biblical studies

For some reason that is beyond me, apart from the lure of at least some fascinating places, I have found myself undertaking the following crazy sequence of keynote addresses and papers over the next five weeks:

1. Spiritual Booze and Freedom: Lenin on Religion

– 13-15 October: keynote address at the 50th anniversary of Beijing Languages and Cultures University.

2. A Revolution is a Miracle: Lenin and the Translatability of Politics and Religion

– 20-23 October: paper at ‘Lenin’s Thought in the 21st Century‘, Wuhan University, China.

3. Venerating Lenin

– 20-23 October: paper at ‘Lenin’s Thought in the 21st Century‘, Wuhan University, China.

4. Old Wine in New Wineskins: Reassessing Dynamic Equivalence

– 25-28 October: keynote address at ‘Translation and Interpretation in the Age of Globalization: Looking Back and Looking Ahead‘, Central Universitar Nord din Baia Mare, Transylvania, Romania.

5. Antonio Negri and the Bible

– 2 November: keynote at ‘The Book of Job in Philosophical Perspective‘, Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo, Norway.

6. Miracles Can Happen

– 8-11 November: paper at ‘Weighs Like a Nightmare‘, Historical Materialism 2012, SOAS, London.

7. What Exactly Did Credit Mean in the Ancient World?

– 17-20 November, paper at The Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Chicago, USA.

8. Living a Life of Luxury? Subsistence Versus Trade in the Ancient Economy

– 17-20 November, paper at The Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, Chicago, USA.

9. Race Matters in Political Theology

– 17-20 November, panel at The American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Chicago, USA.


Tired of flabby and limp analytic terms in scholarly work? Those terms abound – supplement, intersectionality, complexity, thick analysis, intertextuality, hybridity, mimicry, interstices, habitus, objet petit a, wellbeing index … [add terms here].

Instead, I propose two key terms with some bite.

1. Putschism, or the Kornilov putsch.

Lenin defines a putsch as an attempt at insurrection that is ‘nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses’ (Collected Works, Volume 22, p. 355). The Kornilov putsch of August-September 1917 was a conservative conspiracy, led by General Kornilov and supported by the old aristocracy, landowners and capitalists. It sought to impose its will by deception, force and old patterns of deference, first on parts of the army so that the conspiracy could achieve its aims and then on the people. The putsch disintegrated when Bolsheviks and SRs infiltrated Kornilov’s wavering troops and persuaded them either to refuse to fight or to defect. The putsch gave the Bolsheviks their chance, since the vast majority of workers and peasants swung over to their side and enabled the October Revolution.

Applied to scholarly work: picture yourself listening to a weak paper that relies the support of a few heavyweights. During the discussion that follows, begin your response with: ‘Putschist! Your argument is nothing other than putschist, just like Kornilov!’ Or, if you operate with brittle American politeness, you may say: ‘Thankyou for your wonderful and insightful paper. However, I would like to ask you why it is given to the mentality of a putsch, fit only for a circle of conspirators and stupid maniacs …’

2. The Kursk salient.

A salient may be defined as a feature of the battlefield projecting into enemy territory. It is surrounded on three sides by the enemy, rendering the troops in the salient vulnerable to being encircled and cut off. The enemy line facing a salient is defined as a ‘re-entrant’ (that is, a reverse salient). If the salient is long and narrow it is called a ‘deep salient’, which is susceptible to being ‘pinched out’ across the base. If it is ‘pinched out’, the salient becomes a ‘pocket’ in which the defenders are trapped.

The Kursk salient appeared on the eastern front in 1943. Since the Red Army tacticians had long realised that the Germans would attack there during the summer campaign, they developed an innovative strategy of high-concentration, well-camouflaged, multi-layer defences that were 250 kms deep. For the first time during World War II a German blitzkrieg was absorbed, blunted and turned back in a devastating counter-attack that broke the Wehrmacht and essentially won the war.

Applied to, say, literary analysis, one may venture a bold new, ‘Kursk salient’, theory that appears to its critics highly vulnerable. Salivating at the prospect of pinching out the saliential theory and creating a pocket that may be captured, your opponents set out to attack. In response, you develop a strategy like the Red Army that will lure critics into the trap, absorb their punishment and then destroy them in a crushing counter-attack.

The possibilities are endless: Galileo is the Kursk salient of astronomy, or rather, we now have the Galileo salient. In queer theory we have the Stonewall salient. The subconscious becomes the Freudian salient. Capital is the Marxian salient of economic theory …

I missed most of the debate over the senile splutterings of Larry Hurtado (here, here, here, here and here – for starters). For those not up on this little tiff on the corner of New Testament scholarship, the man who hails from Edinburgh, the gulag evangelico, argues that biblical training should focus on Hebrew, Greek, Latin (desirable), English, German and French – since all of the ‘worthwhile’ scholarship is in these languages.

