C.L. Seow talks to Michael Law about the Illuminations Commentary

Seow’s trip to Taiwan’s National Palace Museum leads to a new commentary series

C.L. Seow, Job 1-21: Interpretation and Commentary, Eerdmans, 2013, 999 pp., $95/>
C.L. Seow, Job 1-21: Interpretation and Commentary, Eerdmans, 2013, 999 pp., $95

C.L. Seow visited Göttingen in the autumn last year, and we sat down to talk about the Illuminations Commentary, which now has a website with further information. He is General Editor of the series, and the first of his two-volume commentary on Job has just appeared.

T.M. Law: First of all, if we could ask a more general question about reception history: What is “reception history” in its current shape in the field? And maybe with that question are two others: What should it be, and what should it not be?

C.L. Seow: Well, the field that has emerged as cutting edge in Biblical Studies comes under different names. “Reception history” is but one, or so-called history of interpretation. I have used the term “history of consequences.” So it comes in different shapes and forms. For some people, especially those who call it “history of interpretation,” this has to do with how commentators and theologians have interacted with the Bible. Those who call the field “history of reception” want to include not just commentators and theologians but also other forms of interaction, such as literature, music and arts. I prefer the term “history of consequences,” because for some “history of reception” is still too passive a term and doesn’t encompass all the effects of reception.

People die when the Bible is read in a certain way. There are negative consequences, second, third, fourth-hand consequences—these are not reception. I have an article coming out where I discuss Gregory the Great’s impact and show how some of it was in fact third or fourth level impact, and I think the term “reception” doesn’t quite cover that. Also, I use “consequences” in two senses of the term: “consequences” in the sense of all that comes after, namely whatever the text is and all that comes after it is a “consequence.” But also “consequence” in the sense of impact and effect, including positive and negative effects. So that’s my preferred term.

TML: Paul Joyce uses the term “reception exegesis.” Modern scholars and readers who pay attention to exegetical trends and other reception throughout history could learn new ways to understand the text.

CLS: Indeed. I talk about this in some ways as “conversational exegesis,” a conversation with all that has taken place in history up to the present. So conversational exegesis does not distinguish us, as modern readers, from those before us who are receiving texts. This is not an area in which I was trained. (I’m a trained historical critic from Harvard, with training in philology and all of that.)

When I began to open up the Book of Job, I was confronted with this enormous amount of material. I thought that I could simply do the best I can with what little material I had and not try to find too much, because I would not know what to do with it. And then I went to a museum in Taiwan, the National Palace Museum, which houses the largest collection of Chinese landscape paintings. In Chinese paintings you typically have the stamp of the artist, or an epigram that goes with a work of art that gives you a key to interpreting the artist’s work. I saw this one piece that had over 40 stamps, with various comments in various scripts. If you know anything about Chinese painting, you will know that the value of Chinese painting does not reside in the original artist’s intent. It is rather the conversation which takes place after the piece is completed. So the artist might pen a poem that tells us how the artist sees his work. Somebody else might come along and see something else in the piece that the artist did not. Or somebody else might come along and say, “Emperor So-and-So saw this and liked it.” And so this conversation includes conflicting points of view, but together they make the meaning of the piece. So the meaning of the piece is not only in the original; it’s in the conversation that takes place.

The piece then invites the reader to the conversation. It no longer becomes an ancient artifact; it’s a living piece of work in which the reader or viewer participates. That was the “aha” moment when I thought, “That’s why we do reception history!” That’s why we do what I now call “history of consequences,” because you enter into a conversation with the interpreters throughout history. So it’s no longer the distinction between what a text meant or what a text means; it’s how the text has come to mean.

TML: That’s very helpful and probably gives us a preview of what we can expect from the series as a whole, if not only from your Job commentary. But this Illuminations series to be published by Eerdmans will encompass all of this you’ve just described as “reception.”

CLS: Yes, to varying degrees. Not all authors would be able to engage the breadth of reception history, but the idea is to push all authors to do as much as they can, and I would consistently insist on scholars taking seriously Jewish, Christian and Muslim interpretations, visual art, music, performing arts…

TML: That’s a very interesting issue because, even if we were just to talk about the history of intentional reception (I mean, you speak of second and third level consequences), the intentional exegetical reception alone would require an enormous breadth. It would require an exposure not only to Jewish and Christian traditions but also to Islamic traditions. So how do you do you find commentators who are capable of covering such a broad area?

CLS: That’s really difficult. But our purpose, in part, is to invite people to this enterprise. So we’ve even approached people with no background at all and have asked them if they’re willing to do this. So the idea is to get historically trained scholars to begin to do this.

TML: That’s very helpful to know that you will not only pay attention to these Jewish and Islamic traditions. But to what extent, if to any at all, will this be a Christian commentary?

CLS: We have authors of different backgrounds, so it is not a specifically Christian series. We have lots of Jewish scholars writing. We have scholars who aren’t from a specifically confessional tradition, so it’s meant to be an open series.

