Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as It Was at the Start of the Common Era

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Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as It Was at the Start of the Common Era, by James L. Kugel. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press,1998. Pp. xxii + 1055. N.P.

The present volume, an expanded version of the more popular work The Bible As It Was (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,1997), is a welcome exception to the wearisome truth that much scholarly output is characterized by inconsequential aims and overblown execution. James Kugel pursues objectives that reach well beyond the scope of his book, and his execution of the agenda within the extent of the book is enchanting.

Kugel's main objective is to offer a sampling of the exegetical traditions that grew from early interpreters' reading of the Pentateuch so as to give readers a sense of what he calls in the book's subtitle "the Bible as it was at the start of the Common Era" (from the third century scE to the first century CE). By this he means the Hebrew Bible as Jews and Christians experienced it in the days of its gestation and infancy. He insists that those audiences rarely encountered the Bible apart from these interpretations and that the Bible became scripture for them precisely because of the exegetical efforts of early interpreters. Because these interpretive efforts made the Bible what it became, Kugel reasons that their fruits ought to be considered with the Bible. Kugel also wants to reveal the interpretive reasoning behind the exegetical motifs that he explores, and to show that interpretation was "traditional," that is, that exegetical motifs transcended individual interpreters and their works, being passed from one generation to the next. And he wants to show his readers that, in spite of the long history of difficulties between Judaism and Christianity, both were.nurtured from birth by the same scriptures and interpretive traditions.

But Kugel has even loftier goals in mind. In the Afterword he bemoans the loss of interest since the Reformation in "the Bible as it was." He blames this diminished regard for the Bible's interpretive past on the post-Renaissance interest in the Bible's prehistory. This abiding fascination with the Bible's compositional history severs scripture from the interpretive tradition that confirmed its authoritative status and it impoverishes contemporary readers. Consequently Kugel hopes that his efforts will inspire in teachers, scholars, and lay readers renewed appreciation for "the Bible as it was," and that their appreciation would show up in their instruction, publications, and faithful use of the Bible as God's word.

Kugel sets out to achieve his aims through twenty-five chapters that trace exegetical motifs deriving from an equal number of episodes in the Pentateuch. Exegetical motifs emerged from early readers' fourfold conviction that the Bible is cryptic, relevant, harmonious, and correct in all details, and the inspired word of God. Consequently the Bible's mysteries required elucidation, its relevance had to be brought to light, its apparent contradictions and errors had to be proven to be harmonious and correct, and its testimony to God's word demanded explication. Kugel culls witnesses to the exegetical motifs from an astounding number of texts. His chief sources are 1 Enoch, the Septuagint, Jubilees, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Wisdom of Solomon, the writings of Philo and Josephus, the Targums, and the New Testament; but he also consults many lesser known and/or later works such as the Cave of Treasures, Genesis Rabbah, and the writings of such diverse early Christian writers as Ephraem, Justin, and Augustine. Each chapter begins with a summary of a biblical episode, continues by presenting the exegetical motifs that developed from the episode, and concludes with a new summary that takes into account the exegetical motifs' transformation of the biblical episode. …