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Synchrony and Diachrony in

Contemporary Biblical Interpretation

Koog P. Hong
Yonsei University
Seoul, Korea

The dialectic of synchronic and diachronic has burgeoned in biblical exegesis. Conferences have convened under its banner.1 Few scholars elude its claim
for attention. Often at issue, however, are the divergent ways these concepts are
construed and the ambiguity and confusion that ensue.2 Such confusion has a
lot to do with the changing face of contemporary biblical interpretation in the
decades since this dialectic first found its place on the agenda. Given todays postmodern pluralism, of what significance are synchrony and diachrony? An answer
is overdue. In an attempt to bring clarification to the discussion and to contribute
to further collegial dialogue, I want to address this question.

This is a condensed version of a revised portion of my doctoral dissertation, Towards the

Hermeneutics of Responsibility: A Linguistic, Literary, and Historical Reading of Genesis 28:1022 (Ph.D. diss., Claremont Graduate University, 2011).
1See Synchronic or Diachronic? A Debate on Method in Old Testament Exegesis (ed.
JohannesC. de Moor; OTS 34; Leiden/New York: Brill, 1995); David und Saul im Widerstreit:
Diachronie und Synchronie im Wettstreit. Beitrge zur Auslegung des ersten Samuelbuches (ed. Walter
Dietrich; OBO 206; Fribourg: Academic Press, 2004); South African Perspectives on the Pentateuch
between Synchrony and Diachrony (ed. Jurie H. le Roux and Eckart Otto; LHB/OTS 463; New
York: Clark, 2007); Diachronic and Synchronic: Reading the Psalms in Real Time. Proceedings of
the Baylor Symposium on the Book of Psalms (ed. Joel S. Burnett, W. H. Bellinger, and W. Dennis
Tucker; LHB/OTS 488; New York: Clark, 2007).
2See, e.g., J. Hoftijzer, Holistic or Compositional Approach?, in Synchronic or Diachronic?
(ed. de Moor), 98-114, here 98 n. 2.



I.Synchrony and Diachrony in Saussures Usage

The terms synchrony and diachrony originated with Ferdinand de
Saussure, generally considered the father of modern linguistics and structuralism.
In Cours de linguistique gnrale (1916, published posthumously from lecture
notes by his students), on the basis of this distinction Saussure described two
modes for the study of language.3
Synchronic linguistics will be concerned with logical and psychological connexions
between coexisting items constituting a system, as perceived by the same collective
consciousness. Diachronic linguistics on the other hand will be concerned with connexions between sequences of items not perceived by the same collective consciousness, which replace one another without themselves constituting a system.4

Saussures synchrony regards a single stage of timethus, -chronic, meaning

at the same time.5 Saussure frequently uses the adjectives static and descriptive when discussing synchronic linguistics. This diagram demonstrates the point.6

Period A

Period B

One can speak of the synchronic stage of Period A and the synchronic stage of
Period B, taking each stage as a closed system, without regard to changes between
the two stages.
Diachrony attends to change through time-chronic.7 The adjective
evolutionary captures the sense of diachrony. The following diagram, slightly
changed from Saussures,8 highlights the diachrony between Period A and

Period A

Period B


de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris; ed. Charles Bally,
Albert Sechehaye, and Albert Riedlinger; LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1986).
4Ibid., 98.
5Ibid., 79-96.
6Ibid., 84.
7Ibid., 75.
8Ibid., 84.


The vertical dotted arrows indicate the diachrony between Period A and Period B,
that is, evolutionary changes between the two stages.
The historical orientation behind both is apparent. Saussure makes this point at the very beginning
of his discussion: Very few linguists realize that the
need to take account of the passage of time gives rise
to special problems in linguistics and forces us to
choose between two radically different approaches.9
As is apparent in their shared term , synchrony
and diachrony distinguish factors of time.10 Synchrony and diachrony are two dimensions of time, two
temporal angles through which any historical object or
phenomenon can be approached. What differentiates synchrony from diachrony
is not their historical value; both are historical. What differentiates them is their
perspective on time.11 Contrary to a conception popular among biblical critics,
synchrony shares with diachrony a significant side or dimension of history. By
the same token, diachronic must not be identified with historical: diachrony, too,
entails one dimension of history, not the whole of it. The historical includes both
synchrony and diachrony, which attend to separate dimensions of the historical.
I am well aware that many readers might doubt that synchrony has a historical dimension, given that Saussures program is notorious for its lack of interest
in language development and on that count heavily criticized.12 I am not arguing,
however, that Saussures linguistic program itself was historically oriented. My
point is simply that the terms synchrony and diachrony are by Saussures def9Ibid., 79 (emphasis added).
10This point has been raised repeatedly in the scholarly discussion around synchrony and
diachrony. See, e.g., James Barr, The Synchronic, the Diachronic and the Historical: A Triangular
Relationship? in Synchronic or Diachronic? (ed. de Moor), 1-14; Mark G. Brett, Four or Five
Things to Do with Texts, in The Bible in Three Dimensions: Essays in Celebration of Forty Years of
Biblical Studies in the University of Sheffield (ed. David J. A. Clines, Stephen E. Fowl, and StanleyE.
Porter; JSOTSup 87; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990) 357-77, here 368-70; Erhard Blum, Von Sinn
und Nutzen der Kategorie Synchronie in der Exegese, in David und Saul im Widerstreit (ed.
Dietrich), 16-30, here 19; F. E. Deist, Heads I Win, Tails You Lose: Yahweh and the Editor of
the Exodus Story. An Historico-Aesthetic Interpretation of Exodus 1-12, Old Testament Essays
2 (1989) 36-52, here 36-38; idem, The Material Culture of the Bible: An Introduction (Biblical
Seminar 70; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000) 33-34; Louis C. Jonker, Exclusivity and
Variety: Perspectives on Multidimensional Exegesis (CBET 19; Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1996)
90-107; Rolf Rendtorff, Die Bundesformel: Eine exegetisch-theologische Untersuchung (SBS
160; Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1995) 2-3, 7-8, 10.
11Cf. Louis C. Jonker, Reading the Pentateuch with Both Eyes Open: On Reading Biblical
Texts Multidimensionally, in South African Perspectives on the Pentateuch (ed. le Roux and
Otto), 90-107, here 94.
12See, e.g., Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress, Social Semiotics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Uni
versity Press, 1988) 17. I thank an anonymous reviewer for CBQ for providing this citation.


