How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scrip­ture, Then and Now

James L. Kugel

  • Review
By – December 12, 2011

Essen­tial to basic Jew­ish lit­er­a­cy is a broad famil­iar­i­ty with both the Hebrew Bible and the Rab­binic tra­di­tion. Two new books have recent­ly emerged to help nav­i­gate these two vast, var­ie­gat­ed and dis­tinct, yet relat­ed, bod­ies of literature.

In How to Read the Bible, Har­vard pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus James L. Kugel presents a thor­ough sur­vey of the Hebrew Bible, its con­tent, author­ship, his­to­ry, schol­ar­ly con­tro­ver­sies, and ancient inter­pre­ta­tion, fash­ioned after an intro­duc­to­ry course he taught at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty for over twen­ty years. Through­out its chap­ters, Kugel explores how mod­ern bib­li­cal schol­ars unpack the bib­li­cal text, employ­ing his­tor­i­cal lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, the fruits of mod­ern archae­ol­o­gy, as well as the com­par­a­tive study of ancient Near East­ern texts, to uncov­er the sto­ry of the Bible’s ori­gin, intent, and his­to­ry of com­po­si­tion. Kugel match­es this nar­ra­tive with an account of how the ancient Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian inter­preters of the Hebrew Bible read mean­ing into the Bib­li­cal text, an account he more ful­ly devel­oped in this volume’s ear­li­er pub­lished com­pan­ion, The Bible as It Was (Har­vard, 1997). In How to Read the Bible, Kugel tells a third sto­ry which in many ways brack­ets the work as a whole, one deeply per­son­al to the author, who has ded­i­cat­ed his life to both the reli­gious prac­tice of Judaism and the aca­d­e­m­ic study of the Bible. How can the con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish stu­dent of the Hebrew Bible find rel­e­vant and res­o­nant mean­ing in a sacred text that mod­ern bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship con­tex­tu­al­izes and there­by rel­a­tivizes, and whose own non-tra­di­tion­al truth claims under­mine the the­o­log­i­cal author­i­ty of Scrip­ture? Writ­ten in a lucid, col­lo­qui­al style, sea­soned with humor­ous anec­dotes and ample illus­tra­tions, How to Read the Bible aspires to pro­vide not only an acces­si­ble and com­pre­hen­sive schol­ar­ly intro­duc­tion to the Hebrew Bible and its mod­ern and ancient study, but also a con­tem­po­rary mod­el of how to read sacred scrip­ture amidst the oppo­si­tion­al pulls of mod­ern schol­ar­ship and tra­di­tion. How to Read the Bible is writ­ten for a pop­u­lar audi­ence, but not for those with tra­di­tion­al reli­gious sen­si­bil­i­ties, as Kugel’s intro­duc­tion duly warns. Notes, index.

Mar­tin Sicker’s An Intro­duc­tion to Juda­ic Thought and Rab­binic Lit­er­a­ture has sim­pler aspi­ra­tions. It presents an ency­clo­pe­dic expo­si­tion of the rab­binic tex­tu­al tra­di­tion that has shaped 2000 years of reli­gious Jew­ish civ­i­liza­tion and arguably com­pris­es Judaism’s fun­da­men­tal intel­lec­tu­al lega­cy. From the Hebrew Bible of the Rab­bis to its midrashic inter­pre­ta­tion and medieval com­men­tary, from the ear­ly legal orga­ni­za­tion­al efforts of the Mish­nah and its Tal­mu­dic analy­sis and expan­sion to the lat­er cod­i­fi­ca­tion of Jew­ish law, An Intro­duc­tion effec­tive­ly defines terms, describes pur­pose, and pro­vides crisp exam­ples of the pri­ma­ry gen­res and exem­plars of rab­binic lit­er­a­ture. While oth­er such intro­duc­tions to rab­binic lit­er­a­ture have been pub­lished before, An Intro­duc­tion seeks to strike a prop­er bal­ance between com­pre­hen­sive­ness and man­age­abil­i­ty. Though not cur­rent to the lat­est aca­d­e­m­ic schol­ar­ship on rab­binic lit­er­a­ture and its his­to­ry, An Intro­duc­tion is writ­ten for the begin­ner adult learn­er who requires an intel­li­gent, clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed, basic intro­duc­tion to the rab­binic tra­di­tion. Index, notes, references.

Addi­tion­al Books Fea­tured in this Review

Ben­jamin J. Samuels, rab­bi of Con­gre­ga­tion Shaarei Tefillah in New­ton Cen­tre, MA, teach­es wide­ly in the Greater Boston area. He is also a doc­tor­al stu­dent in the Sci­ence, Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gion” Pro­gram in the Depart­ment of Reli­gion at Boston University.

Discussion Questions