TML: Very good. You mentioned before this interview that there would be treatment of broader canonical books, not just the traditional Protestant Old and New Testaments.

CLS: Yes, there are three parts, apart from myself the General Editor, we have three area editors: one in Hebrew Bible and Old Testament; one in New Testament; and one in broader canonical writings. [See here.]

TML: That will be a welcome addition to see attention to those books. And one more question about the series as a whole: how do you compare your series to the reception commentary that everyone will think of, that biblical scholars will think of, the Blackwell Commentary series? How would you say that Illuminations is going to be different?

CLS: Illuminations is not intended to be specifically a history of reception series. We do have commentaries that focus only on reception and do not handle the traditional philological, text critical, archaeological and literary-theological material. Illuminations is intended to do all of them. Our argument is that you cannot do only one aspect but must do all. So my commentary delves heavily into textual criticism and philology but also engages the reception broadly.

TML: So now we can turn to your commentary on Job, a massive reception history. I’m assuming that the intention to begin the series with the book of Job is partly in recognition of its broad reception history.

CLS: That was how it began. I have no background in this, but once I started doing research, I noticed how massive the reception history was, and I had to learn why it mattered. Then it soon dawned on me that I could not do a commentary without engaging the tradition of the history of reception.

TML: And how do you make decisions on … I mean, there must be—and I’m speaking out of ignorance here—some Nordic poem on Job, or some other tradition in Africa of some kind of spiritual singing of Job, etc. How do you decide what gets included and what doesn’t?

CLS: Anything that I know of that handles Job gets included. Reception history does not distinguish what counts and what does not count—everything counts. In many instances, we do not know they count. So in my commentary I engage reception whenever I can. I can have a conversation with all the various pieces, but then there are items I don’t quite know what to do with, but they’re not thrown out. They belong to my passive vocabulary. So the commentary, while I try to be as full as I can, is not complete. Reception history can never be complete; it’s on-going, with an enormous amount of material. And so we had to be highly selective. Each chapter of my commentary had a portion that’s blocked off at reception history, being an overview of what we find. This overview has things that I cannot directly engage, but I put them out there as vocabulary for other interpreters who may know better than I how to use them. So if I encounter a Nordic poem, I will include that poem, even if I do not know what to do with it. But somebody else might.

TML: And this is right in line with the “aha” moment you had in Taiwan. The conversation you want to have with these things may not lead to a definite conclusion but it’s a conversation you want to have.

CLS: So I listen as hard as I can to all these voices and I engage them, but I am not able to engage all of them. So I mention as many as I can for the readers to further my work.

TML: What would be, in the course of the years writing this commentary, something that has been very exciting to you? Could there have been one chapter or one section in the reception of Job in which you thought, “This is really fascinating”? Is there any one particular thing that stands out?

CLS: I think that the thing I am really looking forward to is how people react to the fact that I engage not one major tradition but many. The idea of engaging commentaries in the past is not new: we have it in the Catenae, the Mikraot Gedolot, the Glossa Ordinaria, the 19th century commentaries, and so forth. But typically we get either Jewish reception history or Christian reception history, but not the reading of these side-by-side. So what I tried to do was read these texts side-by-side, and sometimes you see the same text read by Christians, Jews and Muslims in different ways. And sometimes interesting things can happen when things are read in those conflicting ways.

TML: This is the type of commentary that could be interesting to a wide variety of people, not only to biblical scholars. I’m especially excited by the attention you’re giving to all the different facets of exegesis, not just the reception end. You’re also looking at text-critical, theological, and literary issues, so it’s a treasure trove of information. If I’m not mistaken, the commentary on Job 1-21 was 1000 pages alone. Is that correct?

CLS: Almost 1000 pages. Only 999!

TML: Only! A couple of final questions. Could you talk about your own perspective on Job in contrast to or in agreement with Stuart Weeks’ comment that Job has no specific message? If that had been the author’s intention, then it fails spectacularly throughout history, because there have been so many conflicting readings. After writing this commentary (and now you’re working on the second volume of Job), did you feel comfortable with the lack of a central, driving message of Job, or did you see one emerging from your study of the text?

CLS: I make a point in my discussion of the theology of Job that the contribution of Job is not one systematic theology. Rather, it encapsulates a theological conversation, so a number of different points of view are brought together. I think that conversation is the book’s message. It’s not theodic or anti-theodic; that is the whole intention. So I will not say that there is no message, but it allows for different voices to be brought together in dialogue.

TML: A final question, perhaps the most important one: Will we see in your Job commentary a reference to the Coen brothers (e.g., A Serious Man) or the Simpsons episode “The Book of Job?”

CLS: Certainly, the Coen brothers have made it into the book. Yes, there are references to all kinds of contemporary film, hip-hop, hard rock…

TML: Wait…even hip-hop?

CLS: Oh yes! Even the musical “Job” that was played in Edinburgh—all of that gets mentioned in the book.

[Special thanks to Salam Rassi for transcribing this interview.]