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”.

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