James L. Kugel on how to read the Bible [MIPodcast #53]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. James L. Kugel is one of the foremost scholars of the Hebrew Bible of our time and Kugel recently visited the Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University to talk about his work, and about the relationship between religious faith and scholarship about scripture.
Kugel himself is an Orthodox Jew and a scholar of the Hebrew Bible who became somewhat legendary for revisiting ancient paradigms of reading. When he taught at Harvard, one of Kugel’s student said the professor began a course by offering this disclaimer: “If you come from a religious tradition upholding the literal truth of the Bible, you could find this course disturbing.” Kugel told me that isn’t exactly the case; there’s much more to the story, and we’ll talk about that in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast on how to read the Bible with James L. Kugel.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and don’t forget to rate and review the show in iTunes.
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James Kugel joins me on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. He’s here from Israel visiting BYU to meet with our journal editors of Studies in the Bible and Antiquity.
Thank you so much for taking time to come and talk to me today.
JAMES KUGEL: Well it’s a great pleasure to be here.
HODGES: Now, were talking about a book called How to Read the Bible. The subtitle is, A Guide to Scripture Then and Now, and that subtitle hints what the book is about, which is that the Bible has been approached in different ways at different times. This book came out about ten years ago, was it 2007?
KUGEL: Oh, that sounds so long! But yeah, I guess that’s true.
HODGES: So, you’re coming up on the ten-year anniversary of its publication and its already a monument, it’s a well-known book, it made a really big splash. Broadly speaking, how did the book come about, how did this particular book—what was its genesis?
KUGEL: Well, I used to teach at Harvard and it was a pretty big course. And I guess in some sense this represents the course I ended up teaching.
When I first arrived at Harvard, a colleague suggested that courses about the Hebrew Bible were, for the most part, courses in modern scholarship of the Hebrew Bible. And he knew that I was interested in some of the ways the Bible was first interpreted. And so the course that I taught was called, “The Bible and its Interpreters.” And I wouldn’t say this is an exact transcription but a lot of the things that I put in here, I got too by teaching that course.
HODGES: That course informed what became this book and it’s a large book. It covers the span of the Hebrew Bible and it talks about interpretation of the Bible over time. A lot of people today see a sharp conflict between biblical scholarship and traditional understanding of the Bible. How did this particular circumstance come about? This is a problem of our time.
KUGEL: That was really the whole subject of the course and the whole subject of this book. I guess I started sort of by accident when I became aware of a school of interpreters—or I should say several schools—that existed toward the end of the biblical period and a little bit thereafter. They were not—how should I say, passive interpreters. They had a definite program. When they came along, much of the Hebrew Bible had been around for hundreds of years. And when they came to explain different parts of it, it wasn’t necessarily an objective explanation. They were really out to show how the Bible is relevant to us today and to make it that. To look into the Bible’s words deeply in order to find some message for today.
HODGES: So they shifted the way that the Bible came to be interpreted and today we’ve sort of lost sight of that. As the book details, that’s ended up causing problems when scholarly interpretations bump up against traditional interpretations and we’ll talk more about that as we go along.
But I wanted to bring up a piece that was written about you in Moment Magazine a little while ago by a writer called Michael Orbach. And he starts off his piece about you with a story of how he was warned against taking your class at Harvard—you mentioned teaching there—because he was told, although you look like an Orthodox Jew—you have a yarmulke, you have…you are an Orthodox Jew. And your views on scripture would lead to a faith crisis. This is what he was warned about, when traditional belief runs up against modern scholarship bad things can happen.
So, he said you’d begin your class with a disclaimer, you would say, “if you come from a religious tradition upholding the literal truth of the Bible, you could find this course disturbing.”
First of all, is that true, did you start with a disclaimer? And then if so, what kind of things would people be disturbed about?
KUGEL: I—that wasn’t my disclaimer. I never talked about the “literal truth.” But I did say—since the point of the course, and frankly of the book, is to contrast the way the Bible has always been understood for centuries and centuries, and the way it’s come to be re-understood now by modern biblical scholars. And I was always careful to say modern biblical scholars probably doesn’t necessarily include your own rabbi or minister. But somebody, the people who teach at these universities where modern scholarship is pursued, trying to understand the text in terms of its original historical setting, and with the help of everything that modern historians and archaeologists and linguists have learned about the meaning of the text, that that new information jangles somewhat with traditional teachings. So if you are really intent on holding on to your traditional teachings, without any of these disturbing new interpretations, this may not be the book for you.
HODGES: Would you have students who would leave at that point or did people stick around?
KUGEL: Actually I don’t ever remember anybody walking out [chuckles].
HODGES: [laughs] But you might as well put all your cards out on the table when you start out the class.
KUGEL: I mean, at first I think that’s fair. After a while, people like Michael I guess came forewarned and some of them took the class and some of them didn’t. I think a lot of Orthodox Jews, or as many as there were, tended to say—at least one said this to me once—that it’s better to take a seminar with Professor Kugel that just talks about kind of traditional interpretation and doesn’t bring in modern stuff.
HODGES: Yeah, if you’re zooming in a little bit closer on a particular text instead of giving a whole sweep, it might be easier to digest.
KUGEL: Well also because those seminars that I taught required people usually to know Hebrew, and they were really about traditional Hebrew interpretation.
HODGES: So let’s talk a little bit more about the traditional understanding. There are assumptions that are brought to the text, and these were established a long time ago—I’m thinking of Moses Maimonides and some of the things he said about the Hebrew scriptures. So what are some of these elements of traditional understanding that would come to be challenged?
