Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cryptic, relevant, perfect, and divinely granted

I'm reading a fantastic book, a wonderfully accessible introduction to the minefield - or is that the roller-coaster - that is Biblical studies, James Kugel's rather boldly entitled tome How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (Free Press, 2007). Kugel's point of departure is that what we think the Bible is, is in fact the work not of the writers of the Bible (whoever they may have been) but of "ancient interpreters" living from the 3rd century BCE to the 2nd century CE, whose "four assumptions" (14-15) continue to shape the reading of the Bible for most Jews and Christians today:

1. They assumed that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text: that is, when it said A, it often really meant B....
2. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. It may seem to talk about the past, but it is not funda- mentally history. It is instruction, telling us what to do…
3. Interpreters also assumed that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes. It is perfectly harmonious, despite being an anthology; in fact, they also believed that everything the Bible says ought to be in accord with the interpreters’ own religious beliefs and practices (since they believed these to have been ordained by God).
4. Lastly, they believed that the entire Bible is essentially a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly or through His prophets.

Kugel weaves back and forth between the interpretations of rabbis (and some New Testament and early Christian church figures) on the one hand, and the discoveries and hypotheses of historical scholars of the last two centuries. As he makes clear early on, they do not converge - the "documentary hypothesis" is particularly poisonous for traditionalist views - nor are they ever likely to. But he also doesn't force a choice on the reader (at least not in the first 300 pages). It may be that he's also leaving open the choice to anchor one's religious life and practice not in the world of the writers and editors of the Tanakh (which ain't what it used to be), but in that of the interpreters who made the Bible into the Bible around which our traditions grew. Is that really an option?

PS I've finished it now (20/2), and Kugel does indeed argue that it is the ancient interpreters who made the Bible, and that their "supreme mission of of serving God, of being God's familiar servants" (685) - of which fashioning Scripture was part - is what a religious person should reproduce; scholarship leaves no other really "biblical" alternative. What modern scholarship has excavated "is not so much the Bible as the pre-Bible ... [and] if indeed the Bible has changed again" because of modern scholarship "it has actually turned into something the Bible never was" (766n20). "[M]odern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are and must always remain completely irreconcilable" (681), and the same, by extension, goes for most Christianity.

Without [the ancient interpreters'] changes, would there even have been a Bible? That seems most unlikely. Why should anyone seeking to worship God devote himself or herself to reading the etiological narratives and political self-puffery of a civilization long dead, the guerilla tactics and court shenanigans of various ancient kings, law codes endorsing herem and the stoning of a rebellious child, or statutes forbidding Molech worship and similarly outdated concerns, psalms specifically designed to accompany the sacrificing of animals at a cultic site, or erotic love poetry? All these texts underwent a radical change in meaning when they began to be interpreted in the somewhat quirky, highly creative, and altogether God-centered approach of ancient scholars in the late biblical period? The original meaning of these texts disappeared. In a sense, ancient interpreters rewrote every one of them, even though they did not change a word. (518)

We need to own the work of the ancient interpreters, who made the Bible into scripture, for whom

Scripture is, and always has been ... the beginning of a manual entitled To Serve God ... The very idea of Scripture, I wish to say, was at its origin an expression of a certain way of apprehending God - not the fleeting, frightening way in which the God of Old was encountered, but the way of coming before Him in constancy as His familiar servants. (685)

But of course - I feel I must add - there isn't just one Bible. Precisely because of the approach of the "four assumptions," Christians and Jews shouldn't read even those texts they share in the same way...

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