Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

14 Feb 2017

Intertextuality: What Is It and Is It Helpful? (Part 2)

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Previously I began a series on intertextuality by providing a brief history of the term and of the controversies surrounding its meaning. In this post I begin to discuss intertextuality in the context of biblical studies. Three important questions loom over the potential connection of intertextuality to biblical interpretation. These questions relate to the validity of intertextuality for biblical studies, to its appropriate meaning, and to the best methods for practicing it. We might state the questions this way: as a tool for interpreting the Bible, is intertextuality a legitimate approach? In this context, what does intertextuality mean? And, if adopted, how should intertextuality be used? In this post I will address the legitimacy and meaning of intertextuality. I will follow with a third part in which I put into practice the principles of intertextuality by examining how John uses the book of Zechariah in his account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion in John 19.

The Legitimacy of Intertextuality for Biblical Studies

In spite of the escalation of intertextual studies in biblical scholarship, a number of detractors have called for a moratorium on the use and practice of intertextuality in certain contexts. The impetus behind this antagonism likely traces its roots to Julia Kristeva, the originator of the term intertextuality, and a few of her somewhat pretentious and protective protégés. Kristeva’s literary essays first appeared in English translation in 1980 in a book entitled Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Leon Roudiez, a French literary critic sympathetic to Kristeva’s work, wrote the introduction to the book and a glossary. Here Roudiez takes to task those who have misappropriated Kristeva’s term by using intertextuality in ways she did not intend. He laments that intertextuality has been “much used and abused on both sides of the Atlantic” and “generally misunderstood” (p. 15).

Several biblical scholars in turn leveled this critique at other interpreters who, they believed, rightly fell under censure for illegitimate uses of intertextuality. Ellen van Wolde chastises biblical scholars who utilize intertextuality in a futile attempt to be fashionable. They apply a “coat of veneer over the old comparative approach” without understanding what intertextuality really says about the nature of unbounded texts (“Trendy Intertextuality?” 43). George Aichele and Gary Phillips likewise scold biblical scholars who unknowingly adopt intertextuality simply as a method for discerning literary influence. This deficient understanding of intertextuality—argue Aichele and Phillips—must be rooted out and replaced by a “thicker” sense of the term, one in which “banal source-hunting” gives way to textual “transformation” and the outright rejection of the “unidirectional and linear understanding of literary history” (Intertextuality and the Bible, 11–14). More recently, Russell Meek offers a mea culpa by critiquing his own essay published in a 2013 monograph as a negative example of how not to use intertextuality. He admits that his own methodology was flawed owing to his misunderstanding of the term. Appropriately chastened, he submits that intertextuality has nothing to do with determined meaning, diachronic influence, or distinctive literary criteria. Rather, these latter concerns pertain to author-oriented approaches, outside the pale of intertextuality as correctly construed (“Intertextuality, Inner-Biblical Exegesis, and Inner-Biblical Allusion,” 280–84).

In light of these criticisms, many biblical scholars have recoiled. Several have suggested the use of alternate terminology for the tasks of traditional biblical scholarship, such as inner-biblical allusion, inner-biblical exegesis, and the like. Each alternative label in turn has its proponents and critics. Yet on deeper reflection, one wonders if this rush to appear well-informed and erudite to the larger academe is really a fool’s errand, at best an exercise in futility. Why must the biblical scholar placate literary critics committed to ideological premises deeply at odds with the nature of Scripture? Does their censure obligate the biblical scholar to discard the terminology of intertextuality altogether from traditional biblical studies? Or have these literary critics, in seeking to “canonize” the meaning of the term, exposed inadvertently that their emperor has no clothes? Obvious ironies abound in their tacit attempts both to establish the meaning for a term which, they argue, meant originally that texts and terms have no established meaning and to ground the meaning for that term in authorial intent after declaring the author dead. The mortician of the author is now its resurrection man. Yet the resuscitated author seems to be given voice only when deemed convenient, out of the unfathomable well of their own authoritative repository. Perhaps there is a better way.

The Meaning of Intertextuality in Biblical Studies

Richard Schultz suggests that, given the historical baggage accompanying the term intertextuality, biblical scholars may choose among four possible responses: (1) continue to do historico-grammatical interpretation while disregarding intertextuality altogether (not preferable given its potential value for biblical interpretation); (2) simply rename the traditional tracing of literary influences as intertextuality (not preferable as a somewhat disingenuous and shoddy borrowing of terminology); (3) embrace the radical claims of intertextuality by discarding the possibility of normative meaning (not possible for those with a high view of Scripture);  or (4) redeem intertextuality from its more radical practices by adapting it to a high view of Scripture (preferable as a way to open fresh avenues to biblical interpretation) (“Intertextuality, Canon, and ‘Undecidability,’” 24).

