Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

3 Feb 2017

Intertextuality: What Is It and Is It Helpful?

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Recent weeks have found me immersed in the study of intertextuality, a trendy and cherished buzzword in academe. Defining intertextuality has proved notoriously difficult, with nearly as many definitions as interpreters. Nevertheless, since its coinage in the late 1960’s, intertextuality has come to dominate certain segments of literary studies by offering an air of sophistication that, while not entirely bereft of value, often substitutes fuzzy connections and technical jargon for clarity and precision. Biblical scholarship, although rather late to the party, has increasingly adopted this term as a way to dress up a task that the church has been seeking to do for centuries: discover how later texts of the Bible relate to and even amplify earlier texts of the Bible.

Given the rise of intertextuality as an approach to biblical studies, I wanted to offer a brief primer on the topic. I will examine the history of intertextuality and assess whether it furnishes a useful tool in sharpening our understanding of Scripture. Given the breadth of the subject, I’ll take two parts to do so. Part 1 will look at the history of the term and the debates surrounding its meaning. Part 2 will look at how intertextuality might be applied beneficially to our study of biblical texts.

In a relatively obscure essay written in 1967 a Bulgarian-born, French PhD student named Julia Kristeva presented a detailed critique of the theories of a little-known Russian literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin. The essay was later published in 1969 in a book on literary theory and eventually translated into English in 1980. In this essay Kristeva coined the term intertextuality as a means of proposing, on the basis of Bakhtin’s work, a fresh interpretation, and in reality subversion, of the traditional understanding of the relationships among author, text, and reader. In her construal the author of any given text is in reality merely a reader rewriting another text. The so-called author therefore has no claims to certainty or authority over the meaning of the (rewritten) text (she states: “The one who writes is the same as the one who reads. Since his interlocutor is a text, he himself is no more than a text rereading itself as it rewrites itself” [“Word, Dialogue, and Novel,” 86–87].). Furthermore, a text, whether written or non-verbal, is simply one tissue in a network of boundary-less communications, a drop in the ocean of utterances, with no fixed point of chronology or meaning and in never-ending dialogue with other texts (thus synchrony subsumes diachrony). Kristeva went a step further to posit that if all authors are really readers, likewise all readers are essentially authors. In other words, the reader of a text has as much claim to the reality and meaning of the text as the author because the author, as traditionally construed, has ceased to exist. The author and his authority are dismissed; the reader is left to pick up the pieces and assume control of the interpretive process.

Kristeva’s mentor, Roland Barthes, soon developed (Mary Orr suggests plagiarized) and popularized her arguments, setting much of the agenda for ensuing discussions of intertextuality. In a well-known essay entitled “The Death of the Author,” Barthes makes explicit what Kristeva had left implicit. The author, according to Barthes, is the garish invention of the modern age, a cultural by-product of the individualistic tendencies of the Enlightenment and Protestant Reformation. The author is an authoritarian despot who oppresses the cravenly reader. Therefore, the author is better off dead. Sic semper tyrannis. Freed from the constraints of the author, the goal of reading, suggests Barthes, is to pursue pleasure or play through the gateway of the text rather than to determine the meaning of the text. The reader is thus loosed from the pesky demands of the author to follow his or her interpretive whimsy.

As the use of intertextuality grew in popularity, Kristeva eventually came to resent how other scholars were using her terminology in a way that differed from her original intent. She criticized what she viewed as a use of intertextuality that amounted to “pedantic source-hunting.” She proposed a shift to the term transposition and away from intertextuality. Of course, many were quick to point out the rich irony in Kristeva’s demurral. Scholars using intertextuality as a cover term for these various approaches were simply doing to Kristeva what she herself had done to Bakhtin and, moreover, what she had proposed to be the essence of literary interpretation. Hadn’t she herself drafted the obituary of the author and authorial intent, and Barthes published it? Could she now make claims as to how certain words should or shouldn’t be used?

Reacting to such excesses which, followed to their natural conclusion, eviscerate the possibility of coherent communication, later literary critics, such as Michael Riffaterre and Umberto Eco, sought to lessen the subjectivity inherent in these more progressive understandings of intertextuality. These critics endeavored to grant more objectivity to the interpretive process by paying closer attention to the literary features, known as semiotics, within the text. Literary markers within a text, identified by the ideal or informed reader, offer something of a guide to the interpreter. Thus the reader, though still empowered in the interpretive process, is chastened to a greater degree and constrained by the encoded literary markers toward better and more charitable readings.

Within biblical studies the watershed study for intertextuality appeared in 1985 with Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. Fishbane used the phrase inner-biblical exegesis (terminology picked up from Nahum Sarna) to describe how later biblical texts evoke and transform earlier biblical texts as a means of preserving and amplifying the received tradition. Fishbane’s work was highly influential and led to a spate of successive studies in biblical intertextuality, with journal articles and monographs devoted to some aspect of intertextuality increasing exponentially. For example, an ATLA database search on articles in biblical studies prior to 1985 that mention intertextuality yields 16 results. After 1985, the same search yields more than 1,700 results. Clearly, biblical scholarship is infatuated with intertextuality. But is this a good thing?

In part 2, I’ll suggest several reasons why a modified form of intertextuality can be helpful for us. I’ll also propose a way to do intertextuality in relation to Scripture that will aid us in being better readers of the biblical text. In part 3 I’ll discuss the usage of intertextuality in biblical studies by providing examples of how it might be put into practice.


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