inition historical. The fact that Saussures program later developed into a movement that focused almost exclusively on static descriptions of language and much
else does not mean that the terms by which he distinguished two basic aspects
of language study were ahistorical. The popular identification of synchrony with
nonhistorical approaches is observed in the history of structuralism in general.
Outside of biblical scholarship, however, one finds in the structuralist tradition
frequent reminders of the historical orientation of the synchrony/diachrony dialectic, against the common misconception. As Ithamar Even-Zohar, for example,
declares, Both synchrony and diachrony are historical, but the exclusive identification of the latter with history is untenable.13
The reluctance to accept the historical orientation of synchrony is due in large
measure to the fact that Saussure is known for his epoch-making claim for the
priority of synchrony over diachrony.14 One must not, however, take Saussures
emphasis on the priority of synchrony as an indication that synchrony is ahistorical.15 The synchronic/diachronic dialectic still belongs in a historical sphere, in
which two historical dimensions are in play.
This sphere is to be distinguished from another dialectic, structural/evolutionary, which involves modes of investigation variably suited for the respective
historical dimensions. The investigation of the synchronic state of a language system from one period does not imply a lack of historicity. Language is a historical
productsynchronic in its own time. The prevailing mode of investigation of a
synchronic stagethat is, the structural, descriptive, static modeis not itself a
historical category. It says nothing one way or the other about history. Again, the
structural is not to be identified with the synchronic; the terms are, precisely speaking, incommensurate. A careless blending of these two categories is largely responsible for the confusion that synchronic means ahistorical.16
13Ithamar Even-Zohar, Polysystem Studies (Poetics Today 11:1; Durham, NC: Duke Uni
versity Press, 1990) 11.
14Saussure (Course, 89) claimed, it is clear that the synchronic point of view takes
precedence over the diachronic, since for the community of language users that is the one and only
15This problematic equation of the synchronic and the structural in the structuralist tradition
probably results from the supposed triumph of the static approach (led by the Geneva school) over
the dynamic approach (led by the Russian formalist and the Czech structuralist schools) and in
itself constitutes a debatable issue within structuralism. See Even-Zohar, Polysystem Studies, 11.
16Whether the relation between synchronic and diachronic, and similarly langue and parole,
can be as clearly distinguished as Saussure maintained constitutes another debate that goes beyond
the scope of this essay and ultimately does not affect our recognition of the historical orientation
behind synchrony and diachrony. To be sure, the distinction between synchrony and diachrony,
and langue and parole, exists only in a purely theoretical setting. In reality, there is no such
thing as a pure synchrony that is not affected by diachrony nor a langue that is purely distinct
from parole, and vice versa; the two are inherently related to each other (see J. Tynjanov and R.
Jakobson, Problems in the Study of Literature and Language, in Readings in Russian Poetics:


II.Synchrony and Diachrony in Biblical Studies: A Short History

There was a time when biblical scholars adopted synchrony and diachrony
in line with Saussures usage, rather than as substitutes for structural and historical. Not incidentally, that was the time when historical critics borrowed the
terms in order to reorient historical investigation. Let me briefly review how the
rapid growth of biblical scholarship led to the way synchrony and diachrony
are now customarily employed.

A.Synchrony and Diachrony within Historical Criticism

Since the 1970s, the classic historical-critical consensus has been increasingly challenged, as biblical critics have explored alternative ways of doing
biblical criticism. As part of this evolution,
Final Text one group of scholars seeking firmer critical ground turned their attention to linguistics. One notable result was recognizing the
importance of making a synchronic analysis
of a text prior to a diachronic reconstrucPre-Stages tion of its composition. This recognition was
clearly informed by the structuralist tradition.
Appealing or alluding to Saussures insisDiachronic
tence on the priority of synchrony, these critics challenged the tendency to allow a history-driven desire to excavate meanings
beyond the text to eclipse an ample understanding of what is plainly in the text.
This approach includes Wolfgang Richter and the Richter school, Eep Talstra
and his colleagues, and a certain form-critical (and redaction-critical) movement
represented by Klaus Koch, Rolf Knierim, and Marvin A. Sweeney.17 Despite varFormalist and Structuralist Views [ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska; Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press, 1971] 79-81; V. N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language [trans.
Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik; Studies in Language; New York: Seminar, 1973]; Even-Zohar,
Polysystem Studies, 9-26]). Still, the simple fact that a historical framework lies behind the notions
of synchrony and diachrony stands.
17Representative works include Wolfgang Richter, Formgeschichte und Sprachwissen
schaft, ZAW 82 (1970) 216-25; idem, Exegese als Literaturwissenschaft: Entwurf einer alttesta
lichen Literaturtheorie und Methodologie (Gttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971).
For the contribution of the Richter school, see the monograph series Arbeiten zu Text und
Sprache im Alten Testament. As for Talstra, see Eep Talstra, Solomons Prayer: Synchrony and
Diachrony in the Composition of I Kings 8, 14-61 (CBET 3; Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1993). For
the form-critical circle, see particularly Linguistik und Formgeschichte, the appendix to Klaus
Koch, Was ist Formgeschichte? Methoden der Bibelexegese. Mit einem Nachwort, Linguistikund
Formgeschichte (3rd ed.; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1974); idem, Amos: Untersucht


