Focus On Reception Criticism

Focus On Reception Criticism

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Sampling Reception Criticism:
William Blake and the Decalogue

Christopher Rowland

There has been a growing interest in the way biblical texts have been interpreted, through a variety of media, including text, image, film, and music. Various terms have been used to describe this, including history of interpretation, reception history, and Wirkungsgeschichte. Nevertheless, the interest relates to the same thing, even though there are different ways in which interpreters have set about their task. Essentially, it is the critical account of the "effects" of texts on hearers or readers and the way the meaning may be communicated through different media. All these types of interpretation stress that time and place are crucial for the process of exegesis. The dominant figure to whom all practitioners of reception history look back is Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002), in whose epoch-making work, Truth and Method (1975), we find the word Wirkungsgeschichte—"the history of the effects" of a text, work of art, or piece of music. In this book Gadamer made it clear that he was less interested in offering a method and more interested in trying to describe the interpretative position in which readers found themselves—what formed that position and the inevitable prejudices and assumptions they brought with them to their interpretation.

This form of interpretation is often regarded as an optional extra to exegesis—the explanation of the meaning of the words as intended by the author or redactor and their likely purpose in their original historical context. This kind of historical approach, which dominated biblical studies in universities and seminaries for much of the twentieth century, concentrates on the setting and the meaning of the text in its original context and has itself a particular history, linked with the Protestant protest at the flowering of imaginative exegesis in the late Middle Ages and the emerging supremacy of the Bible as the source of authority in faith and morals. Hans Frei (1922–1988) brilliantly elucidated this history in his book The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (1974). The emergence of modern historical exegesis of the Bible is a child of its time, and reception history helps us to understand something of its genesis and development in the context of the changing patterns of interpretation down the centuries.

In recent years there has been a gradual recognition that the historical influence of the biblical text has a crucial part to play in understanding exegesis of the Bible. The modern preoccupation with the original setting of the biblical text with its exploration of contemporaneous sources is a relatively new development in the history of biblical interpretation. Little attention was given either to the pre-Enlightenment interpretation of these texts or to the wider cultural appropriation of the texts in literature and other media. An openness to the varieties of effects of biblical texts puts exegesis in touch with wider intellectual currents in the humanities, so that literature, art, and music join the conventional explanatory writings of biblical texts to become part of the modes of exegesis.

With the rise of the historical method at the end of the eighteenth century, the modern period has witnessed a significant shift from the way discrete religious traditions interpreted their sacred texts, to setting them in the context of literature believed to be contemporary with the sacred texts in question, whether or not they were known to have influenced them. Post-Enlightenment biblical hermeneutics is a reaction against a tradition of interpretation based on the received wisdom through time and was replaced with a form of interpretation that either sat loose to what preceded it, whether orthodox or heterodox, or rejected it completely. So, there was a significant break with earlier patterns of interpretation. Historical criticism in fact means the contextualization of biblical texts with other contemporaneous (ancient) texts, rather than with a tradition of interpretation, which is determined by the traditions and rules of interpretation of both Judaism and Christianity.

We can see that what was happening at the Enlightenment was a challenge to the nature of tradition and the painful articulation of ways of reading authoritative texts independent of received wisdom. A plea for attention to the history of interpretation, to how biblical texts have been interpreted down the centuries, is not an appeal to return to the authoritative received wisdom of the Jewish or Christian tradition as maintained by its orthodox exponents. Anyone involved in the history of interpretation of biblical texts will soon be aware that the received wisdom of orthodoxy (in Christianity, the "Fathers," Augustine, Thomas Aquinas; and through Protestantism, Luther, Calvin, and the German theological tradition; and in Roman Catholicism that represented by the magisterium) is just a tiny part of what modern Christians have received. This would include those called "gnostics," such as Valentinians, the radicals in different centuries, the voices of women, and the "little people" of the church. The interest in "tradition" in the broadest sense of that term—that which has come down to us—is no plea for a return to orthodoxy. That part of tradition which orthodox people espouse is but the tip of the iceberg of what has been handed down. The study of reception history opens us to those neglected historical voices who sought to make sense of, and live lives inspired by, the Bible.

