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Friday, September 26, 2008

For Interpretation

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/26/08 at 09:10 PM

I finished James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible! And I’d like to spoil it for you. Alert! Kugel carefully and rather effectively, I think, holds off on his conclusion till near the end, only making his first pass at it at the ¾’s mark, in his discussion of the Song of Songs, and holding off on a complete presentation to the last chapter. What a fitting place for a conclusion! Nonetheless, he managed to keep me in suspense, and I imagine this technique worked well in the lecture version, making for a dramatic last session.

The dramatic tension of the book is announced in its subtitle, A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. Of course the tension of the story is, which is correct, then or now? And in setting up this tension at the beginning of the book, Kugel is careful to identify himself as an Orthodox Jew, creating a sense in the reader that despite his prodigious career in modern Bible scholarship, the book will come out in favor of the ancient interpreters. Which it unsurprisingly does, but in a way that raises some surprising ideas.

“Then” = what Kugel calls the Bible’s “ancient interpreters,” a group of mostly anonymous editors and commenters who operated from the late Biblical age, starting in 300 BC, when the book was being compiled and the last texts were being written (he’s working with the Jewish Bible, which is no surprise considering he’s a practicing Orthodox Jew) to 200 CE (and what might be surprising is that he includes the New Testament writers in this group). The “ancient interpreters” were the folks who took the cryptically spare stories of Genesis et. al. and came up with the basic interpretations that hold to this day. For example, in the Babel story, the ancient interpreters decided that the tower was the key element, whereas in the text the city and the tower seem equally important, if not the city moreso. And the ancient interpreters decided that the motivation for the tower was to challenge the Lord’s dominion in heaven, whereas in the text their declared motivation is to establish their name and enduring presence as a distinct people.

According to Kugel, the ancient interpreters worked from four assumptions: (1) “that the Bible was a fundamentally cryptic text: that is, when it said A, it often meant B,” (2) “that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day,” (3) “that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes,” and (4) “that the Bible is essentially a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly or through His prophets.” These assumptions were the hermeneutic keys whereby the under-developed original stories became full-bodied narratives.

“Now” = modern Bible scholarship, an undertaking began in the late 19th century, mostly in Germany, and carried on to this day by scholars such as Professor Kugel. Of course anything modern connotes disenchantment. Many see modern biblical scholarship as desacralizing the scripture. But that was not its original intention, nor is that the intention of most of its contemporary practitioners. In the beginning, modern biblical scholars saw themselves as breaking through the incrustations of thousands of years of interpretation, as getting through to the original texts and the true divine meaning. Using advancements in linguistics and archeology, modern scholars can separate strata within texts that otherwise seemed unitary or connect features between texts that otherwise seemed distinct. To return to the Babel example, the modern scholar sees in the story an obvious reference to Babylonian ziggaruts, and sees the city, rather than the tower, as the point of emphasis. The story becomes an etymological parable, a kind of myth common in ancient cultures. Babylon (babel in Hebrew) gets its name because God confused (balal in Hebrew) the speech of the Babylonians to put a stop to their venal, cosmopolitan sprawl. The story is a classic complaint from the country against the city.

Though I was expecting Kugel to come out in favor of “Then” in his conclusion, he made a couple of surprising moves in reading his judgment. First, he grants that the modern scholars have come as close as possible to ascertaining authorial intention. For example, the authors of the Song of Songs intended to write erotic love poetry. But he argues that with the Bible, authorial intention is irrelevant. These texts were not the Bible till they were gathered together by their ancient interpreter editors, and these texts are not the Bible outside the interpretations made by those editors. Their interpretations transformed texts whose original uses are mostly mysterious to us into a scripture with a new sense. To separate the texts from their biblical interpretations (the “Four Assumptions”) is to make them non-biblical.

This conclusion makes sense to me, and it is probably non-problematic to non-believers. But from a literary point of view, it would make the Bible a quirky text, one in which interpretation held absolute domination over intention.

But there’s one thing that does itch at me. There is a personal level to the issue Kugel touches on only rarely. What then is the point for a believer to be doing modern scholarship? How does Kugel negotiate this disjunction in his own mental life? If his life story were a novel, that would be a central tension in the story. Perhaps he has addressed this issue in more depth elsewhere, but it hangs about How to Read the Bible like the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room.


