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

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9780743235877: How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now

As soon as it appeared, How to Read the Bible was recognized as a masterwork, “awesome, thrilling” (The New York Times), “wonderfully interesting, extremely well presented” (The Washington Post), and “a tour de force...a stunning narrative” (Publishers Weekly). Now in its tenth year of publication, the book remains the clearest, most inviting and readable guide to the Hebrew Bible around—and a profound meditation on the effect that modern biblical scholarship has had on traditional belief.

Moving chapter by chapter, Harvard professor James Kugel covers the Bible’s most significant stories—the Creation of the world, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and his wives, Moses and the exodus, David’s mighty kingdom, plus the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets, and on to the Babylonian conquest and the eventual return to Zion.

Throughout, Kugel contrasts the way modern scholars understand these events with the way Christians and Jews have traditionally understood them. The latter is not, Kugel shows, a naïve reading; rather, it is the product of a school of sophisticated interpreters who flourished toward the end of the biblical period. These highly ideological readers sought to put their own spin on texts that had been around for centuries, utterly transforming them in the process. Their interpretations became what the Bible meant for centuries and centuries—until modern scholarship came along. The question that this book ultimately asks is: What now? As one reviewer wrote, Kugel’s answer provides “a contemporary model of how to read Sacred Scripture amidst the oppositional pulls of modern scholarship and tradition.”

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About the Author:

James L. Kugel served as the Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard from 1982 to 2003, where his course on the Bible was regularly one of the most popular on campus, enrolling more than nine hundred students. A specialist in the Hebrew Bible and its interpretation, he now lives in Jerusalem. His recent books include The God of Old, In the Valley of the Shadow and the forthcoming The Great Change.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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 ...

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