KUGEL: If you’re asking about the assumptions that people brought to the reading of the Bible in ancient times, I think that’s really an important subject because the assumptions that people bring to reading pretty much determine what they’re going to understand.
As I mentioned I got to studying this stuff by accident but after a while, I had read a pretty good cross section of Jews who lived in say, the third century, second century, before the common era and how they understood the text.
Now, these people were very different one from another. For the most part we don’t know the names of ancient biblical interpreters, we just know the things that they wrote and they usually wrote them anonymously or else taking on the name of some early biblical figure. But some of these people we do know by name and whether we know them by name or not, at least after a while, I think I developed a pretty good idea of who they were. And they didn’t have a lot in common with each other.
Just take one example, one of the people whose names we do know is Ben Sira or Sirach as he’s called in some Bibles. And he was definitely a kind of establishment figure close to the sources of power and post-exilic Judea. I’m sure he wouldn’t have sat at the same lunch counter as the fellow who wrote the Book of Jubilees, somebody who we don’t know what his name was. And then, both of them were very different from another ancient interpreter, Philo of Alexandria. Alexandria was a Greek speaking city in Egypt and Philo probably didn’t speak a word of Hebrew. So these were all very different figures. But they all seemed to share the same set of assumptions about the Bible and how it was to be read.
HODGES: You talked about four of them in particular in How to Read the Bible, what are these four assumptions?
KUGEL: The first assumption—I guess they were all sort of counter intuitive assumptions—the first assumption was that the Bible says “X” but often what it really means is “Y,” that there’s a gap between the meaning of the text and its actual form of expression.
And of course, we don’t assume that about most texts, it means what it says. I suppose I have my own theory about where these assumptions came from, but in any case, everybody seems to assume that. And so the interpreter’s job was not to tell you the things that you yourself could figure out, because what would you need me for? But the interpreter would say, “now you know it says this, but if you think about it in the light of this other verse or this other meaning of that word, it means something rather different from what you thought.” That was the first basic assumption of all ancient interpreters.
HODGES: So that’s number one, and its funny because it’s almost like…assuming some cryptic message that requires the interpreter then, right?
KUGEL: Absolutely. I am—you may think it was kind of self-interested, “that that’s why you need to hire me.”
HODGES: [laughs] yeah…you need a job…
KUGEL: These people, I’m not sure how many of them needed to be hired. In some ways being an ancient sage was a rich man’s profession. He could devote himself to these spiritual matters because his material concerns were taken care of. But in any case that was the message, you do need me to understand.
As I used to like to tell students, these interpreters were not hapless academics, you know, “who really cares what modern academics think,” but they were—people listened to them and after you told me that this text means this, that is what it meant. So they, in that sense, had tremendous power over the future of the Bible.
HODGES: What was the second big assumption?
KUGEL: I guess the second one was—I already hinted towards it. These text were very old, at least some of them hundreds and hundreds of years older than the interpreters. But the second assumption was that they’re never less relevant. They’re talking about the past but they’re really speaking to me, and telling me something that’s altogether relevant to myself.
So, sometimes, for example Philo of Alexandria since I’ve mentioned him, liked to read biblical text as great allegories. So, there is—he says at one point talking about Abraham—there really was this fellow named Abraham and he really did migrate from his native city of Ur of the Chaldeans and then went out to Haran, that is 700, 800 miles north, and then went from there to Caanan, and this all really happened, he says. But actually Abraham, in the truer sense, represents the soul of anyone in search of God. And that’s what this journey is all about.
And if you’re listening to that, I don’t much care about somebody who lived so many centuries ago. But I do care about my soul and I am in search of God, so his story is my story and keep on telling me about it.
Now that’s just one way in which the past was made relevant to the present. But the Bible became a book all about the readers own present—you know, it gives laws. And if I were to, again, if I were to read the laws of Hammurabi or some other ancient figure, well that’s an interesting law but what is that have to do with me? When people read biblical laws, it was simply an assumption that they were there to be obeyed today.
HODGES: This is one of the assumptions that Christian interpreters would pick up on as well in order to find elements of what became Christianity in the Hebrew scriptures, yes?
HODGES: This allegorical thing is saying, “Okay, this old story of Abraham sacrificing his son, is a type of a God sending Jesus Christ to its similar to be sacrificed.” So, these interpretations, these assumptions the Jewish interpreters are using would also inform Christians ones, right?
KUGEL: Absolutely, those Christian interpreters were very much…From the beginning, Christianity did not declare itself to be a different religion. The first Christians were Jews and then as it broadened its audience, nevertheless a lot of things were inherited from Judaism, including this whole way of thinking about how to interpret scripture. There wasn’t yet a “New Testament” as such, but everybody believed in the sanctity and importance of the Hebrew Bible.
HODGES: Yeah, it’s important, I think for Christian readers to remember that when the New Testament is talking about scripture, in most cases, it is referring to the Hebrew scriptures and not what has become the Christian Bible as a whole.
HODGES: So, what’s the third big assumption?
KUGEL: I guess the third assumption is that these texts are essentially perfect. That is to say, to begin with there is no contradiction between what’s said here in the book of Ezekiel and what said here in the Pentateuch. And there was every reason to think there would be if it were an ordinary text. If you have two pieces of writing that are separated by hundreds of years, or if you have writings that come from different parts of society—this was written by someone who is a priest, like Ezekiel for example, and this was written by somebody else—you would expect there to be differences.
