Scripture Citing Scripture: Intertextuality

James McGrath remarks on a mythicist position today on his blog:

The other problematic criterion claims that, if something in the New Testament resembles some detail in Scripture, that is reason to believe that the story was fabricated on the basis of that Scripture.

But James is perhaps unfamiliar with the fact that, as I have said again and again, this is a mainstream academic position.  This has nothing at all to do with mythicists; it just seems that some mythicists are actually up to date on more recent trends in mainstream scholarship.  The idea of intertextuality (which perhaps James just refuses to look into?) has been around since Julia Kristeva coined the term following her time in Tel Quel and the discussions ongoing between the poststructuralists and (neo)structuralists in the 1970’s.  The concept behind intertextuality, however, goes back to Ferdinand de Saussure and his Course in General Linguistics (1916).

I am continually amazed that scholars are seemingly clueless about this, since monographs and edited volumes concerning methods and studies of intertextuality in New Testament have been published for decades.  I am even told (al la Steph Fisher) that in Europe, intertextuality is part of the NT curriculum.  I imagine that it is also a part of OT Theology courses in Europe as well (since every scholar I talk to from Sheffield and Copenhagen–or who might have studied under a scholar from these Universities–knows about it and incorporates it in some of their works).  Among those many studies, Dennis R. MacDonald and Thomas L. Brodie were crucial in introducing this into mainstream academia some time ago, and they weren’t alone (links will bring you to various monographs and studies on the subject; obviously this isn’t comprehensive). And the concept has been in the field of Classics for longer than that.

James might have some quarrels with certain arguments for intertextuality with a certain part of the text (e.g., he might have a problem with my comparison between 1 Sam and 2 Cor and Acts) but he will have to demonstrate that via an actual argument rather than claiming the whole concept of intertextuality is bunk which seems to be his position here.   Intertextuality has become the prime consideration in almost every modern exegetical work by scholars.  It shocks me that he’d make this sort of claim; some might wonder if James might need to expand his reading list when he finds the time.

13 Responses

  1. Tom, intertextuality is something I am relatively familiar with. I’m on the steering committee of the “Intertextuality in the New Testament” section at SBL. All I will say is that intertextuality, as an approach, is not typified by the claim that anything that bears a resemblance to anything else must derive solely from that other text as a source. There are a wide array of possible relationships and connections between texts.

    Similarities certainly may indicate that one text inspired the writing of another. But you seem to be saying something more – that we can assume this to have been the case, and more than that, we can assume that it was text inspiring text and not perhaps text+event inspiring text.

    That, of course, is what my post was about. :-)

  2. James, thanks so much for your response. I was unaware you were steering that section; I envy your position then. I think you misunderstood my position when you wrote of that I might be suggesting that ‘anything that bears a resemblance to anything else must derive solely from that other text as a source’–this is hardly my position. I believe I presented a philological argument along with my own conclusions and an exegetical reason for its existence. The fact that I can present four additional instances where a hero of a narrative is lowered from a building (generally a window) by a rope (or a basket made of weaved rope) fleeing from an enemy who wants to kill them is a very strong argument that this particular part of the narrative did not derive from a historical event (at least, we might say, not from a disciple being lowered in a basket) but that Paul and the author of Acts and probably the author of Sam, had theological reasons for crafting it.

    In regards to your last point, I don’t think we’re in any sort of disagreement, though I am fairly certain that text inspiring text–something we have far more evidence of than text+event inspiring text (we have very little of this, actually, since it requires that we produce evidence [or a high level of probability] of the event first)–is the case here. If you want to present a case for the event being the inspiration, you have to account for the similarities between the text to the degree that it removes the level of coincidence between the four verses. I would argue that the original story (which goes back to Joshua and the story of Rahab, and further still if you consider that Moses, too, was sent away from his home in a basket, fleeing an enemy who would kill him) was the event that inspired the continuation of the theological narrative (a narrative, actually, that is thematically based upon the concept of ‘exodus’ and finding a place to belong–a motif that flows throughout the whole of the Biblical narratives). You, of course, can believe what you want about the narrative; but you have an odd way to circumventing opinionwith probability with no clear indication with how you got there… I am more inclined to believe you have an argument, but you never seem to present it.

    Also, I apologize I have not posted that syllogism discussion yet. I am at work and don’t have access to that article here. I will try to have it up tonight so you can work on a response.

  3. Additionally, you might consider more caution with how you phrase disagreements. Because according to your own statement, it appears to be suggesting that we should not question an intertextual source before assuming historicity. How would you even defend that statement? There are axiomatic methods that must be followed, and none of them are to first assume historicity before looking at all other options! So while you have clarified your position now, and thank you for that, you might consider utilizing more caution with the terminology.

  4. I don’t know what it was that I wrote that you understood to be saying ” we should not question an intertextual source before assuming historicity.” My point is simply that the quotation of and allusion to Scripture is so frequent that it is, unsurprisingly, connected with a wide array of material. I don’t think intertextuality in and of itself demonstrates anything one way or the other regarding historicity. It doesn’t seem to me beyond the realm of possibility that more than one person could have escaped from a city through a window, assuming the cities in question had such windows. That doesn’t mean I am presuming historicity – I am simply questioning whether similarity always indicates depedence, and whether even in clear cases of use of Scripture, it may not in some instances be to embellish an event which happened but about which many details were unknown, or simply to embellish for its own sake. It is the idea that a connection with Scripture leads automatically to the likelihood that everything the Scripture is related to in the text is unhistorical. A good example is the crucifixion: many scholars would regard the Gospel authors as using Scripture to construct their narratives about the crucifixion; almost none regard that as evidence that said crucifixion itself never occurred.

