatic premises of historical criticism and building on its insight, refraining from unnecessarily devaluing the fruit of scholarship or overextending his case. The first part on text criticism is convincing, although the challenge to the urtext theory is not new and the impact of this section is probably not very significant. The latter part on historical context as well as the nature of reception history is far more contentious and intriguing, and it opens itself up to several issues that need further unpacking. In several places Breed notes that certain readings can be ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’—or in topological terms ‘tears’ or ‘rips’ the text—and alter the identity to something new. No doubt every reader has a sense for good/bad or right/wrong reading, but who gets to make the call and based on what criteria? It is easy to speak of linguistic and logical constraints, but what are they and how do they work? He does give an example or two, but this point seems to be taken as mostly self-evident. It is surprising that he chooses to use terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ without further qualification after spending so much energy repudiating the use of evaluative terms in other works. Also, while Breed understandably (or even judiciously) confines his discussion to ‘biblical’ texts, one wonders what is so different about biblical texts in contradistinction with non-biblical texts? Why draw the borderline here? The binary oppositions of good-bad and correct-incorrect and the ‘biblical’ terminology remain fuzzy in his otherwise perceptive discussion on the ontology of biblical texts. Lastly, although the metaphor of text as a nomad is fitting, if one goes back far enough, nomads must have had places of origin and a point in history in which they emerged as a group or when the individuals that make up the group were born. As Breed would have it, there is no reason to assign a hermeneutical privilege to the point of origin, but this is not the same as denying the existence of the origins altogether. This is perhaps where the analogy breaks down.

At any rate, while Breed is not the first to critique the concept of the original meaning, rare are the works that engage meaningfully with literary theory and relate the insights of ‘theory’ to biblical scholarship. The book is well written, and the thesis is clearly argued with ample supporting evidence and sustained engagement with a great mass of secondary literature. This book is highly recommended not only for reception historians but also for biblical scholars in general.

Kengo Akiyama
Edinburgh, UK
Kengo.Akiyama [ at ]


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