But it was an assumption that these texts all came from—all were completely consonant with each other. And that idea of perfection eventually came to spread out into other corollary notions—that there of course can’t be any mistakes in these texts. And if there seem to be mistakes or inconsistencies or contradictions, then it’s the interpreter’s job to make sure that those are not understood in that way. And it was a job they embraced readily, they believed that and they were eager to prove it in every case.
HODGES: It seems to be an assumption that would play really well with the first assumption. Because if there’s some sort of cryptic meaning that the interpreter needs to draw out of the text, if you did see a fissure in the text, that was just an interpretive opportunity waiting for you to…
KUGEL: Absolutely right.
HODGES: Yeah. So, there’s three, we’ve got three down. There was one more big assumption.
KUGEL: Yeah. The fourth assumption was that basically all these texts—we don’t really have a Bible yet but a collection of sacred writings—all these texts came from God or were somehow divinely inspired or initiated. And of course, nobody had any doubt—just even the ordinary Jew in the street—that if it said, “and the Lord said to Moses saying dot, dot, dot,” the “dot, dot, dot” were the words of God. But eventually everything, every word of these texts came to be attributed to God. So even the introductory phrase “and the Lord said to Moses.”
There’s for example the book of Psalms, that really consists of words of thanksgiving and praise as well as request, that were all directed to God. So if they’re addressed to God how can they come from God? But that wasn’t a problem for ancient interpreters, they simply assumed as part of this overall view of sacred scripture that that these Psalms too had come from God.
I mentioned this as the fourth assumption because, as best I could tell from reading over this material—and if you think this material is small you’re wrong! It really is…There’s more of that than there is of the Bible that it’s commenting on—
HODGES: [laughs] yeah…
KUGEL: But you know as I try to piece things together, this was at least less explicitly said about these texts than the first three things. You can find these assertions easily enough, but for one reason or another—it probably came in a little bit later and became, in any case, an important thing to say only at a later stage.
HODGES: So, roughly speaking about when time-wise did these particular assumptions start to lock in, and what were the ways of reading these books before those assumptions? So, how did they represent changes?
KUGEL: Well, now that’s a very tricky question! If we were to start at the beginning…In talking about these ancient interpreters, I’m talking about people whose writings were never part of the Bible. They’re called in English, they have this very unwieldy name of the biblical Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.
The Apocrypha are actually printed with a number of Christian bibles and they’re books that really seem to have been part of scripture for a long time and eventually Jerome separated them out because the Jews with whom he had studied, separated them out.
The Pseudepigrapha is a much less easily defined group of texts and much bigger. But it includes such things—I’ll name my favorites, the Book of Jubilees that was written probably right around the year of 200 before the common era, or the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs that were written later than that, maybe the first century. There is the Book of Ben Sira or Sirach—its part of the biblical Apocrypha. He was an interpreter of scripture as well as a classical sage. And so on and so forth.
Before all of that, we have evidence of interpretation going on within the Hebrew Bible. Later books interpret and make mention of earlier books and sometimes they make mention of them so you can see that they’re already interpreting according to these same principals. So, that would take you back a good ways and into the thicket of modern theories about how biblical books came to be written.
HODGES: So, these four assumptions get locked in and then we have schools of interpretation and different interpreters, and you’ve referred to this…is this what you refer to as the “Interpreter Revolution”?
KUGEL: Absolutely. Before these people came on—we do know something about how biblical books were interpreted, and it was, I sometimes—I don’t think I talked about this in that book because the image occurred to me a little bit later, but generally we think about the text of what became the Hebrew Bible as a kind of great funnel. By “we” here I mean modern biblical scholars. Modern scholars know that almost every book in the Bible underwent a process of editing and revision, in fact much editing and revisions [laughs]. So, that according to many modern scholars, our book of Isaiah used to be considerably shorter. So did the book of Jeremiah, and on and on. So, that was kind of at the top of a great funnel where you could add twenty-seven chapters to the book of Isaiah and nobody would complain—or at least we don’t know of anybody complaining.
But as time went on, you couldn’t really modify the text too much. This brings me to that great fount of information recently discovered—the Dead Sea Scrolls. And we look at the Dead Sea Scrolls and we can see that by the time these were being written, texts were taking something like their final shape. You could add in a little thing here or there—a clarification, a gloss, try to correct what you saw as an inconsistency. We have text of plenty of biblical books that seem to be following those marching orders.
But the big changes—what I used to call “the heavy lifting” of the most ancient scribes and tradents of biblical books, that stuff was done. Until finally you get to the bottom of this funnel and you can’t change anything. They are really standard texts. And eventually even the pronunciation of every word came to be written down and defined, at least in Hebrew. So, it looks like a funnel that really closes at the bottom.
But that’s wrong, the whole image. I made up the image and now I’m telling you that it’s wrong!
KUGEL: What really happened was somewhere around the middle of the funnel, there suddenly appeared these ancient interpreters. Here they are in the third century before the common era and they’re saying “yeah, that’s what the text says and I’m not going to change what the text says, but I’m going to tell you what it really means is not what it sounds like it means.”
And so, the great freedom to change the texts became even greater with these interpreters. You didn’t need to fiddle with the words, you just need to explain them in a new way. And that freedom of course lead not only into Rabbinic Judaism, but also into Christianity.
HODGES: That’s James Kugel. He’s a former chair of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University. He’s also an emeritus professor of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature at Harvard University. He’s written or edited over a dozen books on the Hebrew Bible and its interpreters. He’s one of the most celebrated biblical scholars of our time, and today he’s joining me here at Brigham Young University talking about the book How to Read the Bible.
