Reading the Bible Intertextually, Book Review

Richard Hays, Stefan Alkier and Leroy Huizenga. Reading the Bible Intertextually. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009. 334 pages. Hardcover, $49.95.
No text is an island.

Books are not written in complete isolation from other texts, authors, or communities. Both explicitly and implicitly, authors often draw upon other texts in their own compositions. These assertions form the core of the concept of intertextuality. In order to understand the way biblical writers use Scripture, scholars and critics have engaged in intertextual studies and reflected on the methods of intertextual approaches. However, it is not always clear how the term and concept are being used.

In Reading the Bible Intertextually, editors Stefan Alkier, Richard Hays, and Leroy Huizenga acknowledge these matters and seek to facilitate dialogue between various approaches to intertextual theory. The book itself consists of a collection of fourteen essays originally presented at the “Die Bibel im Dialog der Schriften” conference at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

The editors divide the book into four main parts. Part I serves as the introduction to the book and sets the theoretical framework in which the rest of the essays will function. Part II contains six essays that provide examples of an intertextual interpretation of biblical texts. This section focuses mostly on the New Testament’s use of Old Testament texts but also contains a few examples of the Old Testament’s use of the Old Testament itself.

After these biblical examples, Part III has five essays that investigate intertextual interpretation outside the boundaries of the canon. The textual possibilities here include ancient literary works as well as historical narratives from other periods. Part IV concludes the volume with further theoretical reflection on intertextuality and New Testament studies.

Because the purpose of the book is concerned with intertextual readings, many of the contributors define and defend the concept. In his two essays that bookend the work, Stefan Alkier grounds intertextuality in the linguistic discipline of semiotics. A semiotic approach views texts as “relational objects composed of signs” (3). Alkier specifically defines a “text” according to semiotic theory as “a complex verbal sign . . . that corresponds to a given expectation of reality” (7). In this model “texts have no meaning but rather enable the production of meaning in the act of reading” (3). This reading event involves unavoidable associations with other texts.

For Alkier, intertextuality is not an addition to texts but rather “an intrinsic characteristic of textuality” (3). The result of this phenomenon is the “decentering and pluralizing of textual meaning” (3). Acknowledging this multiplicity, the pressing concern becomes the formation of criteria for discerning which textual connections are legitimate. In ordering these criteria, there are both limited and unlimited concepts of intertextuality. Most intertextual approaches lean toward one of these two options.

In laying out a methodological framework, Alkier contrasts his approach with the other relevant models of meaning in the field of linguistics. He argues for a categorical semiotics in contrast to structuralist or post-structuralist semiotics.
  • Structuralism:
    Structuralism viewed a text as a closed system of signs that could be discerned with reference solely to the object of study.
  • Post-Structuralism: In reaction to this model, post-structuralism shifted the focus to the limitless possibilities of meaning derived from elements outside of a text.
  • Categorical Semiotics: Alternatively, Alkier argues for a model of categorical semiotics that seeks to encompass the concerns of the other two approaches. Categorical semiotics examines texts with the categories of intra-textual, inter-textual, and extra-textual analysis.
    • Intra-textuality investigates the text itself as an independent entity in its own context.
    • Inter-textuality then examines the relationship a text has with one or more other texts.
    • Extra-textuality describes the way external and foreign elements interact with the text. 
These types of analysis build on each other and are ideally to be done in sequence. In this scheme, the category of intertextuality can be approached from three perspectives.

  1. Production-Oriented: The production-oriented perspective investigates the intertextual connections that are “produced” by the author of a text. These connections are somehow marked in the text and are part of the “intertextual potential” of the original composition. These intentional or circumstantial “markings” serve as pointers to intertextual references. This perspective represents a narrow/limited conception of intertextuality.
  2. Reception-Oriented: Alternatively, the reception-oriented perspective investigates the intertextual connections generated by the working context of the reader. This reception-oriented reading inquires about the “interweaving” of two texts either “in historically verifiable readings” or in “historically possible readings even if historical evidence is lacking” (10).The former angle on this perspective is tied to a limited conception of intertextual and the latter to an unlimited one.
  3. Experimental: Finally, the experimental perspective examines the reading of two or more texts together without concern for whether or not they have any organic connection with each other (10). The example Alkier gives for this perspective is a study done on the “intertextual” relationship between 2 Kings, Revelation, and Gone with the Wind (10-11). These categories of intertextuality make up the technical vocabulary that the rest of the contributors will use in articulating the type of intertextual analysis they employ.
Another important concept used throughout is the “universe of discourse” and the “model reader.” The universe of discourse is a phrase that denotes the contextual world in the mind of the reader. This universe is also referred to as an “encyclopedia” (8, 35-37). An encyclopedia is “the cultural framework in which the text is situated and from which the gaps of the text are filled” (8).

The model reader is similar to the implied reader. An author of a text assumes a model reader who has a certain universe of discourse. This shared context allows for the production of meaning. Because much of intertextual study depends in some degree on the reception of texts by readers, these two concepts play a pivotal role in the overall discussion.

In addition to these methodological distinctions, the contributors in Part II also provide New Testament examples of intertextual connections with the Old Testament. Michael Schneider gives an intertextual reading of 1 Corinthians 10 by investigating how the words, images, and themes from the Pentateuch broaden and enhance Paul’s meaning. Eckart Reinmuth shows how the “narrative abbreviations” of the Adam story from Genesis function in the book of Romans. Leroy Huizenga uses the Isaac narrative and its reception history in Jewish exegesis to highlight the Isaac/Jesus typology in the book of Matthew.