ied scholarly orientations and divergence in details, these scholars agreed on two
points: synchrony and diachrony are two dimensions of the historical, whether
stated as such or not, and synchrony takes precedence over diachrony. These two
statements do not make use of the full scope of synchrony and diachronysynchrony by definition is not limited to the final textbut at least they are in line
with Saussures usage.

B.Synchrony and Diachrony in the Wake of Final-Form Studies

The use of synchrony and diachrony in biblical scholarship changed following the advent of final-form studies, which, propelled by an epidemic of discontent with historical criticism, proliferated as a favored alternative.
At first, final-form studies generally concentrated on the text rather than the
reader. Adherents employed a variety of methods, including rhetorical criticism,
canonical criticism, biblical structuralism, and perhaps early examples of narrative criticism and literary criticism as done in fields other than biblical studies.
With these methods, the synchronic study of the final text served not as a gateway
to diachronic inquiry, as before, but as an end in itself, an alternative comprehensive treatment of the text needing no further development or speculative contextualization. Energetically juxtaposing a host of current literary theories with
the outmoded interpretive approaches typical of biblical studies, these scholars
demonstrated that the final text could produce meaningful and productive readings, belying critics suspicions that such readings, ignoring history, must in the
end prove barren.
We do not need to go in detail about these approaches, since their champions
did not promote their cause under the banner of the synchronic. Rather, the idea
that synchrony and diachrony are in opposition arose in the aftermath of finalform studies, which fostered in time a novel development, the divide between
historical and final-form camps. The interaction between these two parties has
been fraught with misunderstanding, rivalry, and antipathy. At times, the debate
became a showcase for exclusive supremacy, as if a successful demonstration by
mit den Methoden einer strukturalen Formgeschichte (AOAT 30; Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker,
1976); Rolf Knierim, Old Testament Form Criticism Reconsidered, Int 27 (1973) 435-68;
idem, Criticism of Literary Features, Form, Tradition, and Redaction, in The Hebrew Bible
and Its Modern Interpreters (ed. Douglas A. Knight and Gene M. Tucker; SBLBMI 1; Chico,
CA: Scholars Press, 1985) 123-65; Rolf Rendtorff, Between Historical Criticism and Holistic
Interpretation: New Trends in Old Testament Exegesis, in Congress Volume: Jerusalem 1986 (ed.
J. A. Emerton; VTSup 40; Leiden: Brill, 1988) 298-303; Marvin A. Sweeney, Form Criticism,
in To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application (ed.
Stephen R. Haynes and Steven L. McKenzie; rev. and exp. ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox,
1999) 58-89; idem, The Changing Face of Form Criticism for the Twenty-First Century (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).


one side negated the other.18 John Barton has aptly described this situation: our
armies, like so many we read of in the Old Testament, are drawn up on opposite
hills with a great valley between. The difference, of course, is that in our case
each camp thinks it is the other that contains the Philistines.19 It was in the face
of this divide that biblical scholars began calling final-form studies synchronic, in
contrast to conventional historical criticism now called diachronic.
Historical Criticism

(New) Literary Criticism

The usage persists. The following is but a recent example:

Academic methods of Bible study are of two basic kinds: diachronic and synchronic.
Diachronic methods are also referred to as historical-critical and synchronic as literarycritical. As the names imply, diachronic methods are concerned with the relationship
of the biblical materials to history. They also attempt to trace the development of the
biblical literature through time. Synchronic methods, by contrast, concentrate on the
literature as suchthe artistry and interrelationships within the biblical text as we
have it, regardless of how it came to be.20

Here diachronic serves as an umbrella term for historical-critical studies in

opposition to synchronic as the corresponding umbrella term for literary-critical
studies. The historical is limited to diachrony. Synchrony is taken as outside the
historical and limited to literature as such. This may not be the only sense in
which biblical scholars employ these terms, but it is by far the most common.21
Clearly the notion that synchrony excludes the historical conflicts with
Saussures understanding of synchrony as an aspect of the historical.22 The clash
18See Paul R. Noble, Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Biblical Interpretation,
Literature and Theology 7 (1993) 130-48. For caution against this confrontation mode of interaction,
see Jonker, Exclusivity and Variety.
19John Barton, Historical Criticism and Literary Interpretation: Is There Any Common
Ground? in Crossing the Boundaries: Essays in Biblical Interpretation in Honour of Michael D.
Goulder (ed. Stanley E. Porter, Paul Joyce, and David E. Orton; BIS 8; Leiden: Brill, 1994) 3-15,
here 3.
20Steven L. McKenzie, Introduction to the Historical Books: Strategies for Reading (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 26.
21E.g., Serge Frolov, The Turn of the Cycle: 1 Samuel 18 in Synchronic and Diachronic
Perspectives (BZAW 342; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2004); Daniel C. Timmer, Creation, Tabernacle, and
Sabbath: The Sabbath Frame of Exodus 31:12-17; 35:1-3 in Exegetical and Theological Perspective
(FRLANT 227; Gttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009) 11-12; Esias E. Meyer, The Jubilee
in Leviticus 25: A Theological Ethical Interpretation from a South African Perspective (Exegese
in unserer Zeit: Kontextuelle Bibelinterpretation aus lateinamerikanischer und feministischer Sicht
15; Mnster: Lit, 2005) 67-68.
22See Blum, Von Sinn und Nutzen.


