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Exegesis and History of Reception. Reading the New Testament Today with the Readers of the Past.
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2021. XII, 244 S. = Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 455. Lw. EUR 129,00. ISBN 9783161596537.
Mark W. Elliott
Régis Burnet’s book has an encyclopaedic feel to it and that is no criticism. There are a number of very useful gems of information and insight. In the course of the first pages we are introduced to present-day Catholic intellectuals like Gérard Leclerc, then informed that two centuries before the Reformation Henry Ghent argued that Scripture was more trustworthy than the church, and that this coincided with a widespread rejection of institutions and traditions. We also have a rich feast in the footnotes: I was pleased to learn of Sylvie Parizet, La Bible dans les litteratures du monde (2016), and the series published by Cerf: Etudes d’histoire de l’exegese, and Hans-Theo Wrege, Wirkungsgeschichte des Evangelium (Göttingen, 1981) which I’d overlooked. Then there is his own fascinating-sounding previous work: Régis Burnet, Les Douze Apôtres:Histoire de la reception des figures apostoliques dans le christianisme ancient, Turnhout: Brepols, 2014.
The heart of the book seems to be the re-validation of biblical characters who hitherto have been painted as evildoers without nuance. Judas is the obvious one. One has to be aware of tipping points in history where a re-visioning of a character happened owing to shifts in the »history of mentalities«: Judas being »the Jew«. Or, Mary Magdalene, who stepped out of the shadow of the other two Marys in order to become more than just a penitent. Whereas for Gregory the Great, »Magdalene actualises the power of penance she does not illustrate it« (41), by the last (20th) century she is a Gnostic lover of Jesus and then a feminist heroine of liberation. For a long time King David as a type of Christ could do no wrong in the eyes of exegetes, especially when Uriah got portrayed as a Jew, and although the early modern Bayle and Calmet find the Bathsheba incident awkward, many commentators have continued to view Bathsheba as a flirt. This required Cheryl Exum to counter with a telling of the story as one of the voiceless, undergoing rape in a context of an abuse of power.
Some more examples follow, and one cannot criticise this book as ever being far from the bible. The Ephesians book burning in Acts 19:10 does not really refer to a break with paganism, the author thinks, but it is Eusebius who emphasised that in his interpreta- tion. Hebrews 13:19.22-25 is a coda that makes Hebrews seem Pauline. However, one might expect to ask the author whether these verses received much attention from the early church and why it matters.
Next up is »doubting Thomas«. We need to overcome the prejudice that has made a modern sceptic out of him. No, really his story is more about the exemplary importance of the senses and the body shown in his desire to touch (with a nod to Benjamin Schliesser). Then comes the figure of Gamaliel who in Acts 5 blended two kinds of wisdom, Euripides’ Bacchantes [Bacchae?] (»don’t fight God!«), but also Pirque Avot 4:11 (127). The early church believed Gamaliel supervised the feast at Cana. Chrysostom had seen him as exceptional admirable Jew, and it took Julian of Toledo then Bede to Christianize him. This was helped by the tradition that Gamaliel appeared to the priest Lucian in a vision to tell him the location of Stephen’s tomb. Then the person of Thaddaeus-Jude-Lebbaeus (depending on which Gospels and which textual transmission) is nicely excavated. (One realises any one of these could have made for a fuller study by itself.) John 11:2’s »Mary who anointed Jesus’s feet« makes it seem that was there more than one anointing (149). Estius in the Sixteenth Century was the first to see this problem (another fascinating detail), but the earlier interpretations help us to see that providence is here affirmed, and that it is not really about prolepsis for the sake of suspense, as with a movie’s »trailer«. Last of all we get treatments of Barabbas, who received negative and moralising interpretations until Victor Hugo got to him in his La Fin de Satan and a more nuanced account emerged. – Yes, but base on what biblical material?
At this point, as the book comes to the last example of Lazarus. It is slightly hard to see quite what the point of these examples are. Earlier in the book we had heard that Stephen Moore argued that »Jesus wept« (11:35) because of the stench of Lazarus’ corpse, a perverse reading which makes Bossuet’s interpretation (that includes this aspect of physical horror but is not reduced to it and sees rotting as mark of sin) seem far more intelligent. In 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:15 sexual sin as compared to temple impurity is most defiling, according to the argument of Paul himself and not just to his Christian interpreters. Yet our author seems to want to resist this: »Belief in the sacredness of the body, pushed to its maximum, is an obstacle to building self-esteem.« (189) He thinks that both passages are communitarian, but surely 1 Corinthians 6 is as much more about an individual. Then just for good measure he adds: »Individualism leads to justification at centre of worldview until it becomes tiresome.« (193) Now it’s clear that both the individual and the corporate matter to Paul, and to the best part of the history of interpretation. Some sort of revisionist theology of the body seems to be at stake here. One might want to use plain old exegesis to rein in this mentality-driven eisegesis a little.
Most of the time there’s a sense of post-Enlightenment liberative progress. »The history of the readings and explanations of biblical texts follows a different timeline from the history of commentaries.« (55) I take this to mean that the commentaries have usually been slow to catch on and catch up with the less officially theological interpretations in literature and art. Yet the author wishes to encourage what his Louvain (la-Neuve) colleague Benoît Bourgine has called for, namely the dialogue between bible and systematics. »To revive the various readings of the text is to renew the dialogue with theology« (72), as we »use the reception to enter contemporary debates« (125). One has to be careful that the conversation is two-way (Scripture’s authors being dead need their advocates) and that Ethics is not the only topic of conversation.
The presentation of the material can sometimes escape the confines of a clear structure
There are only a few odd expressions, such as »Stephen’s lapidation« (136). It is English written by a French-speaker, but for that it is superbly good. This is a wonderful resource, suggestive and imaginative, even provocative. Perhaps the theological vision just needs a bit more spelling out.