Monday, November 22, 2010

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 3): What Were Modern Biblical Scholars Thinking?

Raphael's Isaiah, circa 1511. The image conveys a traditional view of the prophet's divinely inspired authorship of the text bearing his name.

"From the start," says James Kugel, "many of the greatest modern scholars suffered from a fundamental misunderstanding of what their discipline was about and where it would eventually lead." Modern biblical scholars such as the American Charles Augustus Briggs thought their historical criticism would sift out the Divine word from "the debris of the traditional interpretations of the multitudinous schools and sects." In other words, scholars thought they were recovering and rescuing the real Bible.

Instead, modern scholarship became a vehicle for undermining the idea of a divinely given or inspired Bible. Historical criticism determined that the books of Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and so forth were not written by these people. The picture of composition that emerged had anonymous editors or scribes inserting "large chunks of their own or other people's thoughts into the text." Divine inspiration became seen as a poor explanation for the seemingly different and even contradictory conceptions of obligated and prohibited behavior in the text groups J, E, P, H and D. Scholarship never seemed to fail at highlighting textual disagreement between parts of the Bible.

Also undermining a divine origins view of the Bible were "resemblances between specific laws and proverbs or stories in the Bible and similar ones discovered in Egypt or Mesopotamia." Very many examples--such as the similarities between the names and form Israel's commanded sacrifices and those of ancient Canaanite religion that Israelites were told to uproot utterly from their midst--seemed to bespeak of very human processes of cultural translation and borrowing rather than divine inspiration or guidance.

The reading approach adopted by modern biblical scholars served to render the notion of God's authorship of the Bible highly problematic. Scholars read the Bible in "human terms," as a collection of texts in history. What earlier theologians has seen as mysteries, these scholars saw as contradictions, inconsistencies, and duplications. The possibility began to be taken seriously, in other words, that the Bible contained errors, a notion that had obvious incompatibilities with the notion of divine authorship. By focusing on understanding the Bible within its historical context, modern scholarship illuminated the world behind the Bible but also eroded the idea of prophecy. Jeremiah's "evil from the North," for example, could be seen as referring to an immediate threat from biblical Babylon rather than as a cryptic message of the end times.

The humanity and historicity of the Bible, Kugel notes, drove scholars to adopt learning about the Bible as their main relation to it, as opposed to learning from it. The shift here is significant:
The person who seeks to learn from the Bible is smaller than the text; he crouches at its feet, waiting for its instructions or insights. Learning about the text generates the opposite posture. The text moves from subject to object; it no longer speaks but is spoken about, analyzed, and acted upon. The insights are now the all the reader's, not the text's, and anyone can see the results.
Along with this shift in tone and perspective came an unsavory view of the Bible, its writers, and its readers. Tales such as Cain and Abel revealed "an almost childlike simplemindedness" on the part of the ancient Israelites. Others, such as Jacob and Esau, indicated a willingness by the ancients "to distort the truth or lie outright."

If modern scholarship has been reaching the goal it unwittingly set for itself, to uncover the "real" Bible, then the real Bible is not so special. Instead, it is a human composition, a creation of ancient Near eastern literature. Interestingly, Kugel describes the persuasiveness of modern biblical scholarship's arguments as a "problem." This description is, of course, a matter of opinion, since I don't see it as a problem at all. Kugel seems to me to be on shaky ground to imply that the Bible ought to be regarded as having special status. Why should it? Because it had been so regarded before and for a long time? Because of its undeniable influence in human civilization and history? But perhaps Kugel here is not speaking for himself but rather for a traditional mindset that surely would have seen modern biblical scholarship as yielding problematic insights. Indeed, I now think that's precisely what Kugel's doing...yet, I also know that this problem is Kugel's problem, too.

I have more concern, however, with Kugel's distinction between learning from the Bible and learning about it. His suggestion seems to be that learning from is the more humble relationship, perhaps even a subservient one. In this relationship, the interpreter is like a lens; his commentary is the refraction of the text's wisdom onto another page.

Although I appreciate the picture Kugel draws to explain the shift in tone and approach that modern scholars took to their study of the Bible, I see this picture as too idealized: the "smaller" interpreter seeks biblical knowledge and crouches in studious attentiveness. But any interpreter relating to the Bible--regardless of how she or he imagines the relationship--can speak about it, analyze it, and act upon it. Again, I tend to think that the distinction is Kugel's explanation rather than his personal view of modern biblical scholarship. Certainly, we can agree that modern biblical scholars gradually shed a disciplinary reverence of biblical authority. Other than this important result, however, were moderns so different from earlier scholars, theologians, commentators, and interpreters? At least, did they not share the larger banners of scholarship, analysis, rigor, commentary, collaboration, and interpretation?

Hopefully, the next section in Kugel's chapter--and my next post of the subject--will illuminate matters a bit. In this upcoming section, Kugel discusses the ancient interpreters of the Bible and the development of the traditional views that modern scholarship altered.

Till then....

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