of these two understandings became the source of lasting confusion. Thus, those
who were familiar with the historical orientation of synchrony in Saussures
usage often described as inconsistent the lack of historical awareness in finalform studies, considering the name they bear, syn-chronic. Some indeed took this
as an opportunity to decry final-form critics for their indifference to history. For
example, James Barr observed that the synchronic can be as much a historical
enterprise as the diachronic is,23 and from this drew his famous conclusion: In
this sense, perhaps surprisingly, synchrony in Saussures sense naturally tends
towards a reaffirmation of a traditional historical-critical approach.24 No doubt
synchrony is historically oriented; but, as indicated above, this does not make all
the biblical studies that happen to be termed synchronic (and perhaps incorrectly
so) part of a historical enterprise.
The problem of imposing the historical orientation of synchrony to finalform studies was more pronounced in F. E. Deists similar argument: Even those
who choose to adopt a synchronic, immanent or close reading approach to interpretation cannot do without cultural knowledge . . . because synchronic interpretationin so far as this term is not a misnomerby definition implies the cultural
context of texts.25 By arguing that the term synchrony necessarily implies cultural context, which is historical, Deist is appealing in effect to Saussures definition of synchrony. This claim is unconvincing. Final-form scholars may parry this
critique by simply pointing out that the way final-form studies are characterized
as synchronic is just incorrect. Thus, synchrony has indeed become a misnomer,
particularly with regard to final-form studies that purport to be purely literary. As
a growing segment of biblical criticism divorced itself from historical considerations, the once-useful category of synchrony became not just less useful but the
source of misleading confusion.
This confusion may appear negligible to those who would argue that confusion
can be minimized by maintaining a single clear and consistent definition.26 That
may be truebut only if final-form studies had stopped growing. With the advent of
the reader in biblical interpretation, the matter of synchrony and diachrony became
further complicated to the degree that it must be asked whether keeping the oppositional sense of synchrony benefits the field of biblical interpretation.

C.Synchrony and Diachrony after the Rise of the Reader

Inspired by the success of this literary movement, final-form studies experienced further growth, radically reshaping the landscape of biblical scholarship.

Synchronic, the Diachronic and the Historical, 3.

(emphasis added).
25Deist, Material Culture, 33.
26E.g., Frolov, Turn of the Cycle, 16 n. 8.


One of the characteristic developments in this new movement has been the influence of the reader in textual interpretation. The advent of the reader has complicated the application of the synchrony/diachrony dialectic in many ways.
In reader-oriented studiesagain, broadly definedmeaning is not sought
in the text or behind the text (i.e., in the authors intention).27 Instead, meaning is
located before the text, where the text and reader encounter each other.28 Simply
put, the text is no longer taken as a detached object; it is merged with the reader:
instead of being seen as instrumental to the understanding of the text, the readers activity is declared to be identical with the text and therefore becomes itself
the source of all literary value.29 In other words, literature is . . . not regarded
as a fixed object of attention but as a sequence of events that unfold within the
readers mind. Correspondingly, the goal of literary criticism becomes the faithful
description of the activity of reading.30 The center of literary criticism gradually
shifted from the text to the cognitive space of the reader.31
With the rise of the reader in biblical interpretation, final-form studies have
quickly grown into a vast and diverse assemblage of studies. The incongruity of
a range of diverse studies lumped under the single heading synchronic became
more serious than was the case with text-oriented approaches. Unlike in linguistics, where there is only one objectnamely, languagein reader-oriented studies of literature there are at least three axes, each with its own temporality: author,
text, and reader.32 Speaking simply about synchronic analysis would only raise
the question, a synchrony of which axis? One could, after all, study the synchrony
of the text, the author, or the reader. Admittedly, defining final-form studies as
27For a foundational discussion on this highly debated issue, see W. K. Wimsatt and M. C.
Beardsley, The Intentional Fallacy, Sewanee Review 54 (1946) 468-88.
28In secular literary criticism, this focus on the reader arose as a reaction to the overly textcentered New Criticism and Formalism that rejected not only the author-oriented reading (in the
name of intentional fallacy) but also the reception-oriented reader (in the name of affective
fallacy). Wimsatt and Beardsley (The Affective Fallacy, Sewanee Review 57 [1949] 31-55, here
21) claim, The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results. . . . It begins
by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of a poem and ends
in impressionism and relativism. Yet in biblical criticism the rise of the reader did not take such
a polemical mode against text-oriented approaches; rather, the reader was frequently taken into
literary or narrative approaches. See, e.g., Mark Allan Powell, What Is Narrative Criticism? (GBS;
Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) 19.
29See Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism (ed. Jane P.
Tompkins; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980) xvi.
30Ibid., xvii.
31Ibid. For more detailed discussion of the issue and its implications for biblical scholarship,
see Bible and Culture Collective, The Postmodern Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)
32For a concise introduction to this issue, see Helmut Utzschneider, TextReaderAuthor:
Towards a Theory of Exegesis: Some European Viewpoints, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 1
(1996) 1-22.


