Episode 73: Intertextuality
In our first episode of 2024 Paul and Dan talk about “intertextuality” – basically, how the meaning of a text is influenced by references to other texts. The Bible (not surprisingly) is full of links between its 66 books. But how far can we take this? Can we go too far and see patterns where there are none (like seeing the face of Jesus in a slice of toast)?! What guardrails might we have to make sure we read responsibly?
Paul and Dan begin by introducing the concept of intertextuality, as defined by Wikipedia, “the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text, either through deliberate quotation or allusion, or by interconnections between works being perceived by the audience or reader.” In other words, books, literature and art are not produced in a vacuum and instead they have links to other things.
Even though the term is not often in general use, the concept is seen everywhere, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, (Dan’s example), to the Easter eggs littered throughout the Star Wars movies, (Paul’s example)! But this isn’t the focus of the episode. Instead, they turn to the exciting world of intertextuality within the Biblical library.
Intertextuality: A Christadelphian tradition
Dan reflects on the heritage of their own denomination’s approach to the Bible. Christadelphians have long been practicing study of the scriptures with an eye to links and connections between the different books and across the Old and New Testaments. Dan admits to feeling sceptical about incessant searching for connections between seemingly unrelated passages. (And this is where they talk about the risk of seeing patterns where there aren’t any, like seeing Jesus in a slice of toast, as explained here). However, recognition of how intertextuality actually works, with the help of Robert Alter’s seminal book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, brought this way of reading the Bible more sharply into focus, and with a helpful methodology.
Sharing similar views, Paul also acknowledges the Bible Project’s contribution that has brought Bible intertextuality into the mainstream, something that Christadelphians had been appreciating for many decades.
Starting with the more obvious textual connections, Paul and Dan consider the character of God referenced in Exodus 34:5-7. They see how this is quoted directly in Numbers 14:17-19, when Moses appeals to God to act in accordance with His own self-declaration of character.
Other passages quote this passage, including Jonah 4:1-2. Paul and Dan talk about how the whole narrative and plot of Jonah depends on you spotting the quotation back to Exodus 34. If God is so merciful and gracious to us, Jonah considers, then he may well also turn out to be merciful and gracious to terrible enemies. That’s the drama in the book of Jonah – a small treatise exploring God’s character in relation to our worst enemies, and then considering our own reaction to his boundless grace.
In order to go deeper into hidden layers of intertextuality, Paul and Dan turn to the New Testament and the time when Jesus goes up a mountain with Peter, James and John and is “transfigured before them” (Matthew 17:1-2). This is a peculiar and enigmatic passage, so, acknowledging this, they look to see what links and connections there are to other parts of the Bible.
In this visionary experience, (note that Jesus calls it a “vision” in Matthew 17:9), Jesus is joined on the mountain by Moses and Elijah, two figures from the Old Testament. There is a bright cloud that covers them and a loud voice from heaven which commands the disciples to “listen to” Jesus, who is declared to be the beloved Son.
Paul and Dan note the intertextual links to Moses and Elijah both going up mountains and having the glory of the LORD passed in front of them, (as already noted in Exodus 34).
They then look at a trail of echoes and allusions through Deuteronomy 18:14-18 and back into Exodus 20:18-21. This all serves to accentuate who Jesus is. The transfiguration narrative is designed to echo these passages to show that Jesus is the prophet like Moses who the people should listen to. (Paul and Dan note several inter-podcast allusions at this point!)
Guidelines for intertextuality
Paul suggests some prompts to help start looking for connections between biblical texts, including bible margins and the Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge. However, they also consider some guidelines to help avoid seeing patterns everywhere where they are unintended. Paying attention to the biblical writer’s intended message and whether they are aware of the text they are alluding to are among the important steps to help us establish if intertextual connections are valid or not.
It is also important to acknowledge the fact that these writings are claimed to be a product of God’s “breathing out”, or inspiration. As a consequence, Paul and Dan can’t rule out further applications of the biblical texts that point forward to future sections of the Bible. Indeed the whole Old Testament uses earlier writings and arranges them to point towards a coming Messiah, as explained in episode 72.
Testing the patterns we’ve seen
To close the episode, Paul and Dan share different passages with each other to see if they can notice the same intertextual links. Paul turned up Zephaniah 1:1-4 and Dan correctly guessed the allusions to the flood narrative in Genesis. But Dan’s suggested links between 2 Corinthians and Isaiah 53 were a little more difficult to spot – perhaps he needs to do a bit more work to be sure that this isn’t just a face in a slice of toast?!
Discover Jesus in Matthew – A series of 6 podcasts that look at Jesus as he is portrayed in Matthew’s gospel.
How Jesus read the Old Testament – This episode looks at how Jesus used and read the Old Testament texts and helps us make sense of the intertextual links.
Inspiration – what is God’s word? – an investigation into the claims of the Bible as being “inspired” by God.