Intertextuality (from the French word intertextualit) literally means “the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another so that the new ways of communication and understanding may emerge”. We can do better than that definition!
To begin, one text in the Bible can echo or allude to another text in order to send a message through the contextual combination of the passages that it could not otherwise send just by itself. In other words, the two texts mutually interpret one another, through a two-way traffic back-and-forth between the two texts, helping us understand each of the texts better than we could have otherwise – had we just been reading one of the texts only.
With respect to intertextuality, present day Christians owe much to the scholarship of Hans Frei and Richard B. Hays, who both hail from the Yale School of interpretation.
Hans Frei, in his epochal 1974 test, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, showed that people had recognized the Bible as one grand narrative for centuries until somehow in the modern period that had been lost.
Working from Frei’s scholarship, Hays, in his book, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 1989, showed that scholars through the centuries had forgotten that the whole of the Bible was a story, a narrative, and that at the center of this story as part of this story were all these abstract concepts of Incarnation, atonement, participation, and so on which plugged into the narrative. Hays found something that scholars for centuries had been missing but that interpreters in the early Church were alive to. Hays found that interpreters had been ignoring something Paul had done in all of his letters, and which all the other NT authors had also done in their NT writings, something theologians call literary echo and allusion (to OT Scriptures).
Because of the work of these scholars and others, the narrative representation found in our NT necessarily demands a rereading and further understanding of Israel’s Scriptures which themselves prefigure and illuminate every aspect found in the central character of the NT documents. In fact, the language the NT authors use will more frequently resonate with the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, than it will with the Masoretic Hebrew texts. This should not be surprising because the NT authors were writing in the Greek for Greek-reading audiences.
To teach the important meaning intertextuality has in Scripture I’m going to use the prophet Malachi as an example. When writing his oracle we call Ma, the prophet Malachi did something very important for our understanding of the book of Ma as well as our gospels and every other biblical text. Using this literary technique known as intertextuality, the prophet Malachi hooked into the expectations of the biblical story in the OT that everyone knew. The faithful remnant of his time knew their Scriptures well, indubitably far better than many of the devout of our own time do. Be that as it may, one of the more important texts Malachi used intertextually was Is 40.
[By the way, oracles are the various ways by which God speaks or is uniquely revealed: for example, in the Incarnation; in Scripture by divine revelation, pronouncement or message from God; through redemptive history; through preaching and through the sacraments. Obviously, the oracle here in the case of Malachi is as a pronouncement or message.]
By hooking into the OT the biblical author tied together one biblical text with a previous biblical text. This “hooking up” is called intertextuality by biblical scholars. In other words, in using intertextuality the author will literarily echo or allude to another biblical text that occurred previously in time. When the Jewish people wanted to say something big about the story behind the Story (our OT), they did so through literary echo and allusion, and, in doing so, they provided a far better and more thorough explanation than they could have otherwise by just quoting a previous text. Hence, intertextuality is the connection one text makes with another text through literary echo or allusion. That’s how intertextuality works.
There are literally thousands of examples of intertextuality seen throughout our biblical books. Another important example of a form of intertextuality is seen in the intratextual relationship that exists within one book itself. For example, in Dt we have this intratextual relationship between Dt 18 15 and Dt 34 9-10-12. This is the text having to do with the promise of a prophet-like-Moses, one of the many prophecies that Jesus himself fulfills in his Incarnation, death and resurrection. [Another excellent example of intratextuality is found in the discussion about the messenger figure of Ma 3 1 and 4 5-6.]