synchronic may not be entirely incorrectyes, they all deny a diachronic reconstruction of history of the text. To say synchronic analysis in this sense, however, addresses only one aspect of this diverse group, namely, their perspective
regarding the axis of text. It hardly does justice to the different emphasis of each
approach on the other two interpretive axesauthor and reader.33
Particularly troublesome is the axis of the reader. Some branches of readeror reception-oriented interpretation may even involve a diachronic dimension.
The concept of the implied reader often made critics claim that a historical, or
diachronic, aspect is necessary for reconstructing the reader implied in the text.
Then theoretically any reading involves diachrony between the actual reader at
a point in time and the implied reader in the texta diachrony of readers, not
of texts. The final text is explained by means of examining the reception of the
implied reader, which is reconstructed only through a diachronic involvement of
the actual reader with the synchronic state of the text. In light of the diachronic
aspect present in the activity of the reader, it makes no sense to call all readeroriented readings synchronic.
This incongruity can be spelled out in a slightly different manner, against
the backdrop of the subsequent pluralism that prompted our basic question. The
rise of postmodernism fueled a pluralism with experimentation with all sorts of
theories in biblical studies.34 The growing plurality among final-form studies led
to the realization that todays biblical interpretation as a whole is better described
in terms of a tri-lectic among author, text, and reader, rather than dialectic
between synchrony and diachrony. Helmut Utzschneider, for instance, observes
that to view the divide in biblical scholarship as a synchronic/diachronic dichotomy is superficial; he suggests that behind the dichotomy stands a trichotomy.35
He adopted the three intentions from Umberto Eco, who established the three
main axes of interpretation: intentio auctoris (author-oriented), intentio operis
(text-oriented), and intentio lectoris (reader-oriented).36 Against this backdrop, it
is doubtful whether the two-dimensional synchrony/diachrony dialectic can offer
an effective means of exploring the tripartite dynamic present in contemporary
biblical interpretation. To be sure, there are many significant differences between
contemporary literary theory and current biblical scholarship. It is also true that
a direct application of this tripartite structure to biblical criticism, without due
attention to these differences, would introduce other problems. Nonetheless, the
33See Blum, Von Sinn und Nutzen, 16-19; Thomas Naumann, Zum Verhltnis von
Synchronie und Diachronie in der Samuelexegese, in David und Saul im Widerstreit (ed. Dietrich),
51-65, here 51-54.
34Such experiments were mainly carried out by the now-defunct Semeia and many other
journals, such as Biblical Interpretation.
35Utzschneider, TextReaderAuthor, 7.
36Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation (Advances in Semiotics; Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1990) 44-63.


diversity of current biblical interpretation is better represented in terms of this
tripartite structure than the bipartite synchrony/diachrony.
If the synchrony/diachrony dialectic is inadequate, or irrelevant, in addressing the tripartite dynamics of todays biblical criticism, then significant implications follow for the debate over interpretation in biblical studies. As noted, one of
the oft-claimed benefits of adopting the synchrony/diachrony dialectic in biblical
studies is its heuristic effect in calling for an integration of the currently polarized
historical and nonhistorical camps. But if synchrony and diachrony no longer
accurately represent the landscape of todays biblical interpretive currents, they
lose this heuristic value. One can no longer use the inseparability of synchrony
and diachrony as a basis to argue for the inseparability of the camps. The inseparability of synchrony and diachrony neither requires integration nor warrants its
success: the inseparability applies only when synchrony and diachrony are utilized within the historical framework, where they represent two diverging dimensions, but not when synchrony is taken out of the historical framework and given
the role of representing what is actually much bigger than what the term itself
entails. I regret having to let go of synchrony and diachrony as a means of pressing each conflicting party of biblical interpretation for a dialogue, but a valid end
cannot justify an invalid means.
Of course, this does not mean that an interaction among various parties of
biblical scholarship is impossible or undesirable. It only means that such an interaction must be based on more appropriate ground. The proper mode of interaction among the tripartite intentions differs greatly from that of synchrony and
diachrony. For historical critics, synchrony and diachrony are two dimensions
that must be integrated in order to obtain the full scope of historical perspectives. By contrast, those who employ a mode of interaction among author-, text-,
and reader-oriented readers do not wish to combine them all into one monolithic
approach. They no longer want to create a method with a step-by-step exegetical
procedure, like a sausage machine that grinds them all into one integrated reading.37 A better way of interacting is a dialogic mode, in which each conversation
partner is given an equal rank, a point that I will further develop below.

III.Synchrony and Diachrony as a Metacritical Tool

In the preceding discussion, we saw that the synchrony/diachrony dialectic
falls short of embracing all the aspects within contemporary biblical interpretation. Does this mean that synchrony and diachrony are no longer useful in biblical
interpretation? Not necessarily. It is true that synchrony and diachrony can no lon37The analogy is borrowed from David Jobling, David and the Philistines: With Method
ological Reflections, in David und Saul im Widerstreit (ed. Dietrich), 74-85, here 74.