Various asides in How to Read the Bible reveal that Kugel is well aware of the disjunction between his occupation and his religious stance. He treats himself with self-deprecating irony as if to admit that his activities as a modern Biblical scholar are just a hobby, albeit a fascinating hobby. Which is the inverse of the attitude of some non-religious Jews I’ve met who are fascinated with Talmudic disputation but ultimately think of practicing it as the equivalent of solving English crossword puzzles.

By Jim Harrison on 09/27/08 at 12:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I imagine Kugel addresses this point, but modern scholarship seeks not only to remove the incrustations of centuries of interpretation, but also to recover, insofar as possible, the original sources. The first four books of the Torah, in particular, are generally seen as composites skillfully (and sometimes not so skillfully) woven together by one or more unknown editors. The contemporary scholar I like most who works with the documentary hypothesis is Richard Elliot Friedman. The real action, imo, in Biblical studies lies not in interpretation, per se, but in the study of redaction.

The issue you raise at the end of your post is one, of course, that caused Wellhausen (who working with centuries of observations concerning contradictions, various uses of the different names for God, and style, originated the documentary hypothesis) to doubt whether he should be teaching seminary students—many of them apparently had crises of faith.

I consider the issue of how the Bible (as seen as a unified work) is received as more a matter of social and cultural research than one of interpretation, because any interpretation positing a unified work is to me untenable. In other words, what is interesting, imo, is what factors led to certain interpretations to hold sway with various peoples in various times and places rather than the strength of the interpretations themselves. Likewise, it is less interesting to make the mental gyrations necessary to treat the Bible as a unified work than to dig into the historical and cultural factors that led the Redactor (or Redactors) to make the decisions they did. Knowing something about the struggle between the northern and southern kingdoms, or the political exigencies of the various rulers appears to explain much more about Biblical shifting emphases than to try to force a coherent all-encompassing interpretation on what, after all, often appears to be texts working at cross purposes. To put another way—so much has to be ignored for much of traditional Biblical study to make sense.

Jack Miles wrote a masterful biography of God—_God: A Biography --, but to do so he had to accept what he believes is the fiction of its unified nature. So while enjoying the book, I also wondered, what’s the point? It’s an interesting tour de force, but. ...

The issue of whether this study makes the Bible unbiblical—well, that’s a matter of individual faith. It’s interesting that many respected Biblical scholars are believers. For a while they were mostly protestant, but ever since the Divino Afflante Spiritu issued in 1943, many Catholic scholars have delved into the historical and cultural issues pertaining to the ancient writers without losing their faith. The marvelous thing about faith is, of course, it can account for anything. Is it less believable that God worked through a Redactor than are the various supernatural and miraculous events recorded in the Bible?

By on 09/27/08 at 01:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"But from a literary point of view, it would make the Bible a quirky text, one in which interpretation held absolute domination over intention.”

No, I don’t agree.  I think that a demiurgic reading would make this more clear.  (I think that I explained what I mean by “demiurgic reading” fairly well in the comments to your last post on this).

If you believe in God, then as inspirer of the original texts, and, as Trent says, as inspirer of the Redactors, he essentially wrote the Tanakh.  So interpretation doesn’t hold absolute dominion over intention.  Authorial intention holds absolute sway over interpretation.  What the individual writers of the source texts intended is immaterial, because really only God’s intention counts.

If you don’t believe in God, what then?  Then the implied or model author of the Tanakh as a whole necessarily takes on a certain Gnostic quality.  In fact, he’s a sort of Pierre Menard.  When he re-writes a source text, there may be the exact same words, but a completely different meaning… it can’t be considered to be a post-modern texts despite its use of large blocks of other texts and of assemblage, because the author intends to absorb the source texts and give them a single meaning, not a multiplicity of them.

But why should “a literary point of view” read this way?  Why not just stick to facts, which say that the texts were written by various people, and that various other people spliced them together?  Because a literary point of view has to deal with the societal overlay on this text, I would think.  People don’t read it as if it’s a jumble of ancient Middle Eastern texts.  They read it as if it had an author.

