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Reading the Bible Anew

Sunday, December 16, 2007

HOW TO READ THE BIBLE A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now

By James L. Kugel | Free Press. 819 pp. $35

THE BIBLE A Biography

By Karen Armstrong | Atlantic Monthly Press. 302 pp. $21.95

THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

By A.J. Jacobs | Simon & Schuster. 388 pp. $25

Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle? To make us gasp? In our society, where 90 percent of households possess a Bible and more than a third of American adults say they've read from it in the past week, it's hard to see the text with fresh eyes. Even if you're in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.

Eighty years ago, the Jewish philosopher and Bible scholar Martin Buber maintained that modern man cannot, if he is honest with himself, approach the Bible with the solid faith of previous generations. At the same time, Buber judged that one loses all that is biblical if one takes what the Bible has to say as merely figurative, metaphorical or allegorical. His solution was that "modern man" must "read the Jewish Bible as though it were something entirely unfamiliar, as though it had not been set before him ready-made, as though he has not been confronted all his life with sham concepts and sham statements that cited the Bible as their authority. He must face the Bible ... as something new."

Within the Jewish tradition, which emphasized reading the Bible through the interpretive lens of the ancient rabbis, this was a radical break. Part of Buber's rationale rested on his assessment of the Bible as literature. It is not that Buber viewed the Bible as mere literature; being literature was not incompatible with being a source of revelation. Rather, he argued that scripture "uses the methods of story-telling to a degree . . . that world literature has not yet learned to use." And so, he said, "it remains for us latecomers to point out the significance of what has hitherto been overlooked, neglected, insufficiently valued."

Despite the title, How to Read the Bible, James Kugel does not offer us latecomers a new way to read the Bible. Instead, over some 700 well-written pages, Kugel goes through the Hebrew Bible (which Christians have traditionally called the Old Testament) alternating a discussion of how ancient interpreters understood key passages with what modern scholarship can tell us about the origins and accuracy of the text. This is wonderfully interesting stuff, extremely well presented.

But what really drives Kugel -- a former Harvard professor who says he's been writing this book for 30 years -- is his need to reconcile modern knowledge with his own religious practice; he is an orthodox Jew committed to fulfilling all 613 commandments traditionally found in the Hebrew Bible. Essentially, Kugel exemplifies the quandary of "modern man" that Buber discussed.

For Kugel, biblical scholarship has played a decisive role in undermining the traditional view of the Bible as God's inerrant word. It has done this in myriad ways: by exposing traces of diverse human authorship, by showing the connection between biblical ordinances supposedly revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai and other codes embraced by earlier Near Eastern peoples, and by disputing the historical truth of key stories, such as that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt or that they conquered Canaan.

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