Biblical reception history focuses on interpretations of biblical texts throughout history, examining the impact that the Bible has had in different spheres. From amulets to altar paintings, sarcophagi to sacred book illuminations, reception history of the Bible encompasses a great variety of diverse interpretations extending far beyond the classic commentators of Jewish and Christian tradition. Indeed a significant contribution of reception history has been to expand biblical interpretation to include the work of artists, musicians, and writers. Through reception history, valuable information and insights about how particular people in particular places have interpreted the Bible emerge. The diversity of reception history has been regarded as problematic by some scholars, but I argue here that its diversity is an especially valuable asset, enabling women’s voices to be included in the discussion about the Bible’s interpretation.

Spot the Difference: Wirkungsgeschichte and Reception History

The term “reception history” (Rezeptionsgeschichte) is often used as synonymous with Wirkungsgeschichte, a German term derived from the philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) and variously translated as “history of effect” or “effective history.” A central tenet of Gadamer’s philosophical approach (see his Wahrheit und Methode, 1960; Eng. trans. Truth and Method) is that all interpretation is historically and linguistically situated. This insight has been foundational for all subsequent definitions of reception history that have appeared. A further insight to emerge from Gadamer’s work is the recognition that the reader is not passive, as recipient of the text, but functions actively to play a part in constructing its meaning. Potentially then, Gadamer’s philosophical approach has significant implications for the female reader, acknowledging the role she plays in creating a text’s meaning.

As a pupil of Gadamer, Hans Robert Jauss (1921–1997) built on his teacher’s insights, developing an “aesthetic of reception” as a literary theory (Jauss 1982). As part of his emphasis on reception, Jauss drew particular attention to the historical dimension of responding to literature (Rezeptionsgeschichte), thereby emphasizing the place of historical consciousness. In outlining his seven theses for literary studies, Jauss transformed Gadamer’s approach to understanding into a method. A noteworthy, though often overlooked, feature to emerge from Jauss’s work is his suggested “summit-dialogue of authors,” the English phrase coined by David Parris to translate Jauss’s German terms der Gipfeldialog der Autoren and der Höhenkamm der Autoren (Parris 2009, 216). Using these two terms interchangeably, Jauss thereby encourages the identification of a canon of exemplary commentators, each representing a defining moment of a tradition’s contours—its “peaks.” He therefore argues that attention should be accorded to the most influential interpretations which have had the greatest impact on later readers. While Jauss accepts that hymns and art can be included in this summit-dialogue, in practice his concept has been applied to designating key authors of commentaries and theological treatises.

The ideas of Gadamer and Jauss were placed on the biblical studies map through the work of Swiss New Testament scholar Ulrich Luz (1938– ). He juxtaposed historical-critical analysis of Matthew’s Gospel with the history of interpretation and influence of the text, insisting that the latter is integral to the task of interpretation. Luz differentiates between Wirkungsgeschichte and reception history by arguing that the former refers to the effective power of the texts themselves, whereas reception history refers to the people who receive the text. Despite making this theoretical distinction (Luz 2007, 61), he often treats the two terms synonymously.

Spot the Difference: “History of Interpretation” and “Reception History”

Further terminological debate surrounds the relationship between “history of interpretation” and “reception history.” Frequently a distinction is made between “history of interpretation”—used narrowly to refer to exposition in theological commentaries—and “reception history,” allegedly a broader term which includes different media, such as sermons, hymnody, and art (see, e.g., Luz 2007, 61). The shortcomings of this distinction have been pointed out, since homiletic content is apparent in many theological commentaries (see Lamb 2012, 5). What has been overlooked, however, is the emerging tendency to treat reception history as equivalent to the history of interpretation: namely as a magisterial treatment of classic commentators. This is particularly problematic as it has led to a focus on white, male, Western interpretations of the Bible, instead of providing a broader picture of the interpretive possibilities offered by reception history. Often reception historians select key interpreters to help the reader traverse the interpretive landscape, such as the Venerable Bede, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Newton, Rudolf Bultmann, and Joseph Lightfoot, adopting a Jaussian-esque-style summit of male thinkers, where the exclusively masculine framework is not even noticed or mentioned as a difficulty. An important critique of many nascent definitions of reception history, therefore, is their selection of all-male conversation partners with whom to engage.

