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How to Read the Bible by James L. Kugel

Bradford R. Pilcher

This book efficiently lays bare the challenges presented in Bible texts and the different ways of dissecting them, new and old.

How to Read the Bible

Publisher: Free Press
Subtitle: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now
Author: James L. Kugel
Price: $35.00
Length: 848
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-09

Despite its depth and richness, the Bible remains a rather obtuse piece of literature. Organizing one's beliefs around it is a bit like asking a high school student to model themselves around the works of Shakespeare. A guide comes in very handy.

Most people make do with the local pastor or Sunday school teacher. Catholics are just fine letting the Bishop of Rome tell them what Abraham was thinking when he very nearly almost murdered his son on God’s orders. Yet these are more like the CliffsNotes of biblical interpretation. Elsewhere, among the theologians and religious scholars, a much more lively debate has raged for centuries over just how to interpret the Good Book.

At one end of the spectrum, and this is going to simplify things a great deal, lies the traditional view of the Bible. It holds that the text is a perfect document, inspired by divine authorship, and essentially without contradiction. Moses wrote the first five books all by his lonesome (with a little over-the-shoulder whispering from the man upstairs), the Red Sea really was parted, etc.

At the other end of the spectrum are modern scholars, who argue that the Bible wasn’t written by the people we usually think. Not Moses. Not King David or King Solomon, either. No, these scholars have picked the text apart and made it abundantly clear they think a bunch of different authors, much later on, patched together various stories and competing agendas. God may or may not have had anything to do with it, but if He did, He managed to contradict himself quite a bit.

It isn’t surprising that the two schools of thought have some choice words for each other, but up until now it’s been difficult to find a single reference that breaks down both views and makes them a bit more accessible to the lay reader. That is because until now, James Kugel hadn’t gotten around to writing How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. The book is derived from his wildly popular course on religion at Harvard, and it tries (almost successfully) to show there’s something to be gained from both schools of thought.

The book begins with the heresy trial of Charles Augustus Briggs. It took place in Washington, D.C. in 1893, which isn’t the place you’d normally imagine a heresy trial. Briggs’ crime was claiming “there was no reason to think that each and every word of [the Bible] came from God,” and that “it was obvious that the Bible contained numerous errors.” In other words, Briggs had embraced modern biblical scholarship.

The Briggs trial forms the frame of the introductory chapter, which explains the development of such modern ways of looking at the Bible, and these 45 pages alone are worth the price of admission. Prior to this, Richard Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? was probably the best explication of modern biblical scholarship for the lay reader, but in just a handful of pages, Kugel simplifies the trajectory from ancient interpretation to modern revision.

The rest of the book hops through various excerpts from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament for the Christian readers). Each chapter follows a simple structure, beginning with an outline of the events described in the Bible. Following this, Kugel discusses how ancient interpreters went about explaining the various difficulties and complexities of the narratives, and then he closes by giving the modernist counter-point. The idea is simple. There’s the old way. Here’s the new way. Which way is better?

Kugel takes pains not to try and pick sides, overtly in any case. His goal is to show the failings and strengths of each, or so he says. “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,” he writes in the brief introduction. “So what are we to do?” For that he doesn’t posit an answer, not until some 680 pages later.

“For Judaism,” and Kugel is in addition to being a scholar, also an Orthodox Jew, “the crucial element in Scripture has always been … ‘to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.’ With such a purpose foremost, the Bible’s original component texts easily lent themselves to flexible reinterpretation.”

In other words, subscribing to one view or another is somewhat beside the point. Struggling with the text as a means of serving God is all that really matters, whether you take a modernist or a traditionalist view. That he makes this point in a final chapter that seems much less focused, much more a meandering mass, than the 661-pages that came before it, doesn’t help engender confidence in his conclusion.

The truth is, the book works in one very important way, and it fails in the way I think Kugel wanted it to succeed. First, how did it work? Most people walk around with moderately informed (at best) ideas about biblical interpretation, almost always crafted by ancient conceptions. Modernist readers are to be forgiven for seeing the mass of contradiction and throwing up their hands. One can only hope this text lands in those outstretched hands, because none has so efficiently laid bare the challenges presented in Bible texts and the different ways of dissecting them, new and old.

In that regard, as a guide to understanding modern reinterpretation of the text, it empowers readers to continue interpreting, and as a means of reinforcing faith, there really is no better prescription. But if Kugel had hoped his work would lead people to see some kind of synergy in the interpretative process, something that would allow them to look beyond the obvious conflicts between ancient and modern views of the Bible, it didn’t really come together that way.

That’s a shame, but not much of one. For the biblically interested, this is still required reading. After all, in achieving the first thing, no small task itself, does it really matter if Kugel succeeded in his larger goal?


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