In the rest of this essay I want to illustrate how reception history works by looking at the way William Blake (1757–1827), printer, poet, visionary, and brilliant biblical interpreter, dealt with a phenomenon in the religious culture of his day: the role which the Ten Commandments played in the promotion of Christian pedagogy. The practice of placing the tables of commandments along with the Apostles' Creed and Lord's Prayer seems to go back at least to the late Middle Ages. But then in the second half of the sixteenth century, tables of commandments were to be set up as part of a concerted attempt to "give some comely ornament and demonstration that the same was a place of religion and prayer" (Letter of Elizabeth to Archbishop Parker, 1561), as well as assisting in pedagogy. As is indicated in the image of the Temple Church reredos, commissioned in 1678 and made by one of the architect Christopher Wren's craftsmen, the English understanding of the Christian religion is distilled into the Decalogue, as well as the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. It is placed in a prominent position and was a crucial means of dissemination of what was taken to be the heart of Christianity. This Blake challenged.

The presence of the tables either behind the communion table or prominently positioned on walls of a church reminded me of the importance of the tables for Blake, as is evident from the occasional appearance of the Decalogue in his texts and images. I would suggest that familiarity with churches in London probably inspired him. The prominence of the Decalogue tables ensured that, as Nicholas Ridley put it, "They were learnt by everybody, young and old." Reference to this ecclesiastical background is important, as Blake's criticism of the Decalogue was not a rejection of the Old Testament but of the use made of the Bible, including both the Old and New Testaments, as a manual of morality and doctrine, by the Christian churches of his day.

The First Book of Urizen, Plate 1, "The First Book of Urizen." Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

From his earliest illuminated book to his last, the icon of the stone tablets is to be found. A good example is the frontispiece of The First Book of Urizen (1794). The First Book of Urizen is Blake's retelling of the book of Genesis. It sets the emergence of a religion of obedience to the details of biblical prescription in the context of the genesis of a remote, divine scribe, seen busy copying and producing the material for sacred codes. The image on the frontispiece has the bearded deity, with eyes closed, transcribing, mechanically, from one book to another. This image epitomizes Blake's challenge to an interpretation that is just passing on what has been written without any contextual application. The divinely sanctioned code must be interpreted by a hierarchical elite. The meaning of the signs and their application is dependent on a priestly caste, which claims to understand what the divinity expects. This is another feature of the religion of his day that Blake challenges.

Europe. A Prophecy, Plate 12, "Albions Angel rose . . . . " (Bentley 14). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Priests and monarchs are explicitly the focus of Blake's attack in this angry image from Europe A Prophecy (1794) in which the King of England, donned with a papal tiara and with the holy book open on his lap, is the one who endorses the hierarchical arrangement that holds sway in the old order that is the Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. This sacred code copied in heaven is then imitated and applied by the priests and kings on earth (Europe, plate 12/14, E64).

By contrast, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) Blake sets out a very deliberate attempt to challenge the errors of "Bible and sacred codes." The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is the high-water point of two centuries of antinomian thought in England. Blake read in the Gospels that Jesus died as "an unbeliever" (annotations to Watson's "Apology," E614) because he challenged the Law and died as a blasphemer. So, Blake presented Jesus as one who challenged the "law of ten commandments" and did so by acting from "impulse not from rules" (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 23–24).

"The Devil answer'd: . . . did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath's God? murder those who were murderd because of him? turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? steal the labor of others to support him? bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? covet when he pray'd for his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments: Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules." (Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 23–24, E43.)

