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Reception Criticism and Theory

Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation What is This? Contains accessibly written entries for topics covering the religious, historical, and social aspects of the Bible.

Reception Criticism and Theory

Reception criticism or reception theory is an approach to biblical study interested in the “afterlife” of biblical texts: how they have been received and appropriated by diverse readers across time and in a variety of media. Given its focus on reception by audiences, it could be viewed as a form of reader-response criticism. The terms “reception theory” and “reception criticism” come initially from literary studies, and especially from the literary critic of the Konstanz School, Hans Robert Jauss (1921–1997). The former term emphasizes the theoretical underpinning of the discipline. Those more interested in its practical outworking in the history of how specific texts (including biblical texts) have been received prefer the terms reception criticism or reception history (what Jauss calls Rezeptionsgeschichte).

The latter term is a reminder that attention to the reception of texts is a historical discipline. Indeed, it is a more truly diachronic approach than the historical criticism usually designated by this epithet, in that reception history is concerned with the reception of biblical texts through the centuries and regards such reception as key rather than accidental to their interpretation. It also challenges the notion that exegesis of biblical texts should be restricted to written explication—as opposed, for example, to visual exegesis—or to the writings of academic exegetes or magisterial interpreters such as the early Fathers, the medieval Schoolmen, or the Protestant Reformers.

Closely related to reception criticism or reception history are the terms “history of interpretation” and Wirkungsgeschichte. The latter is derived from Jauss’s teacher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002). It first appears in his classic work Wahrheit und Methode (1960; English trans. Truth and Method), and is variously translated “history of effects,” “history of effect,” “history of influence,” and “effective history.”

Further precision is possible, however. “History of interpretation” (Auslegungsgeschichte) is perhaps best understood as a subcategory of reception history or Wirkungsgeschichte. It concerns how professional biblical scholars in commentaries and academic monographs have interpreted a text. The history of interpretation of the book of Revelation, for example, would include the commentaries of Victorinus, Andreas of Caesarea, Bede, and Luis de Alcázar, as well as the modern critical works of R. H. Charles, George Caird, and Richard Bauckham. By comparison, reception history or reception criticism does not restrict its interests to professional interpreters, but is open to a wide range of interpreters (marginal and even maverick as well as magisterial) and to the broader dimensions of reception: in art, music, poetry, liturgy, and community living.

Although the terms reception history and Wirkungsgeschichte overlap in content (and in practice are often used interchangeably), a logical distinction may still be made between them. The focus of the former is on the readers: how they have received the text in their different contexts and via different media. The emphasis of Wirkungsgeschichte (whether translated as “history of effects” or “history of influence”) is rather on the text and its effects, its ability to influence human lives.

In a seminal article published in 1992, the Finnish New Testament scholar Heikki Räisänen (1941–) offered an alternative definition of the difference between history of reception and “effective history.” For Räisänen, the latter term should be restricted to interpretations in a range of media where the text is allowed to be “effective.” Reception history would then be something broader: covering all receptions in various media, including “misreadings” of the text (he gives the example of the use of a biblical text in a sermon that amounts to its suppression: Räisänen 1992, p. 311). Räisänen’s definition may be too optimistic about our ability to distinguish clearly between good and bad effects and underestimates the dynamic relationship between reader and text.

History and Leading Practitioners.

Hans-Georg Gadamer.

As noted already, Gadamer is often regarded by biblical scholars as the father of reception history. Certainly, its philosophical underpinning and some of its key terminology (notably Wirkungsgeschichte and “historically effected consciousness” or wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein) derive from him. However, Gadamer is clear that he is not proposing a new method of exegesis to be placed alongside or as an alternative to existing scholarly approaches. Indeed, fundamental to his writing is a critique of empirical methodologies or claims to scientific objectivity typical of many historical approaches. Rather, Gadamer’s Wirkungsgeschichte is a form of philosophical hermeneutics, describing how we understand and what our relationship to history really is. As he expresses it in his foreword to the second edition of Truth and Method, it describes “not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing” (Gadamer 1989, p. xxvi; see Mark Knight in Roberts and Rowland, eds., 2010, p. 139). The English translation of Wirkungsgeschichte that best conveys this is “effective history.” It acknowledges that, far from standing outside history so as to analyze it objectively, we are firmly within history. Following Martin Heidegger and Paul Ricoeur, Gadamer thus emphasizes the crucial role of the interpretative subject in the hermeneutical process:

"In fact history does not belong to us; we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society, and state in which we live. The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgements, constitute the historical reality of his being (Gadamer 1989, pp. 276–277; italics in original)."