There in Dt 18 Moses told us that God would raise up a prophet from among the people who would be like Moses. So Moses was telling us that there would be a prophet like Moses who would one day arise. Biblical scholars, of course, call this figure the prophet-like-Moses. The natural idea one might have when reading Dt 18 would be that the text was just talking about the various prophets who would arise following the time of Moses, people, for instance, just like Moses. The idea there in Dt 18 seemed to imply that Moses was talking about one prophet after another who would follow him. However, at the close of Dt in Dt 34 God told them no prophet had yet risen in Israel like Moses. That, therefore, meant that there was still a prophet-like-Moses who was yet to come! Therefore, this “prophet-like-Moses” yet to come would still be one of the figures we should expect in the time of fulfillment. Of course, through intertextuality and typology biblical scholars know that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy – as well as all of the other prophecies we read about in the OT, save one, the prophecy of the fulfillment-time Elijah that was fulfilled by John the Baptist.
Understanding intertextuality is very important because it helps us understand an even more important characteristic of the biblical texts, that of typology. For instance, in the example cited above in Dt, the typological character of those two passages in Dt was that the prophet-like-Moses who was foretold was to be ultimately fulfilled in someone known as the prophet-like-Moses. Moses, in other words, was the “type” and the corresponding “antitype” to come, the prophet-like-Moses to come was Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was the ‘antitype’ of Moses who was the ‘type’, and that was shown to us through this literary technique known as intertextuality. Again, Moses was the ‘type’ and Jesus was the ‘antitype’. Another way to say this is that Moses was the ‘foreshadow’ and Jesus was the ‘fulfillment’. That’s just one example of how typology functions.
The devout among the Jewish people knew their scriptures backwards and forwards. Hence, one did not have to repeat their story to them when talking about God because THEY ALL KNEW THEIR STORY!!! You could just say, for instance, the kingdom of God or the new Exodus or the new covenant and they would have immediately understood what you were talking about. They also had many other words and short phrases that served as portable stories. Remember always, the Bible is like a mosaic; one book is related to another book. The interconnections within Scripture are endless. The connections are literally “all over the place”. In God’s inspired Word, the Holy Scriptures, God put them there for a reason – for God’s purposes. Accordingly, it’s up to each of us to search out these connections in Scripture. It’s up to each of us to – dare I say – actually read and study our Bibles! Really!
In other words, one way a Biblical author sent their message was through this literary technique called echo and allusion. Intertextuality. For instance, when talking about God in the NT, the NT author could just connect up with the God of the OT by using key terms, phrases or concepts about God found in the OT. The author could just connect up with key hopes within the story behind the Story through intertextuality – through echo and allusion. Intertextuality provides “the key to the puzzle or riddle” found in later documents. By looking into the various OT documents that are associated with the NT, one can in many cases immediately solve the riddle or puzzle of the NT document they are reading.
The Jewish people knew their scriptures so well that with just a couple of words the NT author could echo an entire passage from the OT. We do the same thing in conversation with one another. If people share something in common, a word or two alone can impart lots of meaning to another person. As an example of this, my best friend and I rarely see one another anymore but when we come together and start talking with one another, people sometimes don’t have the first clue what Terry and I are discussing because we have this history from childhood on, and we’ve shared so much growing up together that we speak a language to one another that most people won’t understand. A single word or short phrase shared between the two of us has a deeper meaning and story behind it than just that single word or short phrase could otherwise possibly impart. He and I share this history together; we share this story together. Our conversations with one another bring that shared story out in spades because we both know that shared story that exists behind the conversations we have in the present.
Most contemporary people, including unfortunately many scholars, just don’t get this part. It’s quite surprising to see how few scholars understand intertextuality and how few of them have gone back and looked carefully at these passages that the various NT authors echo in their documents. As such, they have missed the point of Scripture. But for those who converse in “story behind the Story” language, for those who know and understand their OT, the NT texts will say something whose full meaning only comes across if the hearers know the literary biblical echo or allusion being made to the story behind the Story.
Further, echo and allusion can become quite sophisticated because one text in the NT or OT might echo several different texts that preceded it in the OT. This happens over and over in the NT. As we’d really expect by the time of the NT, there are literally thousands of places in our NT documents that echo and/or allude to multiple OT texts. For example, Jesus did this all the time. Paul did so as well. Nobody in the NT opens their mouth or writes without telling you something found already in the OT. Nobody!
