Friday, April 08, 2011

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 8): Can You Have Your Bible and Criticize It Too?

Which is the more alien, the Bible's "original meaning" or the interpretations of liberal theologians?
After a brief hiatus because of my intense workload, I want to continue reading through the subsections of Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

We'll look now at a subsection discussing what Kugel calls the liberal approach to Scripture. Unlike the approach taken by Fundamentalist Protestantism, the liberal view has sought to reconcile the Bible and the conclusions of modern biblical scholarship.

Kugel points out the diverse forms that liberal approaches can take, yet he notes that overall these approaches accept the Bible as something less than absolutely true in its historical facts. This Bible, embellished here or taking certain narrative liberties there, has more abstract value in this approach. The Bible is about not history but faith, and theology, and more.

Its truth operating at a more abstract level--some might say a "deeper" level, but this is perhaps a biased view--the Bible cannot be apprehended by only a mere surface understanding of its text. The Bible's liberal champions used such assumptions to distance themselves from biblical details such as Israel's nasty wars against neighbors or God's demands for revenge or so-on-and-on. These scholars focused instead on biblical "themes" and theological "centers."

In short, the liberal approach sought to de-emphasize the plain meaning of at least some biblical passages, placing them in the interpretive background or to render them altogether unimportant. Freeing the Bible from its details also allowed liberal theologians to detach it from potentially troublesome items in modern science, common sense, or our contemporary knowledge of ancient Near Eastern history and civilization. The Bible wasn't really talking about that, that nature, that miracle, that event--so just ignore it and focus on the larger or deeper spiritual "truth." This was the liberal approach.

Kugel notes that liberalism joined with broader scholarly discussion over hermeneutics, "the nature of a text's signification and meaning." Without going into detail on specifics of the discussion, suffice it to say that liberal theologians generally felt justified in developing their own understanding of the Bible as an alternative to the Bible's "original meaning"--insofar as that original meaning could be clarified at all by modern scholarship.

Kugel also highlights the connection between liberal approaches to scripture and gradual movement away from the idea of the Bible's divine inspiration. In fact, liberal theologians developed several understandings of inspiration. Some of them:
  • Limited verbal inspiration
  • Strict verbal insipration
  • Nontextual inspiration
  • Content inspiration
  • Inspired experiences
  • Social inspiration
It should be acknowledged that the liberal stance is not defensive. Its proponents do not consider the approach to be a reaction against modern scientific, philosophical, and historical knowledge. It's not designed to "protect" the Bible for religion. Kugel says that adherents of the liberal approach often see themselves liberating (ahem) the Bible from "the straitjacket of original meaning." The liberal approach, they surmise, reads the Bible as it really is, for what it really means, and is therefore superior to an approach that demands belief in the unbelievable.

Kugel criticizes the liberal view somewhat. He says that the liberal approach doesn't really have a claim to unbiased or artificial interpretation, at least no more a claim than ancient interpreters (we may note that this is a rather postmodern stance from a scholar who seems to disdain "postmodernism."). He also points out the rather thorny problem that the Bible of liberalism is somehow lesser than the Bible of fundamentalism. The liberal Bible is "more of a human document than ever before, which is to say that its power to command and even instruct has been diminished." Liberalism, Kugel suggests, accepts two fundamentally opposed ideas: the Bible is more human and less divine than it has historically been taken to be, yet the Bible can continue to act in society as a spiritual (and, one suspects, a moral) guide containing teachings of relevance in the modern world.

In the end, Kugel is ambivalent toward the liberal stance. It seems not to have reconciled the biblical document and the Good Book, and what's more it seems unable to square that particular circle. Kugel leads us, then, back to the Bible's first readers, back to when the words of the Bible were "all-important." A perceptive reader may detect a hint of sarcasm in my last sentence, as I wonder if Kugel is here lapsing into an idealistic, idyllic picture of a "pre-Fall" Bible, when its words and meanings were united and whole. Now, I am not being altogether fair, as Kugel does not completely make this lapse, yet he certainly seems to approve of the interpretive view that privileges words and meanings. If the liberal view is troubled by the Bible's seeming lack of historical veracity, the ancient interpreters know no such trouble. As Kugel summarizes the ancient view once again: "the events of the past are one thing, but the words of Scripture are quite another, and it is the words that count for us."  

In he next section, Kugel discusses the "change back" from liberalism, a change bypassing fundamentalism too.


  1. gntessler5:46 PM

    Dear Larry;
    I read Dr Kugel's book soon after it came out and have reread portions of it many times. I have read all your reviews of the book and keep waiting for you to unravel the mystery that continues to perplex me: If one accepts that the Torah was not transmitted directly by God to Moses but rather it is a document written, annotated and compiled by inspired men, how can one be truly Orthodox, as Dr Kugel claims he is??
    If the Torah is a human creation, then there is nothing 'divine' about it. To say it is 'divinely inspired' is meaningless. Maybe Shakespeare or Melville were divinely inspired.
    Our entire understanding of Hashem is through the Torah. If the Torah is just a human construct, why is Hashem any different from the thousands of gods that existed throughout human history? Prayer may make you feel warm and fuzzy, but is anyone listening besides the guy standing next to me? Does it really matter if I wait 1 hr, 3 hrs, 6 hrs or 6 seconds between meat and milk ?
    I can understand the Orthoprax Man who walks the walk and talks the talk for sociological reasons, but Dr Kugel seems to subscribe to some variation of the Graf-Wellhausan theory, and yet he claims to be a Orthodox Jew. He seems too intelligent to be delusional and too honest to be deceptive.
    I would very much appreciate your help in elucidating this for me.

  2. gntessler,

    I hesitate to speak for Professor Kugel, but my understanding is that he believes, ultimately, in the divine origins of Torah. Perhaps not all of the Torah, but some of it. He says that he couldn't abide a 100-percent man-made Torah.

    He believes that there is a God and that Jews are called to serve him and be close to him. The rest is commentary, I would say.

    To be clear, I believe quite differently. I think that Torah is 100% man-made, that there is no God, and that we are not called to serve any deity. Although I don't want to comment too much before I've finished the read-through, I view Kugel's beliefs as well-reasoned and carefully nuanced wish-thinking.


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