Friday, February 11, 2011

A bicameral bible?

How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, By James L. Kugel.  Free Press, 2007.  Pp. 819.  $35.00 cloth.

This book is disquieting. What if what makes the Bible biblical is not anything contained in the text itself, but rather a certain way of reading the bible that emerged during the intertestamental period? That is, the Bible is or has been Scripture not because of what it contains but because of how we read it. James Kugel calls this a massive rewriting of the Bible. No words were changed, but the community gathered around the text changed the way they read the words, and this in effect rewrote the Bible. Kugel believes this is precisely what the Jewish and Christian communities have done. It is what he terms the ancient interpretation of the Bible.
The fact that we now know that the ancient interpreters did this, and can perceive it with such clarity, is a result of the “extraordinary intellectual achievement” of modern biblical scholarship. Although Kugel is uncomfortable and disquieted by his own conclusions, nevertheless he recognizes that the intellectual achievements of modern biblical scholars like Julius Wellhausen, Hermann Gunkel, and W.F. Albright are on a par with the intellectual achievements of Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. Courageous in their willingness to challenge long held beliefs, they forever transformed the way we read “the central text of Western civilization” (663).
Most readers will know that the ancient and modern approaches to biblical interpretation differ considerably. College and seminary students are often introduced to historical critical method while studying Scripture, and modern methods of biblical interpretation pepper popular conversations on faith and Bible—think of the Jesus Seminar. Simultaneously, most preachers and other readers of Scripture go about their daily lives reading (sometimes unawares) according to the methods of the ancient interpreters.
Just how different the two approaches are remains a matter of debate. At least some biblical scholars and theologians find ways to weave the two approaches (ancient and modern) together in creative fashion. Kugel’s argument, however, argued compendiously in this volume, is that the difference between the two approaches is not simply a matter of degree, but of kind. Almost as if there are two different Bibles, the ancients’ and the moderns’, “the words of each Bible are exactly the same, but they turn out to mean something quite different” (134). Kugel is concerned that modern readers of the Bible want to have it both ways—they want to read the bible as divinely inspired and be open to or keep in mind the modern approach. They want “to have their Bible and criticize it too” (677). Kugel argues, finally, that this is an impossible and naïve stance. One simply cannot have their cake and eat it, too.
James Kugel, an Orthodox Jew, believes that modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are irreconcilable. Although he himself studies modern biblical scholarship professionally, as a person of faith he believes it is irreconcilable with Jewish practice. In place of modern biblical scholarship, he offers the idea of “Oral Torah.”  He writes, “Judaism has at its heart a great secret. It endlessly lavishes praise on the written Torah, exalting its role as a divinely given guidebook and probing lovingly the tiniest details of its wording and even spelling… Yet upon inspection Judaism turns out to be quite the opposite of fundamentalism. The written text alone is not all-powerful; in fact, it rarely stands on its own. Its true significance usually lies not in the plain sense of its words but in what the Oral Torah has made of those words; this is its definitive and final interpretation” (680-681).
Christians might call this Oral Torah the regula fidei or Rule of Faith. The Bible does not stand alone, it is not itself that which the community worships; instead, it is the text in and through which the community discovers how to serve God. It is the service of God itself that is holy, rather than the text (685).
By now any reader of this review can see why Kugel’s book is so disquieting. It challenges many cherished and closely held beliefs on every side of biblical hermeneutics. Modern scholars will be disquieted by Kugel’s assertion that the Bible should or still can be read as a book of faith, irrespective of their insights. Ancient scholars, fundamentalists, and orthodox readers of all stripes will be disquieted that Kugel has read modern scholarship enough to know there is no going back—after such knowledge faith becomes something new and different, and the scholar who spent time with such knowledge can’t get back to Kansas any more, at least not with a tap of their heels.
Kugel’s book is much more than simply a long argument for this thesis, however. For the most part, this book is precisely what the subtitle indicates—a guide to Scripture. Kugel methodically walks the reader through the entire Hebrew Scriptures. Each chapter reads a specific text in light of the ancient reading first, then the modern reading second. Kugel periodically plays these two readings off each other, and very intermittently inserts commentary highlighting how different the two readings are.
Journeying together with Kugel through these texts is wonderful. Every page brings profound insights. For example, Kugel reads the ancient interpreters and discovers that they believed that the rock that Moses struck in the desert for water, the waters of Meribah (Exodus 17:1-7Numbers 20:2-13), was actually a traveling rock. The best way to reconcile the tension between a variety of texts on the matter was to posit a traveling rock that somehow moved or was transported wherever they went in the wilderness wanderings. This rock travels with them as long as Miriam is alive, and when she dies, this becomes the well of Miriam.
Lest we think this is an interpretation only to be found in ancient Jewish interpretation, however, Kugel reminds us that Paul himself believed the same thing, “I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all… drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). So the assumptions of the ancient interpreters, and their methodology, is informative for a Christian reading of the Old and New Testament. Kugel spells out these ancient assumptions in an opening chapter. The four primary assumptions, according to Kugel, are 1) the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text, 2) the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day, 3) the Bible contains no contradictions or mistakes, and 4) the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text (14-15). Although each of these assumptions is more nuanced than these quick summaries, even the short definitions give the reader an idea of how the ancient method of interpretation continues to shape and influence contemporary readings of Scripture.
            Kugel’s book is so long that they could not fit all of the content in the print version. He has made an additional essay on “Apologetics and Biblical Criticism,” as well as the full bibliography, errata, and reviews, available at his web site,

Previously published in Word and World: Theology for Christian Ministry


  1. Very interesting. Makes me wonder how Jennifer Wright Knust's new book would hold up against either ancient interpretation or modern biblical scholarship. Just based on articles in CNN, Newsweek, etc, having not read her book, I have to say it sounds pretty much like a rehash of arguments I first encountered in Peter Gomes' /The Good Book/ - arguments I imagine are more common to Religion 101 courses and bestsellers than anything else. "Not that there's anything wrong with that..." (

  2. Anonymous3:19 AM

    Thanks. I have heard about this work in many places, but your post has helped me decide to order the audio book from You make it sound quite inspiring.