In a similar vein, wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein has a twofold meaning, as Gadamer explains: “it is used to mean at once the consciousness effected in the course of history and determined by history, and the very consciousness of being thus effected and determined” (Gadamer 1989, p. xxx). History is that in which all humans are necessarily embedded. Moreover, against the “naive assumption” of historicism, the temporal distance between “now” and “then” is not a problem for the historian, a gulf to be overcome, so much as “a positive and productive condition enabling understanding. It is not a yawning abyss but is filled with the continuity of custom and tradition, in the light of which everything handed down presents itself to us” (Gadamer 1989 p. 297).

Hans Robert Jauss.

Jauss comes closer than Gadamer to treating reception history as a method, outlining seven theses for literary studies in his Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (Jauss 1982, pp. 20–45; see Parris 2009, pp. 128–147). This explains his particular attraction for the theologian and biblical scholar, and indeed how Jauss’s appropriation of Gadamer has set the agenda for much reception history. So, for example, his “summit dialogue” of authors (der Gipfeldialog der Autoren) underlines the importance of what are considered “defining moments” of the contours of a tradition (see Parris 2009, pp. 216–222). Such a dialogue would give particular consideration to those interpreters who represent “peaks” or significant “summits” in the reception of a particular text, given their impact on contemporaries or later readers, or the innovative character of their readings. David Paul Parris provides an example of such a summit-dialogue in relation to Matthew’s parable of the wedding banquet (Parris 2009, pp. 222–274).

Jauss’s reception of Gadamer is not without its critics, however. For some, it risks domesticating Gadamer’s potentially subversive hermeneutic by supposing that most of us actually work in some neatly packaged tradition, which may be more a figment of our imagination than the reality that actually conditions our lives. Actual interpreters are formed by traditions much more diverse and eclectic than can be easily encapsulated by this or that theological label. It is a crucial insight to acknowledge the extent to which we are formed, socially, culturally, and psychologically, but that which is handed down, “tradition,” is extremely varied. Though many religious traditions make an attempt to form those who will lead them by a process of inculturation, most readers of biblical texts are not so formed and that which we receive is a much more complex amalgam that is peculiarly historically contingent.

Ulrich Luz.

One of the most important pioneers of Wirkungsgeschichte in biblical scholarship is the Swiss New Testament scholar Ulrich Luz (1938–). His Matthew commentary for the ecumenical Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar (EKK) series is noteworthy for the significant amount of space it devotes to Wirkungsgeschichte or the “history of influence” (Luz 1989, 2001, 2005), particularly in the later volumes. He has subsequently articulated his approach in a number of books and articles (e.g. Luz 1994, 2006). As well as noting his indebtedness to both Gadamer and Jauss, Luz also hails his teacher Gerhard Ebeling (1912–2001) as an early pioneer of reception history for his conviction that church history is the history of the interpretation of scripture (Ebeling 1968).

As well as Luz’s robust commitment to Wirkungsgeschichte as integral to biblical interpretation, his project shares with the wider EKK series a strongly ecclesial dimension (albeit one that is ecumenically broad). This contrasts strongly with the historical-critical suspicion of dogmatic or ecclesially committed dimensions of the text. One of Luz’s criteria for selection of passages to focus on and material to include in the first volume of his commentary is whether they have been especially “effective” in the Protestant and Catholic traditions (Luz 1989, p. 96). In later volumes, this criterion is broadened. Thus his discussion of the “history of influence” of the “Parable of the Sheep and the Goats” (Matt 25:31–46) includes not only Origen, John Chrysostom, Luther, and Calvin, but also Tolstoy, Gutiérrez, and the Korean poet Kim Chi Ha (Luz 2005, pp. 267–274). This goes some way toward addressing the criticism that Luz’s ecclesial sympathy excludes more marginal and even maverick receptions of the text.

The Blackwell Bible Commentaries.

