Reader-Response Criticism and the Allegorizing Reader

By Cahill, Michael | Theological Studies, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Reader-Response Criticism and the Allegorizing Reader


Cahill, Michael, Theological Studies


In his Preface to, the Pontifical Biblical Commission's document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger refers to the present-day "methodological spectrum of exegetical work," among which he lists "new methods and approaches" along with new attempts to recover patristic exegesis."(1) I am proposing in this note that the former can be utilized to achieve the later.

One feature of the new approaches is the willingness of exegesis take over methods that literary critics have fashioned and apply them to the biblical text. Successful attempts to to recover patristic have been less in evidence. The historical illustrating the influence of neo-Platonism, and explaining the evolution of the "four senses" is helpful but remains within the problem, so to speak. As the Introduction to the Commission's document acknowledges, it is "quite impossible [for biblical scholars] to return to a precritical level of interpretation, a level which they now rightly judge to be quite inadequate."(2) Later in the document, the Commission allows that a particular problem is raised by allegory: "The allegorical interpretation of Scripture so characteristic of patristic exegesis runs the risk of being something of an embarrassment to people today."(3) Indeed, allegorical reading gets little respect among biblical scholars although, somewhat paradoxically, it is a popular medium and perfectly at home in modern culture.(4)

I suggest that one of the modern methods, reader-response criticism, provides a perspective on the process of interpretation which allows the allegorical component in patristic exegesis to be viewed with greater sympathy.(5) I come to this position as a result of working in two fields which I gradually came to see could be brought into relation. I have been engaged with the critical edition of the text of a early medieval Latin pseudo-Jerome commentary on Mark.(6) This was the first Markan commentary and, because it was long regarded as Jerome's, it exercised wide influence on the history of exegesis.(7) It is a good test case for analysis because it is thoroughly traditional. It is an allegorical commentary and thus gave me occasion to ponder the place of allegorical reading. This spurred me to pay more attention to contemporary proposals to do with the application of literary theory to reading the Bible.

Types of Allegorical Reading

It is necessary to delimit the field of inquiry and to stress that I use the terms "the allegorizing reader" quite literally, that is, taking the verb "allegorize" in its fully active sense. I am speaking here not of the allegory as a literary form as such but of the allegorizing reading of a nonallegorical text. Some parts of the Bible are written as allegories; these need to be read allegorically, and I am not addressing this matter. Neither am I considering here the case of the Old Testament read allegorically because of a key theological belief that the Old Testament is to be taken as a foreshadowing of the New Testament. For all practical purposes, from this perspective, the Old Testament text becomes an allegory. I am taking the case of a reader who takes a text such as Mark's Gospel and records an allegorized reading. In his Prologue, the Markan commentator says explicitly that he will explain the mystical sense of Mark. In the first two cases, the result is a commentary or reading which is a decoding; in the last case we have an encoding.

The following passage will illustrate the allegorizing reading of the Markan commentator:

"He found them asleep" [Mark 14:37]. As they sleep mentally, so they sleep bodily. "Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation" [Mark 14:381. Whoever neglects to pray, enters into temptation. Three times the disciples sleep and three times the lard prays and wakes them up. The three periods of sleep represent the three dead persons that the Lord awakened; the first in the house, the second near the tomb, and the third from the tomb. …

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