How to Read the Bible by James L. Kugel
How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now
by James L. Kugel
Free Press. 848 pp. $35.00
James Kugel has had an interesting career. In the early 1970’s, he served as poetry editor for Harper’s magazine while pursuing graduate work in the historical-critical study of the Bible. He went on to teach the latter subject for many years at Harvard before moving full-time to Israel, where he now directs the Institute for the History of the Hebrew Bible at Bar Ilan University. He is also an Orthodox Jew—and for a professional Bible scholar, as he frankly admits at the outset of his massive, massively erudite, and very entertaining new book, this is a problem.
Kugel’s first major work was The Idea of Biblical Poetry (1981), but he really made his mark with The Bible as It Was (1997), a brilliant and sympathetic account of the interpretive techniques of such ancient readers of the Bible as Philo, Josephus, the rabbis of the Talmud, the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the authors of the New Testament, and dozens of others.* All of them, Kugel argued, shared a basic approach. They did not passively read the biblical text; instead, they rewrote it, filling in its narrative gaps with fanciful back-stories and subplots, and treating difficult phrases as jumping-off points for leaps of moral sermonizing, theological fancy, and legal innovation. In the Jewish tradition, the results of this interpretive exercise became part of the “Oral Torah,” supplementing the “Written Torah” of Scripture. In Christianity, a similar exercise forged the connections between the “Old” and New Testaments.
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