One of the biblical texts mentioned in the passage just quoted is the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1–11. This inspired the remarkable series of lines, which Blake wrote in his Notebook, known as "The Everlasting Gospel." In "The Everlasting Gospel" written nearly thirty years later than The Marriage of Heaven and Hell we find enunciated similar views. Here Jesus is presented as rejecting a religion of commandments:

The morning blushd fiery red:
Mary was found in Adulterous bed;
Earth groand beneath & Heaven above
Trembled at discovery of Love
Jesus was sitting in Moses Chair
They brought the trembling Woman There
Moses commands she be stond to Death.
What was the sound of Jesus breath
He laid his hand on Moses Law
The Ancient Heavens in Silent Awe,
Writ with Curses from Pole to Pole
All away began to roll.
The Earth trembling & Naked lay
In secret bed of Mortal Clay
On Sinai felt the hand Divine
Putting back the bloody shrine
And she heard the breath of God
As she heard by Eden's flood
Good and Evil are no more
Sinais trumpets cease to roar
Cease finger of God, to Write
The Heavens are not clean in thy Sight
Thou art Good & thou Alone
Nor may the sinner cast one stone . . .
(extract from "The Everlasting Gospel")

What Blake saw was that "the five books of the Decalogue" and "the law of commandments" had in his day become a form of Christianity that was quenching "the Poetic Genius, the Spirit of Prophecy" (cf. 1 Thes 5:19) and ignoring the gospel of the forgiveness of sins, of which Blake was such an ardent advocate. In "The Everlasting Gospel," where the woman taken in adultery is identified with Mary Magdalene, Blake interprets an "earth-shattering" event in which Jesus' actions not only challenge but also revolutionize the hegemony of the religion of law. In the words "Cease finger of God to Write," Jesus is presented as pronouncing the end of the era of law (cf. Rom 10:4), written on Sinai with the finger of God (Ex 31:18). Blake evokes the language of cosmic disturbance, such as happened at the crucifixion (Matt 27:45, 51–54; Luke 23:44–45), to mark this critical moment.

Blake criticized the literal application of laws in any religion. Instead, he gave prime place to the Spirit working within and not adherence to a checklist of dos and don'ts. He was part of a long tradition in Christianity, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, and it is known in Judaism too. There are strong antinomian elements in the Pauline corpus, for example. Paul left an ambiguous textual legacy. Alongside his instructions to avoid the works of the flesh Paul could suggest that followers of Christ were utterly free from the Law: "Now we are discharged from the Law, free from that which held us captive, so that we serve not the written code but in the new life of the Spirit" (Rom 7:6). Nowhere did Paul clearly explain how, if free from the dictates of Torah, one could know God's will. Such protests against obedience to the Law of Moses are found throughout the history of Christianity. Antinomianism was a complex phenomenon, but what typified many versions of it was a belief in the priority of the internal voice of God over any external code. So, if one is convinced of one's relationship with God, or has a sense of the divine dwelling within, the impetus for appropriate behavior is what Blake simply called "impulse not from rules."

This example of how a nonconformist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries took up antinomian themes in the Bible not only sheds light on the underground of modern religion, it also offers an example of the reception of the Bible. It indicates how a later writer picks up themes that were marginalized by emerging mainstream Christianity but which were deeply rooted in the Bible itself. We may not agree with Blake's appropriation, but his work offers one example among the many ways in which reception history has pointed to aspects of the Bible that are easily missed and whose retrieval enables us to see something of the tensions and challenges to Christianity as it strove to work out a religion that was not in the first instance dependent on the Law of Moses.


  • Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David V. Erdman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Blake, William. William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
  • Butlin, Martin. The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1981.
  • Daniell, David. The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2003.
  • Frei, Hans W. The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.
  • Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. 2d ed. London: Sheed and Ward, 1979.
  • Kovacs, Judith L., and Christopher Rowland. Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
  • Parris, David P. Reception Theory and Biblical Hermeneutics. Princeton Theological Monograph 107. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2009.
  • Rowland, Christopher. Blake and the Bible. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Whiting, Robert. The Reformation of the English Parish Church. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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