CPART’s Rewriting Genesis project

12.29.2014 | Guest

Bert Fuller recently completed his work at the Maxwell Institute as a research assistant to CPART’s Kristian Heal. Fuller has returned his full attention to completing an MA in comparative studies at BYU after which he plans to enter a doctoral program in English, researching poetry and poetics. Fuller’s farewell post below focuses on the area with which he assisted Dr. Heal: the reception of Genesis in medieval England. Everyone at the Maxwell Institute thanks Bert for his dedication and assistance in CPART’s project and wishes him the best in his future endeavors. —BHodges

I have spent the last eighteen months at CPART engaged in what has become known over recent decades as “reception history.” Before describing the details of CPART’s “Genesis Rewritten” project, I’d like to briefly articulate what it means to write reception history.

The theoretical underpinnings for reception history grew out of the German hermeneutic tradition. Rich as that tradition is, no single author retains primary credit for the methodologies of contemporary reception theory. Two names however deserve mention: the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) and the medievalist Hans Robert Jauss (1921–97).

In Truth and Method (1960), Gadamer articulates the inevitability of interpretation—i.e., the impossibility of forever suspending judgment—by showing that our lives, and thus history itself, function within a hermeneutic circle.1 We perceive the past through lenses of the present, and the present conceives itself according to what preceded it. In other words, the past and the present may represent discrete realms of human existence, but only when we open a channel between them does either become meaningful. Gadamer calls this linkage between then and now a Horizontverschmelzung, or “fusion of horizons.” While each moment in history is bound by certain limitations, or horizons—the understanding of those in the past had limits, and we in the present have our own as well—these differences do not ensure that predecessors and descendants remain forever and totally alien to each other. Indeed, understanding comes when their horizons merge.

Jauss recasts Gadamer’s Horizontverschmelzung as Erwartungshorizont, or “horizon of expectations.2 Jauss recognizes that the meaning of texts depends in part on what the reader brings to the interpretive experience. In treating the text as object, one must recognize both what the text expects of its contemporary readers and also what later readers expect of the text. Expectations arise through a number of factors, including genre, style, and form; and since “the text itself always contains an indication of the way it is to be read,”3 we do well to remember that reception history has almost nothing to do with subjectivism.4 Later readers, the “receivers,” rip texts from their original context by virtue of history marching on, thus inevitably appropriating the texts for themselves and their communities, but the reception remains purposed, significant, and lasting in its own right to a greater or lesser degree.

At CPART, we are interested in tracking the reception of Genesis in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Genesis has a rich, almost unparalleled, reception in Western culture.5 And while there already exists a wealth of biblical scholarship devoted to cataloging the reception of Genesis, we recognize several missing pieces in that work. Most significantly, scholars have tended to focus on major texts by major authors in major languages (Latin and Greek in particular). These contributions remain vital but insufficient for our project, since Genesis has extensive receptions elsewhere, such as in literatures as disparate as Syriac, Armenian, and Old English. Also, anonymous texts have traditionally been marginalized, as have texts from minor writers.

Our goal is to collect and present online a fuller representation of all texts that primarily or exclusively engage Genesis within the outlined timeframe, in whatever language, and from whatever religious tradition—hence our project’s title, Genesis Rewritten. As we gather this information and make it incrementally available, we hope that both biblical scholars and scholars in the various fields involved can increasingly engage interdisciplinary work which will create deeper understandings of Genesis itself and the different iterations of it that have come down to us through the ages. We do not intend for the database to contain cutting-edge argumentation; we envision it rather as a starting point for scholars interested in topoi and trends, for those desiring a broader sense of the tradition within which their individual projects situate themselves.

Of course, turning to ancient reading of Genesis is not only entirely natural for Latter-day Saints, but somehow also part of turning our hearts to the fathers, “For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect.”6

Fittingly, this is Joseph Smith rewriting the closing words of the Hebrew Bible, which read as follows in the King James Version: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”7 In the act of rewriting biblical material, Joseph Smith affirms that such processes are necessary to bind together the past and the present, the parents and the children. We have only begun the work necessary for Genesis Rewritten, and we look forward to the years ahead in which we will continue to add materials for others to use.

 

NOTES

1. “Hermeneutic circle” refers primarily to the idea that a whole is meaningless without its parts and the parts are meaningless without the whole. “Like the coherence of a text, the structural coherence of life is defined as a relation between the whole and the parts. Every part expresses something of the whole of life—i.e., has significance for the whole—just as its own significance is determined by the whole” (Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd rev. ed. [New York: Continuum, 1993], 223). “Wie der Zusammenhang eines Textes ist der Struckturzusammenhang des Lebens durch ein Verhältnis von Ganzem und Teilen bestimmt. Jeder Teil desselben drückt etwas vom Ganzen des Lebens aus, hat also eine Bedeutung für das Ganze, wie seine eigene Bedeutung von diesem Ganzen her bestimmt ist,” Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, 3rd rev. ed. (Tübigen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1972), 210.

2. See “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory,” in Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, translated by Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 3–45; Hans Robert Jauß, Literaturgeschichte als Provokation (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970), 144–207.

3. Tzvetan Todorov, Genres in Discourse, translated by Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 46. “Le texte contient toujours en lui-même une notice sur son mode d’emploi,” Tzvetan Todorov, Le genres du discours (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1978), 94. Though Todorov does not identify him by name, Jauss hovers in the background of these essays. See the reference to “horizons of expectation” on page 18 in the English and 50 in the French.

4. “The psychic process in the reception of a text,” writes Jauss, “is . . . by no means only an arbitrary series of merely subjective impressions, but rather the carrying out of specific instructions in a process of directed perception, which can be comprehended according to its constitutive motivations and triggering signals, and which also can be described by a textual linguistics” (“Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory,” 23; emphasis added); “Der psychische Vorgang bei der Aufnahme eines Textes ist . . . keineswegs nur eine willkürliche Folge nur subjektiver Eindrücke, sondern der Vollzug bestimmter Anweisungen in einem Prozeß gelenkter Wahrnehmung, der nach seinen konstituierenden Motivationen und auslösenden Signalen erfaßt und auch textlinguistisch beschrieben werden kann” (Literaturgeschichte als Provokation, 175).

5. Robert Alter goes so far as to say that that the opening chapters of Genesis have “set the terms, not scientifically but symbolically for much of the way we have thought about human nature and culture ever since” (The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary [New York: W. W. Norton, 2004], xii). He refers specifically to the Creation and the Fall, but such might be said of several other episodes: Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, the Akedah, Jacob at Bethel, and Joseph in Egypt.

6. Doctrine and Covenants 128:18.

7. Malachi 4:5–6.