The EKK project (at least in terms of its format) separates out the “history of influence” from exegesis or analysis. This risks treating the latter as a kind of foundation on which the former is built as a second-stage superstructure, thus falling foul of the Gadamerian critique. By contrast, the authors of the Blackwell Bible Commentaries (BBC) prioritize reception history. This important series for reception history in the English-speaking world is under the general editorship of John Sawyer, Christopher Rowland, and Judith Kovacs. As the editors note, the series is “based on the premise that how people have interpreted, and been influenced by, a sacred text like the Bible is often as interesting and historically important as what it originally meant” (Kovacs and Rowland 2004, p. xi). Like Luz’s definition of Wirkungsgeschichte, the parameters of reception-historical focus in the BBC are as broad as possible, incorporating art, music, film, literature, and religious and political praxis, and engaging with patristic, medieval, and (in the case of Old Testament books) rabbinic exegesis as well as more familiar historical-critical readings.

Multivalency and Multiple Receptions.

What are the main contributions of reception criticism? First, it insists that texts are multivalent and thus do not simply convey one single meaning. In other words, it refuses to prioritize authorial intention, or the meaning assigned to a text by its first readers (both features of historical criticism). Rather, it invites a broader understanding of meaning: one that engages directly with the subject matter of the text, and the potential of meaning inherent in the text, rather than getting side-tracked into prolegomena, such as questions of sources, origins, and background.

In part this springs from Gadamer’s conviction that historical consciousness is itself determined by history, such that a historian cannot examine a biblical text as though it were simply an object for examination. Luz uses the metaphor of a river or the “stream of history” of which historical texts are a part, and which “carries the boat” in which the interpreter of the text sits (Luz 2006, p. 125). Nor should the biblical scholar imagine that the historical enterprise is an attempt to leap across an “ugly ditch” between the first century and the twenty-first. (Luz’s use of the phrase differs from Lessing’s gulf between the contingent truths of history and the necessary truths of reason). Rather, to change the metaphor to one drawn from his own Swiss context, Luz likens reception history to a rich landscape that frames the original meaning of the text:

"As a Swiss living in Berne, I know that no view of the summit of a distant high mountain like the ‘Jungfrau’ is possible without looking at all the hills, valleys and smaller mountains in the foreground. Even more: it is only this foreground, the frame of the surrounding landscape, which makes the beauty of the high mountain visible. A ‘naked’ Jungfrau would be ridiculous. In the same way a ‘naked’ biblical text, not viewed from a specific point of view and not ‘framed’ by a specific reception history, would be meaningless (Luz 2006, p. 128)."

In other words, reception-historical study facilitates a more profound understanding of biblical texts. On the one hand, it enables readers to understand where they have come from, how their vision of history is “framed,” and how far they are standing on the shoulders of giants in their receptions of the text. On the other, it also exposes them to the readings of other reading communities (both ancient and modern) of which they may hitherto have been unaware. This ecumenical dimension of reception history is one consciously embraced by the EKK, albeit largely restricted to Catholic and German Protestant traditions. However, even this is in danger of prioritizing an alternative canon of “classic” receptions. Reception history in its widest extent has the potential to expose interpreters to popular, marginal, and even eccentric receptions of the text alongside the centrist and magisterial readings. Whilst rehabilitating a sense of the importance of tradition for those reading communities that have hitherto eschewed it, it also holds within it the capacity to critique particular accounts of what that tradition entails through exposure to the receptions of those who have stood outside the dominant interpretative traditions.

Ambiguities and Spaces.

Another of reception history’s greatest contributions to biblical study is its demonstration of how later interpreters deal with problems posed by the text or exploit the space offered by the text. A prime example is the enigmatic and suggestive reference to Enoch in Genesis 5:24. This was the basis for a welter of speculation throughout Jewish and Christian history, whose importance for the emergence of beliefs about Jesus has been a significant feature of modern New Testament study.

Genesis 5:24 reads in NRSV: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.” On the basis of comparison with other biblical passages, interpreters exploited the space offered by the text to interpret what “God took him” means. On the one hand, via a comparison with 2 Kings 2:9–11, Enoch was compared with Elijah who was “taken up” to heaven (2:9: “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken up from you”—the same Hebrew word is used in both). Enoch then became a member of the divine court, a heavenly scribe, and even the heavenly Son of Man, in the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch 71. On the other hand, other references to the Hebrew “take” are explored and a very different conclusion is reached. Thus, in Ezekiel 24:16 the verb is used of the death of Ezekiel’s wife (“Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes”). The later Jewish rabbinic teachers, who were suspicious of extravagant speculation about Enoch’s role, favored an interpretation of Enoch being taken that referred to his death, removed from life before he sinned any more.