Florian Wilk examines the way Paul uses, interprets, and reads the book of Isaiah as evidenced in his epistles. Richard Hays argues that Luke employs “intertextual narration” by drawing on an array of Old Testament texts and images in order to present Christ and the Church as the fulfillment and continuation of God’s plan for Israel. Finally, Marianne Grohmann shows the intertextual connections between the Song of Hannah and Psalm 113, and how Mary’s Magnificant in Luke alludes to both of them.

One of the primary strengths of this volume is the window it provides into the dialogue regarding intertextuality in the European context. As evidenced by these diverse essays, the international conversation is interdisciplinary, ecumenical, and rooted in linguistic analysis. This collection allows readers quickly to recognize these emphases and become aware of a broader perspective. Additionally, the discussion helps clarify the concept of intertextuality itself.

For instance, Alkier’s formulations noted above provide a helpful guide to the spectrum of interpretive options and divergent understandings of the concept. This larger frame of reference will enable biblical interpreters to nuance the way they speak of the nature of intertextual relationships between texts. The practice of carefully attending to the widening layers of context (i.e., intratextual, intertextual, extratextual) in proper sequence is also a helpful reminder of the importance of a holistic textual interpretation.

The range of essays in the book also demonstrates what is at stake in the difference between a limited and an unlimited conception of intertextuality. As each contributor usually outlines his or her understanding of intertextuality, readers can quickly note the various ways in which texts are handled. Moreover, the essays show that one’s theory of intertextuality depends on one’s theory of textuality (42).

For instance, if one views texts as fundamentally open and fluid, he or she will probably favor an unlimited conception of intertextuality. Recognizing this facet of the discussion should compel interpreters to think through their working definitions of text and textuality in a more comprehensive manner. These methodological elements have the potential of enhancing sound exegetical practice among biblical interpreters.

Alongside these strengths, there are also a few concerns and places for further reflection. Some elements of this dialogue might make hermeneutically conservative interpreters nervous. One example is the repeated assumption that the act of reading produces “limitless possibilities” for meaning. Though some criteria are given in the larger semiotic framework, they primarily deal with the aims of interpretation rather than with controls and restraints on divergent interpretive tendencies (237-39). Consequently, the general consensus in the book is definitely inclined toward a reader-oriented approach (43, 242-43). Indeed, an open conception of intertextuality requires the reader to be integrally involved in the generation of meaning. For instance, Alkier asserts that the meaning of a text “will change in every new act of reading and in every new combination of texts” (12).

There is also a strong ecumenical motivation in arguing for a plurality of meaning (e.g., 224). In parts of the book, there is an underlying assumption that a plurality of meaning necessarily contributes to an inclusive social order, and that a more narrow conception of meaning necessarily lends itself toward myopic authoritarianism. Some will question the viability of this correlation, as a plurality of meanings is nonetheless capable of producing close-minded fundamentalism. Conversely, a robust, multi-faceted understanding of the literal sense is also able to produce and encourage gracious cultural/ideological interactions.

Because much of this discussion works from the vantage point of an expansive model of “meaning making,” entire sections of the book focus solely on extrabiblical material. As noted above, Part III is devoted to “intertextual interpretation outside the boundaries of the canon” (138). For example, Peter Möllendorff’s discusses the “mimetic potential” related to Lucian’s True History and Thomas Schmitz’s offers a comparison of two works by the Greek writer Nonnus. Though intriguing, these case studies have little to do with the interpretation of biblical texts. Further, in Part I, III, and IV, the Old Testament is just another text in the “universe of discourse” and does not usually merit an interpretive priority.

This feature resonates with the implicit tendency toward extratextual analysis in parts of the book. In this type of investigation, written texts are viewed as only a subset of a larger constellation of signs. Hans-Günter Heimbrock’s essay expands the notion of “text” in phenomenological terms (212-20). In this approach, there is no privileging of texts over even archeological objects. Thus, one can assert that “stones, coins, and apparatuses do not possess less sign character than writings” (247). This type of analysis is not intrinsically unprofitable. However, those who are interested in “reading the Bible intertextually” or who hold to a chastened view of intertextuality will find these elements less compelling.

One concluding reflection involves the possible role of the canon in the intertextual conversation. The concept of “canon” might constructively aid the process of forming controls for the limitless possibilities of meaning. An intentional recognition of canonical boundaries would limit and exclude many intertextual connections. However, a closed canon would actually produce and generate intertextual possibilities as well. By creating contextual relationships between a diverse set of texts, the canon provides a space where intertextual connections are realized.

In this model, intertextual connections function within the atmosphere provided by the canon and do not need to journey into the outer space of extratextuality in order to generate fruitful meaning. This conception of intertextuality works within the framework of an author’s intention by means of a confessional-canonical starting point rather than a historical-critical one.

Accordingly, readers who adopt a narrow view of intertextuality and are concerned with the communicative intention of authors will see the canon as a more constructive place for the generation of textual meaning than is often allowed for by the contributors.

These concerns aside, the editors achieve their purpose of providing access to a lively dialogue regarding intertextual theory and praxis. Biblical interpreters will benefit from thinking through intertextuality alongside these learned conversation partners.
Also in SWJT 54.1 (Fall 2011): 80-83.
Book Review
June 11, 2010


Popular Posts

Why did Jesus have to heal the Blind Man Twice in Mark 8?

In Mark 8:22-26, Jesus encounters a blind man in Bethsaida. To heal the man, Je…

Complete List of Luther’s Works, American Edition

Recently, I was attempting to find a certain volume of Luther's works in En…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Historical Theology w/ Madison Grace

In this episode, I talk with my friend Dr. Madison Grace about Dietrich Bonhoef…