Interpreting the Interpreters

James Kugel's first-class book on the Bible is exhaustive without in the least seeming exhausting.

How to Read the Bible, A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, by James L. Kugel, The Free Press, 833 pages, $35

At a rough estimate, James Kugel's class on the Bible and its interpreters enrolled about 15 percent of the undergraduate student body of Harvard College at any one time. One of the enrolled, some time in the early to mid-nineties, was my Roman Catholic roommate; no stranger to reading the Bible (either testament) himself, he spent most of the semester in a constant state of, one should excuse the expression, revelation.

Kugel's encyclopedic knowledge of how early Jewish and Christian thinkers transformed the Biblical texts into the "interpreted Bible" we all know today - the one in which Eve is holding an apple, in which David wrote the Psalms, where Isaiah's mention of a young woman's pregnancy becomes a proof of virgin birth - showed his students how the Bible has been read for the better part of two millennia. But beyond that - as I learned myself when, under the influence of Chris' raves, I took a seminar with Kugel - by focusing on the logical discrepancies, grammatical curiosities and ostensible extraneities that served as grist for the ancient interpreters' exegetical mill, he (masterfully) taught his students nothing less than how to read the Bible itself. With attentive, loving, but critical care.

I mention all this not only to get the mandatory full disclosure out of the way, but to point up the tension at the heart of Kugel's latest (and, perhaps, greatest) book on the Bible intended for a popular audience. True, those traditional interpreters' "four assumptions," as Kugel puts it - of the Bible's fundamentally cryptic nature, its eternal relevance, its internal harmony, and its divine nature, have been the working standard for centuries of how to read the arguably central text in Western history. But Kugel's undergraduate audiences at Harvard, and now Bar-Ilan, Universities - and certainly his graduate students, his academic colleagues, and even an increasing number of general readers - have implicitly or explicitly increasingly fallen under the growing influence of a diametrically opposite set of assumptions, championed by a very different set of readers.

Modern Biblical critics, during the last century and a half, have insisted that the Bible essentially says what it means; that it did so for the needs of a particular audience of its time(s) and place(s); that it was composed, stitched together, and reworked by different hands for different purposes. The challenge to the final traditional assumption of divine authorship, and thus the book's authority, follows, if not neatly, with what feels like inevitability.

Or does it? Kugel's own personal beliefs (and, I believe, his deep love of the early interpreters' magisterial accomplishments) demand he try to thread the needle, to provide space for people of faith to believe in the Bible and its teachings without willfully ignoring the monumental amount of research that often poses a shocking challenge to that faith. Kugel's scrupulous intellectual honesty - and his genuine admiration for these careful, loving, attentive readers of the Bible - demands he state their case with full rigor. And so he does; while "How to Read the Bible" certainly devotes significant space to the ancient interpreters' readings and transformations of Biblical episodes, Kugel has covered this ground before, perhaps most exhaustively in "The Bible As It Was" (1999). Here, most of his energy seems given over to presenting a full account of what these modern scholarly readers have to say.

Light and playful tone

And I do mean "full account": Though modern Biblical scholarship is hardly my area, it seems that "How to Read the Bible," which is loosely structured by the (Hebrew) Bible's various books, uses that structure to present a staggering summation of, to misquote Matthew Arnold, the best that has been thought and said about the Bible in modern scholarship. If you're interested in a first-class summary of the documentary hypothesis (basically, the assumption that the Pentateuch is composed of a series of different documents edited together), check out chapter 19. A brief survey of Egyptology and its relation to the Exodus story? Find your way to chapter 13, "Moses in Egypt." Contemporary local legal codes, like the laws of Hammurabi, Eshunna or Lipit-Ishtar, and their relation to Biblical law? All there in chapter 17. And more, and more and more beyond that: from Genesis straight through to Daniel, with occasional detours to Mesopotamia, Milton and the Land of Oz (it makes sense when you read it).

Though it's hard to accuse an 800-plus page book of brevity (it's longer, I suspect, than the Hebrew Bible itself; though, to be fair, Kugel shows us how the Bible's economical style is key to its interpretable power), the book feels exhaustive without in the least seeming exhausting. Part of that is certainly due to Kugel's light tone, playful without ever being unserious. (My favorite moment - each reader will have his or her own - is his imaginative exegesis of "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" as a messianic allegory, to illustrate how ancient interpreters transformed the Song of Songs into a religious text.) But it's also due to an uncanny ability to give us a sense of the churning and fractious scholarly debate that lies beneath all of his judiciously presented conclusions, observations, and judgments: To say that this would be the college course you never got to take about the Bible would be damning with faint praise; it would be the college course, graduate seminar, and reading for comprehensive exams you never got around to all in one. It may be the best popular book about these modern critics ever written; it's certainly one of the best popular books on the Bible in many years.

Irreconcilable differences

But Kugel also never lets the reader forget that his whirlwind tour is, simultaneously, a bill of indictment: With every demonstration of another seeming editorial "patch" by Biblical authors to reconcile two ostensibly contradictory texts, with each quote from another stele with language suspiciously similar to - or divergent from - the Bible's, another brick is added to the wall Kugel tells us he will attempt to vault in the book's final chapter. It's a challenge he keeps referring to throughout the book, stoking our interest - and raising our expectations - for an answer worthy of the question he's posed: Can people of faith reconcile their Bible with modern scholarship's?

Not to give the ending away, but the answer is clearly "not really"; Kugel himself ultimately suggests that "modern Biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are and must always remain completely irreconcilable." (Neither evangelical nor liberal Christianity's solutions for reading the Bible in a modern scholarly age get particularly high marks, either.) A less ambitious writer - or less deeply thoughtful believer - might have left it at that, with avowed expressions of admiration for both approaches. Kugel's own diffident approach is to draw on his almost uncanny intuition for what his beloved first interpreters must have felt, to suggest that we have forgotten what they knew: that what the Bible really means is what they, the first readers to see it as a coherent account of God's instruction, understood it to mean. Modern scholarship, then, for all the truth of its findings, all the undeniability of its arguments, is not wrong, but simply and greatly beside the point. Or, in Kugel's own words: "I certainly have nothing against exploring 'what really happened' and how the Bible came to be written, but I would not mistake such things for what is foremost."

Perhaps what can be said for the approach is that it's the best answer possible under the circumstances, even if it's a hard one to ringingly endorse, and will, as Kugel glumly knows, satisfy few believers and non-believers alike. Most of the former, even while accepting the "interpreted Bible" as the one they cherish, can hardly accept the apparent circumscription at best (and effacement at worst) of divine authorship and authority implicit in Kugel's approach; and the latter, even if agreeing with Auden's dictum not to read the Bible for its prose, are unlikely to go so far as to sanctify ancient artful readers at modern critical ones' expense.

Kugel might diagnose the contemporary inability to ignore these modern readers' lessons as an (understandable) failure of imagination or of ingenuity; and his ingenious and, yes, imaginative work here may not have helped bring us around to supporting his ultimate and ultimately personal solution. But his magnificent efforts to help us understand this distant and ever-relevant world, to present it in such vibrant detail, transform Kugel into another distinguished figure in the line of Biblical interpreters he so cherishes.

Jeremy Dauber is the Atran Associate Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia University. He is the author of "Antonio's Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment" and "The Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature," and the co-editor of Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History.