Intertextuality has become something of a buzz word in Christian academic literature. But the term probably will or perhaps has begun to influence church leaders through commentaries and through the popular(ish) writings of Richard Hays.
As many in Biblical Studies describe it, an intertextual connection refers to how a later biblical text cites an earlier biblical text. For Example, Hebrews 1:5 cites Psalm 2:7: “You are my Son, / today I have begotten you.” Hebrews 1:5’s citation is an intertext because Hebrews 1:5 cites the Old Testament (Psalm 2:7), which was written before Hebrews. The way that I have explained intertextuality here relies on the notion that a later author has intentionally cited an earlier author for a specific purpose.
The problem is that intertextuality means something entirely different than how Biblical Studies uses it. The problem is not merely an issue of misusing of the term intertextuality. The misuse inserts a serious confusion into the practice of understanding how later biblical passages cite earlier biblical passages. Consider the following four problems.
First, intertextuality is a philosophically informed understanding of language that does not care how a later author cites an earlier author’s words. Julia Kristeva invented the term intertextuality in a 1966 essay called, “Word, Dialogue, and Novel.” Kristeva uses the term to describe a network of traces in literature without recourse to authorial intent or history: “For Kristeva, and literary theorists after her, a text is much more than words on paper. It is a ‘net-work of traces’ coursing through all communicative media and ‘any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another. The notion of intertextuality replaces that of intersubjectivity, and poetic language is read as at least double’” (Russell Meek, 2014: 282). Intertextuality looks at a network of traces put together in a mosaic of quotations. Any discussion of a later author intending to cite an earlier author is set aside.
Anyone who wants to understand what the biblical text meant and how biblical authors cite earlier biblical texts should not use the notion of intertextuality, because it does not fit with the desire to understand authorial intent or history. It may be interesting to use the notion of intertextuality with the Bible, but intertextuality simply does not aim to help readers understand what authors meant in history. It is a reader-oriented discipline, which does not require a later text must cite an earlier text. In fact, intertextuality does not care about time. One might see Jane Austen in Shakespeare as intertextuality is a synchronic discipline.
Second, in Biblical Studies, writers use the term intertextuality as if it were inner-biblical exegesis. Stanley Porter calls intertextuality a poststructuralist response to language (2016: xxi) and a source of methodological confusion in NT studies (2016: 12). Porter rightly highlights how intertextuality adds confusion to NT studies, and I would add to and Biblical Studies as well. I suggest that Christian writers confusingly use the term intertextuality as if it were inner-biblical exegesis (cf. Fishbane, 1985), a discipline that aims to see how later authors used earlier authors in a historical manner.
Christians then are using the word, intertextuality, to describe an author-centered and historically reasonable account of how later texts use earlier texts (i.e., diachronically). But in reality, the term intertextuality in its origin and in its use outside of Biblical Studies means the opposite: intertextuality describes a non-authorially intended and a non-historically reasonable use of a text; it does not matter whether or not an author meant to cite another text nor does it matter if an earlier text cites a later text (which is historically impossible). Neither author nor historical influence matter. That is not the point of intertextuality: “intertextuality is a strictly synchronic discussion of wide-ranging intertextual relationships that necessarily precludes author-centered, diachronic studies” (Meek, 2014: 283).”
Third, Christians committed to authorial intent and historically informed study may accidentally engage in, preach in, or teach in ways that compromise their convictions. For example, Richard Hays has recently written a massive work on the Gospels, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (2016). Hays is a brilliant and insightful author, and I do not doubt that he has helped many conservative Christians to understand better their Bibles.
With that said, it is not clear that Hays reads the Bible to understand its historical intent. He attempts to understand how the Gospel writers understood the Old Testament (historically), but he sees the NT authors as engaging in a conversion of the imagination. This imagination conversion relates to Hays’ figural reading of the Old Testament.
“Figural reading of the Bible,” writes Hays, “need not presume that the Old Testament authors—or the characters they narrate—were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective” (2016:2–3). What this means is that Old Testament authors, in at least some cases, did not mean to speak about Christ. But using a figural and metaphorical hermeneutical perspective, one can make correspondences with the Old Testament.
A figural reading thus reads backwards into the Old Testament to uncover the Christ who is partially hidden there. Hays argues, as an example, that the gospel writers influenced Martin Luther to read the Old Testament metaphorically and figurally to uncover the Christ hidden there (2016: 1–2). Reading the Old Testament figurally is thus a particularly Christian way to read the Bible.
Hays does not believe that is neccesary to read the Old Testament to uncover its authorial intent, and he argues that the gospel writers teach Christians to read the Old Testament in this way. If this is what Hays, the most prominent proponent of an intertextual reading of the Bible, proposes, then readers who believe in the priority of authorial intent should be wary of Hays’ project.
To be clear, in practice, Hays insightfully reads the Bible in ways that accord with authorial intent. So please read him if you hold to authorial intent. But also be aware that you cannot assume that Hays uses intertextuality to mean an authorially intended connection between a later text and an earlier text. Other Christians do use the term intertextuality in that way, as I noted above (i.e., they practice inner-biblical exegesis).
The point of this is that intertextuality means different things to different people. It may mean authorially intended readings to some, and it may not mean that to others. The discipline of intertextuality in Biblical Studies thus has the ability to unintentionally deceive people who are used to an faux-intertextuality that holds to authorial intent.
Fourth, it is wrong to use the term intertextuality even if a person uses it in a historically and authorially intended way. It is intellectually dishonest to use a term one way in Biblical Studies when it means something different in its origin and in its not biblical use. Of course, many use it (like I did) because they may not be aware of its meaning (like I was not aware). We should charitable to such persons, since it is an honest mistake, and we should still read authors who use the term wrongly because they have much to offer. But we should push for the term to be retired.
As noted earlier, intertextuality should also not be used because it can potentially mislead Christians who might read Hays and others, believing that their notion of intertextuality includes a diachronic (later authors use earlier authors) and authorially-intended reading strategy.
Lastly, one might ask why cannot we just use the term without the ideology behind it? David Yoon helpfully answers the question:
One major objection to my analysis might be phrased as follows: why can’t we simply take some principles from intertextuality without espousing the ideological intent behind it? I propose that we cannot do such a thing and rightly call it ‘intertextuality’ because the term was created with a distinct purpose of deconstructing the authority of meaning from the author to the reader, and its current usage in secular literary criticism still reflects that ideology. (2012: 72).
Intertextuality aims to deconstruct the authority of meaning, and it still does so in literary criticism. It makes no sense to use the term in a specialized way in Biblical Studies. We have a better term available: inner-biblical exegesis.
Intertextuality does not include notions of authorial intent nor or a diachronic reading of a text (i.e., the basic idea that only a later author could use an earlier author). Instead, intertextuality focuses on a reader-centered approach to texts, which cares very little about where a quotation comes from or if one text uses an earlier text. That is simply not the point of intertextuality.
Christians who hold to authorial intent and historically reasonable reading of the Bible cannot use the term intertextuality because it is mutually exclusive to these notions. Instead, use the term inner-biblical exegesis, because it reflects both authorial intent and a diachronic or historically reasonable reading of the Bible.