So, what happens is people…Interpreters of the Bible, people that are looking at the Bible, start to notice problems in the text that demands some sort of explanation. Differences in accounts, for example the miracle at the Reed Sea is depicted in one account in naturalistic terms and in another depicted miraculously. Talk about some of these other examples of things that people started noticing in the text.
And it happened pretty early on too, for example the five books of Moses talk about Moses’s death for instance. That’s pretty hard to do if you assume Moses wrote it, did he wrote about his own death. [laughs]
KUGEL: Right. [laughs] Of course that had an easy enough answer, Moses was a prophet, he certainly could foresee his own death. But more generally, what we’re talking about is two completely different approaches to understanding the text.
The ancient interpreters were immensely significant. They established the way the Bible would be read for centuries and centuries into the future. The early Christians inherited their approach—the earlier interpreters’ approach to the Bible—and expanded upon it. Eventually medieval Christian interpreters were famous for having four different understandings of each and every verse in the Bible. I think in practice, that was never upheld, but the classical examples were the word “Jerusalem.” What does that mean? And literally it means a city and then it has an allegorical meaning and anagogical reading on and so forth. So, that fourfold exegesis was a hallmark of Roman Catholic interpreters throughout the middle ages.
What really changed things? You know, I’m not sure there was any one particular thing that really changed things. I used to talk about the Renaissance and eastern European thought, which started—even when it started is disputed by historians today, but let’s say starting in the 14th or 15th century certainly.
And originally the Renaissance was focused on texts. Not biblical texts, but what we would call a classical text. Suddenly they had access to ancient writings of Greek philosophers in Greek and they were able to learn Greek.
One of the things that really helped was the inventing of the printing press. And then you could just get a nice manual about how to read Greek and a basic vocabulary all written in Latin which everybody knew and the same thing happened with Hebrew. “Do-It-Yourself Hebrew” suddenly became a Christian occupation. And they had up until then the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin that was done by Jerome. It was called…well he liked to refer to it as the Hebraica Veritas, the Hebrew Truth. He had studied the text in Hebrew and rendered it into his own beautiful Latin.
But now people said, “Well, you know, I don’t see why Jerome translated this word that way.” And those kind of questions lasted for about fifty years, and then people started saying, “Well, Jerome was wrong and I’m going to translate it and I’ll translate it better!” And that coincided with the search for vernacular translations—things that everybody could understand because they would in a debased form of Latin that was French or Italian or whatever.
That, in any case, that was the spur to the Bible taking its place in a list of complaints that the earliest Protestants had about the Roman Catholic church. The famous things, the things that Americans learned in high school, include corruption in the church and paying money to attain forgiveness or more money to attain high office in the church, and the church’s ownership of great huge tracks of land. But the Bible also had a role in that. People said, “Well, you know the way the church tells us to interpret the Bible—not just in Jerome’s translation, which was really a pretty faithful translation—” but in the Glossa Ordinaria, a kind of standard way of reading these verses with all the meanings that I mentioned allegorical and so forth. They said, “Well now, maybe this guy Abraham doesn’t represent anybody’s soul. He was just a historical person who lived.”
And that became a way of hitting the Papacy over the head. If these interpretations are all wrong, why should we listen to them, why should we listen to the church officials who expound them? And out of that, in part, developed the Protestant Reformation. And so it became a real preoccupation to just read the Bible on its own terms. To read the words and understand them for what they say and forget about all these old traditions of interpretation.
I’m being a little sloppy in my formation, it didn’t all just happen like that. And certainly traditional interpretations continued for quite a while. But this was really the beginning of the movement that we call modern biblical scholarship.
HODGES: What were Jewish interpreters doing at that time while the Protestant Reformation was underway?
KUGEL: They had had their problems a little bit earlier. Jews used to live in great numbers in Arab lands, and of course once Islam started in sixth, seventh centuries, it became a kind of agenda item of early Islamic writers to show why the Qur’an was so much better than either Christianity or Judaism. And they had some good arguments and so the Jews really had to defend the Bible against the Islamic onslaught.
As well as there was kind of break within Judaism, and the movement that’s called Karaism had already started. That was really in an odd way a defense of Judaism in the face of Islam but at the expense of the writings of these ancient Rabbinical interpreters.
So, that all had played itself out in the tenth and the eleventh, twelfth century. By now, they too were interested in what the words meant because a lot of traditional interpretations had been—at least some of them—had been based on a faulty understanding of Hebrew grammar. The Arabs studied the grammar of Islamic Arabic, which was not the language that they spoke, it was similar, but they needed to establish the rules of the grammar of the Qur’an. And Jews said “well, we could do the same thing.” And they began to study the grammar of biblical Hebrew and distinguish it from later periods of Hebrew. And all this caused them to have a new appreciation of the literal meaning of the text. And so that’s pretty much where they were before even the Protestant Reformation came along.
HODGES: Through this period of different approaches to learning and knowledge, people start noticing, as they’re reading the Hebrew scriptures, differences in the text or fissures in the text. What are some specific example of those that people today might not even be particularly aware of?
KUGEL: I guess I might approach this from the other side and tell you some great interpretations that had existed that came to be rejected.
KUGEL: I guess everybody knows the story of Adam and Eve and in that story, God tells Adam you can eat anything from this garden here, but that tree that’s right in the middle of the garden, don’t eat any of the fruit of that tree because on the day that you eat of it, you will die. “On the day that you eat of it, you will die.” But that, that isn’t really what happened. Adam goes on to live a healthy life of 930 years and—
HODGES: It’s pretty good!
