Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 5): How the Bible Became the Bible

King Solomon, by Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1308-11)
Last time, we learned from James Kugel that ancient biblical interpreters changed the whole character of ancient Israel's library. These interpreters developed a set of assumptions about the texts that yielded a rich body of interpretations. These interpreters and their interpretations together made the Bible into a coherent and holy text.

In the subsection "How It Happened" (Chapter 36, How to Read the Bible), Kugel goes into more detail about how ancient interpreters and their interpretations came to change what the Bible was, what it meant, and how it signified.

One way ancient interpreters were able to re-define the Bible was by resolving apparent contradictions in biblical law. This happened fairly early. As an example of an apparent contradiction, Kugel gives Exodus 12:8 and Deuteronomy 16:7, which concern the Passover sacrifice:
  • Exodus 12:8 -- And on this night, they shall eat the flesh, roasted over the fire, and unleavened cakes; with bitter herbs they shall eat it.
  • Deuteronomy 16:7 -- And you shall boil [it] and eat [it] in the place which the Lord, your God, will choose, and you shall turn away in the morning and go to your dwellings.
These and other, more complicated examples show how ancient biblical interpreters reinforced their axiom that the Bible did not and could not contradict itself. Because they were able to produce cogent interpretations supporting the axiom, interpreters developed the view that the Bible often does not say what it means; rather, it contains many hidden implications.

Another way ancient interpreters were able to change the Bible was by establishing the view of some texts as timeless ethical instruction. This view prevailed for the prophetic texts. Toward the end of the biblical period, the rise of apocalyptic writings aided the sense that the prophetic texts retained contemporary messages and, hence, real value for the day.

The ancient texts changed meanings in other ways. Newer psalms seemed to encourage private, ritual recitation, while original psalms had been used in temple worship. Kugel gives Psalm 119 as an example of this new kind of psalm:
Praiseworthy are those whose way is perfect, who walk with the law of the Lord. Praiseworthy are those who keep His testimonies; who seek Him wholeheartedly. Not only have they committed no injustice, they walked in His ways. You commanded Your precepts, to keep diligently. My prayers are that my ways should be established, to keep Your statutes. Then I shall not be ashamed when I look at all Your commandments. I shall thank You with an upright heart when I learn the judgments of Your righteousness. I shall keep Your statutes; do not forsake me utterly. (Ps. 119:1-8)
Examples like this show the development of a perspective in which reading and studying texts, done in the right way, became a form of offering to God. Kugel points to the Song of Songs as another vivid example of a text that must have undergone radical reinterpretation. By around 180 BCE, Kugel suggests, the great literary heritage of Israel's past was discernibly becoming Scripture, as these texts became seen as metaphors and timeless examples for moral and religious conduct.

So how did it happen? Kugel's main answer seems to be "wisdom writings and the wisdom mentality." He says:
It is really the wisdom mind-set that made so many ancient texts into Scripture. Like wisdom writings, all of Israel's ancient library now became a series of eternally valid lessons, the wisdom of the ages. History, for example, was not history but instruction, and the people whose lives it charted thereby acquired a representative character: they all became the "righteous man" and the "wicked man" of the book of Proverbs, their lives exemplars of either all good or all bad.
The Bible as we know it today very much consists of not only the texts but also the wisdom mentality used to read the Bible. Together, the texts and the wisdom mentality have produced very many individual motifs--all of this is the legacy of the ancient biblical interpreters.

I am struck by the magnitude of the achievement of ancient interpreters. Their attention to detail and their creativity are amazing, and I'm impressed with not only the changes of meaning for Israel's ancient library but also the accumulation and expansion of meaning over time. Surely, Kugel means to have us appreciate the ancient interpreters as no less sophisticated and innovative than the modern biblical scholars. The accomplishments of both are great and admirable in their own ways.

No comments:

Post a Comment

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