Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature (2014), by Brennan W. Breed.
In Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception History, Brennan Breed argues that the way we describe the Hebrew Bible’s original text and reception is fundamentally flawed. He claims that the very dichotomy between text and reception imposes a false binary—juxtaposing an “original” text with later iterations as if the principal unit is an uncontaminated essence that is then altered over time. Breed sees the very framework of “original” and “reception” as needlessly limiting because, as any good post-structuralist will tell you, texts do not have singular meanings or origins. Instead, what other scholars might call the “original” is itself part of the processes of composing, writing, rewriting; thus, the Hebrew Bible’s texts are not static ends but are in continual movement.
In the opening two chapters, Breed tackles textual criticism. Many biblical scholars claim that a particular manuscript is both the telos of textual production and the origin of transmission (Emanuel Tov), or that multiple textual variants can trace their roots to a common ancestral archetype (Ronald Hendel) or hyper-archetype (Michael Fox). However, says Breed, these arguments inherently preserve the binary between text and reception. There is no exemplary manuscript that represents the authentic or true origin, because “when it comes to traditional texts, stability and fixity are rhetorical devices, not ontological realities” (43). Further, the imaginary division in the Hebrew Bible’s chronology between canonization and reception imposes clumsy oppositions, positioning the pre-final text against a post-final text, pre-Temple destruction composition against post-Temple destruction use, or the “Bible” against Midrash. In terms of textual criticism, Breed pushes away from manufactured classification to consider all texts as process not product.
By eliminating the boundary between original text and its reception, chapters three and four complicate the scholarly interest in original context. Breed sees the work of contextualists as anchoring meaning, whether in semantic, genre, or historical context. However, this language of anchoring implies a sense of elementary units that can be pinned down and traced into a larger blueprint, lining up contexts along a wall to fit into a realized design. In actuality, no text is reducible to self-determinant content; rather, “every moment requires traces of other past and now absent moments that constitute its very identity” (100). No text forms in a vacuum, or in a specific context, but is itself part of a long series of processes, and therefore there is no single historical period of context that can account for features of the text. To account for the fluidity of textual contexts, Breed sees reception history as simply accounting for the ways people do stuff with texts while recognizing the opaque complex web of social forces behind formation and transmission.
The remainder of the book includes Breed’s theory of textual reception with a case study featuring Job 19:25-27. Following closely Deleuze’s conception of multiplicity, Breed sees texts as nomads, studied for their movement and variation rather than their fundamental forms.
Too often, biblical scholars ask, 'What is the essential textual form of this biblical text? How should this text look? How should it be read? What does it mean?' Instead, we should think in terms of a text's potential. What can it look like? What can it do? The point of biblical scholarship is not containment. It is knowledge—to know what a biblical text is. And the only way to know what it is is to see it in many different contexts doing many different things. Reception history asks precisely these questions (117).
When Deleuze speaks of virtual multiplicity, he envisions a full range of potentialities and capacities where essential substances are replaced with differential realities. In this way, for both Deleuze and Breed, no text has a single form or identity, and no single reading can exhaust the text’s potentiality. But in the moment of reading a text, the “virtual” range of possibilities becomes “actualized” in the present; “particular manuscripts are contingent, local actualization of a text’s virtual structure” (137). The job of reception historians is not to discover the irreducible form but to map the text’s movement between the virtual and the actual.
Thinking in terms of textual capacities is not just meaningful for the Hebrew Bible and its reception but for all scholars who deal with texts. Like the nomad of Breed’s imagination, ever in flux with no true homeland to return, texts travel with limitless possibilities. Certainly questions regarding original contexts and earlier forms are part of the equation, but Breed convincingly suggests, “a single determination of a text reveals merely a fraction of that text’s contour” (206). Readers may differ with Breed about the mutual exclusivity of his approach and standard reading practices of the Bible and also may be left wanting a lengthier illustration of method than 3 verses from Job. Nevertheless, Nomadic Text offers an innovative poststructuralist theory of textual reception that dismantles the typical tools of textual work in order to deflate the prestige of the “original” and instead consider nomadic potential.
Krista Dalton is a PhD student at Columbia University and an editor at AJR. @KristaNDalton