How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now

How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now

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by James L. Kugel
     
 

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Scholars from different fields have joined forces to reexamine every aspect of the Hebrew Bible. Their research, carried out in universities and seminaries in Europe and America, has revolutionized our understanding of almost every chapter and verse. But have they killed the Bible in the process?

In How to Read the Bible, Harvard professor JamesSee more details below

Overview

Scholars from different fields have joined forces to reexamine every aspect of the Hebrew Bible. Their research, carried out in universities and seminaries in Europe and America, has revolutionized our understanding of almost every chapter and verse. But have they killed the Bible in the process?

In How to Read the Bible, Harvard professor James Kugel leads the reader chapter by chapter through the "quiet revolution" of recent biblical scholarship, showing time and again how radically the interpretations of today's researchers differ from what people have always thought. 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.

Such findings pose a serious problem for adherents of traditional, Bible-based faiths. Hiding from the discoveries of modern scholars seems dishonest, but accepting them means undermining much of the Bible's reliability and authority as the word of God. What to do? In his search for a solution, Kugel leads the reader back to a group of ancient biblical interpreters who flourished at the end of the biblical period. Far from naïve, these interpreters consciously set out to depart from the original meaning of the Bible's various stories, laws, and prophecies -- and they, Kugel argues, hold the key to solving the dilemma of reading the Bible today.

How to Read the Bible is, quite simply, the best, most original book about the Bible in decades. It offers an unflinching, insider's look at the work of today's scholars, together with a sustained consideration of what the Bible was for most of its history -- before the rise of modern scholarship. Readable, clear, often funny but deeply serious in its purpose, this is a book for Christians and Jews, believers and secularists alike. It offers nothing less than a whole new way of thinking about sacred Scripture.

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Editorial Reviews

Jerome M. Segal
Despite the title, How to Read the Bible, James Kugel does not offer us latecomers a new way to read the Bible. Instead, over some 700 well-written pages, Kugel goes through the Hebrew Bible (which Christians have traditionally called the Old Testament) alternating a discussion of how ancient interpreters understood key passages with what modern scholarship can tell us about the origins and accuracy of the text. This is wonderfully interesting stuff, extremely well presented.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Kugel's tour de force of biblical scholarship juxtaposes two different ways of reading the Bible: the ancient biblical interpretations, ranging from the Book of Jubilees to Augustine, that he explored in The Bible as It Was, and the modern historical approach that challenges the historical veracity of scripture and seeks instead to find its writers' original sources and purposes. It can be a jarring journey for those schooled in traditional views, but what emerges is a fresh, even strange, and very rich view of everything from the Garden of Eden to Isaiah's dream vision of God. Refreshingly undogmatic and often witty, Kugel brings an intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Bible to illuminate small points as well as large. He discusses who the ancient Israelites were; the resemblances between YHWH and Canaanite gods; the unique role of the prophet in Ancient Near Eastern religions; the nature of ancient wisdom literature; and what the Bible means when it calls Solomon the wisest of men. The result is a stunning narrative of the evolution of ancient Israel, of its God and of the entire Hebrew Bible, contrasted with ancient interpretations that aimed to uncover hidden meanings and moral lessons. So, for example, for the ancients, the story of Cain and Abel is a tale of good versus evil. For the moderns, it was originally a story of origin, about the relation between ancient Israelites and the fierce Kenites to their south. While Kugel is a traditional Jew, he sees the modern approach as compelling, so the dilemma is whether a person of faith can read scripture in both the old way and the new. Drawing on Judaism's nonfundamentalist approach, Kugel's proposed answer is that the originalpurpose of the texts and their lack of historical accuracy matters less than their underlying message: to serve God. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781451689099
Publisher:
Free Press
Publication date:
05/01/2012
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SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
848
Sales rank:
622,110
File size:
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Read an Excerpt

PRELIMINARIES

This book is intended as a guide to, and a tour through, the Hebrew Bible. In it, I've tried to write down most of what I know about the Bible, its past as well as its present. That makes it a little different from other books on the subject.

