November 20, 2019

The Bible for dummies — and experts

James L. Kugel figures his book will attract readers from diverse religious backgrounds, both those who are well-versed in the Bible and those who’ve never read the ancient text. He understands both audiences well.

He begins with a cautionary note to those of traditional faith — and he counts himself as part of this group — explaining that the book deals with modern biblical scholarship, including many ideas that contradict the accepted teachings of Judaism and Christianity.

In “How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now” (Free Press, $35) — which recently won the 2007 Jewish book of the year prize of the National Jewish Book Awards — Kugel’s interest is not only in what the text says, but in what a modern reader is to make of it.

Kugel’s approach is compelling and original: A professor emeritus at Harvard and professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, he looks in tandem at two different approaches to studying and understanding the Bible — those of the ancient interpreters and those of modern biblical scholars. The former was a largely anonymous group of scholars, living from 300 B.C.E. to 200 C.E., who set about explaining the meaning of the texts; their stories, prophecies and laws have been passed on for generations. As Kugel, who speaks 10 languages, explained, “For most of our history, what the Bible meant was what the ancient interpreters had said it meant.”

The latter, scholars at work for the last 150 years or so, integrate the work of archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and historians, trying to find the original meaning of these texts, before the ancient interpreters added their own meaning. They study the Bible the same way they would approach any literary text, and theorize that the texts are from different sources and by different authors.

The author of several books including “The God of Old” and “The Great Poems of the Bible,” Kugel spent 21 years at Harvard, where he taught one of the most popular courses: an introductory Bible class that enrolled more than 900 students each semester. This more than 800-page book has its basis in that course.

Kugel believes that the author of a work of scholarship should remain in the background, but he recognizes that readers will want to know who he is and where he stands. An Orthodox Jew, he says he sees the divine origins of the text, but has also devoted much of his life to studying and teaching modern biblical scholarship. Brutally honest throughout, he admits that certain aspects of his studies have been troubling to him over the years.

“If we adopt the modern scholars’ way of reading,” he writes, “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.”

His advice to readers: “Keep your eye on the ancient interpreters.”

The ancient sages, scribes and teachers shared four assumptions: that the Bible was essentially a cryptic text and one thing could mean another; that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day; that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes; that the Bible was entirely a divinely given text. Modern scholars try to undo these assumptions.

Kugel writes with ease and wit; he’s at home in the world of serious scholarship and makes it accessible, as he leads the reader through the Bible. He also enjoys an occasional pop culture reference, like citing, in his chapter on Isaiah, Woody Allen’s cautionary reworking: “The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep.”

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.