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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? Not at all, replies Spinoza. Scripture should always be assumed to mean (unless clearly proven otherwise) exactly and literally what it says. Does Scripture have lessons for us today? On the contrary, Scripture can be understood only in the context of its own time, and presumably some portion, perhaps most, of what it says was never intended as “eternally valid” but only applied to people living then (or even just some people living then”“a few”). Is Scripture perfectly harmonious and without error? Hardly. Prophets contradict one another and seem to agree only on a few essentials; moreover, some of the things the Bible says contradict our current understanding, including modern science. Is all Scripture divinely given or divinely inspired? Spinoza was cagey in answering this question, but the subsequent tradition has clearly come to view belief in divine inspiration as a pious impediment to genuinely critical attitudes.

The great bulk of How to Read the Bible offers a readable and informative introduction to the Hebrew Bible from Genesis to Daniel. Throughout, Kugel allows both ancient and modern interpreters to have their say. Over hundreds of pages, readers have a chance to judge for themselves. Is the old way of reading nothing more than piety posturing as interpretation? Are the efforts of modern historical scholars interesting, relevant, or even trustworthy? Which assumptions should we adopt when reading the Bible”the ancient commitments to the Bible as a divinely given text, or the modern view that the Bible is best understood as documentary evidence for inquiry into an ancient culture?

For all its wonderfully learned accounts of ancient and modern interpretations, How to Read the Bible is transparently autobiographical, because these questions are the author’s own. Kugel has spent his adult life trying to live as an Orthodox Jew and read as a modern scholar. It has not been easy. He sees that the modern tradition of scholarship does little to help him make sense out of the Bible that he chants as Scripture at synagogue. And yet he finds many results of historical study compelling. Something like the documentary hypothesis (the idea that texts such as Genesis were formed out of older strands of tradition, such as the J source and the P source) seems an unavoidable conclusion. How to Read the Bible is really his life project: to show “how a person might go about honestly confronting modern scholarship and yet not lose sacred Scripture in the process.” This can be done, he suggests, by keeping “your eye on the ancient interpreters.”

The image is irenic. A balanced approach suggests itself. We are to take modern scholarship seriously but not lose sight of the old ways of reading that were so important in the origins of Judaism and Christianity. But, after hundreds of pages, as if finally convinced of the results of his lifelong experiment of weighing modern history and ancient exegesis, Kugel begins to hint at sharp distinctions and decisive choices.

Whether or not one is convinced by this or that conclusion of modern biblical scholarship, as a tradition of reading it cannot be incorporated into living religious communities. There is a spiritual parting of the ways, he suggests, that separates ancient from modern traditions of interpretation. The old ways of reading involve “learning from the Bible,” while modern critical approaches end up “learning about it.” Ancient interpretation teaches us to live inside Scripture; modern reading keeps its distance.

This difference makes all the difference. “The whole approach of modern biblical scholarship,” Kugel gathers himself to say, “which is predicated on disregarding the ancient interpretative traditions of Judaism (and for that matter, Christianity) and rejecting the four fundamental assumptions that underlie them, must inevitably come into conflict with traditional Jewish belief and practice.” The spiritual parting of the ways is fundamental. We can’t live both inside the Bible and outside at the same time.

“My own view, therefore,” Kugel reports, “is that modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are and must remain completely irreconcilable.” We are not just to keep our eyes on the ancient interpreters. We should sit at their feet and accept their tutelage. Kugel does not prohibit historical questions or asking questions about “what really happened.” However, he says, “I would not mistake such things for what is foremost. They are rightly the province of specialists, people who (like me) got bitten by the bug.” Better, perhaps, not to receive the bite. “Happy the reader,” he writes, “who can open the Bible today and still understand it as it was understood by those who first proclaimed it the Bible.”

Who could have imagined back in 1982, when Kugel was appointed to his chair at Harvard, that an eminent scholar of the Bible would so forthrightly affirm the indispensable importance of so-called precritical interpretation and dismiss historical-critical study as the odd preoccupation of a few specialists who are interested in legitimate but religiously unimportant questions? It’s a striking conclusion for a man who has spent decades teaching the Bible in a fiercely secular American university. What are we to make of it? Are traditional Judaism and Christianity at odds with modern biblical scholarship, so much so that they are “completely irreconcilable”?

One feels that Kugel overdraws the contrast with ancient interpretations. It is not at all clear that modern interpretations of the first chapter of Genesis as a priestly document organized to emphasize the Sabbath inevitably conflict with older readings that focus on the divine construction of the universe. On the contrary, the architecture is ordered toward the Sabbath. As St. Thomas put it, grace perfects and does not destroy nature.

Yet Kugel sees a real problem, or at least he sees it in outline. The great chasm of difference is a matter of exegetical atmosphere rather than historical techniques or even interpretive conclusions. Modern scholars want to master the Bible. We can see this in their often smug conclusions. “Well,” we are told, “this or that biblical story is really about sustaining the ideology of the Jerusalem cult.” In contrast, religious readers want to be mastered. The Bible is doubtless about many things, including cultic ideologies and every other spiritual, moral, and political web that human beings spin around their restless desire for and rebellion against God. But for those who read in order to serve God more fully, the Bible is first and foremost a divine gift and trustworthy guide.

This spiritual difference is becoming more and more obvious today. It has nothing to do with whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or whether Isaiah is a compilation of diverse prophetic material from different eras. It has to do with what we let the Bible say to us. On this point, Kugel is surely right. The old influence of liberal Protestantism on elite graduate programs in biblical studies has come to an end. We now see either an aggressive indifference to the religious interests of biblical readers or postmodern theoretical gestures posing as theology. These days it is plain to see that a modern tradition of interpretation does not train readers to hear the Word of God in the Bible, even in its darkest corners. One reads purely and proudly as an outsider. This sensibility, this interpretive stance, is irreconcilable with the path charted by ancient readers. They read with the assumption that the Bible has the power to make us insiders. It is the path that faithful Jews and Christians continue striving to walk down.

R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.

Photo by Vassia Atanassova via GNU Free Documentation License. Image cropped.