A Quick Thought on ‘Reception History’

“The ‘correct’ interpretation of a myth does not necessarily confirm the historicity of the myth”.

Or, put another way:

“Arguing over the best way to interpret a story does not prove the story historical, factual, or true”.

I find that a great deal of theologians get caught up in the interpretation of claims made in the Bible, and jump to the fallacious conclusion that because they have arrived at the best interpretation of a particular verse, the verse must therefore be “true” or historical.

These are two separate arguments.

Lightsaber cutaway

No matter how detailed a myth might be, or how compelling the interpretation of a particular myth might sound to a large number of people who really like the myth, it does not prove the myth to be true. It’s still a mythical lightsaber (whether it can theoretically operate underwater or not).

Arguing about whether lightsabers will work underwater, no matter how convincing your argument, does not mean that lightsabers are historical or real.

The argument about what a text meant to the author (or what the author meant in writing a particular verse or text) is a quite common legitimate, scholarly enterprise. We call this “exegesis” or simple interpretation. Likewise, how that text was interpreted by subsequent communities is also a legitimate, scholarly enterprise. We call this “reception history”. “What the text means to me”, or alternatively, “What I think the text says”, is far less of an academic pursuit, despite being very popular among many religious individuals.

But all of the above endeavors – the debates over the interpretation of a text – are completely separate and apart from the examination of the actual historicity of the claim made in the text under discussion. Just because one interpretation of a text wins a consensus and place of preference within a majority of confessional interpreters DOES NOT prove that the story or text being interpreted has any historical or factual merit at all. It simply means that the author believed what he was writing to be true, or that a community believed or accepted what an author had written to be true.

The debate about a text’s interpretation has absolutely no bearing upon whether the claim is, in fact, factual.

The historicity of factual nature of a claim is left to disciplines outside of reception history, namely science (like archaeology) and history. These disciplines examine the claim itself and weigh evidence to determine if the claim is valid. These disciplines could really care less (and should care less) about what people thought about the claim.

Or put another way:

“The ‘correct’ interpretation of a myth does not necessarily confirm the historicity of the myth”.

13 Responses

  1. When did we attach TRUTH to simple historical fact? The Christian community (of which I am part of) is tremendously guilty of this. TRUTH is so much more than historical facts. Jesus knew that and so used parables and stories (myths?). Does that fact that the Sower didn’t actually go out to sow the seed make the TRUTH of the parable any less.

    We (Christians) have to QUIT tying our faith to historical facts and GO BACK to tying our faith to the TRUTHS of the Bible. My faith doesn’t rest on whether Noah actually existed, it rests on the TRUTH of sin’s impact on the world … just sayin’

  2. An excellent post, making an excellent point. But here’s a suggestion for a better analogy: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/10/han-shot-first-an-analogy-for-creationism.html

  3. Did something transprise recently to cause this blog post?

    Anyway I agree with S Wunderink, people (especially the religious right in the US) are getting too tied up with saying that the Bible is literally true and not as much with the underlying TRUTHS. To me it is the teachings that are important not whether or not everything is historically accurate.

    I am a Roman Catholic and I was never taught that the Bible was literally true. My local parish priest routinely points out that the ancient Israelites wouldn’t have taken it as literally true. However trying to dicsuss this with evangelical Christians is a no go. To them it is blashpemy.

  4. Sounds familiar….: )

  5. you inspired it!

  6. a conversation on fb.

  7. […] A Quick Thought on ‘Reception History’ « XKV8R: The Official Blog of Dr. Robert R. Cargill. Post By Joel (8,386 Posts)Joel Landon Watts is a Masters of Theological Studies student with a […]

  8. […] »Han Shot First (An Analogy for Creationism)October 1, 2012 By James F. McGrath 2 CommentsBob Cargill has posted a wonderful analogy between reception history of the Bible and Star Wars. He makes great points, […]

  9. While I agree with your point, I’m not quite sure how why you labeled the post “a quick thought on ‘reception history’” instead of, say, “a quick thought on ‘grammatico-historical exegesis.’” Folk who practice reception history not only don’t claim to adjudicate questions about a text’s historical accuracy, we don’t even claim to give you “the best interpretation of a text.” We claim to give you a look at the influence a text has had and the impact it has made across time.

  10. Chris,

    I would agree. I think “a look at the influence a text has had and the impact it has made across time” is a fair assessment of reception criticism.

    Would you add that it’s a form of theology (if, let us say, someone were to argue that particular, perhaps systematized ‘influences’ and their subsequent ‘impacts’ were preferable to other, perhaps less favored influences)?

    The point of my post is to make clear that the influence that a particular interpretation of a text and its subsequent impact upon religious communities over time is not (and should not be) evidence of fact or historicity. Likewise, theologians should not claim that simply because an early (or subsequent) community believed something or interpreted something in a particular manner necessarily means that said beliefs are therefore factual or ‘true’ in the modern sense (although they certainly believed it to be true then).

    I want to make sure to guard against those who might misuse reception history as an ‘end around’ history and scientific inquiry for the purpose of passing ‘theology’ off as actual, factual history. I do not believe you are engaged in doing this (although I cannot speak for others within our heritage).

    The phenomenon of a piece of literature’s impact upon a community says nothing about the factual basis (or lack thereof) of the claims made within the text. In the same way that Star Wars and Vampires have helped shape modern society, literature, art, and beliefs, etc., so too has Judaism and Christianity had an undeniable influence upon western culture and world history. The fact that they are still texts containing claims that do not stand up to history, scientific inquiry, etc. still remains.

    Or put another way, texts don’t have to be factual or historical in order for them to communicate one culture’s understanding of truth to a subsequent culture.

    Thanx for the comment.


  11. It came from a god, so once you understand its correct interpretation you have the knowledge given by the god, which makes it automatically superior to that of any human being.

    At least, that’s the presumption most of these theologians and other fundamentalists/evangelicals are laboring under. For the vast majority of them, they seem virtually incapable of apprehending the circular nature of this enterprise.

  12. Bob, do you perhaps have in mind people who say things like, “Christianity was successful, so it must be true?”

  13. No, I have more in mind those that say, “Since the Bible says X about X, it is true.”

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