‘What is Language but a Sound We Christen?’ Poetic Retellings as an Improper Surprise for Biblical Reception History

In: Biblical Interpretation
Samuel Tongue University of Glasgow, UK

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Although overtly poetic interaction with biblical material has often been deemed beyond the pale in critical biblical scholarship, much work in reception history now positions such literature as part of the afterlife of a biblical text. While this is a welcome turn, this article argues that acts of poetic biblical retelling and recycling are more disruptive, troubling the ways in which critical scholarship operates. Utilising Timothy Beal’s thinking around the ‘cultural history of scripture’ and analysing Roland Boer’s sceptical attitude toward reception-historical practices, the first section teases out the nuances of how certain modes of biblical interpretation are deemed primary (and thus more legitimate) and others secondary (and thus anachronistic).

As such, the second section introduces poetic retellings of biblical material that foreground how poetry is a literary space where knowledge is articulated in particularly performative idioms. Reading poems from Kei Miller and Michael Symmons Roberts that appropriate biblical material, this analysis demonstrates that the poetic retelling of biblical material is an act of writing that refuses secondary status and cannot be simplistically yoked to traditional modes of exegesis. In this way, poetry problematizes the originary-secondary binary in reception-historical interpretation and, at the same time, recasts historical-critical exegesis as another form of ‘supplemental’ writing. This opens up the discipline to rethink some of its most protected interpretative paradigms and engage more fully with other forms of biblical ‘supplement’ across the disciplines.

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