Monday, January 23, 2012

Kugel's HTRTB [Part 12]: Only One Bible

We continue to read Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. This twelfth installment covers the last section. 

In this final section, Kugel cautions against misrepresenting Chapter 36 or giving it greater importance than all of How to Read the Bible before it:
My subject has been not the ruin of the Bible but the Bible itself--its highways and byways, heroes, brigands, walk-ons, and also-rans, its mysteries and its ineffables, as well as its sometimes treacherous little details. Beyond these, this book is about two extraordinary sets of interpreters, and I have made no effort to disguise my admiration for both. Their approaches, however, are quite irreconcilable.
Reminding us of his main subject and aims, Kugel also describes a particular use for the book: "I hope that this book may at least offer some help in finding an escape from the box of original meaning." This specific help is very important; it's the key to everything Kugel has done:
  • Defined two different sets of biblical interpreters: the first interpreters (ancient period) and modern interpreters (post-DH scholars).
  • Showed that the approaches of the two sets are irreconcilable. One cannot read the bible as one set and accept the interpretations of the other set at all.
  • Argued, moreover, that modern biblical criticism is not criticism of the (real) Bible.
The third bullet point requires explanation. To do this, let me first refer back to the previous installment of our series, where I quoted Kugel on reading the Bible properly.
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.
My earlier analysis did not appreciate that Kugel’s point was eminently bold. In the quote, Kugel says that the Bible is only the Bible when approached as it was by the ancient interpreters. Implicitly, therefore, the approach of modern scholars makes the Bible not the Bible but rather a set of texts with disparate “original meanings.” These meanings thus have nothing to do with the Bible as Bible!

To illustrate further, you can read modern biblical scholarship. You can follow its arguments and even come to agree with its conclusions. The point is that these conclusions don’t affect you when you read the Bible properly. Reading properly takes you beyond the conclusions, and this is how you “escape the box of original meaning.”

With some personal pride, I say that this approach--separating the belief-based context from the historical--was one that I myself adopted when tried to retain a semblance of Jewishness. In those days, I reasoned that when I prayed at shul, it was as if Judaism was true. Judaism didn’t need to be true outside or in reality, but it could be and would be when I was playing the part of observant Jew. Shul was a theater and I a player.

In those days, I would have happily agreed with Kugel’s description:
Scripture in different religious traditions always seems to have the remarkable ability to become the locus of people’s deepest inner fumblings and mumblings: those words suddenly contain so much--their quality of Scripture gives them that right--and they fill up with all that is most important: they become the theater of the soul.
Similarly, I have argued that the Hebrew Scriptures are a different Bible to a Jew and a Christian:
The Old Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures are different texts because the Old Testament is already rendered throughout as a translation that prefigures Jesus. People don't simply open the Old Testament and on their own start seeing Jesus parallels. Rather, the Old Testament has been translated with Christology in mind and the resulting text is available expressly to support Christian theological interpretations.
Read the Hebrew Scriptures as pre-figuring Jesus and you are not reading them as a Jew. For Kugel, the Bible really is the Hebrew Bible; there really is no other Bible. Neither the box of original meaning nor the box of Christian meaning ultimately affects the Bible, for the Bible only happens through a single set of approaches now associated with rabbinic Judaism.

I see wisdom in most everything Kugel says, and although I rarely disagree with him, I depart from him significantly. I depart when he contains the Bible to the approach of its first interpreters. I depart again when he connects belief and behavior, as when he discusses what it means to be an observant person. Kugel means religiously observant, Jewish particularly, but I don’t. He describes the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Jewish religious prohibition against approaching the area, "lest by accident [pious Jews'] foot defile the place where once the Holy of Holies stood, the place of God’s presence on earth (which could be entered only once a year, and only by one man, the high priest)." Kugel believes the Holy of Holies sat in an entirely different place from the current Temple Mount. Nevertheless, he follows other observant Jews and does not approach the Temple Mount.

Were the opportunity ever to come for me to ascend the Temple Mount, I probably would. How could I not? This, then, is where I depart from Kugel again.The tenets of my observance would encourage me to ascend, to see, to learn, to consider.

The departure continues. Kugel suggests that even if the rabbis are sometimes wrong, what matters is their project to record and represent God’s intent for His people. Their project to help His people live out God’s will. For Kugel, though, there is such a thing as God’s intent. There is a Holy of Holies somewhere in the textual archaeology of the Bible. There is a continuity between God's intent for His people and "the intentions of the Bible's framers."

Kugel says he "could not be involved in a religion that was entirely a human artifact." Neither could I. The difference is that I no longer see any reason to believe there is a Holy of Holies in the Bible. I cannot justify viewing the Bible as anything other than an entirely human artifact. And here's the most amazing thing of all: accepting that God and the Bible are man-made has brought me intellectually and personally closer to them than ever before.

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