How to Read the Bible, Chapter 1 by James L. Kugel

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In 2016 I started a project to read the Bible, including the book How to Read the Bible, by James Kugel. I began by writing chapter-by-chapter summaries of this information-packed book while reading the Bible at the same time. This year, I have restarted my project and restarted the book, hoping for better results – is that insanity? This time, I will read this book first (along with other supplementary books) and THEN begin the Bible. This is intended on being a multi-year project, as my attempt to “read the Bible in a year” proved too difficult.

In his first chapter, Kugel describes the content of the Hebrew Bible. It is partly a history of the people of Israel, starting at the very beginning of time. Interspersed within this history are many laws of the Hebrews. A third aspect of the Hebrew Bible is the pronouncements of various prophets, and a fourth aspect is the writings of Israel’s sages (the “wisdom writings”). The final aspect of the Hebrew Bible is prayers and songs of thanksgiving.

Kugel suggests that an allegorical reading of the Bible was not originally intended by the Hebrews. It was meant to be exactly what it was – a mixture of history, laws, prophetic statements, and prayers. The allegorical meaning came later when the Hebrews wanted to make the Bible seem up-to-date. The Jewish commentator Philo of Alexandria (ca. 30BCE-Ca. 55CE) was a leader in allegorical interpretation. An allegorical interpretation was especially important to the Christians, who wanted the Hebrew Bible to fit their new faith (for example, predict as much as it could about Jesus) and be applicable to the present day. Soon, Christians had a belief that each passage in the Bible could have four-fold meaning – the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.

Biblical interpretation until the Renaissance was left to scholars, as the general population couldn’t read and didn’t own Bibles. This is why, when more people began to learn to read, and had more access to printed word, many long-held interpretations of the Bible were overturned. This, of course, helped stimulate the Protestant Revolution.

Another revolution in Biblical interpretation came with the scientific arguments of Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Science seemed to be able to unlock the secrets of life without divine revelation – and it even suggested that some of the points written in the Bible were false.

In his introductory chapter, Kugel points out that there are some confusing or conflicting passages in the Bible; therefore, four assumptions were made in ancient times to interpret the Old testament and get rid of these inconsistencies.

Assumption 1: The Bible is a fundamentally cryptic text, and there is hidden meaning.

Assumption 2: The Bible is a book of lessons meant to apply to our own times as well as the time in which it was written.

Assumption 3: The Bible contains no contradictions or mistakes.

Assumption 4: The Bible was divinely inspired.

These assumptions have lasted through time. However, in the late 1800’s, after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and other revolutionary and “heretical” scientific theories were being discussed, people started questioning these assumptions. Was the Bible indeed verbally inspired (that is, did every word of it come from God, or just the basic idea)? Clearly, the Bible contained “errors” or inconsistencies in the text. Also, did Moses really write the Pentateuch?

The question of who wrote the Pentateuch is one of the touchiest subjects in modern Biblical scholarship. Some reasons to believe that Moses, indeed, did not write the Pentateuch is that he would have had to know things that he couldn’t possibly have known during his own lifetime. Counter-arguments suggest that Moses is a prophet, so of course he knew things that he wouldn’t have normally known. Another questionable section is when the Bible states “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3). Would such a humble man write that about himself?

Many modern Biblical scholars believe that the Pentateuch was written by at least four or five different authors over a period of centuries. Two of the authors can be identified by the way they refer to God: some parts of the Pentateuch referred to him as “‘elohim” other parts referred to him as “Yahweh.” The author who referred to God as “Yahweh” is now called J, and the author who referred to God as “‘elohim” is now called E. The author of Deuteronomy (who had a different writing style and apparently lived in a different era, based on knowledge of the past) is now called D. On top of all that, style analysis showed that there was yet another writer – one who was a priest and focused on laws – who is now called P.

The purpose of the rest of Kugel’s book is to describe modern vs. classical interpretations of the Bible, in reference to specific passages.

8 thoughts on “How to Read the Bible, Chapter 1 by James L. Kugel

  1. I remember you blogging about this the first time around. I am a non believer who finds the Bible fascinating. This book sounds fascinating. I like the assumptions. I am not sure I agree with him, but In The Book of J, Harold Bloom theorizes that the original version of the Pentateuch was written by a noble woman who was part of King David’s court.

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