By on 09/27/08 at 10:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I have a hard time understanding how a serious religious thinker could devote their working life to biblical scholarship yet only think of it as a hobby. Of course this reveals more about me than Kugel: my notions of seriousness always seem to involve existential angst.


My post (of course) wasn’t as clear as it should have been. Kugel does grant that the modern biblical scholars have the best picture of the original sources that is available to us. & yet he still, in his faith, holds to the unified Bible. I agree that faith can account for anything. I would also add that faith can take just about any form.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/27/08 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Sorry I’d forgotten about that thread. I’m going to hold off on responding just now, because I have a follow-up thread that might a better place for it. We’ll see.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/27/08 at 11:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment


No, I think your post was clear enough. I think my initial reading of it was faulty because now I see you addressed many of my concerns.


I went back and read your demiurge comments you linked to. I certainly think you’re on to something and I like that you admitted that as a method it is not always the necessary or best choice. I want to ask, though—do you see a demiurgic reading of the Bible as one that posits that Creator intention is perfectly realized? Because that to me creates large problems. Just one example—a rather unsophisticated version of retribution theology figures large in the Deuteronmic History (Judges through 2 Kings), but in Job, retribution theology is shown to be absolutely inadequate. If we have to posit in a demiurgic reading of the Bible as a unified text that intention is fulfilled, then we are forced (as commentary from the ancients to today is often forced) to go to extraordinary lengths to explain problems in the text (and therein is the cause of the complexity and sophistication of much ancient and medieval commentary). Or can a demiurgic reading show how the demiurge fails to realize his intention ...? I’m not trying to be glib. I guess I don’t fully see how a demiurgic reading would be much different than traditional readings of the Bible (however we construct it) as a unified whole expressing the message of God. If you’ve explained this before, my apologies for asking you to retread this ground.

By on 09/27/08 at 12:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Trent, a traditional reading of the Bible as a unified whole expressing the message of God rather assumes that there is a God, doesn’t it?  Just as a classical reading for authorial intention assumes (pretty safely) that the text had an author.  A more modern kind of reading for authorial intention says something like “well, the actual intention of the actual author may be unknowable or irrelevant, but the text seems to be written to make the reader imagine an author, so we’ll call this imagining being the implied or model author and see what the text seems to imply about them.”

Symmetrically, I could write something like “a demiurgical reading allows you to write about the Bible as a text authored by God without assuming God’s existence”.  But it’s not really so symmetrical.  Demiurgy implies failure—God is assumed to be able to create perfectly, but no other being can.  So I’d say that a demiurgical reading is for people who don’t really believe in God , but who still want to read the book as-if-authored-by-God, which is how the vast majority of people read it.

I think that’s what books like the one you referred to, God: A Biography, are about.  If you hold to typical Christian belief, you can’t really believe that God has a biography.  (In Jewish belief, you can.  Side thread there.) But the easiest way to read the Bible as a whole is one of personal progression of God; he starts out young and angry, and reaches parenthood and middle age by the end, if you’re interested in a literary, sort of character driven narrative rather than a theological one.

By on 09/27/08 at 03:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Trent seems to me to be mischaracterizing the field of biblical studies.  Redaction criticism is important, of course, but that doesn’t seem to be where the action is presently—many people believe that redaction criticism had grown overly baroque in some areas (the Deuteronomic history, for instance) while having some fairly obvious gaps (is the so-called “Elohist” source in the JEPD scheme of the Torah really anything more than a “miscellaneous” category)?  On the New Testament side, the whole Q thing seems to be hitting a dead end, and aside from the Gospels, there aren’t many obvious candidates for redaction criticism (Phillipians?  1 Timothy?  That’s realy about it). 

And contrary to what you seem to be implying, there is very little work happening along the lines of a redaction criticism at the full canon level—it’s mostly individual books or obvious groups of books, and only very rarely the whole sweep of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament.  Part of the problem is that the study of the canon is in a weird kind of limbo state within the traditional disciplines in the “divinity” curriculum—is it a theological question?  a church-historical question?  a biblical studies question? 

There is a ton of interpretive work going on, including a lot of stuff deploying literary theory or else attempts at “biblical theology”—but even in the latter case, it tends to be more focused on particular biblical authors rather than on the full sweep of scripture (or at most tends to characterize the full sweep of scripture as precisely the grouping of distinct and sometimes contradictory voices).

