The Practice of Biblical Reception History and the Tesseract of the MCU

My doctoral studies are in a relatively new discipline that is known as the “reception history” of the Bible. Put simply, reception history is the study of what happens with a text after it has been written.

The focus of my PhD project is the short New Testament passage of Hebrews 6:4-6. But rather than studying what it meant when it was first written, I am studying (part of) what happened afterwards as it was read and interpreted and preached by much later readers.

 Since “reception history” is not well known, and because I think it is worth knowing about, I have decided to share how the key variants of reception history work by using the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) “Tesseract” as an illustration. Just for fun.

The Tesseract

Reception history of the Bible or any literature is part of a larger discipline called “hermeneutics”. Hermeneutics is about the principles and theories of how literature is read and understood. It is about the philosophical matters of literature.

As it happens, the most influential theorists of reception history have been Germans (namely Gadamer and Jauss), so the variations are identified by long and intimidating German terms. Imagine them being spoken by Johann Schmidt/Red Skull from the first Captain America film. They are rezeptionsgeschichte, wirkungsgeschichte, and auslegungsgeschichte.

The first term is Rezeptionsgeschichte

Rezeptions” is German for “receptions”, and “Geschichte” is German for “history”. It normally translates into English as “history of reception”. This is frequently used as the general term covering all three of the variants, but more specifically it refers to the study of how a text has been received or used by its readers through history. This approach treats the text as the object, which different subjects have performed actions upon or with.

It asks the question: how has this text been used?

Exploring the rezeptionsgeschichte of the MCU’s Tesseract would look at the different things people have done to or with it.

The Tesseract was guarded as a religious artefact by a man in Norway, and stolen and utilized for weapons development by the Red Skull to fight the Allies in World War II (Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011). It was used to open a large portal to host Loki’s attempted invasion of earth (The Avengers, 2012). In Captain Marvel (2019) its abilities were harnessed by an alien scientist working to develop long distance space travel to save her race, and later swallowed by her pet alien which resembled a cat. In another film the Tesseract was offered by Loki to Thanos to secure his brother’s life, who later used it to travel instantaneously about the galaxy (Avengers: Infinity War, 2019). And then, of course, it was used together with the other “Infinity Stones” to destroy and later recover half the life in the universe by Thanos and Bruce Banner respectively (Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: End Game (2019)).

The second term is Wirkungsgeschichte.

Wirkungs” is German for “effects”, and together with “geschichte” gives us the English phrase “history of impact” or “history of effects”. This explores the history of a text’s impact on cultures and societies through its readers.

This approach treats the text as the subject that acts upon others by asking the question, “what has this text done to people, societies, and cultures?”

Exploring the wirkungsgeschichte of the MCU’s tesseract would look at the different things it has done.

In Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the Tesseract killed soldiers via the weapons it powered. In the same film it pulled the Red Skull character through a wormhole, ultimately causing a significant transformation in his character when he appears again in a later film. In The Avengers (2012), it introduced earth to the hitherto unknown and dangerous threat of extra-terrestrial life, and in Captain Marvel (2019), it transformed Carol Danvers into a being with superhuman powers. In conjunction with the rest of the six “Infinity Stones” it massively disrupted life on earth (and elsewhere) by destroying half of all intelligent life – and then bringing it back several years later (Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: End Game (2019), Spiderman: Far From Home (2019)).

This “history of effects” traces the things the Tesseract has done to people and would explore how it has affected them and the cultures they are part of. Notice how all the verbs (action words) are done by the Tesseract in this list, whereas in the list for rezeptionsgeschichte they are done instead by people doing something with or to the Tesseract.

The third term is Auslegungsgeschichte.

A third form of reception history focusses on more formal and deliberate interpretations (auslegung) of a text. Rather than looking at how a text has been used, this approach examines how a text has been studied in the past by people who aimed to understand what the text meant in its original setting, apart from any considerations over how the text might apply to their present.

Theorists are not agreed over what is considered part of a text’s history of interpretation. Some consider that only formal interpretations such as those written in commentaries should be included. Others hold that even informal interpretations such as what we see in art, music, or stories should be included too. This second position would include much of what is found under rezeptionsgeschichte. On reflection, it should be easy to acknowledge that the categories are not tidily separated, even if there is value in focussing primarily on the role of formal interpretations.

Returning to my illustration of the Tesseract, we see two characters give explanation to the origin of the Tesseract (or rather the Space Stone that is housed inside it). The eccentric character known as The Collector (Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014) as well as Wong together with Dr Strange (Avengers: Infinity War, 2018) give short accounts how the six Infinity Stones originated with the universe itself and correlate to aspect of existence itself.

Their interpretations don’t give a lot of real info, but it is just a movie after all. Perhaps the comics have more to say. Given these are just fictional movies made for entertainment, who cares. Especially when we remember the drawled explanation of the Tesseract given by the mind-controlled Dr Erik Selvig, who marvelled that it was “More than knowledge, it is truth”. If you’re thinking too hard about the films, your mind should be put to work thinking on something real.

“Reception” and “effects” and “interpretation” are not totally distinct.

This is because effects are often brought about by people using/receiving a text in one way or another, and the way a text is used is dependent upon how it is understood (regardless of how well thought out the interpretation is). While these are not easily separatable in practise, the distinction does enable us to think carefully about three different angles of a text’s afterlife – its effects upon people, its use by people, and its interpretation.

When all this is applied to Hebrews 6:4-6 rather than a fictional blue box, we can see how these three strands of reception history work in practise.

We can study the text’s effects upon people though history, such as the way this passage has terrified people who have supposed themselves to be beyond the ability to repent as this passage seems to suggest.

We could study the way preachers have used the text to ward off such fears, or to argue for or against a particular doctrine.

Or we could focus on the way interpreters have sought to understand what the text originally meant.

Each of these approaches tells us something different about Hebrews 6:4-6 in the life of the church since its anonymous author first wrote it down and sent it off to his friends.

A New Approach to Studying the Bible.

Formal study of the Bible and its original meaning has the hallowed aura of objectivity (highly regarded for critical scholars), but the after-life of the Bible is where a lot of the best action is.

This should not surprise us. After all, Scripture is divinely inspired for a purpose – by it God’s church bears witness to God’s Son, and God’s Spirit is at work to authenticate that witness.

The Bible’s reception history shows us how it has been active to change the world after being let loose from the hands of its authors, and how bearers of the Bible have stepped forward into the arena of human society and used it to make their mark upon the world – for better or for worse. We trust that God has been at work in his people’s work for him, but realism would have us acknowledge that the Bible has been used in ways which very poorly correlate to its authors’ intentions.

Faithful uses of the biblical texts will of course bear a strong relationship to what its authors aimed to achieve by their words. The study of the original meaning of the Bible is an important corrective to the church’s behaviour as well as a benchmark against which we can judge later uses. Not all interpretations of the Bible in history are equally good or helpful.

Reception history provides a useful and exciting set of new tools for studying the Bible, which I am confident will be a much more fruitful and satisfying endeavour than studying the film-texts that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe!

If you would like more on the reception history of the Bible, a great book to read is David Parris’ Reading the Bible with Giants, which I have written about here, or John Thompson’s Reading the Bible with the Dead, which I have written about here.