Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thoughts on Intertextuality

I love intertextuality. It's fundamental to how we interpret life. It shows up when we weave dialogue from TV and movies or song lyrics into our everyday speech. Our perception of the world around us and all our interactions with others are affected by it. Every experience with language, spoken or written, every encounter with visual media informs our understanding of and reaction to new experiences or new texts.

When we immerse ourselves in a particular text, we effortlessly make connections between that text and a new text. Those connections can be linguistic or conceptual. Certain phrases stick with us, and we make an instant connection every time we hear it. [For me, it's the word "honestly." It calls up the line from Austin Powers every time: "Who throws a shoe?! Honestly!!"]

In the arena of biblical interpretation, it surfaces in some way nearly every time we read a text that somehow evokes ideas or phrases from texts we've read before. For example, I became very familiar with the text of Job going through it for text class in one semester. Over a year later when we hit Isaiah 35 in class, I heard echoes of Job frequently (cp. Job 4:3-4 and Isa. 35:3).

Intertextuality can be a fruitful phenomenon to apply to biblical interpretation despite its inherent subjectivity and often idiosyncratic results. Methodological controls are necessary to produce replicable results. Textual dependence, especially at the level of meaningful allusion instead of evocative echo, is notoriously difficult to demonstrate.

If our interest is intertextuality and biblical interpretation, the best place to start is with the masters of biblical intertextuality -- the rabbis of the exegetical midrashim (see Boyarin, 1990). If you want to know what biblical passages are relevant to the topic of creation (as I do), you might benefit from a look at Genesis Rabbah.

Tonight I read through Genesis Rabbah Parashah 1 in English. Sadly, the only copy left at our library was Neusner's deplorable translation (1985; I have it on good authority that all of Neusner's translations of rabbinic texts are deplorable. I mean, what can you expect when one man thinks he can speed-translate the entire corpus of rabbinic literature in his lifetime?)

I also have the standard Hebrew edition by Theodor and Albeck (1965). I plan to work through some passages in detail in Hebrew. From what I've read thus far though, the writers made very effective use of intertextuality to support their highly sophisticated theological exegesis.

More will be coming soon.


Boyarin, Daniel. 1990. Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Neusner, J. 1985. Genesis Rabbah. Vol. 1. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.

Theodor, J. and Ch. Albeck. 1965. Midrash Bereshit Rabba: Critical Edition with Notes and Commentary. Jerusalem: Wahrmann.


  1. You are right that the Midrash is barely available in English. However, Rashi sometimes quotes the Midrash, and Artscroll's edition of Rashi (I have more information on my sadly out-of-date reading list) is very accessible. Fully pointed modern Hebrew versions of the Midrash are available, too, but they're not cheap.


  2. Dissertation writers will also know all about intertextuality.

    I recall a colleague who used to have fun with me while I was ABD and writing on Daniel: at any point in a conversation about anything, he would occasionally interject, "Now tell me how this is really all about the Book of Daniel." And I always could! :^)

  3. That Austin Powers comment will stick with me for a while. Hahaha thanks!

    For me, it's the phrase "this is a very sensitive subject."