Reception History and Historical Criticism

A key question to emerge in discussion about reception history is when does “reception” begin? Does reception history imply origination and which original text is being referred to (see further Beal 2011, 367–368)? The Blackwell Bible Commentary series has actively engaged with such issues, and has played a pioneering role in developing reception history within biblical studies. The commentary series was established to give readers a sense of the broad impact of biblical texts across the centuries. The series editors clarify (in the series preface) that the volumes are 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, xi). This comment has subsequently come under fire for its perceived implication that reception history is a secondary activity built on the superstructure of historical criticism (see Breed 2014, 3). Does reception history support historical-critical approaches, coexisting with them in a familial relationship? Or does reception history explode the very notion of original meaning and thereby undermine historical criticism? The great variety of positions among practitioners of reception history makes a straightforward answer to this question difficult.

Luz’s commentary on Matthew illustrates the first position, holding both historical criticism and reception history in tandem in one volume, as fruitful, illuminating approaches. Other scholars, such as Paul Joyce and Diana Lipton in their contribution to the Blackwell Bible Commentary series, are less comfortable with the notion that historical criticism is the base on which reception history is founded. To avoid this implication they argue that historical-critical study of the Bible should itself be viewed as “a relatively recent phase in the long story of its reception” (2013, 11). Further challenges to the practice of simply adding reception history on to traditional forms of exegesis are voiced in Brennan Breed’s 2014 monograph, Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception History. He is particularly concerned to question the primacy accorded to original form and original meaning by reception historians, suggesting that this is often an unexpressed assumption.

Classifying Reception Histories

Amid this plethora of approaches, various attempts have been made to classify biblical reception histories. To take one example, James Crossley subdivides reception historians into three different camps: first, those working within the constraints of a particular theological tradition (here he notes the confessional limitations of Luz’s position and the Evangelisch–Katholischer Kommentar series in which he writes); second, those working on reception history “as an aid to correct interpretation,” implying a commitment to the historical-critical method; and finally those who adopt the approach that “anything goes,” wishing the parameters to be wide (Crossley 2010, 117–130; cf. Boxall 2015, 175). While Crossley’s categories are a helpful pointer to the variety among practitioners of reception history, in practice many works do not fit neatly into any of these three camps. For example, it is unclear how Kovacs and Rowland’s Revelation commentary in the Blackwell series would be classified.

Principles of Selection

An oft-cited criticism of reception history is that the material is too vast, and thereby biblical scholars become dilettantes, lacking the appropriate expertise to engage with such wide-ranging sources. The sheer volume of material has also raised the issue of what principles of selection should be employed when writing a reception history. As noted above, some scholars adopt the principle of greatest impact, focusing on key interpreters within a tradition’s trajectory (following Jauss’s lead). However, there are good grounds for adopting other principles of selection, including a commitment to incorporating voices from the margins, not previously heard. For example, research on the reception history of Mark’s gospel might include material evidence, such as a magical amulet that depicts the hemorrhaging woman and cites a corrupted version of the Markan text (Mark 5:25–34). The amulet was designed as an aid for women with reproductive health and menstrual problems. Here then we find rare evidence that biblical texts about women were used by women in the ancient world (see further Joynes 2012, 123). Or looking beyond the limited confines of the West, further marginal voices emerge in the work of Musa Dube: she identifies Africa as the personification of the bleeding woman in the Markan text and equates those who ravage Africa with the destructive physicians described in the gospel account (Dube 2001, 2). These are just two brief examples to demonstrate that there are other ways to do reception history beyond tracing the literary tradition of the text among the fathers of the church. A reception historian need not be an expert in postcolonial theory or a Byzantine specialist to appreciate such diverse, illuminating contributions for interpreting Mark’s gospel. Nor should the diversity in chronological timeframe be a barrier to juxtaposing these very different uses of the same Markan text. Voices from the margins can serve to challenge the exegesis of the majority, thereby highlighting the text’s ambiguity, to which the reader is invited to return.