Using intertextuality was, therefore, a sophisticated move on the part of the prophet Malachi cited above (as well as all OT authors) because he didn’t have to hit someone over the head saying he wanted to explain to you that the new Exodus was yet to come as he clearly did in Ma 3 1 and 4 5-6 when referencing intertextually Is 40 3. Instead, the prophet Malachi told us that by using this much more sophisticated way of literary echo and allusion. Intertextuality. By doing so Malachi was reminding his hearers of their Jewish heritage – as specifically found in their Scriptures. He was reminding them, and us, about our own “Jewish matrix” (as one of my Seminary professors always called it) – out of which came everything these people of faith believed.
So what was the point of using intertextuality? Most importantly, the echo and allusion always drew in the context of the echoed passage into the echoing passage. Whenever a NT author echoes or alludes to another passage in the OT, they are also bringing the context of that OT passage forward into the present time. In fact, NT material which might appear murky when first looking superficially at the passage itself is always illumined by its echo. In other words, the meaning of any passage in the Bible that uses literary echo is a fusion of the passage one is reading and the echoed passage. You cannot understand the passage you’re reading apart from the echoed passage. That is, in order to most fully understand the passage you are reading, you must first understand the passage it is echoing or alluding to. This is one reason knowing our OT is so crucially important.
The prophet Malachi was doing exactly that. In his book Malachi was echoing the book of Isaiah. (He echoed other OT texts as well at other places in his prophecy.) In his prophecy in chapters 3 and 4 Malachi was, in effect, telling his readers that “you cannot really understand what Isaiah was saying in Is 40 3 unless you understand it through the words I am offering here in Ma 3 1 and 4 5-6.”
Therefore, you will not be able to understand what Malachi was saying unless you first catch that he was purposely echoing the text from Isaiah and then putting the two texts together. Two-way traffic. OT NT. As another example, you cannot, for instance, fully understand a passage in one of Paul’s letters until you understand the context(s) of the passage(s) he is echoing. And, Jesus’ own words are only going to be most fully understood if his readers make the connection to the OT Scriptures he’s drawing on all through his three and a half years of ministry.
Therefore, we will see that when the NT comes telling its own Story (about Jesus), what the NT has to say is always based on the story behind the Story (the OT). The NT authors purposely echoed and alluded to OT passages, intending to draw in the whole context of the echoed passage. The new testament constantly echoes the story behind the Story; it constantly echoes the OT. For example, the author of the Revelation to John never specifically quoted from the OT but he alluded to it more than 500 times in 404 verses!!! In Ro alone Paul uses over one thousand echoes and allusions to the OT. And some scholars feel those numbers might even be shy of the real numbers.
In summary, when the biblical author is going to say something big, he doesn’t come straight out and just say it; but instead he does so by echoing Scripture, thereby saying it even more strongly and emphatically than he would have by having just said it straight out. Whenever a biblical author makes his point by connecting it to previous Scripture, he makes his point in the most powerful, sophisticated way he can, by quoting what Scripture has previously said about the point he’s trying to make. Intertextuality.
Therefore, in order for us to get the most from our reading of any biblical document, we must use and understand the key tool of literary echo and allusion – intertextuality – in which one part of the Bible will be understood to echo or allude to a previous part of the Bible. In other words, that which you are reading or hearing in the “Story” (the NT) is most fully understood only if one understands that particular text’s echo or allusion to the “story” behind the Story (in the OT) and its context. So when doing your personal Bible study, be sure to read and study all of the texts that are being echoed or alluded to. Unfortunately, most study Bibles fall woefully short in this department although some are better about it than others. Most study Bibles still fail to list most of the important intertextual connections that are actually there. So when reading and studying your Bible look for the texts being echoed and read them as well.