KUGEL: —we don’t know how old Eve was but I assume she must have been pretty much that old. You know, I’d like to be punished like that.
KUGEL: So, they had to figure out what that meant. And there were two common interpretations. One was that when God says, “on the day,” he’s not talking about one of our days, you know 24 hours, but a day of God’s. And how long does the day of God’s last? According to some, God’s day lasts a thousand years, “a thousand years are in your sight like an evening gone, like a watch at night,” it actually says.
So then if God says to Adam “on the day that you eat of it” he might mean in that thousand-year period that you’ll at some point die, and if he did live to the age of 930 then he died sometime in the late afternoon of one of God’s days.
So that was a good explanation but there was ultimately another one that was even better. And it was, not that you’ll fall over dead, not in that sense on the day, but “on the day that you eat of it, you’ll become mortal.” And this explanation works if you assume that human beings were originally put into this garden to live forever. There is a tree there called the tree of life. We’re not really told what it’s function was but maybe eating its fruit would just keep you living forever and ever. But they ate the other fruit and were kicked out of the garden. And ever since then human beings have been mortal.
Well those were two wonderful explanations and a good example of the way these ancient interpreters interpreted. And of course, this was a very important assumption for early Christians. They weren’t probably the first people to put it forward, but whatever. It ended up being a great theme of Christianity.
Now these people came along and said, “Well, no, you know “on the day of”—these early modern scholars said it’s just a way of saying when you eat of it you will die. And whatever the else that meant, it didn’t necessarily mean either of these two. Maybe God was just the same sort of bad parent that I was, you know, making vain threats or things that took a while to be—punishments that took a while to be carried out. They didn’t necessarily have a better explanation but that might be a good example of the way everything was now looked at in new light.
I mean, you mentioned earlier the crossing of the Red Sea and the Red Sea parted, but now people began to read those different accounts and some people said “maybe the sea really didn’t part,” or maybe it was just the kind of—as the Bible text itself says “there was a strong wind that caused the waters to become passable and maybe not exactly dry, and all the rest is Biblical exaggeration,” maybe this sort of thing that some modern scholars say.
HODGES: Those type of things can, for some people, undermine confidence in the overall book. And so we’re going to start to see defenses of the Bible be put forth because of the assumption that the text needs to be perfect in order to be the word of God, right?
So if the assumption went from—you talked about how every word then was assumed to have come from God, and God needs to be trustworthy, and so God wouldn’t mis-report crossing of the sea or how many animals Noah was supposed to take on the ark, whether it was two or whether it was seven, and so some apologetic solution starts to get proposed. Maybe you could give us some examples of these.
KUGEL: I’d say, frankly, this conflict between trying to read—you know there are no bad guys in this story. These modern scholars are, oddly enough, for the most part themselves clergy men. There weren’t quite yet clergy women at the beginning. Or even more typically the child or children of clergy people. They were just caught between the desire to find out everything they could, and on the other hand, to uphold the religion.
One of the most influential of the early modern scholars—well not all that early, end of the nineteenth century—was a German scholar named Julius Wellhausen. In general, Germany, that is to say, Protestant Germany, was a real home of modern biblical scholarship in the nineteenth century as it is today. And Wellhausen taught at a religious seminary. And he wrote a famous letter of resignation in which he said, “I started off studying the Bible because I thought it was important for people who are going to be clergy men to know everything that we can find out about the Bible. And now after some years I realized that I’m not preparing them to be good ministers at all. I’m only putting more doubts into their head and that’s not what I set out to do.”
And fortunately I think he had another job waiting in the wings. He became a professor [laughs] of history, of the Old Testament. But that’s a conflict that’s been around since before Wellhausen, really from the beginning of modern biblical scholarship.
I talked about translations as the beginning, but really this kind of critical approach as to when biblical books were put together and by whom and for what purpose, I guess we could date that to the beginning of the nineteenth century. And it continues to this day. I guess the goal of many scholars [laughs] is what I once called “having your Bible and criticizing it too.” And it does have a certain contradiction inherent in it. And consequently, there’s a certain amount of double-talk that goes with a lot of biblical scholarship. “Yes, it says this, but on the other hand, look at this redeeming feature.”
HODGES: And so this is kind of the conflict that continues today, these problems that crop up between historical criticism of the Bible and investigations of the Bible’s, culture, context, archaeological discoveries, comparisons to other literature from times and locations similar to the Bible, things in the Bible that seem to be based on human error and these type of things that undermine confidence in the relevance for the Bible today.
And one thing that you’ve written here, I have a quote from you where you say, “The Torah’s divine character is not an issue that modern biblical scholarship can ever seek to address. It’s entirely a matter of belief.”
So you seem to, instead of plowing into biblical scholarship in order to bolster faith in the Bible, you sort of separate those two activities and say that faith in the Bible is separate from the historical investigations that you’ve done in your own work. Is that an accurate description?
KUGEL: Well I think that is, but I might put it little differently, kind of more concretely. If we had a video tape of Moses standing on Mount Sinai and hearing the word of God and then going down the mountain, we still wouldn’t know if he was really hearing the word of God. That’s just a matter of belief. I said in that book that “words are words.” They don’t come with little flags attached that would tell you, “this is a word that God says and no, this is the word that human being says.” They’re all words as human beings say and that God spoke them to Moses or to any prophet is really a matter that’s not given to scholarly investigation. And let it be said, to their praise, that modern scholars don’t talk about that. No modern scholar I’ve ever heard of says, well, this part of Isaiah was written by God and this part of Isaiah was written by somebody else.