Its first aim is to acquaint readers with the contents of the Bible itself. By the end of this book readers will have met all the major figures of the Hebrew Bible — Abraham and Sarah; Moses, Miriam, and Aaron; Deborah, Samson, David, Solomon, and so forth. The book will also cover all the major events, from the story of Adam and Eve to the exodus from Egypt, and on to the conquest of the land, the rise of the United Monarchy, the fall of Jerusalem, the Babylonian exile, and Israel's eventual return to its homeland. Along with people and events, the Bible's major passages will themselves be examined — all the most important prophecies and psalms, laws, songs, and sayings.

In going through the Bible, however, this book will focus not only on what the text says but on the larger question of what a modern reader is to make of it, how it is to be read. This will mean examining two quite different ways of understanding the Bible, those of modern biblical scholars and of ancient interpreters.

By modern biblical scholars is meant a rather specific group of people (and not all modern people who study the Bible). Starting around 150 years ago, a major effort was launched in universities and divinity schools in different countries — principally in Germany and Scandinavia, Holland, England, and the United States — to understand the Bible afresh, reading it "scientifically" and without any presuppositions. A great deal of new information had just then begun to emerge that might shed light on the world of the Bible's creation. The fledgling science of archaeology had started to probe the distant past, first uncovering individual artifacts and treasures from ancient times, later whole towns and cities. Sometimes what the archaeologists found included bits of writing — inscriptions from here and there, indeed, whole libraries of documents written by ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and other neighboring civilizations of biblical Israel. These texts were deciphered and translated. Using this new information, biblical scholars found themselves able to trace with new accuracy the whole history of the region and fill in many of the blanks left by the Bible itself. They also began to reflect on the nature of Israelite society and its institutions in the light of these neighboring civilizations. Most of all, they set themselves to analyzing the Bible itself in a new way, trying to fit its words to the emerging historical picture and to understand when and how and for what purpose different parts of it were written.

This effort to reinterpret the Bible has been carried on with increasing intensity ever since, and it has produced spectacular results. We are now able to piece together answers to some of the most basic questions about the Bible: Where did the people of Israel come from? How did they come to believe in the existence of only one God? How did they worship Him? What do we know about specific historical events — for example, when did Moses live, and who was the wicked pharaoh that would not let the Israelites leave Egypt? Moreover, what about the Bible itself — when were its various books written, and by whom?

All these questions, and their answers, belong under the heading "modern biblical scholarship." As this book proceeds through the different parts of the Bible, it will survey most of what modern scholars have discovered about the meaning of the text and its historical background. But that is only part of the material to be studied.

Along with modern biblical scholars, this book will examine another set of interpreters, who lived long before the archaeologists, historians, and linguists came along. These are the ancient interpreters, a largely anonymous group of scholars who flourished from around 300 bce to 200 ce or so. By the time the ancient interpreters came along, most of the texts that make up our Bible had been around for quite a while — many for hundreds and hundreds of years, in fact. But this was still a very important moment in the Bible's development, and these ancient interpreters played a significant role. It was a time when, as never before, the Bible had become the central focus of Israel's religion. Reading Scripture, and doing what it said, was now the very essence of Judaism — and in its wake, Christianity. But what did Scripture mean, and what was it telling people to do? For various reasons, ordinary readers did not feel capable of deciding such things. It was up to the experts — the ancient interpreters — to explain the Bible to them.

As a result, the work of these ancient interpreters proved to be tremendously significant. As will be seen, they had a rather idiosyncratic, even quirky, way of interpreting the Bible. For example, they believed that the Bible did not always say openly what it meant; it was full of cryptic hints, and when these were carefully studied, all manner of hidden meanings could be revealed. In reading this way, ancient interpreters sometimes deduced the existence of whole incidents or teachings that the Bible had never mentioned — indeed, they often "found" here and there doctrines or ideas that came into existence only centuries after the biblical text in question had been written. Their interpretations soon became what the Bible meant. Their explanations of different stories and laws and prophecies were passed on for centuries afterward. Institutionalized by church and synagogue, preached and sung about, depicted in floor mosaics, stained-glass windows, paintings, and statues, endlessly talked about in monasteries and on village greens, echoed in poetry and philosophy and learned discourse of all kinds, this interpreted Bible (that is, the Bible as explained by the ancient interpreters) was the Bible all throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and to a large extent, even up to today.

