Friday, December 17, 2010

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 6): The Cost of Modern Biblical Knowledge

Knowing what we do about the Bible, can we approach and understand it as we did before such knowledge?
We continue to read through the subsections of Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

After leading us through his high-level conclusions about the achievement of the ancient biblical interpreters, Kugel asserts the proper frame for understanding both ancient interpretation and the Bible-as-Scripture. Largely through the wisdom mentality, ancient interpreters transformed the texts of Israel’s library--stories, laws, prophecies, songs--into moral instruction and “metaphors or timeless examples of the ways of God and men.”

Kugel says, “One would not be wrong to think of this transformation as, in effect, a kind of massive act of re-writing.” Indeed, I myself have made an analogous argument regarding the Christian Old Testament: I argue that the Old Testament is a different book than the Hebrew Scriptures because of the way in which the collected (and collective) texts are approached and understood by Christian believers.1,2

The Hebrew Scriptures, then, are the product of the way they were approached and understood by ancient interpreters. This thesis is one of the main ones that the first 35 chapters of the book aim to demonstrate. In those chapters, Kugel says, we see “the biblical texts in their original settings and meanings,” on the one hand, and “what those texts were later made out to mean by Jewish and Christian authorities,” on the other hand.

Modern biblical scholarship has been able to excavate the original meaning of these texts. This scholarship began with the aim of uncovering the “real Bible,” but that never happened. The “real Bible,” we will recall, was imagined to be still-Scripture but apart from any doctrinal approach and understanding.3 Instead, researchers discovered that Scripture was both the texts and the religious ways they were understood.

The question thus becomes what do we do now that we are aware that there is more than one Bible? We understand both the original meanings of the texts and the religious meanings later attended to them, so how, then, is one to relate to Bible knowing all this?

Kugel’s answer is quite wise and appropriately nuanced, yet not free of problems:
The first step in formulating an answer to that question, it seems to me, is to understand that the answer must depend very much on who is doing the asking. I do not think it can ever be the same for both Christians and Jews, or for Catholics and Protestants, or even for Episcopalians and Southern Baptists.
We might also add Atheists to this list. I like Kugel’s answer because it seems correct that different religious or non-religious macro-groups will have distinct assessments of what the Bible is; what its role can be in individual, communal, and national cultural life; and what its role should be. I also like that Kugel’s answer suggests that an individual must actively and knowingly determine her or his answer; that is, “what is to become of the Bible for me?”

But Kugel’s answer also seems problematic, at least at this point in our reading. Kugel has clearly distinguished between several Bibles:
  1. The biblical texts in their original settings and meanings.
  2. The Bible as a set of texts and a way of approaching them in religious traditions.
  3. The “real Bible,” the unfiltered communication of God to man, and the record of that interaction.
  4. The Bible as a set of texts and a way of approaching them to study their historical and cultural sources.
As I read him, Kugel’s main concern is Bible #2, the Bible of religion. Yet, I’m uncomfortable to think that we can simply acknowledge these other Bibles and then just disregard all but one. Instead, I think the consequence of having the genie out of the bottle (to paraphrase Kugel) is retaining all of the Bibles. Just as we cannot separate the Biblical texts from the way of approaching them, as in Bible #2, so too I don’t think we can separate Bible #2 from Bibles #1, #3, and #4. I think this is the cost of knowledge.

But Kugel has much more to say on approaches to the Bible, so it will be worthwhile to hold onto this problem and see how it plays out in the rest of this fascinating chapter.

  1. Historical Jesus: No Clear Picture
  2. Biblical Translation: Why It Matters
  3. Kugel's HTRTB (Part 2): The Achievement of Modern Biblical Scholarship


  1. I don't have anything to add, but as a blogger I understand you're wish to know tha what you write is appreciated. So: very interesting, and thank you for posting.

  2. Thank you, G*3. I've genuinely enjoyed your recent posts. after reading your post on gratitude, I've been muddling over ideas for a post of my own.

    I wonder if you follow the NY Jets and/or the Yankees? If so, allow me to make some jabs on behalf of my beloved NE Patriots and Boston Red Sox!


  3. I never developed interested in sports. My father has been a Yankees fan since he was a kid, and there was a Yankees pennant over my crib when I was baby, but it didn't take.

    I went to a Brooklyn Cyclones (minor-league baseball) game with a friend a year ago. I spent more time watching the seagulls than the players. It’s too bad, really. It would probably be a lot easier to make conversation if I could talk to strangers about whatever sports in season. Oh well.


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