HODGES: They don’t have a Red Letter Bible edition where it’s like [laughs] the things by God are in red…
KUGEL: Right. [laughs] That would be horrible idea.
HODGES: [laugh] Then I won’t propose that to you.
Okay, but to continue on that same one, here’s another quote from you where you say, “My own view is that modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are, and must always remain, completely irreconcilable. The whole attitude underlying such speculation is alien to the spirit of Judaism.”
Can you expand on that to talk a little bit more about what you mean by the “spirit of Judaism”?
KUGEL: Well [laughs], a lot of people despise me for having said that!
HODGES: Yeah, this is why I picked this quote out, sorry [laughs].
KUGEL: But I really think it’s true. I think to begin with, Judaism—I mean, if we can go back to those ancient interpreters, Judaism pretty much canonized those ancient interpreters, or the ones who were the students of the students of the students of those interpreters, who created what we call Rabbinic Judaism, which is the form of Judaism that has survived basically to this day. And it holds that those interpretations really are a part of the text.
Modern scholars are intent on interpreting what the text really means, but the traditional position of Judaism is “we don’t need to be told. We already have what it really means!” Or to maybe put it a little more realistically, the text and the ancient interpretations are all, as it were, one book. And to take those interpretations away from that book and say “it’s just the words on the page of your Bible that the Bible consists of,” is completely inconsistent with the whole idea of scripture and Judaism.
And it wasn’t very different for early Christianity. It was not the words on the page or even the words as memorized, but the words plus the interpretations. And then they got to be standard Christian doctrines—dogma that was taught by the church. But that all changed with the Renaissance and that new way of thinking.
I don’t mean to say there wouldn’t have been modern biblical scholarship if there were not Reformation. I don’t believe that’s true. In fact, one of the great modern scholars was Spinoza, who was a Jew, and in his famous Tractatus he lays out in Chapter seven and eight what could well be called the marching orders of modern biblical scholarship ever since.
So this would have come up. But I think if it was only a matter of Jews fighting with Jews and not taking into consideration the Biblical scholarship of Christians following the Reformation, it would have been a different kind of dispute and might have ended differently.
I could mention in this connection a kind of counter-example, which is Islam. People have been studying about the Qur’an. I mean to say about the Qur’an, how it came, in what order the different Surah’s were written. Most of this research was done by Jews or at least by non-Muslims. And it’s had absolutely no effect, as best that I can see [laughs] on Islam is a religion. They say, “well, it’s obvious that the Qur’an is the most sacred book because it’s the most beautiful book,” an argument you don’t find among Christians or Jews, “and it doesn’t need any verification.” So the discussion pretty much ends right there.
HODGES: So what happens when say there’s a young Jew who’s been taught all his life that Moses wrote the five books of Moses and then he goes to school and learns about the Documentary Hypothesis. The idea that there’s these different authors who contributed to what eventually became those five books, and the student says, “well, it’s not what I’ve been taught my whole life and I’m just going to bag this. I don’t see how this could be the word of God.” I’m sure you’ve encountered people that experience that kind of thing. What’s your response to that? How do you address that?
KUGEL: Again, I would say how these Biblical text got started off is a matter of a person’s own belief. If you believe that there is a God, then you might believe—as I’ve heard some Jews say—that God, this God doesn’t speak to human beings, that all of scripture is really just the human reaction to the ineffable divine.
And I understand that, but I don’t share that. I think that the divine is all together “effable” and, in fact, I think “ef’s”! [laughs] God speaks! And I did once say to an exponent of the other view that I just mentioned, “I don’t know who’s vision or who’s understanding of God is more absurd, yours or mine? I believe in a God who can speak to human beings and you believe in one who can’t.” But in any case, this all remains in the realm of belief.
However these books came into being it is that interpreted Bible—the Bible plus these interpretations—that really constitute the Bible in Judaism. And in that way it is very different from, I think, most mainline Protestant views of the Bible. So I really don’t think that those two views are combinable.
HODGES: That’s James Kugel. He was chair of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel before he retired. Today, we’re talking about his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now. We’ll take a break and come right back.
[COMMERCIAL: Hey, this is Blair Hodges, host of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. During this interview, you might hear some ambient noise in the background like a bit of wind, car passing by. That’s because Kugel met with me out on the porch of the Brigham Young University’s new Guest House on campus. It was late afternoon for me but it was around three in the morning for Kugel who was in town from Israel. He and Biblical scholars Peter Enns and Candida Moss visited the Maxwell Institute to talk about the relationship between biblical scholarship and religious faith. Is it possible to approach the Bible critically and religiously and how do you do that? The presentations they gave in this workshop will appear in the next issue of the Maxwell Institute’s journal, Studies in the Bible and Antiquity which is due out by the end of the year. A digital subscription to Studies in the Bible and Antiquity—as well as the rest of our journals—costs just ten dollars. You can get your digital pass at mi.byu.edu/subscribe.]
HODGES: We’re speaking today with James Kugel. I’m here with him at Brigham Young University, he’s visiting campus and we’re talking about his book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now.
I wanted to ask you about how—in your own life—how devotional study works. Because you study the Bible in your work, in your scholarship, but you also study the Bible devotionally, religiously. And I wondered if those were of a piece, or if there’s a different mode that you employ for those different tasks.
