Two recent questions have me wondering whether there are good criteria for identifying an allusion in a biblical text. An allusion seems to be a deliberate reference to another text, albeit in a hidden way. That is, it's meant to call something to mind, but without an explicit reference as in a quotation. The hidden nature of an allusion obviously adds some difficulty to the detection, but are there good criteria that can be used so that the process of detecting an allusion doesn't fall into the pit of subjectivity?


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Christopher D. Stanley says in As it is Written, pages 30-31, the term 'allusion' is used for a figure of speech that makes indirect extra-textual references but has been and remains notoriously difficult to define in specific terms. He cites C. Hugh Holman in A Handbook to Literature, one of the standard handbooks of literary study, as defining allusion such as to include several significant elements:

  1. reference may be to historical or literary entities, including people, events, or objects;
  2. the reference is indirect, as opposed to quotation or paraphrase, both of which are direct;
  3. the allusion is intentional on the part of the author towards the reader;
  4. allusion may occur without the knowledge of the reader;
  5. allusion is most effective when there is a body of shared knowledge between the author and reader

Probably the one element in this that I would first look for, in deciding whether an allusion is present, is whether there is a an intent on the part of the author, then whether there is likely to be a body of shared knowledge between the author and reader.

Stanley also discusses an almost synonymous term, 'echo', which he sees as lacking the specificity of an allusion, but is reserved for language that is thematically related to a more general notion or concept.

  • Yes, it as all about "authorial intent"and reconstructing mental states in what is often nothing more than a hypothetical author is a completely subjective process. In regard to linguistic "evidence" i.e. use of language from the Hebrew/Greek bibles doesn't constitute an allusion. Take for example John of the Apocalypse, his mind is thoroughly saturated with OT language. His narrative is construed with building blocks from OT sources, Theodotian, H-MT, LXX, with Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel ... there are genuine allusions but often the OT language is just the way he expresses his ideas. Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 22:00

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