Last night over 150 people braved the icy streets and sidewalks and made their way to the 16th Street J to hear James Kugel speak about his new book How To Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture as a part of our Nextbook program. From 1982-2003 Kugel was the Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University and one of his former students in attendance last night said that his lecture was a neat condensation of many of the major themes from his popular course on the Bible and its interpreters. Leavened by humor and amusing anecdotes, Professor Kugel outlined how our conception of the bible was shaped by early commentators to suit their own purposes and how elements that we consider part-and-parcel of certain biblical narratives are really the work of those early interpreters. He then outlines how much of modern scholarship has been about explicating the sources of these early interpretations and outlining how many parts of what we consider original to the bible have origins in earlier narratives. Taking this out of the realm of ivory tower academics and into the realm of people who engage with the bible as an essential text, Professor Kugel writes:
Modern readers of the Bible are thus caught between two opposite ways of reading. On the one hand, the ancient interpreters’ way is crucial for what most people still wish to believe about the Bible and its message. On the other hand, the way of modern scholars, which seems to make good, scientific sense, has undermined a great deal of what those ancient interpreters said. So what are we to do? If we adopt the modern scholars’ way of reading, in a very real sense the whole Bible will be undone — much of its ethical instruction, its basic commandments, prophetic visions, and heartfelt prayers will turn out to be something other than what they have always seemed; indeed, the divine inspiration of all of Scripture will be seen to be undermined. But surely we cannot simply hide our heads in the sand and pretend that modern scholarship does not exist. And so an enormous question now poses itself to both Jews and Christians: How to read the Bible? That is the subject of this book.
Don’t miss the upcoming Nextbook event with Ori Z. Soltes speaking about Art and the Holocaust on Monday, March 10. He will read from his book The Ashen Rainbow:Essays on the Arts and the Holocaust.