Saturday, November 13, 2010

James L. Kugel's How to Read the Bible

James L. Kugel

This is the first post in a series on James Kugel's book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. My plan (for the moment) is to address only Kugel's final chapter, called "After Such Knowledge...." Now, the entire book is a pleasure to read, and I heartily recommend it, but I want to focus solely on that last chapter because it tackles the maintenance of orthodox Bible-based faith despite a full understanding of modern biblical scholarship.

What makes the final chapter so interesting, however, is the 35 chapters that come before. To get a sense of the book's overall content, I offer here the product description from the publisher:
Scholars from different fields have joined forces to reexamine every aspect of the Hebrew Bible. Their research, carried out in universities and seminaries in Europe and America, has revolutionized our understanding of almost every chapter and verse. But have they killed the Bible in the process?

In How to Read the Bible, Harvard professor James Kugel leads the reader chapter by chapter through the "quiet revolution" of recent biblical scholarship, showing time and again how radically the interpretations of today's researchers differ from what people have always thought. The story of Adam and Eve, it turns out, was not originally about the "Fall of Man," but about the move from a primitive, hunter-gatherer society to a settled, agricultural one. As for the stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah, and Jacob and Esau, these narratives were not, at their origin, about individual people at all but, rather, explanations of some feature of Israelite society as it existed centuries after these figures were said to have lived. Dinah was never raped -- her story was created by an editor to solve a certain problem in Genesis. In the earliest version of the Exodus story, Moses probably did not divide the Red Sea in half; instead, the Egyptians perished in a storm at sea. Whatever the original Ten Commandments might have been, scholars are quite sure they were different from the ones we have today. What's more, the people long supposed to have written various books of the Bible were not, in the current consensus, their real authors: David did not write the Psalms, Solomon did not write Proverbs or Ecclesiastes; indeed, there is scarcely a book in the Bible that is not the product of different, anonymous authors and editors working in different periods.

Such findings pose a serious problem for adherents of traditional, Bible-based faiths. Hiding from the discoveries of modern scholars seems dishonest, but accepting them means undermining much of the Bible's reliability and authority as the word of God. What to do? In his search for a solution, Kugel leads the reader back to a group of ancient biblical interpreters who flourished at the end of the biblical period. Far from naïve, these interpreters consciously set out to depart from the original meaning of the Bible's various stories, laws, and prophecies -- and they, Kugel argues, hold the key to solving the dilemma of reading the Bible today.

How to Read the Bible is, quite simply, the best, most original book about the Bible in decades. It offers an unflinching, insider's look at the work of today's scholars, together with a sustained consideration of what the Bible was for most of its history -- before the rise of modern scholarship. Readable, clear, often funny but deeply serious in its purpose, this is a book for Christians and Jews, believers and secularists alike. It offers nothing less than a whole new way of thinking about sacred Scripture.
Chapter 36, then, deals with the fate of the Bible and the possibility of maintaining traditional religious belief in the face of what research indicates about Scripture.

It's a personal chapter because Kugel is an orthodox Jew and a very highly regarded biblical scholar. It's personal for me because in 1993, Kugel was my instructor in a class in American Jewish Literature at the Harvard Extension School. I enjoyed the class immensely, especially Kugel's lectures. He is a person I respect enormously for his intellect and for his character, which I have encountered through his class and several of his books.

That class, by the way, introduced me to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, both of whom I think are great. Indeed, Bellow has given me one of my favorite literary passages of all, from Humboldt's Gift:
You are lazy, disgraceful, tougher than you think but not yet a dead loss. In part you are humanly okay. We are supposed to do something for our kind. Don't get frenzied about money. Overcome your greed. Better luck with women. Last of all--remember: we are not natural beings but supernatural beings.
I used to believe poor, dead Humboldt that we are supernatural beings. Maybe we are, but not in the way that most people think of "supernatural." We can change the world and know we are doing it. Our own personal worlds and the larger world we occupy together.

In this series, I seek to understand why someone like Kugel still believes in the Bible (and so too, therefore, in the supernatural), and why he maintains orthodox Jewish belief and practice. How is this possible? And how is it possible that I, who know much less than Kugel about what modern biblical criticism actually says and actually implies, can reject orthodox Jewish belief and practice?

These are the questions I will explore.


  1. "And how is it possible that I, who know much less than Kugel about what modern biblical criticism actually says and actually implies, can reject orthodox Jewish belief and practice?"

    Many can reasonably argue against an artillery expert regarding whether or not a shell will sink a ship. However much more the expert knows about the shell's forces, sinking involves assessing the damage required to sink the target which is a second area of expertise the artillerist might or might not be more educated about than anyone else.

    Biblical criticism is not as strong against Talmudic hermeneutics as against Christianity. Acceptable traditional approaches read tana"kh like a computer code the halachic programmer was brilliantly able to make correspond to reality as a plain text file. The Orthodox Jews may decide biblical criticism can do little damage...

    Nonetheless the ship is poorly designed and sinks not only under the weight of a dud shell but even if it is not fired upon at all.

  2. The last chapter was lame, a cop-out and one of the things that made me lose all hope in OJ. I also thoroughly enjoyed the chapters that came before it though!

  3. It is such a great book...a one stop shop for both a great overview of textual criticism and how the rabbinical tradition dealt with the text. But I must agree wholeheartedly with Undercover Kofer. The last chapter is a major cop-out!

  4. "These are the questions I will explore."

    Really looking forward.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.