Both traditions, via the usual canons of interpretation, had sought to elucidate the ambiguity and the interpretative space offered by the passage. This is a reminder that there is a rich tradition of interpretation in both Judaism and Christianity (neglected in historical criticism’s focus on contemporary “parallels” to the biblical books) exploring the interpretative space offered by the biblical text. For example, the Jewish Targumim, Aramaic paraphrases of the Bible, and especially the Targum known as Pseudo-Jonathan, demonstrate this to the full. The story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac becomes the bedrock of a tradition of righteous suffering, the Akedah. In Christianity the ignorance about the early life of Christ was explored from an early date in a text like The Protoevangelium of James and exploited to the full with infancy narratives and tales of Jesus’s precocious behavior as a child.

We find a similar wrestling with problems posed by the text, and exploitation of the space it offers, in William Blake’s 1825 Illustrations of the Book of Job. One of the problems posed by the Book of Job is the role of Satan. He functions as an agent of God, who is to a degree complicit in Job’s torments by permitting the “testing” to take place by Satan. However, Satan disappears from the narrative after Job 2. Blake explores God’s collusion with Satan in Job’s suffering (Job 1:12; 2:3) in a remarkable image, Plate 11 of the series. Here Blake depicts Job’s nightmare, in which the divinity is seen as a mix of God and Satan tormenting him. Nor does Blake ignore Satan’s disappearance from the story of Job. So, in Plate 16, Satan is depicted falling from heaven, picking up a well-known biblical theme, being judged by God for his behaviour toward the hapless Job.

There is another feature of this image, however, that shows us the way in which a close reader of the biblical text like Blake could exploit the space offered him by the text. Job 7:13–14 reads: “When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint,’ then you scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions.” What the content of those terrifying dreams and visions is not given in the biblical text. Blake the artist exploits the opportunity offered by this deficiency in these verses and depicts the nightmare apparition, a mixture of God and Satan terrifying him.

Similarly, Job 42:5 (“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you”) tells us nothing about what Job saw of God. Indeed, in the light of the preceding theophany (Job 38–41) there are only the words of the inscrutable Almighty. Blake understands this moment as one of vision and then interprets this vision christologically, juxtaposing the vision of God to Job and his wife in Plate 17 with a vision of Christ, as is evident from the marginal references to the Gospel of John (especially John 14:9).


Sufficient has been said to show differences of opinion between practitioners of reception theory, reception history, and Wirkungsgeschichte regarding the task in which they are engaged, its purpose, principles, and parameters.


Is reception history, for example, primarily a task of collating or cataloging neglected or unfamiliar receptions of the text? The concern that reception history simply adds to the existing body of knowledge at the risk of creating yet more areas of specialism is a real one. In response, one may point to the “historical” nomenclature of both reception history and Wirkungsgeschichte: a “history” or Geschichte presupposes an interpretative framework, an ordered account that does more than simply collate material or facts, but locates them in an interpretative frame that explores inter-relationships and causal links. Similarly, the creation of a catalog (such as a catalog for a museum or art exhibition) involves selection, categorization, and analysis. Furthermore, broad reception-historical catalogs are indispensable for opening up possibilities that subsequent scholars can follow up in more detail. This latter task is a complementary aspect of the discipline, and there are a growing number of fine examples covering specific biblical books and passages and exploring their reception in a variety of media, including visual art. These include Yvonne Sherwood’s study of the afterlives of the book of Jonah (Sherwood 2000), Rachel Nicholls’s monograph on the Wirkungsgeschichte of Matthew’s “Walking on the Water” narrative (Nicholls 2008), Martin O’Kane’s exploration of the artist as biblical interpreter (O’Kane 2007), and Natasha O’Hear’s examination of interpretations of the Apocalypse in late medieval and early modern art (O’Hear 2011).


Second, there is disagreement concerning the appropriate limits of reception history. Some practitioners prefer the limitations of what we have defined as “the history of interpretation,” or a focus on the “peaks” of reception implied by Jauss’s “summit-dialogue.” Luz’s particular interest in significant receptions in Catholic and Protestant traditions, albeit within a growing appreciation of wider reception embracing poetry, art, and music, is too broad for some and too narrow for others. This debate is reflected in the various volumes of the Blackwell Bible Commentaries, whose individual answers are related in part to questions of genre. In his BBC commentary on Galatians, John Riches opts for in-depth engagement with a small number of classic interpreters in order to elucidate this difficult Pauline letter (Riches 2008). Given the very different elusiveness (and allusiveness) of the Apocalypse, Judith Kovacs and Christopher Rowland adopt a more inclusive approach, which embraces lesser known interpreters and receptions in non-verbal media. The justification for the latter is their conviction that artists may engage the subject matter of this visual and visionary text more effectively than those who write verse-by-verse commentaries (Kovacs and Rowland 2004 ).

