Friday, November 25, 2011

Kugel's HTRTB [Part 10]: Judaism vs. Modern Biblical Scholarship

After another too-long hiatus, we return to Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

This is the tenth installment of the series. Last time, we concluded with Kugel again clarifying the problem of the Bible for modern readers, which is whether to accept it as both holy and true when so much of modern biblical scholarship seems to have cast doubt on its holiness and veracity:
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.
Unlike Christian traditions of reading the Bible, says Kugel, the Jewish tradition operates independently of the question of historical truth. This is because the Torah is not the sole or even primary authority in establishing God's instructions to humanity. There is the Torah, that is, the written Pentateuch, but there is also the Oral Torah, which encompasses "the traditions of [Torah's] proper interpretation and application." Both Torahs are asserted to have been given to Moses at the same time.

The Oral Torah includes not just biblical interpretation but also ritual, liturgical, and legal matters. The Oral Torah is said eventually to have become the Mishnah, the Tosfta, the two Talmuds, and various compilations of midrash. It's practical significance and utility in rabbinic Judaism were huge, for the written Torah meant whatever the Oral Torah said it meant.

The two Torah tradition, then, distinguishes Judaism from Christianity and Christian approaches to the Bible:
Judaism has at its heart a great secret. It endlessly lavishes praise on the written Torah, exalting its role as a divinely given guidebook and probing lovingly the tiniest details of its wording and even spelling [....] Yet upon inspection Judaism turns out to be quite the opposite of fundamentalism. The written text alone is not all-powerful; in fact, it rarely stands on its own. Its true significance usually lies not in the plain sense of its words but in what the Oral Torah has made of those words; this is its definitive and final interpretation.
Kugel argues that the Jewish tradition of interpretation cannot be reconciled with modern biblical scholarship. The Jewish tradition, as he had explained at the beginning of the book, encompasses Four Assumptions that all ancient interpreters seemed to share about biblical texts. I will give these assumption in abbreviated form, but the full text appears on pages 14-16:
1. The Bible is fundamentally cryptic.
2. The Bible is a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day.
3. The Bible contains no contradictions or mistakes.
4. The Bible is essentially a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly or through His prophets.
According to Kugel, the modern scholarly way of reading the Bible rejects the ancient interpretive traditions based on the Four Assumptions. The ancient traditions, on the other hand, do not take the Bible as standalone texts that are to be read at face value (even if they can, in fact, be read in such a way).

In light of the two Torah tradition and the Four Assumptions, what is Judaism's response to the discoveries of modern biblical scholarship?
The texts that make up the Bible were originally composed under whatever circumstances they were composed. What made them the Bible, however, was their definitive reinterpretation along the lines of the Four Assumptions of the ancient interpreters--a way of reading that was established in Judaism in the form of the Oral Torah. Read the Bible in this way and you are reading it properly, that is, in keeping with the understanding of those who made and canonized the Bible. Read it any other way and you have drastically misconstrued the intentions of the Bible's framers.
I wish Kugel had been even more argumentative at this point, particularly about the specific difference between the Jewish and fundamentalist responses to modern biblical scholarship. Kugel clearly thinks fundamentalism is unrealistic and isolationist. Yet he also thinks there is no reconciliation to be had in more liberal approaches, as we have seen in the immediately preceding posts of this blog series. Kugel also seems to agree with the consensus of modern biblical scholarship, which I recorded before from the publisher's book description:
The story of Adam and Eve, it turns out, was not originally about the "Fall of Man," but about the move from a primitive, hunter-gatherer society to a settled, agricultural one. As for the stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah, and Jacob and Esau, these narratives were not, at their origin, about individual people at all but, rather, explanations of some feature of Israelite society as it existed centuries after these figures were said to have lived. Dinah was never raped -- her story was created by an editor to solve a certain problem in Genesis. In the earliest version of the Exodus story, Moses probably did not divide the Red Sea in half; instead, the Egyptians perished in a storm at sea. Whatever the original Ten Commandments might have been, scholars are quite sure they were different from the ones we have today. What's more, the people long supposed to have written various books of the Bible were not, in the current consensus, their real authors: David did not write the Psalms, Solomon did not write Proverbs or Ecclesiastes; indeed, there is scarcely a book in the Bible that is not the product of different, anonymous authors and editors working in different periods.
Kugel's position, then, seems to be that modern biblical scholarship may be correct about the history and original meanings of biblical texts, but the scholarly consensus has no effect on what the texts really mean. The texts still mean what the Oral Torah says they do, even if they were originally created to communicate a very different kind of message. At some point in history, ancient interpreters got hold of the texts and were able to integrate them into a philosophy of God and Israel. By doing so, these interpreters brought out divine instructions and moral insights in the texts. The interpreters were building a textual universe predicated on God's relationship with His world, His patriarchs, and His people Israel. Their overriding mission was to help their own world of men and women follow from the textual universe; to make, in other words, the real world live out the model of the Torah.

I am not entirely comfortable with Kugel's argument here--although we should bear in mind that he has not yet concluded. However, I am struck by the argument because it touches on an observation I have been following during my participation in the Alpha course: what we often mean by religious faith is faith in a group or tradition, rather than direct trust in God, Jesus, or the Bible. In other words, we trust in the Lord to the extent we accept the authority and credibility of church leaders, pastoral organizations, and religious commentators. Kugel's faith lies in the ancient Jewish interpreters and in the rabbinic tradition. The project of these interpreters had no need for the kind of data brought out by modern scholars.

As I said, I am not entirely comfortable with Kugel's argument. It reminds me of the non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) view of science and religion advocated by biologist Stephen Jay Gould. But I wonder if the conclusions about the Bible and the methods developed by ancient interpreters really are unaffected by what modern scholars discover about the original meanings of the texts or about the non-historicity and non-authorship of certain biblical characters.

But let's keep going through the chapter and seem how Kugel continues to unfold his argument.

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