ger function as a basis for integrating opposite camps in biblical scholarship, but
there are still ways in which synchrony and diachrony may benefit biblical critics.
The preceding discussion has made it clear that their value lies in their efficacy in laying bare historical dimensions of a historical object. The biblical text
is a historical object; author and reader are also historical entities. That is, a particular communication to which biblical critics attend does not occur in one time
period. Its sender (author), medium (text), and receiver (reader) may belong to
different times, and the distances between them may be as great as several millennia. Then, as soon as the present-day interpreter takes up and reads an ancient
text, a complex historical dynamic is activated within that act of reading. If used
as a means of addressing historical dynamics inherent in the interaction among the
three interpretive lociauthor, text, and readerthen the synchronic/diachronic
dialectic provides an effective metacritical tool, mapping each approach according to its particular interpretive emphasis.38 The diagram on the following page
demonstrates the basic paradigm in which each approach can be profiled.
This diagram locates authors, texts, and readers in a historical domain that
spans from its genesis through its present-day reception. The final-t level captures
the stage of the texts final formation. The prehistory of the text from its genesis
to any putative pre-text layers (of sources or redactional) is covered in the pre-t
level. The post-t level indicates the post-history of the text, which is realized in
terms of its reception by readers. Among these, only the final text is a tangible
object; everything else is hypothetical, including the post-t reader.39 Each box
is to be taken collectively; that is, even if I use only one box for the pre-t author,
all stages of the prehistory of the text are represented by this single box. I call
this matrix an interpretive domain, in which each approach has its characteristic
emphasis on a particular area. Some approaches may focus on the upper-right area,
others around the mid-central area, and so forth. No single approach can address
all the areas within this domain. By attending to those relative foci, we can better
understand similarities, differences, and interrelations among various methods or
approaches in biblical interpretation. What follow are a few test cases for this model.
38John Barton (Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study [rev. and enlarged ed.;
Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996] 238-39) proposed this long ago, My suggestion is that
we can begin to understand all the methods Old Testament scholarship has used, and to see how
they are related to each other, if we ask in each case what their proponents are reading the Old
Testament and its component books as. This is what we may call a meta-critical question, asking
not about the meaning of texts, but about the style of various critics proposals about the meaning
of texts. . . . The history of biblical criticism is becoming a large research-field; the analysis or
mapping of biblical criticism is still rather neglected.
39That is, the post-t reader is not necessarily equated with the interpreter, whom I conceive
of as residing outside this entire domain. The post-t reader is a construct of the interpreter created
in order to observe the reading of the reader as an object.








post-t level


final text


final-t level




pre-t level

A historical-critical reading may be defined as a reading that attends to

the final-t and pre-t levels with the focus on the axis of author, which puts
this approachs emphasis mainly around the lower-left area. To restore final-t
author and pre-t author by means of an analysis of its composition history is
the primary goal of this reader. Yet restoring authorial intentions is possible only
through a critical investigation of the final text, which will result in a reconstruction of layers of the pre-text, a composition history.40 In addition, although
the pre-t reader has been practically out of sight in the historical-critical theoretical scheme, it is technically not outside the historical investigation. Taking
into account the putative reception of the original reader/audience may facilitate a
more comprehensive reconstruction of the pre-text, and ultimately of the pre-t
authors intention. Not incidentally, several historical critics recently began to
incorporate and apply the notion of reception into composition history.41 The
40Of course, historical critics may identify no pre-text, that is, when the given text is
proven coherent without any pre-stages.
41E.g., Helmut Utzschneider, Knder oder Schreiber? Eine These zum Problem der Schrift
prophetei auf Grund von Maleachi 1,62,9 (BEATAJ 19; Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1989); Jacques
Vermeylen, The Book of Isaiah = Le livre d Isae: Les oracles et leurs relectures unit et complexit
de l ouvrage (BETL 81; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1989); Ehud Ben Zvi, Micah (FOTL
21B; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 6-7.


resulting pre-text may comprise several source materials (source criticism) or
successive redactional or compositional stages (redaction criticism). The reconstructed pre-text, together with the final text, then, will give access to the
final-t author and pre-t author, which in turn will open the door to the world
behind them. Everything that resides after, or above, the final-t levelthat is,
the post-t level in this diagramis beyond this readers interest.
Above, I briefly mentioned that the way historical critics employed synchrony and diachrony was narrower than that of Saussure in that their synchrony
was largely limited to the final text.42 Given the profiling of a historical-critical reading in the diagram, such a discrepancy is not difficult to recognize. In
Saussures terms, synchrony is not limited to the final text; it is entirely justified
to speak of the synchrony of each layer of pre-text. Thus, any historical-critical
inquiry that purports to reconstruct pre-text involves inherently the synchronic
dimension for each layer of pre-text, together with diachronic relations between
them.43 To illustrate, Julius Wellhausens famous diachronic claim for the priority
of D over Pboth belonging to the pre-text of the Pentateuchwas informed
by his synchronic observation of the religious-cultural settings of D and P (i.e.,
pre-text).44 Likewise, Frank Moore Crosss recognition in the Deuteronomistic
History of the diachronic relations between its two layers, namely, the preexilic
(Dtr1) and exilic (Dtr2) editions, was informed, however implicitly, by his synchronic observation of each stage. In short, historical criticism itself encompasses
synchronic and diachronic perspectives of the final text and each layer of pretext.45 Ultimately, issues or problems of the final text (e.g., narrative breaks,
redundancies, or inconsistencies) are accounted for by means of diachronic explanations regarding the formation and development of its pre-text.
To adopt this more complete sense of synchrony/diachrony, namely, that of
the final text as well as its pre-text, on the one hand enables a more systematic