KUGEL: Well I perhaps should have said at some point that religious study, at least in orthodox Judaism, is not often focused strictly on the Bible itself. People read the Bible along with—well, it used to be along with the Aramaic translation of the Bible that sometimes explained things in the spirit of these ancient interpreters, and now they very much read the Bible in the light of a certain medieval Jewish scholar named Rashi. And he wrote what has ended up being the definitive…It bothers me that that’s so, a definitive interpretation of the text. Not that he wasn’t a great interpreter but there were others and I guess—
HODGES: You see it as a foreclosure of other possibilities—
KUGEL: Exactly, that’s exactly the right word. And there are anthologies of interpretations where Rabbi so-and-so says this and Rabbi X says that, and it’s not definitive in that way and that’s why I love it. I like reading those ancient interpreters and trying to figure out what’s on their mind, what they’re saying.
But actually when it comes right down to it, after a certain—after you advance to a certain stage, other books that are not canonical in the normal sense but are in Judaism, become the focus of study. And in particular, a book called The Babylonian Talmud. It’s not “a” book but many volumes long. It talks about interpreting scripture but mostly it’s about interpreting Jewish laws set forth in an earlier book called the Mishnah. So that’s what most advanced Jewish scholars spend their time studying.
HODGES: So devotionally, do you spend more time in the Hebrew scriptures? Like when you think of worshiping God, what sort of text do you go to or is your worship quite different not textually based in general?
KUGEL: Worshiping God…and again in Judaism this is, it is—it had something in common with Christianity for a while, but now the two are quite different.
For Jews, worshiping God involves a kind of recipe list of things to do from the minute you get up in the morning until the time you go to bed at night. There are all sorts of things that you have to do. You know, Christians pray in a rather unimpeded fashion, whatever is on their mind. Jews have a set prayer. And it’s not short! You know, if they go to synagogue they usually start early in the morning six thirty, seven in the morning and they just go—each person reads, they either read collectively or each to himself or herself, about an hour’s worth of prayers. Then [laughs] it gets to be the afternoon and you go back to the synagogue and then that’s a shorter service but it’s going to take twenty minutes, whatever. And then there is the evening prayers.
And that’s just prayer, but there are all sorts of other ritual acts that Jews perform. And not just ritual, but there’s the ethical side too. You have to give money to charity for example—alms giving, and it’s again a sort of tradition to give something every day. It doesn’t have to be a lot but you have to at least think to do it. And in talking to a Mormon audience, I know [laughs] this is a big part of Mormon religiosity too.
But then all those laws in the Torah that tell you not to hate your brother in your heart and to love your fellow like yourself and to love God with your whole heart—you know, these are things that Jews, at least in theory, not always in practice, are supposed to carry out every day. There are laws governing relations between parents and children or between and neighbors.
I mean, I sometimes am jealous of those contemplative Eastern religions where what you have to do is sit on this mountain top and look out for the next twenty years and attain enlightenment, but that isn’t Judaism. Judaism is all about the messy things of daily life, the hurly-burly that we all are in the midst of. That’s where you carry out—or at least try to carry out divine law.
HODGES: In your work you’ve tended to buck convention I think in a lot of your books. I’m thinking of your first book The Idea of Biblical Poetry which you said a lot of people didn’t like when it came out because it was presenting some new ideas. Do you feel like you often play the role of an iconoclast of sorts in the academy when you’re dealing with Judaism and scripture?
KUGEL: I just like to think that they’re a little slow to pick up on what I say [laughing] but I guess I’d hope that eventually, just as a lot of them anyway came around to understanding how Biblical poetry works as I tried to explain it, maybe they’ll also come around to see the decisive importance of these ancient interpreters and the religion that we still practice.
HODGES: Do you feel like you want to find something new? Or is this just like in the course of your studies as you’re working on a book, it just so happens the way you’re coming up with isn’t really following typical lines?
KUGEL: I mean, if I can go back to Biblical poetry, I knew what people were saying at that time. And I was really interested in poetry when I was a kid. I mean, that was sort of what I studied as an undergraduate, not the Bible but modern poetry. So I knew what they were saying was wrong. It wasn’t that I like to be an opponent. But I figured if I just thought about it for a while I might be able to figure it out and it took longer than I thought. And it’s also the case that in the course of working on that I got side-tracked. I wanted to just solve the riddle of Biblical poetry because it didn’t seem to have rhyme or any kind of fixed meter and yet, obviously, it had some sort of system. But in the course of working on it, I became interested in what people had said throughout the ages.
It’s strange but way, way back in antiquity, people had theories about how Biblical poetry worked—much of it nonsense—
KUGEL: —but I got hooked, and that’s how I—one of the ways I got into fixing on these ancient interpreters.
HODGES: What are some quick thoughts about writing for a scholarly audience versus a popular audience? And you’ve done both, but some scholars wouldn’t really turn to the more popular things. What are your thoughts on that?
KUGEL: Well, they’re a little bitter, I guess [laughs]—
KUGEL: I’ve come to believe that the best place that you can hide a good idea is in a popular book because no scholar will ever read it, or if they do, they’ll certainly never quote it. So not a lot of people quote How to Read the Bible but I think a lot of people read it.
In general, and perhaps more and more as I’ve grown older, I really want to write for that intelligent but not necessarily professional reader. People really just—they want to be told the straight dope. At least as best as I can tell it, and in a way that they can understand it without too much jargon. I guess for How to Read the Bible and a couple of books I’ve written since then I really have a kind of twofold approach. I try to explain things—not simplify them, just explain them as best as I can in the body of the text, and then in the footnotes to refer to other people and try to show the reader why those other people are all wrong. [laughs]
HODGES: [laughs] There’s been some negative responses to How to Read the Bible. There was even some controversy at Yeshiva University which is sort of a flagship of Orthodox Judaism. I thought it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on some of the negative things that have come about as a result of the book?
