Letter from the Editor



Michael D. Coogan, Editor in Chief

Michael D. Coogan

From the desk of Michael Coogan

As I write this, Bob Dylan has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Whether he will accept it remains to be seen.) Why is this relevant to Oxford Biblical Studies Online? Because with this update we are adding a selection of articles from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and the Arts, which introduce what is known as "reception history." One of those articles is "Dylan, Bob."

In general, reception history traces how the Bible has inspired creative artists, such as writers like John Keats and Stephen King, painters like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, and composers like Felix Mendelssohn and Bob Marley. Reception history thus has a different focus from the history of interpretation—how scholars and theologians have interpreted the Bible over the ages—but they do overlap.

In the last two decades we have seen a flood (is that a biblical reference?) of works that explore reception history. Most ambitious is Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (de Gruyter), of which twelve of a projected thirty volumes have been published since 2009; the same publisher also issues Journal of the Bible and Its Reception. Recent commentary series that explicitly address reception history include Illuminations (Eerdmans) and Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary. Noteworthy volumes of essays are The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible (2011) and Reception History and Biblical Studies: Theory and Practice (Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2015), alongside a growing number of monographs on individual subjects, from Job's wife to Jesus in film.

Because of the limitless amount of material available, the Encyclopedia is necessarily only a sample. But what a sample! It includes articles on art, music, theater, and literature from regions all over the world, as well as in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And there's the one on Bob Dylan, showing his creative blend of blues, gospel, and folk music. In his song "With God on Our Side" (1964), whose title recalls Romans 8:31, Dylan asks "whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side," picking up an idea found as early as the third-century Gnostic Gospel of Judas, in which Jesus explains that Judas's betraying him with a kiss was part of God's plan for human redemption. Reception history, it seems, has its own reception history. As Michael Gilmour observes in his entry on Dylan, songs "in the Dylan corpus quote and misquote, allude to and rewrite biblical stories, but often cryptically."

Susan Gillingham has called reception history "biblical studies on holiday." By that, she means, among other things, that for many of us it is a pleasant change from the often tedious work of text criticism, philology, and exegesis, and that like a vacation trip it can refresh us and change our perspective. And like travel, it is fun, as these juxtaposed entries in the Encyclopedia suggest: "South Asian Art"; "Steinbeck, John"; "Stowe, Harriet Beecher"; "Stravinsky, Igor." Not the usual suspects in a dictionary or encyclopedia of the Bible!

But reception history is also serious, and demanding. Few biblical scholars are experts in medieval literature, medieval music, or medieval visual art, and scholars in those fields are not necessarily experts in biblical criticism. Biblical scholars and experts in other fields must thus become collaborators. Moreover, as Timothy Beal, the editor of the Encyclopedia, has suggested, reception criticism is not just the study of how the Bible has been used. It is also a form of cultural history: one way to understand cultures is to examine their uses of the Bible.

A full hyperlinked table of contents can be found here:The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Arts

Michael D. Coogan
Editor in Chief, Oxford Biblical Studies Online
November 2016


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