Sacred texts, without readers, are mere artifacts. While so evident as to be trite, this truth lies behind the area of biblical studies called reception history. Perhaps from the earliest days that some books were considered holy, those who studied them wondered primarily what the original author meant. That was, after all, why the texts were preserved as special—they possessed a quality that other writings lacked. Over the centuries this perspective gained nuance and sophistication. (Despite what some secularists say, the study of the Bible can be quite scientific. Some of it is so technical that even specialists have a difficult time following it.) Until last century, however, one aspect remained unchallenged. The goal was to reach what the original author meant. The enterprise of exegesis is geared toward that end. Strip away the reader to get to the writer.
Meanwhile sacred texts, such as the Bible, continue to develop their own lives in culture. While today’s facile use of the Bible in politics may seem to be something new, the use of Scripture in government is as old as this nation. It easily goes back to European explorations of text, and perhaps even to Asian exegesis before then. Even though the founders of the United States were unquestionably Deists, for the most part, they also were biblically literate. Even the Enlightenment recognized that the Bible held a privileged place in western civilization. Perhaps it was not the only sacred text, but it was a sacred text to many thousands, or millions, or people. Such a pedigree is wasted only with great loss to all. Enter reception history.
In the days of ecclesiastical hegemony, the church, however defined, had the right to interpret Scripture. With the growth of literacy and education the possibility of understanding the Bible spread to any who could read, or had ears to hear. We have only to glance around to see the ramifications of that today. While students may not know who Moses was in the Bible, they can tell you Christian Bale played him in a recent blockbuster. They may not know that Noah was 600 years old when the flood came, but they can tell you he was a troubled, if not somewhat psychotic, devotee of God. At least in popular culture. And that is merely the thinnest veneer of the surface. The idea of sacred texts remains embedded in our worldview. It would seem that if we want to understand ourselves, reception history will unearth vital clues.
One of the time-honored adages among composition primers is that a serious writer will own a well-worn dictionary and thesaurus. In twenty-first century terms that equates, I suppose, to frequently visiting bookmarked dictionary and thesaurus websites. While writing my dissertation I once cited a dictionary—likely Merriam-Webster—only to be told that the definitive dictionary for academic purposes was the Oxford English Dictionary. Copyright laws prevent some dictionary sites from including entries from the OED, and, given the perpetual vicissitudes of streams of income, I really can’t afford to subscribe to the fee-based OED website, much less purchase the physical hardcopy. Dictionary.com remains free and even has a handy thesaurus, so it is my well-worn website. Many electronic wordsmithies offer a word of the day, and so on my morning visit to dictionary.com I found a familiar word awaiting today: eisegesis. Eisegesis, according to the this online dictionary is: “An interpretation that expresses the interpreter’s own ideas, bias, or the like, rather than the meaning of the text.”
In biblical studies eisegesis is utilized like an academic swear word. The true scholar engages in exegesis, the practice that is supposed to reveal what the original text actually meant. The problem, of course, is that what the text originally meant depends on the baggage the reader brings with him or herself. Reader-response theorists inform us that even an author loses control of words once they are scrawled on paper (or electrons, I suspect). The words convey their own interpretation, and, as in any communication system, the transmission must be interpreted through the medium of a receiver. My understanding of the original meaning will depend on what I bring to the parchment. Even the author cannot control the denotation of what s/he has written, for connotation always lurks in the shadowy corners of the room.
The implication of this simply truth for any religious writing should be transparent. We do not control the words—we interpret them. I’ve taught many fundamentalists over the years who bring this weary refrain to the text: “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just read it.” Reading is interpreting. The words on a page (or monitor) are simply a system of ciphers that must be processed. The way your brain processes them will be different from the way my brain does. For the fundamentalist, God wrote the words, but God has no physical brain so how are we to find the true meaning? Exegesis. At the heart of the matter, however, all exegesis is eisegesis. The example I like to give my classes is the word “die” —what does it mean? Most say something like “to stop living.” Those with a background in machining might say die is a noun indicating a mould or tooling device to form an object. Some even know it could be the singular of the word “dice.” Once they’ve exhausted their suggestions, I inform them any of them could be correct, only I had neglected to tell them it was intended to be the feminine singular form of the definite article in German.