Mikhail Bakhtin and Biblical Scholarship: An Introduction. (Reviews of Books)

By Berlin, Adele | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 2002 | Go to article overview

Mikhail Bakhtin and Biblical Scholarship: An Introduction. (Reviews of Books)


Berlin, Adele, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Mikhail Bakhtin and Biblical Scholarship: An Introduction. By BARBARA GREEN. SBL Semeia Series, vol. 38. Atlanta: SOCIETY OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE, 2000. Pp. vii + 205. $24.95 (paper).

"Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975) was arguably the most original and yet the most misunderstood Russian thinker of the twentieth century." Thus begins G. Morson and C. Emerson's entry on Bakhtin in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1993). Bakhtin is hard to categorize in terms of literary schools or movements. Structuralists and Marxists have claimed him, though he criticized both camps. In some ways he is a post-structuralist (long before post-structuralism was born), though he probably would have been uncomfortable with that label. The concept for which he is most famous is "dialogized heteroglossia." By "dialogized" or "dialogic," Bakhtin meant, first of all, that utterances are shaped not only by the author/speaker, but also by the reader/listener (nor far from reader response theory). Another, more important aspect of "dialogic" has to do with the interacting voices in a text. Bakhtin developed his criticism around the interrelationships of these voices, and this dialogic nature of the text is what is so applicable to the Bible. "Heteroglossia" refers to the many languages that each person has, as a result of the multiple identities of that person (professional, ethnic, geographic, etc.).

Bakhtin's major work (especially Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics [1929, revised 1963] and Rabelais and His World [1965]) has been known and used by biblical scholars, but not as extensively as the work of other literary theorists. Barbara Green wants to promote more interest in Bakhtin among biblicists by showing how his work may be used to interpret the Bible. Towards this end she offers a brief biography of Bakhtin and the context from which he emerged, followed by an explanation of Bakhtin's ideas and their usefulness for the study of the Bible. Green then presents her own Bakhtinian reading of 1 Sam 17:55-20:42. The book concludes with an overview and critique of four other scholars who have applied Bakhtin to the Bible: Kenneth Craig, who brought to bear the notion of the carnivalesque, developed in Rabelais and His World, on Jonah and Esther; Carol Newsom, who wrote two short but sophisticated pieces, one on Job and the other on Isaiah and Lamentations; Uana Pardes, a feminist literary critic who Write s about the Bible; and Robert Polzin, who makes more use of Bakhtin than other biblicists in his work on Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Samuel, where he centers his interpretation on the interaction of the different voices in the text.

The center of the present hook, physically and thematically, is Green's application of Bakhtinian theory to a section of the Saul story, 1 Samuel 17:55-20:42. She examines the dialogic and polyphonic speech, posing the questions as: What did Saul say, what is said to Saul, and what is said about Saul? …

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