The Benefits of Reception History

Reception history clearly demonstrates that our situatedness affects the way we read. It also has the potential to reopen options that have been closed off. So contra Nancy Klancher’s dismissive remark that “The best reception histories today have moved beyond the recuperation of long-lost readings and the rectification of exegetical amnesia” (2013, 2), I suggest that reception history should not simply be the story of the (male) historical winners (similarly, Økland 2014, 226). There is much work still to be done to bridge the knowledge gap and to provide a more balanced view, as demonstrated by Marion Ann Taylor’s Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters which has begun this work. However, this task goes beyond simply finding a few female anomalies from the past. For, as art historian Linda Nochlin points out, the absence of great women artists is not because of a lack of individual genius, but is rather determined by social and institutional structures and what they forbid or encourage in various classes or groups of individuals. By extension, the same argument applies to the relative paucity of female biblical interpreters through the centuries. Reception history therefore needs to highlight these structures. This important dimension is implied in Mary Callaway’s comment that reception history seeks “to make strange what was assumed to be natural; to make local what was unconsciously taken to be universal and to make historical what seemed to be timeless” (2004, 13).

The aim of reception history is to help us better understand our hermeneutical situation. To that end, becoming sensitized to the male-focused discourse of the biblical studies discipline is a key benefit. Contrary to the claim that the diversity of reception history undermines its usefulness, I have argued that through its diversity opportunities arise for including female voices in discussions about biblical meaning. This will only be achieved, however, if reception history is redefined so that it is no longer simply equated with a male-dominated “history of interpretation” approach. Reception history offers the potential to enlarge our interpretive horizons and facilitate a commitment to those who have been marginalized. It therefore has an important contribution to make to the field of gender studies.


  • Beal, Timothy K. “Reception History and Beyond: Toward the Cultural History of Scriptures.” Biblical Interpretation 19 (2011): 357–372.
  • Boxall, Ian. “Reception History of the Bible.” in The New Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 4: From 1750 to the Present, edited by John Riches. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Breed, Brennan. Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.
  • Callaway, Mary. “What’s the Use of Reception History?” Unpublished paper, SBL San Antonio, 2004. (accessed 15 Sept. 2016).
  • Crossley, James. Reading the New Testament: Contemporary Approaches. London: Routledge, 2010.
  • Dube, Musa W. “Fifty Years of Bleeding: A Storytelling Feminist Reading of Mark 5:24–43.” In Other Ways of Reading: African Women and the Bible, edited by Musa W. Dube, pp. 50–60. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001.
  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. 2d rev. ed. translated by J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.
  • Jauss, Hans Robert. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. Translated by T. Bahti. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
  • Joyce, Paul M., and Diana Lipton. Lamentations Through the Centuries. Blackwell Bible Commentary Series. Oxford and Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
  • Joynes, Christine E. “Still at the Margins? Gospel Women and their Afterlives.” In Radical Christian Voices, edited by David Gowler and Zoë Bennett, pp. 117–135. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Klancher, Nancy. “A Genealogy for Reception History.” Biblical Interpretation 21 (2013): 99–129.
  • Kovacs, Judith, and Christopher Rowland. Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. Blackwell Bible Commentary Series. Oxford and Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004.
  • Lamb, William R. S. The Catena in Marcum: A Byzantine Anthology of Early Commentary on Mark. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2012.
  • Luz, Ulrich. “Effective History and Art: A Hermeneutical Study with Examples from the Passion Narrative.” In Perspectives on the Passion: Encountering the Bible through the Arts, edited by Christine E. Joynes, pp. 7–29. London: Continuum, 2005.
  • Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 1–7. A Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.
  • Nochlin, Linda. Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
  • Økland, Jorunn. “Facilitating Speech and Discourse: Biblical Interpretation and the Emergence of a Concept of Gender Equality.” Journal of the Bible and its Reception 1, no. 2 (2014): 209–235.
  • Parris, David Paul. Reception Theory and Biblical Hermeneutics. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2009.
  • Taylor, Marion Ann, ed. Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters: A Historical and Biographical Guide. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2012.

Christine E. Joynes