Sunday, July 06, 2008

Four Assumptions Created the Bible: a Lecture by Prof James Kugel

James L. Kugel (1945-) is chair of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel and the Harry M. Starr Professor Emeritus of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature at Harvard University. (Wikipedia) He's also an Orthodox Jew.

Prof Kugel has written 15 books; his latest is How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

Kugel demonstrates not only thorough and exhaustive research, but an open and accessible writing style. I heard him speak tonight about his new book at a lecture given on behalf of the Bat Kol Institute (website currently down). My only previous reading of his work was his book In Potiphar's House, which examines how midrashim originate and change over time.

Midrashim are interpretive texts on the bible written throughout history. In particular, important midrashim were written from two to three centuries B.C.E. until a few hundred years C.E. These midrashim form the basis of how nearly all Christians and Jews interpret the bible today.

According to Kugel, the basic texts' original meanings may have had nothing to do with our current interpretations.

For instance, using the same text we have today, the original Adam and Eve story, when compared with similar texts and similar versions of the text in the same period, is a story about moving from a hunter/gatherer culture to an agricultural one, from naked beasts to humans in clothes. Today, it is nearly universal to read this story as a tale of "the fall" from a state of innocence to sin. How did this happen? Gradually; and amazingly, without changing the text.

As what we come to know as the biblical texts were brought together, assumptions as to how to treat the texts crept in. These assumptions caused textual problems and that's when the midrashim arose.

The four assumptions are:

1) The texts are cryptic and symbolic.
2) The texts are prophetic and homiletic.
3) The texts are consistent.
4) The texts are divinely inspired/given.

Give these assumptions, interpretations were needed to explain when the plain meaning of the texts didn't appear to reconcile with these assumptions.

For instance, in the Adam and Eve story is the sentence by God that "on the day they eat of the Tree, they will surely die". This didn't happen in the narrative, so what gives? How do you interpret the text so that it's perfectly consistent? Was God making an idle threat? Was it God's mercy? Can we use the interpretation that a unit of time "day" is not meant in human terms (which we can pull from various sources in the Prophets: 1000 years = day to God)? The latter doesn't answer why the delay of the punishment. The Rabbinic midrashic answer which best fits became the standard interpretation: the text means "you shall become mortal" i.e. a dying creature, not "you shall die".

A later question then asks (as now the interpretation gives rise to its own problem): why did their descendants become mortal? Is mortality hereditary? The answer that fit best: sinfulness was heredity (so, in fact, the punishment is continuous onto each generation). Sinlessness is not possible outside garden.

Early Jewish, pre-Cristian sources agreed with this; in the battle of interpretations, this won out, like a Darwinian species. 4th Ezra, a Jewish text, concurs with this interpretation, for example. Later, the rise of Christianity forced this interpretation out of Rabbinic interpretation.

The text is now no longer about hunting and agriculture, but about morality. The same text, with a different interpretation.

Similar re-interpretations can be made for Abraham being the father of monotheism, Jacob being a "good guy" (and King David), and texts such as "eye for eye", various prophesies, the Psalms, and so on.

Modern biblical scholarship in a product of the Renaissance. Knowledge of Hebrew and Greek began spreading to Christian scholars. They became the first challenges to Jerome's Latin translation of the bible from the 4th century; people could now do their own translations and decide that Jerome was wrong. Protestantism met this movement, putting interpretation into individual hands (scripture is holy, not the pope).

Then these hit the enlightenment and science (Hume, et al). Protestantism had no easy answers to radical interpretations by individuals (hoist on its own petard, so to speak). Then came modern archaeology. Then came biblical critical scholarship which matched and compared biblical texts to other ancient texts. Biblical texts now just looked like one set of texts among many others from the same period.

For a man of faith, how do we deal with these four assumptions and yet also accept modern scholarship about biblical texts?

Kugel's suggested answer is that what you read depends on what meaning you're looking for in a text. Text is interactive between a reader and a text. The original texts didn't change, but the interpretive reading of them did. That means that "The Bible" didn't exist until interpretation was imposed onto a text. Bible scholarship is not about "The Bible", it's about the biblical texts, which are not the same thing as "The Bible". When a critical scholar drops the four assumptions to critically read the text, he or she is dealing with a different entity than The Bible.

In my view, it's still a hard leap from there to divinely inspired interpretation imposed onto a set of texts. It means that the texts were divinely inspired when written but only recognized for what they meant when they fell into the right hands; or that the divine inspiration was taking the tools (texts) that were lying around and forming them into what was required.

Kugel's answer to the question as to how he remains Orthodox, is that the early Talmudic scholars were aware of all this. They took texts, decided what to keep and what not (sometimes changing their minds), imposed interpretations on what they knew wasn't the original interpretation, and were fine with it. Consider the midrash about Moses looking into a class by Rabbi Akiba, and not being able to follow along. So if they could do it and be religious, so can we.


1 comment:

Gerald McD said...

Excellent report! Sounds like a most interesting and intelligent presentation. Thanks for the neat summary.