But adopting such a broad approach to reception history immediately confronts the interpreter with the enormity of the task at hand and the need to create some kind of boundary to what may seem to be a potentially limitless task. Thus, the Kovacs-Rowland Revelation commentary seeks to order the vast amount of material it discusses via a relatively simple hermeneutical model (which identifies a spectrum between allegory or “decoding” and analogy or actualization) for shaping the plethora of material from outside, as well as inside, the mainstream Christian tradition. Other Blackwell authors adopt different strategies. Engagement with the problems posed by those very different approaches (also evident to some extent in the differences evident in the EKK series) is necessary to explore the problematic nature of the reception history task.

Adjudicating among Interpretations.

A third area for debate concerns the question of validity or truth in interpretation (see Sawyer 2004). Are there bad as well as good receptions, false as well as true interpretations, and what are the criteria for assessing between them? Historical criticism tends to prioritize “original meaning” as virtually synonymous with authorial intention (a “historical” version of the patristic and medieval interest in the “literal sense”). Many sympathetic to reception history would still wish to assess interpretations according to their correspondence to the original meaning, albeit acknowledging the difficulties inherent in articulating such a meaning. Others make judgments less on authorial grounds than on textual: they point to clues within the text that constrain what may be considered a valid reading.

With the “history of influence” of New Testament texts particularly in mind, Ulrich Luz proposes two converging and functional criteria for making judgments, one historical and the other ethical. The first he calls “correspondence with the essentials of the history of Jesus,” in which the historical dimension prevents it from being a criterion excluding the receptions of those outside the churches. The second draws both upon the Matthean insight that “you shall know them by their fruits” (Matt 7:20) and the Augustinian concern that interpretations tend toward the building up of the divine kingdom of love (Luz 1994, pp. 82–97; Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana 1.36). Yet critics of the ethical criterion point to the difficulty of establishing “love” as a universal criterion, or even as at the heart of the New Testament witness. Others adopt a broader ethical criterion, which can critique even readings approximating to the perspective of the original author: readings promoting unjust or immoral actions, such as genocide, should be rejected.

Impact, Relevance, and Prospectus.

The impact of reception theory and reception criticism/history on biblical studies is increasingly acknowledged, even if its implications for the wider discipline, and particularly the extent of its challenge to the hitherto dominant historical-critical paradigm, remain contested. Seminars on the history of influence are now integral to academic conferences, such as the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting and the British New Testament Conference. Other signs of its contemporary relevance include the Oxford-based Centre for the Reception History of the Bible and the ongoing Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (EBR) project, published by De Gruyter.

Interdisciplinary Dimension.

The wide focus of reception history, and its interest in biblical reception in a variety of media, encourages interdisciplinary collaboration between biblical scholars and those working in other disciplines in the humanities. The influence of Gadamer and Jauss is felt strongly in these other disciplines, where the centrality of reception theory offers promising possibilities for cooperation. Some practitioners (e.g. William John Lyons in Roberts and Rowland, eds., 2010, pp. 207–220) have suggested that this capacity for interdisciplinary bridge-building may be crucial to the continuing survival of biblical studies in a time of economic crisis.


Within theology specifically, the turn to reception history offers an opportunity to overcome the increased specialization and therefore fragmentation of the subject into discrete disciplines. There is an obvious synergy with the rediscovery by the academy of neglected patterns of exegesis, especially the polyvalent readings of patristic and medieval interpretation of scripture. This is reflected in a number of commentary and monograph series and offers potential for greater collaboration between biblical studies, historical and systematic theology, and church history.

Nor is this potential restricted to academic theologians or to the humanities more generally. A crucial dimension of reception history, identified in Luz’s work, is its serious attention to the reading of scripture in distinctive religious communities. Professional biblical scholars could be criticized for having replaced one magisterium (that of the Church or the rabbinic tradition) with another (that of the academy) that is not always sympathetic to the theological subject matter of the Bible. Reception history’s potential openness to non-magisterial and especially popular receptions of scripture, alongside a rediscovery of magisterial interpretations from the “pre-critical” period, offers a way for re-engagement with the concerns and agendas of the churches.

