Thursday, December 02, 2010

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 4): Why You Read the Bible the Way You Do

Manuscript of the Apocryphal work 'the Wisdom of Ben-Sira' (Ecclesiasticus) from the Cairo Genizah, now in the Cambridge University library.

Modern biblical scholarship wrought a new way of reading the Bible. OK, but what was the old way and where did it come from?

In How to Read the Bible, James Kugel describes this old (or rather, traditional) way of reading the Bible--as well as the new way developed by modern scholars. Kugel's Chapter 36, the book's final chapter, sums up this traditional approach with several examples:
  • The story of Isaac foreshadows the crucifixion of Jesus.
  • Psalm 137 was a prophetic piece written by David.
  • The prohibition of child sacrifice to the worship of the pagan god Molech was a reference to intermarriage (see Leviticus 18:21).
  • The different texts of the Bible completely agreed with one another on fundamental matters.
  • In all the Bible there were no inconsistencies, factual errors, or scribal mistakes.
  • The biblical texts, no matter how many centuries earlier they were composed, were addressed to readers today.
As we see, in the traditional way the Bible is viewed as saying and meaning much more than is apparent at the text's literal level. For many of us, the traditional way is a familiar approach to the Bible. We understand the Bible as having layers of meaning, as requiring teachers and commentary to help us decipher messages that we cannot access simply by reading the Bible's words and stories. In addition, the traditional approach invests the Bible itself with an authority and timelessness that reflects a particular understanding of its divine source--the Bible becomes an embodiment of the ideal wisdom and order ascribed to Israel's God. This traditional way of reading the Bible and understanding what it really is, says Kugel, derives from the efforts of the Bible's earliest interpreters:
[T]his whole way of approaching the Bible is the product of its ancient interpreters. There is little in the biblical texts themselves to suggest that they were intended to be read in this fashion. Nevertheless, that is how they came to be read, and it was this way of reading that made the Bible what it was for so many centuries, a divine guidebook full of instruction and wisdom, yea, the word of God....Disquieting as it may be, one is left with the conclusion that most of what makes the Bible biblical is not inherent in its texts, but emerges only when one reads them in a certain way, a way that came to full flower in the closing centuries BCE.
Kugel describes the traditional way of reading as having evolved gradually over several centuries. I choose the word "evolved" deliberately to evoke the natural and naturalistic process outlined by Charles Darwin as well as to allude to memetics, the cultural corollary to Darwinian evolution. My point in this choice of diction (I don't see that Kugel uses the word) is to suggest that the traditional way of reading is not "better" or "more correct" or "natural" for having developed and solidified as it did. If were were to "rewind the tape" of events--to borrow a thought on biological evolution from Stephen Jay Gould--the traditional interpretations of the Bible might have been different, even wildly different, than the ones we actually inherited.

If I may depart from Kugel even further, I think we can and should consider the traditional approach to reading in terms of two distinctions made by Jacques Derrida in his "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." One distinction is the "ethic of nostalgia for origins," which "dreams of deciphering, a truth or an origin which is free from freeplay." Another distinction, however, "affirms freeplay and tries to pass beyond man and humanism." This mode of interpretation has no tether to an "author" or an "original intent." The interpreter in this mode works creatively and unbound by one text; this reader selects, breaks apart, moves, and reconfigures meaning by using outside materials and internal connections.

My point is that ancient interpreters--and modern biblical scholars, too--employ both modes of interpretation. At least, I see these two modes in what Kugel has been describing. The ancients seek both to reveal the hidden mysteries of the Bible, a Bible that is intentional in every word and even every letter. They also delight in "hard interpretations," readings that are not obvious at all from what might seem the likely sense of the text. In his typically eloquent way, Kugel characterizes this predilection of the ancients in another excellent book of his, The Bible As It Was:
Sometimes they [ancient biblical interpreters] depart from the straightforward meaning because they feel they have to: the text as is appears to them illogical or seems to contradict something else in the Bible. And sometimes, they take an apparent pleasure in willful, even playful, distortion--as if the interpreter were saying: "Look, read the text my way and you will see that this or that surprising conclusion can be derived from it." (56)
We can trace these two modes of interpretation in modern biblical scholarship, too, from the quixotic quest for the "real" Bible to the creative analyses and hypotheses produced from reading the texts alone, at first, and then from engaging knowledge produced from other disciplines relevant to biblical study.

I've introduced this "post-structuralist" sensibility here to normalize interpretation as something that adheres to both the ancients and ourselves in much the same way, if not in the same details. On the other hand, the details remain exceedingly important and interesting. We cannot dismiss or trivialize the special history of the traditional approach to the Bible. Understanding that history is critical for understanding the Bible and its significance, as well as for understanding the pleasures and perils of interpretation.

We return, then, to Kugel's narrative on the evolution of the traditional approach to the Bible. For Kugel, the traditional way of reading the Bible becomes more formalized and normalized in the centuries around the BCE-CE line:
This is the period in which, in the interpretations found found in the biblical apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, biblical texts are for the first time explicitly held to be replete with hidden meanings and subtle hints, so that when the Bible says X it often really means Y.
Kugel cites this period as having had a "radical" effect. The biblical texts change little. What changes and becomes systematized are the assumptions that readers bring to the task of reading the Bible.
Soon enough, those assumptions were generating a large body of actual interpretations, and each new interpretation only reinforced the overall approach that interpreters were taking.
Ancient interpreters, through their assumptions, gradually changed the whole character of the biblical texts. In the next section, Kugel goes into more detail about how and where--where textually, that is--the changes happened.

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