One might well ask: now that modern biblical scholars have come to understand what biblical texts really meant when they were first written down, why should anyone bother with what a group of ancient interpreters thought the Bible meant centuries later, especially if their interpretations were sometimes a bit stretched? Part of the answer has already been given. For most of our history, what the Bible meant was what the ancient interpreters had said it meant. Even if what they said does not match the findings of modern scholars, this does not mean that their interpretations have not been, or are not still, significant. As a matter of fact, anyone who wants to understand European painting or sculpture, or the history of Western thought, or Dante or Milton or Shakespeare or almost any writer up to the present day, must know something about the Bible as it was understood by these ancient interpreters — since that was the Bible.

But there is an even more important reason for studying both ancient interpreters and modern biblical scholars. In a way that will be made clear throughout this book, the ancient interpreters are still with us. Despite the rise of archaeology and other sciences, the ancient interpreters' way of reading is directly tied to some of the most basic things we still think today about the Bible — its very standing as the Word of God, and its role as a guide to daily life — as well as to our understanding of some of its most important parts, from the Garden of Eden to the prophecies of Isaiah and Daniel.

Modern readers of the Bible are thus caught between two opposite ways of reading. On the one hand, the ancient interpreters' way is crucial for what most people still wish to believe about the Bible and its message. On the other hand, the way of modern scholars, which seems to make good, scientific sense, has undermined a great deal of what those ancient interpreters said. So what are we to do? If we adopt the modern scholars' way of reading, in a very real sense the whole Bible will be undone — much of its ethical instruction, its basic commandments, prophetic visions, and heartfelt prayers will turn out to be something other than what they have always seemed; indeed, the divine inspiration of all of Scripture will be seen to be undermined. But surely we cannot simply hide our heads in the sand and pretend that modern scholarship does not exist. And so an enormous question now poses itself to both Jews and Christians: How to read the Bible? That is the subject of this book.

WARNING: This book is intended for both the specialist and the general reader, those who already have great familiarity with the Bible and those who have never read a page of it. It is my hope that any reader will be able to learn a great deal from it. But there is one group of readers who must be cautioned about its contents. Precisely because this book deals with modern biblical scholarship, many of the things it discusses contradict the accepted teachings of Judaism and Christianity and may thus be disturbing to people of traditional faith. I should say that I count myself in this group, and some of the things I will relate have indeed been disturbing to me over the years. I hesitated for a long time before deciding to pursue modern biblical scholarship as my field of study, and I hesitated even longer before deciding to commit my thoughts on it to writing. If I nonetheless went ahead, it was because I felt that it was dishonest, and ultimately would prove impossible, to hide from the central question addressed by this book. Others, of course, may feel differently. It is up to them to decide whether or not to continue.

A word about the book's format: This book comes with two sets of notes. The first contain points of information intended for the general reader. These are marked with an asterisk (*) in the text and appear at the bottom of the page. The second set of notes — marked with numbers — is intended for specialists in the field; these notes consist mostly of references to scholarly articles or books, or are discussions of technical matters not intended for the general reader. They are found at the back of this book. A few further items are of such length that it was decided not to include them in the volume itself (since their inclusion would have added considerably to its cost), but instead to post them on a Web site where interested readers may consult them. These are: (1) an appendix to this volume, "Apologetics and Biblical Criticism Lite"; (2) a bibliography of the books and articles cited in the notes; and (3) an index of the writings of ancient biblical interpreters cited in the book, briefly describing their contents and date of composition. All these may be found on the Web site jameskugel.com. The same Web site contains links to other sites and will, I hope, eventually include questions and reactions from readers as well as some further words from me.

Copyright © 2007 by James Kugel

PRELIMINARIES

This book is intended as a guide to, and a tour through, the Hebrew Bible. In it, I've tried to write down most of what I know about the Bible, its past as well as its present. That makes it a little different from other books on the subject.

