A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture

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A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture, by Yvonne Sherwood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xii + 321. $65.00/$25.00.

It was not long ago that one could be considered widely read and even cutting edge in biblical studies by rounding out one's form criticism (or tradition history or rhetorical criticism) with a smattering of narrative theory or folklore studies or what-have-you. But in the wake of Sherwood's most recent book (she is author also of the very fine study of Hosea 1-3, The Prostitute and the Prophet [Sheffield, 1996]), that will no longer do. In this cultural history of Jonah one finds not only a close engagement with other biblical scholarship and with contemporary literary theory, but also with literature, art, and popular culture. Thus, Jack Sasson, Phyllis Trible, and Hans-Walter Wolff rub elbows with Jacques Derrida, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Roland Barthes, but also with novelists such as Paul Auster and Julian Barnes (and of course Herman Melville), with poets such as Hart Crane and Zbigniew Herbert, with artists such as Maarten van Heemskerk and Eugene Abeshaus, and with some who straddle disciplinary boundaries such as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Norma Rosen. Throw in a healthy dose of premodern interpretation (not only Luther and Calvin, but the Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer and the Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael, the early Latin poem Carmen de Jona de Ninive and the Middle English poem Patience), and one could be forgiven for thinking that Sherwood has read everything. The result is an almost impossibly rich book, which for all its great learning is never anything but compellingly readable.

The volume is guided by the premise, stated early in the Introduction, that "biblical texts are literally sustained by interpretation, and the volume, ubiquity, and tenacity of interpretation make it impossible to dream that we can take the text back, through some kind of seductive academic striptease, to a pure and naked original state" (p. 2). While the title of the book places "a biblical text" before "its afterlife," Sherwood is actually much more interested in the afterlife of the book of Jonah--that is, the way it manages to "survive" (as the subtitle puts it) in myriad historical and cultural contexts, all the while adapting itself to various ideological postures as needed. It is no accident if this way of formulating the issues seems to ascribe an intentionality--in the form of a desire to live on--to the text itself, for as Sherwood puts it, drawing on the work of both evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and biblical scholar Hugh Pyper, certain texts might well be understood as "memes," the cultural equivalent of genes. The meme propagates by insinuating itself into a host community, replicating itself as it passes from individual to individual and from generation to generation, and mutating when necessary. For a biblical text such as Jonah, the replication takes the form of canonization and faithful copying and the invitations take place in the book's seemingly endless interpretability. The concept of the meme--a sort of textual "selfish gene"--works astonishingly well in getting at the rich and varied afterlife of Jonah. As Sherwood puts it, "though measuring no more than forty inches square in my edition, the book of Jonah has generated literally acres of visual and verbal glosses, and has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for cultural survival" (p. 3). It is these acres and this capacity to which the author devotes most of her attention, returning to the forty square inches of the book of Jonah itself only at the end of her study.

The book is divided, following a brief introduction, into three large sections. …