42This is what Blum (Von Sinn und Nutzen, 16-19) refers to as the conceptual narrowing
(begriffliche Engfhrung) of synchrony.
43Jonker, With Both Eyes Open, 93.
44Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel: With a Reprint of the
Article Israel from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (New York: Meridian Books, 1957) 52-120.
45See Frank Moore Cross, The Themes of the Book of Kings and the Structure of the
Deuteronomistic History, in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the
Religion of Israel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973) 274-89. One is probably
correct to point out that the concept of the synchrony of pre-text is implicitly included in historical
critics methodological scheme. This unstated assumption is most pronounced in works of todays
redaction critics, who pay close attention to each of the reconstructed layers as an independent
object of study. See, e.g., how Marvin A. Sweeney (Isaiah 139: With an Introduction to Prophetic
Literature [FOTL 16; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996]; idem, I & II Kings: A Commentary [OTL;
Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007]) explores the putative redactional stages, such as the
Hezekian and Josianic editions of the books of Isaiah and Kings.


and controlled critical discussion.46 For instance, a redaction-critical survey must
begin with the synchronic analysis of the final text and move on to restore the
synchronic layers of pre-text. At the same time, one examines the interrelationship among those stages, which, by definition, constitutes a diachronic analysis.47
On the other hand, implementing the fuller scope of synchrony and diachrony
reveals the limitations of any redaction-critical reconstruction of pre-text. While
redaction criticism requires an establishment of the synchrony of each pre-text,
a modern redaction critic is deprived of a precise means to reconstruct them in
any tangible fashion. To reconstruct earlier stages is to restore a language of the
past using only heavily damaged fragments of ancient inscriptions. Insofar as the
synchronic state of each stage cannot be accurately restored, an inherent limitation of a synchronic and diachronic observation must be recognized, cautioning
against the tendency to overanalyze.48
Whereas historical-critical studies dwell in the one side of the domainthat
is, below the final-t levelon the other side of the domain dwell all the finalform approaches. These final-form studies are all characterized by their refusal to
reconstruct the pre-t level. At the same time, unlike historical-critical approaches
that attend mainly to the left side (between the axes of text and author) of the
domain, final-form approaches generally focus on its right side (between the axes
of text and reader). The axis of author, generally speaking, exists only as a theoretical necessity, mostly in the form of the implied author, which is a necessary component of textual communication at work. Thus, final-form studies concentrate on
the upper-right area of the interpretive domain. In any case, as discussed above,
to categorize all of these as merely synchronic is simplistic and does little justice
to the diversity among final-form studies. The diversity can be better elucidated
in terms of a given approachs relative emphasis on the axes of text and reader.
Let me begin with approaches that focus on the axis of reader. The interpretive emphasis of these reader-oriented or reception-oriented readings oscillates
between the final-t level and post-t level as well as between the axes of reader
and text. Reader-response criticism is generally divided into two categories: conservative and radical approaches.49 First, conservative reader-response readings,
perhaps best exemplified by Wolfgang Iser, side more with the axis of text, insofar
46Here, my choice of terms such as fuller or more complete is to be understood only
against the more traditional historical criticism in which synchrony is confined to the final text.
It is not posed against contemporary historical scholarship such as New Historicism.
47In reality, the synchronic analysis and the diachronic observation cannot be definitively
separated. This is particularly true of the interrelation between the synchrony and diachrony of
pre-text, in which one simultaneously and continually informs the other.
48For a good example of this careful and qualified recent redaction-critical scholarship, see
David M. Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2011).
49For a helpful review, see Reader-Response Criticism (ed. Tompkins), ix-xxvi.


as their readings follow the response of the reader that is practically a textual constructthe implied reader.50 For Iser, the implied reader is a textual construct
necessary for observing the aesthetic reception of the reader. Therefore, conservative reader-response readings address mainly the final-t level with more
emphasis on the axis of reader, out of which the meaning of the text and the intention of the implied author are reconstructed. In biblical scholarship, then, most
narrative critics would belong in the same area.51
Second, slightly different are radical reader-response readings that attend to
the post-t level with a more aggressive focus given to the axis of reader. The particular reader whom these readings follow is not the implied reader reconstructed
out of the text. It is the ideological post-t reader, whether it be a feminist reader,
a deconstructionist reader, a postcolonial reader, or any reader whose engagement
in meaning production is not only acknowledged but actively pursued. Fundamentally, the text that these readers read is not the same text as was read by the
original readers. Though the two are identical in their physical value, they are
different texts in that the post-text is essentially defined, shaped, and channeled
through the decisive act of reading by the post-t reader, whose ideology in turn
is dictated by the interpretive community to which he or she belongs.52 Here we
find an additional problem of calling this approach synchronic: it is not the investigation of the synchronic structure and interrelations among textual elements that
defines the meaning of the text; it is the meaning realized by the reception of postt reader, which is arguably in diachronic relation with the final-t reader, who
defines and shapes the text (post-text).53
50That is, the goal of the reading is, despite its using the means of a readers response, still
concentrated on discovering the meaning in the text. Although the angle from which the meaning
of the text is pursued has changed, the idea that the text has a definitive meaning in it has not.
Thus, Isers reading is not radically different from a text-oriented approach, though more attention
is given to the reception of the reader. See Reader-Response Criticism (ed. Tompkins), x-xvi. For
Isers notion of implied reader, see Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication
in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974); idem,
The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
51See Powell, What Is Narrative Criticism? 19.
52Certain readers bring in fixed viewpoints, influenced by their community, that cannot be
shaken by the textual signification, regardless of its rhetorical power. See Edward W. Said, The
World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983) 26.
53If the diachrony involved in this process is so admitted, then that diachrony is not, in
essence, different from that involved in historical criticism. In historical criticism, the final text is
elucidated by means of a diachronic reconstruction of its pre-stages; here the final text is illuminated
by means of attending to reception of its post-stages. This analogy is admittedly not perfect, but
the mere fact that issues of the text are explained not by the synchronic analysis of the final text
but by means of diachronic relations with another time level (either of pre-text or of post-text)
remains the same.