Its first aim is to acquaint readers with the contents of the Bible itself. By the end of this book readers will have met all the major figures of the Hebrew Bible — Abraham and Sarah; Moses, Miriam, and Aaron; Deborah, Samson, David, Solomon, and so forth. The book will also cover all the major events, from the story of Adam and Eve to the exodus from Egypt, and on to the conquest of the land, the rise of the United Monarchy, the fall of Jerusalem, the Babylonian exile, and Israel's eventual return to its homeland. Along with people and events, the Bible's major passages will themselves be examined — all the most important prophecies and psalms, laws, songs, and sayings.

In going through the Bible, however, this book will focus not only on what the text says but on the larger question of what a modern reader is to make of it, how it is to be read. This will mean examining two quite different ways of understanding the Bible, those of modern biblical scholars and of ancient interpreters.

By modern biblical scholars is meant a rather specific group of people (and not all modern people who study the Bible). Starting around 150 years ago, a major effort was launched in universities and divinity schools in different countries — principally in Germany and Scandinavia, Holland, England, and the United States — to understand the Bible afresh, reading it "scientifically" and without any presuppositions. A great deal of new information had just then begun to emerge that might shed light on the world of the Bible's creation. The fledgling science of archaeology had started to probe the distant past, first uncovering individual artifacts and treasures from ancient times, later whole towns and cities. Sometimes what the archaeologists found included bits of writing — inscriptions from here and there, indeed, whole libraries of documents written by ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and other neighboring civilizations of biblical Israel. These texts were deciphered and translated. Using this new information, biblical scholars found themselves able to trace with new accuracy the whole history of the region and fill in many of the blanks left by the Bible itself. They also began to reflect on the nature of Israelite society and its institutions in the light of these neighboring civilizations. Most of all, they set themselves to analyzing the Bible itself in a new way, trying to fit its words to the emerging historical picture and to understand when and how and for what purpose different parts of it were written.

This effort to reinterpret the Bible has been carried on with increasing intensity ever since, and it has produced spectacular results. We are now able to piece together answers to some of the most basic questions about the Bible: Where did the people of Israel come from? How did they come to believe in the existence of only one God? How did they worship Him? What do we know about specific historical events — for example, when did Moses live, and who was the wicked pharaoh that would not let the Israelites leave Egypt? Moreover, what about the Bible itself — when were its various books written, and by whom?

All these questions, and their answers, belong under the heading "modern biblical scholarship." As this book proceeds through the different parts of the Bible, it will survey most of what modern scholars have discovered about the meaning of the text and its historical background. But that is only part of the material to be studied.

Along with modern biblical scholars, this book will examine another set of interpreters, who lived long before the archaeologists, historians, and linguists came along. These are the ancient interpreters, a largely anonymous group of scholars who flourished from around 300 BCE to 200 CE or so. By the time the ancient interpreters came along, most of the texts that make up our Bible had been around for quite a while — many for hundreds and hundreds of years, in fact. But this was still a very important moment in the Bible's development, and these ancient interpreters played a significant role. It was a time when, as never before, the Bible had become the central focus of Israel's religion. Reading Scripture, and doing what it said, was now the very essence of Judaism — and in its wake, Christianity. But what did Scripture mean, and what was it telling people to do? For various reasons, ordinary readers did not feel capable of deciding such things. It was up to the experts — the ancient interpreters — to explain the Bible to them.

As a result, the work of these ancient interpreters proved to be tremendously significant. As will be seen, they had a rather idiosyncratic, even quirky, way of interpreting the Bible. For example, they believed that the Bible did not always say openly what it meant; it was full of cryptic hints, and when these were carefully studied, all manner of hidden meanings could be revealed. In reading this way, ancient interpreters sometimes deduced the existence of whole incidents or teachings that the Bible had never mentioned — indeed, they often "found" here and there doctrines or ideas that came into existence only centuries after the biblical text in question had been written. Their interpretations soon became what the Bible meant. Their explanations of different stories and laws and prophecies were passed on for centuries afterward. Institutionalized by church and synagogue, preached and sung about, depicted in floor mosaics, stained-glass windows, paintings, and statues, endlessly talked about in monasteries and on village greens, echoed in poetry and philosophy and learned discourse of all kinds, this interpreted Bible (that is, the Bible as explained by the ancient interpreters) was the Bible all throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and to a large extent, even up to today.