    Does that clarify my stance on this? If not, I’ll gladly try again! :-)

  5. Yes, it does clarify, James. I understood your position with the first comment you left. My concern was with the quoted bit of text from your blog in the original post above. But you have done a great job in explaining your position, which I am thankful for.

    However, though you are correct with your understanding of the possibilities, I don’t believe that one can establish the probability of the historicity of the crucifixion; especially if you intend to argue that it so closely resembles scripture because so little historical details were known. I’m not certain that argument makes much sense…

  6. Again, I’m wondering how Dr. McGrath’s methodology would judge the historicity of the Acts of Paul. Clearly there is intertextual interaction with Daniel 6:16-28 and 1 Cor 15:32, and we see that same interaction more fleshed out in the Acts of Paul. Just because we have one previous story of a lion not attacking a true servant of God, does this entail that it must not have happened in history?

    Dr. McGrath has actually used Occam’s razor in an argument in the past, I wonder if he understands it.

  7. Much of this current discussion is about method (which is what my next book is about, essentially, and will cover these arguments in greater detail); James actually falsely labels intertextuality as a criterion in his post on his blog (“The other problematic criterion claims that, if something in the New Testament resembles some detail in Scripture, that is reason to believe that the story was fabricated on the basis of that Scripture.”) but, in fact, it is a method, that is a means, to determine somethings’ value. In fact those who utilize the methods of literary criticism have strict, methodological criterion–mostly based in exegesis and philology–in order to establish a probable case for usage.

    James is also quite wrong in suggesting that intertextuality has little to do with historicity; at least, he is wrong insofar as intertextuality complicates matters of historicity. After all, James might suggest that scripture was used to express a historical event sans details, but how would you prove that? You would need a strong case for the historical event first; after all, we have a ton of evidence to the contrary (most intertextual works in antiquity are not based on historical events…evidence can be given in abundance for this) and we know that in the process of learning to write, everyone who received a literary education in antiquity was forced to utilize imitation (discussed in every single source we have about ancient education and prevalent in tablets and manuscripts recovered from classrooms from Sumer to Rome). And we know, for example, that authority of a document was established via imitation of earlier documents–so one would have to develop a strong, probable case for historicity while accounting for the intertextual references. This something that James has not done, to my knowledge. I’m not saying that it cannot be done. I would not want to give that impression. But not a single argument for historicity of any of the Gospel narratives has accounted for intertextuality and no one has presented an argument (aside from just making the claim) that scripture was used to supplement the event. I imagine it has not been done because it cannot be done in any comprehensive manner. I would be interested to read such a study.

  8. Tom, I won’t dispute that intertextuality complicates historical questions. But they are complicated anyway. Another example of the intersection of history and intertextuality is the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. It would be very easy to make a case that this “event” was invented on the basis of stories of the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar found in Jewish Scripture. Some authors even refer to “Babylon” rather than “Rome” in talking about the event in 70. Would I be wrong to assume that in this case you would acknowledge that intertextuality and historicity can both be relevant, and not mutually exclusive?

    As for the crucifixion, I know you’re going to get back to me about that later, and look forward to discussing the topic once you get a chance to do so.

  9. The difference for this, James, is the physical evidence and the amount of attestation to the event. So in your example, it would be very probable that the event in 70 was a historical event. See how useful logic can be? ;-)

  10. Indeed I do – which is why I think no one should expect there to be physical evidence for the crucifixion of an itinerant religious teacher or messianic claimant such as we have for a war that destroyed a city. And since we find echoes of Scripture in accounts of verifiable historical events as well as ones that are unlikely to be historical, we cannot base judgments about historicity on the presence of intertextual echoes.

    If you think otherwise, kindly put it in the form of a syllogism. ;-)

  11. I’ll try:

    1. It is possible that an event has both scriptural precedent and actually happened historically.

    2, If an event had a scriptural precedent, it must have either happened or not.

    3. Therefore if an event had a scriptural precedent, we should assume it did not happen unless we have historical verification.

    This would make a lot of sense and would help eliminate a lot of silliness. It appears to satisfy Occam’s razor also.

    Dr. McGrath’s syllogism looks different, however. I will attempt to convey it, knowing that he will find fault with it.

    1. Some archeologically documented events have a scriptural precedent, and are proved to be historical.

    2. If these historically verified events are included in the same texts that mention some other event, then we should analyze texts alone to determine whether those other events are also true.

    3. Therefore, Jesus.

  12. Well, I don’t think that is his syllogism (he would probably correct the conclusion), but either way his position is flawed in that his logic does not follow, per his argument in this comment thread (that is, of course, subject to change pending James’ revisions). I have already laid this all out in my post on his earlier syllogism. At this point, I simply need to add a conclusion and post it, which I shall do later this evening. Though, I am not arguing a mythicist position–I am simply stating that it is wrong to assume a historical event happened before analyzing the textual critical and literary critical import of a text from the past since, as it stands, we know that more fictions came from ancient historiography than facts. So it is not only unwise to assume historicity first, but it also leaves us with a logical fallacy (‘possible, therefore probable’). I don’t think that is James’ argument, however.

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