KUGEL: I like to remember this moment that took place after How to Read the Bible had been out for a couple of years. I was invited—I like to talk in public. And I’d given a lot of talks about that book or about the subject to which the book is devoted. But I was invited after a while to a Reformed synagogue I remember on 68th Street in Manhattan. And you know I didn’t think that anybody there will be terribly bothered by modern Biblical scholarship since that figures in a lot of Reformed Judaism study of the Bible. But in the audience—there were a lot of people there—but I could see this fellow in the back who was dressed like a traditional ultra-Orthodox Jew and I kept wondering, “what’s he doing here?” And he was holding a little bag in his hand and I thought [laughs] it could be a gun. But afterwards people came up to me and they have me sign copies, which I like to do. And he just kind of stood there and in the end he came up to me and he said, “I bought your book and I found it very disturbing and I went to see my rabbi and he said I committed a terrible sin and the only way to atone for it would be to throw the book down the sewer.” And he said, “not too many sewers in New York will take a 700-page book” [laughs], but he said, “I did. I threw it down the sewer.” And then he reached into his bag and he picked up the paperback of How to Read the Bible and he said to me, “this is my second copy. Will you sign it?”
And I was so moved by that because that’s exactly the person I wrote this book for. I think there are people who really—Jews and Christians—who really want to know the truth and put it in what I saw as its proper larger historical framework which they’re not usually exposed to. And in the end I just—you know, I don’t think anyone should be afraid of the truth. Ultimately I think—this may be my own stupid idealism—but I think everybody ultimately wants to know the truth. They may try to spin it this way or that way so that they can live with it, but that’s what we’re all after. And certainly it’s what I’ve been trying to say about the Bible.
HODGES: The interesting thing is, some people go through the same type of arguments you make in this book can come out the other end not able to believe anymore in God or in their faith. And then other people like you, who have been through the exact same data and looked at the exact same arguments, come through with faith intact. Have you been able to identify what makes the difference for people?
KUGEL: I think—All I can say is, in this book I tried to lay out what I think as clearly as possible. And I have to say I went into that tunnel of modern Biblical scholarship then I came out the other end the same way I went in.
It’s true that when I read a Biblical text now, I’ve got all these other things in my head, so it can’t be that kind of naive reading that I used to have. But I’m not sorry for that and I don’t think anybody should be. I think, really, the basic things that we believe remain in place and are a faithful guide to finding out as much as we can about these texts.
HODGES: The last question I had before we go is, as you look back over the course of your career and you continue to talk about these issues—and so you’re still working—but as you look back over the course of your career, what stands out to you as—that makes it worthwhile, that makes your journey worthwhile to you? What do you look back on with fondness?
KUGEL: I guess I’ve changed. I originally wasn’t so interested in the teaching side of being a professor. I really liked writing from the beginning. There all these people who say “publish or perish,” that was never a problem for me. I like writing things. But I guess over the years I’ve come to really like teaching also. I love teaching at Harvard. I thought those undergraduates were just so great, so much fun to teach them and after a while email came in [laughs] and they didn’t flock to my door for office hours but they did love sending the emails. And still now I have a website and people send me emails and they’re mostly friendly [laughs]. And so I like teaching in that sense too.
And when I began teaching in Israel I just had this feeling every time I walked into class, I would have to teach in Hebrew— which was their native language—and I just felt it was such a privilege to be able to do that. And even now that I’m retired, I still live in Israel, and retirement in Israel means you keep on teaching for no money [laughs] and so I do teach a little every year. And I still get that same thrill.
HODGES: So you mentioned your website. People can check that out I believe it’s jameskugel.com, is that right?
KUGEL: Right. I’m a little embarrassed by the name. I really wanted to make it—I didn’t want to do anything but my publisher—when I wrote How to Read the Bible said you really have to have a website. So we tried to get “howtoreadtheBible dot com but that was already taken [laughs].
KUGEL: But I like my website. I’m really trying now to think about ways to change it. I encourage people to write to me and they do sometimes, but I really like it to be I don’t—I never liked the idea of a blog, but maybe something like that to make it an ongoing conversation rather than just “here’s what this week’s Torah reading means.”
HODGES: Are you working on any other books or anything?
HODGES: Good. Do you have any coming out soon that people might be interested to check out?
KUGEL: I think the next one is probably—God willing—a year or so away. But you know if you reach a certain age, you don’t take anything for granted and certainly not publication.
HODGES: Is it another book about—
KUGEL: It’s different. I hate to say it but it’s kind of theological [laughs].
HODGES: You hate to say that it’s kind of theological! I guess you’ve been doing this kind of work so long that a theological book seems a little bit out of school.
HODGES: And I should mention too, people have heard cars driving by and sirens and stuff we’re actually sitting on the porch here at the BYU guesthouse at Brigham Young University. And I really appreciate, Jim, the fact that you took the time today. I should mention also that the time zone is quite different. You’re coming over from Israel so it’s early in the morning for you maybe two or three o’clock in the morning and here we are in the afternoon for me. So I really appreciate you doing this.
KUGEL: Well, my wife likes to say I automatically speak in units of fifty minutes a piece [laughs] so this wasn’t too difficult.
HODGES: So people can check out Jim’s book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now and he’s also participating in a roundtable here at BYU, the paper of which will appear in Studies in the Bible and Antiquity which is a journal that Neal A. Maxwell Institute for religious scholarships so people can check that out.
Jim, thanks again for doing this.
KUGEL: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)