One might well ask: now that modern biblical scholars have come to understand what biblical texts really meant when they were first written down, why should anyone bother with what a group of ancient interpreters thought the Bible meant centuries later, especially if their interpretations were sometimes a bit stretched? Part of the answer has already been given. For most of our history, what the Bible meant was what the ancient interpreters had said it meant. Even if what they said does not match the findings of modern scholars, this does not mean that their interpretations have not been, or are not still, significant. As a matter of fact, anyone who wants to understand European painting or sculpture, or the history of Western thought, or Dante or Milton or Shakespeare or almost any writer up to the present day, must know something about the Bible as it was understood by these ancient interpreters — since that was the Bible.

But there is an even more important reason for studying both ancient interpreters and modern biblical scholars. In a way that will be made clear throughout this book, the ancient interpreters are still with us. Despite the rise of archaeology and other sciences, the ancient interpreters' way of reading is directly tied to some of the most basic things we still think today about the Bible — its very standing as the Word of God, and its role as a guide to daily life — as well as to our understanding of some of its most important parts, from the Garden of Eden to the prophecies of Isaiah and Daniel.

Modern readers of the Bible are thus caught between two opposite ways of reading. On the one hand, the ancient interpreters' way is crucial for what most people still wish to believe about the Bible and its message. On the other hand, the way of modern scholars, which seems to make good, scientific sense, has undermined a great deal of what those ancient interpreters said. So what are we to do? If we adopt the modern scholars' way of reading, in a very real sense the whole Bible will be undone — much of its ethical instruction, its basic commandments, prophetic visions, and heartfelt prayers will turn out to be something other than what they have always seemed; indeed, the divine inspiration of all of Scripture will be seen to be undermined. But surely we cannot simply hide our heads in the sand and pretend that modern scholarship does not exist. And so an enormous question now poses itself to both Jews and Christians: How to read the Bible? That is the subject of this book.

WARNING: This book is intended for both the specialist and the general reader, those who already have great familiarity with the Bible and those who have never read a page of it. It is my hope that any reader will be able to learn a great deal from it. But there is one group of readers who must be cautioned about its contents. Precisely because this book deals with modern biblical scholarship, many of the things it discusses contradict the accepted teachings of Judaism and Christianity and may thus be disturbing to people of traditional faith. I should say that I count myself in this group, and some of the things I will relate have indeed been disturbing to me over the years. I hesitated for a long time before deciding to pursue modern biblical scholarship as my field of study, and I hesitated even longer before deciding to commit my thoughts on it to writing. If I nonetheless went ahead, it was because I felt that it was dishonest, and ultimately would prove impossible, to hide from the central question addressed by this book. Others, of course, may feel differently. It is up to them to decide whether or not to continue.

A word about the book's format: This book comes with two sets of notes. The first contain points of information intended for the general reader. These are marked with an asterisk (*) in the text and appear at the bottom of the page. The second set of notes — marked with numbers — is intended for specialists in the field; these notes consist mostly of references to scholarly articles or books, or are discussions of technical matters not intended for the general reader. They are found at the back of this book. A few further items are of such length that it was decided not to include them in the volume itself (since their inclusion would have added considerably to its cost), but instead to post them on a Web site where interested readers may consult them. These are: (1) an appendix to this volume, "Apologetics and Biblical Criticism Lite"; (2) a bibliography of the books and articles cited in the notes; and (3) an index of the writings of ancient biblical interpreters cited in the book, briefly describing their contents and date of composition. All these may be found on the Web site jameskugel.com. The same Web site contains links to other sites and will, I hope, eventually include questions and reactions from readers as well as some further words from me.

Copyright © 2007 by James Kugel

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