Through our various readings, discussions, lectures and presentations, I realized the richness and depth that exists in the world of biblical reception. From my previous conception of interpretation simply as boring Talmud bickering, my appreciation for the prevalence of biblical reception, both in the past and present, evolved into an understanding about the abundant opportunities of insight in studying such biblical reception. I learned of the plentiful variety of mediums that may channel an interpretation of the Bible, and I began to hone my skills to successfully deduce deep meaning, observation and insight from these interpretations. In an eagerness to find significance in this realm of thought, I have began to kindle a closer relationship to Scripture, and the overwhelming amount of material affected by it, as an agent of discovery.
I was surprised to learn of the innumerable places in which biblical interpretation is found. We explored art, poetry, literature, music, advertisements, and even the scriptural text itself to search out for such interpretations. Through these exercises, I became familiarized with the abundant methods in which biblical reception may be manifested. Reactions to the Bible can be measured on so many scales and within so many frames. From a retelling of a biblical story to a poem with the voice of a biblical character, an interpretation of the Bible is inevitable. These interpretations are especially evident in the author’s (or the general biblical “receiver’s”) changes in details about the Bible, such as omissions, inferences, reactions, perspective, or additions.
I was first struck by this idea while reading Kugel’s “The Bible as It Was.” Kugel explains that, since the Bible has been copied so many times, the texts that make up the bible are, in themselves, interpretative texts. (Kugel, 2) Translation is just one tool of biblical reception, as it is the translator’s responsibility to dictate the meaning of the words. Many times in class, when we read the English translation of the Bible aloud, we then proceeded to learn the interpretive choice of such a translation from the original Hebrew. The same principle applies to the Torah’s un-voweled words, allowing for more opportunity to interpret. Even the choice of which books were to be canonized into the Bible was a choice of motivated interpretation. We expanded upon the concept of inner-Bible interpretation when we referenced examples in the Bible that alluded to previous texts and even tried to resolve existing biblical contradictions. All of this information illustrated to me the complicated intricacies that exist not only in material about the Bible, but also within it. After years of Hebrew school, Jewish summer camps and Israel trips, I finally began to be excited about the Bible as a complex work of interpretations, conversations, and relationships within the text.
After understanding these first steps—that interpretation lives in a variety of mediums, that the changes or additions that a “receiver” makes about the Bible are the indicators of his interpretation, and that Scripture is nuanced by such inner-interpretations—our classroom discussions and assignments pushed my observations even further. I started to ask, “What can I learn from these interpretations?” Behind every interpretation lies motivation, context, and perspective. There is a reason that someone receives the Bible in the way that he does. By further examining these reasons, we may gain insight about the depths of a person’s outlook. As we inquire and challenge a biblical interpretation, we may discover a window into a historical time period, a specific community, a culture, and the opinions and motivations that were relevant then. My classmates and I discussed various examples of biblical reception in our presentations, focusing on finding the motivations behind different reactions about or changes to the Bible. Some “receivers” hoped to make Scripture more relevant—to update it—while others wanted to expand on dialogue, a personality, or an event that was only alluded to in the Bible. Again, we asked the question: Why? Why did Regina Spektor find it important to rewrite the Samson story in the way that she did? Why did Smirnoff present a picture of Adam and Eve in their advertisement? Why did the Beit Alpha mosaic depict Abraham and Isaac in this certain way? By asking these questions, we challenge the interpretation and grasp a significant and valuable understanding of the receiver’s motivations, context, and perspective.
This skill and comprehension has opened up a new level of critical thinking in my life. I find that I can inquire these same questions of incentive, circumstance, and viewpoint in the reading, art and conversations that I encounter daily. The insight within interpretation carries much weight and knowledge about a person’s understanding of the world. Our seminar focused this understanding around the Bible, which encompasses the religiosity, morality, and tradition of Judaism. Previous to this seminar, my interaction with the Bible was only on a shallow level. I could understand it as a historical document and a religious narrative, but I did not see the depth of the Bible and interpretations of it as a means of vision into the minds, hearts and communities of an author, or a medieval rabbi, or a modern singer.
I hope that my experience in this seminar will continue to color my receiving of others’ interpretations. I hope I will begin to challenge, question, and discover the motives, context and perspectives of my teachers, my books, my siddur, my iPod, and my friends. I hope I will continue to build a deeper relationship with the text that has formed my people and my religion into what it is today and learn to discover my own perspectives and beliefs about its text in a critical, rational way. I appreciate my newfound awareness of the commonality of the reception of the Bible and of the frequent changes, illusions, conceptions and biases that nuance every person’s understanding of Scripture, including my own.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for The History of Bible Reception with Rabbi Robbie Harris at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Kugel, James L. The Bible as It Was. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1997. Print.