I don’t want to rehearse the arguments made already, which boil down to the sheer reductionism of Hurtado’s position. Instead, I would add that Hurtado gives voice in his way to what may be called the closing of the western mind. Again and again in my travels through western Europe and North America, that closing becomes ever more noticeable. Cultural defence of the supposedly glorious ‘western’ culture is ever more strident, politics more xenophobic, and borders ‘securitised’. Hurtado’s troubled reflections on the changing nature of his own little plot – New Testament studies – reflects the same mentality: a reactionary defence a perceived golden age that has passed.

Three new articles, one on Marx’s liking for Luther in Sino-Christian Studies, another on Nick Cave and some of his novels in Literature and Theology, and a third, ‘The Patriarch’s Nuts: Concerning the Testicular Logic of Biblical Hebrew’ in the Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. Joseph Gelfer also has some reflections – ‘The Boer’s Nuts‘ – on the tricky process of passing this one through the peer review process.

All of which made me realise that it really needs a companion piece. After some reflection I hit on a suitable title: The Matriarch’s Muff.

Criticism of Religion is now out in paperback from Haymarket Books (that reputable press run by the International Socialists – in the USA, of all places).

And on Bible and Interpretation a new piece called ‘Narratives of the Fall‘ – on the nature and practices of biblical criticism.

After slipping by without notice, my little piece ‘Against Reception History‘ over at Bible and Interpretation has put the wind up both Christopher Heard and John Hobbins. Heard, webmaster for the Blackwell Bible Commentaries (and hailing from that toothpaste-sounding university, Pepperdine) has penned a longish piece on the actual Blackwell site called ‘In Defense of Reception History’. Hobbins, meanwhile, reckons Heard has ‘corrected’ my little misunderstandings – here at Ancient Hebrew Poetry.

The criticism boils down to saying that I created the proverbial straw man – reception history – whom I then cut down. But reading the posts by these worthy gentlemen, it seems that the straw men have come out to play. Except that the straw men disagree with one another.

After trying a weak encirclement movement – ‘but you too are doing reception history, my dear Roland, but you simply don’t realise it’ – Heard’s singular criticism is that I misrepresent what all those worthy reception critics are doing. How so? Do they give priority to determining the meaning of the text in its original setting (whatever the fuck that might be)? No, no, no, says Heard: they simply allow every interpretation equal validity. In fact, to quote that lovable fossil, John Sawyer, the text doesn’t really ‘exist’ without a reader.

What is also new is the notion that the reception of a text is more important than the text itself, and even that a text doesn’t really exist until somebody reads it.

Um, Chris, my dear smiling man: that used to be called reader-response criticism. But does that mean we are all caught in that dreadful mush sometimes called ‘post-modern’ (so Hobbins)? No, no, no, says Heard:

To be sure, reception history treats biblical texts as ‘originary’ with respect to later uses thereof, but only in the undeniable and rather uninteresting sense that a biblical book must exist before it can have any effects or influence precisely as a book, just as you can’t use a dictionary or be affected by a sentimental love song until those textual objects exist.

Now Heard simply refuses to see the philosophical issues at stake in the very use of the terms Rezeptionsgeschichte and Wirkungsgeschichte, issues that were at the core of Gadamer’s method and the very meanings of those terms. While Heard bends over backwards, forewards and sideways to show that reception history is really just as postmodern as the rest of us, that those dreadful German biblical critics no longer call the shots, Hobbins is less than impressed with Heard’s gymnastics.

For Hobbins, reception does indeed refer to everything that comes after that beautiful, glistening original moment of the text itself. And you should indeed aim to find out what a text meant in its original context:

I defend the right of an ancient text to have a meaning specific to its time and place, a meaning that deserves to be understood as primary even if we can only seek to recover it, as opposed to know it for certain down to the last detail.

I might defend the right of animals to become clergy, or perhaps for amoeba to vote, but that doesn’t mean it is realistic. Come on, John, do you really believe that crap? Citing the old Renaissance slogan, ad fontes, betrays your hand: the very possibility of imagining an originary text in its time and place, and the desire to understand it as such, is itself enabled by the conditions that assumption denies in its universalist pitch. In other words, the very method Hobbins espouses is itself anachronistic and alien to the text’s ‘original’ situation. So we are back with that old, worn and highly suspect search for pristine origins – the bane of biblical scholars, theologians … and Renaissance men. It is a nice interpretive fiction, but dangerous if you believe it.

All of which leaves me with one last question for Heard-Hobbins (sounds like Bilbo Baggins), wtf is reception history?

For some reason, the editors at Bible and Interpretation have given me free reign to let rip. The target this time: the problematic category of ‘reception history’ in biblical criticism. As you will see, those friggin’ German biblical critics will have much to answer for at the final judgement …

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