On the other hand, it could follow in the footsteps of the historical-critical method and replace the latter’s “received wisdom” with an alternative tradition of “classic readings,” instead of viewing tradition as an inevitably fluid constellation of ideas and events at a particular time and place that condition particular readings of biblical texts. Interpreters may indeed have been prompted by earlier readings, but that quest for influence is one that comes too readily to the hand of the interpreter. Anyone who has scrabbled round in the byways of biblical interpretation, not least in the work of poets and artists who might not make it to “the summit dialogue,” will be aware that their impact on “tradition” might be every bit as significant for a modern reader as Origen, Aquinas, Calvin, or Augustine. This warns us of the danger of reducing the enterprise of reception history either to an expert’s playground or to the neat application of an aesthetic methodology.

Interpretation in its totality is a telling of a story about what the text means, and we need to find a way to tell a new story of the text that includes voices from the past and also non-dominant voices past and present, e.g. the rich tradition of women’s appropriation of the Apocalypse. The methodological pattern is going to be different for each biblical text. Our task, however, is to make that idiosyncratic account one that can also embrace readers as they craft their own stories of interpretation.

Biblical Studies.

Within biblical studies, a number of challenges present themselves. The discipline may still have a long way to go in convincing historical critics of the necessity or even value of reception history. Careful reception-historical analysis of modern as well as ancient receptions may be necessary in order to illuminate the extent of (often unconscious) dependence of critical commentaries on specific strands of reception history in the questions they pose, to the neglect of others. To look at the challenge from another angle, reception history could offer historical critics a paradigm for the future that is in fact more thoroughly historical, in that it traces receptions of the text through history, illuminating the changing “horizons of expectation” (Jauss’s Erwartungshorizont) with which readers in different contexts have approached the text.

One particular avenue, which may help reinvigorate the future of biblical studies, is to view reception history less as another “criticism” (one possible translation of the German Geschichte) alongside source, form, redaction, or narrative criticisms, and more a way of engaging the text that impacts a range of historical, literary, and theological methods. Markus Bockmuehl’s stimulating discussion of the current state and future prospects of New Testament study (Bockmuehl 2006) points precisely to the potential of Wirkungsgeschichte for bringing together in a shared focus subdisciplines as diverse as textual criticism, narrative criticism, and liberationist deconstruction.

Two particular contributions could usefully be noted in conclusion. The first is the invitation reception history issues to textual participation, an invitation found in both scholarly and popular readings. It is particularly rooted in the conviction that the subject matter of the texts is fundamentally theological and that it has the capacity to transform the lives of readers. This contrasts sharply with the nonparticipatory character of much historical criticism, with its focus on information rather than transformation.

Second, it raises awareness of the key role of the imagination in interpreting texts, which is in fact widely shared. Although more obvious in figurative and allegorical readings typical of patristic and especially medieval exegesis, imaginative reconstruction is no less present in historical-critical readings. The capacity to reconstruct intended audiences, or illuminate study of the Gospels of Matthew and John by appeal to “Gospel communities,” is not qualitatively different from the imaginative (and equally text-grounded) receptions found in pre-critical predecessors. Rather, the use of the imagination, like reception history itself, is integral to the task of finding meaning in biblical texts.