And of course, there is modern historical-critical criticism on the ancient interpreters themselves.  Apparently this is increasingly the case in NT studies, since there’s kind of a “scorched earth” feel with such a comparatively short text that’s been worked over so thoroughly for the past 200 years—a lot of new PhDs in “New Testament” are actually doing their dissertations on early patristic authors.  It’s unclear to me whether that’s as much the case in Hebrew Bible, since someone wanting to do Talmud, etc., would be much more likely to go into Jewish Studies rather than Hebrew Bible as such—or at least that’s my sense.

But what do I know?  I’m in theology, not Bible.

By Adam Kotsko on 09/27/08 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Adam, I have purely a lay interest in Biblical matters; I have no formal training in theology or the Judeo-Christian tradition, and have no genuine knowledge of Hebrew. My Greek is limited to Attic Greek, and even that study was a decade and a half ago. So I’ll defer to you. I believe I did specify the Torah when I was referring to the documentary hypothesis, though ;) My comments about the Deuteronomic History were designed merely to give one example of the many difficulties in assuming a unified Book.

I should have simply said that *I* was most interested in textual study and not interpretation as regards the Bible. I *do*, however, find interesting interpretations of individual books. Job is a work I return to often.

I’m not a believer, so interpretation of the Bible as a believer holds no interest for me except in terms of how various interpretations gained currency, but I do respect and find fascinating the Biblical texts.


All that makes perfect sense to me. Thanks.

By on 09/27/08 at 06:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Since the topic has been broached, my sense is that Adam is basically right.  From what I’ve seen in Hebrew Bible, much of what is going on is focused on interpreters, as opposed to directly on the Biblical text.  Even people who work directly on the Hebrew Bible, they aren’t so much focused on redactional criticism as such, but take the Documentary Hypothesis for granted, and move on from there, using older scholarship as a basis for making larger arguments.  I don’t think there’s even much quibbling about specific cases anymore, though I could certainly be wrong a bout that.  A good example of the kind of work I’m talking about is Michael Fishbane’s book Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel, which discusses how later redactional layers often interpret earlier ones.

The other point Adam raises, at the end of his post, about disciplinary distinctions is interesting to me as well.  I’ve spent most of my academic life as a student in Jewish Studies departments.  My observations above come from these, not so much religious studies, or divinity departments.  From my very much anecdotal experience Hebrew Bible is sometimes taught in one, sometimes the other department, and the faculty tend to be listed in both.  When Adam says that somebody interested in Jewish Bible interpretation would be more likely to go into Jewish studies than Hebrew Bible, my first reaction is to say, “Isn’t Hebrew Bible part of Jewish Studies?” Just by way of example, the grad student who taught Intro to Bible to me as an undergrad wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Jewish interpretations of the Book of Job, within the Jewish Studies department in the Faculty of Arts.  His adviser was Dean of the Faculty of Relgion, however, who also had an appointment in Jewish Studies. This isn’t so much an objection to what you say, Adam, as a preface to a question.  From your experience in Theology departments, looking outwards, have you seen a big distinction between the way the Hebrew Bible is studied in, say, Divinity schools or Religious studies departments and the way it might be in Jewish studies departments? You probably can’t answer the next big yourself, but I also wonder if this has changed and when?  Was it at the same time that Hebrew Bible study as a discipline expanded to include the interpretation of the Bible?  Or did it always?

By on 09/28/08 at 12:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hebrew Bible as such is obviously part of Jewish Studies, but I think there is still a distinction between the traditional “Old Testament studies” aspect of the divinity curriculum and modern Jewish studies.  As a lot of people have pointed out in this conversation, modern biblical criticism was in large part about getting behind the interpreters to the original sense of the text—which required reconstructing the process by which the text developed from various sources, etc.  At present, biblical scholars are more cognizant of the value of ancient interpreters, perhaps in part simply because they had reached a point of diminishing returns on the old-style historical critical stuff—and there’s also a lot more interface between Bible and Ancient Near Eastern texts, Hellenistic texts, and the basic cultural milieu that, especially in the case of New Testament, was basically considered irrelevant for a long time.