Next, there is a group of approaches that concentrate on the axis of text,
which stay around the mid-upper area of the diagram. Intentions behind the text
(of the author) and the reception of the text (of the reader) are not of primary
interest for the text-oriented reader; the primary object is the text itself (final
text). Among them, one can differentiate those closer to the final-t level and
those closer to the post-t level. Since most scholars in this group hardly speak
about anything historical but claim that their readings are purely literary, as if their
readings were ahistorical or transhistorical endeavors (e.g., Jan P. Fokkelman), it
is extremely difficult to profile their reading in synchronic and diachronic terms.54
We can only qualify what exactly it means when this type of reading is called synchronic. Fokkelmans reading, for instance, is synchronic not in the sense that he
pays attention to the historical and cultural settings in which the text was written
(cf. Deists remark above). Rather, it is synchronic in the sense that meaning is
pursued only within the textual elements that he considers belonging to the same
literary system. That is, it is synchronic in terms of signifying the internal coherence of the text, not associating it with any specific time as synchronic with.
Nevertheless, there are scholars who acknowledge the historical and cultural
setting of the text and read it against that original setting, while at the same time
refusing to reconstruct any textual prehistory, thus concentrating on the final
text itself. In this case, one must pay attention to the apparent historical dynamic
between the post-t reader (whose ideology happens to be historical) and the
final text. In order to reconstruct the synchronic state of the final text, sensitive to its historical and cultural setting, a diachronic involvement of the post-t
reader is inevitable.
The foregoing discussion is not meant to be an exhaustive and definitive
mapping of all existing approaches. One may disagree with the way that I characterized individual approaches. My purpose is simply to demonstrate how synchrony and diachrony, when used in conjunction with the three interpretive axes
of author, text, and reader, can be useful as metacritical tools in biblical criticism.
They can be useful not only in enhancing mutual understanding among different
approaches but also in forcing the individual critics to think more clearly about
their stance in terms of its exact placement within this larger interpretive domain.
One of the benefits of this scheme as a metacritical tool is a better understanding of the complementary nature of each approach within biblical scholarship. I believe this is a better basis for collegial dialogue among various
approaches in biblical studies than the synchronic/diachronic dialectic. Simply
put, every approach is complementary to othersnot because one is synchronic
and another is diachronic, but because each approach is designed to answer differ54J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis: Specimens of Stylistic and Structural Analysis
(SSN 17; Assen: Van Gorcum, 1975).


ent questions, questions that readings focusing on other areas of the interpretive
domain cannot effectively address. Only historical-critical approaches can effectively cover the pre-t stages. Only reception-oriented approaches can illuminate
the post-t stages. Both need text-oriented approaches to uncover effectively the
formal structure of the final text as a shared, tangible basis for their readings.
Without the others, each approach has limited means of disclosing what lies in
other areas of the texts meaning potential.55
Conflict and confrontation among approaches of different methodological
and theoretical orientations should be unnecessary. A conflict occurs mostly when
a reading rooted in one side of the larger domain unduly makes what I call a transborder claim, that is, turning ones reading into a showcase to undercut readings
rooted in the other side of the domain.56 Each method and approach is a product
of its presumptions and interpretive interests, which may be at times radically different from the other. As long as each side admits presumptions and relative interpretive interests, confrontation is unnecessary. Rather, by listening to the others
reading, ones own reading can be enriched. Only by working together can the
multifaceted meaning potential of the text be revealed.

The Saussurean synchrony/diachrony distinction is a historically conditioned
categoryagain, notwithstanding the lack of historical interest in his linguistic
program. His two terms are most useful when used within a historical framework
as two dimensions of history. For historical critics, therefore, the synchrony/diachrony dialectic provides proper ground on which two perspectives can be integrated so that the interpretation is not to be dictated by one of the two dimensions.
Yet, as biblical scholarship grows larger than and outside the historical scheme,
synchrony and diachrony can no longer embrace all the approaches in todays biblical criticism. As a corollary, the synchrony and diachrony dialectic no longer is
a proper ground for mutual interaction among various participants of todays bib55Contra

Noble (Synchronic and Diachronic, 136-37, 146), who argues that a successful
synchronic reading necessarily undercuts the validity of a redactional reading.
56To be sure, approaches that dwell in the same interpretive domain may compete with
each other. One can dispute whether a text was composed out of a compilation of sources or was
expanded through multiple revisions, but the result of a reception-oriented reading hardly affects
the validity of an author-oriented reading. As Joel Baden (The Tower of Babel: A Case Study
in the Competing Methods of Historical and Modern Literary Criticism, JBL 128 [2009] 20924, here 222) correctly puts it, There is no inherent conflict here, as the two methods move in
absolutely opposite directions. Even if one finds several layers of pre-text, the final text can still
be read meaningfully as a whole. Even if one can successfully demonstrate the artistic beauty
of the final text, that does not necessarily disprove the longer life of the text preceding its final


lical interpretation. Rather, a tripartite division of author, text, and reader serves
better. I suggested one way of implementing the synchronic/diachronic scheme
into todays tripartite division of biblical interpretation and using it as a metacritical tool as a way of demonstrating its usefulness to precisely address each
approachs interrelations. All in all, the future discourse on collegial dialogue
in biblical scholarship must be fulfilled on the principle appropriate to its plural
nature. That is, a mutual dialogue must be based on functional independence and
potential complementarity, not the inseparability of synchrony and diachrony. I
hope that this clarification will serve as a springboard for much-needed further