How to Read the Bible (Kugel)

Book #6 on my Top 10 List is How to Read the Bible, just like book #5. But this one is by James Kugel, not Marc Brettler. On the JPS blog I identified this one as “a responsible opposing viewpoint.” Here’s why. Kugel writes:

This book is about understanding the Bible from two radically different points of view—that of the Bible’s ancient interpreters and that of modern biblical scholars.

Brettler’s book, then, tells you “How to Read the Bible” according to the way modern scholars understand what the biblical texts were originally intended to mean. Kugel’s book will add a second layer of understanding—what those same texts meant once a radical shift in understanding had taken place: the shift that turned a library of ancient texts into “The Bible.” From Kugel’s perspective (it seems to me) Brettler’s book might have better been called “How to Read Biblical Texts” or something of the sort.

I’m recommending it for a number of reasons:

• Kugel’s writing is a pleasure to read, and he is a top biblical scholar.
• It’s an excellent introduction to biblical interpretation in the ancient world.
• It is also an attempt to reconcile the two methods of understanding.

One clue that Brettler’s book is about the biblical texts and Kugel’s about “The Bible” is the table of contents in each book. Though both men begin their discussions of the Bible with Genesis and proceed more or less in order, Brettler’s chapters discuss topics or specific books; Kugel’s works through the biblical stories. Brettler spends 30 pages (out of 283) on Genesis and another 35 on the rest of the Pentateuch; Kugel takes 150 pages (out of 690) on Genesis and another 165 on the rest of the Pentateuch. And that’s nothing compared to his mammoth Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as It Was at the Start of the Common Era, where Genesis gets 450 pages–half the book. (In my Hebrew-English JPS Tanakh, Genesis takes 111 pages out of 2023–5%, not 50%.) From Brettler’s perspective, all biblical texts are “equal” in the eyes of modern scholarship; for Kugel, all the texts are biblical, but some are more biblical than others.

Brettler and Jon Levenson (book #3) both discuss the problem of how religious people should look at modern scholarship on the Bible. But that question is not intrinsic to their books, as it is to Kugel’s. If that question is not important to you, at least dip into Kugel’s book and give yourself the chance to be drawn in by his scholarship and his writing. If it is important to you, you’ll at the very least find a thorough discussion of that issue here.

For more on the web:

• a talk by Kugel discussing his perspective
• a challenge (from an Orthodox perspective) by the estimable Moshe Bernstein
• a response by Kugel (both of the latter two from the Yeshiva University newspaper)
• Kugel’s web site

If you’re interested in early biblical interpretation but would like to start with something a little slimmer, try Part One of Kugel’s In Potiphar’s House.

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2 Responses to “How to Read the Bible (Kugel)”

  1. Bible and Torah « The Bible Guy Says:

    […] The Bible Guy a learner's guide by Michael Carasik « How to Read the Bible (Kugel) […]

  2. Sacred or Secular (Part 2) « The Bible Guy Says:

    […] recent essay in the Jewish Quarterly Review on James Kugel’s book How to Read the Bible, book #5 on my list of 10 books to get you started learning about the Bible. First, a bit of […]

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