Reception and the Palimpsest: Southcottians reading Genesis 49:10

Jonathan Downing

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Paperpeer-review


The idea of the palimpsest – a document in which old texts are partially erased, but nonetheless remain visible even when new texts are inscribed over the top – has, in recent decades, become an influential metaphor for literary theorists investigating the phenomenon of intertextuality. Recently also, researchers in religion have used palimpsests as an analogy to account for the transformation of religious texts and ideas over the course of history. The palimpsest – with its intrinsic features of the (partial) obscuring of earlier texts, the superimposition of new writings, and a continuity in the base material – might thus provide a helpful metaphor for conceptualising certain receptions of the biblical text, particularly those receptions which develop over time within a specific community.

The reception and interpretation of biblical texts across the history of the Southcottian movement – a prophetic sect formed out of the followers of the British prophet Joanna Southcott in 1801 – has clear “palimpsestuous” qualities. In this paper, I will explore how successive generations of Southcottian prophets read, and re-read, the promise of “Shiloh” in Genesis 49:10. Over this movement’s history, Genesis 49:10 has been reinterpreted by generations of readers and prophetic claimants, to produce a proof-text supporting continually-evolving messianic claims. Charting the reception of this text through the history of the movement thus yields several successive “layers” of meaning as new readers offer their exposition of the text’s promises, and interpreted the readings of their predecessors. New readings overwrite the meanings offered by prophetic predecessors, yet features of these earlier interpretations are nonetheless able to assert themselves. The metaphor of the palimpsest can help us to understand how a community may be able to hold this series of competing readings and interpretations in productive tension.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - Sept 2015
EventBible, Critical Theory and Reception Seminar - , United Kingdom
Duration: 15 Sept 2011 → …


ConferenceBible, Critical Theory and Reception Seminar
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Period15/09/11 → …


  • Biblical Reception
  • Palimpsests
  • Southcottianism


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