Wirkungsgeschichte or Bewirkengeschichte – Gospels as Effective/Effecting History

Tablica ku czci Gadamerów na ul. Szewskiej 28 ...
Tablica ku czci Gadamerów na ul. Szewskiej 28 we Wrocławiu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m struggling to look for a dissertation topic in the realm of the Gospel of John that isn’t overdone, done, or too borrowing. If you have read my book on the Gospel of Mark, and you should, then you understand my interest in writing to effect history. There is the idea of reception history, but I am not too concerned with how we receive it, but the goal of the author to shape those who receive it. Thus, Lucan and Mark wrote to change the historical interpretation.

First, the definition:

Gadamer claims that history or tradition is not simply the past, but is in a process of realization. History has effects in terms of conditioning our historical understanding. An interpreter is subject to the way in which an object has already been understood in the tradition to which the interpreter belongs. Any understanding is historically situated and is rooted in prejudice. Understanding is thus not the act of a subject, but rather an aspect of effective history. A pure “objective” understanding, free from any special vantage point, does not exist. History limits our knowledge , but also aids our development by means of determining what we can understand. Accordingly, no rejection of the tradition can be as completely radical as claimed by its proponents.

A necessary quote from Bockmuehl:

“Rightly understood as the history of the text’s effects (and not merely its ‘reception’),Wirkungsgeschichte speaks of how Scripture has interpreted us, the readers.”—]] (“New Testament Wirkungsgeschicte and the Early Christian Appeal to Living Memory,” in Memory in the Bible and Antiquity , 343.

And article on Gadamer and then, one from one better than Gadamer. Goodacre writes,

Wirkungsgeschichte is, then, an exciting development because of its potential to draw together insights from different forms of scholarship, reminding us simultaneously that a text has a history, a history that begins after it has left the hands of its author. So much attention has been focused on hypothetical reconstructions of events leading up to the writing of New Testament texts, that many have simply forgotten to consider the much more concrete and varied ways that the texts have been handled.Wirkungsgeschichte is inevitably a historical discipline, but its interest in readers and readings of texts is likely ultimately to prove congenial to reader-response criticism. It might even help to function as a useful control on some of the perceived excesses of some reader-response work.

Francis Watson has a book coming out — Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective — that looks interesting. You can find an early preview here.

How effective history is used among Classicists — note, this is about Lucan’s goal in Pharsalia:

English: Shadi Bartsch Professor of Classics
English: Shadi Bartsch Professor of Classics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So too he seems to have set up a story whose function was reorientation and whose goals were deeply moral and political in despite of the medium in which they were necessarily couched…  …This kind of history is better conceived of as effective history rather than objective history; namely, a kind of history that is precisely oriented toward the production of a response. (Bartsch, 140)

C. P. Casparis’ careful study of such usages argues for the way historical presents not only signal the narrator’s subjective attitude toward the experience he is relating but also show his “attempt through language to force the reader into a different attitude towards reading. An attitude which bars him from the complacent escape into the world of once-upon-a-time” (1975: 158 ). (Bartsch, 141)

As Michael Roth (1995: 79) has remarked of such kinds of history, “The genealogist’s act of interpretation is an act of will to foster change. The notion of effective history becomes more concrete when we see that the desired effect of interpretation is (at least in part) the disintegration of the structures of our discourse.” (Bartsch, 144).

In surveying Roth’s works, there is no mention of Gadamer or Wirkungsgeschichte. Roth’s version of effective history then is based on the author’s intention. His idea is that the author can write through a trauma or crisis to change history.

It may be, following Roth and Bartsch, that the better word is bewirkengeschichte (yes, it is a verb, but I’ve nounedifed it because I’m writing to effect language too). But, does John write to effect — to interpret history? Of course he does — I would argue all historians do. As I have covered before, Lucan writes to reshape notable figures of his past — Caesar, Pompey, and Cato — as well as those of his present — Nero. And I think he succeeds, as well. John is different, but acceptable, because he writes to shape things as well, namely…

I guess I could even go with konstruiertgeschichte…

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4 Replies to “Wirkungsgeschichte or Bewirkengeschichte – Gospels as Effective/Effecting History”

  1. Joel,
    I admire your knowledge and exposition and writing for extreme thinkers but if the eventual goal is to effect change one must either speak to the less educated or use force of might. I think a careful inspection of history will support this theory. Some who spoke to the masses include John Wesley, MLK,Jr., many abolitionists, Regan, and Pres. Obama among others who have effected great change. I’m sure you can make your own list of those who spoke only to the intelligentsia and thus were required to resort to force to effect their desired change, a list i want to avoid. I much prefer the former route to change. There are thousands of thinkers like you who speak mostly to people like you (which is very good for developing ideas) but they don’t effect change until someone comes along that can speak to the less highly educated masses.

    1. Skid,

      I mean that the Gospel writers wrote to effect change. Much like Vergil and Lucan did with their imperial epics. I would rather study the Gospels as effective history than so-called objective history.

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