Monday, May 16, 2011

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 9): Reading the Bible Beyond the Text

Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg Germany (1517), sparking the Protestant Reformation and transforming sola scriptura into a central idea of the reform. In How to Read the Bible, James Kugel's thesis criticizes the assumptions of sola scriptura about how the Bible was created and how it should be read.

We continue to work through Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

This ninth installment of the series steers us toward the conclusion of Kugel's chapter. We have several subsections yet to go, but the argumentative turn is fully made in this subsection. Last time, we learned about the liberal approach to Scripture, which seeks to reconcile the Bible and the conclusions of modern biblical scholarship. Although we have had quibbles with Kugel in past installments, in the last one, a more serious fissure seemed to emerge. I wrote:
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."
I note later on in this installment that I probably overlooked the nuance of what Kugel was doing. For now, we will examine "Scripture's Changed Meaning," where Kugel uses all that has come before to start answering the question he had posed earlier:
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 is rightly dissatisfied with attempts by modern biblical scholars and theologians "to build a bridge between the true, historical reality as they [i.e., scholars and theologians] know it, including the original meaning of various biblical texts, and the way of reading those same texts...reading the Bible not as history but 'for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.'"

The bridge succeeds insofar as it connects the modern reader to a mode of interpreting that for a long time has allowed the Bible to remain important and relevant through sweeping social and cultural changes, and across all sorts of societies as well. Yet the bridge wobbles and cracks in light of another assumption often brought to reading the Bible: the absolute border "between the biblical and the postbiblical, between the prophet and the interpreter." To get right to the point, our Bible canon and way of reading it--long-standing and effective though they may be--are postbiblical and subjective. They cannot be claimed as the canon and approach used in the biblical era or by the prophets, and that's a problem because that era and those people are more authoritative. We may be mistaken; their view must prevail, as Kugel puts it:
But if you believe that the Biblical is good and the postbiblical is at least irrelevant and perhaps corrupting, then the form of the text that sits on the border between the two [time periods] cannot take precedence over earlier forms.
The Bible we have and the way we read it, in other words, cannot overcome the problems posed by history and interpretive history. We saw this conflict before in Kugel's discussion of the liberal approach to Scripture, where the biblical text is taken as the primary and sometimes only authority. But if you take the biblical text as absolutely true and inerrant, then what do you do when serious doubts arise about historical accuracy and veracity? If there was probably not a global flood or a real Moses, then can the Bible still be taken as authoritative?

Kugel begins at this point to build his solution to addressing these problems of history. The foundational point--which we have heard before--is that
it was not principally the rearranging and interpolating done by editors that turned these ancient writings into Scripture, but the whole tradition of interpretation that emerged toward the end of the biblical period.
From this premise, Kugel undoes the idea of "the Bible alone." In other words, he argues that biblical authority, for modern readers who wish to accept it, will rest not only on the Biblical words and meanings but also and very importantly on the "peculiar way of reading and interpreting" brought by the community of believers in the 300 or so years before the common era.

I must admit, then, that my earlier criticism of Kugel was misguided. He was not leading us to earlier texts, forerunners of the canonical Bible. Neither was he leading us to blithely dismiss the serious charge of the Bible's non-historicity--the increasingly clear picture that the Bible does not describe historical reality in many cases. Rather, Kugel was bringing us to a choice. That choice is how we wish to read the Bible. Do we wish to follow the way Christian interpreters Paul or Jerome read the Bible? Do we wish to follow the way of the "anonymous group of Jewish interpreters" who in Kugel's special sense created the Bible from 300 BCE to the start of the common era? In any case, we cannot and do not read the Biblical text apart from ways of interpreting.

And what of the historical veracity problem? Kugel's argument here, I think, is that the value and efficacy of the Bible in the great change from 300 BCE onward never relied on faithful historical reconstruction. Historical veracity, in other words, is a serious problem only in a Protestant sola scriptura or text-centric interpretive matrix. The next subsection will present the way of interpretation deriving from Jewish tradition.

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