  • Bockmuehl, Markus. Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study. Studies in Theological Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006. A proposal for future directions in New Testament studies advocating a greater role for reception history.
  • Ebeling, Georg. The Word of God and Tradition. Translated by S. H. Hooke. London: Collins, 1968. English translation of Wort Gottes und Tradition, first published in 1964. A book that argues for a re-imagining of church history as the history of the interpretation of the Bible and that is considered by Luz to anticipate the Wirkungsgeschichte of biblical texts.
  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method, 2d rev. ed. Translated by J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall. London and New York: Continuum, 1989. English translation of Wahrheit und Methode, first published in 1960. Gadamer’s major text on hermeneutics, which is the point of reference for all modern discussions of Wirkungsgeschichte.
  • Jauss, Hans Robert. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. Translated by T. Bahti. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982. An English collection of Jauss’s seminal writings; an influential attempt to systematize Gadamer’s discussion of hermeneutics and provide a methodological framework.
  • Knight, Mark. “Wirkungsgeschichte, Reception History, Reception Theory.” In Roberts and Rowland, eds., 2010, 137–146. An introduction to the relationship between these terms in recent discussion and the different ways in which Gadamer’s ideas have been appropriated by biblical scholars.
  • Kovacs, Judith, and Christopher Rowland. Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. Blackwell Bible Commentaries. Malden, Mass., Oxford, and Carlton: Blackwell, 2004. A broad engagement with the reception history of the Apocalypse, including popular, marginal, and artistic receptions.
  • Luz, Ulrich. “The Contribution of Reception History to a Theology of the New Testament.” In The Nature of New Testament Theology, edited by C. Rowland and C. Tuckett, 123–34. Malden Mass., Oxford, and Carlton: Blackwell, 2006. A more recent outline of Luz’s approach, which examines the relationship between Wirkungsgeschichte and reception history, the ecumenical impact of a reception-historical approach, and what it might contribute to a theological interpretation of the New Testament for today.
  • Luz, Ulrich. Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994. A seminal discussion of Luz’s engagement with the “history of influence” of Matthew’s Gospel.
  • Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 1–7: A Commentary. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989. Matthew 8–20: A Commentary. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. Matthew, pp. 21–28: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005. Luz’s EKK commentary, which pays particular attention to Wirkungsgeschichte.
  • Lyons, William John. “Hope for a Troubled Discipline? Contributions to New Testament Studies from Reception History.” In Roberts and Rowland, eds., 2010, 207–220. A proposal for re-labeling historical-critical methodologies with the terminology of reception history, with a view to ensuring the survival of biblical studies within the academy.
  • Nicholls, Rachel. Walking on the Water: Reading Mt 14:22–33 in the Light of its Wirkungsgeschichte. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2008. An application of Gadamer’s concept of Wirkungsgeschichte to one specific gospel narrative.
  • O’Hear, Natasha. Contrasting Images of the Book of Revelation in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art. Oxford Theological Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. An in-depth study of visual exegesis of the Apocalypse in selected manuscripts, tapestries, altarpieces, and woodcuts.
  • O’Kane, Martin. Painting the Text: The Artist as Biblical Interpreter. Bible in the Modern World 8. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007. An exploration of the role of art (mainly from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries) as biblical exegesis, in which nuances and subtleties in the biblical narrative are highlighted by the artist, revealing aspects of the text of which viewers may have hitherto been unaware.
  • Parris, David Paul. Reception Theory and Biblical Hermeneutics. Princeton Theological Monograph Series. Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2009. A study of the impact of Gadamer and Jauss specifically on biblical studies, with worked examples of interpretation following Jauss’ method.
  • Räisänen, Heikki. “The ‘Effective History’ of the Bible: A Challenge to Biblical Scholarship?” Scottish Journal of Theology 45 (1992): 303–324. An article assessing the scope, impact, and limits of “effective history” and reception history for the interpretation of biblical texts.
  • Riches, John. Galatians Through the Centuries. Blackwell Bible Commentaries. Malden Mass., Oxford, and Carlton: Blackwell, 2008. A reception-historical commentary on this Pauline letter that engages in depth with a selected group of “classic” commentaries, including Augustine, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin.
  • Roberts, Jonathan, and Christopher Rowland, eds. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33/2 (2010). An issue of the journal specifically dedicated to reception theory and reception history; in addition to the articles mentioned in this bibliography, there are also discussions of visual exegesis, the hermeneutics of Ulrich Luz, Sachkritik, and socio-rhetorical interpretation.
  • Rowland, Christopher. Blake and the Bible. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011. A major study of the biblical hermeneutics of William Blake, with particular attention to his visual interpretation.
  • Sawyer, John F. A. “The Role of Reception Theory, Reader-Response Criticism and/or Impact History in the Study of the Bible: Definition and Evaluation.” 2004. bbibcomm.net/?page_id=183 [accessed November 30, 2011]. Paper given at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, San Antonio. A wide-ranging discussion of interpretative approaches (from reader-response criticism through advocacy readings to Wirkungsgeschichte) that engage with the reception of biblical texts.
  • Sherwood, Yvonne. A Biblical Text and its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001. An examination of the reception of the biblical Book of Jonah, attending particularly to “backwater” rather than mainstream readings, and engaging cultural studies, Jewish studies, literature, and art.

Christopher Rowland and Ian Boxall

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