To redeem intertextuality for use in biblical studies, then, one must begin by proposing parameters for intertextuality that take seriously the nature of the biblical text. This means adapting a version of intertextuality that rejects the poststructural presuppositions underlying the work of its original practitioners. Polaski has rightly noted that instead of defining intertextuality as a singular method, intertextuality is best viewed as a theoretical term giving rise to various methodologies (“Reflections on a Mosaic Covenant,” 58). Likewise, Richard Hays observes that, although he is familiar with the ideology of the pioneers of intertextuality, their approach neither compels him as a biblical scholar to follow suit nor obliges him to accept their notions of what constitutes a text (“On the Rebound,” 79–80).  Intertextuality within biblical studies must instead sanction, as Tull and Miller acknowledge, the legitimacy of authorial intent, of diachronic literary history, and of the stability of meaning (Tull, “Intertextuality and the Hebrew Scriptures,” 59–60; Miller, “Intertextuality in Old Testament Research,” 284–86). Given the incontrovertible truths of biblical inspiration (2 Tim 3:16–17) and the veracity and inerrancy of Scripture (Prov 30:5; John 17:17), the interpreter with a high view of the biblical text cannot eliminate from the interpretive process the role of the author, the historical context of the writing, and the normativity of meaning. Properly understood and practiced, intertextuality can provide a beneficial way to assess relationships between biblical texts. By carefully examining these links we may better understand how Scripture interprets Scripture; how subsequent revelation conforms with and amplifies earlier revelation; and how biblical theology constitutes an organic whole. But this form of intertextuality must be circumscribed by the authoritative canon of Scripture.

In light of these concerns, two fairly recent monographs offer some assistance in navigating intertextuality within biblical studies. In the introductory chapter to his Echoes of Scripture in the Letter of Paul to the Colossians (a modified version of his dissertation from Wheaton College), Christopher Beetham has provided a commendable treatment of the nature of intertextual connections within the context of the Bible. Elsewhere, Will Kynes, in a book entitled My Psalm Has Turned Into Weeping: Job’s Dialogue with the Psalms (a modified version of his dissertation from Cambridge University), has proposed a thorough approach to biblical intertextuality that hews more closely to an author-centered approach to interpretation.

While indebted to the pioneering work of Richard Hays and others, Beetham has synthesized and expanded previous approaches to intertextuality. He follows John Hollander’s “rhetorical hierarchy [of] allusive modes” by discerning—rightly I think—three types of possible literary links between texts: quotation, allusion, and echo. He recognizes that a quotation is the most overt and objective. It may be formal, introduced with a citation formula, or informal, lacking such a marker. The length of the quotation is key for Beetham, as he proposes—while admitting it a rather arbitrary measure—that a citation must be six words or more. I tend to disagree with prescribing a length for citations, especially formal ones, but am sympathetic to a clear standard of application. Beetham recognizes that an allusion is slightly more difficult to discern. He proposes four essential ingredients: it is intentional on the part of the author, it has a single identifiable source, it stands out clearly enough for the audience to recognize it, and it comes from a source known sufficiently to the audience to be effective in its new context. He suggests a measurable standard for allusions, that they be no more than five words. Finally, Beetham analyzes the literary echo, which he admits is the least explicit of the three. He again proposes four ingredients to identify an echo, similar to allusion but diverging in key ways. As in the allusion, the echo has a single identifiable source. On the other hand, it may or may not be intentional on the part of the author, it is not clear enough for the audience to recognize it decisively, and it is not dependent on the original to be effective in the new context. Thus the echo is a fragment or whisper of a previous text, similar to an allusion but fainter. Both forms are enriching, nonetheless, for the study of texts in that they color and deepen the understanding of texts, particularly the alluding or echoing text. Having analyzed the hierarchy of literary connections, let’s look more closely at a specific approach to intertextuality.

Will Kynes suggests a blend of synchronic and diachronic approaches to intertextuality in which the historical and literary connections feed off one another. In that biblical citations are fairly straightforward, Kynes focuses on allusions and echoes. Through an eight-step process, he proposes that the interpreter identify possible allusions or echoes in the following sequence: (1) The interpreter identifies the allusion or echo by observing marked parallels (a similar sequence of words in both texts). (2) The interpreter dates the texts as far as possible to determine the likely direction of influence. (3) The interpreter evaluates the texts internally to assess more precisely the order and degree of coherence. (4) The interpreter analyzes the later text to discover ways it evokes or transforms the earlier text. (5) The interpreter correlates the texts to find other potential resonances beyond the immediate context of the later text. (6) The interpreter examines the structure of both texts to determine possible formal and material resemblances between books. (7) The interpreter investigates how the later text might set a trajectory for the reception history of the earlier text. (8) The interpreter studies any modifications in the later text to determine how the writer’s exegetical practices may be in view.

Building on the work of these and other interpreters, the application of intertextuality offers much to help readers in discerning authorially-intended connections between biblical texts. Used properly, intertextuality can be a legitimate and valuable tool in our pursuit of a better understanding of Scripture. Having laid the foundation of an understanding of intertextuality, we will look next time at three brief examples of how intertextuality might be used in a beneficial way to discover ways in which later writings of Scripture evoke earlier writings.

1 Response

  1. Thomas Middlebrook

    Thanks for the blog series. Very informative and trove of references for me to pursue. On that note, however, there are many articles referenced without sufficient citation which would be helpful to plop at the bottom of the post/end of the series. Though this practice is not always required/done in the blogosphere, I think it would show respect to the contribution of others and be a great help to those interested in going deeper (I know you heartily approve of that!).