Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Bible Inside and Out

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Bible Inside and Out

Article excerpt

James L. Kugel has long been something of an outside insider-or maybe an inside outsider. In the world of modern biblical study, he rose to rarified heights, becoming Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard (a position he recently left to live and teach in Jerusalem). But he never really worked as a normal biblical critic in the modern mode. Early on he cultivated an expertise in the old readers of the Bible, the interpreters who were so crucial in the origins of Judaism and Christianity. His book with Rowan Greer (another interesting scholar of antiquity), Early Biblical Interpretation, made a strong case that ancient readers of Scripture were not myth-mongering fools. On the contrary, these supposedly precritical readers pursued sophisticated interpretive projects based on a detailed knowledge of the biblical text.

Immersed in the work of early interpreters, Kugel noticed a strange feature of modern biblical study. The critics today seem to have a great appetite for any new piece of evidence or striking theoretical insight that promises a fresh approach to the Bible. Given the importance of twentieth-century archeology for the remarkable advances in our knowledge of ancient Near Eastern history, one could say quite literally that no stone has been left unturned. Except one: To this day, modern biblical scholars ignore all interpreters of the Bible except other modern biblical scholars.

This oversight has not been accidental. In his recent How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now, James Kugel identifies four assumptions that all ancient readers implicitly adopted, none of which find welcome in the modern approach. The first and most important assumption was that the Bible taught "lessons directly to readers in their own day." This assumption is closely related to a second one: Ancient readers "believed that the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text." Call it inspiration or infallibility or whatever you want, but the point is again fairly obvious. Ancient Jews and Christians wanted to live in accord with God's will, which could hardly be done by way of old books unless they took them to be divinely authorized for that purpose. Two further assumptions follow directly from the expectations created by the first two: The Bible has no contradictions or mistakes, and it has hidden meanings that must be ferreted out by all sorts of creative interpretive strategies.

Ancient Jews and Christians eventually parted ways in their reading of the Scriptures of Israel. Christians came to treat Jesus of Nazareth as the great new fact that guided a massive rereading of what came to be called the Old Testament. At nearly the same time, the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans accelerated an equally decisive rereading of Scripture by Jews, which was guided by the accumulated legal and interpretative traditions called the Oral Torah.

The difference cannot be understated, but Kugel makes the astute observation that ancient Christians and Jews still read Scripture in much the same way. They argued about what the prophecies of Isaiah meant. They did not argue about whether one should look for prophetic fulfillments. Jews rejected Paul's allegory of Sarah and Hagar in his Letter to the Galatians, but they insisted on an allegorical reading of the Song of Songs. Christians came to affirm the New Testament as part of Scripture, but this did not call into question the four assumptions they shared with Jews: the living voice of the text, the confidence that Scripture comes from God, affirmation of its perfection, and the assumption that hidden meanings reside in the text.

The more fundamental break comes with the rise of modern historical study. Kugel compares the basic assumptions of the ancient approach with a new set of assumptions first clearly formulated by Spinoza in the seventeenth century.

Should we say, as did ancient interpreters, that Scripture is cryptic and allusive? …

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