I still see a distinction between “Bible” and “Jewish Studies” in job listings.  A “Hebrew Bible” or “Old Testament” listing is much more likely to call for competence in rabbinic Judaism than a “Jewish Studies” position is to call for competence in “Hebrew Bible”—meaning the Hebrew Bible taken within the frame of modern biblical studies. 

The boundaries are blurring more and more in the Jewish Studies realm, though the distinction between New Testament, church history, and theology is still pretty persistent in Christian studies.  I’d love to be able to write on the Bible, for instance, but strategically, I would essentially have to wait until I established myself in my primary discipline (either systematic theology or philosophy of religion, depending on where I get a job).

By Adam Kotsko on 09/28/08 at 09:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To return to Lawrence’s question: “What then is the point for a believer to be doing modern scholarship?”

An article in _homiletic and pastoral review_ by Peter Brown addresses this question. He begins with a scholarly review of the challenges modern textual and historical/cultural criticism has created for the Catholic scholar. He details the movement toward permitting Catholic scholars access to modern methods which culiminated in Pius’ _Divino Afflante Spiritu_, and then quite frankly discusses the awkwardness and difficulty of the Church’s embracing these methods while at the same time affirming divine inspiration:

“The Church cannot turn back the clock with regard to the Enlightenment and modern thought but she must at the same time hold fast to the Tradition that she has been entrusted with handing down. This tightrope act between wholesale embrace of modernity on one extreme and the wholesale rejection of contemporary scholarship on the other has been an endeavor most difficult to maintain.”

But Brown believes that modern scholarship can be both historically and culturally rigorous and theological at the same time. Here’s what I think is a key passage:

“[Pope] Benedict’s own corpus and comments on biblical interpretation suggest definite ideas as to how modern approaches to the Bible can be successfully integrated into “faith’s hermeneutic.” Indeed the importance of reconciling academic exegesis with its ecclesiastical counterpart has been a salient theme of his writings on scripture since at least Vatican II. Benedict surprisingly does not think that Catholic scholars’ problem is that they are too critical. On the contrary, they are insufficiently critical of limitations inherent in their own methods. Take for instance modern scholarship’s assumption that the Bible can only be “objectively” interpreted apart from the Church’s life and tradition. As a matter of historical fact however there would be no Bible to interpret at all apart from a Church to receive it, believe it, and center its liturgical worship around it and the divine events it describes. A biblical criticism that does not recognize the inextricable historical unity of Bible and Church adopts a fundamentally unscientific and unhistorical posture toward revelation. The word of God’s natural home is in the midst of the people of God, especially at worship. The limitations are as severe in studying the Bible outside the Church as they are in studying a species of trout outside its native pond. A biblical science that does not realize this in a self-critical way is inherently limited in its approach to sacred text.”

Anyway, Lawrence, here’s the link:


By on 09/28/08 at 10:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t been sure whether I want to comment or not on the appearance of the phrase “Hebrew Bible” in the thread, but I suppose that I will.  It illustrates some of the pitfalls of a “literary point of view” on this textual assemblage.  As an assemblage, or rather as three closely related assemblages, the thing has three different names, one Christian, one Jewish, and one self-consciously scholarly and “neutral”.  (Plus, actually, I don’t know what Islam calls it.) Your literary view of it is going to be colored starting even before you start by what you choose to call it.

And therefore for a literary point of view I don’t prefer “Hebrew Bible”.  That’s fine for its purposes, but if you’re starting with Kugel, I’d think that a literary as opposed to scholarly response would want to use Tanakh.

My own idiosyncratic terms are similarly non-neutral.  I use “demiurgic reading” is order to stress a tragic sense, despite its unfortunate overtones of Marcionism in this case, but someone else might prefer Tolkien’s sunnier “subcreation”.  Of course it’s deeply silly from some points of view to be using terminology developed by vaguely conservative fantasy writers back on its source, but, hey.

By on 09/28/08 at 03:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I will send out a mass e-mail to biblical scholars alerting them of your preferences, Rich.

By Adam Kotsko on 09/29/08 at 11:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Since those preferences were specific to the particular question in this particular thread, that would be pointless.

But hey, pointless sniping is what your comment was about.

By on 09/29/08 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Too late—I’ve already sent it.

By Adam Kotsko on 09/29/08 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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