Notes on How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel
How are written documents to be understood? This question has been in my mind as far back as high school English classes when I grew impatient as teachers interpreted literature, especially poetry. They would draw out meanings that they quickly acknowledged had not been in the mind of the poets who wrote these cryptic bits of literature.
I squirmed in my seat, convinced in my own mind that what the poets intended their poetry to say was what they meant and any other imported meanings violated the integrity of poems under study. I don’t know where my commitment to the original intention came from, but it has operated with considerable strength in my various endeavors personal and professional, religious and secular.
One influence may have been ideas I learned at my church, which encouraged serious Bible study. One of the principles I learned there was that biblical texts should be studied much the same way as other ancient documents are studied. Always, readers should focus attention upon the social context when books were written and what the writers intended to say.
What I did not recognize at the time was that my teachers at church also used other practices that were similar to those in English classes, which was to discern meanings from biblical texts that the original authors had not intended.
Despite my having spent sixty years seriously trying to understand and use ancient texts, the tension between original intent and contemporary relevance is an even more challenging issue for me now than it was during my high school years. The ancient text I use most often is the Bible and here the question is: How are we to understand this ancient book as a faithful guide for people in a world far different from anything that writers of old could ever have imagined.
The tension has been increased by many of the disciplines of historical research and literary analysis that have been so prominent in western culture since the Renaissance. New understandings of antiquity and new commitments to historical and scientific principles make it increasingly difficult to determine the original form of ancient documents and the social context and original meanings of the texts, either in their original forms or in the edited versions that now are in our Bible.
During 2015, my reflections upon how to study the Bible have been challenged and enriched by a very long book published in 2007 by James L Kugel, a specialist in the Hebrew Bible who was the Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard from 1982 to 2003.
In the introduction to his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), Kugel describes himself as an Orthodox Jew “and as such, I am a believer in the divine inspiration of the Scripture and an inheritor of many of the traditions of ancient interpreters cited in this book, indeed, a keeper of the Jewish Sabbath, dietary laws, and all the other traditional practices of Orthodox Judaism” (45).
The book consists of front matter, 689 pages of text divided into thirty-six chapters, and end matter. In Chapter 1, “The Rise of Modern Biblical Scholarship,” Kugel gives a brief history of two modes of biblical interpretation: the ancient way that has been most fully expressed in the pattern developed by Rabbinic Judaism in the latter centuries BCE; and the pattern developed by biblical scholars, primarily in Europe, beginning in the late 1600s. He explains why he gives greater value to the traditional mode of understanding and encourages his readers to follow this example.
Most of the book consists of short chapters in which Kugel presents the biblical narrative beginning with “The Creation of the World—and of Adam and Eve,” and concluding with “Daniel the Interpreter.” For the most part, chapters consists of a brief summary of one portion of the Hebrew Bible, the rabbinic interpretation (which he refers to as the “Oral Torah”), the alternative understanding developed by modern biblical scholarship, and an affirmation of why the rabbinic interpretation is more useful to Jews and Christians.
After reading the first half of the book, I became impatient to find out how Kugel concludes his narrative. Skipping the second half, I read the concluding chapter and then wrote a preliminary account of the book. To read the resulting 25-page paper, click “A Wisdom Reading of the Bible.”